This is another moldy tale from the days of Van Halen and Ronald Reagan. Young readers unfamiliar with the term “blind date” may consult Wikipedia. The one I’m about to relate is not typical, partly because it lasted for 15 days, and partly because it was Gumby who arranged it.
It started one summer when three of us – Gumby, Gumby’s wife Liz, and I – were planning a car trip through France and Italy. The prospect of me tagging along as a third wheel soon activated Gumby’s usual solicitude about my love life. The journey, he pointed out, might involve walks on Mediterranean beaches at sunset, candlelit dinners in intimate restaurants, and other things that I’d feel stupid doing without a girl nearby.
I started to explain why I wasn’t bringing anyone along: “Things are a little awkward right now with…”
Gumby put up a hand. “Normally I’d want to hear all about it,” he said, which was actually true. During this period I was in the middle of a series of neurotically complicated and exquisitely self-destructive relationships with females, each of which Gumby found more hysterically funny than the last. “But we’re leaving in a month. We have to work fast.” His eyes seemed to focus on a distant object and I could tell he was planning something, which if you know Gumby is a terrifying sensation.
The phone call came a few days later. Gumby sounded ebullient.
“We found you a girl.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, stalling for time while I tried to remember whether I’d actually discouraged him from doing this. I realized I hadn’t. Why not?
“You know, for Europe.” Gumby started delivering the facts in weird little staccato sentences. “Her name is Debbie. Liz knows her from the medical center. She’s a dental hygienist. She’s never been out of Texas. She can’t wait to go with us. She’s nice. You’ll like her.” After a pause of several seconds he added, “Why aren’t you asking me if she’s attractive?”
“Because you’re about to tell me anyway.”
“She’s attractive. Slender, red hair, blue eyes, freckles. Clean teeth. The only thing is…”
People who’ve experienced many blind dates tell me that this is the critical moment, when your mutual friend makes casual mention of the one little idiosyncracy, the one slightly arresting physical anomaly, the one felony conviction that you ought to know about beforehand.
“Look,” I interrupted, “this isn’t a date. We’ll just be four people traveling together, right? I don’t care if she has two heads.”
Gumby made a rude noise. “You care.”
“I don’t. Anyway, what’s wrong with her?” My curiosity was beginning to win out after all.
“Nothing! That’s what I’m trying to tell you. She’s not depressed. She’s not in therapy. She wasn’t raised by a religious cult. She’s just a nice, normal, red-blooded American girl.” Gumby gave a sort of Batman-villain laugh. “I don’t think you’ve ever met anyone like her.”
“I have, and it’ll be fine.”
Gumby lowered his voice. “OK but just listen,” he said, “should you happen to take a more personal sort of interest in her…”
“Which I’m not going to do.”
“Which you’re not going to do, but should you happen to get deranged by altitude sickness crossing the Alps, or drink too much chianti, or just decide to act out a simple biological impulse for once in your over-educated life, then try to keep things simple, OK? I think with this girl you’ll want to take the direct approach, you know?”
“We can change the subject any time now.”
“I’m just saying that Debbie strikes me as an uncomplicated person. You don’t need to act out an entire Woody Allen movie before you lay a finger on her.”
“I’m not going to lay a finger on her!” I objected. This was Gumby’s standard appraisal of my social skills. Lord knows where he gets it.
A new thought seemed to occur to Gumby. “Hey, you don’t mind that she’s coming, do you? Maybe we should have asked you about it first.”
“I’m glad she’s coming. It’s you I’m reconsidering.”
“Oh, and one more thing. How much do you know about baseball?”
“Maybe you should learn something. She talks about baseball all the time. She seems a little obsessed with the Houston Astros.”
I shrugged. How bad could that be?
* * *
I’m sure it’s not the first thing she ever said to me, but the first thing I remember Debbie saying is this:
“Who d’you think’s a better pitcher, Hershiser or Jimmy Key?”
We were at Gumby’s apartment, where we’d met so that the four world travelers could get acquainted before actually boarding a plane together. There was a lot to plan, but somehow we kept coming back to baseball.
“Jimmy Key,” I said, hoping that Jimmy Key was really a pitcher and that this wasn’t a trick question.
“Are you sure about that?” Debbie asked. It didn’t sound like a challenge; it just seemed really important to her that we settle the issue.
“I’ve thought so my whole life,” I said, overcorrecting.
“Really? Because I’m pretty sure you’re older than he is.”
This is what usually happens to me when I try to bluff my way through any conversation, but it didn’t seem to bother Debbie. It wasn’t a contest to her. Talking about baseball was like breathing; there wasn’t a wrong way to do it.
Debbie was a nice-looking medium-sized girl with a big head of red hair out of D. G. Rossetti. She had a nice smile and a Houston accent that sounded like a molten banjo. And she knew everything about baseball, especially the Houston Astros. She knew all the rules, all the statistics and the standings, even the players’ salaries. I knew just enough about baseball to distinguish it from other major sports when I saw it on television, but at this point the discrepancy still didn’t seem important.
A few weeks later the four of us were in a jumbo jet over the Atlantic, the sky outside darkening prematurely as we flew away from the sun. We had seats together in the center section, and we were making conversation the way you would in a moderately noisy bar, trying to overcome the sound of the engines. I told Debbie a couple of jokes that I’d practiced for the occasion. She laughed uproariously at one of them, causing me to shoot a defiant look at Gumby. He’d challenged me to make a good impression on this all-American girl-next-door, and while I had no intention of acting out every one of his deviant fantasies I didn’t want to be a complete failure either. Then somebody brought out a pack of cards. The sky outside got suddenly darker.
For some reason people expect me to be good at cards. I can tell this by their stunned expressions when we actually sit down to play together. Tonight the game was Spades, and I was partnered with Debbie – making us a team was no doubt the first step in Gumby’s complex and perverted master plan. As we began I noticed that Debbie seemed to be taking the game awfully seriously. The conversation fell off. Soon I was the only one talking. Everyone else seemed to be concentrating on their cards, a behavior that has always puzzled me. What’s the point of looking at your cards all the time? Either you’re lucky or you’re not.
Debbie was even studying the cards that the rest of us played at each hand, as if there were some coded message there. I thought this was sort of pretentious.
The play went around once, twice, three times. The rules were observed; tricks were taken by somebody. The fourth hand started, I played my card, and that’s when it happened. I heard a sharp intake of breath. I looked up to find Debbie staring at me with the kind of expression you’d normally reserve for someone who just dropped a baby on its head.
“If you had the jack,” she hissed, “why didn’t you play it two tricks ago?” Suddenly her eyes looked a little bloodshot. Passengers looked at us nerviously from the seats across the aisle.
There was no answer to Debbie’s question. To me, in a card game, two tricks ago is an eon. I didn’t remember why I’d played the jack when I did. I didn’t actually remember having a jack, though there was one lying there and it certainly could have been mine. All I knew was that the nice vacation we’d planned was pitching into a death spiral three hours after it began. I was also beginning to suspect that the carefree girl of Gumby’s imagination might not, after all, be entirely without what nowadays are called “issues.”
At this point Liz sprang into action, reorganizing the game so that Gumby and I were now partners. Soon the score was 20,000 to nothing in favor of the women and everyone was happy again. Gradually, we struck up a normal conversation, mostly about baseball.
* * *
As things turned out, the terrible card game was not an indicator of things to come, and relations between Debbie and myself soon began to thaw. One reason for this was our discovery that roadside convenience stores in France sold an inexpensive but decent red wine, packaged in waxed cardboard containers that we would have called milk cartons back home. Gumby and his wife Liz did most of the driving the first day, leaving Debbie and me together in the back seat of our rented Opel sedan. Something seemed to have sensitized Gumby’s auditory system, and once or twice he asked whether we needed to be quite so loud.
“Well I’m trying to explain the Infield Fly Rule to him,” said Debbie, “and you told me he’s not stupid, so I’m thinking he must be hard of hearing.”
After just 36 hours in Debbie’s presence I was actually beginning to learn a little about baseball, but the Infield Fly Rule was proving to be more than I could deal with in my present jet-lagged condition. “Tell me one more time,” I said. “What was it they used to do before this rule?”
Debbie swiveled in her seat to face me squarely and leaned forward a little, in a way that reminded me of a P. E. coach I’d once had. “All right look. You’re the shortsop. Short-stop. Are you the shortstop?”
“I’m the shortstop,” I agreed.
“Well there’s one out, and there’s runners on first and second. The batter hits up a pop fly that’s going to come right to you without you taking a step. But you just let the ball fall on the ground. Now – why would you do that?”
I considered. “Very slow reflexes?”
“NO!” piped Debbie, causing Gumby to duck his head and clutch the steering wheel. “You’re a ball player! It’s a strategy.”
“Does anybody want to see Laon Cathedral?” interrupted Liz.
“What position’s he play?” I heard myself ask.
When the hilarity subsided Liz was looking at us curiously from the front seat. “Shouldn’t we put that milk in the cooler before it spoils?” she asked.
“No need,” I replied, holding the container upside down to show her.
“All gone,” added Debbie wistfully.
Eventually of course we did see Laon Cathedral, one of the great examples of 13th century Gothic architecture, whose nave and choir taken together measure almost exactly the same length as the third base line at Wrigley Field. After that we turned south and made our way slowly and somewhat more soberly through Reims, Troyes, Mâcon, the Alps. I remember this part mostly as a blur of voices. Gumby, who is an encyclopedia of art and architecture, spooled off information about paintings and churches, while simultaneously Debbie kept trying to dispel my ignorance about baseball. I kept up as best I could, a broken television that couldn’t help receiving PBS and ESPN at the same time.
Each evening, we would find a convenient campground and settle in for the night. This event was an exercise in geometry. First the Gumbys would pitch their conjugal tent in one corner of the campsite, which I considered an obvious attempt to maneuver Debbie and me together. Next Debbie and I would set up our own tents, taking pains to put them neither so close together nor so far apart as to appear to be sending each other any sort of signal. The result was an isosceles triangle whose dimensions, given that the average campsite was about 15 feet wide, never really varied much. In the mornings Gumby would be awake early, leering out in his sex-crazed way, always disappointed to see Debbie and me emerging separately from our individual nests.
Of course Gumby will deny that last bit, but there’s no question that he and Liz developed a habit of disappearing at strategic moments: after a nice dinner, or when the stars were out over the Italian Riviera, which we reached in the second week of the trip. Debbie and I would notice that we were suddenly alone together in a cafe or in some secluded place by the ocean. Gumby and Liz would reappear 30 minutes later to find us in the same spot, me looking slightly dazed, Debbie lost in a monolog about batting averages and RBIs. The Astros were doing well that year, but Debbie was worried about their future. She had a complex theory, which I never quite grasped, about some personnel changes that the Astros needed to make.
Gumby would frown at these moments; probably he felt I was symbolically letting down the whole male species. Major league sports have stood in the way of amorous adventure for a long time, but somehow the gender roles had gotten reversed. When Gumby and I were alone, I decided to skip past being accused and just start defending myself.
“I know what you’re thinking but I’m sorry – I have no idea how to seduce a woman when she’s talking about baseball.”
Gumby sort of squinted at me. “How would it be different from any other time?”
“You know what I mean.”
“You’re a fan of old Bogart movies, right?” Gumby pointed out. “He’d know what to do.”
“She has a right to talk. I can’t just grab her. There are rules.”
More of the squinty look, possibly tinged with pity. “I think they’re really more like general guidelines. Look, she likes you. What if you’re letting her down? Think! It’s her big European adventure! What if she came over meaning to have a little innocent fun to go along with all the wine and accordion music? If you don’t do something soon, she might pull one of these Italian guys off his scooter.”
This suggestion was politically incorrect but it started to take hold on me. Not, please, because I harbored any ideas about women secretly wanting to be ravished, but simply because over the previous several years I’d managed to misread every single female I’d come within fifty feet of, one way or the other. There was no reason to think that this time was different. Besides, we were in Italy, and Italians are supposed to be great lovers. Whatever lack of chemistry existed between me and Debbie, maybe we had enough garlic and olive oil in our systems by now to make up for it.
A few days later we were in Florence, a city so splendid that even baseball seemed dwarfed into insignificance. We spent days touring churches and museums. Works of art we’d seen in textbooks were strewn around the place as if they couldn’t find room for them all. Late one evening we heard a huge commotion coming from the Piazza della Signoria. We thought they might be burning Savonarola again, but what we found was a an orchestra and an oversize chorus performing the Verdi Requiem outdoors. Zubin Mehta was conducting. We walked up during the Tuba mirum, which calls for extra trumpets offstage, and they’d put those trumpets up in the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, blasting out over the heads of the crowd. It all sounded completely terrifying, but we’d had a wonderful day and blundering into a free concert was the icing on the cake, so we didn’t much mind that a choir of 300 people was screaming at us about Judgement Day. If anything, it got me reflecting that I was too nice a guy. Gumby was right. If I was going down to an eternity in flames, I should have something to show for it.
An hour later the four of us had wandered across the Arno and up to the Piazzale Michelangelo with its famous panoramic view of the city. The place is popular with tourists, but at night it seemed to fill up with local couples in various stages of passionate distraction. The view after dark looks like this:
We took some photos, and soon, predictably, Gumby and Liz had mysteriously vanished. Debbie and I stood at the stone railing, gazing at Florence, and without warning fireworks started to burst over the old city. Probably they had something to do with the same celebration that brought on the Verdi concert, I don’t know. At the moment, as such things will do, they seemed designed personally for Debbie and me. I felt her shiver beside me, even though it was warm out.
“Look at that!” she said. “It’s so romantic.”
You’ll excuse me for thinking that that was my cue. The queen of sports statistics was suddenly talking like Olive Oyl. I moved a little closer to her.
“Well they seem to think it’s romantic,” I said, indicating three pairs of Italian teenagers who were noisily devouring each other within forty feet of us. Debbie looked over at the nearest couple, fondly, but apparently lost in her own thoughts. Finally she turned to me and put her hand on my arm. No more than that, but it was the first time she’d touched me in two weeks, and the small gesture seemed loaded with significance. She was smiling as if she’d just come to a happy conclusion about something.
“Do you know what I think we should do?” she asked.
“Maybe I do,” I said, beaming back at her.
“I think we should go ahead and trade Andersen now. Rodriguez can move to second base, and the rest of the infield will just fall into place.”
The fireworks went on for another few minutes, leaving ragged clouds of smoke just visible in the night sky. You can see them in the photograph up there. We watched them drift away until Gumby and Liz came to collect us.
* * *
The Astros won the NL West that year, but lost the pennant to the Mets in a series that’s still remembered for its final game, which ran 16 innings. I watched the whole thing on TV at home, and when the Astros finally went down I was a little depressed. So much anticipation, only to be thwarted in the final seconds.
I knew that Debbie was watching too, probably from her own apartment in Houston 200 miles away. I pictured her looking bleakly at the TV while the Mets celebrated, and I felt sad for us both, but only for a moment. Life would go on. The Astros would try again next year. And anyway, we’d always have Florence.