By Robert C. Monroe
nota bene: Though Fischer and Frontiere did die the same day, Jan. 18, 2008, I’ve taken the liberty of making the NBA playoff game being watched herein one that occurred in mid-2007.
I was in a jam alone. The freeway was breaking my back a little before 5pm headed north. I didn’t have a job but I had been looking for one.
I had a grudge against the 405 for being a river of Mercedes-Benz and BMWs, but I recognized it was an attitude that needed a 180. The sun was setting and constructive thinking was decidedly for tomorrow.
One of the exits south of the 10 was next and I chose to bail out of this mess of gridlock and cancel my third try at employment that day—a casting call for voice over work that I’d be very late for, further north.
Reaching for my flip phone as I made the first lane change to the right, I dialed them. Then I turned off the stereo.
“Hello?” a female voice answered.
“Yeah, this is Lenny, Lenny Fitch. I had an appointment for 4:45 with you guys but I’m already late and can’t make it. Traffic.”
“Okay, Mr. Fitch, I’ll make a note of it.”
“Thanks. Um, when’s the next time you guys are doing this?”
“As far as I know, that’s it. We’re not holding another one.”
“Oh, OK. Well, thanks anyway. You have a good one.”
I flicked the phone closed and put it back in my shirt pocket.
The sun was without question over the yardarm, as my Dad’s side of the family back East frequently noted this time of afternoon. My favorite watering hole, the Over/Under on Santa Monica Blvd., clearly could use me to pour a little libation and maybe buy for an acquaintance or two.
Jobless or not, I was feeling magnanimous.
I had just had a windfall from a minor inheritance back there, a much older aunt from whom I hadn’t expected anything, and tonight’s afternoon shift barmaid was Kate, my favorite.
She was a waif-like blonde sorceress with drinks.
I was pretty sure her boyfriend was one of the bouncers. If the bar was sufficiently quiet and uncrowded to begin with, it ought to make for some pleasant conversation at least.
I was between girlfriends after a six month stretch with an uber-lunatic (like myself, I thought), but for the past few months I had really been looking for one hard.
I turned the stereo back on.
“Spanish Castle Magic,” one of Hendrix’s, was playing itself out on my Saturn’s CD player, and the mix I’d put it on was nearing the end, so I tapped the eject button as I started to crane my neck over my shoulder to the right, ready to make the final lane change to get off the freeway early and out of this ridiculous pileup.
“Jesus!” I suddenly said, shocked by the radio cutting in, owing to my having forgotten how high I had it cranked up. I gunned the V-6 towards the green light at the end of the off ramp as the adrenaline shot hit. I turned the volume back down.
“Bobby Fischer, the one time American world chess champion, has died in Iceland today at the age of 64. Also in the news, Georgia Frontiere, the owner of the St. Louis and formerly Los Angeles Rams, is in critical condition this afternoon. She was diagnosed with breast cancer,” went the evenly-toned voice out of KSPN. I hit the off button.
I’ll be damned, a chess story on a sports channel. That must not have happened in a long time. Of course, it is notable. He must’ve been born the same year as my Mom if he was 64. Damn. Then I thought, he’s probably facing God right now, over the chessboard, and I’ll bet God’s given him white as a courtesy to let him go first.
I’d read somewhere a quote from him that in a given position as white facing God in the Sicilian Defense, he could beat God. Good luck, Bobby.
I selected one of my Yardbirds CDs and pushed it into the slot. The music came back on again as the first track began—it was a familiar guitar riff out of Clapton. Maybe he wasn’t God like it said on that one album cover, but old Slow Hand still had it.
And as for Georgia, perhaps if she dies the healing can begin on all these L.A. Ram fan nuts that’ll swear up and down she offed her husband in the Caribbean. Who cares?…They do, but it was before my time.
At the bottom of the ramp I was behind a silver Lexus that wasn’t indicating a turn. I thought what I often think when I see that, which is why do so few people signal in West L.A.? It’s considered a sign of weakness.
The signal changed and I went through the intersection, passing the Lexus on the inside next and going west. Minutes later I was there.
The parking lot was sparsely occupied, and I didn’t recognize any of the typical early birds’ cars. The NBA playoffs were big at this bar but the Lakers were either not playing tonight or only later. I hadn’t read the sports page that morning and I couldn’t recall.
The real question then was, could Cleveland and LeBron James take down Detroit and its two-Wallaces front court again in the Eastern Conference finals, now that they were leading the series 3-2? That’s what I’d been looking forward to all day. And game 6 must’ve already tipped off.
Before the series had started the Pistons were markedly favored to win it, as would be expected from their far superior regular season record. I had put $100 both ways on the series correct result, hedging the Cavaliers to win in 6 or 7, expecting LeBron to surprise them. The odds were pretty good—I got about 6½-to-1 each way.
After they lost the first two, the Cavaliers had won three in row, and game 5 had been one of LeBron’s early triumphs—he had scored 48 and nearly all the Cavs’ last points down the stretch and won in double overtime, 109-107. The only thing that could cross me up now was if the Pistons shut him down for two games, including this one on the road.
I wasn’t even sure it was legal, since the damn laws were always changing, but I had gotten them to send me three or four checks since I’d been using the website for a year or two. I was slightly better than break even so far and feeling relatively smug about it.
I took my sunglasses off and stashed them, getting out of the car and noting some new graffiti on the bricks in front of me. I walked around the corner to the entrance.
Entering the bar, I waved at Kate and snagged my usual stool with the best view of the biggest TV screen over the bar.
She was looking fine, but tired.
The game was into the second quarter and the Pistons were down by a few, so the early returns were also looking good.
“What’s up Kate? How’s it going?”
“Hey Lenny, what’s up with you?” she replied, looking up from a plate of lemons and limes she was slicing, owing no doubt to her penchant for preparedness. In places like this I had often noted how erotic it seems to watch a young lady slice up citrus fruit, and she was no exception to this rule.
“The usual. Can’t complain.”
“What are you having?”
“The usual again.”
“Got it. Just a sec.”
She put down the knife and fidgeted with a nearby napkin, wiping her hands. Then, tucking her Lakers cap down a bit onto the crown of her forehead and reaching for the scrunchy that held her pony tail in place, she crossed the long way behind the bar towards the makings of my order.
Soon she arrived with an Irish car bomb, moving an “O/U” coaster over in front of me and dropping the Bailey’s and whisky into the Guiness.
“Please don’t ask Rick to kick my ass for this, but your cleavage is looking particularly good this evening,” I said, shifting my glance from the drink to her chest to her eyes. She smiled.
“Nah, that’s only strike one—but keep it down after you get that and the next beer in you, because you do get a little mouthy, you know?” she said, but she was still smiling.
“So I’m told. You guys haven’t had to bounce me yet, though. I was close to getting ejected down the street for a similar comment last week. They’re touchy.”
“You mean the place on Wilshire and 11th?” she inquired.
“Yeah, I know some of the bartenders there. They don’t play.”
“Drink that up before it curdles,” she said, turning back to her previous task and grabbing the knife again.
I reached for the bomb, eyeing the patterns of fluid in it swirling together, then lifted it and necked it greedily.
This was always the apex of relief before the oncoming night—the first hit after a long day. The glow in my throat kindled as I gulped the last of it and replaced it on the coaster.
She turned back as the phone rang. Crossing the long way again, she lifted the handset.
“Hello, Over/Under,” she said, brightly.
Overhead, the Pistons were still falling off the pace. Halftime was closing in and they looked like they were already dragging tail.
At the far end of the room, the door swung open and a short, young brunette entered.
She looked tasty. Her buttery thighs were out of control, just the way I like it. Her rack was bulbous too. She was wearing black jeans and carrying a small white purse, with a tight red top. I reeled in my attention long enough to focus on whether or not she was wearing any rings as she sidled up to the stool furthest away from me and sat. I didn’t see any.
“No,” Kate said, into the phone. “No,” she repeated. “That’s OK.” She replaced the phone on the receiver. Turning to the new customer, she greeted her warmly, leaning down on the counter with one hand.
“Hello. What’ll you have?” she said.
“Uh, I don’t know,” she replied. “What’s good here?”
“Well, we do a dynamite Philly cheese-steak, and it’s still happy hour for a while.”
“OK, lemme get that and a screwdriver.”
“Screwdriver? Sure, coming right up.”
“Hey, Lenny,” Kate said. “Are you getting anything to eat too?”
“Yeah, why not?” I said. “I’ll have what she’s having, except no tomatoes or mushrooms if the cheese-steak has any.”
“It doesn’t. And what kind of beer did you want?” she replied.
“I’ll have a Heineken.”
Kate fetched the vodka and began mixing it with the orange juice into a squat, round glass. Soon she was adding the ice and delivering it. Then she reached down to the fridge under the bar and took my beer over to me, pausing to claw the cap off with the fixture by the cash register.
Overhead Chauncey Billups buried a 3-pointer and then the Pistons picked off the in-bounds pass and Ben Wallace jammed one home to get within two points. There was only enough time for two plays at most before the half.
The score at the half was going to be close after all. And this was crucial.
Often I considered making the half time/full time bet offered by the sports book, in order to bet another reasonable long-shot two ways—which was for the game to be tied at the half and then won by either team. On the off chance that a close matchup would in fact be tied at the half this was a pretty strong play, and I had pulled the trigger on it for this one. I don’t remember the odds from this distance of memory, but I’d bet $20 each way for something like 12-1 and 15-1.
The Cavs blew their next take and the Pistons brought the ball up rapidly for the final shot. I crossed both fingers at this point. As luck would have it, Rip Hamilton stopped and popped from mid-range and tied the score.
“Oh, hell yes!” I exclaimed. I looked over at Kate and Erica with a beaming grin and thumped the counter with joy.
The Cavs in-bounded it with under a second and someone launched the final shot as a prayer, as the late Chick Hearn used to say, but it wasn’t answered.
I was laughing to myself at that point. I usually don’t overreact to a win, especially in public, but that time I did.
“What?” Kate said. “What’s funny?”
“I’m a winner! Can’t you tell? I bet the game would be tied at the half and sure enough it is. Drinks are on me,” I said, perfectly happy to spread the wealth a little. There weren’t that many people there yet anyway, so what the hell? I went for my wallet and took out my last 100-dollar bill and put Benjamin on the counter.
“Set everybody up, Kate. This should cover it,” I continued.
“You got it Lenny, and me too?”
“But of course.”
I was still laughing internally as Kate began going about the business of executing my largess.
“What’s your name?” I asked the brunette.
“Erica,” she said, turning towards me.
“Yeah, I heard. Pleased to meet you, Lenny.”
“Likewise,” I said.
She had a largish tattoo of what looked like a rose peeking out from her left sleeve. Her face reminded me a little of Audrey Hepburn, although she wasn’t anywhere near as dainty.
“How’s your NBA playoffs going? Are you a Laker fan?” I ventured.
“Oh, hell no,” she said. “I’m here for the LeBron game, but I’m from Detroit. Laker fans give me a rash.”
“I can imagine. So that’d make you a Pistons fan for real, right?” I said.
“Yes,” Erica said, looking up at the TV. I followed her glance.
“It’s not looking good for the Pistons,” I continued.
“Nope,” she agreed. “But it’s early.”
“It’s not early in the series, though.”
“Right?” she said, grabbing her screwdriver and having a go at it.
Then we saw LeBron put the moves on his defender and, leaping up and seemingly floating over the paint, he finished the take with a windmilling dunk.
“Fucking LeBron,” Erica reacted.
It was a memorable play because of what I said next.
“I know, right? The kid can play.”
She looked back and me and nearly did a double take.
“LeBron’s a kid?”
I thought for a moment about exactly what she meant.
“Well, yeah, what is he, like early 20s? He’s just a pup to me.” I tried not to make my comment sound too boastful, but apart from the $550 he would probably net me in the next hour, I didn’t owe him anything.
A silence of a minute or two ensued, apart from the music and the announcer’s commentary on the game. Kate was nearly finished with the citrus.
Two other people came in then, a couple. The man held the door open as the woman kept walking in, with the both of them eyeing the middle space between us open at the bar. Then they selected a table behind me instead.
They were both black, the gentleman wearing a blue blazer and a red tie. The lady was taller than he, sporting a long, white blouse. He looked very young. I wondered if they were more Pistons fans, or if the man was really her son.
“Hello,” Kate said, moving to come out from behind the bar with a couple menus. “Welcome to the Over/Under.”
I decided to amplify my come on towards Erica by feeding the juke.
I reached into my hip pocket for my wallet, extricated it, and quickly counted the bills. I took three singles out and got off my stool to go over towards the machine at the other end of the bar, considering what to play.
I figured anything 90s or later would be right in her wheelhouse for taste, and that as long as there was enough novelty in to it to suit me it’d work. So I played “Seether” by Veruca Salt and “Ladykiller,” by Lush. Then I added one by Zeppelin for the capper, “When the Levee Breaks”.
I walked towards my seat again and reached for the Heineken Kate had already delivered. I took the initial few sips off of it.
“I left a few plays in it Erica, in case you want to call one.”
“Oh, how nice of you Lenny. Thanks again.”
She took some more of her screwdriver down and, soon enough, got up to move over to the jukebox.
I got a close look at her hindquarters then as she walked away and had a look at the selections. Her top was shorter than I thought. She had another tattoo on her lower back, looking something like a sunburst in blue and black ink. Her black jeans were packed, her white hips flowing over the belt loops in a muffin top.
I thought of one of the old lines I used to spout to friends when lying about a sexual conquest in college.
We hate it when they leave, but we love to watch them go.
She futzed with the machine for a minute, picking out the next songs.
With my Veruca Salt playing now, I contemplated my next move.
Halftime had arrived, so we we’re definitely headed for a lull. Just then, the food showed up. Good timing.
“Thanks, Kate,” I said, and tucked into it with abandon. She was right, it was good.
“So, is this your first time here?” I inquired of Erica.
“Yeah,” she said, starting to eat too and pausing to finish a mouthful. “I was wondering…if the Over/Under thing is a gay reference. This doesn’t seem like a gay bar.”
“No, it’s a gambling reference.”
“In what way?”
“Of course, every bar on the west side is a gay bar under the wrong circumstances,” I suggested.
“Or the right ones,” she riposted.
I almost laughed then.
“You got me. Yeah, no, over/under is a gambling term—that’s a bet on the final score usually, whether it’s above or below a set number.”
“Oh, I see.”
“For example this one,” I said, looking up at the TV. “I have money on this game but search me for what the over/under was because I didn’t bet it. Typically it’d be about 200 for a basketball game, so it’s looking good for the under.”
“Well, what did you bet on?” she said.
I looked around then, my superstitious nature kicking in. I reached over for my beer, took some, and though it over.
“I have to say I’m superstitious about the gambling,” I started, “And I never talk about a bet I’ve made until it wins or loses. That’d jinx it. I’m happy to brag about it when I’ve won already, but I can’t reveal anything about this one yet.”
Erica didn’t raise much of an eyebrow at that.
“I suppose if either the Pistons come back or you win, one of us will be happy.”
Then she finished her screwdriver.
“Another one?” Kate said, the next time she cruised by.
“Yes,” Erica said.
“Me too,” I said.
Kate looked over.
“I know,” she said.
Soon enough the fresh drinks had arrived.
Then Kate was off to cater to another group of people that’d come in a minute back. The place was getting noisy apart from the Zeppelin, which was coming to a close. I was wondering what Erica might have put in the jukebox when the halftime commentary finished up overhead and they reported Bobby Fischer’s death.
It was a little disconcerting to see a picture of him as he looked now. He was all gray-haired with a gigantic beard. He might as well have been something out of Hemingway—the Old Man and the Sea.