There are things you expect when you step inside a whorehouse - or a brothel, or a House of Entertainment, as Helene liked to call her place. You expect women, obviously, and whiskey and gin. You expect to leave with less money than you came in with. And, of course, you expect to have sex, in whatever variation or style it is that you prefer. Personally, I don’t go in for anything too out of the ordinary, but I understand there are those who do.
Among the things you don’t expect to find in such a place is a priest (though, to be fair, I found him in the gambling room, not in the parlor with the working girls). Still, it was unexpected.
Another thing you don’t expect is for the owner of the establishment…the Madame, if you like…to introduce you to a 5 year old child, her daughter, and to tell you that you’re the father.
This was back in the summer of 1970, my first season pitching for the Raleigh Terrapins after three years with the Tulsa Badgers, around the time I finally started to accept the fact that I wasn’t ever going to make the Major Leagues. Used to be there was nobody could hit my curveball. Used to be, I was sure I’d make the big leagues before I turned 25. Used to be I was the best player in my town, and then the best in the state. But I had risen to my level, as the saying goes, and suddenly I wasn’t even the best on my team. So it had become more about the travelling and the women than the balls and strikes, more about the time between the games than the space between the foul lines. Though, I guess, to be honest, I was always more interested in women - or at least in sex, to be totally clear - than baseball, which is why maybe there’s guys that got better than me.
Over the years I’ve noticed some similarities between baseball and women. In baseball, the pitcher and the hitter both know what the other guy wants to do. The hitter wants to hit, the pitcher wants to make him miss. It’s a guessing game, the hitter trying to guess what the pitcher’s going to throw, the pitcher trying to guess what the hitter’s expecting and then doing something different. With women, you have to try to outguess them, too. They know what you want. What you have to do is to try to find an approach they’re not expecting. The same way as when the hitter thinks you’re going to throw a fastball under his chin, you’ve got to surprise him with a curveball down and away; when a woman thinks you’re going to offer to buy her a drink and tell her she’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, you have to cross her up with a dirty joke. Then you slide your stool a little closer to hers as she laughs. That’s the curveball when she was looking for the heater. It can work the other way around, too. If you think she’s not expecting you to hit on her, you can just come on strong and have her back in your room before she realizes you threw the fastball past her. The hardest part is to know which approach to take.
Of course, you can always take the easy way out and go to a professional, like I did that day in 1970. That’s where the baseball comparison kind of falls apart. I guess it’s sort of like the opposite of an intentional walk, or something like that.
Another way baseball and women are similar is that you have to get used to failure. Even the best hitters fail over 60% of the time. And sometimes what seems like success isn’t really. One of the worst things that can happen to a pitcher is when a guy fouls off ten or twelve pitches and wears you out, before he hits a pop-up that lands in your shortstop’s glove. You got the out, but now your arm is like rubber when the next guy steps up. Picking up women, it’s when one lets you buy her 3 or 4 drinks, makes ‘em last 2 or 3 hours, lets you put your arm around her and smell the perfume in her hair, maybe she even gives you a little kiss on the cheek or lays her hand on your thigh under the bar, and then leaves with another guy. Now it’s almost closing time and you’re left empty handed, so to speak.
Anyway, that particular afternoon I stopped at Helene’s, like I used to do fairly regularly when I was playing for various East coast teams, but hadn’t since I signed with the Badgers who stayed mostly west of the Mississippi.
We had played a weekend series against the local 9, and were scheduled to leave town the next day, heading to Yorktown, Pennsylvania. That day, Monday, was an off day, and I had some time to kill, but not so much that I could afford to put in the effort of scouting and working on a regular girl. So, I headed to Helene’s House, where the women are always ready, for a price, but without the wait or the work.
Helene opened the door when I knocked.
“Billy. Been a while. Come in.”
“Hi there Helene. How’ve you been?” As I passed her, entering the dark paneled hallway, I noticed the child clinging to her skirt, peaking at me with huge blue eyes.
“I’ve been ok, Billy. You?”
“Surviving. Who’s this little cherub hiding behind you?”
“That’s my girl, Billy. Her name’s Kate. Katherine, really, but I call her Kate.”
“Hello, Kate. I’m Billy. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Mama says you’re my daddy, but I don’t believe her.”
“Hush, Kate! Run upstairs now, tell Ruby to meet me and Billy in the parlor.”
“She’s a pretty thing, Helene. Looks like you, in the eyes.”
“And like you in the mouth and chin, Billy. She’s smart like you, too.”
“Why didn’t you let me know about her before now? You could have…”
“Could have what, Billy? Could have asked you to marry me? I don’t think you came here to talk, or to have a family reunion. Come meet Ruby, she’s just arrived from Ireland, red-hair and freckles and all. I’ll mix you a drink while you wait.”
See, at one time I may have let Helene believe I was going to marry her. That was soon after she’d gone into business. About 6 years ago, give or take. There was no need for me to feed her a line, she was a professional, and we were conducting a business arrangement. But the thing is I really did feel a different sort of connection with her than I normally do with women. Like, maybe I could almost see myself settling down with her. Almost, but not quite.
Helene led me into the parlor. I sat on the red plush velvet love seat while she mixed me a drink from the little bar she’d had built in the corner.
“You’ve made some changes, I see. The bar is a nice addition.”
“Thank you, Billy. Business has been decent. Though the politicians are making noises about cracking down again. Fortunately I’ve still got a couple of Alderman who like stop in on Sunday afternoons while their wives have tea. I’ll show you the casino room in back later, if you like. I just had the roulette wheel put in last January. Here’s your drink….ah, and here’s darling Ruby. You two have fun, and I’ll see you again before you leave, Billy.”
Ruby was a darling, alright, and already practically falling out of her dress as she took my hand and led me up the spiral staircase.
Later, Ruby led me back down that staircase, and through the double doors that led from the parlor to the casino room. It was quiet, still being early on a Monday afternoon. Ruby excused herself after making sure I had a fresh drink, and I sat down next to Helene by the roulette wheel. She had a young Chinese fellow working the wheel, and there was one other gentleman there playing. Helene introduced us, “Billy, this here is Father O’Malley; Father, meet my old friend Billy Agostino. You might have seen him pitching over at the ballpark yesterday. Father O’Malley’s a big baseball fan, Billy.”
We shook hands and assured each other of what a great pleasure it was to have made the acquaintance. Father O’Malley was somewhere near 60 years old, I’d guess, with a full head of grey hair. I noticed he wasn’t wearing priestly clothes, just an ordinary blue blazer over a lighter blue shirt.
“You like playing the wheel, Father?”
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘like’, necessarily. Passes the time, though. Since I retired I find myself looking for new ways to fill the hours. You looked good out there yesterday. Nine strikeouts, was it?”
“Eight, I think, actually. But, thank you. This team you got here is one of the better ones we’ve played lately.”
“They’re entertaining, alright. Especially that shortstop. I think he’s going to make the big leagues. Scouts have been checking him out.”
“Yeah, he’s a tough out, for sure. Father, pardon me for saying so, but, retired or not, this seems a strange place to find a priest.”
“Only if you forget that priests are also men.”
“Fair enough. Do you enjoy the other entertainments here at Helene’s house, or just the gambling?”
“Alright, Billy.” Helene interrupted “You know the rules: No questions about what goes on upstairs.”
“Can I buy you a drink, Billy?” Father O’Malley asked me.
Helene stepped away to speak to the bartender for us.
“Are you Catholic, Billy?”
“My parents were, Father. Especially my mother. I can’t say it ever exactly worked for me. Partly it was that I never acquired a taste for wine, and them telling me it was actually blood didn’t help.”
“Some of the subtleties of the faith can be hard to grasp, it’s true.”
“I’d say the biggest problem I had though was all the rules. I’m not big on rules, Father.”
“But you play baseball, which is a game of rules.”
“True, but no one ever threatened me with eternal damnation for putting a little Vaseline on the ball, like my mother did when she caught me with my hand up Marylou Parker’s skirt while she and Marylou’s mother were downstairs drinking coffee and gossiping about the other ladies in the neighborhood. In baseball, the rules make sense, Father. Trying to make sure no one has too much of an edge. It seems the rules in your religion are more about making sure no one enjoys life.”
“It can appear that way, I suppose, depending on what you find enjoyable.”
“Well, I find drinking and gambling and sex to be about the most enjoyable activities I’ve tried so far. Attending mass doesn’t even enter my top 10.”
“Baseball is what I’m good at, and it can be enjoyable. But every day, day after day, year after year, it’s lost a bit of its charm for me. Problem is no one’s offering to pay me to do anything else.”
“I see. So, if a better offer came along you might be interested?”
Helene returned with our drinks. “You two getting along alright?”
“That we are.”
“Are you playing at all, or just chatting?” she asked, as she placed some chips on Red.
“I’ll play,” I answered, laying a $2 chip on 26 Black.
“That’s your uniform number, isn’t Billy?” the priest asked.
“It is, Father. Been my lucky number since I was a kid. Not sure why.”
“Strange the things we choose to believe in. Lucky numbers, but not the teachings of Jesus.”
He had a way of saying things like that. If someone else said the same thing it would have pissed me off, but when he said it I could almost laugh along with him.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right there, Father. Then again, looks like it’s worked for me.”
The wheel had stopped and the silver ball was sitting there on 26.
“Well, it sure does“, Father O’Malley said, as he pushed back his chair and stood. “I believe it’s time for my dinner. Would you care to join me, Billy? I generally head uptown to The Golden Cup about this time of day. They have the best steaks in town.”
“That sounds like a fine idea, Father. A steak and some nice French fries should fit the bill just fine.”
We said our goodbyes to Helene who walked us out through the parlor to the front door. I spotted little Kate sitting on the top step of the front stairway, watching me leave. I felt like I ought to say something, but I didn’t know what. I gave her a wave and a wink, and Helene closed the door behind me.
As we climbed into Father O’Malley’s shiny new black Lincoln Continental, I asked him how well he knew Helene.
“I’ve known her since before she changed her name from Helen. We have a number of mutual friends. And for a while she was a member of my parish. I still pray that she’ll return to the Church one day.”
“And her child, is she a good girl?”
“Your child, you mean? She’s charming, polite, respectful, and very intelligent.”
“Helene told you I’m the father?”
“She did. I told you, we’re very old friends.”
“Has she told you anything else about me?”
“Nothing I couldn’t have learned otherwise, if I’d had a mind to.”
We arrived at The Golden Cup and took a table in the window, where we could watch the people passing by on the sidewalk. Lots of lovely young ladies in short skirts. Our waitress, for that matter, was a fine looking young lady herself, by the name of Julie. If I hadn’t already spent time with Ruby, I would have seriously considered ditching the priest to see if I could get anywhere with this one.
After we ordered our steaks, I asked, “Father, did Helene ever mention to you why she chose the name of Kate for the child?”
“You know, I did ask her that myself, just out of curiosity. She didn’t want to say, exactly, other than it was a name that meant something to you. That was back when she still believed you might marry her one day.”
“I don’t’ expect I’m really cut out for being a family man.”
“Perhaps. Why did you ask me about the name ‘Kate’?”
“That was my mother’s name. Katherine, actually, but she was always Kate. Not a name I’d ever choose to pass along to a new child. Not a name I really care to hear at all.”
“You didn’t get along with your mother?”
“I guess I did, until I realized the truth.”
“Let’s say she wasn’t who I thought she was, or I wasn’t. And, while we’re at it, it was a priest that could have helped me, but didn’t. Since you were interested earlier in why I’m not so hot on the Church.”
“What is it you think this priest could have done for you?”
About here our steaks arrived, and we ordered another round of drinks. That gave me a minute to think about how much I wanted to share with this Father O’Malley. He seemed a decent sort…hung out in a gambling room in the back of whorehouse, enjoyed steaks and whiskey, how bad could he be? Still, a priest is a priest.
Anyway, I told him. I don’t know why, exactly. He was a good listener, and the steak tasted great and, along with a few more drinks, I was feeling warm.
“She used to take me with her when she went shopping, to this department store in the next town over. I was about 8 the first time it happened. She’d told me to wait for her at the sandwich counter while she browsed the racks for a new dress, or something. I’m sitting there enjoying a chocolate milkshake and looking over some baseball cards I’d brought with me, and this woman I don’t know walks up behind me and says, ‘Hi, Timmy’. Now, not being named Timmy, I didn’t know she meant me. Until she ruffled my hair like a grandparent or an aunt might do. I turned and looked at her, and I guess she could tell from my expression that I didn’t know who she was. But she was still sure I was Timmy. ‘Timmy’, she says, ‘don’t you recognize your cousin Sally?’ That’s about when my mother swung by and grabbed me by the collar, practically dragged me away, leaving Sally standing there with a face full of confusion.”
“Who was Timmy?” O’Malley asked.
“I had no idea. My mother wouldn’t tell me. Same thing happened on the ballfield a couple of times, kids would tell me how much I looked like this kid named Timmy Oliveira from Greenfield. Said my pitching motion, my wind-up and everything, was just like his. My father, he never was much of a ballplayer. Didn’t have any knack for throwing or catching, had short little round legs that were no good for running. Nothing like me, you see? Now, I know kids don’t always take straight after their parents, there’s differences, of course. But, I mean, my old man couldn’t have hit the side of a barn with a baseball from 6 feet away, never mind 60. And I was already taller than him by the time I was 12.”
“Was your mother athletic? Any uncles or cousins? Brothers?”
“My mother was in good shape, a fine looking woman, but I never knew her to have athletic interests. I had no brothers or sisters, never knew of any uncles or cousins.”
“So you suspected that your father wasn’t really your father at all.”
“I was sure of it. I asked both him and my mother about it, about Timmy, about all of it. They always tried to laugh it off, make me think it was my imagination. But, I knew what I knew.”
“How was their relationship, your parents’?”
“My father, the man who raised me, was the best person I ever knew, have ever known. Kind, generous, gentle, compassionate….and my mother treated him like he was an idiot. He did everything for her, worked two jobs, took care of the house and the yard. While she shopped and went to church and drank coffee with the other church women. He took me to all my ballgames, even though he didn’t care about sports, because he knew it was important to me. Mom was always too busy to go to a game. He’d do anything for anyone, and especially for her. And she shit on him.
“One night, I was about 15, she was having coffee with Father Williams, the priest from our local church, down in our kitchen. I could hear them from my room at the top of the stairs. All about raising funds for some charity or other. Then the conversation got quieter and it was harder for me to hear. It was just whispers. But I heard enough for me to tell that they were talking about me, about where I really came from, who my real father was.”
And I just kept talking. I told him about following that other priest, Williams, when he left my mother that night. How I followed him back to his house next to the church. How I called to him, and he stopped. How I begged him to tell me what my parents wouldn’t, to help me know who I really was. But he wouldn’t, said he couldn’t betray my mother’s confidence or the “sanctity of the confessional”.
“So”, asked O’Malley, “what did you do?”
“That night I decided to run away. I couldn’t see going on living in a house where they couldn’t even tell me who I was. I didn’t belong there. It took a couple of months for me to get an escape plan together. There was a scout for the Cardinals in town, and I was pitching for the town team against Greenfield. I had already convinced him that I was 18. He was real interested, and if I could show him my good stuff, he said he had a contract ready for me to sign.
“This kid Timmy was pitching for Greenfield. The two of us, looking like twins, pitching for opposing teams. I could see my old man sitting on the bleachers over behind third base. Every time I went through my wind up there was a point where I was looking him right in the eye. I could see something in his face I’d never seen before, or never noticed. A look like someone had punched him in the gut. And it was especially there when Timmy was up to bat. I looked at the plate and felt like I was pitching to myself, then I looked at my old man looking like he was ready to get up and run away, but staying there to watch me anyway, because that’s how he was, that’s how much he cared about me.
“Eight innings in, no score, both of us pitching great. I’d struck Timmy out twice already, and he’d gotten me to hit two weak grounders. He comes up with a man on first and two outs in the top of the ninth. I saw my old man as I went into my windup, squirming in his seat, and I just lost it. I saw red. I looked back at Timmy Oliveira and I put a fastball in his ear. Dropped him like a wet rag.”
“How badly was he hurt?”
“I didn’t stick around to see, but I read in the paper a couple of days later that he was ok, other than a fractured cheekbone.”
“You didn’t stick around? Where did you go?”
“I just ran. I knew there was no way that scout was gonna sign me after that, even if I had shown him I could put the ball wherever I wanted it. So, I just ran. Spent the rest of the day hiding somewhere, then snuck into my house that night to grab some clothes and things. Hopped a bus to Florida, never went back.”
“And kept playing baseball.”
“Sure, it’s all I’m any good at. Hooked up with an independent team in Tampa, eventually another scout spotted me, signed me to a minor league deal with the White Sox organization.”
“And you’re still running. Are you running away, or running toward something?”
“What kind of question is that? You a shrink as well as a priest?”
“Do you have any idea what became of your brother, Timmy?”
“My brother? He wasn’t my brother. Why would he be my brother, because we had the same father?”
“That’s the general idea…”
“No, that doesn’t make him my brother. That makes my mother a lying bitch. And it makes my father, the man who raised me, a stupid sucker. That’s why I’ll never get trapped into settling with one woman. No one’s gonna to do to me what my mother did to him. Take this child of Helene’s…how the hell do I know it’s mine?”
“What reason would she have to lie? She’s not asking you for anything.”
“Isn’t she, though? Isn’t she asking me to be something I can’t be, to be a father? That ain’t me. Not a chance.”
“Billy, think about it. The child is 5 years old. If Helene wanted anything from you she would have asked long before now.”
“Unless she had some other sucker on the line up til now. Maybe more than one. No, I like Helene, plenty, she’s a fun lady and she runs a nice house over there, but I don’t trust her any more than I trust any woman. They’re all lying, conniving witches. I take what I want from them when I can get it, but I’m never gonna let one of ‘em snare me. Listen, Father, you seem like a decent guy. But, let’s face it, you’re a priest. What do you know about women?”
“Think about where you met me, Billy: in a brothel.”
“In the gambling parlor behind the brothel, technically.”
“There are other places I could go if I just wanted to gamble. I’m a man, Billy. I was a priest, but I retired from that. And even as a priest, a man is still a man.”
“Ain’t it a sin or something for a priest to have sex with a woman?”
“No one is free of sin. But no one is totally sinful, either. Even your mother. Have you had any contact with your parents over the years?”
“The old man sends me letters once in a while, care of whatever team I’m with at the time. Nothing from my mother. They split up soon after I left, she moved to Greenfield, if you follow my drift.”
“Listen, Father…is that what I should call you?”
“If you like, or you can call me Tom.”
“Tom. Listen, I appreciate you taking an interest, and listening to me like this. I haven’t ever told most of this to anyone else before. But I don’t want you thinking I’m spending my life doing nothing but hating my mother. I’ve had a good run, playing ball, seeing lots of the country. I’ve been in bed with more women than you’ve probably been in the confessional booth with. I have no real complaints.”
“Town to town, woman to woman, team to team. Do you wish you had roots somewhere? A place to call your own?”
“Not really. I mean, I suppose there’ll come a day when I’ll have to stop in one place. I can’t keep playing baseball forever. But I’m of the school of thought that it’s best to focus on right now, not worry about a future that might not come. And I’d never be able to settle down with just one woman. Anyway, what I mean to say is, thank you for listening, and for the steak, you were right…it was real good. But I’ve got to get back to my hotel. We’ve got an early bus in the morning, heading to Yorktown.”
“Don’t mention it, Billy, it was entirely my pleasure. Good luck to you, I hope you find some happiness.”
“Oh, I’ll find happiness alright. I believe in Yorktown, her name is Sharon.”