by J. T. Townley
Then Jonathon’s up and over the railing, crimson cape flapping in the September breeze. He falls farther than he expects before hitting the warning track; on impact, he grunts, dropping to a knee. He eyes the vivid expanse of green stretching out before him, the bright chalk foul line, the red clay of the warning track. The gravelly surface prickles his open palms. The air smells of new leather, sweat, and garlic. Everything seems bigger from this angle.
He’s about to make history.
With Fisher’s help, Jonathon did his homework: Dodgers vs. Giants, both on a pennant run; Saturday night capacity crowd; warmest part of the cold San Francisco summer; seventh-inning stretch, just after the singalong; national TV coverage. Fisher even studied the stadium layout, determining the smartest entry point to be down the first base line in right field, between the bullpen and the ball boy. Jonathon leans into the shadows, hugging the wall, grateful no one’s noticed him. He takes a deep breath, then another, listening to the last sour strains of singing.
“Hey, buddy,” calls the ball boy.
Jonathon hunches over his knees, hoping his cape will cloak him in invisibility.
“You can’t be here,” he says.
“It’s now or never,” Jonathon whispers.
Then he blasts onto the field, nothing in front of him but meticulously trimmed Bermuda grass. But he doesn’t make it ten yards before the ball boy screams:
“Come back here!”
The kid’s stronger than he looks, more agile, too. In one swift movement, he picks up his chair, flips it over, and slings it at Jonathon. Before it hits him, he dives out of the way, rolling over his right shoulder and coming up on one knee. Crouching in the outfield grass, he surveys the scene: ball boy straddling the foul line, chair flung and broken. The roar from the stands dies down for a moment, as if spectators are all holding their breath. He knows he’s been spotted.
There’s no turning back now.
Jonathon trots down the foul line toward the infield. It’s not part of the plan, and he’s not sure what he’s doing. But he’s not ready for those acres of empty grass. He wants to be near the empathetic gazes, or gawking stares, of the crowd in the stands. Security will think he’s taunting them. As he wanders past the bullpen, the fans go wild, screaming and laughing, elbowing their friends and pointing, snapping photos with every imaginable digital device. Yet the behemoth, Viking-bearded men in the bullpen seem much less enthused. They glare and growl, flexing their pecs and deltoids and biceps, tattoos stretching and swelling. Or, worse, they may not be flexing at all. Without taking their eyes off him, they stuff their mouths with sunflower seeds, one bag after another, till their cheeks puff out like chipmunks’. Fisher, strategically positioned in right-center field with his ultra-zoom video camera and bag of crimson-dyed baseballs with the Stinkman logo, must be cursing Jonathon’s headlight-stunned stupidity.
Although the first baseman and umpire both laugh when they notice him, Jonathon takes off before he makes the edge of the infield, running back up the foul line. He’s about to break for the outfield wall when something stings him. First on his right thigh, then his neck and cheek and arm. A quick glance over his right shoulder; an involuntary wince as he’s stung all over his face. Wasps? Killer bees? Nano-techno security drones? Jonathon squints and blinks just in time, as he’s pelted in the face with a cluster of wet sunflower seeds shot from the mouths of relief pitchers and backup catchers like rounds from a Tommy gun.
He flees into the deep, green sea, settling into a strong rhythm. He’s glad to get moving, too. It’s not warm out here. He never should’ve listened to Fisher, who insisted that the Stinkman costume he’d designed—jeans and retro sneakers and vintage t-shirt to go with the cape and mask—was fine for the graphic novel but wouldn’t work for the Great Streak, as they’d come to call it.
“You gotta spice it up, bro.”
“What do you mean?”
“Show some flesh!”
“That’s what streaking is, man.”
Not that Jonathon was about to ditch his Stinkman costume. Parading the character in public was at least half the point. Fisher cooked up all sorts of alternatives—opaque body paint, a flesh-colored full-body stocking—but Jonathon felt squeamish about getting naked in front of thousands of spectators and millions of TV viewers.
So he replaced the retro sneakers with his good running shoes. He chucked the t-shirt, substituting his bare chest covered in a giant, crimson S! The jeans went, too, and Jonathon’s glad about that, since they would’ve severely restricted his range of motion. Of course, he might’ve done better than a jockstrap dyed crimson to match the cape and mask. But at least he isn’t parading his junk around in public, and he had the tear-away pants for pre-streak warmth. The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco: He’s heard the quip a thousand times, but only now, running across the outfield grass, does he truly understand what it means.
Although he’s a little disoriented, Jonathon points himself toward right-center field. That’s the plan: aim between the two outfielders and rendezvous with Fisher. He’s already wasted precious moments dawdling over by the bullpen, so he picks up his pace, from jogging to running, though not sprinting. He has to keep his legs fresh while he can—for security. He blows past the right fielder, a gangly All-American with legs like a horse who must be six-five. When he spots Jonathon coming, the player smirks and nods, then goes right back to throwing long toss. Jonathon cuts to his left, angling toward the warning track. The outfield smells of cut grass and Neatsfoot oil. His pounding pulse and heavy breathing drown out the swelling crowd noise. The centerfielder all but ignores him, and he makes the outfield wall more quickly than he expects. Fisher’s right where he’s supposed to be, video camera in hand and rolling.
“What the hell, Jonny?”
“I am Stinkman!” Jonathon says, hamming it up. “Now drop the stash!”
Fisher passes him the bag, organic cotton dyed Stinkman crimson. It’s full of baseballs.
“Chop, chop, bro,” says Fisher, gazing back toward the first base dugout. “Cavalry’s coming.”
Jonathon takes a quick glance. Fisher’s right: grounds crew is on their way. What’s taken them so long is another question; guess he caught them back on their heels, swilling Gordon Biersch and munching garlic fries. He drags the ball bag, which is heavier than he anticipates, along the wall toward centerfield. Trotting into the grass, he faces the crowd, then starts chucking crimson baseballs into the stands. They’re on their feet, arms outstretched, beckoning. Every time fans come up with a ball, they hold it high, like a trophy. They don’t always catch them cleanly, and there’s a minor melee as men and women, from their fifties on down to their teens, scramble for each crimson Stinkman souvenir. Jonathon hurls them as quickly as he can, launching baseballs throughout the outfield stands. He even chucks one to each Giants outfielder as a peace offering. They study the balls, gaze at Jonathon, then toss them up into the stands.
When the grounds crew goons start to close in, Jonathon lobs a few balls toward them. The fans think it’s funny; the goons see the balls but not the humor. This side of second base, the three of them spread out, one to right field, one to left, the third headed straight toward him. It’s a well-drilled maneuver designed to hem him in from all sides. But Jonathon isn’t the easy prey they’re used to. He’s been a runner for years, even had a scholarship to UCLA, almost, only by then he was sick of the competition and wanted to go to art school. Jonathon never quit running, though, not even when his artist friends gave him hell. “It’s meditative,” he’d say. “And when you get lung cancer from all the cigarettes, I’ll be running marathons.”
Jonathon has serious stamina, and he’s too smart to let himself get cornered. He sprints for a gap, splitting their attack, then he keeps them moving. Two of the three look fit, if not exactly athletic, though judging from his love handles, the third, who seems familiar somehow, doesn’t keep himself in shape. From the beginning, the idea was always to stay out on the field as long as possible. Jonathon would simply wear them out, a war of attrition. And it’s working. He keeps the goons at a safe distance, running them all over the outfield grass. For a while, he worries that one of the players will grow annoyed with his hijinks, tripping or shouldering him down as he lopes by, Stinkman cape aflutter. To Jonathon’s surprise, they seem amused by his antics. When they’ve seen enough, they trot to the infield for a team conference behind the mound, while the pitcher tosses a few to stay warm.
He keeps the grounds crew at bay for a long time. Longer, he imagines, than anyone expects; much longer. Makes them look like the Three Stooges. With the adrenaline surging through his system, he could run all day, or night. Time seems to slow down and almost stop, and between one passing moment and the next, Jonathon dreams of Stinkman stardom. Thousands, maybe millions of hits on the website, courtesy of the promotional crimson baseballs. Millions more thanks to the video Fisher’s shooting of the Great Streak, which they’ll imbed on the website. It will, as they say, go viral. His teaser panels from the graphic novel-in-progress will wow his new fans. Publishers will follow the buzz; a bidding war will ensue. When it’s published, Stinkman will be met with rave reviews and massive sales. Jonathon can see it now. There’ll be so much hype, the movie producers will come knocking, and before he knows it, he’ll negotiate a full-blown Hollywood deal for Stinkman: The Movie, complete with megabuck tie-ins, maybe even Stinkman action figures.
The crowd is still with him, drunk, laughing, enthusiastic about the sustained diversion from this low-scoring pitchers’ duel. Their clapping and chanting swells: Stinkman! Stinkman! Stinkman! Though it almost sounds like Streakman? Or maybe Stickman? A few even yell Stanfordman, owing, Jonathon guesses, to the S! and the color and the campus’s close proximity. Anyway, it’s not important, none of that matters right now. Once they go to the website, they’ll understand their mistake, then fall in love with the coolest, most original superhero to ever grace the silver screen. That’s how fast it’ll all happen. A complete whirlwind.
The longer he spends on the outfield grass, the more frenzied the crowd’s support becomes. They love when the goons lunge at him and miss. Along with stamina, Jonathon has lateral quickness and agility. He can dodge left or right, or feint right and go left, freezing them in their tracks like some star NFL running back. When he realizes how into it the fans have become, he waves his crimson cape with a flourish, like some crazy matador. ¡Olé! they yell as another goon whiffs at him, then stumbles and face-plants into the left-centerfield grass, while Jonathon dashes to open ground.
He can’t remember the last time he had this much fun!
Jonathon came up with the idea for a graphic novel when he was seventeen. It’s taken him all these years to create a simple character with profound, unexpected powers: the ability to sniff out lies, deceit, and betrayal, the stink of society. It’s a feat of imaginative genius. Yet in the end, Jonathon’s an artist first, a writer maybe never, and though over time he’s filled out Stinkman’s backstory, he’s struggled to find the central narrative that could drive an extended storyline. The eureka moment came last week when Fisher took Jonathon out for his thirtieth birthday.
“Dude, get a grip,” said Fisher, fiddling with his long blond locks.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’ve been working on this thing for like ten years.”
“Closer to fifteen.”
Fisher slurped from his fifth pint, then said, “That’s what I mean.”
“So?” Jonathon’s tongue felt fat. “It’s a labor of love.”
“You finished art school, bro. You’ve got a sweet job designing for Quake City Skateboards with me. Time to let it go, right? Live a little.”
“No, Fish, just the opposite. I’m getting old, man. It’s now or never. And I’m almost there. I’ve refined my style, and I’ve even got a great arch nemesis.”
“Super-hot super-chick in skin-tight spandex?”
“Blacks and grays, very Goth. She’s called The Fog.”
“Nice.” Fisher took another gulp of porter. “But let me guess: you’ve got no plot.”
“Nailed it in one.”
Fisher didn’t hesitate: “Write your own story.”
“Come on, Fish. Gimme a break, it’s my birthday.”
“You’re not listening, bro. Just model the thing on your life. Keep it simple. Thirty-something dude—”
“Just turned thirty. Today.” Jonathon slumped on his stool. “I’m fucking prehistoric, man.”
“Hey, everyone,” Fisher slurred. “Meet my good buddy Gerry Hattrick.”
Jonathon faked a laugh.
“Seriously, you’ve got this thirty year-old dude, still lives in his parents’ basement in Berkeley—”
“It’s not that pathetic. The rent’s cheap.”
“You want my help? Or you gonna keep interrupting?”
“You’re right,” said Jonathon. “Sorry.”
“Make him this average dude just like you, Jonny. No offense. This art school runner guy, loves to draw and paint and surf and skate. He’s got a good life, or not bad, but he longs for something more.”
“The graphic novel.”
“Yep.” Fisher chuckled. “Only he can’t come up with a story.”
“Thanks for the help, bro.”
“Take it easy, Jonny. Let me finish. Until he comes down with your dude’s disease.”
“Fucking drives him nuts, till he realizes he’s not hallucinating. The stink is real. It’s everywhere.”
“And so I, or my character based upon me, I become—”
Jonathon stood behind his stool and flexed. At the top of his lungs, he yelled: “I am Stinkman!”
After bobbing and weaving for a while, toying with the grounds crew, Jonathon sprints for a patch of open grass, then gazes up into the stands. By now, he’s over in the left field corner. While he hadn’t noticed it before, everyone in Section 137 sports a Stinkman costume—even the women! He thinks maybe it’s the glare from the stadium lights, or even lack of oxygen from so much running.
Only his vision isn’t impaired.
And he’s not even breathing hard.
He dodges one goon, then another. The third grounds guy, the one with the love handles, has all but thrown in the towel, giving half-hearted chase, buckling over, trying to catch his breath, clutching at a side-cramp.
“Have a heart, Steckman,” he says.
Jonathon does a double-take, stumbling a little.
“Holy shit, he yells. Flooty?”
“The one and only,” the goon gasps. “Give us a break and come along quietly, okay? You’re holding up the game.”
Jonathon thinks he’s losing it, right here in front of forty-plus thousand people. Because that’s where the name originally came from.
Fucking Aaron Flooty.
Sacramento High. Flooty was captain of the varsity football team, Jonathon a clueless freshman. It happened in the locker room: Flooty smashed him against a locker, shoved him to the floor, and pinned his arm behind his back. Another knuckle-dragger whipped it out and pissed all over him. They all laughed. Then Flooty said:
“You stink, Steckman. So that’s your new name.”
And it stuck. For years. Which really stank.
Later, after Fisher bails him out, Jonathon will tell him all about Flooty.
“He was this bully fuckhead, used to taunt me back in high school. I was just a scrawny little cross country twerp, man.”
“Tell me about it,” Fisher will say. “Back at Stockton High, I was a little emo musician wannabe. Carried my guitar with me everywhere, one of those backpack gig bags?”
“Aaron fucking Flooty.”
“Dude give you swirlies, stuff you in your locker, that kind of shit?”
“Something like that.”
“Knock you around in the hallways, break your guitar, screw the shy, sexy girl you had a monster crush on?”
“Take it easy, Fish.”
Fisher will slow in Bay Bridge traffic, looking pensive. “Hey, man, at least you reclaimed the name, right?”
When Jonathon glances up, the dozens, or maybe hundreds, of Stinkman lookalikes are still there, cheering and high-fiving as the real Stinkman, the original, works his on-the-field magic. Then a tall, lanky man of indeterminate age—also sporting Stinkman regalia—comes loping up the third-base line and along the left-field wall. On stilts. He sticks to the warning track so he won’t sink into the soft outfield turf. Fans cheer and holler, though it’s a mystery why, since the guy’s clearly a poseur. And he’s stealing the limelight, the thieving bastard! Jonathon wishes he had a crimson baseball or two to knock the guy off his twelve-foot pedestal.
But any publicity is good publicity, right?
Now here comes an old VW Beetle, right across the grass. How did it even get onto the field? Jonathon’s sure it must be a security detail sent to crush his shenanigans so the overpaid athletes can finish their game. Until he notices the bug’s paint job, a floral motif in primary colors. The car stops in dead centerfield. For a moment, nothing happens. Then the doors open, and clown after clown emerges, too many for Jonathon to count on the run. Yet these are no ordinary circus entertainers. Maybe they wear multicolored rainbow wigs and bright red fake noses, crazy red-and-white makeup and white gloves. Some even carry honkers. But none of them lumbers about in giant shoes and oversized one-piece jumpsuits with stripes or polka-dots and ruffled collars. No, they all wear matching crimson capes and eye masks, jock straps and running shoes. And they sprint around their little car like someone called a Chinese fire drill. Then, more quickly than they arrived, they all pile back into the car and putter across the outfield to a gate in the right-field wall.
Soon everyone will sport superhero crimson.
The network cameramen follow Jonathon’s antics with a keen eye, though it’s policy never to broadcast streakers, lest they become a nightly occurrence, given people’s deep, inexplicable yearning to see themselves on TV. Their footage won’t play so well for Jonathon on the late-night sports highlights. He’ll watch it all, eyes glazed with wonder, from a hard bench against the wall of a holding cell of the Southern Precinct station, just him and a pair of patchouli-reeking vato thugs with baggy pants and neck tattoos. It won’t start out so bad. They’ll play an opening montage that casts Stinkman in a positive light: his speed and agility, his strong throwing arm, his ability to make the stadium security detail look so bumbling and foolish the whole thing almost seems rehearsed. There will even be a slow-mo sequence of Jonathon the matador, waving his cape, side-stepping a goon, every fan in the frame cheering and laughing.
But none of that’s what people will remember. The end of the highlight reel, which is actually more than half of it, is what will stick. Those broadcasters will fixate on his eventual apprehension. They’ll revel in the ways he’s attacked and taken down and hauled off the field. They’ll play the inevitable conclusion to his streak forwards and backwards, in slow-mo and freeze-frame. It should all be humiliating, especially with those two thugs in the holding cell laughing it up all the way through. That’s really you, homes? they’ll say. Man, you got jacked! No one will remember his name either, since among all the possibilities—Stinkman and Streakman, Stickman and Steckman—the broadcasters can’t get it right.
But after what Jonathon’s seen, none of it will matter.
Someone upstairs has had enough. Maybe the Giants front office, maybe all of Major League Baseball, though more likely the execs from the network broadcasting the game. They’re on the phone not long after Jonathon darts onto the field, a secret cabal of corporate bigwigs by conference call. He’s making a laughingstock of them. After much hemming and hawing, they send out six more guys from the grounds crew. These goons look meaner and more focused than the three who’ve been chasing him around for the past ten minutes. (A record!) More athletic, too. Jonathon fears they’re taking his extended presence in their outfield grass much too personally. For some reason, Lou Seal, the Giants’ beloved mascot, squeezes through a hidden door in the corner of the left field wall and waddles toward him, waving to the crowd. More ominous still, a couple of uniformed security guards—or are they actual cops?—trail after the seal, not exactly running, but still covering ground, fists gripping Tasers and Billy clubs.
For a moment, Jonathon tells himself he has nothing to worry about. He’s a superhero, right? I am Stinkman! Maybe he’s been in character too long, or maybe it’s just the adrenaline talking. Soon, though, he recalls that his power to sniff out deceit won’t be much use to him in his current predicament. Still, he’s quick, maybe even uncatchable, so he figures he’ll juke and jive for another few minutes at least, crowd roaring. No such luck. The goon squad circles him as if they’ve done this a million times before, then closes in on him. Panicked, Jonathon sprints for a gap that isn’t there. And he’s blindsided by what feels like a dump truck rolling down a steep hill. He goes down hard, mask askew. The rest of the goons pounce on him, pinning his arms behind him, crushing him into the field. Lou Seal even does a victory dance over him, all gray fur and orange sunglasses, stepping on his head more than once. He’s overwhelmed by the smell of sod and fertilizer until someone, probably Flooty, starts choking him with his own crimson cape. A policeman cuffs his wrists. The goons soak him with obscenities, then hoist him to his feet.
And the crowd erupts.
As the security guards march him off the field, from far left all the way across to first base, the spectators are on their feet, clapping and whistling, hollering and chanting. As if they understand what he’s about. As if they know what he stands for. Jonathon tosses his head back, basking in the delighted glow of thousands of fans. They’re now his fans, he realizes. He would throw his arms up in triumph if it weren’t for the handcuffs and the bruising grips of those meaty paws.
Then comes the sinking feeling, an aching hollowness in his gut. What if they’re cheering because he was caught? Maybe they’ve all had it up to here: Enough already! Let’s finish the game! Maybe they think he’s the worst flop of a streaker to ever highjack a professional sporting event. Even Fisher might think he’s taken things too far.
The goons shove him through a gate, down some steps, and into a tunnel beneath the stands. He’s out of breath. The crowd noise is muffled. He squints in the dim light.
It’s worse than he expects. Stadium security locks him in a room alone, handcuffed to a chair, for forty-five minutes. It’s more like a closet. His eyes ache in the fluorescent glare. He wraps his cape around himself the best he can manage.
Then begins the interrogation, right there on the spot. It goes on for more than an hour. Although the guys questioning him flash badges, they’re dressed more like rumpled college professors than cops. And they’re both midgets, or dwarves. Little people. One sports an Amish-looking neck beard, the other a faux-hawk. They chain-smoke Marlboro Reds.
“Who planned the attack?”
“Do you realize how much damage you’ve caused?”
“Who’re you working for?”
“Do you know how much sod it will take to repair the outfield grass?”
“Who are you?” Jonathon interrupts, chuckling. “John Deere?”
“Seriously,” says the neck beard. “Enough about the grass.”
“But the field is trashed!” the faux-hawk exclaims. “You saw it. And that was beautiful grass, was it not?”
“That it was,” the neck beard agrees.
“That it was,” echoes Jonathon.
“Keep your mouth shut!” they both yell.
Jonathon does his best to allay their fears about terrorism and lawn destruction. He has to assure them, again and again, that he has no ties to any anti-government agencies or organizations, including the Lawn Liberation Front, or LLF, whose mission seems to be freeing lawns from their masters. It all seems insane.
“Oh, it is insane,” faux-hawk concedes.
“But insanity is the new black,” says neck beard.
Jonathon whimpers. His wrists burn from the cuffs. A headache blooms behind his eyes.
“It was just a prank,” he tells them, “a publicity stunt.” He details the whole plan, over and over, until he finally convinces them—and himself—that he’s just your average wacko streaker.
After another twenty minutes of breathing the midgets’ secondhand smoke, two uniformed cops guide Jonathon out an unmarked exit. One of them sports an emerald eye mask. As they direct him toward their parked police cruiser, Jonathon says:
“Is there a reason you’re wearing a mask?”
His eyes brighten as he glances at his partner for confirmation, who gives him a quick chin nod.
“It’s for Mardi Gras,” he says.
“But that’s not until February?”
“I’m a little early. So shoot me.”
They lead him to the car, mumbling about the worsening fog. Maybe they mean in the mornings? Because right now it’s so clear you can almost see stars, despite the ballpark lights and circling 747s. Mardi Gras steps around to the driver’s side door, while the other officer shoves him into the backseat. Jonathon catches a flash of cobalt spandex protruding from the cop’s uniform sleeve.
“Do you have on a superhero costume?” he asks.
“What, that?” The officer pushes his sleeve up and smirks. “Just my union suit, is all. You know how cold summers are here.”
The other cop, the one in the emerald mask, grins at him in the rearview. “And we all know,” he says, “how bad The Fog has become. Right, Stinkman?”
Jonathon feels his eyes saucer. The cops laugh, though they don’t seem to think anything’s funny.
Then Mardi Gras cranks the engine, and they speed off down King St.