Wait ‘Til Next Year

Stanley Ivanov had known his best friend (and sometimes worst enemy) Paxton Perlman all of Paxton’s life (and known Paxton’s father all of his life and his father all of his life, and so on for a few more generations), but it wasn’t until Paxton was thirty, both in human and werewolf years, before Stanley managed to drag him to a ballgame at Wrigley Field.  Paxton wasn’t much of a baseball fan; surfing was more Paxton’s sport.  And no matter where Paxton went, he left his heart in Los Angeles.  And if he went somewhere grudgingly, then he reminded you of that as often as he felt it was necessary.  And when he was with Stanley, he felt it was necessary to remind him once every twenty minutes.  Stanley was well-practiced in ignoring him.

Besides, Wrigley would shut Paxton up soon enough.

Stanley wasn’t much of a sports fan until he fell in love with baseball and the Cubs at the turn of the Twentieth Century.  By pure chance, Stanley was in Chicago with some time to kill and ended up going to a game.  It was the most fun he’d had in the States in years, since the Civil War easy.  After that first game, Stanley was hooked.  He made a point of seeing at least one game whenever he was in Chicago.  He saw the Cubs win back to back World Series.  He was one of the first people to attend a game in Wrigley Field.  Over the years, seeing one game wasn’t enough and Stanley found himself spending more time in Chicago to watch his team.  No place in that ballpark was a stranger to him now, even with all the changes they’d made in recent years.  Of all the investments Stanley had made over the years, Cubs season tickets were by far his best, at least, as far as he was concerned.

Carrying a beer in each hand, Stanley led Paxton and his two beers, down the steps to their spot in the bleachers.

“Well, this looks uncomfortable,” Paxton said, sitting down on the third row metal bench.

A homerun batting practice ball clanged off a seat a few rows up.  Paxton put one beer on the cement between his feet and took a slug of the one in his hand.  He winced.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep this down long enough to get drunk enough to enjoy myself.”

“You don’t have to get drunk to have a good time at Wrigley,” Stanley said, watching a guy and girl stumble up the concrete steps as he sat down.  “Contrary to the popular belief of some.  And you have to drink Old Style here.  It’s part of the experience.”

“Well, Stanley, so far the experience stinks.”  Paxton took another drink of his beer and frowned.  “And what do you know about being drunk?  Alcohol has no effect on your Vampire self.  That means that you’re drinking this nasty stuff with no goal.  And that does not reassure me, my friend.  Not in the least.”

Stanley ignored him and drank his beer.  Sure, it wasn’t the best beer he’d ever had, but it had charm and that was the point.

Paxton looked around.  The bleachers were taking their time filling up.

“This is lackluster, my friend.”

“The game hasn’t even started.  The Cubs are just getting done with their batting practice.”

“Lackluster,” Paxton repeated, enunciating the syllables.

“It wouldn’t be if you weren’t so determined to have a lousy time.”

“Not true.  I’d love to have a good time, but that’s just not going to happen here.  Baseball is a weak sport, a distant fourth to land sports.”

“Land sports?”

“Not surfing.  Basketball takes first place in land sports.  And, the Cubs are famous for being losers.  They are the Adlai Stevensons of baseball.”

Stanley opened his mouth for rebuttal and then stopped, his brain registering what Paxton said.  He looked questioningly at his friend.  “The Adlai Stevensons of baseball?”
“Well, yeah,” Paxton said with a shrug.  “The Cubs win their division sometimes and Adlai Stevenson won sometimes, too.  Just not the big one, you know?”

Stanley stared at Paxton for a full minute.  Paxton stared back, blue eyes wide and innocent under his blond bangs.

“Adlai Stevenson,” Stanley repeated slowly.

Paxton nodded.

“That’s a rather smart observation,” Stanley said finally, adjusting his Buddy Holly glasses.  “But, it still misses the point.”

“What the point?”  Paxton drank his beer.  The faces were getting less dramatic.

“The point is that it’s not just the team or the sport or the beer.  It’s the whole thing.  It’s the whole experience and how all of the little bits come together to make it something special.”  Stanley paused.  “And if that doesn’t convince you, then let me remind you that you still owe me for, and will always owe me for, that little incident in Romania.  So put on a happy face and have a good time with your best friend Stanley.”

Paxton slumped as much as one can slump sitting in the bleachers.  Stanley smiled.  He wasn’t ashamed to milk that little incident.  He planned on milking it for the rest of Paxton’s life.  And if Stanley did the vacation planning (or double checked Paxton’s plans) from now on, there was a good chance Stanley would outlive him.

They sat in silence as the bleachers filled up around them.  It was early September and with the Cubs out of the playoff running by more than a long shot, the crowd wasn’t as dense as it could have been.  Paxton stopped sulking once he realized how many girls were about and he drank his beer like a pro.  Stanley relaxed and let the Wrigley vibe sink in.

“They got food here?” Paxton asked after a while.

“Of course they’ve got food here.  Just follow your nose,” Stanley said, finishing up his first beer.

“I’m too far out from a full moon,” Paxton said, gulping the last of his beer before standing up.  He swayed just a little.  “My senses are dulled right now.”

“Good.  I won’t have to worry about you leaping out onto the field to chase balls.”

Paxton glared down at Stanley.

“Are you going to be cute like this the whole time?”

“I’m here to have fun, aren’t I?”

Paxton huffed and stalked off to find food.  It was well into the first before he reappeared, loaded down with goodies.

“It’s about time,” Stanley said, annoyed.  “You missed the National Anthem, the first pitch, and the first two outs.  I thought you bailed on me.”

“It was tempting, but I’m not that tacky,” Paxton said, balancing the pile of food on his lap.  He offered Stanley a little plastic batting helmet full of vanilla ice cream.  “Brought you some ice cream.  It’s only melted a little bit.”

Stanley took the offered treat and thanked him.

“What took you so long?” he asked.

“I couldn’t make up my mind.”

Stanley glanced at the pile of food in Paxton’s lap.  “It looks like you didn’t have to.  Looks like you got one of everything.”

“No, I mean I couldn’t decide if I wanted the blonde, the brunette, or the red-head.”

Paxton commenced eating.  He ate like a starving dog whether he was starving or not, but he was always surprisingly neat about it.

“Well?” Stanley prompted.

“Well, what?”  Paxton’s attention had shifted to the game.  He didn’t have to pay attention to eat.

“Which one did you choose?”

“The nachos.”

Stanley rolled his eyes then smirked.  “Struck out, huh?
Paxton’s vacuum effect came to a sudden halt as he turned and looked at Stanley.  He licked away a stray drop of nacho cheese from his nose.

“Stanley, that was lame even for you.”

“Maybe so, but you cannot deny its accuracy.  How else can you explain Paxton Perlman picking nachos over cute girls?”

“The nachos smelled better.  And they were better looking up close.”

Stanley laughed, his braying guffaw catching the attention of some of the other fans near them despite the crowd noise.  A few of their looks lingered.

“Settle down, rowdy,” Paxton said, diving back into his food.  “You’re attracting attention.  And not the good kind of attention, either.”

“Embarrassed to be seen with me?”

“If that were true, I’d have ditched you long ago just for the way you dress.”

Stanley looked down at himself, his stick figure frame swathed in khaki shorts, black Chuck Taylors, and one of his many Cubs themed Hawaiian shirts, this one featuring the logo, ball bats, baseballs, and Wrigley Field.  Now, he’d be the first to admit that he developed an affinity for ugly shirts over his six hundred and then some years, particularly of the Hawaiian style, but compared to many of the other bums in the bleachers, especially the ones with hairy beer bellies and no shirts (curse a nice Tuesday afternoon in the fall), Stanley was a vision from Milan.

He looked at Paxton and, with a straight face and total innocence, said, “What’s wrong with the way I dress?”

Paxton burst out laughing, nearly upsetting his nachos, oblivious to the attention he was now attracting.  Stanley laughed, too, the commotion turning even more heads.  The two of them were oblivious to it.  Stanley was relieved.  The charm of Wrigley Field and Cubs baseball was starting to work its magic on Paxton.

The laughter was dying down when Paxton stopped completely and sat up straight, spine rigid.  He sniffed the air loudly a couple of times.

“You smell that?”

“Smell what?” Stanley asked, still laughing a little.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly.  “But I smell it.”

Stanley eyed him carefully.  “I think the nachos and beer are a bad combination for you, my friend.”

Paxton chuffed, a deep sound that his lean body didn’t look capable of making.  Slowly the rigidity left his spine and he relaxed.  Stanley watched him a minute and Paxton quickly returned to eating and in a few seconds was just as jovial as he had been.  Stanley returned to his mostly melted ice cream and the game.

The Cubs put on a good show, holding the Reds at bay by a scant run for several innings.  Once Paxton finished eating (top of the second), the bleacher bums’ enthusiasm swept him into the game, much to Stanley’s delight.  The two of them cheered, groaned, and laughed, but Paxton’s earlier behavior bugged Stanley.  Something wasn’t right about it.  Stanley was used to Paxton’s sense of smell taking him at odd moments when he was being influenced by the days surrounding a full moon, but Paxton himself said he was too far out from one so his senses were dulled.  So, if his senses were dulled, then what did he smell?

Stanley’s apprehension faded in the light of a tense tie game brought about by a Reds homerun in the sixth.  Paxton chose to ease his tension with another beer (his fifth, way behind the pace of the people who thought of the bleachers as a keg party and didn’t even bother paying attention to the game; the taste didn’t seem to affect him at all now).  He still had a way to go until drunk, as werewolves did have a good tolerance for booze, but he was coasting on a nice buzz.

The tie was still in effect come the seventh inning stretch, so Cubs fans sang their hearts out in an attempt to rally the team, Stanley right along with them.  Paxton, too, once he figured out what they were singing.  At the end, he added his own little touch to the song while everyone else cheered, one that made Stanley’s skin freeze, forcing goose bumps to the surface.

Paxton howled.

A few fans around them noticed, but most were too caught up in the moment and/or drunk to notice and/or care.  Stanley grabbed Paxton by the shoulders and the two of them sat down with teeth-clacking force.

“What has gotten into you?” Stanley asked in such a voice that had they been some place less noisy it would have come out as a harsh whisper.

“I don’t know, man.”  Paxton’s grin was drunker than he was.  “But I like it.  It’s good.  Maybe it’s the beer.”

Paxton shrugged Stanley off and he reached for his glass as Stanley rolled his eyes.

“It’s not the beer, Paxton.  You’re acting like you’re on the brink.”

“I feel like I’m on the brink.”  His face scrunched up in thought.  He inhaled deeply.  “I can smell everything now.  I couldn’t smell anything when I first got here.”

“Has this ever happened before?”

“No.  Never.”  His happy buzzed drained out quickly and panic flickered on Paxton’s normally mellow features.  “This shouldn’t be happening.”

Stanley laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Calm down.  Get ahold of yourself.  I’d tell you to take some deep breaths, but I’m not sure that would help.  So just relax.  Stop getting yourself so riled up.  Maybe that’ll help.”

Paxton looked at Stanley like he was an idiot and quite possibly the biggest one he’d ever seen.

“I’m in the bleachers of a tie Cubs game and you want me to relax?  Are you serious or stupid?”

“I thought you didn’t like baseball.”

“I’m caught up in the moment.”

“Do you want to leave?”

“No!”

“Then shut up, drink your beer, and try to keep yourself from wolfing out.”

“Easier said than done,” Paxton grumbled, “but I can do it.  I just hope they don’t go into extra innings.”

“Me, too.  The Cubs tend to lose in extra innings.”

Paxton glared at him.

“Hey, it just so happens that I deal with you wolfing out in public better than a Cubs loss in extra innings.”

“Thank you.  That means so much.”  Paxton squirmed and drank his beer.  He opened his mouth to speak, but the roar of the crowd (Stanley included) over a single stopped him.

“Don’t you feel it, too?”  Paxton asked when things settled down.  He sounded anxious.  “Don’t you feel like just busting out and…and…you know?”

“What?” Stanley asked.  “Change?  Into what?  A bat?  I’ve not once turned into a bat in my entire vampire existence and I’m not about to do it now.”

“Keep snarking at me, Stanley.  That relaxes me.”

Paxton flashed his fangs at Stanley.  Stanley answered in kind.  The crowd roared around them at an almost home run foul ball.  The boys put ’em away.

“Seriously, man, don’t you feel anything?” Paxton asked, his ire wilting into a pleading whine.

“Yeah.  It’s the game, it’s the field.  It’s the buzz of the crowd and the Old Style.  It’s the ivy and the hot dogs and the vendors and the homers and the foul balls.  It’s baseball.  It’s magic.”

It was a grandstanding, enthusiastic speech and Stanley sighed wistfully at the end of it.  He looked at Paxton who was staring at him, eyes squinted in accusation.

“Magic?”

“Yeah.  Magic.”  Stanley smiled and shrugged.

“Magic,” Paxton repeated.  He barked a short laugh that really was more of a bark than a laugh.  He snorted, scratched his temple, and licked his lips.  “Did it ever occur to you, Stanley, that this really might be magic?”

“Magic?”

“Magic!”

Stanley started to dismiss the idea, but then stopped.  Wrigley did have a pull on him.  It wasn’t bad at first, but at some point he found that he HAD to come back once a year.  Even during the dismal seasons (mostly in the 70’s) when he wanted to forget about going to games, he couldn’t.  He always found himself sitting in the park for a September last-chance-before-the-season-ends game.  It was like he couldn’t NOT come to Wrigley, now that he thought about it.

And the more Stanley thought about it, the more obvious it became.  Werewolves were more sensitive creatures by nature (Stanley loved to remind Paxton of that) and even furthest out from a full moon, they still had slightly heightened senses compared to humans.  If there was magic in Wrigley Field, Paxton would be affected by it.

Stanley was affected by it too, he just hadn’t realized it.  It was more than the draw to Wrigley.  It was the fact that he never once got sunburnt in the Friendly Confines even on the days he was lax with the sunscreen.  He could get sunburnt on a cloudy January day in Washington, but he never once turned the slightest bit pink here, not even on the hottest, brightest day in July.

Stanley looked at Paxton, the clues slotting into place.

“I’ll be damned.”

“That you are, vampire.”

They sat in the silence of the roaring crowd.  The seventh inning ended with a whimper instead of the bang the Cubs and their fans were hoping for, but the Cubs took the field with renewed vigor at the top of the eighth.

But if it was magic, and it most certainly was, what kind of magic was it?

The answer came to him almost as soon as the question mark appeared at the end of his thought.

“Goat magic,” Stanley murmured.

“What?” Paxton asked, looking at him, blinking like he’d just woken up.

“Cubs fans believe that the team is cursed by a goat.”

Paxton’s eyebrows rapidly ascended his forehead.  “A goat?”

“Yeah, something about a fan bringing a goat to a World Series game and they made him leave because people were complaining about the smell.  I missed that game.  The guy was so mad that he told them they’d never win another game, meaning a World Series.  And they never have.”

“Bringing a goat to a ballgame is pretty redneck for Chicago, isn’t it?” Paxton asked, making a face.

Stanley rolled his eyes.  “Not in 1945, Paxton.”

“I’m a sweet, young thing, so I’ll have to take your word for it,” Paxton said.  “But if the curse was real, it’d take some kind of conjuring man to pull it off.  Some random, disgruntled guy couldn’t do it.”

“Not necessarily,” Stanley said.  “A goat is a conjuring animal.  Said with enough heart and conviction, a random, disgruntled guy could make it happen.”

“He must have really wanted his goat to see that game.”

Stanley nodded.

“So why don’t they just bring in another goat to break the curse?” Paxton asked.  “That would be the logical thing to do.”

“They did.  Several times.  It didn’t work,” Stanley looked around at the crowd.  It wasn’t sold out, but it was a decent crowd, positively overflowing for a team that was fifteen games out of first.  It looked to Stanley like people on the Outskirts weren’t the only ones feeling the magic.  “Of course, maybe that’s for the best.”

Paxton caught his drift and looked around.

“You bring a goat in here that breaks the curse and the magic is gone,” Stanley went on.  “Wrigley Field becomes just another ballpark and the Cubs become just another team.”

“The mystique would be gone,” Paxton agreed.

“They’d probably tear this place down to put up condos and spend millions on a new, modern stadium that they wouldn’t fill half-full.”

“Goodbye ivy.”  Paxton looked around again and then at Stanley.  “We gotta get a conjurer in here.  Like LittleJessie Witt or maybe FatElvis Giroux.  Maybe she could do something about it.  Not break the curse, just…rearrange it.”

Paxton’s eyes sparkled.  Stanley knew that look.

“I’d love to see the Cubs go to the Series and take the whole thing,” he said.

“I thought baseball was a weak sport and the Cubs were the Adlai Stevensons of baseball,” Stanley said.

“That’s before I knew about the magic,” Paxton said.  “Mark this down on the calendar because it’s probably the only time it will happen in my lifetime.  So enjoy it.  Really soak it up.  You were right.  It’s about more than the game and the team.  It’s the whole thing.  And I am loving the whole thing.”

The bottom of the ninth, one out, the crowd roared as a home run sailed over Stanley and Paxton and out onto Waveland Avenue.

The two friends laughed, high-fived, and sang “Go Cubs Go” at the top of their lungs, even though Paxton didn’t know any of the words.

As they left, Stanley clapped a grinning Paxton on the shoulder.

“Just wait ‘til next year.”

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