The Deal in Harlan’s Bar
by David A. Cohen
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
The woman wore too much makeup and bright red lipstick for Will’s taste. She sat next to the ballplayer uninvited and purred, “Hi there handsome, come to Harlan’s often?” in a voice that should have come from the lips of a much younger woman. Will figured her old enough to be his mother. She wasn’t his type, but he found it hard to say no.
“Not now,” Will growled irritably. “Maybe later.”
“Sure, hon. Maybe later.” The lady left the table as the bartender approached.
“Whatever you got on tap, that’s strong.”
“Ya don’t care?”
“Just make it strong.”
“I’ve a Belgian that will knock your socks off.”
“Knock my socks off, then.”
Will Marshall, recently traded to the New York Hudsons baseball team late in the 1958 season, had been a journeyman infielder known for his glove, not his bat. At 5’6” and 165 pounds of mostly muscle, he had character written on his weathered face, if not on his soul. Hardly anyone noticed his presence in the downtown bar despite the pennant fever sweeping through the city. He usually didn’t appear in a game until the seventh for defense and occasionally made a nice play that might matter. Will preferred drinking alone when playing at home.
“Aren’t you that guy from the Hudsons?” The bartender finally recognized Marshall, though he couldn’t recall his name.
“This one and all the beer you can drink tonight on the house.”
“That’s not a wise offer to make a ballplayer.”
“I’ll take my chances,” the bartender smiled.
Will sipped at his beer. He is, he thought, getting old for a ballplayer, thirty-two, and showing his age. He knew his days in the big leagues were nearing an end. No skills, not even a college degree, and not a day of actual work experience. His life had been all about baseball, mainly in the minors.
“Maybe I could go out with a bang?” he thought.
“Maybe you could,” came a voice to his left. A man in a gray jacket sporting an old fedora sitting on the barstool next to him had muttered the words. Will couldn’t get a good look at the stranger, the dark lighting and the fedora hiding most of his face.
“I could what?” Will said, not understanding.
“You could go out with a bang.”
“What?” Will still couldn’t connect his thought and what the man had said.
“Suppose you get to the Series, and because of some injuries, you get to start every day? Suppose you get to be a hero through the pennant drive and win the clincher to the Series in a walk-off?”
Will laughed. “Yeah, and suppose pigs could fly.”
“Maybe not pigs. Or maybe you can just end your career with a whimper.”
“Who exactly are you?”
“Mr. Weathers is the name.” The stranger held out his hand for a shake and quickly drew it back after not getting a response.
“What are you, a sports writer?”
Weathers grunted. “I perform magic.”
“Where? In clubs? Vegas?”
“So, show me a trick.”
“All right, I bet the bartender will come up to you and ask for your autograph for his kid in about another minute.”
“How you gonna do that? Or do you just predict what’s going to happen?”
“What difference does it make? Is it a bet?”
“What are we betting?”
“A gentlemen’s bet.”
“Hey, Marshall,” the bartender approached, suddenly remembering the ballplayer’s name. “Can ya sign your autograph for my kid?”
Will laughed and took a long drink from his beer. “Sure thing.”
Mr. Weathers grunted again. “Let’s get a table, William.”
“Look, Weathers, I’m not the brightest guy in the world, but I’m not stupid either. You set up this trick with the bartender and gave him a signal when to come over. What are you selling?”
“You got me, Will. I’m selling the future. For you.”
“What about my wife?”
“We will get to that. Just suppose I know people. I could make some injuries happen where you play every day. Your big opportunity will come in the Yankees series.”
“Great. Only one problem, I can’t hit worth a damn.”
“Imagine you get pitches as you have never been getting before. Where you can hit them.”
“You’re going to fix the pennant? What the hell is this, you the mob?”
“No, not the mob. Let’s just say I know many people and can make things happen.”
“So, you’re a gambler?” Will realized that he had been getting himself in deep just by talking to Weathers.
The stranger laughed for the first time since coming into Will’s sight. “Yes, Will, I’m a big-time gambler.”
“No, no, no, I don’t want to get drawn into anything like that. I can be banned just for talking to you. “
“This is an offer for your future. There is no danger of you being caught. I promise you that.”
“Yeah, sure. Tell that to Shoeless Joe Jackson.”
Weathers grunted. “Look, Will, I can make this happen to benefit both of us, and you will go on to have an exciting career. I promise you.”
“You can make that happen? Damn. I didn’t know games were fixed like this.”
“No, Will. It’s just for you.”
“That’s my little secret, Will.”
“You’ll make a bundle gambling?”
“Yes, Will. I will be gambling with you.”
“Christ. I’ve been wasting my time. I have no money to speak of, not for something like this. I’m leaving.”
“Who said anything about money?”
“Well, exactly what am I betting?”
“You see, Will, you are betting me that you will make a deal I offer. If you take the deal, we both win the bet. Should you decline, we both lose.”
“That makes no sense. How do you do this without gambling on the games?”
“I’ll get something I want, Will. Your wife.”
“What the hell? Are you crazy, man? You think I’m going to give you my wife? She belongs to me, you sick bastard. Get the hell away from me.”
“This guy botherin’ you?” The bartender walked over when he heard the yelling.
“Tell your friend, Mr. Weathers here, that he’s a sick bastard, and he should stay away from my wife!” With that, Will slammed his fist on the table, stood up, and walked out into the Manhattan night air.
He lay on his bed, his wife at his side, and thought of Mr. Weathers. What a strange dude, he thought. Could he deliver? Could he, Will Marshall, become a superstar with big money, big press, and significant commercial contracts? Beth had been a good wife, but she wasn’t the only fish in the sea. What did Weathers mean that he “wanted” Beth? For a wife? For sex? For…?
Beth belonged to him. He didn’t like the idea of another man taking away something he owned. Maybe he should get some guarantee of his success before agreeing to anything. Next off day, he’ll make a trip down to Harlan’s looking for Weathers.
Next would be a home series with Cleveland, the Hudsons taking two of three. Will played in all three, pinch-hitting unsuccessfully in the first game and coming in for defensive purposes in the next two, which were wins. He went 1 for 4, raising his average above .200. The hit, a line drive to left-center, bounced over the fence for a ground-rule double. Fastball. He could hit the fastball. He had a lot more trouble with the breaking stuff. Occasionally a pitcher would forget that and think he could throw one by him when all he had to do was pitch a good slider, curve, or anything else that broke, and he would swing like a little girl at a pinata. Could Weathers get them to throw all fastballs, he wondered?
The next break came on a Thursday, and Will headed for the bar where he had first met the odd man in the fedora. Will looked around but saw nothing. He sat at an empty table and waited.
About an hour passed, and he was getting ready to leave when the unmistakable gray-jacketed man with the battered hat sat beside him.
“Any change of heart, Will?”
“Maybe. Two questions. What do you want Beth for, and how can I be sure you will uphold your end of the bargain?”
“Second question first, Will. You have a great World Series, and then you divorce Beth in the offseason giving her half of all your assets now and half of your total income for five years from the date of the Series. That will pay for her attending medical school, something you have kept her from all these years. You will be getting plenty more. Our agreement ends at the end of the five years, and you are on your own with baseball. Should you not uphold your end of the deal, I am afraid your days as a major league superstar will be short-lived.”
“Half,” Will exclaimed. “Hell, that’s a lot.”
“Nonnegotiable, Will. Take it or leave it.”
“What about Beth? What do you want with her? What do you mean I should give her to you?”
“Divorce her, and I will take care of the rest. What I want her for is none of your business.”
Will tapped his right hand nervously on the table. He didn’t like the idea of some other man getting his wife, something of his after all. This, though, was a once-in-a-lifetime deal, he thought. Then, with emphasis, he slammed his open hand down hard, shaking the two drinks the men had set on the tabletop, and he said as he extended his hand, “Deal.”
Weathers smiled – Will could barely see a crack of the lips under the shade of that hat – and held out his hand, grasping Will’s, shaking it vigorously up and down almost violently. “Deal,” Weathers replied. Will thought Weathers’ hand felt odd, even painful, cold to the touch, like ice applied to a burning wound.
A strange thought occurred to Will. He had heard stories about the Devil making deals for people’s souls. He knew he would sound dumb, but he asked anyway. “You’re not the Devil or a Demon, are you.”
Weathers laughed. “No, Will. I promise you I am neither of those. Nothing like that at all. Just a man who cares about your wife, that’s all.”
The Hudsons tied for first with three games left to play against the Yankees for the pennant. Will, entered the first game in the sixth and hit a changeup for a home run. In his next at-bat, batting from the left, he caught a slider for a double down the left-field line driving in the tying and winning runs in the bottom of the ninth.
The following two games found Will starting for the first time with the Hudsons, and he again consistently delivered, making several outstanding defensive plays. Will was thrilled at the idea that he had become a crowd favorite for the first time in his career. The Hudsons demolished the Yankees in three straight with a barrage of hits against their vaunted pitching staff.
Will hadn’t mentioned anything to Beth about his plans to divorce her. He concentrated on the games.
The World Series transformed New York into a city of magic, excitement brimming in the unlikeliest places. People who never watched baseball or any sport wore merchandise for their team. The mayor made pronouncements and issued proclamations; the governor made a bet with the governor of Wisconsin over his beloved Milwaukee Braves, the opponent of the Hudsons in the Series.
Beth sat in a special section for the wives. She rooted for the Hudsons throughout the season, whether or not Will played. Now that Will displayed a hot bat and glove, he started Game One, promptly delivering four hits, including a home run. He did everything, flashing his glove in defensive gems, swooping up the ball with the skill of a veteran superstar, making throws of strength and accuracy, and even stealing a base, something he never thought he could do in a game. Each of the next six games proved him to be a man of unmatched skills, extraordinarily transformed from a hack who never before gave a clue of any unique talent into a star. No one was startled or more ecstatic than Will by this luck.
Game Seven proved his greatest success—many a boy and not a few girls dream of this moment. Bases loaded, two out, the winning run at the plate, and Will coming to bat. He watched five pitches go by, two for strikes and three for balls. Will hadn’t swung the bat yet. He guessed a slider for the next pitch. He looked into the box seats to find Beth. Instead, he noticed an odd man wearing a gray coat, an old fedora, and a bizarre grin. A chill went up and down his spine. He gripped the bat tighter.
He could feel the sweet part of the bat connect with the ball, hanging over the plate, hitting it into the upper deck of center field—an enormous blast, winning the series on a grand slam. The home crowd adored him, and the television commentators loved the drama of the live TV moment.
Will, offered the opportunity, negotiated a new contract with a significant increase in salary and bonuses. Commercial offers soon poured in, and Marshall appeared on the Ed Sullivan and the late-night Jack Paar show with the requisite jokes and pandering praise for his newfound skills.
Will now went to the famous sports pubs of his baseball friends and drank with his best buddies. Women followed more easily, and now he found them easier to conquer.
“Weathers, I knew you’d show up.” Marshall excused himself from his companions, explaining Weathers as a distant relative who had come to see him on some family matter.
“I have come to collect, Will.”
“Okay, okay, no problem. I will tell Beth this evening.”
“You will give her half of all your assets and half of your future earnings over the next five years as you agreed?”
“Yeah, sure. If I keep playing like this, I will honor my side of the deal.
That night dining alone with Beth, Will broke the news to his wife.
“Beth, listen. I don’t want to hurt you, Babe, but I’ve been having an affair with another woman.”
Beth smiled. “I know, Will, lots of women, you mean.”
“Yeah, well, that too. But this one is special, Beth. I intend to get us a divorce.”
Beth’s smile turned into a grimace of shock and pain. “You bastard. You make it now, and now is the time you want to divorce me?”
“No, no, Babe, you got me wrong. I intend to do well by you.”
“Don’t call me Babe, you piece of shit. Get out of here now before I kill you.”
“Sure, sure, I understand. Just want to let you know I am giving you half of everything now and for the next five years. How about that?”
“I’ll pay all of the taxes, I swear!”
“Get the hell out, or I’ll throw you out.” Beth took an empty plate that had held her dinner and threw it at Will’s head. She missed.
Will grabbed a bag he had already packed and told Beth he would return for the rest. “Ungrateful bitch,” he whispered under his breath.
The years went by with the name of Will Marshall uttered in the same breath as Mantle, Mays, and Robinson. He lacked for nothing: fame, women, and money. Five years had passed, and his agreement with Weathers had reached its expiration date. Now thirty-seven, he decided to retire rather than risk failure.
Will decided, upon retirement, to sell his place and relocate to Florida. He prepared for the move by going through his belongings. He found a box of some random items of Beth’s that she had inadvertently left behind. There, flattened under several music albums, he saw an old, worn fedora. It must have been from someone Beth knew, he thought. Holding it in his hand, he considered how much the fedora looked like Weathers’ hat.
Will, on an impulse, decided to call Beth after years of only communicating through lawyers. Maybe she is lonely, he thought.
Beth, at first reluctant to visit Will, decided to go to retrieve the box her ex had discovered. She brought along some mace, not knowing what to expect. Will answered the door and invited Beth in with a civil, “Hi Beth.” She provided half a smile, which was about all she could manage.
“Let me take that for you.” Will, attempting to behave like a gentleman, indicated Beth’s coat.
“No. I won’t be staying long. Where’s the box?”
“Let me carry them out for you.”
Beth surprised that Will did not make a move on her, gave a curt, “Thank you.”
Will lifted the box and carried it toward the door. He paused. A sharp pain passed through his right arm. His chest felt like a truck had landed on it, and he suddenly found breathing difficult. The box fell to the floor, and he followed.
“Help me, Beth.”
“Dammit, Will. I’ve only just begun med school.” She rushed to the phone and dialed the Operator, calling for an ambulance. Dropping to her knees, she began chest compressions.
Will heard the sultry voice of Peggy Lee singing a song in the background. He stared at Beth and blinked several times. Her face blurred and then returned into sharp focus. Only now, he saw a man, appearing translucent and wearing a gray jacket and an old fedora atop his head, standing behind the woman he had abused for years, who now fought hard to save his life.
Beth’s dad smiled and placed his hands lovingly on his daughter’s shoulders as Will drew his last breath.
David is a retired reference librarian who started writing fiction three years ago. He has an MA in Political Science and an MLS in librarianship. The Deal in Harlan's Bar is his seventh story to be published. His other recent story - Where Have All the Young Girls Gone? - appears in After Dinner Conversation - Best of 2022. Besides writing, David enjoys classical music and, of course, Baseball. Born and raised in New York he is a NY Mets fan. He now lives near Philadelphia with his wife and cat, Muppet.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.