We sat at the bar in Reno’s in downtown San Francisco. Do you think anyone will ever match it? Ice rattled in highball glasses and mixed with the exaltations of drinking men. Don’t you think that’s one record nobody will ever beat?
Joe DiMaggio winced, just for a second, long enough to deem the question inane. Smooth, suave, frosty Joe, not Yankee Clipper Joe, the ball player of flawless grace in the black-and-white photos on the wall. This was cautious Joe, man of the world, disdainful of it, sitting at the bar opposite me in a double-breasted cashmere blazer, perfect for the blustery October day, a baby blue tie, the whitest shirt I’d ever seen. I don’t know. He spoke with a cultured, gentlemanly sneer.
So what, I thought. My paper was paying for a three-day trip to San Francisco, and I didn’t care if Joe found my questions mundane. This was the stuff the folks back in Poughkeepsie wanted to know. Joe had agreed to the interview through a friend of a friend. Twenty minutes at Reno’s, that’s all I got. One rule: no questions about Marilyn. You ask about Marilyn, I was told, you’re out.
But with no Marilyn, that left only The Streak. Everybody knew about his business success, his charitable efforts and part-time job as a Yankee’s spring training coach, the elegant walls he’d built around himself to keep away people like me. And nobody cared.
The Streak. What did it feel like?
Felt like the best day I ever had, looking back on it. He smiled that devastating, wincing smile. A television played at the end of the bar, Dodgers versus Twins in the World Series, but Joe wasn’t watching. Day to day, it was a job, he said. That was it. Answer over.
Yeah, but it must have felt special, you know, kind of powerful, with everybody watching? How did it feel to know the world was watching your every move?
Something happened, a softening in those dark Italian eyes. A delicate bubble, thin as gossamer, surrounded him, his shoulders slackened, chin dropped, as if he dared not let it burst. That reminds me of Marilyn, he said tenderly. Something she said to me once.
The bar became quiet, like her name sucked the sound from it. Even the drunks turned silent in reverence to that sainted, busted blonde. I sat there still as a statue, my pencil stopped on the page, afraid to move a muscle, afraid I might break this sudden spell.
This was the same night we got into such a terrible row, he said, after Wilder had her parading around Madison Avenue like a common Tenderloin tramp. I don’t know how wives behave back in Poughkeepsie, but where I’m from, women don’t show themselves like that. All those people watching. The press. I hated it. She knew how I felt, of course, but I don’t think she cared. Something always made her stand up to me, like a contest, just to see who’d win. Fame, he said. Fame was the winner. He looked past me, out the window into something deep and blue.
But who is the loser?
He paused for a moment, smiled wistfully at a memory:
This was later on, back in the hotel room that night. We were serene then, spent, you know, like the ocean after a storm. Don’t you know those people are taking your soul? I said to her. Don’t you know they’ll take it all if you let them have it?
But Joe, she said. God, the little girl in that voice, the innocence buried deep down inside her I could never seem to touch. But Joe, I was just giving everyone what they wanted. What else could I do, with everybody watching?
With that, the bubble burst, the icy veneer crept back onto his handsome face. Funny, though, isn’t it, he continued, the melancholy pleasure of memory still lingering on his lips, the things we justify to ourselves for the eyes of others, the things we are capable of because the world is watching.
He lifted a finger and the bartender appeared out of thin air, put a finger of whiskey in a shot glass, and just as quickly disappeared. He slugged it down, looked at his watch. Twenty minutes or no, the interview was over. The Streak? He smiled grimly, the way I imagine a hangman smiles on execution day, whiskey bringing water to his eyes. Did it make me feel powerful? Quite the opposite. I feel empty, like I gave it all away.
Andrew Waters believes the apocalypse will happen on the Internet and wishes he could write like Raymond Chandler. He lives in Salisbury, North Carolina. His story, “The Girl With Rain In Her Hair” will be published in the Spring 2012 edition of “Pamlico Magazine,” the literary journal of UNC Pembroke.