Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Short Story Hour: The Quest

The following is inspired by a recent outing to Nationals park to watch the Nationals/Tigers game. This happened to take place on May 11 when Max Scherzer completed a 20-strikeout game, becoming the fourth player in MLB history to do so. While not nearly as significant but much more amusing, that evening I bought the last nachos in the park. Apparently. 

The Quest

Gus hated baseball stadiums. Not baseball but the elaborate stadiums and parks that make up modern baseball. He had grown up going to old school parks, spending most games in the cheap bleacher seats. "Fancy baseball" with its gourmet food and craft beers didn't sit well with him. The constant jockeying for the next giveaway, be it bobblehead or player inspired Chia pet irked him. Why didn't people just watch baseball anymore? Why was the game not enough to make it an event? Ticket prices were astronomical so he understood some of it; give the people what they paid for and all. That didn't mean he had to like it.

Gus also fell into the group of people who enjoyed a low scoring game to high scoring ones. A home run here or there rather than every at bat appealed to him. To Gus, a low scoring game showed the true power of teams; it was the game at its best focused on pitching and fielding and team dynamics not just powerhouse hitters. The rare grand slam should be just that - rare. He didn't want to sit through a game where the score was 10-0 by the fourth inning. That was not baseball; that was some weird form of reality tv.

The biggest disappointment about modern stadiums and parks were the crowds. Gus liked that people came to games but despite their modern approach to design, modern parks didn't ever seem to be designed to actually handle the crowds that came out to each game. From the park entrances to the lines for bathrooms (even for guys) to the exits at the end of a game, there always seemed to be too many people and too little space. The worst offender, by far, was the concession areas. Gus was currently on minute 20 in line for nachos, his second favorite ballpark snack. Gus had a baseball game eating system: start the game with a hotdog or two (usually two) with a beer and then get at second snack at the start of the 5th inning. His second snack rotated between nachos and a soft pretzel. Tonight was nacho night.

The game itself was a great one for Gus; low scoring so far, great effort on the part of both teams, and a few exceptional at bats for his favorite players. One of the pitchers was poised to tie or break a strike out record tonight. Gus hoped it would happen even though he was rooting for the other team. He would miss out on this amazing feat if this line didn't move faster. He watched the screens above the concession stand and could hear the roar of the crowd from where he stood but it wasn't the same as sitting in his seat. He probably should have given up sooner but a system was a system. By the time he even thought about leaving the line too much time had passed and he was too invested in the nachos.

He was next in line and approached the first open cashier. As he was about to give his order he heard the line manager say, "We're out of nachos." Almost 30 minutes in line to be crushed with one sentence. His face told the whole story. The cashier tried to be peppy and friendly but it was no use.

Gus was cool; he'd order his standby. "How about a pretzel?" he asked.

"We're out of those too. Sorry. You could try the concession stand behind home plate on this level. They don't usually run out as fast we do." She smiled at Gus.

"Thanks." Gus got out of line and contemplated his next move. He could return to his seat and his friends, snackless but less irritated or he could venture on into the belly of the park and find those nachos. Gus watched throngs of happy baseball fans rush past him with their beers and ice cream in souvenir hats. He wanted those nachos like he had never wanted any snack food in his entire life. He made his way into the crowd to find his destiny.

Dodging a family of five carrying every possible confection the concession stands had to offer, Gus maneuvered his way through the crowd and to the stand behind home plate. He avoided a near collision with a group of preteen boys engrossed in a video on one of their phones. He swerved to avoid a run in with the home team's mascot who was posing for photos with a group of opposing team fans. He nearly collided with three guys carrying enough beer to last the rest of the game (and who maybe should have stopped an inning ago). He made to the stand unharmed, ready for his snack. He walked closer to the stand, Home Run Snacks, and was greeted by a sign:

No Nachos. No Peanuts. No Pretzels.
Try Section 207.

Seriously? Gus wasn't sure if he was annoyed by the lack of nachos or the weirdness of the sign. In all his baseball-going years he had never seen a sign like this. Did he risk more disappointment and go all the way to section 207? Was it worth it? Gus was missing the game and should turn back but he could not. He had to go forward; it was his duty. He circled back to the nearest stairs to go up one level. When he got to the top he realized that he was on the opposite side of the park from section 207. He took a deep breath and soldiered on.

Gus was on a mission now. He dodged more photo ops with the other team mascots and little kids stopping abruptly in the middle of the walkway distracted by something and their parents not realizing they'd stopped. He walk right into a bacheorlette party taking selfies and stopped to take a photo for them when the bride to be asked. He walked past stands selling hot dogs, cotton candy, kettlecorn, and pizza. Shakes beckoned to him from one stand. Popcorn, peanuts, and Cracker Jacks sang their siren song from another but no, Gus would not stop until he got his nachos. 

He could see the sign for section 207. Gus wasn't sure if it was his imagination or what but the lights seemed to cast an unearthly glow around the stand like it was just him and the concessions. He imagined this was how explorers felt in the desert when they came upon an oasis. The line was short and he couldn't see a sign or any other indications of a lack of nachos. Gus quickened his pace. The nachos were so close, he could almost taste the cheese and the jalapeños. Was it real cheese? Gus did not care.

He was the fourth person in line. He could hear the orders of the people in front of him; it was oddly quiet on this level as if the game had ceased and the only thing happening was Gus finally getting his nachos. The people at the two cash registers ordered hot dogs, pretzels, peanuts, and beer. Not threat from these guys. Gus could see some of nacho trays but could not tell how many were left. He was going to be just fine. The person in front of him went to order.

"I'll take two orders of nachos, 2 pretzels, a Coke, and a Bud Lite." The smiled at the cashier.

"Jalapeños?", the cashier asked.

"Absolutely." The man took out his wallet to pay.

At that exact moment, Gus realized that this man was going to the last tray of nachos. This guy was going to get Gus's nachos. He would be completely out of options after this stand. He knew that none of the other places sold nachos. This had been his only hope. Gus took a deep breath and checked his frustration. He could be the crazy guy at the baseball game losing it over a tray of nachos or he could be an adult, order a pretzel and go back to his seat to watch the rest of the game. He did not want a pretzel but he did not want to be the crazy guy so he hung onto the last resort: there would be more in the back. That was the answer. 

The nacho thief paid for his food and walked off with a stride that could only belong to a guy who got the exact food he wanted and knew that's who he was. He nodded at Gus. Gus squared his shoulders and walked up the next available cashier. 

"Hello. Order of nachos please," Gus was as polite as possible. 

The cashier paused before responding as if she sensed desperation in Gus's overly polite greeting. She smiled and said, "One second, sir. Let me check in the back for you." She left her register and went back to the prep area. Seconds ticked by. Gus distracted himself by watching the game on the monitors. He had missed another scoreless inning and the pitcher was getting closer to the record. It was almost the 7th inning; his quest for delicious snack food had taken almost two whole innings. 

The cashier returned, " I'm sorry; we're totally out of nachos. Can I get you something else?" 

Gus paused. What was he doing? He spent two innings wandering this park trying to find nachos to keep coming up short each and every stop along the way. He passed up so many other snack options along the way for what? A silly system he put in place when he was kid? What was he actually doing except not enjoying the game with his friends and witnessing baseball history? Would this become a silly cocktail party story or an amusing anecdote he'd tell his grandkids one day? They'd shake their heads and say something under their breath about crazy Grandpa and his crazy systems. Gus embraced the crazy; he could not give up.

"Is there anywhere else I could try? Is this the only place left that sells them?" Gus tried his best not to come off as a weirdo.

"You could try one of the restaurants that have stands. I think one of them has nachos but they're fancier than what we have. And more expensive." She called for the next customer.

Of course all roads would lead him to the fancy parts of modern baseball he hated. Gus took the escalator down to the first level and quickened his pace back around to the side of the park where his seat was located. He walked past the two restaurants he thought would have nachos and both were closed. It was not in the cards tonight for Gus to have nachos. He stopped back at the first concession stand, back to where it all began. He bought a bag of peanuts and a beer. He slowly made his way back to seat and his friends.

The 7th inning stretch was just about to start. As Gus got closer to his friends, he could see the familiar white tray and the bright orange cheese in the hands of his friend, Amy. What? Nachos?! He stepped into their row as "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" came to an end.

"You're back. We worried we'd lost you. I wasn't sure if tonight was a pretzel night or a nachos night so I grabbed these for you. They're the last nachos in the entire stadium. The guy at the concession stand told me so." Amy smiled and handed Gus the tray.

"But where? And how?" Gus stammered. "I walked all over this place and there were no nachos anywhere. I don't understand."

Amy laughed, "Jake knows a guy. He saved one for us." Jake nodded in Gus's general direction. "Peanuts! I love peanuts."

"Thanks." Gus gave Amy the bag of peanuts and sat down to enjoy his nachos. The cheese was perfectly warm and delicious. It mixed with the spiciness of the jalapeños and the salt of the chips. It was the best bite of nachos he had ever had. He settled in with his snack, his beer, and his friends to watch the end of the game. History was made, the home team won, and all was well in baseball snack world. 

No comments:

Post a Comment