Suspense as Suspension of Time

I figured the ballgame would be over by the time I needed to head out. I was going over to Tierney’s Tavern in Montclair, NJ (I hope your town has a place like this) to see my kids’ awesome music teacher Myrna play a solo set on guitar. The Giants-Nationals playoff game I had been keeping tabs on was winding down (1-0 Nats after 8 innings), apparently in plenty of time for me to get to the show. But then the visiting Giants (my favorite National League team, going back to my Bay Area days) tied it up on a two-out double in the top of the 9th. The game was well into the 10th inning, with no sign of ending, when I drove off to the tavern.

At Tierney’s, I found a cozy stool with a good view of the stage, the bar, and — importantly — the TV over the bar. Myrna was playing some seriously hard-edged rock and roll, and the Giants looked like they might take it in the 12th when they got a man to third with one out. But the rally died (popout, groundout). Yusmeiro Petit came on to pitch for SF, Myrna wrapped up, and Thee Volatiles took the stage at Tierney’s. Petit, a second line starter who didn’t quite make it into the shorter playoff rotation, seemed shaky at the beginning, then settled in. He looked like he could pitch for a while. Thee Volatiles were tight from the first chord, filling the room with the kind of garage rock I used to hear all over Boston, and could never resist, in the 80’s. (These guys are from New Jersey, but once you know a certain kind of sound, you recognize it anywhere.) Petit pumped in strikes, the Nats’ pitchers kept pace, and Thee Volatiles banged out chords: a symphony of forward momentum.

Songs and innings raced by. Thee Volatiles finished up. Most of the crowd had come to see them, and now began to drift out of the room. I wondered how many people were left at the ballpark. The night’s last act, Karyn Kuhl (say her name out loud to realize how great it is) took the stage. She had an electric guitar and a small rhythm section: bass, drums. Within five minutes, I was transfixed: I had been expecting a local stalwart, and here instead was the second coming of PJ Harvey, just arrived in Jersey to play a private gig for 30 people. The music left the garage, headed out into vast spaces. The room appeared emptier but wasn’t, really; the sound pulsed, flowed, filled every space it could find, mocked everyone who had left early. Things didn’t feel so linear anymore: was it the 15th inning now? The 16th?

In an instant, the game comes back in sharp focus. Brandon Belt, up for the Giants, starts his swing — smooth, controlled, deliberate — and the other players on the field fade away. Somehow the ball is on a tee, and then it’s headed for the upper deck in right field, a line that turns into a parabola, gravity’s rainbow at the ballpark. 2-1 Giants. Suddenly we are back on the clock, starting to count down: midnight approaching, three outs left for the Nats. The visitors celebrate, wearily but defiantly, in their dugout. This game has made everyone old.

We head to the bottom of the inning, the Nats’ last ups. Turns out it is the 18th: we have played nine innings and then nine more, an impromptu doubleheader. Petit, who has carried a starter’s workload (six innings) after all in this unscheduled nightcap, is out of the game, rookie Hunter Strickland in to pitch for the Giants. I saw Strickland give up two towering homers to the Nats the day before, so I am more than a little terrified.

Strickland gets one out, then faces Nat leadoff hitter Denard Span, a .300 hitter up for the eighth time. Two quick strikes, then three balls. Now one foul ball after another: straight down, off to the side. The count is already full, but the at bat has infinite capacity, getting fuller still with every pitch. Karyn is singing about ghosts leaving. The music swirls, builds. Song and at bat go on, pitcher and batter take their time, another ball is fouled off, jagged notes twist in the air. The suspense, on stage and on TV, is killing me. At that moment, hearing the music, seeing the game, I realize I’m so tense not just because I don’t know what will happen, but also because I don’t know when. There’s so much suspense because time is suspended. Suspense, suspended, pend, meaning hang. Time hangs, and everything is uncertain.

Eventually the clock starts back up again, as it must. Span hits an ordinary grounder to first base, the second out of the inning. Karyn pivots into the Ramones’ “I Just Wanna Have Something to Do,” dedicates it to Thee Volatiles because it is straight ahead punk rock, forward momentum again. At some point midnight comes. One more song, one more out (a fly ball to right field), and it’s over, in Montclair, NJ and in Washington, DC. Sometimes you don’t know if you can explain what you’ve just seen and heard, but you know you have to try.

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