Cincy: Natalie, Red

Natalie studied her reflection in the full-length bathroom mirror and frowned.

Well, they were right.

Deep down, she had known it for some time herself, without ever consciously acknowledging it. For more than a month, never thinking about it, she had been dressing like a schoolmarm. Then, last week, during the most oppressive heat wave of the summer, she had turned down more than one invitation to go cool off at the pool. She had spent quite a bit of money to get this striking new bikini at the start of the summer, and she still had never worn it in public.

Natalie regarded the image in the mirror and shook her head sadly. There was simply no denying it. Her friends were right.

She looked terrible.

Well, no—that wasn’t really right—she looked terrific. Her long silky hair shimmered in sunlight; her dark eyes glinted, and sparkled when she smiled; her smile dazzled everyone fortunate enough to see it—she knew this. The bikini—the one the saleslady had warned her wouldn’t look good on anyone without a supermodel’s body—looked as if it had been custom-made for Natalie’s trim, fit figure.

And yet—she didn’t want anyone to see her like this. So pale—deathly pale, astonishingly pale for this late in the summer.

Her pallor was understandable, of course. She had never tanned easily, and this year she had been busy with class work, with her job, and with countless other obligations. On those rare moments when she had some time available to step out onto the little sun deck she and her housemates had set up out on the roof, the weather had been rainy or cold, or else her housemate Jeff had been hovering about, much too near, and much too attentive to Natalie’s every move.

Today would be different. The weather was perfect—sunny and hot, with low humidity and a pleasant breeze from the north. Jeff was out of town for the entire weekend, visiting an old high-school friend who lived many miles away, somewhere north of Columbus. Natalie’s female housemate, Jamie, had gone to the baseball game with several of her sorority sisters and some fraternity guys. As she left, Jamie had told Natalie not to expect her to return to the house tonight. Natalie had the place to herself.

The entire neighborhood seemed oddly deserted. The street was jammed with parked cars—people who didn’t want to pay for parking at the stadium. This happened whenever the Reds had a sold-out game; it was one of the disadvantages of living so close to the stadium.

There was not a living soul to be seen on the street. It appeared that all the neighbors had either gone to the game, or had holed up indoors to watch it on television. The start of inter-league baseball had exposed—what a surprise—a fierce cross-state rivalry between Cincinnati and Cleveland. It certainly sold a lot of tickets.

Natalie wasn’t worried about the neighbors. The way the little rooftop sun deck had been set up, she would have complete privacy. No one would be able to see her from the street or the neighboring buildings. The only vantage point with a real view of the sun deck would be from a passing plane.

As if to underscore that point, a small single-engine plane droned high overhead just as Natalie stepped out onto the little sun deck. She watched the plane move slowly across the bright sky.

Natalie wasn’t worried about being seen from a plane, either. She and Jamie had worked it out when they first set up the sun deck. From the altitude that most planes flew over the city, a sunbathing woman would look like little more than a tiny pink ant. An airborne voyeur would need awfully sharp eyes just to notice her. With binoculars, they might see a little more, but life was too short to worry about things like that. It was difficult to imagine any man could be that desperate for a peek at a pretty young woman. If anyone actually was that desperate, Natalie would not deny him that small, sad satisfaction.

Natalie set down her things, and rolled out the large beach blanket. She reached behind her neck and loosened one of the knots that fastened her bikini top. There was no sense wasting this splendid isolation by getting anything less than an all-over tan. She reached behind her back to release the other knot, and froze.

A small single-engine airplane was approaching, flying very slowly, and unusually low—much lower than most of the planes that criss-crossed the city.

Had someone seen her and come back for a closer look?

It was ridiculous on the face of it. Pilots have to file a flight plan. They can’t just take off on a whim, endangering public safety, to buzz some babe sunbathing on her roof. Can they? Natalie clutched her bikini top to her chest and anxiously watched the slow-moving plane approach.

The plane flew nearer and nearer, and Natalie’s heart beat faster. And then, about a quarter mile from Natalie’s house, the plane banked very slightly to the left, and started a very slow, very wide turn. She was puzzled when she noticed another plane approaching on almost the same course—very slow, very low.

Then she saw the sign. She had to read it backwards. It said “AAMCO TRANSMISSION.” Of course. She had seen this before. Sometimes when there was a sell-out game, these planes would fly long lazy circuits around the stadium, towing huge advertising banners, vying for the attention of the captive audience of almost 53,000.

Natalie felt silly for worrying, but she kept the bikini top pressed against her chest as she watched the planes droning slowly by, towing the signs. Two other advertising planes joined the slow procession around the stadium.

Natalie was trying to assess just how clearly the pilots would be able to see her if they happened to look this way. Slowly she relaxed. Although they were flying low, they were much higher than the tallest skyscrapers. They were flying on a path that never brought them closer than a quarter mile from Natalie’s house. And they were undoubtedly plenty busy, flying in fairly close formation, and towing signs that would make them acutely aware of every little unexpected gust of wind.

Feeling relieved, Natalie once more reached behind her back. She tugged on the string, and put her bikini top aside, at the edge of the blanket. She watched one of the planes drone slowly by, and, feeling mischievous, she waved. The plane flew on. Natalie laughed. The pilots were much too busy to notice her.

With complete confidence, she pulled on the large knot at each hip, and her bikini bottom dropped to the floor of the sun deck. Natalie leaned over and put it with the top half of the swimsuit. She did a playful little bump and grind for the pilots. They didn’t know what they were missing, Natalie thought, giggling.

She stretched out on the blanket, lying on her stomach. She reached for her little travel alarm clock, and set the alarm on it—she didn’t want to doze off and get burned. She had already coated herself generously with a strong sunscreen, but with her skin so pale, it would still be easy enough to get a bad burn.

She closed her eyes, breathed a contented sigh, and concentrated on the familiar sounds of a summer afternoon.

She heard a jumbled din from the distance, and she smiled. She couldn’t pick out any of the notes, but she knew that they were playing the national anthem over the PA system down at Cinergy Field. From here, the sound was badly distorted by distance, and echoes and reverberations. Natalie and her housemates had often sat up here on a fine summer evening, listening to the chirp of the crickets and the dim mysterious sounds from the ball park.

The anthem finished, and she heard the roar of the crowd, much like the sound of the surf breaking on a sandy shore. With a little bit of context, it was surprising how much she could tell from the mysterious and indistinct sounds echoing from the ballpark. Natalie could always recognize the top and bottom of each inning from the long lulls; she could tell which team was at bat by the volume of the cheers as each player was announced. And this year, she could always tell when Ken Griffey, Cincinnati’s new star player, came to the plate. The crowd always greeted him with a long, loud round of applause.

Natalie listened as the pre-game rigmarole was got out of the way, and the first hitter came up to bat. For a moment, she considered going inside and getting a transistor radio, so she could listen to the game, but by now she was feeling very comfortable and relaxed, with the summer sun beating down on her back. She contented herself with the mysterious sounds from the ball park, and let her imagination fill in the details. It sounded as if Cleveland’s batters were retired in order during the top of the first inning—she heard three batters announced, three little waves of applause as the Reds somehow got each one out, and then the long, boring silence when the teams changed sides and the television networks ran their endless ads. Natalie yawned. Instead of listening to commercials, she could listen to the birds, and to the wind sighing through the trees. She wondered dreamily how Jamie was enjoying the game.

“BEER!” the vendor roared. Jamie winced and covered her ears. The man was standing in the aisle right next to her—surely he didn’t need to yell so loud?

Jamie couldn’t believe her good fortune. She had never had such good seats—in the blue section, right behind the Cincinnati dugout. She had an excellent view of the entire field—a stark contrast to many other areas of the stadium, where spectators could follow the game better by ignoring the action on the field, and watching the video on the giant Diamondtron scoreboard, instead.

As the innings passed, the game itself wasn’t much to see. Each player stepped up to the plate, and each one either hit a popup or blooped an infield grounder. At the middle of the third inning, there hadn’t yet been a single base runner for either team. But Jamie didn’t mind.

She and her companions had arrived early. Everyone had been delighted by the quality of their seats, but they were frankly astonished when Ken Griffey actually stopped to autograph their programs. Griffey seemed to set an example for the other players, and Jamie had collected almost a dozen signatures before the game even started. Some of the players looked up at Jamie and her companions when they returned to the dugout in the middle of each inning. One or two of the players would smile, or give a little wave. Jamie smiled and blushed at the thought that the players were actually flirting with her.

The noise was totally unexpected, coming as it did in the doldrums in the middle of an inning. A roar grew from the throats of over 50,000 people packed into the stadium, until the building itself seemed to shake. Jamie felt confused and frightened, and clutched tightly at her program. The players and coaches came out of the dugout, and looked around in puzzlement. Jamie could only think about the video she had seen of the earthquake before game 3 of the 1989 World Series.

Barry Larkin, the Cincinnati shortstop, seemed to be the first to see the cause of the commotion. He laughed, and pointed it out to Ken Griffey. Jamie followed their gaze up to the huge Diamondtron scoreboard.

“Oh, my God!” Jamie gasped.

Natalie, too, was trying to imagine what was causing the unexpected roar rising from the stadium. She became aware of the drone of an aircraft engine. There was something odd about the sound—it was low and throaty—and it suddenly occurred to Natalie that one of the advertising planes might have developed engine trouble, while the horrified crowd in the stadium watched.

She leapt to her feet and scanned the horizon near the stadium. She could see all the planes, still slowly circling the stadium, towing their signs. None of them appeared to be in trouble. As she watched, the sound of the crowd grew louder still.

It was the deep rumble of the engine that made Natalie look up. She felt her heart leap into her throat.

There, astonishingly near, was the Goodyear blimp.

She could see faces pressed against the windows of the giant airship’s gondola. And she could see the television camera mounted under the gondola, and pointing directly at her.

It took a few seconds for Natalie to get over the shock. Then she laughed, and shouted, “You dirty old men!” up at the blimp overhead. The network had cut away for commercials, and this pilot and camera crew had nothing better to do than to use their frightfully expensive equipment to scope out babes. It was hilarious. Natalie, quite frankly, was a little flattered by their attention. She waved at the camera, and repeated the little bump and grind she had performed for the inattentive airplane pilots earlier in the day.

Natalie had forgotten about the unexplained roar from the crowd at the stadium, but the noise grew still louder, until Natalie interrupted her little dance for the men in the blimp, and stared, puzzled, toward the ball park. This was frightening.

She looked up at one of the men’s faces in the gondola window. Did he know what was happening at the stadium? She pointed toward the stadium, and indicated her confusion and concern with a broad shrug.

The man smiled. With equally broad gestures, he jabbed his finger toward Natalie several times. He mouthed the word, “You.”

Natalie’s face turned an astonishingly bright shade of red.

Somewhere north of Columbus, Jeff’s old high school friend was still bragging about his newly installed TV satellite dish.

“It can pick up some of the raw network feeds from remote sites—they call it the ‘wild feed,’” he said. “And that’s cool because there are, like, no commercials. Plus, sometimes you can see the anchor dudes pickin’ their noses and stuff.”

Jeff sat on the couch, staring wide-eyed at the television screen, his jaw gaping. “Man,” Jeff choked, “I am sooo glad you’re taping this!”