“Thirteen” By: Tom Vollman

DSC03246

The night his dad died, Tyne Darling slept with Oscar Gamble under his pillow. He also kept his fingers crossed on both hands. He saw Jesus doing the same thing in a painting next to the principal’s office at Queen of Martyrs and asked Sister Edward Anita about it. She said that was how Jesus kept himself safe, which bothered Tyne in light of the crucifixion and Calvary.

But he tried not to think about that and kept his fingers tightly crossed anyway. Instead, he thought about the baseball card beneath his pillow–Oscar Gamble, safe at second amidst a cloud of dust–the Afro and the mutton chops. Instead of prayers, he recited the Big O’s stats. 1584 games played, 1195 total hits, 47 career stolen bases, 656 runs scored in 17 seasons. These numbers made him feel safe. He wanted to be Oscar Gamble. But then his mind drifted again. It drifted despite his best efforts and flew past his crossed Jesus fingers, beyond the flash that was Oscar Gamble on the base paths, and slammed head-on into thoughts of the car accident that his mom, Patricia, said killed his dad earlier that day.

Tyne didn’t cry. He barely breathed. He thought about their blue Buick wrecked on I-81 and his dad, Theodore, dead behind the wheel. He thought about his dad’s thick ties and crisp shirts–the ones with the colored pens clipped in the breast pocket. Tyne’s prayers were statistics–5’11’’, 165, .265 career average, 666 runs batted in, and 200 career home runs. His teal rosary–a First Communion gift from his grandmother–stayed put on his bed post. There were no Hail Marys, no Our Fathers, and no Glory Bes.

A few rooms away Patricia Darling laid awake, her face pressed sideways against fresh, white bedsheets. Tyne’s brother, Kyle, slept soundly in the room between them. Patricia’s eyes were wide open, but unfocussed in the dark. Her mind raced toward an image of her dead husband’s belt. She thought again and again about the worn spots and grooves made by the tarnished silver buckle. She thought about how that belt must have felt as it tightened around Theodore’s neck, a single, unruly tentacle. She thought about the cheap hotel with its sturdy pipes–high and exposed in the closet–strong enough to suspend her husband’s 240 pound frame. She wondered how long he’d hung there before someone found him and what he looked like when they did. She wondered if his green eyes were open or closed and if there was any blood anywhere. She wondered if she’d ever tell Tyne the truth about his dad. She didn’t know that Theodore looked at five different rooms at the Cortland Econo Lodge before he chose the one with the exposed pipes, or that he checked in on Tuesday, five hours after he’d left Queens.

Theodore Darling tied-up his belt on Thursday afternoon. He had told his wife he’d be home from his business in Buffalo that same evening. He never, of course, went to Buffalo. Buffalo didn’t have anything for him. Instead, he parked his blue Buick at the Econo Lodge in Cortland, New York Tuesday and there it stayed until the police towed it the following Saturday. He spent most of his first two days in Cortland in bed. He watched black and white movies on the small TV. His last day brought with it color and a run of White Christmas on one of the cable networks. The channel guide said that it would play three times in a row. He watched it through once, but he never saw the end of the second showing.
 

Theodore cried a lot on Tuesday and went to St. Mary’s up the street. He tried to make a confession, but the church was locked and the woman at the rectory told him that the pastor–their only priest–was visiting a neighboring parish and wouldn’t be back until Saturday afternoon.

“Are there any other churches in town?”

The woman shook her head and the tiny, red, ornament-shaped earrings she wore jingled. “Sadly, we’re the only one. The only Catholic one,” she added.

“Well,” Theodore said, “that’s just going to be too late, isn’t it?”

“Excuse me?” the woman replied. Her sharp grey eyes, wrapped in lines and wrinkles, were puzzled.

She was short and well into her fifties, ten to twelve years older than Tyne’s father. She wore a yellow sweater over a white turtle neck. The sweater was all the way unbuttoned and had a clutch of puppies embroidered on it. They toyed with the ribbon of a partially-unwrapped Christmas present. Her hair was a puff of perfect silver.

“Saturday’s too late if I need to see him today,” Theodore muttered. His voice dissolved, the rectory woman noticed, as he spoke. And he looked tired.

“I suppose,” she said and squinted a half smile. “But is there anything I can do for you?” A heavy flavor of concern leaked from her mouth.

Theodore was quiet for almost too long. He shifted his weight back and forth, back and forth, and then exhaled.

“I don’t think so.”

At that, he turned to leave. The rectory woman stared at his back as he pushed open the old wooden door that led to the church parking lot. A bell rang that was connected to the heavy brass closer. Her eyes dropped to his feet as he moved over the threshold. Theodore didn’t have any shoes on. His bare socks poked out from beneath worn navy blue slacks.

“Sir?” the rectory woman called. She didn’t move right away and the door shut fully to separate them. She pushed it open and leaned her head and shoulders out of the frame.

“Sir?”

She paused, and then repeated, “Sir?” this time with just a tinge of panic.

But Theodore didn’t stop. He walked on. Whether he heard her or not, he didn’t stop until he got back to the Econo Lodge. His socks were almost worn through by then, so he threw them in the trash bin under the sink. He turned on the shower but didn’t get in. It ran for almost an hour before he shut it off.

A reckless sun pushed its way through the tightly closed curtains Wednesday morning, replaced in the afternoon by its golder, stronger brother. Theodore ignored them both and didn’t wake until the evening spread its violet paste across the winter sky. He thought about his sons, Kyle and Tyne, and his wife Patricia. He made a list of the things he loved most about all three of them. Their smiles, the way Tyne’s hair curled out from underneath whatever cap he happened to wear, the way Patricia’s tongue tapped her front teeth whenever she spoke excitedly about anything, the way Kyle ran down their narrow upstairs hallway and slid across his bed every night, without fail. His list grew long and took up five sheets of the skinny hotel tablet paper. His hand shook and the pen he used was the one that the maid had left on the glass-topped desk before he arrived. It said Econo Lodge on it with a kind of red sun insignia. It wasn’t really blue, but it wasn’t quite black, either. When it wrote, the ball point scratched the paper and left a narrow furrow wherever the pen moved. The lamp on the desk held two lightbulbs, one of which was burnt out. When Theodore had remembered all he loved about them, he went into the bathroom, put the five sheets in the sink and doused them with water. When they’d almost turned to pulp, he put them in the toilet, one by one, and flushed them away.

He went back to the desk and picked up the room’s phone. With it loosely to his ear, he listened to the dial tone. After a few minutes the hotel’s desk clerk came on the line.

“May I help you?” she asked. Her accent was weighty, upstate.

“I don’t think so,” Theodore answered and hung up.

He lay down on the bed again and stared at the turned plaster ceiling. His eyes fell in and out of focus. The ceiling reminded him of a blizzard, but one that got frozen–completely–on the way down. Wednesday night passed quickly and Theodore didn’t get much sleep. The TV had been on since Tuesday, the channel carelessly switched sometimes, but mostly left alone.

Thursday morning came with wind and a touch of rain that paraded itself in light sheets against the hotel room’s large, single window. It was muffled by the still drawn curtains, but its presence punctuated the little sleep that Theodore did manage. By then, White Christmas had started its first run. After it was over, Theodore took a shower, polished his shoes and put on the suit he’d packed–a single-breasted, charcoal grey one.

“Why are you taking your suit?” Patricia had asked on Monday night when Theodore packed his only suitcase.

He folded the suit–still on its thick wooden hanger–completely into the too-small suitcase before he answered.

“I have a dinner on Wednesday.”

His eyes tore away from his wife’s and fell upon one of two windows in their bedroom. Traffic pushed itself quickly down the street in front of their house. Theodore cleared his throat and added, “With the northeast branch’s lead team.”

Patricia nodded and then disappeared into the bathroom. She left the door partially open while she washed her face and fiddled with cosmetics. The bright light that streamed from the bathroom left sharp patches of almost amber on the walls of the bedroom. It was a haphazard pattern.

Theodore stepped away from his still-open suitcase, turned on the bedroom lights, and moved closer to one of the windows. He pushed back the silky white drapes and looked out at Newtown Avenue. With the inside lights on–even as dim as they were–he couldn’t see much outside. His wife’s reflection took up most of the pane. He watched her while she flossed, her mouth open wide, neck jutted, as an invisible piece of dental tape worked its way between tooth after tooth after tooth.
 

Early Thursday afternoon, in room 402 of the Cortland Econo Lodge, Theodore Darling tightened up his tie–something he never did–and folded down the starched collar of his striped oxford shirt. He arranged the desk chair beneath the closet’s door jamb and threaded his belt over the water pipes. He was sure to catch both the hot and cold.

On the TV, there was a fake Florida and a song about the fact that the best things in life happened when one danced. Theodore pushed his head through the loop his belt made and kicked out the chair.

And now, in Queens, Patricia Darling shut her eyes, her cheeks streaked with silent tears. Tyne, two rooms away, opened his and carefully threaded a small flashlight from behind his headboard, through the loop of his rosary, and then clicked it on as he glanced at his mostly closed bedroom door. He reached under his pillow, grabbed Oscar Gamble and held him carefully in his thirteen year-old hands. The faint beam of light played on the shiny plastic case that held the card, so precious, with tiny screws at each corner. Tyne studied the image as he’d done hundreds of times before. He saw the Big O, helmet-less, presumably safe at second, wrapped in dust. He noticed the fielders–a shortstop and center–motionless, but slightly out of focus, the turf, worn, the color of a dirty pillowcase. The whole scene seemed suspended. Shadows were stuck halfway strewn across the field, longing to lengthen. Tyne thought it was Riverfront–the uniforms looked like the Reds, but it couldn’t be. The Reds were National and the Yankees were American. American never played National. As he puzzled about that a strange panic twisted over him, one that made him think about the fragile nature of today–of present tense–aware of the fact that when tomorrow gets here, yesterday disappears. The panic drew tight around his chest, strangled his stomach, and made it hard to breathe. His palms went clammy, then sweaty and his mouth ran dry. He crossed his legs, put the flashlight in his lap, and slid the Big O back beneath his pillow. He tried to think of his dad, but worried about the Buick and wondered what he and his mom and Kyle would drive. He wondered how they’d get groceries, how they go to church, and if they’d ever go back to Ohio–where his dad had grown-up–ever again.

It wasn’t long before the panic brought him to tears with its tight, merciless squeeze–the same unruly tentacle that was his father’s belt. Tyne tried to breathe deeply, but his sobs came rushed and messy. He patted his own head and repeated Oscar Gamble’s stats. But the numbers were no use–they just made him think again of the Buick–its license plate EFX 6861–its crumpled hood, broken headlights, dented fenders, cracked windshield, and blood, blood everywhere–a grizzly, terrifying scene that unfurled in one fell swoop across the frame of his imagination. He picked-up his flashlight and looked, once again, at Gamble. Cleveland, Tyne thought. It must be Cleveland. The Indians were in the American and their uniforms looked kind of like the Reds. Municipal Stadium was a lot like Riverfront, too. He’d seen pictures. And just like that, the tentacle loosened–the squid went out to sea–though the panic lingered. It wasn’t as bad, but it lingered. The Big O might have been safe at second, but Tyne Darling was alone at home.

%d bloggers like this: