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FICTION

Burning Gorman Thomas
By Scott Winkler

I remember sitting at my desk, shuffling through my Milwaukee Brewers baseball cards as Mrs. Konen endlessly diagramed prepositional phrases at the board. Her chalk scratched out lines and arrows in counterpoint to her nasal voice, and the sound of someone's lawnmower drifted through the open window along with an unusually warm October breeze. I scanned Charlie Moore's career RBI totals and speculated about how he'd perform against Bob Forsch when the World Series opened that night in St. Louis, then made sure I'd tucked his card back into its place in the deck—eighth from the front, same as his spot in the batting order.

Not even Kim Stoltz, who sat in the desk ahead of me, and her honey-blond hair could distract me. The Brewers—my team—were in the World Series. They'd taken the American League East from the Orioles on the last weekend of the regular season. They'd been the first team ever to win the American League Championship Series after dropping the first two games. Robin Yount had put up MVP numbers. Pete Vuckovich had led the American League in wins. Cecil Cooper had carried himself with quiet dignity as he posted hitting totals that would have made him a superstar on either coast. And my hero, Gorman Thomas, had taken the American League home run crown for the second time, sending thirty-nine balls screaming over the fences of ballparks from Boston to Anaheim.

I had listened to games all that summer on the small Panasonic radio my parents had given me for Christmas. Some nights I sat at the kitchen table, my bare feet cooling on the old stone tile of the floor, and sipped Pepsi from sixteen-ounce glass bottles while Bob Uecker and Pat Hughes broadcast their play-by-play. On these nights, I sketched out scoresheets and recorded the storyline of the game in a shorthand of squares and squiggles, numbers and Ks, circles and lines and arrows. Other games I listened to from the porch jutting out from the second story of my family's farmhouse as a whippoorwill sang his three-syllable song from high in a black walnut tree.

For day games, I took the radio to Grandma Kohls's trailer house across the lane from our house at the end of a dead-end road. She'd lived there since my parents bought the farm from her and my grandfather in 1972 and moved into the old farmhouse. Her house was one of my favorite places to visit. I'd put the volume on low as she stuffed me with Brach's spongy orange circus peanuts or peanut butter and honey sandwiches and told me stories about my mom's childhood and how my aunt Margaret, the youngest of her three children, could have taken lessons from her older sister. The games typically didn't interest my grandma, so if she ran out of candy or sandwiches or stories, she'd sit in her old, brown-upholstered rocker and skim her Bible, quietly humming old Lutheran hymns.

When Mrs. Konen's voice and chalk stopped, I was afraid she'd called on me to identify the object of a preposition. But she hadn't. I followed her eyes to the door of the classroom. The last person in the world I expected to see was standing there—my dad. At first, I felt that "heart-in-the-throat" sensation—I feared that Shelly Woosnen had made good on her threat of telling the principal that I had snapped her bra strap during noon hour earlier in the week. Then I noticed my dad was still wearing his barn clothes, and I felt embarrassed—I hoped that he'd scraped the wedge of manure from his boots before coming into the school. He looked uncomfortable, shifting his weight from foot to foot, but our eyes locked as he drew down the corners of his mouth and motioned for me. I got out of my desk and slipped a rubber band over the worn edges of my carefully ordered cards before putting them into my pocket and stepping into the hallway.

Dad guided me away from the open doorway before speaking. "Your grandma—" He swallowed hard. "Your grandma is in the hospital."

I grew dizzy, and for an instant, the fluorescent hallway lights seemed to flicker.

"She was shopping with your mom in Shawano when she collapsed. The doctor said it was a stroke." We walked to the parking lot and climbed into the old pickup truck. As we drove home, my dad said we'd do the evening chores and milking early, then go to the hospital. He tried to explain, as best he could, what a stroke was. I imagined blood flowing along the lumps and curves of the brain, invading, pooling, coagulating. I pictured a brilliant young doctor deftly operating, stanching the flow, cleaning up the mess, repairing the damage.

My grandma being in the hospital didn't make sense, though. I'd had a hard time keeping up with her when she took me flower picking with her in the hardwoods that summer. Just a few weeks earlier, she'd hiked two miles into the cedar swamp to pick the last of the year's wild blackberries. She could spend hours weeding her vegetable garden under an August sun. I felt confused and numb sitting there in the pickup truck—the same feeling I would have several days later when I tried to make sense of a strikeout while posthumous bombshells exploded around me.

 

All through chores and milking, my head swam. My dad and I spoke little. At one point, as I dipped a cow's teats with the orange-purple iodine solution, I imagined my grandma wearing a Brewers road uniform and being carried off a baseball field on a stretcher. I was sitting in the first row of the upper deck, watching the scene from the narrow view beneath the top safety rail. Ballpark sounds and ballpark smells, jaunty pipe organ tunes and the scent of grilling hot dogs, swirled around me. The public-address announcer, his amplified voice echoing off the concrete and steel and sounding like God, announced: "Elsie Kohls has now left the game. Kohls has left the game." In center field, Gorman Thomas stood with his glove hand on his hip, his meat hand stroking the thick mustache arching toward his jaw line.

I had passed out. When I awoke back in the barn, I was sitting on a bale of hay, my back to the calf pen across the aisle from the last half-dozen cows we'd been milking. Dad was holding my chin in one hand, gently shaking my shoulder with the other. Through the haze his voice grew louder each time he repeated my name, until it finally boomed over the roar of the motor that drove the vacuum pump of the pipeline milking system. "Albert! Are you okay?"

I told him I was and asked what had happened.

"When you stepped across the gutter, your foot caught in the chain of the barn cleaner and you fell." I looked down at the wet, white smear over the length of my jeans—cow urine and barn lime—and felt ridiculous. "Go in the house," he said. "Clean up. I'll finish out here."

 

I didn't know what to think when we reached the hospital room. I recognized my grandmother lying in the bed. Tubes trailed out of her mouth and snaked out of her arm. A machine beeped regularly, and something that looked like a rubber-coated accordion flexed and compressed with an almost violent puff of air. The smells of antiseptic and plastic washed over me. My mom sat by the bed, stroking my grandma's arm, then looked up, her eyes red. She stood, but when she tried to speak, nothing came out of her mouth. She hugged me and cried.

Until that point, no specific emotion had really registered—it all seemed like an unreal scene from the television movies my parents watched when they thought I was doing my homework at the kitchen table—but my mom's response triggered my reaction. My stomach flopped. Tears came in quick bursts, and a thick plug of mucus developed in my nose, forcing me to breathe through my mouth. My mom held me for a long time, until the tears ended and my mouth felt pasty, like something thick and sticky had dried on my tongue.

My parents told me to say something to my grandma—that she'd know I was there, that talking to her would help. They nudged me closer to the bed, then stepped back. When I looked at her, the queasy feeling came back and my breathing wasn't right. I put my hand on the rail of the hospital bed to steady myself. The chrome was cool beneath my palm. It seemed to settle me, and I began to breathe normally. I didn't know what to say, didn't see how she could know I was there, didn't know how anything I said would help.

So I gave her the abbreviated play-by-play of the portion of Game 1 of the Series I'd heard on the truck radio on the way to the hospital, my dad's attempt to give me something else to think about. At first, my tongue felt as if it belonged to someone else, but soon, the words came freely. My voice grew stronger. I went beyond the play-by-play. I told my grandma how the Brewers would sweep the Cardinals in four games, how Gorman Thomas would be named MVP of the World Series, how she'd better get out of the hospital soon, before the whole thing was over, because I wanted to watch the final game with her at her trailer house where I would make peanut butter and honey sandwiches we'd eat from the china her mother had brought to America from Germany. I would explain what an RBI was, what ERA meant, how a pitcher could make a fastball rise, and why a good curve turned a batter's knees to jelly. We'd watch as reporters interviewed players from the Brewers locker room and marvel at camera shots of fifty-four thousand screaming fans swarming the field at County Stadium. Gorman Thomas would circle the field, riding a Harley-Davidson around the warning track, and when he reached center field, he'd climb the fence and sprint up the bleachers to the gigantic beer mug where Bernie Brewer slid after every Brewers home run. He'd scale the mug, work his way up the slide to Bernie's chalet, and let out a war whoop as he waved an American flag in one hand, the American League pennant in the other. I didn't stop until my dad peeled my hands from the bed rail and pulled me away. I was wired—my hands quivered, and I could feel the muscles in my neck tense.

My dad led me down the hall, past the nurses' station to a lounge. There, he turned on the television to the broadcast of the game. The Brewers led 50. No lights were on in the room, and the glow of the television cast a bluish tint over the chairs and the magazines tossed on low tables.

He stayed with me for a half-inning, saying nothing, just watching the game and glancing at me when he thought I wouldn't notice. "You okay?" he asked.

"Yeah,"I said. "I'm better." I rubbed my hands down my thighs and sighed.

"I'm going back to the room, then—check on Mom and Grandma. I'll be back in a bit." I continued watching the game, and as the Brewers kept scoring, my spirits improved. Gorman Thomas went hitless, but that was okay—I just told myself he was saving his heroics for when the team really needed them.

My dad returned just before Mike Caldwell retired the final Cardinal hitter to complete his three-hit shutout. "There you go," he said. "Things are looking up." I couldn't help but smile as I touched the swell of the baseball cards in my pocket through the denim of my jeans. My dad suggested we return to my grandma's room. Without my parents' prompting, I walked to the bed and kissed her forehead. It smelled faintly of the perfume she put on too heavily each morning. I told her that I loved her and that I would see her tomorrow.

My mom stayed at the hospital as my dad took me home. We stopped at a McDonald's, where we each ate a Big Mac and an apple pie. We talked about the game. We talked about how Grandma would probably come home in a few days. We talked about Mrs. Konen and how my dad had had her as a teacher as well—how he and his friends had gotten in trouble for talking about her clothes. As we drove back toward home, a harvest moon hung bright in the sky. My stomach was full, my eyes grew heavy, and I went to sleep in the front seat of the truck.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2002 issue.

—EFQ

 

SCOTT WINKLER teaches American Literature at Green Bay West High School and will complete his M.A. in English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in December 2002. He still roots for the Brewers, and is the proud owner of a Doberman Pinscher named Kramer who loves watching baseball on television.

© 2002 Scott Winkler

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