Basic Math


Clyde Barnes, alone, pondering basic math. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Clyde Barnes, alone, pondering basic math. (Monte Dutton sketch)

             Here’s the fourth episode in my short story. The first three were, in order, “The Feeling Bottoms Out,” “The Mercy Killing,” and “Turn It Up.”

When Sheila Timlin got off, she and Clyde Barns retired to a booth to make plans for the evening. They had scarcely begun reviewing the options when their waitress informed Clyde that he had a phone call.

“Who in the hell knows I’m here?” Clyde wondered aloud. “I’ll be right back.”

It was Clyde’s son, Clyde Westbrook Barns, Jr., whom he had always called Sonny while his former wife insisted on West. No one else used the “t” at the end, but Wes had won out among the boy’s friends. He was a junior at a college in the mountains of western North Carolina. He had also recently turned twenty-one.

By Monte Dutton
By Monte Dutton

“How you doing, Sonny? You must be learning a lot at college, or else you’d never have been able to find me.”

“I called the office,” the boy said. “I sort of got the silent treatment, then whoever it was answered passed me along to somebody else, and all he’d say is that he wouldn’t be surprised if you were spending the afternoon at Henny’s. What’s going on, Dad?”

“Ah, well, uh, I haven’t told much of anybody yet, but my job got eliminated.”

“Shit. As of when?”

“As of about quarter after eleven.”

“And you didn’t have any warning?”

“No more than anybody in my business gets these days,” Clyde said.

“What you gonna do?”

“Well, the only part of my plan that’s in operation as of this moment is I’m getting slightly drunk as a means of thinking it through.”

“That always works.”

“Yeah. What about you?”

“Well, I’m in town, and me and you haven’t got together in quite a while, and, you know how you always say the best place on earth to have a conversation is a baseball game?”


“I thought maybe we could meet at the Crawlers game tonight.”

That put a crimp in Clyde’s plans, but he took a deep breath and said, “We could do that.”

“Good. I’ll try to get there by the first pitch, but I’ve got a few errands to run between now and then.”

“I’ll leave you a ticket at ‘will call.’ Anybody coming with you?”

“No. I just thought we could talk and watch the ballgame, just like the old days,” Sonny said.

“Ah’ight. I can’t wait to see you, son. First time I seen you since you turned twenty-one.”

“I’ll buy you a beer, Pop.”

“Nah, on me, son. I might not be working steady, but I still got a little cash money.”

He walked back to the booth.

“I’m sorry, honey. That was my son. I used to have one of them marriages you hear people talking about.”

“I got a kid, too,” Sheila said. “I just ain’t never had no daddy for her. He splits time between me and Mama, depending on when I’m working.”

“Maybe we can get them together,” Clyde said.

“I doubt that,” Sheila said. “Darla is five.”

“Yeah. Sonny’s twenty-one, junior at Pisgah State. I ain’t seen him since Christmas. He just wanted to check on me, I reckon.”

“I been thinking about what I’d like to do,” Sheila said. “Why don’t you surprise me?”

“Okay,” Clyde said.

Clyde backed off on the beer, which was easy to regulate, and he wasn’t in too bad a shape when he followed Sheila to her apartment. He told her to dress real casually.

“What? We going to a rodeo?” she asked.

“Nah. Just a baseball game.”


“Sheila, my boy wants me to meet him at the Crawlers game. It’s kind of a tradition. I’ve always said the best place in the world to relax and talk was at minor-league ballgame. I’m sorry as I can be, but when my boy says he wants to talk to me, that pretty much means I gotta do it. It’ll be fun, honest. Food’s pretty good. Beer’s cold. Tuesday night. Won’t be no crowd. We’ll have some privacy, such as it is, and I ain’t been real forthcoming about what happened earlier today.

“I got laid off, Sheila. After twenty years, my job got eliminated. Newspaper bidness is in bad shape, so it ain’t a surprise in the long run. Half my friends had the ax come down before mine did, but there wasn’t no out-and-out warning, and it shook me how they wudn’t no leeway. They told me today that my last day was today, and I just took the liberty of making the last minute that minute. Come with me. Please. As a favor. I need you, and I need to talk to my boy. When I walked out of that building for the last time, first thing I thought was how I needed a drink, and the second thing I thought, was, well, I’d sure love to see you.”

Sheila went to change clothes, leaving Clyde sitting on her couch, and she thought, well, just my luck. So much for a nice, rich daddy for Darla.


              Sonny Barns showed up in the bottom of the first while the Crawlers were going up and down in order, and he brought a couple draft beers with him. Clyde hugged him and introduced him to Sheila, who had barely sampled the beer Clyde had bought for her, and so another beer wasn’t needed at the moment. They slid down a seat and left the aisle for Sonny.

Clyde was fighting it. The damned numbness was wearing off. He found his eyes welling up because his mind conjured up all the times he’d spent less time with his son than he ought’ve. He thought it ironic that the small remarks he shared, mostly with the boy, were popularly known as “pleasantries.”

Wasn’t nothing pleasant about them. The way the day’s pin placements had been set, it was about par for the course.

Clyde was on the verge of making a spectacle of himself. He was about to turn into a blubbering mountain of Jell-O. He had to excuse himself and regain his composure. He announced that he had a little something to do, and he’d be right back, and it would give Sonny and Sheila a chance to get to know each other better.

“He’s a good man, my dad,” Sonny said. “He’s always worked hard. His job took him away from home a lot, but it wasn’t his fault my mama left him.”

“Yeah, I know,” Sheila replied. “He’s a damn good fellow.”

“I don’t suppose you got a cigarette?”

“Yeah,” Sheila said.

“Let’s sneak out and have one.”

On the concourse, an area was set aside for smokers on each side. Sheila and Sonny sat down on the third-base side and lit up.

“I feel sorry for your old man, Sonny.”

“Yeah, it’s got to be hard, after all these years, to have your job yanked out from under you. He tries to be tough, but if I know him, he’s trying to get his emotions in check. He doesn’t have much to say when he’s down. That’s one reason Mama leaving hurt him so bad. It’s funny that a man so good at turning thoughts into words can’t offer up much of a fight when his emotions get the best of him.”

“You didn’t know nothing about this, either.”

“Nope. Sure didn’t.”

“You were just passing through?”

“Spring break,” he said.

“So you ain’t seen him in a while, and you just thought you’d look him up?”

“Yep, pretty much. I needed to come to town, anyway.”

“See your mother?”

“Nah,” Sonny said. “She lives in Raleigh. She’s got a new family. I don’t do nothing much but aggravate her. She much prefers to talk to me on the phone, though she ain’t never said it.

“Sheila, can I say something that’s just between us?”


“I grew up here, and I got friends, you know. The reason I come home was to pick up some weed.”

“Well, I’ll be.”

“You want to get high?”

“Shit, yeah,” Sheila said.

Clyde returned to his seat composed for no good reason because his son and his potential lover were gone. When outs turned into innings, he began to suspect they weren’t coming back. He blamed himself, realizing he hadn’t exactly been good company. When someone walks by and asks, ‘how you doing?” what he or she wants to hear isn’t, “Well, I just lost my job,” or other news of woe.

It didn’t take Clyde long to realize that Sheila was bound to be more attracted to his boy than she was to him. He was fifty. She was thirty or thereabouts. Sonny was twenty-one.

Wasn’t that depressing? It was just basic math.

Clyde sat there, thinking, barely aware a game was going on. All he had to do to know the score was look at the scoreboard, but he didn’t even care enough to do that.

For the first time in his life, suicide occurred to Clyde. He did a little figuring in his head and concluded that he was worth more dead than alive. Of course, blowing his brains out would ruin that in the view of the insurance company. It was doable, though. Clyde took medication for high blood pressure, and sugar, and cholesterol. If he just stopped the medication and started drinking pretty regularly, he figured his head would explode in no time.

Then everything would be fine.

From out of nowhere and against all odds, someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was a good-looking woman, tall, healthy, and brunette.

“Mind if I sit down?” she asked.

“Course not.”

“I’m sure you don’t remember, but you once wrote a story about me, back when I was playing softball at State. It was a long time ago.”

“Oh, yeah.” He didn’t have the slightest memory.

“I heard in the press box – I’ve been the PR director for the ballclub for, well, this is my second year – but it’s my understanding that you lost your job today.”

“Yep,” Clyde said. “I’m a free man. Like Kristofferson wrote, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Well, thanks. Me, too.”

They talked a while. Clyde told her about the old days, back before the ballpark was even built, when the Crawlers played in the old VFW Field, and the Atlanta Braves’ player personnel director was none other than Hank Aaron. He had told about how Hank had often sat in the press box, and how he was a big Boston Celtics fan, and many were the nights when Hank had watched Celtics playoff games on TV with his back turned to the game going on below. He told about how Hank was absentminded, and he’d had the habit of calling the manager of the Crawlers, Joe Keefer, Larry, and the manager of the Triple-A club, Larry Margolis, Joe, and how the two of them had always known when Hank was calling because he was the only man on earth who couldn’t keep their names straight.

“Hank’s a great man,” Clyde said, “maybe the best hitter who ever lived. But he wasn’t the most energetic player-development man who ever lived. The Braves didn’t start getting better until they moved him elsewhere in the front office.”

“Gosh, there’s so many things you know. All those years covering the pros and colleges, Super Bowl, World Series, I could listen to you all night.”

Clyde’s spirits came around. He found the twinkles that had escaped his eyes.

“I don’t reckon you’d like to go have a beer after the game?” he asked.

              Thanks for reading my latest serial short story. Soon I’ll put it all together in one take for the benefit of those who haven’t been following along. I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to consider my books, fiction and non, that are available here:



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