The Inevitable Descent

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

Here’s the full short story previously posted in four segments. I hope you enjoy it.

1.THE FEELING BOTTOMS OUT

The first observation of Clyde Barns on his birthday was that his Facebook timeline was crammed. Some just cut and pasted “Happy birthday,” some took the time to add his name, some attached cartoons with rabbits dancing around or some such, and a few included a personal message.

Such as, “You’re fired,” or, as Ted Baxter once read it on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “You’re fried.”

Same difference.

The message came by that most personal of delivery methods, the text.

Please be at the office at 10:45, Clyde. Bob would like to meet with you. Its urgent.

Clyde replied:

IT’S, George. I can’t wait to see what extraordinary plans you have for me.

By Monte Dutton
By Monte Dutton

The word was around. More cuts. More layoffs. The Morning Messenger was well on its way to becoming The Morning Message. This morning’s message: You didn’t make it. You’re out. Called third strike. Them’s the breaks, kid. Don’t worry. We booked you a bus to Poughkeepsie.

And bring your keys to the building. They’re not yours anymore.

Clyde wondered if it would be short and sweet. Bob Cassaderne was the publisher. At least he rated an audience with the publisher. Everyone called him Bob Taciturn. Would Bob be genial and sympathetic, or would there be some reason for him to find fault in Clyde’s performance as a sports columnist? It probably depended on the severance package. Ever since the paper changed ownership, the severance packages had been declining. Cincinnati always was a skinflint town. Cassaderne was a survivor of the change, anxious to prove he could be as ruthless as the new bosses. Clyde never had liked him. In retrospect, perhaps he shouldn’t have made it quite so obvious.

Ah, fuck it.

Clyde didn’t let his emotions get the best of him. He’d known it was coming. He was surprised he had held on this long. It had been out there, hovering on the horizon like a nimbus cloud, lightning flickering, thunder rolling, poised for destruction. In a way, it was seductive. He could shed away all the bullshit, do what he wanted, write the novel, and manage to achieve, in the harsh solitude of independence, what he had never managed working for the man. And all the man’s stockholders. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, he wouldn’t need them. He’d put himself back to together again.

A tiny voice inside him kept laughing, though, and saying, Yeah, right. It was the same tiny voice inside every successful man, the one that knew he was a fraud, a bullshit artist, who, by the grace of God’s mysterious ways, had managed to convince the world that he could write, describe, analyze, and strip away the extraneous, so that it could find insight into the inexplicable decisions of grown men and women to play the games of little boys and girls. Somehow, he could make all this seem important, which was the greatest flaw of them all.

Clyde could walk out of that gigantic collection of cubicles, the one he had always avoided like the plague, and bring to bear all his mythic powers on … the open market! Perhaps it was the coffee’s rush that gave him these heady visions of grandeur. He had an hour to spare. Maybe he could quickly update the resume, print copies and staple them together, place them in his briefcase, and as soon as he received word of his free agency, he could leave right then, letting nearby environs know of his availability to help them, and not The Morning Messenger, increase their power and range.

That wasn’t what he was supposed to do, of course. It was his birthday. He was supposed to leave that office and celebrate. He was supposed to get drunk, and, since he was not currently involved with any woman, perhaps find one to share in the celebration of birth and free agency. Clyde definitely didn’t want to put up with any commiserating. He wanted to go to the office, get the word, avoid all possible personal interaction with grieving colleagues wondering, oh, by the way, if his departure might provide opportunities for them to advance.

Shit. Clyde’s gone. Nothing I can do about it. Nothing wrong with trying to make the best of it.

It was time to move on. He’d thought about it at least once a day since other sportswriters went from being his favorite people on earth to being his least favorite. There were a few exceptions. Most of them were out on the street where Clyde was about to be.

Damned if it didn't happen.  (Monte Dutton sketch)
Damned if it didn’t happen. (Monte Dutton sketch)

2. THE MERCY KILLING

Bob Cassaderne, The Morning Messenger’s publisher, didn’t actually get around to firing Clyde Barns. He had this convivial way of treating it as a foregone conclusion.

“Well, Clyde, we’ve all known this day was coming, and …”

Later, Clyde would wish he’d made him say it. Not “You’re fired.” Bluntness wasn’t allowed in the corporate lexicon, and truth was rare. At least, “Your position is being eliminated,” which would have been true. The Messenger, at the behest of its faceless corporate lord, wasn’t going it alone anymore. It would use the work of other colorful columnists, from other colorful places, though, as for that, The Messenger had been sharing Barns with other newspapers for years.

Cassaderne, undoubtedly relieved that Clyde hadn’t gone into some sort of irrational rant, excused himself to leave the meeting to a small man, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a steel-gray suit, with an open briefcase on the table and a file folder in his lap. This was a man who would have been from “Personnel” back when Clyde had joined the staff, and then he would have been primarily in charge of hiring, not firing. Now he was invariably involved in “relations” or “resources,” and they would be “human” or “corporate,” because, as a practical matter, the words meant the same thing.

His name was Kyle LeFlore. He was by nature suited to be an undertaker. Clyde was sure they were called something else now, too.

LeFlore explained patiently, using a collection of seemingly English words whose meanings didn’t seem to jive with anything Clyde had ever learned, that, while Talleyrand Communications LLC had purchased The Morning Messenger along with a dozen other “properties,” Clyde’s modest pension was still administered through the previous corporate lord. When Clyde asked him what the practical meaning of this was, LeFlore said, “Well, nothing, really,” and Clyde shortly thereafter gave up on the possibility that candor might be glimpsed from afar.

Clyde resolved to read the paperwork carefully, in the off chance that the legalese featured there could somehow be more enlightening. Then LeFlore passed him the folder, briefly explained how a man who had never been unemployed might apply for unemployment, and Clyde proceeded to sign and date on lots of lines highlighted in yellow.

He left LeFlore the keys to the building, his cell, and his credit card. LeFlore asked for his laptop, and Clyde said he’d love to help him, but the laptop was his. LeFlore frowned for the first time.

“No, Kyle, the laptop is mine because I bought it,” Clyde said. “I paid for it. I needed it for free-lance writing and books I’ve written, and I never used a laptop this paper gave me that I could type on without the keys falling off.

“I think they must use them to swat flies in the back.”

There wasn’t much in the newsroom for Clyde to pick up. He had done little work there, and what little he had done hadn’t been particularly good. He’d been on the road, mainly – the Masters, the Final Four, the Super Bowl, the World Series – and the office was a place where others eavesdropped on one’s phone calls, arbitrarily analyzed the conversation taking place on one end, and then filed those observations away to be used satirically once the columnist was gone. What a shame. So many had wanted his job, and now, after all that positioning and ass kissing, he was finally gone, and so was the job.

Damn it all. He’d gotten himself bitter. What was he supposed to be? He walked out the side door, carrying a bobblehead doll of Chipper Jones in his left hand and half a ream of paperwork in his backpack. When the door closed behind him, he resolved never to walk back in it again.

It still wasn’t noon. He wanted to be alone. He wanted to drink. Those three didn’t go together.

Meet Sheila Timlin, the friendly bartender at Henny's. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Meet Sheila Timlin, the friendly bartender at Henny’s. (Monte Dutton sketch)

 

3. TURN IT UP

Clyde Barns was no regular at Henny’s Farm and Tractor, which was a sports bar occupying what once had been a Massey Ferguson dealership. He just liked it. For twenty years, most of Clyde’s watering holes had been on the road. Away from the road, the stadium, the park, he mainly paid bills, mowed the lawn, and washed clothes. Losing a wife had left him with many duties he’d once taken for granted. It cut in on his drinking, which had been one of the reasons he’d gotten divorced in the first place.

He was going to have a lot more free time now. He might as well get used to it.

“Well, if this ain’t an honor,” Sheila Timlin said. “How the hell you been, Clyde?”

“I’ve been better, honey, but just seeing you makes me think this day might just turn around yet. Pull me a draft.”

“What’s your pleasure?”

“Pick me one out, Sheila. Something that’ll taste better as it goes along.”

“They all that way,” she said.

Sheila apparently didn’t know about the job killing going on at The Morning Messenger. Clyde was glad there was somebody. He didn’t want to talk about it. The confiscation of his iPhone was functional. No one knew how to get hold of him. He’d have to get himself a new one, but it could wait for a while.

They were practically alone. Henny’s didn’t do much of a lunchtime business anymore. Sheila was right good to look at. They were buddies, but Clyde hadn’t ever had the time to take it any further. She was a honky tonk angel, tough enough to take care of herself but sweet beneath the surface. He was liable to conclude that he loved her at some point. This was a day Clyde could use some love.

Sheila brought him a dark beer and a dozen wings.

“On the house,” she said when she sat the wings in front of him.

“Nah, it ain’t,” he said, folding a ten and handing it to her. “It just gives me a chance to give you some pure profit. Start me a tab on the beer. Henny around?”

“Nah. He left ‘bout an hour ago. He’s here ‘bout long enough to count his money. I doubt he’ll be back in ‘fore tomorry. Takes a decent crowd to get him to put on a show. He don’t turn on the charm for less than a couple dozen.”

“Him and the band still playing gigs?”

“Nah, not in a while. They all come in here on weekends and do an opening set when we got live music from outside. He’s right good at warming up a crowd.”

“Any reason I can’t buy you a beer?”

“I ain’t supposed to do it.”

“C’mon. When you get off?”

“Four o’clock.”

“Get drunk with me, Sheila. I need some company. Just have a couple ‘tween now and then. Get you in the mood. Hell, it’s Friday night.”s

“It’s Tuesday, Clyde.”

“I go write about ballgames on real Fridays, hon. My weekends are generally Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.”

“How about basketball games?”

“Fuck a basketball game,” Clyde said.

Clyde Westbrook Barns Jr., a.k.a., Sonny.  (Monte Dutton sketch)
Clyde Westbrook Barns Jr., a.k.a., Sonny. (Monte Dutton sketch)

 

 4. BASIC MATH

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.

“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?”

“Yep.”

“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.

Clyde took a deep breath. “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. She 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.”

“Huh?”

“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.

Her estimation of the newspaper business was greatly exaggerated.

 

Suh-wing and a miss!
Suh-wing and a miss!

              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 examples of when 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, neither?”

“Nope.”

“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?”

“Sure.”

“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.

Taking an extra base. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Taking an extra base. (Monte Dutton sketch)

 

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? Nope. 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. I hope you got some amusement out of what is mainly a melancholy tale. My non-fiction blogs are at www.montedutton.com. My books, fiction and non, are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

 

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