By Tim Hayes
The living room, the neighborhood, the whole town had gone completely nuts.
Merv Rettenmund, left fielder for the Baltimore Orioles, had smacked a grounder to Jackie Hernandez, playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hernandez threw to Pirate first baseman Bob Robertson for the third and final out of the game – and our Buccos had won the 1971 World Series!
Steve Blass, having pitched his second complete game of the seven-game marathon, leaped into Robertson’s arms in jubilation, as 250 miles away, the entire city of Pittsburgh blew its stack. My house included. Mom ran out to the back alley to honk the car horn, Dad kept throwing his fists in the air, and my kid brother Chipper and I just ran around the house and tiny back yard screaming for joy, our Pirate caps having flown off the back of our heads somewhere along the way in the raucous tumult.
Nicole, my older sister, though, was nowhere to be found. Nikki, 16 years of age then, had holed up in her room. Again. Probably writing another one of those drippy letters to her only-in-her-mind boyfriend. Chipper and I would sneak into her bedroom in the hour between when Nikki left for high school and when we needed to walk to grade school. Dad was long gone to work, and Mom stayed busy packing our lunches in the kitchen. Chipper and I would pull out Nikki’s letters from her “secret drawer,” read them out loud, and double over in tears, howling with laughter.
The object of her desire, David Torso – I know…what a name, right? – played tight end for the Phantoms, our high school football team. Two years older than Nikki, and a senior, David never seemed to pay much attention to our sister. But from the tone and volume of her letters to him – never sent, only saved – even the slightest, briefest, most inconsequential eye contact in the cafeteria or the hallway got blown into a sweeping possibility of romance, courtship, marriage, children, careers and homes and happily-ever-afters.
All that mush made Chipper and me want to puke. As soon as we could stop giggling, that is.
Nikki would tie her letters in a purple ribbon, so it required careful hand-eye coordination to get the bow tied just so. We couldn’t let on that her innermost adolescent longings had become fodder for a couple of knucklehead little brothers’ clandestine hysterics. We may have been a little crazy, but we weren’t completely stupid.
Well, we didn’t think we were that stupid. Until the World Series, anyway.
Our Buccos won that final game on a Sunday afternoon. The following morning, nursing a World Series celebratory hangover, Chipper and I waited again for Nikki to leave for school. We wanted to read the latest edition of her lonely-heart scrawlings to the divine-yet-unobtainable David Torso, which had kept her occupied while the rest of us whooped it up the day before.
Tugging on the purple ribbon, I sorted through the stack of gauzy stationery to find the freshest chunk of my sister’s heart, written in pink ink. The ribbon floated from my fingers into the drawer, making it handy for the tidying up later, I thought.
“Oh, David,” she wrote, in her clearest penmanship, “What a world we live in, where so many people can be so carried away by things that really have nothing to do with their lives, when all that really matters is two people’s souls connecting? I feel it, do you? What does a bunch of grown men in polyester costumes, chasing a little ball around a field, have to do with true happiness? True meaning? True living?”
“True meaning? True living?” Snort, pfftt, shoulders starting to shake as the laughs begin…
“I know you enjoy playing your sport, and I support you 1,000 percent, because it makes YOU happy, my dear David. But all I can hear right now are people all over our street making absolute fools of themselves because some ballplayers with our town’s name on their shirts won some insignificant game. Even my Mother is outside blowing the horn on the car! I don’t think I’ve ever been so embarrassed to be a part of this insane, irrelevant family.”
Whoa, hang on a second. “Some insignificant game?” We just won the World Series, you dumbbell! “This insane, irrelevant family?” Hey, that’s Mom she’s ripping here!
“Will there be a time when you and I can get away from this silly, drab, hopeless existence, and just be – the two of us, alone, free to build a world that brings us joy and peace and love? And children? I want to have many babies, many little Torsos to take care of forever. I want to be your partner, your safe place when storms come, the deepest part of your soul. These are the things I think of, especially on game days at school, when I’m wearing my JV cheerleader sweater and you’re a couple of tables over in the cafeteria wearing your Phantoms jersey. Number 83. I will cheer for you and for us until the day I die. And I promise I will never, ever blast the horn on our car and bring shame upon your good name.”
Okay, back to the comedy, thank God. “Many little Torsos to take care of forever!” Guffaw! Hoot-hoot! Haaa! “Never bring shame upon your good name!” Haw-haw! This Torso guy hadn’t exactly cornered the market on brains, according to the neighborhood kid-network gossip. Or on playing tight-end, either. Our sides started to hurt from this gold-plated hooey. She needs to write for Jackie Gleason – this mumbo-jumbo is absolutely hysterical!
Just then, Mom called up the stairs, telling us to get our rears in gear, eat breakfast, and get going to school. So I quickly reached into the drawer, tied up the bundle again, slid it into Nikki’s “hands-off” nightstand, as Chipper and I rumbled downstairs and set off for school.
Later that day, around mid-morning during math class, my head snapped straight up, my eyes wide in sudden terror. As beads of cold sweat formed across my brow, the realization swept over me like a thunderclap.
In my haste in responding to Mom’s get-going shouts that morning, I had used the wrong colored ribbon to tie up Nikki’s letters. The purple ribbon had floated into the drawer, but when I hurried to tie the packet back up, I hadn’t realized that more than one colored ribbon rested there.
The letters now were secured by a bright red ribbon.
Nikki would arrive home an hour before Chipper and me.
The jig was good and truly up.
We were pre-teen dead men walking.
When we bolted in the door after school, Mom and Nikki sat in the kitchen, talking. The copy of that morning’s newspaper, the front page screaming WE’RE THE CHAMPS, rested on the table. Shuffling past them, trying and undoubtedly coming up short in not looking guilty of some offense or other, I grabbed the folded-up paper on my way past, wanting to savor every article about the Pirates victory.
But that particular pleasure would have to wait. I had more important, much more pressing business to address first.
I told Chipper to stay at the top of the steps and let me know if he heard Nikki coming up. He insisted on whistling as his means of alerting me. Fine, whatever. Just be sure to let me know.
Tip-toeing into the lace-and-doily bedroom, I slowly opened Nikki’s nightstand. Lo and behold, she had not been in there yet, being corralled by Mom to help her prepare dinner as soon as she came in the door after school. Whew! One hurdle down. The almost-revelatory red ribbon remained around the stack. I fished around for that purple one, removed the red, and retied the letters properly in purple – just as a strange wheezing, whooshing noise came from the hallway.
Chipper trying to whistle and failing spectacularly. Nikki had begun climbing the stairs. Dead Duck City for me!
My brain simultaneously and astoundingly both locking up and coming to my rescue, I shoved the entire packet of her letters into the newspaper I’d swiped from the kitchen and made it out of her room and into the hallway before she could tell I’d been in there.
“What? Are you trying to be like Dad? Reading the newspaper in the bathroom? Nice look, Dweeb,” she mockingly said as we passed each other.
Uh-huh, I thought to myself. Who’s the Dweeb now?
Fear and dread filled the next few days, waiting for the shoe to drop. I knew Nikki must have discovered that her letters had gone missing, but she never said a word. Never hurled an accusation. Never let on in any way that anything untoward had happened. My only guess is that she would have been mortified to have those letters revealed and read out loud, so she just decided that having them vanish silently represented a better, safer option.
One morning later that week I tried to sneak the packet back into her nightstand, but she had locked the drawer for the first time, the rat. So the letters went back into the WE’RE THE CHAMPS newspaper, hidden first in my closet, then in a box in the garage months later as part of a top-to-bottom house cleaning instigated by Mom. By the time the newspaper and its secret cargo landed in the garage, I frankly had forgotten about the whole thing.
And so, I assumed, had Nikki…
Years went by. Nikki eventually left for college, as did Chipper and I. She majored in accounting and landed a job back here at a place she liked and one where she stayed for the next 40-plus years. Her taste in men got progressively worse, though, going through two marriages and two divorces by age 32, and going again by her maiden name. By that time, our folks had gotten older, of course. Living so close, with no husband and no children, Nikki became our parents’ ad hoc caretaker.
A few years ago, as Nikki drove them to a doctor’s appointment, a tractor-trailer crossed the double yellow line and hit them head-on. We lost Mom and Dad that afternoon. For all intents and purposes, we lost much of Nikki too, as she suffered severe head injuries and needed intensive rehabilitation to regain some semblance of functionality.
I asked my boss for a transfer back here from the sales office in DC where I’d been working, to watch over Nikki and serve as her health care advocate. My ex-wife and our daughter are here, so that works out well for me. Chipper – now known by his real name, Charles R., Jr. – lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their six kids, and is pretty much planted there permanently as an attorney for a big movie studio.
Nikki, though, lives in a personal-care facility. It’s very nice. She has what we call her “apartment,” a small living room, bedroom, kitchen (no stove or oven), and bathroom. Buttons and grab-bars on all the walls in case of emergency. Regular daily visits from staff and technicians to put her through her paces, regaining confidence in walking, talking, all the things you otherwise would never give two thoughts.
A call came the other day from Nikki’s place, telling me they had become concerned. She had ceased speaking. Progress continued just fine in all other phases of her rehab, but she hadn’t said a word in nearly a week. My visits became more frequent, as I tried to draw her into conversation, calling up stories about the old neighborhood, where we went to grade school, the nuns, even high school. She still wasn’t talking, but I thought I saw a tear or two along the way.
Our old house still hadn’t been properly disposed of after Mom and Dad passed, so that became another obligation for me to coordinate. They had accumulated an enormous amount of stuff – most of it junk to be thrown out, but some things me and my siblings would want to keep. The rest went into the front driveway one overcast Saturday morning for a garage sale.
I’d have given most of the stuff away, but people are funny. They feel better somehow if they pay for something they want, even if the price is completely trivial. My intent wasn’t to make money anyway, I just wanted rid of this stuff as quickly as possible.
About 100 people traipsed through the merchandise that weekend, and most of it sold. Some of what had been hiding in boxes and plastic bins, I couldn’t even tell you. If you wanted that box, take it and whatever’s inside – that summed up my attitude.
Two weeks later, my phone rang. Nikki’s facility on the line, again.
“We have good news,” said the head technician, “your sister is speaking again. In fact, we can’t seem to get her to slow down.”
“Wow, what happened? Why did she suddenly pipe up again, do you think?”
“Well, as close as we can guess, based on her non-stop monologue, a fellow named Torko or Tarsus –“
“Yes, that’s it, Torso! He called Nikki out of the blue the other day. He told her that he found some letters of hers from years ago, written to him, and hidden in an old newspaper he bought at a garage sale. He tracked her down and found her name here. Can you believe that? Honestly, she hasn’t stopped talking since! In fact, he’s called us to arrange a visit in a couple of days.”
David, old Phantom Number 83, had never married. He came to visit with Nikki and brought her letters, still wrapped in ribbon, now a faded purple. He started to read them out loud to her, but she reached over, touched his arm, brought the letters to herself and started reading them to him – from the beginning, every one, and with all of the same feelings she had when she wrote them.
When I called Chipper and told him all this, he at first scoffed. He thought I was kidding. When I assured him it was no joke, he said he’d call me back and hung up.
Six months later, we all gathered at the old church we attended as kids and welcomed the newlyweds, David and Nikki Torso. Her life’s love at last by her side, Nikki recovered fully in every way a person can, physically, spiritually, emotionally.
And, thanks to Chipper’s connections, their story is soon to be a major motion picture.
All thanks to some pressure-cooker quick thinking a half-century ago, aided immeasurably by the local paper’s coverage of the Buccos’ big World Series win. I may just run outside, blast the car horn, and celebrate all over again.
Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes