December 22 was Santa Claus Night at the Fort Zachary Memorial Coliseum. At halftime of the game between the Fort Zachary Rapids and the champion Portland Trail Blazers, Santa Claus and his helpers came and gave little vials of perfume to the ladies, after-shave lotion to the men and team pictures to all the children. The crowd was exuberant and the place was packed, which was important, because Sanford K. Parker, who owned the Rapids, had said that he didn't think Fort Zachary was properly "supporting" the team and he might have to move it to a more grateful city. He had in mind Miami or San Diego.
The game was exciting, too, close all the way. But then, midway of the third quarter, Taylor Townsend, "Double T," the superstar of the Rapids, took a cross-court pass from Alex Creel and cut diagonally toward the key. Double T got a half step on Bobby Gross, but the other Fort Zachary forward, Toby Larrabee, drifted into the lane, and in the process he brought his defender, Maurice Lucas, into Double T's path. It was all Double T could do to avoid crashing full force into the big Blazer forward. Instead, in one motion, he tried to pass the ball out to a guard and skip out of Lucas' way, but even so agile a player as Townsend could not pull off that maneuver. He grazed Lucas, tripped over Larrabee and fell awkwardly to the floor. Referee Richie Powers called traveling, which was charitable; it might well have been a charging foul. As a consequence. Powers was not disposed to banter with Double T when he heard him call, "Hey, Rich," from the floor.
"Come on," Powers said. "You know you walked."
"No, man. I'm hurt. Gimme time," Double T whined. He began to struggle to his feet, cradling his left wrist in his right hand, and the Coliseum fell fearfully silent. On the Rapids' bench, Coach Joe Mullaney and his trainer, Bevo D'Angelo, jumped up and ran to their fallen hero, while Spider Brown, the backup center, slammed a towel to the floor and moaned out loud, "There goes the season."
The Rapids had drafted well—they were competitive everywhere except in the pivot—but any chance they had for the playoffs, let alone for the championship, lay with the brilliant Double T, the young forward now approaching the height of his powers. His average hovered around 30 points a game, and he also led Fort Zachary in assists. At 6'6", he could handle the ball like a guard and outjump most centers. Because he had forgone his senior season at Kansas State to sign with the Rapids, he was only 23, but it was his third pro season and already he played like an old hand. He was captain of the Rapids in both name and spirit.
"What is it, Doubs?" Mullaney asked.
Double T just shook his head in pain, muttered a bad word and gave his arm to D'Angelo for inspection. He winced as the trainer touched it here and there and pulled at the fingers. "I comes right down on it off of Lucas," he said. "What'd I do, Bev?"
"I don't think you broke it, Doubs," D'Angelo said. "But it could be. Anyway, Joe, we gotta get it X-rayed."
Mullaney sighed. "O.K., you take him to St. Luke's," the coach said, and as D'Angelo led Double T off the court, the crowd—already anxiously on its feet—cheered sadly for their star. Of course, here and there, some of the fans groused that for the $500,000 a year Townsend was asking of the Rapids to renegotiate his contract, he should play 48 minutes a game, with broken arms and legs, too, if need be. Just two days before, Double T's Los Angeles agent, Eddie Razor, had announced that negotiations between his client and Parker had broken down. Razor called Parker "a cheapskate" for refusing to offer Townsend more than $400,000 a year, and he urged the owner to trade him immediately to the Knicks or the Lakers instead of forcing him to endure the purgatory of a full season in Fort Zachary.
D'Angelo helped Townsend dress, bundling the star up against the cold. The snow from last week's blizzard still lined the streets. It snowed a lot in Fort Zachary. It was not a fashionable place. There were not a lot of tourists or expense accounts to "support" the Rapids, there was only real paycheck cash-and-carry. It was a blue-collar town and a lot of fans were out of work.
This night it felt like even more snow. D'Angelo's car was under cover, but still it was so cold that Double T stamped his Italian boots against the floor mat and, with his good hand, drew his $8,000 fur coat tighter about him. It was only four blocks to St. Luke's Hospital; they made that before the car had even started to warm up.
Notwithstanding a full array of dimestore Christmas decorations, the emergency room was as grim as ever. There were some fold-out red bells, a couple of small, silver artificial trees, and a shiny, droopy streamer that said MERRY XMAS. But there were also a lot of people waiting in pain. It was only a Thursday night, but the holiday hijinks had already begun, and as Double T came into the room a swarm of walking wounded surrounded him. The doctors had been notified of his coming, however, and they quickly spirited him through the crowd, affording him emergency attention ahead of one poor fellow who was moaning horribly because he had been stabbed in the biceps with an ice pick. "Hey, Bev, man," Double T said, swatting off the adoring infirm humanity, "get me away from these suckers."
D'Angelo and some doctors formed a phalanx about Double T. Probably in the whole long history of Fort Zachary no single individual had ever been so well known. Senator Bruce Foley, the perennial Republican presidential aspirant in the '40s and '50s, had come from there, and so had Hollywood's Tag Holcomb (who grew up as Julius Weingarten in Fort Zack), but for national fame and local affection, no one could touch Double T. The franchise, Fort Zachary's only major league team, had been shifted from Cincinnati and was languishing in the cellar before Double T arrived and almost carried it to the ABA championship his rookie year. His drawing power alone had encouraged Sanford Parker to buy the team and the NBA to include Fort Zachary in the merger. Why, the Fort Zack Jaycees had voted Taylor Townsend its Young Man of the Year, and the mayor privately attributed his reelection to the fact that Double T and the Rapids had brought new pride and hope to his poor, struggling city.
The doctors rushed Double T into an examination room, shooing out an intern and the little girl he was treating, who had apparently swallowed rat poison. The team doctor arrived then, called from a dinner party. He examined the wrist and presided over the X rays. Then he slipped Double T's arm into a sling and told him to wait a few minutes in the emergency room until the X rays were ready.
"Hey, my man, I ain't goin' out there with all them sick turkeys jivin' me," Double T said, and so to give him some privacy, a resident took him out into the corridor and pointed to the far end. "Mr. Townsend," he said, "you see way down there on the left? That's the pediatric waiting room. Visiting hours are over, and anyway, this time of year, around Christmas, there's never many admissions to pediatrics. So you'll probably have the room to yourself."
"I'll come down and pick you up as soon as we get the X rays," D'Angelo said. Double T nodded and walked off down the hall. The pain was more acute now and it made him all the more aware of his surroundings. Two years before, after his rookie season, he had come to the same hospital for a simple heel operation and he had been in other hospitals at other times for minor ailments. Nobody enjoys hospitals, but athletes feel threatened by them in ways that the rest of us do not. To athletes, hospitals are not places where people are mended and healed, but places where careers are concluded and talents diminished. Every time an athlete goes into a hospital, he understands that a little bit of his talent will be left behind forever, like an appendix in a bottle. Enough trips to hospitals and an athlete will not be special any longer; he will be just like you and me.
And so, uneasy in that way, Double T walked down the corridor and ducked into the pediatric ward's visitors' room. A television set on a shelf was tuned to the Rapid-Trail Blazer game, and most of the musty old chairs and sofas had been shifted, ever so slightly, to afford a better view. Double T glanced about. At first he thought he was alone, but then in the back of the room he saw a pale little boy in a wheelchair. He wore a souvenir Rapid booster hat and an IV was attached to his arm. The first thing Double T noticed about him was the syrupy, clear liquid going drip, drip, drip down a tube into the boy's vein.
"Double T!" the little boy chirped when he recognized him. He could hardly believe his eyes.
"Hey," mumbled Double T, looking away. The boy was so skinny and white in his hospital gown it seemed as if you could almost see through him. He was probably just into his teens, but he appeared even younger. He coughed and gagged, and Double T turned away and watched the TV. Hospitals are bad enough, but sick people....
Did you get X-rayed?" the boy asked timidly. "Yeah," Double T mumbled, still not looking back. But this was so brusque and rude. Double T felt obliged to turn around and smile and add a token to the conversation. "I didn't know we had cable TV for home games," he said idly. The announcer gave the score: Portland on top by eight. "How much time left?" Double T asked.
"A little over two minutes," the boy said. Double T muttered in disgust and the Rapids called time out.
"Hey, my man, they got a soda machine here?" Double T asked. The boy directed him to a concession alcove in a corner. Double T bought a root beer, came back and slumped down into an easy chair in the middle of the room. Slowly, the little boy began to inch his wheelchair forward. It was not an easy task, for he also had to drag the IV along.
On the screen. Bill Walton stuffed over Spider Brown: Trail Blazers by 10. And, in a flash, Lionel Hollins intercepted the inbounds pass and made an easy layup. Twelve points and only a minute 38 left. "That do it," said Double T. "I'm gonna turn this sucker off."
The instant the set went off, Double T was sorry he had suggested it, for now that meant he had to deal with the kid personally. He sucked on his root beer and kind of shifted politely in the boy's direction. But then the boy coughed again and Double T arched back. "Hey, you ain't gonna gimme no cold, are you? You ain't gonna gimme no germs?"
"No, it's not contagious. I wouldn't do that to you...Doubs," he added, pleased that he had the chance to use the great player's nickname.
"You sick, huh?" Double T asked, and the kid nodded. "Well, don't worry, I ain't gonna be here long. The X rays will be here soon."
"Does it hurt...Doubs?"
"Well, I hope it's not broke," the boy said. "You're my favorite player. A week ago, when I was real sick, I asked if I could meet you. I hoped maybe you could come and visit me here. Didn't they ask you, Doubs?"
"Hey, man, I don't know. You know, that PR sucker ask me somethin' ever' day. Hey, Doubs, go see this dude, talk to this dude. You understand? And ain't nobody wants to pay for nothin'. You know? That's why I want to get me to New York or Ellay, man, where you can make some bread. Hey, little dude, they asks you to do something there, you gets properly remunerated for it. You understand?"
"I'd just hate you to leave the Rapids, Doubs. We need you. We never had anything like you here in Fort Zack."
Double T turned to face the boy. "Hey, man, it's like my agent Eddie Razor say—an athlete only got so many years. He got to score with them, you know? Now you take tonight. If I had fallen a little bit different, I might be done. You know? Hey, we only got so many good years to play."
"I know," the boy said. "I never had any good years."
Embarrassed, Double T dropped his head. He started to reach out and lay a hand on the kid's shoulder, but he let it fall instead on the arm of his chair. "I'm sorry, little dude," he said. "Hey, I'm sorry you be sick. But you be up and around soon. You watch."
The kid smiled bravely. He didn't reply and Double T didn't know what else to say, so he got up and glanced down the hall to see if Bevo was coming. But there was no one in the hall and he had to come back into the room. "I hope I'm not bothering you, Doubs," the boy said. "I know everybody bothers you."
"Hey, man, you don't bother me. You be my friend."
"Sure, little dude. What be your name?"
"Well, little Dickie dude, how be it with you if I bring you an autographed basketball tomorrow night?"
"Oh, Doubs, that would be the best Christmas present."
"No Christmas present. Just a present from me to you. I ain't into Christmas. I ain't behind Christmas, you know?"
"What do you mean, Doubs?"
"Christmas," Double T said, sneering. "That jive white Santa Claus tellin' he be bringin' presents to all good little boys and girls. Hey, little Dickie dude, when I be growin' up, don't matter how good I be, I ain't gettin' nothin' Christmas morning. Maybe my momma gimme a toy truck or some dollar-twenty-nine rubber ball. You know? Hey, when you be poor, Christmas is the baddest day."
"I'm sorry," Dickie said. "I never thought about that. I guess I've been lucky."
"You be home Christmas?"
"No," Dickie said, dropping his head.
"So hey," Double T cried, "that puts you on my team. See now, I won't be home for Christmas, either. We got to go to Cleveland Christmas Eve so's we can play the Cavaliers for television Christmas afternoon. Is that somethin'? Now you know, I ain't married, I ain't got no children, but all the dudes on our team—hey, man, they can't even spend Christmas with their families. So you see, don't tell me about no Christmas spirit. What's the league care for my Christmas spirit if it can sell a few more tickets? Right?" He turned away. "Hey, you wanna soda, little Dickie dude?"
The boy nodded happily, and Double T went over and got two root beers out of the machine. He handed one to Dickie, and for an instant the little boy and the big man looked square at each other and smiled. It got Dickie's courage up. "Hey, Doubs," he said, "we're having a Christmas party here Christmas night. Could you come? I mean, after you get back from Cleveland?"
"Hey, man, I'd like to. I really would. But we gotta play Houston on the 27th, so we fly there from Cleveland."
"But tell me. You got any black kids in here?"
"Sure. About half the ward."
"Now, I tell you what I'd like to do, man," Double T said, smiling and stepping back to give himself room. "I'd like to come to your party dressed up like old Santa Claus. Hey, little Dickie dude, wouldn't that be some jive? These kids look up 'spectin' to see some fat old white Santa, and here be this giant nigger Santa Claus, goin' ho-ho-ho, all you little niggers. That be somethin', huh?" And Double T slapped his thigh with his good hand and laughed again. "Ho-ho-ho.... You think the doctors let me do that?"
"Sure they would, Doubs," Dickie said, and he was laughing so hard that it triggered more coughs.
This time, Double T didn't back away. He just waited till the boy was through, and then he moved even closer to him. "Well, I tell you what," he said. "Next Christmas, you and me both gonna come back here. And I be Santa for all the children in the hospital. And you be my helper. You know—what d'ya call them tiny dudes who helps Santa?"
"Yeah, you be my elf, and we come back in here and we have ourselfs a Christmas. Ho-ho-ho."
Dickie waited till Double T was through ho-ho-hoing, and then very softly he said, "But you won't be here next Christmas."
"You know, you're leaving the Rapids."
"Oh yeah. I forgot. Next Christmas, I be in some big city that showcases me. So you and me has got to find some hospital in New York or Ellay, right? Hey, you can come stay at my new pad."
"I'd rather you stay in Fort Zack, Doubs," Dickie said. "Why do you have to leave here?"
Double T crumpled his empty root beer can. "You sound like the damn media," he snorted.
Dickie ducked his head. "I didn't mean it, Doubs."
"Hey, I know. But you gonna find out—you gotta look out for number one. Just you look at my stats. I'm due as much as the Doctor, as much as Kareem, as much as any sucker. Man, I don't want to stagnate here. You know?"
"It's just that we love you so here, Doubs," Dickie said. "You mean so much to Fort Zachary. I wish you counted that, too."
Double T came over, and this time he rested his hand on the little boy's shoulder. "Hey, I 'predate what you're say-in'. There be some nice folks here. But mostly I just hear the man's jive. You understand? Just like Christmas. All jive. They say, be a good boy, Santa bring you presents. But he didn't bring me nothin'. And they say, be a good boy and stay on the team and we'll give you presents. Be a part of this community. Don't go jumpin' for the money. Ever'body say that to Double T. But wasn't nobody sayin' that to Midwest Steel when it just up and took itself outta Fort Zachary. And old Uncle Sam hisself. He just close up Wiley Air Force Base and send all them dudes and all that bread down to Arizona. And my man Sanford Parker—you don't think he'd move the Rapids in a minute if he thought he could make a dollar-ninety-five more? Shooot. And ever'body just keep yellin' at old Double T. You understand?" Dickie nodded.
The door opened and Bevo D'Angelo stuck his head in just long enough to tell Double T the X rays were ready.
"O.K., little Dickie dude, gotta go," Double T said. "I'll bring you that ball tomorrow night." He waved at the boy and Dickie waved back with his free arm, and Double T went out the door.
"You say something to me, Doubs?" Bevo asked.
"No, man. There was a little boy in there. Friend of mine. So how're the X rays?"
"Negative. No break. Probably just a slight sprain. Doc says we'll give you something for it, bandage it up, and you can even play Cleveland on national TV."
"Merry Christmas," said Double T.
There was only one light on in the visitors' room the next evening when Double T arrived with an autographed basketball. Dickie, in his Rapid hat, was in his wheelchair, the IV by his side, reading the Rapids' yearbook. He was surrounded by glossy pictures of Rapid players, by Rapid pins and socks and pennants and all manner of Rapid souvenirs. "Doubs!" he cried when the door opened.
Double T bounced the ball through his legs, twirled it on his index finger and rolled it down his arm, Globetrotter style, before presenting it to Dickie. The boy turned the ball around, looking for the autograph. There it was: "To my good friend, Dickie. Taylor Townsend—Double T."
"Oh, thank you, Doubs," Dickie said, and he took out his pen and wrote in the date—December 23. He was glad that Double T turned away then, to get a couple of sodas, because there were tears in his eyes and he didn't want Double T to see him crying. He put the ball down, and with the arm that wasn't attached to the IV, rubbed at his eyes with the sleeve of his hospital gown.
Double T came back over and gave him a soda. "How's your hand?" Dickie asked.
The big man held it up. It was taped but it didn't seem to bother him. "I be able to play in Cleveland," he said. "And how you today, little Dickie dude? You gonna get outta here soon, so's you can come out to the Coliseum and see me play 'fore I leave Fort Zachary?"
"I hope so, Doubs," he said, but he bowed his head and coughed again.
"You know," Double T said, "I be thinkin' 'bout you, little Dickie dude. I be thinkin', when I talks to you last night, I didn't inquire nothin' 'bout you. I just talks about my hand, myself."
"I didn't mind, Doubs."
"Well, it ain't right. You gets me in a hospital, all I can think is how some night, the next time I comes in here, is the time my knee goes, or my back, or somethin', and all of a sudden it's gone, little Dickie dude, it's all gone. I guess all us players, we be too selfish, you know? Maybe when you thinks about your stats all the time, then soon ever'thin' in life is just stats. My man Sandy Parker say he gimme a million-two for three years and my agent Eddie Razor say, Doubs, you be a fool to take less than a million-five. But today, I be thinkin', after Uncle Sam gets his, what's the difference between 400 and 500 a year? And I be thinkin', that little Dickie dude is stuck up there in the hospital, and here I be anxious to go to Ellay 'cause it don't snow. I say to myself, 'Doubs, did your momma raise you to be a robin redbreast, flyin' south?' You understand?"
Dickie nodded but he waited to make sure that Double T was through. "I was thinking today, too, Doubs," he said at last. "I was thinking about how I just figured every kid had a great Christmas, but how, when you were a little boy, Santa never came to your house—"
"House! Shoot, little Dickie dude. Rooms. Rooms!"
"I guess I was selfish, too, I didn't think about anybody else's Christmases. It's easy for a little kid to like Christmas and to believe in Santa Claus when he brings you things."
"Well, he ain't never did bring you good health," Double T said.
"No. And he can't bring you points or the Rapids victories, either. But that's no reason to get mad at Santa or at Christmas, is it? What I kept thinking about, Doubs, is how you talked about dressing up like Santa for the kids in the hospital, and I thought how people like you really are our Santa Clauses."
"You, Doubs. You and all the great athletes. And I don't mean just on Christmas; I mean all the time. And I don't mean just for kids; I mean for a lot of grown-ups, too. We all need Santa.
"When we're little kids we believe in Santa, and we believe in him because he brings us something extra, something neat-o. Sometimes it isn't exactly what we wanted, but so much of the joy is expecting, isn't it? When I was a real little kid, Doubs, I always liked Christmas Eve best. I liked the expecting better than I did Christmas morning, even if Santa did bring me what I asked for. It's like that with you and the Rapids. I hate it when you lose, but the good part is just that you play for us here in Fort Zack.
"The main thing about Santa is that he makes us care. So do you, Doubs. That's what you and all the players do."
Double T took a long swallow. "I never thought about it like that, little Dickie dude," he said. "It always just seemed to me to be a job, you know?"
"Well, that's O.K. It's a job for Santa, too. But just don't forget that you make a lot of people happy with your job. And maybe the people you make the happiest are the ones that the real Santa Claus can't bring presents to—the ones like you were when you were a kid. Because you can bring us a present that no one else can, Doubs. That's why we don't want to lose you from Fort Zack. Everybody loves Christmas, even if Christmas doesn't always come on December 25th."
"Hey, you be some kind of elf," Double T said.
Sanford K. Parker, who had bought the Fort Zachary Rapids because he had played basketball in prep school and because his accountant told him it gave him a good short-term tax position, lived in Manhattan and Palm Springs. In Palm Springs, in fact, he was well known for his annual Christmas Eve party, for to make that guest list was the highest form of holiday compliment. Parker was standing by the pool, which was festooned with floating wreaths, listening to a mariachi band play carols, drinking an eggnog and talking to four bankers, three Vegas types, two PR men and a movie star in a Gucci, when he saw Double T striding across the lawn. Everyone turned to stare at the giant black man who towered over all the little white people.
"My man," Double T said to Parker, snatching an eggnog from a silver tray. The mariachis played Deck the Halls.
"Doubs, what in the world are you doing here?" Parker said. "I mean you're welcome, of course, but...."
"We got to talk, Sandy."
Parker got his back up a bit at that. "Eddie Razor said I was never to speak with you without him. That's your rules."
"Rules is changed, my man."
Parker shrugged, apologized to his guests and led Double T up the lawn and into his den. He sat down at his desk and gestured for the player to take the large chair. Double T glanced around. Most of the photographs on the walls were of weddings and golf foursomes; from the photographs a visitor from outer space would believe that Americans dressed only in pastels and cutaways.
Parker sat down, leaned back and drew on his cigar. "I must say this is some surprise, Doubs. Aren't you supposed to be in Buffalo for the game tomorrow?"
"Oh yeah. I knew it was one of those cities."
"I can make it in time, if I have to."
"O.K. So what's on your mind?"
"I be ready to sign," Double T said.
Parker sprang forward in his chair in surprise. In delight, he toasted Doubs and rang for a waiter. "That's fantastic, Doubs. But understand, there is no way I can justify more than 400 a year. That town is not supporting us as it should."
"Four hundred be good enough."
"It will?" Parker said in amazement. A waiter came in with a tray of eggnog, and both men took another glass.
Double T sipped from his and pursed his lips in satisfaction. "Sandy, my man," he said, "yesterday I be talkin' to a friend of mine. He say to me, Doubs, you athletes, you stars, you know, you be like Santa Claus."
"Yeah, you fellows bring a lot of pleasure to a lot of people."
"But I thought some more, and I thought, yeah, but you owners, you be the real Santa Clauses. We be just the presents. You do the real givin'."
"That's a very apt analogy, Doubs. In a sense, sure, I'm the Santa for Fort Zachary, and you and Toby and Alex are the toys. One of the great satisfactions I've received as an owner is knowing what joy I'm bringing to a city." He leaned forward. "You'll take the three years?"
"Why not double that, my man?"
"Six years? At the same salary? My God, Doubs, that'll carry you through your best years. What else do you want?"
"Just the insurance, the deferred salary, them things we already agreed on."
"Terrific! And that's all you want?"
"That's all for Double T."
"Great!" Parker said, opening his drawer and pulling out a sheet of his personal stationery. "Let's sign a memo of agree—" Suddenly one huge black hand covered Parker's, almost covered the whole sheet of paper. Parker raised his eyes to look into the other man's.
"Yeah, all for Double T, but one thing for Fort Zack," Double T said.
"What do you mean, Doubs?"
"Sandy, my man, if I signs for six years, I wants you to sign that you'll keep the Rapids in Fort Zachary for six years."
Parker freed his hand and gulped down the rest of his eggnog. "Now hold on, Doubs, I can't tie my hands like that. Attendance is only up 4%...."
"There be a lotta folks outta work."
"That's not my concern, or yours, Doubs. And the local TV—"
"Hey, I know you got home games on the cable now."
"The hell I do, Doubs. I was lucky to get six away games on UHF. And the Coliseum rent...."
Double T rose to his feet. He did not shoot up, but climbed slowly, menacingly to his full height, and stood there, hands on his waist. He said, "Hey, no more jive, Santa Claus. Now that be the deal."
Parker leaned back and glanced away. Outside he could hear the band playing Frosty, the Snowman, mariachi style. At last, he looked up at Double T, and he came to his feet and put out his hand. Double T took it and they shook. "I guess it's not easy being Santa Claus," Parker said. "Merry Christmas, Doubs."
"Merry Christmas, Fort Zachary," Double T said, and the mariachi band moved nimbly into O Tannenbaum.
On Christmas afternoon, in many of the rooms of the pediatric ward at St. Luke's, the rented TV sets were tuned in to the Rapid-Cavalier game. Fresh new snow blew against the windows and piled up on the sills as the parents gathered with their sick children, opening stockings and presents from home. The ward party would be held later, with Dr. Kinsolving, the pudgy pathologist, cast as Santa.
The receptionist on the floor, Mrs. O'Reilly, was watching the game herself at her desk when two men turned the corner by the visitors' room and came through the glass doors that led into the ward. They were both so laden with packages that they had not been able to brush the snow from their clothes, or even from their hair. "My Lord in heaven," Mrs. O'Reilly exclaimed, as they approached her, "it's Double T himself." All afternoon, on the television, Brent Musburger and Mendy Rudolph had been speculating as to where Double T might be.
"Mr. Townsend," she said, "they're looking for you in Cleveland."
"Then they be looking in the wrong place, Momma," Double T said. "Me and Sandy comes for the Christmas party."
"We have some presents for the children," Parker said, nodding his head at the packages he held in his arms.
"Oh, Mr. Parker, everyone will be so thrilled," Mrs. O'Reilly said, now recognizing the owner. "We'll start the party early."
Double T said, "No, wait a minute, Momma. First I wants to see a special friend of mine."
"Of course," she said. "Who is that?"
"His name is Dickie, but I forgets the last name."
"Dickie?" she said, puzzled. "I don't think—" She stopped herself and took out the patient register. "You know, at Christmas we never have that many children here. No, no. There's no Dickies, no Richards."
"Well, maybe that be a nickname, like," Double T said. "You know, he be 12,13 years old, a little white boy, pale boy, but smart little dude. Cough all the time. Real skinny, you know. Always rigged up to that bottle."
Mrs. O'Reilly cocked her head curiously. "Not Dickie Parr," she said.
"Yeah, Momma!" Double T cried. "That little dude."
Mrs. O'Reilly dropped her eyes, and when she raised them, she looked not at Double T, but toward Sanford Parker, turning to him for some kind of help. Double T caught her anxiety and took a step toward her. "Where that little dude?" he asked sharply.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Townsend," Mrs. O'Reilly said. "Dickie Parr died."
There was not a word from Double T. Instead, involuntarily, he relaxed his arms and the presents fell from them, clattering on the floor. One was not wrapped. It was just a brown box, and when it fell, the top sprang open and Mrs. O'Reilly could see a Santa Claus costume inside. The hat tumbled partway out and lay there. Double T did not appear to even notice that he had dropped the packages. He raised his huge hands to his face and held them there. "Oh, the little dude!" he cried. "Little Dickie dude!" He shook his head and backed away from the packages on the floor. Parker and Mrs. O'Reilly watched him without a word. Double T said nothing to them. He only brushed at his tears, and then walked around the corner to the visitors' room.
He went in. There was no one there, but someone had left the television on to the game. Brent Musburger gave the score as Double T came into the room, but Doubs did not hear it. He did not even bother to glance up at the screen. Gently, he closed the door, and he stared at the place where Dickie's wheelchair had been. There was nothing there now. "Little Dickie dude," he said, but the words only formed on his lips; there was no sound, really.
And then, in the rear of the room, Double T spied something. It was to one side of an old maroon sofa and was partly covered by the folds of a frayed drape that fell to the floor. He went over, and he picked up the autographed ball, and he held it softly in his hands in a way he had never handled a basketball before. The fresh leather gave off that familiar tart aroma of newness, and in the murky dark of the visitors' room, Dickie's basketball almost seemed to glow orange. Outside, it was snowing even harder.
Double T carried the ball to Mrs. O'Reilly. Sanford Parker was piling up the packages that Double T had dropped, and Mrs. O'Reilly tried to reassure the basketball player with a kind smile. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't know you knew Dickie Parr."
Double T nodded, new tears glistening in his eyes, and he handed her the ball. "He left this," he said. "Make sure his momma and daddy gets it." She took the ball and assured him that they would. "When did the little dude die?" Double T asked, letting his hand leave the ball. "This morning?"
"Oh no, Mr. Townsend," Mrs. O'Reilly said. "It's been some time now. Let's see...."
"What you say?" snapped Double T.
She checked a ledger, flipping the pages quickly. "Let's see," she said. "Here. Dickie died a week ago Friday. The 16th. I remember, it was early in the morn—"
"The when?" Double T barked at her.
"The 16th, Mr. Townsend. December 16. He hoped so much to make another Christmas, but...." She shrugged.
Without a word. Double T reached over and took the ball from her arms. He turned it over quickly. There was his autograph. He spun it a little further. It was there: "December 23," in Dickie's hand. And now he saw something else too, also in Dickie's handwriting. It said: "Merry Christmas, Fort Zachary."
Double T kept staring at the ball. Mrs. O'Reilly began to talk. She said, "You see, Mr. Townsend, I didn't realize that you knew Dickie. When they were sure he wasn't going to live, when they knew he wasn't going to make Christmas, they called the Rapids to see if you could come and see him, but someone said you were unavailable. So, I just didn't know...."
Double T nodded. Then he took the ball and he began to dribble it madly. He pushed open the door and dribbled through it, and around the corner and to the door to the visitors' room. He opened that door, too, all the while dribbling the ball with his right hand. There was not another sound. The TV set was off. Dickie sat in his wheelchair in the middle of the room. His face lit up when he saw Double T. The big man stopped his dribble and caught the ball. "Merry Christmas, little Dickie dude," he said, and he stepped toward him. But in that moment. Dickie was gone for good.
Double T came back to Mrs. O'Reilly's desk, smiling. He laid one of his huge hands on her shoulder. "Don't worry, Momma," he said, "little Dickie dude and me had our Christmas. Now we gonna have a Christmas party here." He picked up the box with the Santa outfit in it, and Sanford Parker picked up a similar package, and Mrs. O'Reilly directed them to an empty room where they could change. Then she had all the sick little children and their parents gather around the tree in the ward playroom, and you never heard such screams and hollers when Santa Claus appeared, black and 6'6", in a suit several sizes too short, bellowing ho-ho-ho and dispensing presents and kisses and hugs to one and all. He was assisted by a grown man dressed like an elf in a forest-green outfit, with shoes that curled up at the toes and a little triangular cap with a feather in it. Sanford Parker said he would be Santa next Christmas, and Double T the elf, and they agreed and had that put in the contract, too.