ZUGZWANG • by Scott D’Accordo

On the train to Detroit some of the guys were playing cards, two were reading, most sleeping. Eddie was alone in the back of the car, smoking and staring out the window.

I got up and sat next to him. “Worried about Tyrus Cobb? Man’s getting old, but I bet he’d still give you the spikes.”

“Why me?”

“Just meant anyone,” I said too quickly. “He’s not even that bad. I once had steaks with him in St. Louis.”

He turned topics, pointed his chin at Chick and Sammy, both dozing off hangovers. “Drunks. It’s illegal.”

“Despite the law, Red Sox fans’ll assume more was consumed this sad season than’s actually been.” He didn’t laugh, hadn’t in months. “One of those gaspers for me?”

Eddie handed me one slower than usual from his handmade cigarette case. “The guys talk. About my wife. My daughter.” He looked me in the eye. I wished he hadn’t.

“Flora’s in kindergarten.”

“So they do talk about my wife?”

“Nobody’s talking about Sadie,” I said, telling the truth. I omitted that they were talking about his eccentricities (the kindest way I’d heard it put), that they wanted him traded.

He looked behind, the way he’d started to do. “Ever think about the cranks?” he said.

“We all do. They buy a ticket, the right to holler at us.”

“Yesterday there was a man in the front row wearing a green suit, hand in his pocket, holding a weapon.”

I looked out the window on the opposite side of the aisle. “A revolver?”

“No,” Eddie said.

Across the river autumn was breaking to steal. “Season’s almost over.”

“Man like that more liable to stab me.”

***

In the hotel lobby I told our manager Bump about the fan. “As long as he don’t go AWOL again, which is still your responsibility,” he said. Somehow that was funny.

“What about Cleveland? Dodging pitched balls? Not exemplary for a catcher.”

“A few times in warm-ups. He was fine once the game started.” My look must’ve relayed the stupidity of that answer. His face approached compunction. “Didn’t we get him bromides?”

“Wouldn’t take them,” I said, “thinks people are poisoning him.”

“Who?”

“The pharmacist, the boys, that priest, you…”

Bump put on a softness I didn’t like. “But not you. You’re good with him, been his friend a while, and it’s a strain. But he’s a grown man and too good behind the plate—”

“We’ve won forty-eight games. Wasn’t any logic not sending him home in July. You’ll still be out a job.”

“Yep, but for now you’re rooming with him.” He laughed.

“Been rooming with him since April,” I said. Eddie was staring at me from one of the sofas across the room.

 

“What’s Bump think is funny?” I wasn’t halfway sat down.

“Most things, apparently.”

“You saw him, too?”

“Bump?”

“No, idiot. The crank with the knife?”

Eddie had never called me an idiot. “This man say anything?”

He smiled at me like I was a boy, like I’d said something so naïve it was funny. “He was eyeing to hop on the field and stick me when I was on deck. Would he announce it?”

***

In our room that night it was too early to sleep, so I challenged him at chess. He refused, but I wore him down. It was the best I’d ever played him. “Rematch?” I said.

“No.”

“Give me a cigarette.”

He did. “You ever hear of zugzwang?”

“That a Berlin whorehouse?”

“Means compulsory move. Can’t pass a turn, even when you only have bad plays.”

“I was in zugzwang.”

“Yes. You ever feel zugzwang?” he said.

“All the time at shortstop.”

“I know something’s out of order with me. I hear a voice in my ear, like God’s right behind me, whispering awful things, telling the truth. But what if it’s not the truth? Something else? Using me to move them into a corner…”

“Who’s them, Eddie?”

He unclenched his jaw, sat back. “I trust you.”

I was angry that he trusted me, that he was putting all this on me. “A doctor’s the best—”

He knocked his own king off the board, sent it rattling around the floor. “Never felt that?”

“No,” I said. That’s all I said.

***

A reporter asked Bump if he’d noticed anything wrong. He said no and sent his prayers out to Eddie’s family, then realized what a horse’s ass comment that was and tried to correct it by saying “his remaining family.”

Not the family he killed on his farm that winter. Not the wife and five-year-old daughter he shotgunned before cutting his throat with a Bowie knife.

***

After I retired from playing ball, just before I was forced to start working a real job, my wife Molly bought me a suit about the tint of a hand grenade, maybe grayer than it was green. She asked me what was wrong, as I guess I’d turned a shade myself.

Partly, I wanted to tell her about that season, about the man in green who probably never existed, and if he did, meant no harm… a spectator, like I was. I wanted to say that Sadie called about a doctor in Boston that Eddie’d just about agreed to see. That I pushed to get Bump and the brass to give him leave, but not very hard. That my remedy was telling bad jokes, the kind he used to laugh at. That I’d be clean if I just got him to the end of the season, but by then he was too far drifted. That I didn’t tell my friend I had felt zugzwang, just not the same way. Partly, I didn’t want to tell Molly any of those things, so I said “nothing.” That’s all I said.


Scott D’Accordo is a writer and librarian who lives on Long Island.


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