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FICTION

A Hazard of New Forturnes
By Michael Bourdaghs

May 20, 1984

Why was Bird walking all the way home from the Metrodome? Even Bird himself didn't know. He brooded over this question as he pressed forward through the unfamiliar poured-concrete landscape of the University of Minnesota's West Bank campus. How had it happened? When Bird (whose real name was Henry) reached the Washington Avenue Bridge, he climbed the stairs to the pedestrian level and began crossing toward the East Bank. Halfway across, though, he sat down on a gritty concrete bench and troubled himself yet again over the chain of events that had led to this calamity. Where was his mistake?

After the ball game, the three of them—Phil, Jesse, and himself—were supposed to be sitting in a booth at Flaherty's Bar and Grill, drinking beer and munching french fries, like any other Sunday. Bird had had it all mapped out: Phil, retouching his black hair every few minutes with the comb that always poked out from his back pocket, would tell his usual lies about making it with women (in these stories, Phil referred to his sex organ as "Mr. Boner"); Jesse would guffaw with clumsy laughter. Then, when just the right moment rolled around, Bird would treat them to a fresh pitcher of beer and tell them everything. First, he would mention his new girlfriend, Sarah—that would get things started right. Next, he would tell them he was quitting the restaurant. They would ask why, of course, and only then would Bird unveil the great decision he had made regarding his future. Sure, it would surprise them—especially Jesse. But they'd understand. Ever since his visit to the army recruiter on Thursday, that was how Bird had envisioned this Sunday afternoon. But here he was now, all alone, forced to walk home from the ball game. How had everything gone so wrong?

 

In 1937, just months after the outbreak of total war with China, Kuki Shz, famed professor of aesthetics at Kyoto Imperial University, direct student to both Heidegger and Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre's first tutor in the new phenomenology, delivers a lecture broadcast nationwide on the NHK radio network and transmitted by overseas relay to the Japanese colonies of Taiwan and Korea. His topic is "Chance and Fate." He begins by trying to define "chance," an age-old philosophical problem. There are three basic types of chance, he argues: there is the randomness of existence itself—whether a given thing exists or doesn't exist; the randomness of an unexpected encounter; and finally there is randomness in the sense of something that only happens quite rarely. In the coming hour, he will explain each in turn.

 

The late afternoon sun baked the landscape. It had been freezing cold inside the air-conditioned Metrodome, but now after half an hour of walking, a fist-sized patch of sweat darkened the chest of Bird's navy-blue T-shirt. He sat on his bench and gazed down through the bridge railing at the murky-brown river below. The water looked cool.

Maybe his mistake had come in suggesting a baseball game in the first place. He had done that the previous Tuesday, even before his visit to the recruiter's office. The three of them were cleaning and restocking the restaurant kitchen for the breakfast crew. Phil was scouring the grill top, an unlit cigarette pinched between his lips. Phil had sharp, Italian features, and even to work he wore dressy clothes—white satin shirts, black trousers. Jesse, who was five inches taller and sixty pounds heavier than either Bird or Phil, was restocking the stainless-steel cold table. Bird was sweeping the floors, but he stopped for a minute to rest, leaning against the upright pushbroom handle as if it were a staff. That's when he suggested they go to a Twins game the coming weekend. Jesse momentarily stopped polishing smudges off the cold-table lids and nodded.

"You know, that's not a half-bad idea, Bird. We should go to a ball game," Jesse said. He had lifted the NASA Flight Commander's cap from his head and was using the hem of his red apron to mop sweat off his brow. "What do you say, Phil?"

Phil answered that he didn't want to waste a perfectly good weekend afternoon on the Twinkies. Phil was suspicious of all new activities, especially those that involved travel across the river into Minneapolis. Jesse glanced at Bird and shrugged his oxen-like shoulders. That's how things went when you hung around with Phil.

But then the Big Guy, the restaurant's overnight manager, came to Bird's rescue. By chance, the Big Guy had overheard the conversation from his desk in the back room, where he sat checking the register tape, searching for the error that had left the till eight dollars short. He walked into the kitchen, his shirt collar open and his auburn polyester necktie loosened.

"Jesus Christ, Phil, go to the ballgame," the Big Guy said. "You got to get out and do all that stuff while you're still single. Trust me, I know."

The Big Guy rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. Phil cackled with a laughter that midway transformed into a coughing spasm.

"Yeah, alright," Phil said when he finished coughing. "I guess we can go."

 

Kuki takes up the first kind of chance, the randomness of existence. If there is no necessity for something to exist and, at the same time, if its existence is not impossible, then whether or not that thing will exist is a matter of chance. If, for example, you were to paint all the sides of a die black and then roll that die, it would come to rest with a black surface facing up. That would be a matter of necessity, not chance. Moreover, in this situation it would be impossible for you to roll the die and get a white surface. Under these conditions, such a result could not occur—even by chance.

Now, if you took an ordinary die, one not painted black, and rolled a three, for example, we would call that "chance." There is no necessity for it to come up a three, but neither is it an impossibility. You could either roll a three or not roll a three. It is chance because the result could either happen or not happen.

And yet there are exactly six sides to a die. The three that you rolled in fact had a one-in-six probability of appearing. When we think of it this way, what had seemed purely a matter of chance now suddenly seems less so. With a one-in-six chance, if you rolled the dice six times, it seems that you should roll a three once. And if you rolled the die many thousands of times, the number of times that a three appeared would approach with greater and greater accuracy the ratio of one-in-six.

But if one rolls the die only a few times, things are different. If you roll the die just six times, for example, there are times when you won't roll a single three—and other times when you will roll two or more threes. The law of probability is only an average taken over a large number of instances, so that the result obtained in any one instance is still a matter of chance.

And yet perhaps the three that you rolled is still not a matter of chance. The result from any given roll of the die is, after all, determined by the laws of physics: the material quality of the die itself and of the surface onto which it is rolled, the precise manner in which you roll it, the resistance of the air through which you roll it. Isn't the three that you rolled the result of the laws of physics? Isn't it finally a matter of necessity, not chance?

 

Bird's suggestion of the ball game was one outcropping of the desire that had been jostling at him for months, a desire to shatter the calcified routine of his life: in the year since his high school graduation, he had spent every night, Monday through Friday, cooking the bar rush with Phil and Jesse, from ten o'clock at night until five o'clock in the morning. Every morning after work, he drank beer with the other two at Phil's or his own apartment, after which he went to bed and slept until dusk, when it was time to get ready for work again. All Bird could show for his year's labor was a budding beer belly, a pine-green '74 Impala, and an efficiency apartment less than a mile from his folks' place. He had begun to fear that his life would absorb this pattern permanently, just as the sour kitchen odor of grease and cleansers had seeped into the skin of his hands—he could no longer wash the smell completely out, even on weekends. "You get used to it," Phil said when Bird complained about it. Phil had been working in the kitchen since tenth grade, ever since his parents discovered his stash and kicked him out of the house.

On Sunday afternoon when they arrived at the Metrodome, Bird remembered a piece of advice from the Big Guy: "Don't get the three-dollar tickets, you cheapskates. Spring for the extra buck. You can at least see the game from the four-dollar seats." Phil and Jesse razzed Bird about this as they stood in line at a ticket window outside the stadium.

"If we decide these seats ain't worth the extra buck," Phil threatened, "you're buying us both beers."

"Hey, tell it to the Big Guy," Bird said, knowing his appeal to that higher authority would shut Phil up long enough to get the tickets bought.

That wasn't Phil's first bitching of the day, either. When they each had to chip in two bucks to park Jesse's van, Phil complained so loudly, you'd have thought it was going to send him onto welfare.

Inside the left field general admission grandstands, they chose three seats on an aisle, twenty rows back from the field, so that they were looking over rather than through the Plexiglas wall atop the left field fence—another tip from the Big Guy. Most of the blue plastic seats still sat empty.

This was Bird's second Twins game of 1984. As he did every April, he had attended the second home game of the year with his dad, his brothers, brothers-in-law, and the nephews whose fathers had judged them to be "old enough"—nineteen people in all. Bird's dad always said you could never get good tickets to the home opener, but they practically had to give them away for the second home game.

Phil had never been to the Dome before. He stared up at the roof as though he expected someone to start dropping money from it. Finally, he looked down and opened his mouth.

"You know, that Dome is almost as big as the tits on the girl I picked up last week."

Phil hadn't dated a girl since ninth grade, but Bird said nothing.

Jesse was looking around the stadium too. He wore his NASA Flight Commander's cap, navy blue with gold-braid lettering, his brown hair straggling out in back. A black Van Halen T-shirt barely covered his whale-like belly.

"I came here once with my old man to see a Vikings preseason game," Jesse said. "It looks different in here now." He pointed across the field to seats in the second deck behind first base. "I think we sat over there."

Jesse almost never mentioned his dad those days. When he did, especially when it was around Phil, Bird worried about what he should say or whether he should even look at Jesse. The previous autumn, Jesse's dad had suffered a heart attack at work and fallen eighty feet off some scaffolding. The heart attack itself was actually quite mild; the fall killed him. It was simply the wrong place and time to have a heart attack.

A voice called out behind the three of them, "Ice-cold Schmidt!"

"Yo!"

Jesse, sitting on the aisle, pointed a chubby finger at the beer guy. The beer guy plunked his case down next to Jesse, the bottles inside clanking unhappily against one another.

"How many can I get you fellas?"

"It looks to me like there's three of us," Jesse said. "Why don't you give us a dozen and then come back in ten minutes."

The beer guy laughed. "Why don't I give you three for starters?"

Jesse nodded and reached for his billfold.

"I'll get this round," he said. "You're lucky these are okay seats, Bird."

The beer guy emptied three bottles into paper cups. He had spiky blond hair and an earring, and he reminded Bird of the annoying college boys who sat in the restaurant late at night, occupying booths for hours during the peak of the bar rush, ordering only coffee and french fries, their textbooks spread out on the table in front of them.

"Is this real beer or 3.2 crap?" Phil asked the beer guy.

"Afraid it's 3.2—state law, you know."

Phil groaned and turned to Bird. "I ever tell you why they call it 3.2?" he asked. "It's on account if it being three parts beer and two parts water."

Bird refused to laugh. Phil had told the same joke at least a dozen times since he first heard it from the Big Guy.

The beer guy handed the last cup to Jesse. Jesse held out a fiver.

"That'll be six seventy-five," the beer guy said.

Jesse flinched and coughed out a single laugh of disbelief. "You're shitting me," he said straight out.

"Afraid not. Two twenty-five each

times three, six seventy-five," the beer guy said, pointing with an empty bottle to a button hanging from his apron that read "2.25" in giant red digits.

Jesse set his cup down on the floor, reopened his wallet, and slid out a single, at the same time riffling with his thumb to see how many bills remained. From his jeans' pocket, he pulled out an enormous handful of change and picked out three quarters. He shoveled the money over.

"Thanks much, gents," the beer guy said, already on the move headed back up the steps. "Ice-cold Schmidt!"

"I was gonna give him a five and let him keep the change so he'd keep coming around," Jesse said, still stunned.

"Six seventy-five," Phil chimed in. "We could get a case of real beer for that." Phil stared at Bird as if he somehow bore responsibility for ballpark price gouging.

All three took a gulp. Bird waited for the belch, then took a second, more modest sip. Phil tapped his knee and pointed. Two girls were standing a few rows below them, looking around for seats. They were both wearing black t-shirts tucked inside tight-fitting blue jeans. The one facing away from them had gorgeous blond hair running down her back, as if she had stepped out of a shampoo commercial. A red-and-white pack of Marlboros stuck out from her jeans pocket. The other girl had brunette hair feathered back at the sides; she was smiling at something the blond had said. They were both pretty, Bird decided, but they looked bitchy. His new girlfriend, Sarah, was pretty too, but she never acted like she knew it. The brunette glanced up at the row of empty seats in front of Phil, Jesse, and Bird. Phil loudly cleared his throat.

"Say, ladies," he rasped, "if you

want to get lucky, there's room for both of you to sit right here." He pointed at his own lap. "I'll introduce you to Mr. Boner."

The brunette gave Phil the finger. Phil wheezed with laughter and slapped Jesse's thigh. Jesse grinned at Phil and then at Bird. The girls marched down the steps to a still-empty row of seats close to the Plexiglas fence and then slid in all the way across the row to the next aisle before they sat down.

"Coupla' stuck-up bitches," Phil said when he stopped laughing. He took a big swallow from his beer.

Phil the lady-killer, Bird thought. When Bird had met Sarah, at a party a month earlier, all he had done that first night was to sit on a couch and talk with the quiet girl, still six weeks shy of her high school graduation. He had waited until their third date before he even kissed her. If it had been Phil, he would've done something assholeish right there at the first party.

 

The three that you rolled with your die: although it appears a matter of physical necessity, when looked at from a broader standpoint, it is still, after all, a matter of chance. Yes, the three may have been determined by all the relevant laws of physics, but the occurrence of those particular causal factors in this particular roll was itself a matter of chance. If the causal factors in this instance had determined you roll a five, then you would have rolled a five, not a three. Theoretically, the causal factors that would lead to any of the six numbers are present with an equal degree of probability; the question of which of the six will be present in any given roll is still a matter of chance. Behind the surface level of physical necessity we find a deeper, even metaphysical, level where chance still prevails. Kuki is now ready to proceed to the second type of chance.

 

Bird drained the last of his beer.

"I'll go get the next round," he announced.

He climbed back up to the concourse, stood in line at a concessions stand, and ordered three beers. He wedged the cups into a triangle between his hands and carried them back to the seats. Jesse took the beer off the point of the triangle. Bird slid in past Jesse's and Phil's knees, handed Phil a beer, and sat down. He sipped his beer. People were sitting in the row below them now. Someone was staring at him. Bird looked down. A wiry four-year-old girl sat below him, one seat to his left. She was gazing up into his face.

"Hi," she said. "I'm Patty."

Patty had carrot-colored hair, pale blue eyes, and a face dotted with freckles. She was dressed in primary colors—a yellow T-shirt, bright blue overalls, and a red Twins cap that was too big for her. Her dad, a sallow man with a drooping blond moustache, sat on Patty's left, and on his left sat a six-year-old boy wearing an identical Twins cap. The dad smiled apologetically at Bird.

"Hi, Patty. My name's Bird."

"That's a dumb name."

"Well, I'm stuck with it."

Bird was a variation on the first syllable of his Polish last name. Phil had invented the nickname one day during recess in third grade at St. Mark's Parochial. The nickname took immediately. For two years, Bird labored to root it out, using threats and bribes. Then he tried to deflect attention from it by affixing the nickname "Butterfly" onto Jesse, a perfectly logical choice when you considered the array of monarchs and swallowtails that hung in clear plastic envelopes on the walls in Jesse's bedroom. But that nickname never caught on. Eventually, Bird grew into his own nickname. By junior high school, he even took to introducing himself as Bird.

Bird picked up his beer to take another sip. As he brought the cup to his lips, Patty tugged at his pants leg.

"Bird, what are you drinking?"

"I'm drinking beer," he answered, patiently.

"How come?"

Her dad stepped in. "Patty, don't bother the man."

"I'm not bothering Bird. I'm asking him something."

"It's okay," Bird said to the dad. "I'm used to being around little kids." That was true. Bird had grown up surrounded by toddlers—his nieces and nephews, twenty-four of them in all at last count, and two more on the way.

"Well, Patty, don't bother him," her dad said.

Patty looked at her dad's stern face and sat back down on her seat. Phil was smirking at Bird.

"That's about your speed for a girlfriend," he said.

Bird wanted to tell Phil where to get off, but with a little kid sitting so close, he couldn't. He silently mouthed the words "fuck you" at Phil, who laughed uproariously.

Patty was up again and tugging at Bird's pants leg again.

"How come your friend's laughing?"

"Because he's retarded."

"Oh."

Patty's dad placed a hand atop her head and turned Patty's gaze toward the field.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2002 issue.

—EFQ

MICHAEL BOURDAGHS teaches Japanese literature at UCLA. The Kuki Shûzô radio broadcast actually happened in 1937 (although not exactly in the form presented here), and Tom Brunansky really did hit a home run off of Roger Clemens on that May afternoon in 1984. The rest is fiction, part of a novel in progress about the 1984 Twins and the idea of Japan.

© 2002 Michael Bourdaghs

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