DISCLAIMER: So not mine.
NOTES: Thanks to Shana, Luna and Jess. And thanks to all my editors.
WARNINGS: Drugs, swearing, angst and gratuitous slanders of Charlie Sheen.


SLUGGING PERCENTAGE

Dan was never going to write anything great again. His writing, lately, had been adequate and fine but he seemed incapable of ever again scaling the heights he had once attained. The words came, but the elusive brilliance of even two weeks ago was, in a word, elusive.

He read at night, after getting home from going out or coming straight home from the show. Writers read, his high school English teacher had said, in the same monotone that dried up old hag had said everything. He didn't read anything by sports writers he admired for fear of losing himself in imitation. In college, he'd read Catch-22 for the first time and for a solid month everything he wrote came out sounding like Joseph Heller. He didn't want to screw up his swing with superstitious changes in his stance.

He wasn't worried about reading things Casey wrote. Their voices had long since become one, or at least, two sides of the same coin. He winced at the cliché. Still, he could write Casey and Casey could write him and it would sound exactly right. But he knew Casey had noticed this minor dip in quality; it had been weeks since Casey's eyes had lit up while looking over Dan's copy. Casey hadn't said anything, but then again, they had all been pre-occupied.

So at night, Dan read books and articles by writers he admired or thought he should like. During the day, he wrote and worried and waited to be great again.

*

Rebecca went on a business trip to San Francisco. On the phone he said to her, "In college, my friends called me Hit-and-Run Danny."

Her laugh echoed clearly in his ear. "Were you a bad driver then?"

"No, no. I would talk to people and I'd only stay for five minutes, then, whomp! Off to a new batch of people to charm."

"Not good at hanging around?" She said it casually.

"I'm very good at hanging around. That was college. Weren't we all a little crazy then? I've grown immensely since then. I'm at least a foot taller, in fact." He spoke quickly, trying to make her laugh again.

"In college, I only skipped three classes total in four years. I made every one of my eight o'clock stats classes, if you must know." She was smiling at least, he thought.

"That's a little crazy, Rebecca. No normal person would attend every eight o'clock class, much less every single stats class." And she did laugh at that one, and made a remark about she how had stayed awake for every class with the aid of coffee and a cute professor. Dan couldn't talk too long, so he ended the conversation. It had been a while since he had been that, he thought, the crazy kid of shaking hands and panic after the simplest of conversations. It had been at least since Dallas.

*

Finally, he decided to tell Casey. In the afternoon, in their office, he said, "There's something wrong with me, Casey." Casey looked at him, pressed his lips together, and then laughed.

"Thanks for the compassion, man." Dan said.

"Dan," Casey sputtered, "I'm very concerned. It's just - there were so many replies I could have made there, and I just choked. Couldn't choose the right one. So. What's wrong with you?"

"My writing." Dan tried to explain, but Casey kept saying that Dan's writing was fine, that his scripts were all good. Dan raised an eyebrow.

Casey sighed and said, "I'm not saying there's a problem. There isn't. But, you know, if there was, it wouldn't be hard to think of reasons why." Dan nodded. Casey continued, "First, Isaac's still at Columbia Pres. Second, the network's forced Dana to have Sally here. Third, your girlfriend is still married to her husband."

Dan made a noise and cut him off. "Fourth, Dana is still with Gordon, Casey. Fifth, Jeremy's having some kind of nervous breakdown and keeps trying to break up with Natalie. Sixth, someone tried to blow us up. We're not having our best month, here, dude. But this thing, this only being adequately good thing, it started even before Isaac." Dan shook his head, he was very sure of this. "It's not all this. I mean, if I were blocked or something, then maybe I could blame this tornado of shit we've been living through. But this is something else. This is about the writing. The thing we do."

Casey sighed. He said he didn't think Dan had a problem. Dan was even more worried that Casey hadn't noticed the slump.

*

Dan and Jeremy sat in the editing room, watching hockey. Dan thought about broaching the writing problem with Jeremy, but didn't want to disturb the rhythm of quoting increasingly obscure stats. He looked over at Jeremy but couldn't see his eyes from the reflection of the screens.

Jeremy sighed. He leaned back in his chair.

Dan said, "How are things with your Dad and all that?" Jeremy sighed again and pushed up his glasses to rub his eyes. He straightened his tie.

"They're there. Not great, and it's hard." Jeremy looked right at Dan. "You're a middle child, too, right?"

Dan said yes, and swallowed. He wasn't really, anymore, in a sense, but he was the middle child, even with the youngest gone. He wanted suddenly, to say more than yes. Jeremy started talking again.

"Louise, my sister, she was born deaf. I was six when she was born and I remember my parents." Jeremy stopped again. "My father has been having this affair since before I was born and before Louise was born. And all those things I remember about my parents and how everything was when she was born - there was someone else in all that I didn't even know about." Jeremy swallowed and straightened his tie again. "So that's weird."

Dan tried to think of something comforting. He said, "Sam was only two years younger than me. I don't remember him being born or anything." Dan paused for a moment. Growing up, he had always talked about Sam all the time. He had complained about what a self-righteous prig David was, and he would brag about Sam's brains and jokes. But since Sam's death, Dan had stopped talking about him. He had friends and coworkers who didn't even know he had a younger brother who weren't there last September. Some days it felt like part of his penance; some days it was just cowardice. He said, "Did you ever take psych 101? You know, birth order stuff?"

Jeremy almost grinned. "That's not, I think, I mean, there's so much more to us than birth order. Or else you and I would be nearly identical in personality." He all the way smiled that time.

Dan smiled back at him. "We do have a lot in common, Jeremy."

"We're both carbon-based life forms," Jeremy said. "We both live in New York, though your address is a bit nicer than mine."

Dan said, "We're both Jewish. We're both sports nuts. See, we're almost the same person. People probably have trouble telling us apart." He grinned at Jeremy.

"Yeah - which is which? You walk into a room and everyone wants to talk to you, I walk into a room and people hand me their coats. It is hard to tell us apart." Jeremy went back to hockey. Dan thought of Sam for a moment. He turned back to hockey, too.

*

The heart of a day off, Dan sometimes thought, was jeans that he could never again wear in public, frayed through to embarrassing holes on the butt and on the front by the bottom of the zipper. He wore them without a shirt and smoked a couple of cigarettes from a pack he'd found in the pocket of a jacket he hadn't worn in two years. He couldn't find an ashtray, he'd never owned an ashtray even when he'd smoked a pack a day, so he used a small white plate. It was probably a saucer, and was maybe valuable. Under the ashes, it was pearly with delicate blue flowers.

He watched a game on FOX2 and listened to music at the same time, with the commentary muted. Missed stats, an incorrect description, sometimes even just bad diction made him tired.

He listened to Tom Waits and watched the game. He wondered if Waits would understand Dan's recent slump. As a fan, he worried with every new release that this would be the one where inspiration fled and the album was only good. Or worse, not even good. He didn't think one bad album invalidated all the greatness beforehand.

*

Rebecca called him twice more. It felt good to talk to her, and he knew he was smiling when he said goodbye. Still, he couldn't quite get the right words for the Colorado Avalanche trade story. He had found the right way to describe this persistent writing problem. It wasn't his batting average; it was his slugging percentage. He still had solid hits and only a handful of strikeouts, but he had stopped hitting homers and triples. You had to look at the right statistics to see the problem. Casey still didn't see it, but he was stuck complaining about the bomb scare and Jerry Falwell.

When they first started writing together, way back in Texas, Casey had explained the importance of their writing together. He had been drunk on Shiners, avoiding Lisa and a sickly Charlie, and he had gestured with arms flung out like he couldn't find enough space to make it clear, even in Texas. Casey had said that Danny made him great, and he, Casey, made Danny great. Even if it was just one word added or omitted, together they were magic. Dan still believed that. Editors matter, he thought. Dana, Isaac, Natalie, even Jeremy, something about this group of people and their input and smiles and frowns made him a great writer. Except for recently.

*

Dana found him in the editing room. She said, "I've been forgetting things, Danny, you should watch out."

He smiled at her. "Dana, before you forget who I am, do you think my writing has been less than stellar recently?"

"What are you talking about, Dan? You've been fine. Your writing, your performance on-air, all great. Now, Casey, on the other hand ..."

"Casey? He's as fine as I am, Dana." He looked at her, distracted, fluttering about the room. She perched on the edge of the table, and then stood up and moved to the couch. She sat on the couch for only a few seconds before springing up again. And she was missing her shoes.

She said, "You're right. But he's doing something wrong, and I'm gonna think of that and yell at him for it. Soon as I stop forgetting things." She grinned at him, and Dan tried to smile back, but all he could think of was Sally and Gordon and the way Casey watched Dana when she wasn't looking.

"Seriously, Dana, I think my writing's fine. But that's it --, it's just fine. Not great and not brilliant recently."

"No one's brilliant every night, Dan. Not even you and Casey. But assuming I accept your odd assessment there pal, don't you think there's reasons why you might not be batting a thousand?"

"It's not my batting average, Dana, it's my slugging percentage. And this started before Isaac, and all that." He sighed. Dana's face got a little tighter when he mentioned Isaac, and he knew his had made the same spasm of concern.

Then Dana tried to pin the writing thing on Rebecca, but Dan knew it had started after they had started going out. He said it was maybe all Gordon's fault since that made as much sense to him as blaming Rebecca and they agreed to disagree.

As she fluttered out, Dana said she didn't think Dan's writing had suffered any in recent weeks and it made him sad again.

*

Rebecca came home that day. And she came to see him, but her husband was waiting for her in the car.

*

That night Casey drove him to his apartment. They drank and went around in circles about Gordon and Steve Sisco and Dana and Rebecca and cricket and soccer and beers of the world. Casey kept using boxing metaphors and talking about Jake LaMotta and Robert DeNiro. Dan made jokes about giving his heart and getting only a pen back, and not even the pen in this case. He put the abacus in his bedroom and lounged on the bed while Casey paced around and played with a hairbrush.

At 2 am, Casey looked at the clock and said, "Are you tired? Going to sleep now?"

Dan was tired and beaten but he was angry at the question. "Shit, Casey, if it that's important to you, you can fuck ME tonight, goddamn it." Casey looked like he had been slapped.

Casey said, "I already ... I'm staying, Danny. I'm not Charlie Sheen, for fuck's sake." Dan apologized profusely and blamed it on the booze and the day. He fell asleep ten minutes later.

Dan lurched from his bed at 7 am and, walking out to the kitchen for something to wash the taste of failure and wine out of his mouth, he saw Casey asleep on the couch. Casey had used one of Dan's old Dartmouth sweatshirts as a pillow.

That day Dan wrote a feature on southpaw pitchers and worked in references to Orlando Rojas and Lefty Grove; it was definitely at least a triple, though also definitely not a homer. But it improved his slugging percentage.

He wanted to crow to Casey and point out the copy, but Casey was looking into the newsroom where Dana had gotten back from lunch with Gordon and Sally was conferring with Jeremy about college baseball. Natalie, at least, noticed, and gave Dan a thumbs up after the rundown. "Great feature," she said with a wide grin, before running off to hear more of the engagement news.

*

At another party Kim had gotten them into, Casey left at 2 am, whispering in Dan's ear that he had to go. Dan knew why Casey wanted to be home by 3 am, and he tried to imitate that Monty Python skit with a wink and nudge. Casey looked embarrassed, and Dan thought that this Sally thing sometimes should embarrass Casey. Dan waved Casey away. Casey furrowed his brow and left.

Dan stayed. The party was not a party, but just people they knew moving through rooms, drinking too much and smoking stinky expensive cigarettes and talking loudly over music Dan wouldn't admit to recognizing. He wandered into a back room and didn't recognize anyone. A boy with eyes as blue as a Royals' jersey handed him a joint. He had taken it and inhaled and passed it on, the smoke held in his lungs like 1987 was just yesterday, before he thought of penance.

In high school, in her whiny, high pitched voice, speaking too loudly even for the patch of grass where they all sat eating lunch underneath the flag, Jessica Leibowitz had said "There I was, drunk and stoned, trying to buy condoms!" He had shushed her. It was much easier at thirty than seventeen.

He woke up sore and went to work and unleashed the dogs of war, or at least opened Pandora's box, and all hell broke loose and he didn't have pants for the broadcast for the second night of the week. He couldn't get the word penance out of his head.

*

Casey showed up at his apartment at 4 am. Dan had just barely fallen asleep. He told himself he accepted Rebecca's decision. He told himself she would come back to him. He repeated that over and over again, like counting sheep, but it had taken hours to fall asleep. He opened the door to a drunk Casey.

"Danny. You're right. Your writing - mine, too, actually - we haven't been hitting homers at all." Casey sat on Dan's couch, smelling like Heineken. "You're getting your slugging percentage up, though, recently, uh, and I'm not. We should, you know, figure that out."

"Casey. It's 4 am. Can we start tomorrow, please? Don't you have somewhere to be other than with me?" Dan rubbed his eyes. He could see into his bedroom and a light from outside glinted off the abacus above his bed.

Casey didn't answer. He stood up and grabbed a beer from Dan's refrigerator. He took a long swig of the beer. He stood by the couch and said, "I don't have anywhere to be, Danny."

Dan wondered where Sally was that night. Then he remembered Natalie saying that Dana had talked to Sally. He thought it was amazing that Casey had kept that up this long, and then bit back the thought.

"I think," he said to Casey, "that we underestimate how important editors are. You know? I think, I think when Isaac was on vacation," and Casey started slinking off after the show to sleep with someone he didn't even like, Dan thought, and couldn't bring himself to say it out loud. "When Isaac was on vacation, we were both distracted. We've been distracted, and Isaac isn't here to notice since the stroke, and Jeremy's wading through his own thing, and Dana. You know what I mean."

Casey thought about it. He said, "I know what you mean. I'm not distracted anymore. It has been decided for me that I will no longer be distracted." Casey passed out on the couch twenty minutes later. Dan gave him his pillow and covered him with a blanket before he went back to bed.

*

Isaac was back, and everything seemed fine. Not just fine, but great. That afternoon, Casey told him to punch up his piece on possible trades in the National League, and he was right. Dan added three sentences and it sang. Dana laughed at two of his jokes and he made sure to put both in his story about Davis Love. Jeremy and Natalie couldn't stop grinning at each other. Casey joked on air about the joys of watching ninth inning rallies from a local haberdashery and Natalie hooted in both their ears.

That night at the bar, as he and Casey stood waiting for Jack to fill their orders, Dan suddenly thought of Rebecca, his hands on her hips lifting her up. He could feel the warmth of her through his fingers and the palms of his hands. He shook his head and looked at Casey, looking at Dana. Dan thought of being stoned and blue eyes and fumbling with the wrapper of the condom. He wouldn't tell Casey about that. He nudged Casey as their drinks came and they walked back to the group, all the crew and everyone laughing and standing in a tight circle at one corner of the bar.

As they neared the group, Casey whispered in his ear, "You need to review this statute of limitations thing with me, later - when Dana's not here, okay?" He heard the fear in Casey's voice and he grinned at Casey.

When they joined the group, Jeremy said, "Dan and I have identical personalities, according to one popular psychological theory." Everyone started laughing and Jeremy said, "middle children" over and over again. Dan remembered, clear as day, the last time he had talked to Sam. He could see the frayed corduroys Sam wore as he lay on Dan's bed and they talked about the Brady Bunch, about whether Dan was Peter or Jan and whether Sam was Cindy or Bobby. Sam saying "I am not Cindy!" and his giggling was as loud in his ear as Elliott arguing with Kim about Champagne versus sparkling white wine.

Five minutes later, Dan turned to Casey and said he was going to go back to the bar for another drink. Casey look puzzled and held up his half full glass, saying, "I'm fine, Danny."

Dan looked down at his own glass and drank the remaining third of his scotch down in one gulp. He waved his empty glass at Casey and said, "I'm not. Be back in a sec." He went to the bathroom first. He couldn't quite open the door at first and he stood there, seeing his hands tremble.

THE END.

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