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.