“Dartitis” by Mika Seifert
BLAST, TMR‘s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Mika Seifert’s story “Dartitis” offers an out-of-the-ordinary, humorous look at the rise of a world champion darts player, whose obsession with infinite possibilities almost leads him to lose focus.
by Mika Seifert
In his youth, Berry Barnes was a tall, lanky fellow who threw darts the way he looked: awkward, ungainly, possessing almost no grace. Inexpert, he seemed, almost amateurish. Twenty years later, Berry was world champion. Still tall, but a far cry from lanky. Having well-nigh doubled his weight, all that good life had somehow turned him into the gentle giant of darts, the tender-hearted bear of the bull’s-eye. The crowds adored him; the tabloids fell at his feet. They called him Dartman, Dartagnan, Dartslinger. In epic battles, his opponent was always the Prince of Dartness, Dartenstein, Dart Vader.
With added weight had come grace. At nineteen, with Berry still a stickman, the darts had seemed to hold their own against the boy, making themselves out to weigh much more than the thirty measly grams they actually did. They seemed to have a will, and Berry and the darts never looked like a team, intent on the same goal. It was always Berry on his own, using the darts for some purpose that went against their very nature. Now, they were inseparable, Berry having somehow, over time, convinced the darts of his good intentions. It didn’t even seem like he was throwing darts at all anymore but shooting off single digits from his own hand.
Around the time he turned forty, then, two things happened. Firstly, he developed a passion for quantum physics, of all things. This was a pivotal development in his life, even if no one suspected it at first, least of all his own family. The tabloids, silenced for once, merely ran a single article with a photo of Berry laying into a hamburger on a park bench, reading Feynman. The fans didn’t care. Like everything else about the man, they found it endearing, winsome. They called him Dr. Dart.
The second thing that happened to Berry was fatherhood. “The Missus says his head is round as a dartboard,” he told reporters at the clinic. “I say he’s no bigger than a dart.”
They called him Benjamin.
The physics thing: it didn’t seem like much of anything, at first. Berry bought a book, then two, but, according to his wife Brenda, never talked about what he read, never mentioned quantum physics at all.
“Honestly,” she said, “it was just a thing of his. I didn’t pay it a mind.”
That all changed after a year or so. Little Ben was off to daycare and instead of averaging one or two books a year, Berry plowed through three books every week.
“Why all those books?” Brenda told a reporter. “I never understood. He didn’t seem to get any joy out of it at all!”
Stone-faced was how she put it. He turned sullen, morose, and after reading would stay in a grumpy mood all day. The books, meanwhile, slowly took over the house. He lugged them around wherever he went. Before he went on tour, he gave her a precise list of titles to order, then pick up, then pack.
“It was quantum this, quantum that,” Brenda remembered. “Quantum mechanics, quantum gravity, quantum foam. Quantum physics for dummies, for professionals, for poets. He couldn’t get enough of it.”
“When did you get suspicious?” the reporter asked.
“I never did!” she answered, wide-eyed. “To me, it was all humbug.”
A close friend of Berry’s, Dexter Dachs, had a different story to tell. Dexter was a professional darts man, too, though considerably less talented than the big man. “Chugging along in the wake of the jumbo jet,” was how he himself once put it. He had an easy-going manner, however, and a booming laugh, and he quickly became Berry’s best bud while on tour.
“Once,” Dexter told, “at the Speedy Hire, he woke me up in the middle of the night. Pounded on the door, and when I let him in, he was in a right state. All drenched in sweat, as if he’d gone running. Do you realize, Dex, he said, grabbing me by the collar, the trouble we’re all in? I told him to sit down, have a bud. But he wouldn’t have it, just kept going. I throw a dart, he said, and it hits the bull’s-eye, right? But at the same time, there’s a world out there where it doesn’t. There’s a world where it hits the outer bull, another where it hits the double ring, the triple. There’s even one where it goes around the board, comes back, hits me in the face!”
“What then?” the reporter asked. “What happened?”
Dexter seemed lost in thought.
“Why, nothing,” he said. “I believe I convinced him of that bud after all.”
It was the last good championship round for Berry, the last in his string of miracle years. He won the Skybet, won the Partypoker, and won the Ladbrokes, too, a final, farewell time. But at the Ladbrokes, the dartitis was already there, and when the fourteen weeks of McCoy’s rolled around, it was in full bloom.
“A twitching,” he told Bull’s-Eye News. “Some cramping. A rough patch.”
But it wasn’t a rough patch, and it was far from his only fight. At home, the extent of his love for little Ben was landing him in a world of trouble as well. There were a million doors in his mind, and they all opened to heartbreak.
“I told him nothing’s going to happen to Ben,” Brenda said. “I told him a thousand times. The little one’s fine. We’re doing the best we can. How could we do more?”
For Berry it was never enough. He couldn’t close those doors fast enough, and new ones popped up all the time. He saw little Ben fall from his chair, choke on some candy, tumble down a well shaft. It got so bad that he was unable to do anything anymore, decide on any sort of action, be it to pour his morning coffee or brush his teeth lest it somehow led to little Ben getting in the path of a tram or the neighbor’s Hyundai.
At night, lastly, Berry was fighting his third war, equally hopeless, duking it out for hours at a stretch with Bohr and Bohm and Heisenberg and ending up with a bloody nose each and every time. He simply couldn’t accept their findings, refused to see his son’s life as a wave function comprising not only the blissful present in which they lived but every possible calamity imaginable.
“You couldn’t argue with him,” told Dr. Gordon Greene, from Caltech. “For him, it was a world of pain out there just waiting to trip him up. I love him so much, said Berry. The little one. But there’s always going to be moments when I don’t look at him, and when I don’t look at him, I don’t know what the deuce is happening. When I look away, I’m sending him through one of those doors. Through all the doors.”
“What did you do?” the reporter asked.
“I tried my best!” said Dr. Greene. “Told him his very wavering, his indecision, was just as much a factor that might lead to disaster as surely as bustling action. That only made it worse. I could see his face crumbling before me. I was helpless. I made a case for quantum physics, told him he was drawing all the wrong conclusions. That quantum physics was meant to set him free, elate him. That was the last thing I ever said to him before you-know-what. It’s a blessing, I said. It’s the bane of my life, was his reply.”
The dartitis progressed rapidly. Soon it wasn’t just twitching anymore, and the darts didn’t just land a little off.
“He never used to talk to me about darts,” Brenda said. “That was his world. But after the Partypoker that year, he started talking. I’ll never forget his words. Like trying to throw a brick at the board, was what he said. That’s when I got scared.”
It wasn’t only a figure of speech. You could see it, live or on television. Holding the dart, his elbow sagged, and when he finally did release it the momentum, for all to see, was much greater than by all rights it should have been.
That year, at the Unibet, the dartitis broke him. It was one week, to the day, before the call.
“It was the first time I ever watched Berry sling,” said Brenda, “and after ten minutes, I had to turn off ESPN, switch to something else. I was in tears.”
Tears were also streaming down Berry’s face as he stood facing the board, the dart in his hand no longer a brick but an anvil. Thirty minutes he stood like that, an hour, nobody daring to interrupt him. Then he slowly bent under the dart’s weight, tipped over and finally fell forward face first, still holding the dart.
A week later, when the call came, Berry was in Brisbane. A glance at the clock told him all he needed to know. It was 3 a.m., and he was suddenly wide awake.
“Ben,” he said.
“They’re doing all they can,” came Brenda’s words. “Berry, they’re doing all they can.”
After Brisbane, Berry abandoned the tour, abandoned professional darts, abandoned quantum physics.
“I was lost in quantum foam,” he once told. “Lost in other ways, too.”
Dr. Greene described how Berry made his peace with Heisenberg, even if it was an uneasy one, ever in danger of flaring up again.
“I can’t take credit for it,” he said. “It wasn’t anything I said or did. He came up with it all on his own. One day, he simply walked into my office and said, ‘Doc, there are always going to be a million darts. Ain’t anything I can do about that. But there won’t ever be more than a single dartboard, and they all end up there. One way or another, they all end up on the board.’”
Dr. Greene smiled wistfully.
“And that’s how it ended,” he said, “for Berry.”
He lost weight quickly, and after a few years began to resemble the lanky, slightly maladroit youth again who had started slinging darts, lo those many years ago. Looking less and less like the bear of the bull’s-eye, each day a little more he brought to mind something else. Brenda once said it best.
“Darling,” she told her husband. “Don’t mind me saying so, but you do look like a dart yourself!”
Berry had just turned sixty, and they were throwing some darts for the heck of it, Berry taking his sweet time, but getting the job done, unbreaking himself one dart at a time.
He still attends the tour, sometimes as a talking head for ESPN, but mostly as a member of the crowd, and when I warmed up for the McCoy’s last year, he was there, too, throwing a dart or two himself, but mainly watching, as if he couldn’t believe it was really me.
“Still here, Dad,” I said, as I caught him looking at me that way again. “I’m still here.”
Mom released his hand, and he came over, and we hugged. Then we threw some darts. Then we hugged again and threw some more darts. We never missed the bull’s-eye, and we never died.
Mika Seifert is a concert violinist and writer whose short stories have appeared in the Antioch Review, Chicago Review, Image, the Southern Review, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. He works as concertmaster for the Northeast German Symphony Orchestra.