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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 17


  “Perry,” Mr. Cathcoate said, “I know you think I’m an old fool half out of my head. I accept the fact that you laugh at me when you think I’m not lookin’. But if I didn’t have eyes in the back of my head, Perry, I wouldn’t be alive right now.”

  “Uh…uh…why, no, Owen!” Mr. Dollar blubbered. “I’m not laughin’ at you! Honest!”

  “Now you’re either lyin’, or callin’ me a liar,” the old man said, and something about the soft way he said that made my bones grow cold.

  “I’m…sorry if you think I’m—”

  “Yes, I still have the gun and holster,” Mr. Cathcoate interrupted him. “I kept ’em for old time’s sake. Now, you understand this, Perry.” He leaned in closer, and Mr. Dollar tried to smile but he only summoned up a weak grin. “You can call me Owen, or Mr. Cathcoate. You can call me Hey, you or Old Man. But you’re not to call me by my gunfighter name. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Do we see eye to eye on that, Perry?”

  “Owen, there’s no call to be—”

  “Do we see eye to eye?” Mr. Cathcoate repeated.

  “Uh…yeah. We do. Sure.” Mr. Dollar nodded. “Whatever you say, Owen.”

  “No, not whatever I say. Just this.”

  “Okay. No problem.”

  Mr. Cathcoate stared into Mr. Dollar’s eyes for another few seconds, as if looking for the truth there. Then he said, “I’ll be leavin’ now,” and he walked to the door.

  “What about our game, Owen?” the Jazzman asked.

  Mr. Cathcoate paused. “I don’t want to play anymore,” he said, and then he pushed through the door and out into the hot June afternoon. A wave of heat rolled in as the door settled shut. I stood up, went to the plate-glass window, and watched Mr. Cathcoate walking slowly up the sidewalk of Merchants Street, his hands in his pockets.

  “Well, what do you think about that?” Mr. Dollar asked. “What do you suppose set him off?”

  “He knows you don’t believe none of that story,” the Jazzman said as he began to put away the checkers pieces and the board.

  “Is it true, or not?” Dad stood up from the chair. His ears had been lowered considerably, the back of his neck ruddy where it had been shaved and scrubbed.

  “’Course it’s not true!” Mr. Dollar laughed with a snort. “Owen’s crazy! Been out of his head for years!”

  “It didn’t happen like he said it did?” I kept watching Mr. Cathcoate move away up the sidewalk.

  “No. He made the whole thing up.”

  “How do you know that for sure?” Dad asked.

  “Come on, Tom! What would a Wild West gunfighter be doin’ in Zephyr? And don’t you think it’d be in the history books if a kid saved Wyatt Earp’s life at the O.K. Corral? I went to the library and looked it up. Ain’t no mention of any kid savin’ Wyatt Earp’s life, and in this book I found about gunfighters there’s nobody called the Candystick Kid, either.” Mr. Dollar brushed hair out of the chair with furious strokes. “Your turn, Cory. Get on up here.”

  I started to move away from the window, but I saw Mr. Cathcoate wave to someone. Vernon Thaxter, naked as innocence, was walking on the other side of Merchants Street. Vernon was walking fast, as if he had somewhere important to go, but he lifted his hand in greeting to Mr. Cathcoate.

  The two crazy men passed each other, going their separate ways.

  I didn’t laugh. I wondered what it was that had made Mr. Cathcoate want to believe so badly that he’d been a gunfighter, just as Vernon Thaxter believed he really had somewhere to go.

  I got up in the chair. Mr. Dollar pinned the barber towel around my neck, and he combed through my hair a few times as Dad sat down to read a Sports Illustrated.

  “Little bit off the top and thin the sides out?” Mr. Dollar asked.

  “Yes sir,” I said. “That’d be fine.”

  The scissors sang, and little dead parts of me flew off.

  3

  A Boy and a Ball

  IT WAS ON THE front porch when we got home from Mr. Dollar’s.

  Right there, on its kickstand.

  A brand new bicycle.

  “Gosh,” I said as I got out of the pickup. That’s all I could say. I walked up the porch steps in a trance, and I touched it.

  It was not a dream. It was real, and it was beautiful.

  Dad whistled in appreciation. He knew a good-looking bike when he saw it. “That’s some piece of work, huh?”

  “Yes sir.” I still couldn’t believe it. Here was something I had desired in my heart for a long, long time. It belonged to me now, and I felt like the king of the world.

  In later years I would think that no woman’s lips had ever been as red as that bike. No low-slung foreign sports car with wire wheels and purring engine would ever look as powerful or as capable as that bike. No chrome would ever gleam with such purity, like the silver moon on a summer’s night. It had a big round headlight and a horn with a rubber bulb, and its frame looked as strong and solid as the biceps of Hercules. But it looked fast, too; its handlebars sloped forward like an invitation to taste the wind, its black rubber pedals unscuffed by any foot before mine. Dad ran his fingers along the headlight, and then he picked the bike up with one hand. “Boy, it hardly weighs anything!” he marveled. “Lightest metal I’ve ever felt!” He put it down again, and it settled on its kickstand like an obedient but barely tamed animal.

  I was on that seat in two seconds. I had a little trouble at first, because the way both the handlebars and the seat tilted forward I felt like my balance was off. My head was thrust over the front wheel, my back pressed down in a straight line in emulation of the bike’s spine. I had the feeling of being on a machine that could easily get out of my control if I wasn’t careful; there was something about it that both thrilled and scared me.

  Mom came out of the house. The bike had arrived about an hour before, she told us. Mr. Lightfoot had brought it in the back of his truck. “He said the Lady wants you to ride easy on it until it gets used to you,” she said. She looked at Dad, who was walking in a circle around the new bike. “He can keep it, can’t he?”

  “I don’t like us acceptin’ charity. You know that.”

  “It’s not charity. It’s a reward for a good deed.”

  Dad continued his circling. He stopped and prodded his shoe at the front tire. “This must’ve cost her an awful lot of money. It’s a fine bike, that’s for sure.”

  “Can I keep it, Dad?” I asked.

  He stood there, his hands on his hips. He chewed on his bottom lip for a moment, and then he looked at Mom. “It’s not charity?”

  “No.”

  Dad’s gaze found me. “Yeah,” he said, and no word was ever more welcome. “It’s yours.”

  “Thanks! Thanks a million times!”

  “So now that you’ve got a new bike, what’re you gonna name it?” Dad asked.

  I hadn’t thought about this yet. I shook my head, still trying to get used to the way it held my body forward like a spear.

  “Might as well take it out for a spin, don’t you think?” He slid an arm around Mom’s waist, and he grinned at me.

  “Yes sir,” I said, but I got off to chop the kickstand up and guide it down the porch steps. It seemed an indignity to jar the bike before we’d gotten to know each other. Either that, or I feared waking it up just yet. I sat on the seat again, my feet on the ground.

  “Go ahead,” Dad told me. “Just don’t burn up the street.”

  I nodded, but I didn’t move. I swear I thought I felt the bike tremble, as if with anticipation. Maybe it was just me.

  “Crank ’er up,” Dad said.

  This was the moment of truth. I took a breath, put one foot on a pedal, and pushed off with the Other. Then both feet were on the pedals, and I aimed the bike toward the street. The wheels turned with hardly any noise, just a quiet tick…tick…tick like a bomb about to go off.

  “Have fun!” my mother called as she opened the porch door.

  I looked back and took a ha
nd off the handlebars to wave, and the bike suddenly lurched out of my control and zigzagged wildly. I almost went down in my first crash, but I grasped hold again and the bike straightened out. The pedals were smooth as ice cream, the wheels spinning faster across the hot pavement. This was a bike, I realized, that could get away from you like a rocket. I tore away along the street, the wind hissing through my newly cut hair, and to tell the truth, I felt as if I was hanging on for dear life. I was used to an old, sluggish chain and sprocket that needed a lot of leg muscle, but this bike demanded a lighter touch. When I put on the brakes the first time, I almost flew off the seat. I spun it around in a wide circle and gave it more speed again, and I got going so fast so quickly, the back of my neck started sweating. I felt one pedal-push away from leaving the ground, but the front wheel responded to my grip on the handlebars seemingly even as I thought what direction I wanted to turn. Like a rocket, the bike sped me through the tree-shaded streets of my hometown, and as we carved the wind together I decided that would be its name.

  “Rocket,” I said, the word whirling away behind me in the slipstream. “That sound all right to you?”

  It didn’t throw me off. It didn’t veer for the nearest tree. I took that as a yes.

  I started getting bolder. I sideslipped and figure-eighted and curb-jumped, and Rocket obeyed me without hesitation. I leaned over those handlebars and pumped the pedals with all my strength and Rocket shot along Shantuck Street, the pools of shadow and sunlight opening up before me. I zipped up onto the sidewalk, where the tires barely registered the passing cracks. The air was hot in my lungs and cool on my face, and the houses and trees were whipping past in a sublime blur. At this instant I felt at one with Rocket, as if we were of the same skin and grease, and when I grinned, a bug flew into my teeth. I didn’t care; I swallowed it because I was invincible.

  And such ideas inevitably lead to what next occurred.

  I hit a patch of broken sidewalk without slowing down or trying to miss it, and I felt Rocket shudder from fender to fender. A noise like a grunt ran through the frame. The jolt knocked one of my hands loose from the handlebars, and Rocket’s front tire hit an edge of concrete and the bike bucked up and twisted like an angry stallion. My feet left the pedals and my butt left the seat, and as I went off into the air I thought of something Mom had said: The Lady wants you to ride easy on it until it gets used to you.

  I didn’t have much time to ponder it. In the next second I crashed into a hedge in somebody’s yard and my breath left me in a whoosh and the green leaves took me down. I had nearly ripped a hole clear through the hedge. My arms and cheeks were scratched up some, but nothing seemed to be skinned up and bleeding. I got out of the hedge, shaking off leaves, and I saw Rocket lying on its side in the grass. Terror gripped me; if this new bike was busted up, Dad’s spanking hand would be finding work. I knelt beside Rocket, checking the bike for damage. The front tire was scuffed and the fender crimped, but the chain was still on and the handlebars straight. The headlight was unbroken, the frame unbent. Rocket had been bruised but was amazingly healthy for such a nasty spill. I righted the bike, thanking whatever angel had been riding on my shoulder, and as I ran my fingers over the dented fender I saw the eye in the headlamp.

  It was a golden orb with a dark pupil, and it stared at me with what might have been a brooding tolerance.

  I blinked, startled.

  The golden eye was gone. Now the headlight was just a plain bulb behind a circle of glass again.

  I kept staring at the headlight. There was no eye in it. I rolled Rocket around, from sun to shadow and back again, but the image did not return.

  I felt my head, searching for a lump. I found none.

  It’s crazy, the things a boy can imagine.

  I got back on the seat and started pedaling along the sidewalk again. This time I took it slow and easy, and I hadn’t gone twenty feet before I saw all the glass from a broken Yoo-Hoo bottle scattered across the sidewalk in front of me. I swerved Rocket over the curb and onto the street, missing the glass fragments and saving Rocket’s tires. I hated to think what might have happened if I’d gone over that glass at high speed; a few scratches from a leafy hedge were mild compared to what could have been.

  We had been very lucky, Rocket and me.

  Davy Ray Callan lived nearby. I stopped at his house, but his mother said Davy Ray had gone to the ball field with Johnny Wilson to practice. Our Little League team—the Indians, for whom I played second base—had lost our first four games and we needed all the practice we could get. I thanked Mrs. Callan and I aimed Rocket toward the field.

  It wasn’t far. Davy Ray and Johnny were standing out in the sunshine and the red dust, pitching a ball back and forth. I rode Rocket onto the field and circled them, and their mouths dropped open at the sight of my new bike. Of course they had to touch it, too, had to sit on it and pedal it around a little. Next to Rocket, their bikes looked like dusty antiques. Still, this was Davy Ray’s opinion of Rocket: “It don’t handle so good, though, does it?” And Johnny’s: “It sure is pretty, but the pedals are stiff.” I realized they were not saying this simply to rain on my parade; they were good friends, and they rejoiced in my happiness. The fact of the matter is that they preferred their own bikes. Rocket had been made for me and me alone.

  I rested Rocket on its kickstand and watched while Davy Ray threw high fly balls to Johnny. Yellow butterflies flew from the grass, and overhead the sky was blue and cloudless. I looked toward the brown-painted bleachers, under the signs advertising different Merchants Street stores, and I saw a figure sitting at the top.

  “Hey, Davy!” I said. “Who’s that?”

  Davy glanced over and then lifted his glove to snare Johnny’s return pitch. “I don’t know. Just some kid, been sittin’ there since we got here.”

  I watched the guy. He was hunkered forward, watching us, with one elbow on a knee and his chin propped on his palm. I turned away from Davy and walked toward the bleachers, and the kid at the top suddenly stood up as if he meant to run.

  “What’re you doin’ up there?” I called to him.

  He didn’t answer. He just stood there, and I could tell he was trying to decide whether to take to his heels or not.

  I got closer. I didn’t recognize him; he had short-cropped dark brown hair with a wiry cowlick sticking up from the left side of his head, and he wore glasses that seemed too big for his face. He was maybe nine or ten years old, I figured, and he was a real beanpole, with gawky arms and legs. He wore blue jeans with patched knees and a white T-shirt, and the buttermilk pallor of his skin told me he didn’t get outside very much. “What’s your name?” I asked him as I reached the fence between the field and the bleachers.

  He didn’t reply.

  “Can you talk?”

  I saw him tremble. He looked as scared as a deer caught in a hunter’s flashlight.

  “I’m Cory Mackenson,” I said. I stood there, waiting, with my fingers grasping the fence’s mesh. “Don’t you have a name?”

  “Yeth,” the boy answered.

  I thought he’d said Seth at first, and then it dawned on me that he had a lisp. “What is it?”

  “Nemo,” he said.

  “Nemo? Like Captain Nemo?”

  “Huh?”

  A student of Jules Verne he was not. “What’s your last name?”

  “Curlith,” he said.

  Curlith. It took me a few seconds to decipher it. Not Curlith, but Curliss. The new boy in town, the one who had a traveling salesman as a father. The boy who sat on the horse to get his hair cut at Mr. Dollar’s. The pansy.

  Nemo Curliss. Well, the name suited him. He looked like something a net might drag up from twenty thousand leagues. But my parents had taught me that everybody deserved respect, no matter if they were pansies or not, and to tell the truth, I was nothing to write home about in the physical looks department. “You’re new in town,” I offered.

  He nodded.

  “Mr. Dollar told
me about you.”

  “He did?”

  “Yeah. Said”—you sat on the horse, I almost told him—“you got a haircut.”

  “Uh-huh. ’Bout thaved me baldheaded,” Nemo said, and he scratched the top of his scalp with a thin-fingered hand attached to a white, bony wrist.

  “Heads up, Cory!” I heard Davy shout. I looked up. Johnny had put all his strength into a fly ball that not only overshot Davy’s glove, but cleared the fence, banged against the second row of bleachers, and rolled down to the bottom.

  “Little help!” Davy said, smacking his glove with his fist.

  Nemo Curliss walked down from the top and picked up the ball. He was the littlest runt I think I’d ever seen. My own arms were skinny, but his were all bones and veins. He looked at me, his dark brown eyes magnified owlish by his glasses. “Can I throw it back?” he asked.

  I shrugged. “I don’t care.” I turned toward Davy, and maybe it was mean but I couldn’t suppress a wicked smile. “Comin’ at you, Davy.”

  “Oh, wow!” Davy started backing up in mock terror. “Don’t scorch me, kid!”

  Nemo walked up to the top bleacher again. He squinted toward the field. “You ready?” he yelled.

  “I’m ready! Throw it, big hoss!” Davy answered.

  “No, not you,” Nemo corrected him. “That other guy out there.” And then he reared back, swung his arm in a circle that was impossible for the eye to follow, and the ball left his hand in a white blur.

  I heard the ball hiss as it rose into the sky, like a firecracker on a short fuse.

  Davy cried out, “Hey!” and backpedaled to get it, but the ball was over him and gone. Beyond Davy, Johnny looked up at the falling sphere and took three steps forward. Then two steps back. One more step back, to where he’d been standing when the ball was thrown. Johnny lifted his hand and held his glove out in front of his face.

  There was a sweet, solid pop as the ball kissed leather.