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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 18

“Right in the pocket!” Davy shouted. “Man, did you see that thing fly?”

  Out toward first base, Johnny removed his glove and wrang his catching hand, his fingers stinging with the impact.

  I looked at Nemo, my mouth agape. I couldn’t believe anybody as little and skinny as him could throw a baseball over the bleachers fence, much less half the width of the field and into an outstretched glove. What’s more, Nemo didn’t even act as if it had hurt his arm, and a heave like that would’ve left my shoulder sore for a week, even if I could’ve gotten that kind of distance out of it. It was a major league throw if I’d ever seen one. “Nemo!” I said. “Where’d you learn to throw a ball like that?”

  He blinked at me behind his glasses. “Like what?” he asked.

  “Come down here. Okay?”

  “Why?” Nemo looked scared again. I had the feeling that he was well acquainted with the bad end of the stick. There are three things every town in the country has in common: a church, a secret, and a bully ready to tear the head off a skinny kid who couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag. I imagined that Nemo Curliss, in following his salesman daddy from town to town, had seen his share of those. I felt ashamed for my wicked smile. “It’s all right,” I said. “Just come on down.”

  “Man, what a throw!” Davy Ray Callan, having retrieved the ball from Johnny, jogged up to where Nemo was entering the field through the players’ gate. “You really nailed it in there, kid! How old are you?”

  “Nine,” was the answer. “Almost nine and a half.”

  I could tell Davy was as puzzled as I was about Nemo’s size; there should have been no way on earth for a runt like that to drill a baseball into a mitt as he had. “Go stand on second base, Johnny!” I shouted, and Johnny waved and ran over to take the position. “You want to throw some, Nemo?”

  “I don’t know. I’m thaposed to be gettin’ home thoon.”

  “It won’t take long. I’d kinda like to see what you can do. Davy, can he wear your glove?”

  Davy took it off. The glove swallowed Nemo’s left hand like a brown whale. “Why don’t you stand on the pitcher’s mound and throw Johnny a few?” I suggested.

  Nemo looked at the pitcher’s mound, at second base, and then at home plate. “I’ll thand right there,” he said, and he walked to the batter’s box while Davy and I stood dumbfounded. From home plate to second base was quite a toss for guys our age, much less anybody nine-and-a-half years old. “You sure, Nemo?” I asked, and he said, “Thure.”

  Nemo took the ball out of the glove with what might have been reverence. I watched his long fingers work around it, find a grip on the seams, and fasten themselves. “Ready?” he called.

  “Yeah, I’m ready! Let ’er ri—”

  Smack!

  If we hadn’t seen such a thing with our own eyes, none of us would ever have believed it. Nemo had wound up and pitched in a heartbeat, and if Johnny hadn’t been extra quick, the ball would’ve caught him right in the center of his chest and knocked him flat. As it was, the sheer power of the pitch made Johnny stagger back off second base, dust smoking from the ball in his clenched glove. Johnny began to walk around in a circle, his face pinched with pain.

  “You okay?” Davy shouted.

  “Hurts a little,” Johnny answered. Davy and I knew it must be bad for Johnny to admit it. “I can take another one.” We were too far away to hear him say, under his breath, “I hope.” He threw the ball back in a high arc to Nemo, who stepped forward six paces, watched the ball speed downward toward his face, and plucked it out of the air at the very last second. The kid knew what economy of movement was all about, but I swear he’d been an instant away from a smashed nose.

  Nemo returned to the plate. He wiped dust off the tops of his brown loafers by rubbing them on the backs of his jeans legs. He started to wind up, and Johnny braced for the throw. Nemo unwound and put the ball back in his glove. “Throwin’ ain’t nothin’,” he told us, as if all this attention embarrassed him. “Anybody with an arm can do it.”

  “Not like that!” Davy Ray said.

  “You guyth think thith is a big deal or thomethin’?”

  “It’s fast,” I said. “Real fast, Nemo. The pitcher on our team’s not even as fast, and he’s twice your size.”

  “Thith ith eathy thuff.” Nemo looked out at Johnny. “Run for turd bayth!”

  “What?”

  “Run for turd bayth!” Nemo repeated. “Hold your glove anywhere, just keep it open and where I can thee it!”

  “Huh?”

  “Run as fath as you can!” Nemo urged. “You don’t have to look at me, jutht keep your glove open!”

  “Go ahead, Johnny!” Davy called. “Do it!”

  Johnny was a brave fellow. He showed it right then, as he started pounding the dirt between second and third bases. He didn’t look toward home, but his head and shoulders were pulled in tight and his glove was down in front of his chest, the pocket open and facing Nemo Curliss.

  Nemo pulled in a quick breath. He drew back, his white arm flashed, and the ball went like a bullet.

  Johnny was going full out, his gaze fixed on third base. The ball popped into his glove when he was still a half-dozen steps from third, and the feel of it wedging solidly into the pocket was so startling that Johnny lost his balance and went down on the ground in a slide that boiled up yellow dust. When the dust began to clear, Johnny was sitting on third base staring at the ball in his glove. “Wow,” he said, stunned. “Wow.”

  I had never in my life seen a baseball thrown with such amazing accuracy. Johnny hadn’t even had to reach an inch for it; in fact, he hadn’t even known the ball was coming until it hit him in the glove. “Nemo?” I said. “You ever pitched on a Little League team before?”

  “Nope.”

  “But you’ve played ball before, haven’t you?” Davy Ray asked.

  “Nope.” He frowned and pushed his glasses up with a finger because the bridge of his nose was getting slick with sweat. “My mom won’t let me. Thays I might get hurt.”

  “You’ve never played ball on a team?”

  “Well, I’ve got a ball and glove at home. Thometimeth I practith catchin’ fly ballth. Thometimeth I thee how far I can throw. I thet up bottleth on a fence potht and knock ’em down. Thuff like that.”

  “Doesn’t your dad want you to play ball?” I asked.

  Nemo shrugged and scuffed the dust with the toe of his loafer. “He don’t have much to thay about it.”

  I was struck with wonder. Standing before me, in the shape of a skinny little runt with thick glasses and a lisp, was a natural. “Will you pitch me a few?” I asked, and he said he would. I got Johnny’s glove—which he gave up gladly from his sore hand—and I tossed the ball to Nemo. I ran to second base and planted myself. “Put it right here, Nemo!” I told him, and I extended my arm and held the mitt level with my shoulder. Nemo nodded, wound up, and let fly. I never had to move my hand. The ball smacked into the glove with a force that jangled the nerves all the way from my fingertips to my collarbone. When I threw it back, Nemo had to run forward and dart and weave to catch it. Then I backed up some more, out toward center field, where the weeds were sprouting. I lifted the mitt up over my head. “Right here, Nemo!”

  Nemo crouched down, almost on his knees. His head was bent forward, as if he were trying to squeeze himself into a tight knot. He stayed that way for a few seconds, the sunlight glinting off his glasses, and then he exploded.

  He flew up from his crouch like Superman bursting out of a phone booth. His throwing arm whipped back and then forward. If anybody’s jaw had been caught by that flashing, bony elbow they’d have been spitting out a mouthful of broken teeth. The ball left Nemo’s hand and it came at me like gangbusters.

  It was a low ball, and it almost skimmed the dust between the batter’s box and the pitcher’s mound. But it was rising as it passed over the mound, and it seemed to be picking up speed, too. It was still rising as it zipped over second base. I heard Davy yelli
ng at me, but I don’t know what he was saying. My attention was riveted to that flying white sphere. I kept the glove up over my head, exactly where it had been when the ball was thrown, but I was prepared to duck to keep from getting plastered. The ball entered the outfield, and I could hear its hissing, full of steam and menace. I didn’t move my feet. I had time to swallow—gulp—and then the ball was upon me.

  It popped into the mitt’s pocket, its impact strong enough to make me step back a couple of paces. I closed my hand around the ball, trapping it, and I could feel its heat throbbing like a pulse through the cowhide.

  “Cory!” Davy Ray was shouting, his hands up to bracket his mouth. “Cory!”

  I didn’t know what Davy was hollering about, and I didn’t care. I was in a trance. Nemo Curliss had an unearthly arm. How much of this had been a gift and how much he had trained himself to do, I didn’t know, but one thing was clear: Nemo Curliss possessed that rare combination of arm and eye that elevated him above mere mortals. In other words, he was a humdinger.

  “Cory!” This time it was Johnny yelling. “Look out!”

  “What?” I called.

  “Behind you!” Johnny screamed.

  I heard a sound like scythes at work, slicing wheat. I turned around, and there they were.

  Gotha and Gordo Branlin, grinning astride their black bicycles, their peroxided-yellow hair aflame with sunlight. They were coming at me through the knee-high grass beyond the mowed outfield, their legs pumping the pedals. Green grasshoppers and black field crickets leaped for their lives under the grinding wheels. I wanted to run, but my legs were locked up. The Branlins stopped with me between them, Gotha on my right and Gordo on my left. Sweat glistened on their angular faces, their eyes cutting into me. I heard a crow cawing somewhere, like the devil’s laughter.

  Gotha, the oldest at fourteen, reached out and prodded the baseball mitt with his index finger. “You playin’ ball, Cory?” The way he said it, it sounded dirty.

  “He’s playin’ with his balls,” Gordo snickered. He was thirteen, and just a shade smaller than Gotha. Neither one of them were very big, but they were wiry and fast as whippets. Gordo had a little scar between his eyebrows and another on his chin that said he was no stranger to either pain or bloodshed. He looked toward home plate, where Davy, Johnny, and Nemo stood. “Who the fuck is that?”

  “New kid,” I said. “His name’s Nemo.”

  “Asshole?” Gotha stared at Nemo, too, and I could see the wolfishness in the Branlins’ faces. They smelled sheep’s blood. “Let’s go see Asshole,” he said to Gordo, and started pedaling. Gordo hit the bottom of my mitt with his hand and made the ball jump out. As I bent over to pick it up, he spat a wad into my hair. Then he pedaled away after his brother.

  I knew what was going to happen. It was bad enough that Nemo was so small and skinny, but when the Branlins heard that lisp, it was going to be all she wrote. I held my breath as the Branlins approached Rocket. As they passed, Gotha kicked Rocket to the ground with supreme indifference. I swallowed my rage like a bitter seed, not knowing that it would bear fruit.

  The Branlins pulled their black bikes to a halt, with the three boys between them. “You guys playin’ a game?” Gotha asked, and he smiled like the snake in the Garden of Eden.

  “Just throwin’ the ball around some,” Davy Ray told him.

  “Hey, niggerblood,” Gordo said to Johnny. “What’re you lookin’ at?”

  Johnny shrugged and stared at the ground.

  “You smell like shit, you know that?” Gordo taunted.

  “We don’t want any trouble,” Davy said. “Okay?”

  “Who said anythin’ about trouble?” Gotha uncoiled from his bike and stood up. He rested the bike on its kickstand and leaned against it. “We didn’t say anythin’ about trouble. Gimme a cigarette.”

  Gordo reached into a back pocket and gave his brother a pack of Chesterfields. Gotha produced a matchbook that had Zephyr Hardware & Feeds across the front. He put a cigarette into his mouth and held the matchbook out to Nemo Curliss. “Light one.”

  Nemo took it. His hands were trembling. It took him three scrapes to make the match flare.

  “Light my cigarette,” Gotha ordered.

  Nemo, who perhaps had seen many other Gothas and Gordos in many other towns, did as he was told. Gotha drew in smoke and exhaled it through flared nostrils. “Your name’s Asshole, ain’t it?”

  “My…name ith… Nemo.”

  “Ith?” Gordo sprayed spittle. “Ith? What’s the matter with your mouth, Asshole?”

  I was picking up Rocket from the grass. Here I faced a decision. I could get on Rocket and ride away, leaving my friends and Nemo Curliss to their fates, or I could join them. I was no hero, that’s for sure. My fighting ability was a fantasy. But I knew that if I rode away from that place and point in time, I would be forever disgraced. Not that I didn’t want to, and not that every fiber of good sense wasn’t telling me to haul ass.

  But some good sense you listen to, and some good sense you can’t live with.

  I walked toward a beating, my heart pounding on its root.

  “You look like a queer,” Gordo said to Nemo Curliss. “Is that what you are?”

  “Hey…listen, guys.” Davy Ray managed a frail smile. “Why don’t you guys—”

  Gotha whirled on him, took two strides, planted a hand on Davy’s chest, and shoved him hard, knocking him to the ground by hooking a sneakered foot around Davy’s ankle. Davy grunted as he hit, dust pluming up around him. Gotha stood over him, smoking the Chesterfield. “You,” he said. “Just. Shut. Up.”

  “I’ve gotta get home.” Nemo started to walk away, but Gordo grabbed his arm and held him.

  “C’mere,” Gordo said. “You don’t wanna go nowhere.”

  “Yeah, I do, ’cauth my mom thays I’ve gotta—”

  Gordo howled with laughter, the sound startling birds out of the trees around the field. “Listen to him, Gotha! He’s got shit in his mouth!”

  “I think he’s been suckin’ too many cocks,” was Gotha’s opinion. “Is that right?” He aimed his hard stare at Nemo. “You been suckin’ too many cocks?”

  What made the Branlins the way they were was anybody’s guess. Maybe the meanness had been born in them; maybe it had developed, like the pus around a wound that will not heal. In any case, the Branlins knew no law but their own, and this situation was rapidly spiraling into the danger zone.

  Gordo shook Nemo. “That right? You like to suck cocks?”

  “No.” Nemo’s voice was choked.

  “Yes he does,” Gotha said, his shadow heavy across Davy Ray. “He likes to suck big fat donkey cocks.”

  “No, I don’t.” Nemo’s chest shook, and the first sob squeezed out.

  “Oh, momma’s little baby’s gonna cry now!” Gordo said, grinning.

  “I…wanna go…home…” Nemo began to sob, the tears flooding up behind his glasses.

  There is nothing more cruel in this world than a young savage with a chip on his shoulder and anger in his soul. It is worse still when there is a yellow stripe down his back, as evidenced by the fact that the Branlins never went after boys their age or older.

  I looked around. A car was passing the field, but its driver paid us no notice. We were on our own out here, under the scorching sun.

  “Put the baby down, Gordo,” Gotha said. His brother shoved Nemo to the ground. “Feed the baby, Gordo,” Gotha said, and Gordo unzipped his blue jeans.

  “Hey, come on!” Johnny protested. “Don’t!”

  Gordo, holding his exposed penis, stood over Nemo Curliss. “Shut up, niggerblood, if you don’t want some rain in your face, too.”

  I couldn’t take any more of this. I looked at the baseball in my hand. Nemo was crying. Gordo was waiting for the water to flow. I just couldn’t take it.

  I thought of Rocket being kicked over. I thought of the tears on Nemo’s face. I threw the baseball at Gordo from about ten feet.

  It didn’t
really have a lot on it, but it made a solid thunk as it hit his right shoulder. He wailed like a bobcat and staggered away from Nemo just as his fountain arced. The urine wet the front of his jeans and ran down his legs, but Gordo was grasping his shoulder and his face was all screwed up and he was yelling and sobbing at the same time. Gotha Branlin turned toward me, the cigarette clenched between his teeth and smoke whirling from his mouth. His cheeks flamed, and he propelled himself at me. Before I could think to dodge, he rammed me full force. The next thing I knew I was flat on my back with Gotha sitting on top of me, his weight crushing my chest. “I…can’t… I can’t…breathe…” I said.

  “Good,” he said, and he hit me in the face with his right fist.

  The first two punches hurt. Real bad. The next two about knocked me cold, but I was squirming and yelling and trying to get away, and the scarlet blood was all over Gotha’s knuckles. “Ohhhhh shit, my arm’s broke!” Gordo moaned, on his knees in the grass.

  A hand grabbed Gotha’s peroxided hair. Gotha’s head was jerked back, the cigarette fell from his mouth, and I saw Johnny standing over him. Then Davy Ray said, “Hold him!” and he smashed his fist into Gotha’s nose.

  The lump of flesh burst open. Blood streamed from Gotha’s nostrils, and Gotha roared like a beast and got off me. He attacked Davy Ray, hammering at him with his fists. Johnny went after him, trying to grab Gotha’s arms, but Gotha twisted around and swung a blow that crunched against the side of Johnny’s head. Then Gordo was up again, his face a blotched rictus of pure rage, and he ran in kicking at Johnny’s legs. Johnny went down, and I saw a fist bust him right in the eye. Davy Ray shouted, “You bastards!” and flung himself at Gotha, but the older boy grabbed him by the collar and swung him around like a laundry bag before throwing him to the ground. I was sitting up, blood in my mouth. Nemo was up and running for his life, but he tripped over his own tangled legs and fell headlong into the grass.

  What followed in the next thirty seconds I don’t like to think about. First Gotha and Gordo left Davy Ray crumpled up and crying, and then they pounced on Johnny and worked him over with brutal precision. When Johnny was gasping for air, the blood bubbling from his nostrils, the Branlins advanced on me again.