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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 29


  “Yes sir. The Blaylocks are bigger than the law.”

  “Not bigger than the law,” he corrected me. “Just a whole lot meaner.”

  A storm was coming. The wind was in the trees. Rebel got up and sniffed the air.

  Sheriff Amory stood up. “I’ll be goin’ now,” he said. “Thanks for helpin’ me.” In the fading light he looked old and burdened, his shoulders slightly stooped. He called good-bye to Mom and Dad through the screen door, and Dad came out to see him off. “You take care of yourself, Cory,” he told me, then he and Dad walked together to his car. I stayed on the porch, stroking Rebel, as Sheriff Amory and Dad talked a few minutes more. When the sheriff had driven off and Dad returned to the porch, it was he who appeared burdened. “Come on in, partner,” he said, and held the door open for me. “It’s gonna get bad out.”

  The wind roared that night. The rain pounded down, and the lightning was scrawled like the track of a mysterious finger over my hometown.

  That was the night I first dreamed about the four black girls, all dressed up and with their shoes shined, who stood beneath a leafless tree calling my name again and again and again.

  9

  Summer Winds Up

  AUGUST WAS DYING. So was summer. Schooldays, golden rule days; those lay ahead, on the gilded rim of autumn.

  These things happened in the last days of summer: I learned that Sheriff Amory had indeed visited Mr. Hargison and Mr. Moultry. Their wives had told the sheriff that both men were home all night that particular night, that they hadn’t even set one foot outside their front doors. The sheriff couldn’t do anything else; after all, I hadn’t seen the faces of the two men who’d accepted that wooden box from Biggun Blaylock.

  The September issue of Famous Monsters came to my mailbox. On the envelope that bore my name there was a long green smear of snot.

  Mom answered the telephone one morning, and said, “Cory! It’s for you!”

  I came to the phone. On the other end was Mrs. Evelyn Prathmore, who informed me that I had won third place in the short-story division of the Zephyr Art Council’s Writing Contest. I was to be given a plaque with my name on it, she told me. Would I be prepared to read my story during a program at the library the second Saturday of September?

  I was stunned. I stammered a yes. Instantly upon putting the telephone down, I was struck first with a surge of joy that almost lifted me out of my Hush Puppies and then a crush of terror that about slammed me to the floor. Read my story? Aloud? To a roomful of people I hardly knew?

  Mom calmed me down. That was part of her job, and she was good at it. She told me I had plenty of time to practice, and she said I had made her so proud, she wanted to bust. She called Dad at the dairy, and he told me he’d bring me home two cold bottles of chocolate milk. When I called Johnny, Davy Ray, and Ben to tell them the news, they thought it was great, too, and they congratulated me, but all of them quickly pricked the boil of my nascent terror by reacting dolefully to the fact that I had to read my story aloud. What if your zipper breaks and it won’t stay up? Davy Ray asked. What if you start shakin’ so hard you can’t even hold the paper? Ben asked. What if you open your mouth to talk and your voice goes and you can’t even say a single word? Johnny asked.

  Friends. They really know how to knock you off your pedestal, don’t they?

  Three days before school started, on a clear afternoon with fleecy clouds in the sky and a cool breeze blowing, we all rode our bikes to the ball field, our gloves laced to the handlebars. We took our positions around the diamond, which was cleated up and going to weed. On the scoreboard was the proof that our Little League team was not alone in agony; the men’s team, the Quails, had suffered a five-to-zip loss from the Air Force base team, the High Flyers. We stood with pools of shadow around our ankles and threw a ball back and forth to each other as we talked with some sadness about the passing of summer. We were in our secret hearts excited about the beginning of school. There comes a time when freedom becomes…well, too free. We were ready to be regulated, so we could fly again next summer.

  We threw fastballs and curves, fly balls and dust-kickers. Ben had the best wormburner you ever saw, and Johnny could make it fishtail an instant before it smacked into your glove. Too bad we were strikeout kings, each and every one. Well, there was always next season.

  We’d been there maybe forty minutes or so, working up a sweat, when Davy Ray said, “Hey, look who’s comin’!” We all looked. Walking through the weeds toward us was Nemo Curliss, his hands plunged deep into the pockets of his jeans. He was still a beanpole, his skin still buttermilk white. His mother ruled that roost, for sure.

  “Hi!” I said to him. “Hey, Nemo!” Davy Ray called. “Come on and throw us a few!”

  “Oh, great!” Johnny said, recalling his blistered hand. “Uh…why don’t you throw some to Ben instead?”

  Nemo shook his head, his face downcast. He continued walking across the field, passing Johnny and Ben, and he approached me at home plate. When he stopped and lifted his face, I saw he’d been crying. His eyes behind the thick glasses were red and swollen, the tear tracks glistening on his cheeks.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Somebody been beatin’ up on you?”

  “No,” he said. “I… I…”

  Davy Ray came up, holding the baseball. “What is it? Nemo, you been cryin’?”

  “I…” He squeezed out a small sob. He was trying to get control of himself, but it was more than he could manage. “I’ve gotta go,” he said.

  “Gotta go?” I frowned. “Go where, Nemo?”

  “Away. Jutht…” He made a gesture with a skinny arm. “Jutht away.”

  Ben and Johnny arrived at home plate. We stood in a circle around Nemo as he sobbed and wiped his runny nose. Ben couldn’t bear the sight, and he walked off a few paces and kicked a stone around. “I…went to your houth, to tell you, and your mom told me you were here,” Nemo explained. “I wanted to let you know.”

  “Well, where do you have to go? Are you gonna go visit somebody?” I asked.

  “No.” Fresh tears ran down his face. It was a terrible sight to behold. “We’ve gotta move, Cory.”

  “Move? To where?”

  “I don’t know. Thomeblathe a long way from here.”

  “Gosh,” Johnny said. “You hardly lived in Zephyr a whole summer!”

  “We were hopin’ you could play on our team next year!” Davy told him.

  “Yeah,” I said. “And we thought you were gonna go to our school.”

  “No.” Nemo kept shaking his head, his puffy eyes full of torment. “No. No. I can’t. We’ve gotta move. Gotta move tomorrow.”

  “Tomorrow? How come so fast?”

  “Mom thez. Gotta move. Tho Dad can thell thome shirts.”

  The shirts. Ah yes, the shirts. Nobody wore tailored white shirts in Zephyr. I doubted that anybody wore tailored white shirts in any of the towns Mr. Curliss took his wife and son and his fabric swatches to. I doubted if anybody ever would.

  “I can’t…” Nemo stared at me, and the pain of his gaze made my heart hurt. “I can’t…ever make no friendth,” he said. “’Cauthe…we’ve alwath gotta move.”

  “I’m sorry, Nemo,” I said. “Really I am. I wish you didn’t have to move.” On an impulse, I took the baseball out of my glove and held it out to him. “Here you go. You keep this, so you can remember your buddies here in Zephyr. Okay?”

  Nemo hesitated. Then he reached out and wrapped the skinny fingers of his miracle pitching hand around the ball, and he accepted it. Here Johnny showed his true class; the baseball belonged to him, but he never said a word.

  Nemo turned the baseball over and over between both hands, and I saw the red-stitched seam reflected in his glasses. He stared at that baseball as if into the depths of a magic crystal. “I want to thtay here,” he said softly. His nose was running, and he sniffled. “I want to thtay here, and go to thcool and have friendth.” He looked at me. “I jutht want to be like everybody elth. I
want to thtay here so bad.”

  “Maybe you can come back sometime,” Johnny offered, but it was a measly crumb. “Maybe you can—”

  “No,” Nemo interrupted. “I’ll never come back. Never. Never even for a thingle day.” He turned his head, facing the house they would soon be leaving. A tear crawled down his face and hung quivering from his chin. “Mom thez Dadth gotta thell thirts tho we can have money. At night thometimeth thee hollerth at him and callth him lathee, and thee thez thee never thouda married him. And he thez, ‘It’ll be the nextht town. The nextht town, that’ll be the lucky break.’” Nemo’s face swung back to mine. It had changed in that instant. He was still crying, but there was rage in his eyes so powerful that I had to step back a pace to escape its heat. “Ith never gonna be the nextht town,” he said. “We’re gonna move and move and move, and my mom’th gonna alwath holler and my dad’th gonna alwath thay it’ll be the nextht town. But it’ll be a lie.”

  Nemo was silent, but the rage spoke. His fingers squeezed around the baseball, his knuckles whitening, his eyes fixed on nothing.

  “We’re gonna miss you, Nemo,” I said.

  “Yeah,” Johnny said. “You’re okay.”

  “You’ll get up to the mound someday, Nemo,” Davy Ray told him. “When you get there, you strike ’em all out. Hear?”

  “Yeth,” he answered, but there wasn’t much conviction in his voice. “I with I didn’t have to…” He faded off; there was no point in it, because he was a little boy and he had to go.

  Nemo began walking home across the field, the baseball gripped in his hand. “So long!” I called to him, but he didn’t respond. I imagined what life must be like for him: forbidden to play the game he was so naturally gifted at, shuttered away in a series of houses in a parade of towns, staying in one place only long enough to get picked on and beaten up but never long enough for guys to get to know who and what he was behind the pale skin, the lisp, and the thick glasses. I could never have stood such suffering.

  Nemo screamed.

  It came out of him with such force that the sound made us jump. The scream changed, became a wail that rose up and up, painful in its longing. And then Nemo spun around, his head and shoulders first and then his hips, and I saw his eyes were wide and enraged and his teeth were clenched. His throwing arm whipped around in a blur, his backbone popped like a whip, and he hurled that baseball almost straight up into the sky.

  I saw it go up. I saw it keep going. I saw it become a dark dot. Then the sun took it.

  Nemo was on his knees, the scream and the throw having drained all the strength out of him. He blinked, his glasses crooked on his face.

  “Catch it!” Davy Ray said, squinting up. “Here it comes down!”

  “Where?” Johnny asked, lifting his glove.

  “Where is it?” I asked, stepping away from the others to try to find it in the glare.

  Ben was looking up, too. His glove hung at his side. “That bugger,” he said softly, “is gone.”

  We waited, searching the sky.

  We waited, our gloves ready.

  We waited.

  I glanced at Nemo. He had gotten up, and was walking home. His stride was neither fast nor slow, just resigned. He knew what was waiting for him in the next town, and in the town after that. “Nemo!” I shouted after him. He just kept walking, and he did not look back.

  We waited for the ball to come down.

  After a while, we sat down in the red dirt. Our eyes scanned the sky as the fleecy clouds moved and the sun began to sink toward the west.

  No one spoke. No one knew what to say.

  In later days, Ben would speculate that the wind blew the ball into the river. Johnny would believe a flock of birds had hit it, and knocked it off course. Davy Ray would say something must’ve been wrong with the ball, that it had come to pieces way up there and we hadn’t seen the skin and the innards plummet back to earth.

  And me?

  I just believed.

  Twilight came upon us. At last I climbed on Rocket, the other guys got on their bikes, and we left the ball field and our summer dreams. Our faces now were turned toward autumn. I was going to have to tell somebody soon about the four black girls I saw in my sleep, the ones all dressed up and calling my name under a tree with no leaves. I was going to have to read my story about the man at the bottom of Saxon’s Lake in front of a roomful of people. I was going to have to figure out what was in that wooden box Biggun Blaylock had sold in the dead of night for four hundred dollars.

  I was going to have to help my father find peace.

  We pedaled on, four buddies with the wind at our backs and all roads leading to the future.

  THREE

  Burning Autumn

  GREEN-FEATHERED HAT—THE MAGIC Box—Dinner with Vernon—The Wrath of Five Thunders—Case #3432—Dead Man Driving—High Noon in Zephyr—From the Lost World

  1

  Green-Feathered Hat

  “CORY?”

  I pretended I didn’t hear the ominous whisper.

  “Cory?”

  No. I wasn’t going to look. At the front of the schoolroom, Mrs. Judith Harper—otherwise known as “Hairpie,” “Harpy,” and “Old Leatherlungs”—was demonstrating on the blackboard the division of fractions. Arithmetic was for me a walk into the Twilight Zone; this dividing fractions stuff was a mystifying fall into the Outer Limits.

  “Cory?” she whispered again, behind me. “I’ve got a big ole green booger on my finger.”

  Oh my Lord, I thought. Not again!

  “If you don’t turn around and smile at me, I’m gone wipe it on the back of your neck.”

  It was the fourth day of class. I knew on the first day that it was going to be a long year, because some idiot had decreed the Demon a “gifted child” and had double-promoted her, and like the fickle finger of fate, Mrs. Harper had devised a seating chart—boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl—that put the Demon in the desk at my back.

  And the worst part, the very worst, was that—as Davy Ray told me and laughed wickedly—she had a crush on me as big as the cheesy green moon.

  “Cory?” Her voice demanded my attention.

  I had to turn around. Last time I’d resisted, she’d smeared saliva on the back of my neck in the shape of a heart.

  Brenda Sutley was grinning, her red hair oily and ratty and her wandering eyes shining with mischief. She held up her index finger, which had a dirt-grimed nail but no booger on it.

  “Got’cha,” she whispered.

  “Cory Jay Mackenson!” Leatherlungs roared. “Turn around this instant!”

  I did, almost giving myself whiplash. I heard the traitors around me giggling, knowing that the Harpy would not be satisfied with this display of respect. “Oh, I guess you know all about the division of fractions by now, don’t you?” she inquired, her hands on hips as wide as a Patton tank. “Well, why don’t you come up here and do some division for us, to show us how it’s done?” She held the accursed yellow chalk out to me.

  If I am ever on death row, the walk to the electric chair will be no more terrifying than that walk from my desk to the chalk in Mrs. Harper’s hand and then, ultimately, to the blackboard. “All right,” she said as I stood there shoulder-slumped and hang-doggy. “Write down these fractions.” She rattled some off, and when I copied them my chalk broke and Nelson Bittner laughed and in two seconds I had a fellow sufferer up there with me.

  Everybody knew by now: we weren’t going to be able to defeat Mrs. Harper with a frontal attack. We weren’t going to be able to storm her ramparts and yell victory over her scattered math books. It would have to be a slow, insidious war of snipers and booby traps, a painstaking probe to learn her weakness. All us kids had found out by now that all teachers had a sore spot; some went crazy over gum chewing, others insane over behind-the-back giggles, still others nuts over the repeated squeaking and scuffing of shoes on the linoleum. Machine-gun coughs, donkeylike snorts, a fusillade of throat clearing, spitballs stuck to the bla
ckboard: all these were arsenals in the battle against Hitlerian teachers. Who knows? Maybe we could get the Demon to bring to class a dead, stinking animal in a shoebox, or get her to sneeze and blow ribbons of snot out of those talented nostrils of hers to make Mrs. Harper’s hair uncurl.

  “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” Leatherlungs bellowed at me as I finished my queasy attempt at fraction division. “Go sit down and pay attention, you blockhead!”

  Between Leatherlungs and the Demon, I was really in for it.

  After the three o’clock bell had rung and Davy Ray, Johnny, Ben, and I had jawed about the events of the day, I pedaled home on Rocket under a dark, glowering sky. I found Mom at home, cleaning the oven. “Cory!” she said when I walked into the kitchen intent on raiding the cookie jar. “Lady from the mayor’s office called for you about ten minutes ago. Mayor Swope wants to see you.”

  “Mayor Swope?” I paused with my hand reaching for a Lorna Doone. “What for?”

  “Didn’t say what for, but she said it was important.” Mom glanced out the window. “A storm’s blowin’ up. Your father’ll drive you over to the courthouse, if you can wait an hour.”

  My curiosity was piqued. What would Mayor Swope want with me? I looked out the window as Mom continued her oven cleaning, and judged the gathering clouds. “I think I can get there before it starts rainin’,” I said.