Chapter Sixteen

XVI  -  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 Septemberi

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 storyi aloudi To a roomful of people I hardly knewi

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 upi Davy Ray asked. What if you start shakin' so hard you can't even hold the paperi Ben asked. What if you open your mouth to talk and your voice goes and you can't even say a single wordi Johnny asked.

Friends. They really know how to knock you off your pedestal, don't theyi

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 insteadi"

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 wrongi" I asked. "Somebody been beatin' up on youi"

"No," he said. "I... I..."

Davy Ray came up, holding the baseball. "What is iti Nemo, you been cryin'i"

"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 goi" I frowned. "Go where, Nemoi"

"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 goi are you gonna go visit somebodyi" I asked.

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

"Movei To wherei"

"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."

"Tomorrowi How come so fasti"

"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. Okayi"

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. Heari"

"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!"

"Wherei" Johnny asked, lifting his glove.

"Where is iti" 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 mei

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.

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