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46

 

The Harpooners were lounging in the outfield under a mellow late-morning sun, pitching Wiffle balls to one another—a favorite Coach Cox drill—when the Coshwale bus arrived. “Here come the douchetards,” grumbled Craig Suitcase, the Harpooners’ third-string catcher, swinging so hard in his hatred of Coshwale that he missed the Wiffle ball entirely. “What a bunch of douchetards.”

For once no one disagreed with Suitcase. They looked like douchetards in their spotless beet-red satin Coshwale jackets, worn despite the pleasant weather, with their spotless beet-red Coshwale bags slung over their shoulders, and their spotless beet-red cross-trainers—which they would swap in a moment for their spotless beet-red spikes—on their feet. The Harpooners, apart from the freshpersons, knew from experience that there were spotless beet-red Coshwale batting-practice shirts beneath the jackets, and that these would be worn throughout Coshwale’s omnicompetent warm-up routine and removed in unison just before game time, revealing—what else?—spotless beet-red Coshwale jerseys, with the players’ surnames stitched between the shoulder blades. Henry didn’t know how they did it; whether they had some kind of professional laundry service or just got brand-new equipment before every game. Three games into any given season his own beloved pinstripes were stained and dingy, his spikes, which he paid for himself, scuffed and fraying before they were even broken in. Coshwale had won UMSCACs eight of the last ten years.

Soon Coshwale’s army of fans began to arrive, dressed in their beet-red attire. They set up their spotless beet-red seat cushions and sun umbrellas in the visiting bleachers, then headed back to the parking lot to set up their grills. “Douchetards upon douchetards,” muttered Suitcase.

Rick appeared at Henry’s side. “Where the Buddha?” he asked. “Thought he was dressing today.”

“Me too.” Owen hadn’t come home last night, and he’d missed breakfast with the team. It was probably time to start worrying, at least a little, but Henry didn’t have room for any more worry. “He’ll be here.”

Coshwale took the field first for infield-outfield drills. The Harpooners spread out near the home dugout, stretching, chatting, pretending not to be nervous, pretending not to watch. Owen once called the Muskies’ drills as crisp as Petrarch’s sonnets; Rick compared them to the North Korean army. Three burly beet-red-clad coaches slugged balls at once, puffing out their beet-red cheeks with the effort. Thirty-one players—a dozen more than the Harpooners had—fielded balls and fired perfect throws to one another in complicated, constantly shifting patterns. Cut two, cut three, cut four, third to first, first to third, 5-4-3, 6-4-3, 4-6-3, 1-6-3, 3-6-1, charge bunt, charge bunt, charge bunt. Always three balls aloft at once, never a missed cutoff, never an errant throw. When their fifteen minutes were up they jogged cockily off the field. You got the sense they might come back for an encore. The Coshwale fans were returning from the parking lot to their cushioned seats with plates of hors d’oeuvres. The home-side bleachers were filling too, faster and earlier than Henry had ever seen.

Just as the Harpooners took the field, Owen came ambling down the first-base line in full navy-on-ecru pinstripes, cleats on his feet. He slung his bag into the dugout, greeted Coach Cox with a jovial bow, and trotted out to right field to swap turns with Sooty Kim. Henry smiled. To see Owen wearing his 0 jersey for the first time since his injury was like waking from a bad dream. Everything that had happened between then and now could be forgotten. Today was big, big was good. The sun shone overhead. Fans in the stands. A chance to do some winning.

He slapped gloves with Izzy. Izzy took a cutoff from Loondorf in left, whipped it to Boddington at third. “Izz Izz Izz,” Henry chanted. “What izz what wuzz will be!”

“Let’s go, vendejos!” shouted Izzy. “Let’s go!”

“Cut four, cut four!”

“We ain’t letting these vatos walk into our house and take our shit! No sir!”

“Here, now!” yelled Quentin Quisp from left, as he fielded a Schwartz-struck fly ball and fired it toward home plate. “Right here right now!” These were by far the loudest, most emphatic words anyone had heard from Quisp all year.

“Somebody woke up Q!” Henry yelled. “Somebody woke up the Q!”

“Q Q Q!”

“Somebody woke up the Q!”

“Somebody woke up Henry!”

“Somebody brought back the Buddha!”

“Buddha Buddha Buddha!”

“O O O!”

“Our house!”

“Nuestra casa!”

“O O O!”

It felt good to yell, to repeat, to shout nonsense at the bright spring air. Everyone was nervous and it came out as a clean high giddiness. Henry’s arm felt light like a bird, light and lively, about to take flight from his body. He fired pellets to Arsch, pellets to Rick, pellets to Ajay. Everyone fired pellets to everyone—Henry looked around for what felt like the first time and saw how good this team had become, how good a chance they had to beat Coshwale today. “Izzy,” he yelled, though Izzy was standing beside him, “how come the good guys are vendejos and the bad guys are vatos?

“That’s how it goes, vendejo! That’s how it goes!”

The outfielders finished their portion of the drill and sprinted toward the dugout, whooping like madmen as they ran. As each infielder left the diamond he fielded a faux bunt rolled out by Coach Cox. Henry nudged Izzy before his turn. “Watch this.” He charged at full speed, barehanded the ball, and whipped it behind his back to Rick, never looking or breaking stride as he ran off the field and down the dugout stairs. Perfect.

Owen was already folded into his favorite corner of the dugout, reading light clipped to the brim of his cap, book in hand. He looked up at Henry and smiled. “How’s the wing, as the natives say?”

Henry nodded. “Wing’s A-OK.”

“Shall we do our elaborate handshake?”

“Let’s.”

Owen stood, tenting his book on the bench—The Art of Fielding. Their handshake involved both hands and both elbows, a kiss on the cheek, mock punches to the stomach, something resembling patty-cake, and a lot of kung fu–style bowing. Henry took his eye black from his bag and drew a line beneath each eye. He removed his cap, gave the sweat-softened brim a single squeeze, and placed it back on his head. He spit a few drops of saliva into Zero’s well-worn pocket and kneaded them in with his fist. Ready. The home-plate umpire strapped on his chest protector. “Two minutes, coaches.”

Coach Cox wasn’t much for pregame speeches. “Here’s the lineup, men. Starblind Phlox Skrimmer. Schwartz O’Shea Boddington. Quisp Guladni Kim. No reason we can’t handle these guys. Schwartzy, you got anything to add?”

Schwartz reached down and plucked an index card out of his shin-guard knee-flap. “Schiller,” he said. “ ‘Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man. And he is only completely a man when he plays.’ ” Schwartz paused and passed his eyes around the huddle slowly, allowing them to settle on each of his teammates’ faces, intense but benevolent. Whatever remained of the Harpooners’ nervousness burned away like gas when the pilot’s lit. “We’ve done the work. We ran and lifted and puked our guts out. We built this program out of nothing. We made ourselves proud to put on this uniform. We don’t have a single goddamn thing left to prove to anyone. We’re proven. Today we play.” He extended a hand into the center of the huddle. He looked at Henry and smiled. “Play on three. Onetwothree—”

“PLAY!”

“Kill the douchetards,” Owen said.

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