Henry wasn’t wearing his uniform, and despite the absurdly large Westish bag slung over his shoulder, the usher wouldn’t let him into the stadium without a ticket. “Game starts in five minutes,” said the usher, who was old and wiry with long white sideburns, as he stepped in front of Henry to block the gate. “The players have been here for hours.”
“Look at this huge bag.” Henry wearily slapped the Westish logo. The bag really did feel huge, a burden, today. “Would I carry this around if I wasn’t on the team?”
“Look at it. It’s a baseball player’s bag. This part’s extra long so you can fit your bat.”
“I don’t see any bat.”
“I don’t have a bat,” Henry said.
“Don’t see why not.” The usher waved Henry aside so that he could rip the tickets and pat the heads of two young girls in flower-dotted dresses. Then he pulled a program out of his back pocket and unrolled it. “Which team do you play for?”
“Westish. Look, there’s my n—”
The usher jerked the program away. “Who’s first on the roster?” he demanded. “And how much does he weigh? I’ll give you five pounds leeway. Either side.”
Henry scrolled alphabetically through the squad in his mind. “Israel Avila. Shortstop, number one. Chicago, Illinois. Weighs… I don’t know what he weighs. One-fifty.”
“Sorry, kid. It’s Demetrius Arsch. Two-sixty.” The usher rolled up the program and waved it toward the parking lot. “Go find another sucker.”
Not until Henry unshouldered and unzipped his bag, dug around inside, and produced his rumpled jersey top did the old man wave him through, grumbling as if the whole exchange had been Henry’s fault. Henry stepped uncertainly through the pavilion’s milling crowds, bag flopping against his back. This was a brand-new, top-of-the-line minor-league ballpark—the kind of park he’d seemed, just a few weeks ago, to be destined to be playing in soon. His uniform still in hand, he waved it at a second usher and emerged into the first-base stands.
The teams had finished infield practice and were gathered in front of their respective dugouts while the head coaches conferred with the umpires. The wide number 44 on Schwartz’s back faced Henry. He had one arm around Arsch and the other around Izzy, his head turning slowly from side to side as he delivered the speech he’d been waiting all his life to deliver.
Henry sat down in an empty aisle seat. There was no way he was getting any closer to the team than this. He was already wondering why he’d come this close. He didn’t want to be the bad-luck charm, the albatross that doomed the Harpooners’ streak. They’d lost the last two games he played in and won the last twelve he didn’t. Those kinds of numbers spoke for themselves.
“Pardon me, young man.” A rotund man in a coat and tie tapped Henry importantly on the arm. “I believe you’re in our seats.”
A woman with dyed-blond hair and a gauzy shawl thrown over her shoulders was standing behind the man, her hands wrapped helplessly in the shawl, as if the weather were cold. She towered over his balding head.
“Sorry,” Henry said, and squeezed his bag back out into the aisle. As he rose, the Harpooners’ huddle broke. Owen caught Henry’s eye and waved, smiling broadly. Several other guys turned to look. Owen was beckoning him with his glove. So was Rick. So was Izzy. If there’d been an empty seat nearby, he might have been able to wave and stay put, but there wasn’t, he was stranded, standing, and finally there seemed to be nothing to do but descend the stairs to the front row and clamber onto the concrete top of the Amherst dugout, on which was painted the navy-and-lime-green logo of the NCAA World Series. He tossed his bag down first, then, light-headed, lowered his sneaker-clad feet to that beautiful, beautiful field.
The Harpooners, having won the coin toss, would be the home team and bat last. The PA announcer boomingly introduced the Harpooner starters, who jogged to their positions as the crowd cheered amiably. Amherst fans far outnumbered Westish ones, but the bulk of the crowd was unattached—locals, or fans of one of the six already eliminated teams.
Henry, having hopped down into foul territory, froze. Coach Cox had spotted him too, was waving him over, but to reach the Westish dugout he would have to go right past Schwartz, who crouched behind home plate catching Starblind’s last warm-up throws. Henry stalled there, feeling more exposed and roachlike than he ever had in Pella’s kitchen, an ESPN cameraman two steps away and what felt like ten thousand eyes upon him. Finally Schwartz, without turning around, lifted his right hand and gestured toward the Westish dugout. Come on, come on.
Henry scuttled by. Obviously he hadn’t thought this through. If the Harpooners lost they would blame him, rightly blame him, blame him forever, for dragging himself halfway across the country to jinx them. What had he been thinking, coming here? What had President Affenlight been thinking? He couldn’t blame President Affenlight, it was his own bad decision, but President Affenlight had proposed it and when the president of your school proposed something it was awfully easy to comply. Albatross, he thought. Crap, crap, crap.
Coach Cox greeted him at the mouth of the dugout with a happy, bone-crushing handshake. “Go get dressed,” he growled.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Henry said. “That wouldn’t be—”
“I need you to coach first base. Get your damn uniform on.”
Henry headed into the dark corridor that led to the locker room to change. His gear was dirty and a little gamy, unwashed since the Coshwale game, but he dressed with his usual slow solemnity, or at least in imitation of it, in an effort to appease the gods of fate. Coaching first wouldn’t be bad—it would give him a way to contribute, however minimally, and it meant that when the Harpooners were batting and Schwartz was in the dugout, Henry’d be out on the field.
Starblind had already gotten two quick outs when Henry entered the dugout. The reserves were perched on the narrow upright back of the bench, glaring out at the field. No one had shaved since regionals began, though with Loondorf and Sooty Kim you could barely tell. They all wore the same expression, as fierce as if they were pitching. Henry made his way down to the distant end, where anyone who didn’t want to see him wouldn’t have to, and took a seat on the far side of Meat.
“Adam better throw a doggone shutout.” Arsch flipped sunflower seeds toward his mouth. “We’ve got no pitchers.”
“Who’s left?” Henry asked.
“Sal went eight yesterday, so he’s finished. Quisp’s been throwing a ton too. Even Rick had to pitch a few innings—can’t believe we survived that shitstorm. So for relievers it’s Loonie…” Arsch scanned the dugout. “… and Loonie, basically.”
“My wing’s pretty sore,” Loondorf reminded him. “I’ve got nothing.”
“Loonie’s got nothing,” Arsch repeated, shaking his head sadly.
Starblind struck out Amherst’s number-three hitter and stalked toward the dugout with a steely fist pump. Henry stepped onto the field beneath the high-banked lights and made his way toward the first-base coaching box. His knees wobbled; he had to concentrate. Coaching first base wasn’t hard, but you could certainly screw it up.
Starblind lined a first-pitch single to left. Izzy laid down a perfect sacrifice to move him to second, headed back to the dugout to receive his long line of congratulations. So far, so good. Owen settled into the batter’s box, politely stifled a yawn with the back of a batting-gloved hand. On the fourth pitch he chopped a single back through the middle. Starblind wheeled around third at sprinter’s speed and slid home as the throw veered off target. One–nothing, Westish.
“You’re the man!” Henry told Owen.
“I’m the man!” Owen squinted up into the stands. “Have you seen Guert?”
“Something came up,” Henry said. “He couldn’t make it.” He was lying without really knowing why. When his alarm went off this morning, he’d grabbed his bag from under his bed, unsure whether he’d hallucinated his entire encounter with President Affenlight the night before. In a way, it was that uncertainty that propelled him; he’d gone downstairs more to see whether Affenlight’s visit had been a dream than because he was sure he wanted to fly to South Carolina.
President Affenlight hadn’t been by the Melville statue, where he’d said he’d be, but a black town car lurked in the service bay of the dining hall. The driver rolled down the window. “Skrimshander?”
The driver popped the trunk. Henry told him he was waiting for someone. The driver said, You’re Skrimshander, right? The chapel bells tolled once, lugubriously, to indicate that it was six fifteen; President Affenlight had said six. Maybe Henry had misunderstood; maybe Affenlight hadn’t intended to join him. It only took a moment to lift his bag into the trunk and climb into the backseat. Once the driver shut the heavy, sound-muffling door behind him, there was no turning back.
“He told me to wish you luck,” Henry said to Owen.
“Luck? I require no luck. That’s unfortunate, though, that Guert couldn’t come.”
The Harpooners’ lead held until the third inning, when Amherst pieced together a hit batsman, a single, and a sacrifice fly to tie the game. It could have been worse for Westish, but with runners on the corners and two down, Izzy made a diving grab of a shot up the middle and, while lying flat on his belly on the outfield grass, flicked the ball to Ajay for the force.
“He’s no Henry Skrimshander,” Arsch said. “But he’s pretty damned good.”
Izzy came sprinting toward the dugout, thumping his fist into the web of his glove and yelling, the way you do when a great play gets your blood up. As Henry trotted out to first base, he slapped Izzy on the rump. “Good play,” he said.
Izzy beamed. “Thanks, Henry.”
Behind the Amherst dugout stood a row of six female students, purple decals painted on their cheeks, wearing oversize purple T-shirts that spelled out A-M-H-E-R-T in white letters. Four of the girls were stout and blocky and more or less butch. The fifth—letter E—stood six-foot-something and swayed in the wind, hair pulled back in a dark ponytail. The sixth—letter A—was petite and blond, with her own ponytail slipped through the slot at the back of her purple baseball cap. Henry could tell they were Amherst softball players who’d road-tripped south to support their male counterparts. Their missing S was probably back at the motel, passed out after a too-hard day of partying.
A, despite being half the size of her teammates, was the ringleader; she started the foot-stamping cheers, and she was drinking the most impressive quantity of the pink liquid being distributed by letters M and R, with eroding secrecy, from smuggled-in plastic bottles into stadium-issue Pepsi cups. She strained forward over the railing, her face bright red from booze and yelling. She’d caught Henry’s attention right away. Then in the fourth inning, to Henry’s dismay, he caught hers.
This startled him, but he couldn’t turn around or in any way acknowledge it.
“Hey, Henry! Why won’t they let you play?”
He felt quite certain that the voice, shrill and demanding, with an undercurrent of malicious playfulness, belonged to A. His heart sank a long way. A second voice, deeper but less assured, chimed in:
“Maybe he’s a choker.”
“A choker?” asked A, feigning surprise. “Henry’s a choker?”
“That’s what I heard.”
“Why does Henry choke?” A demanded.
“Maybe he can’t take the presha,” someone suggested, in a strong Boston accent.
“The pressure?! Henry can’t take the pressure?” A sounded utterly flummoxed, as if she’d known Henry a long time and had never in her wildest dreams believed it would come to this.
Henry stared intently at the vivid white square of first base, pretending to ignore them while straining to hear every word. Schwartzy walked to lead off the inning. He tossed his bat aside, removed his forearm guard, and ran hard to first. Henry clapped once, kept his eyes on the bag.
A had found Henry’s four-line bio—the longest on the team—in the glossy tournament program. “Henry Skrimshander,” she announced. “Junior. Lankton, South Dakota. Five-foot-ten. One hundred and fifty-five pounds. As a sophomore, was named Conference Player of the Year. Batted .448 this year, with nine home runs and nineteen stolen bases. Shares the NCAA shortstop record for consecutive errorless games with Hall of Famer Aparicio Rodriguez.”
Henry was painfully impressed by the flawless, fiber-optic clarity with which she delivered this information to a significant portion of the ballpark. The first-base stands had fallen quiet; they were listening to her.
“Hey, Jen, don’t those sound like pretty good stats for a first-base coach?”
“I’d say so,” replied Jen.
“Maybe Henry’s too good to play for this sorry team. Do you agree, Jen?”
“Maybe Henry would rather stand there and waggle his little butt in our faces.”
“Yes!” yelped Jen, her voice fracturing into shards of laughter. Henry mentally checked his butt cheeks to make sure they were perfectly still.
“Tough crowd,” said Schwartz, not to Henry but to the first baseman.
The first baseman shrugged. “That’s Miz.”
“Elizabeth Myszki. Second baseman for the softball team.”
“She’s a charmer,” Schwartz said.
The first baseman shrugged again. “She’s got a thing for middle infielders.”
Rick O’Shea laced a one-hopper to the Amherst third baseman, who set in motion an easy double play. Boddington flied out to center for the third out. Henry, not wishing to seem too eager, paused a quarter beat before sprinting back to the dugout. Once safely inside, he could finally turn around and have a long look, albeit from afar, at the very pretty, incredibly unpleasant Elizabeth Myszki.
Top of the fifth. The scoreboard read 1-3-0, runs-hits-errors, for each team. The field was a sapphire storybook dream. Starblind walked the first batter on four pitches, none of them near the strike zone.
“Uh-oh,” said Arsch. “Here we go.”
Starblind walked the next batter too. He was taking a long time between pitches, muttering to himself, laboriously wiping sweat from his golden forehead. Schwartz called time and trudged out to the mound for a heart-to-heart. Coach Cox stroked his mustache and looked up and down the dugout. “Loonie,” he said. “How’s the wing?”
“Don’t know, Coach. I can sure give it a shot.”
Coach Cox was staring at Starblind with fervid intensity, as if trying to see through his pinstripes and into his soul. “Meat,” he said. “Take Loonie down to the bullpen, play a little catch.”
“Right, Coach.” Arsch grabbed his chest protector, and he and Loondorf headed down the foul line. Starblind toed the rubber, checked the runners, and threw a fastball that the batter clobbered off the left-field wall. One run scored easily. Quisp held the other runners to second and third: 2–1 Amherst, nobody out.
“Goddamnit.” Coach Cox picked up the bullpen phone and waited for Arsch to answer. “Get Loonie ready quick.” He signaled for time and strolled out to the mound to chat with Starblind, though Henry knew that the real purpose of his visit was to give Loondorf a chance to get loose. As Coach Cox spoke, Starblind nodded forcefully and slammed the ball into his glove. Everyone on the Westish bench could read his lips. I’m fine. I’m fine. “He ain’t fine,” Suitcase grumbled, spitting a fragment of sunflower-seed shell between his front teeth. “He’s out of gas.”
The next Amherst hitter walked to load the bases. Up came a lefty, thin as a toothbrush, who held the bat straight over his head as if trying to catch lightning. With the count 2 and 0, he hung back on a big slow curveball and punched it the other way, just past a diving Boddington.
The runner from third scored, the runner from second scored, and here came the runner from first, rounding third as Quisp dug the ball out of the left-field corner. Quisp rose with the ball and took a momentum-gathering gallop, lifting his right knee and then his left high in the air like a Cossack dancer. He fired with all his might toward home plate, tumbling forward into the grass as he let go.
It was a throw you could dry laundry on, head-high all the way, and only a step off target. A one-in-a-thousand throw. Schwartz snagged the ball on the infield side of the plate and dove back to slap a tag on the arm of the sliding runner.
The umpire swept his hands out, palms down. “Safe!”
“What?!” Schwartz leaped to his feet, stared wildly at the umpire, fell into the baffled, beseeching, knee-buckled, disbelieving, palms-up, how-can-you-do-this-to-me crouch of the wronged and righteous athlete. He grabbed the ball from his mitt and shook it, a menacing display, as if he intended to bash the umpire over the head with it.
“Three!” Henry yelled as he saw the base runner break. “Three three three!” Schwartz whirled toward third, but it was too late, and the guy who’d hit the ball, the toothbrush-thin lefty, slid in without a throw. Schwartz slammed the ball into his mitt. His negligence had given Amherst an extra base, but at least the ugly tableau with the umpire had been broken. Another half-second and he would have done something to get himself ejected, if not arrested. Now he stalked down the third-base line, away from the ump, fuming. Coach Cox jogged out, ostensibly to argue the call, but mainly to intervene if Schwartz got riled again.
Quisp was lying flat on his stomach in left field. “What’s wrong with Q?” Henry asked. Before anyone could answer, the bullpen phone rang. Henry was the nearest to it. “Hello?” he said.
“Was he out?” Arsch asked.
“Sure looked that way.”
“Shit.” Arsch’s voice sounded soft and doomed. “Loonie can’t go. He’s throwing like sixty.”
“Okay,” Henry said.
“Coach has already been to the mound this inning. If he goes again, he’ll have to change pitchers.”
“Right.” Henry dropped the phone, sprinted onto the field, and latched onto the arm of Coach Cox, who was headed toward the mound to pull Starblind from the game. “Phil can’t go,” Henry said. “Dead arm.”
They were standing halfway between home plate and the pitching rubber. Henry wondered how close you had to get to the mound before it qualified as a trip to the mound. “Then we’ll go with Quisp,” Coach Cox said.
Henry pointed toward left field. “Quisp is down too.”
“Jesus F. Christmas,” Coach Cox muttered. “What the goddamn is going on?”
Two trainers jogged out to look at Quisp, who’d put so much power into that gorgeous throw that he’d torn an abdominal muscle. Eventually he was able to stand and limp back to the bench, supported by Steve Willoughby and Coach Cox. Sooty Kim grabbed his glove and jogged out to left, goose-stepping to stretch his cold legs. Five to one, Amherst. Runner on third, nobody out, cleanup hitter at the plate. The A-M-H-E-R-T girls leaned out over the railing like purple Furies, screaming through their makeshift Pepsi-cup megaphones. Albatross, Henry thought. These guys will never forgive me.
The game had already been paused for what seemed like an eternity, but just as the batter settled into his stance, Schwartz asked for time. The umpire granted the request with obvious reluctance. Schwartz hustled out for a quick word with Starblind, who nodded once and mopped the sweat from his forehead.
Starblind stared down the runner at third, fired a four-seam fastball right at the chin of the hitter, who jerked his hands toward his face as he flung himself to the ground to get out of the way. The ball caromed off the neck of the bat and toward the Amherst dugout. The Amherst coach, who was already charging onto the field to scream at Starblind, detoured to give the spinning ball a petulant kick. The umpire could easily have ejected Starblind—and also Schwartz, who’d clearly ordered the pitch—but instead, and perhaps in compensation for missing the call at home, he simply issued a warning and sent the Amherst coach back to the dugout.
The batter dusted off his jersey and stepped gamely back into the box, but a disastrous thought had been planted in his subconscious. The next pitch, a slow curve, buckled his knees for strike two, and then Starblind threw a mediocre fastball, high and outside, which he waved at unconvincingly.
Starblind hopped off the mound, pumped his fist. He looked suddenly revived—shoulders thrown back, jaw relaxed. He jammed the next batter with his best fastball of the game, inducing a pop fly to Ajay, then struck out the Amherst first baseman, stranding the runner at third. As the Harpooners ran off the field, shouting to one another that they weren’t through yet, never say die, time to put some runs on the board, Henry marveled, not for the first time, at Schwartz’s uncanny ability to orchestrate situations. How did he know that the ump wouldn’t eject Starblind, leaving the Harpooners totally pitcherless? How did he know that that particular batter would be so readily intimidated? How did he know that one strikeout would rejuvenate Starblind, at least for the moment?
The answer, presumably, was that Schwartz didn’t know any of that. But he’d thought of a plan, something to try, and he’d been bold enough to try it.
Loondorf and Arsch returned from the bullpen. “Loonie,” Henry said, draping an arm around the freshperson’s drooping shoulders, “I need you to go coach first.”
“Okay, Henry.” Loondorf trotted out toward the A-M-H-E-R-T girls. Owen sat down beside Henry and produced a library copy of Fear and Trembling from beneath the bench. “Protect me from errant balls,” he said, tucking his bookmark under the lip of his navy cap. “I have fragile bones.”
“I thought Coach Cox wasn’t letting you read anymore.”
“He’s not. Protect me from Coach Cox too.”
Neither team threatened to score until the bottom of the eighth, when Starblind and Izzy singled, putting runners on the corners with nobody out. Owen lined out to first, a bit of bad luck on a well-hit ball, and trotted back to the dugout to resume his reading.
Henry could feel a quiet, electric idea slithering through the ballpark as Schwartzy strode to the plate and pawed at the chalk-swirled back line of the batter’s box with his size-fourteen spike. He was Westish’s all-time home-run leader, and he looked the part. The Amherst fans, except for Elizabeth Myszki, fell quiet. The tiny contingent of Westish parents stood and whistled and clapped. The other six thousand people slid a few inches forward in their seats, together producing a subtle shift in energy that was evident throughout the park. The Harpooners, except for Henry and Owen, leaned over the lip of the dugout, yelling mild profanities to distract the pitcher while inwardly they prayed, contorting their fingers and toes into whatever configurations they felt would produce the most luck. There was a lot of superstitious fidgeting and shifting—nobody wanted to move around too much, which was itself unlucky, but nobody wanted to get stuck in an unlucky pose.
Henry too, as he sat two steps behind his antsy teammates, inches from Owen’s elbow, tried to find a pose that would help. Deep down, he thought, we all believe we’re God. We secretly believe that the outcome of the game depends on us, even when we’re only watching—on the way we breathe in, the way we breathe out, the T-shirt we wear, whether we close our eyes as the pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand and heads toward Schwartz.
Swing and a miss, strike one.
Each of us, deep down, believes that the whole world issues from his own precious body, like images projected from a tiny slide onto an earth-sized screen. And then, deeper down, each of us knows he’s wrong.
Swing and a miss, strike two.
“Rally caps!” yelled Rick O’Shea from the on-deck circle. Everyone—except for Owen, who continued to bury his nose in his book—flipped his hat inside out so the skeletal white underfabric showed. Henry followed suit.
But it wasn’t to be. Schwartz took a third massive swing, glared angrily at the untouched barrel of his bat, and stalked back to the dugout, head down. The Amherst fans roared. Two outs.
Rick O’Shea strode to the plate to try to redeem Schwartz, settled into his left-handed stance. Come on, Henry thought. One time. Izzy, who’d gotten a sneaky lead at first, took off. The pitch was a fastball down and in, right where Rick liked it. One time. Rick dropped his hands and torqued his hips mightily, his pinstriped belly trailing behind. The pitch was ankle-high, but Rick’s looping swing caught it square on the fat part of the bat. The clear loud peal cut through the crowd’s noise. The ball described a parabolic arc through the dark Carolinian air, climbing and climbing still higher, high above the light stanchions, so high it could only come straight down, and would either clear the fence or be caught. The right fielder drifted back, back, until his back was pressed against the wall. He flexed his knees, intent as a cat, and leaped, hooking his free arm over the top of the wall as he stretched his glove toward the plummeting ball…
“Yes!” Owen, who’d seemed not even to be watching, flung his book aside and vaulted the dugout stairs. “Yes yes yes yes yes!” The ball landed in the Amherst bullpen, a yard past the wall. Owen, the first to arrive at home plate, beat madly on Rick’s helmet with both hands, leapfrogged onto his shoulders as the whole team, Henry included, danced around. “Yes!”
The Harpooners trailed by only one. When Boddington followed with a sharp single to right, the Amherst coach finally signaled to the bullpen for a fresh pitcher. The righty who jogged to the mound looked more like an accountant than a star pitcher—he was Henry’s height, pale-haired and sunken-chinned, with slouched and flimsy shoulders. “Name’s Dougal,” Arsch told Henry. “Pitched a two-hitter against West Texas the other day. He is filthy.”
Henry nodded. The ability to throw a baseball was an alchemical thing, a superhero’s secret power. You could never quite tell who possessed it.
Sooty Kim stepped to the plate. Dougal checked the runner at first, slide-stepped expertly off the mound, and drilled Sooty in the shoulder with a ninety-plus fastball. Sooty dropped to the ground and writhed there for a while. He climbed to his feet and walked down to first, wincing as he kneaded his upper arm.
“Did he do that on purpose?” Arsch wondered aloud, not without a whisper of admiration in his voice, as the now thoroughly disgruntled umpire warned both benches.
Henry shrugged. It certainly looked purposeful. It looked like Dougal was exacting revenge for the brushback pitch Starblind had thrown three innings before—a reckless, almost crazy thing to do in such a close game. You want to throw at my guy? Fine. I’ll put the go-ahead run on base, and then I’ll get out of it. Which is just what he did, striking out Sal Phlox on four pitches. “Filthy,” Arsch reiterated. “Just plain filthy.”
Top of the ninth. As Starblind warmed up, Coach Cox kept scanning the length of the dugout, frowning all the while, the way a hungry person keeps opening an empty refrigerator on the off chance he might have overlooked something. He needed a pitcher, but he didn’t have one. Starblind was finished, was basically lobbing the ball to home plate, but he was going to have to do that for one more inning.
The leadoff hitter smoked a double into the gap between Sal and Sooty Kim. The next batter yanked a long drive down the left-field line, bringing the Amherst players surging happily out of their dugout, but it curled just foul. Starblind’s whole body looked limp, spent. Schwartz lifted up his mask and looked beseechingly toward the dugout. Even me, his eyes said. Even I might throw better than this.
Maybe I should volunteer, Henry thought. I can throw as hard as Starblind. Harder, even. Get in there, fire a few fastballs over the plate, stop the bleeding. We come back and win it in the bottom of the inning. Storybook ending. So what if I haven’t eaten in a while?
Before he could indulge the fantasy any further, Starblind threw another wobbly pitch. The hitter lined a head-high shot up the middle. The Amherst players surged toward the field again, ready to celebrate another score. Izzy came flying in from nowhere, stretched full-out in midair. The ball vanished into his glove. He landed on his stomach and reached out with his right hand to touch second base, doubling off the stunned runner. Two outs. Starblind, somehow, induced a fly ball to end the inning. The Harpooners sprinted off the field, shouting nonsense. Down by one, one last chance.
“Arsch,” barked Coach Cox. “Get a bat. You’re hitting for Ajay.”
Arsch nodded resolutely, bat already in hand. “Filthy?” he muttered to himself, staring out toward the mound. “I’ll show him filthy.”
The bullpen phone rang. Coach Cox reached down into the dugout and grabbed the receiver. “Mike?” he said. “Mike’s pretty goddamn busy right now.” He moved to hang up the phone, then brought it back to his ear. “Hey. Whoa. Just calm down a sec.” Pause. “Hang on. Hang on. I’ll get him.”
Henry kept one eye on Arsch as the big man stepped in against meek-looking Dougal, and one on Schwartz, who pressed the phone to one ear and a grimy hand to the other to muffle his teammates’ chatter. Schwartz was watching the field too, initially—Arsch took a called strike—but his eyes quickly fell to the concrete floor. “Are you sure?” he said quietly.
Ball one. Schwartz sank down on the bench, ten feet away from Henry.
“Baby. Oh, baby. I’m so sorry.”
His grimy hand made a slow pass over his widow’s peak, fell helplessly into his lap. He was wearing all of his gear except for his mask. He spoke a few more words into the phone, too softly for Henry to hear, and handed the receiver to Jensen to hang up.
Meat struck out swinging. Two outs left in the season. Owen shut his book and stood, stretched his arms over his head, fingers woven together, and hummed a little ditty; he would bat if Starblind or Izzy reached base. Henry looked at Schwartz, who stared down at the squashed paper cones that littered the floor.
Owen pulled his batting gloves from his back pockets, slapped them decisively against his thighs, and headed for the bat rack. “Buddha,” Schwartz said softly. Owen turned around.
Schwartz was wearing a look of indecision that Henry had never seen on him before. “Buddha,” he repeated, even more softly. “That was Pella. It’s about her dad. Mrs. McCallister found him this morning. He’s…” Schwartz’s voice caught. Deep furrows ran through the dirt on his forehead. Henry already knew—felt like he’d known all day—what he was going to say. “He’s dead.”
Owen froze. “You’re joking.”
They stared at each other, Owen’s smoke-gray eyes against Schwartz’s big amber ones, for what felt like forever. Starblind’s bat made a loud promising ping. Henry glanced up to see the Amherst third baseman wrap his glove around a hard line drive. Two outs. Starblind yelped in anguish and pounded his bat into home plate. Owen, his face expressionless, lowered his eyes and nodded, as if to say, Okay. I believe you.
“I’m sorry,” Schwartz said.
“Why? Did you kill him?” Owen swam blankly past Schwartz and sank down on the bench. Schwartz sat down beside him. Henry slid nearer, so that the three of them were in a row, Owen bent forward in the center. “You’re on deck,” Henry said.
“So…” Henry looked to Schwartz for help, but Schwartz either didn’t notice or wouldn’t meet his eye. Henry wanted to tell Owen to go get a hit for President Affenlight, that that was all he could do right now, that they would work through the rest later, but the words were absurd and they dried on his lips. He patted Owen weakly on the back. “I’ll tell Coach Cox.”
Izzy had one foot in the batter’s box and was performing his usual pre-at-bat ritual—five signs of the cross at maximum speed. “Izzy!” Henry yelled from the dugout steps. “Step out!” His voice dissolved into the crowd’s roar. “Izzy! Step out!”
Izzy, confused, complied. Henry ran out to Coach Cox and tried to explain that President Affenlight was dead and therefore Owen couldn’t bat. Coach Cox stroked his mustache, annoyed and uncomprehending.
“Owen can’t bat,” Henry said. “He just can’t.”
“Why the goddamn not?”
“Believe me,” Henry pleaded. “He just can’t.”
Coach Cox looked up and down the dugout. The only guys left on the bench were the guys who rarely played—guys who had zero chance against a dealer of filth like Dougal. “Grab a bat.”
“Me?” Henry said. “But Coach… I’m not even wearing a cup.”
“You want mine? Grab a bat and get a goddamn hit, Skrimshander.”
Oh Jesus, Henry thought. He didn’t know what to wish for. If he didn’t get to hit, it would be because Izzy made an out and the game was over. If he did get to hit, he was toast. He hurried to the bat rack to find a bat—he chose a lighter one than usual, to match his diminished strength—and took a few tentative swipes at the evening air. The bat felt like lead in his hands.
Dougal rocked and fired. The pitch was a fastball, low and outside. Izzy, overmatched, stuck out the bat. The ball looped torpidly over the second baseman’s head and dropped in shallow right-center for a single. Oh boy.
Coach Cox pulled his crumpled lineup card from his back pocket and waved at the plate umpire. Dougal stomped pissily around the back of the mound, flipping the rosin bag with the backs of his fingers. Henry squeezed into a batting helmet and slowly made his way toward home plate. He dipped one foot inside the batter’s box, as if testing the temperature of a pool.
“Let’s go, son,” growled the umpire. “Season can’t last forever.”
Henry stepped into the box, tapped the Harpooner on his chest three times. He felt less muscle than he’d grown to expect beneath the starchy fabric. Dougal peered in, agreed to a sign. The Amherst crowd started a chant. The first pitch, an absolutely filthy slider, darted by for a strike.
Henry knew that he was toast. Dougal could throw that filthy pitch twice more, and he wouldn’t come close to hitting it. It was a pro-quality slider, had broken a foot or more while moving outlandishly fast. The timing required to hit a pitch like that was a matter not just of skill but of constant practice. A day off made it tough; a month off made it impossible. Schwartzy might someday have forgiven him for what he’d done with Pella, but now he’d never know—because Schwartz, standing there in the on-deck circle with two weighted bats on his shoulder, would never forgive him for this.
He decided in advance to swing at the second pitch, if only to give Dougal something to think about. Dougal wiped the sweat from his forehead, checked Izzy at first. The pitch was another slider, identical to the first. Henry swung and missed. Two strikes.
Still, he must have done something to catch Dougal’s eye, because Dougal shook off one sign, and then another, and then beckoned for the catcher, who called time and jogged out to confer. The Amherst fans were going crazy. Dougal lifted his glove to his face and spoke through the latticed weave of the webbing, to keep Henry from reading his lips. A burst of affectionate sympathy surged through Henry; somehow all of a sudden, and maybe because he felt so light-headed, it occurred to him that he and Dougal were brothers, members of a tribe of unassuming, live-armed guys, guys who looked like nobodies but carried their force on the inside and were determined to beat you, would do anything to beat you, would kill themselves to beat you, and he knew where Dougal disagreed with his catcher. The catcher figured Henry was an easy mark—wanted to finish him off right away, with another slider down the pipe. The catcher was probably right. But Dougal saw something else in Henry, smelled a whiff of danger (We are brothers, Dougal, brothers… ), and felt a need to set him up for the kill—to show the fastball high and tight, before finishing with the slider low and away. It was flattering, in a way, that a pitcher like Dougal would go to such trouble to strike him out. And it was foolish, in a way, for Dougal to be so crafty, to insist on the pride of his craft, to try to orchestrate things, instead of simply letting Henry beat himself.
Henry set up farther from home plate than usual, to encourage Dougal to throw his high tight fastball a little tighter than he otherwise might. He went through his age-old routine—touch the far black of the plate with the bat head, tap the Harpooner on his breast three times, make a single, level pass of the bat through the zone—but it had a different meaning now, a counterfeit meaning, or no meaning at all, since he had no intention of swinging at the pitch.
Dougal checked the runner, began his elegant efficient slide-step toward home. Henry gritted his teeth. It was weird how clear and clean the air felt. His mind subsided into something like prayer. Forgive me, Schwartzy, for quitting the team. He stepped sharply toward home plate, dipping his shoulder as he did so, as if expecting, diving into, a slider low and away.