Authors: Peter Abrahams
For Anthony: none better
TIMES WERE BAD. Baker Brothers Iron and Metal Foundry went…
COACH BOUCHARD MET all the baseball players after school that…
WYATT HELD THE PHOTO in both hands, kept it steady.
“SUPPER’S ON,” his mom called from the kitchen.
MRS. MANNION, wearing a quilted pink robe, her round face glistening…
DUB’S AUNT HILDY had two kids, both grown and living…
WHEN WYATT WENT BACK after school the next day, the…
WYATT WASN’T PREPARED for things happening fast, but somehow when…
THE NEXT DAY, Sunday, rain slanting by in sheets outside…
WYATT HAD NO IDEA what to say. He stood in…
WYATT HAD JUST READ Act One of Hamlet for the…
“HEY. WAKE UP, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.”
GREER WENT INTO THE BEDROOM, came back with a sheet…
BACK IN HIS ROOM at Aunt Hildy’s, Wyatt counted the money.
NO ONE, EXCEPT MAYBE DUB, was at their best in…
“ARE YOU SAYING HE WAS INNOCENT?” Greer said.
YOU COULD WALK INTO A PRISON, no problem. A sign…
MORE VISITORS CAME IN, plus three inmates. It got a…
WYATT GOT BACK IN THE CAR.
WYATT AND GREER WALKED to the front door of 32…
“YOU WERE THERE?” Greer said. “How could that be? Oh,…
WYATT ENTERED THE OFFICE of the Millerville Beacon. He’d never…
“WHEN I HEARD HE WAS BACK HERE, I got it…
WYATT DROVE OUT OF MILLERVILLE, soon came to a junction.
“HEY, WYATT—IT’S A NICE DAY.”
WYATT WALKED THROUGH the metal detector. “Arms up for the…
WYATT SAT IN THE PARKING LOT at Sweetwater State Penitentiary.
“ARE YOU COLD?” Greer said. They lay in the darkness…
ALL AT ONCE, THE ROOM, a normal-size bedroom, seemed too…
WYATT SMELLED GREER, opened his eyes. It was dark, and…
WYATT GOT INTO THE MUSTANG, turned, and drove out of…
TIMES WERE BAD.
Baker Brothers Iron and Metal Foundry went bankrupt. They fired everybody, including Rusty Halenka, who’d worked the seven-to-five on the main furnace for fourteen years. That meant he was around the house a lot. Rusty was Wyatt Lathem’s stepdad. They hadn’t gotten along when times were good.
The family—Rusty, Wyatt, Linda (Wyatt’s mom), and Cameron, Wyatt’s little half sister—lived in Lowertown. Lowertown was actually on a hill, the highest part of East Canton, getting the name from the fact that it lay farther down the river from the rest of the town. That was an interesting fact all the local kids learned in school. Another interesting fact was that there was no West, North, South, or just plain Canton, and no one knew why. The settlement dated back to Indian times, but no one famous had ever visited except for Mark Twain, who’d boarded the wrong train on a speaking tour. No one famous had ever come out of the town, either, with the possible exception of Wyatt’s real dad,
maybe not being the right word.
“Off to work,” Linda said from outside Wyatt’s door. “Take Cammy to the bus stop. Wyatt? You hear me?”
“Then say something.”
Wyatt, lying in his nice warm bed—his mom left for work at six, the sky still dark in winter—raised his voice and said, “Yeah.”
From the other side of the wall came Rusty’s voice. “Fuck sake, keep it down.”
The house went silent. Wyatt heard a car engine turning over but failing to start, not far away. Then the door opened and Linda stuck her head in, backlit from the hall light. She looked strange, even a bit scary. It took Wyatt a second or two to figure out why: she was in the middle of her eye makeup, had done one eye but not the other; he saw the tiny brush in her hand. In a low voice she said, “And stay with her till she gets on the bus.”
She glanced around. “Your room’s a pigsty.”
She smiled; a little smile, gone in a flash. She wasn’t smiling much these days. That quick smile made her look younger for a moment, thinner, happier, almost like a different person. She closed the door. Wyatt rolled over, tried to get back to sleep—he didn’t need to get up till six-thirty—but couldn’t. He heard Linda in the kitchen, opening a cupboard, pouring coffee, jingling keys. It was the kind of house where you could hear just about everything.
The front door opened and closed, closed with a little
thh-chunk; something was wrong with the latch and you had to give it a good strong pull. Now that Rusty was out of work he had time to make repairs like that, and Linda had handed him a list a few days before, a list he’d crumpled up and tossed back, not quite at her. Rusty was a big red-haired guy—some of that red hair turning gray—with freckles on his forehead. He had freckles on his big meaty hands, too. Wyatt didn’t want to lie there thinking about those freckles and that crumpled-up list zipping past his mother’s face. He got out of bed, walked down the hall—cold, because the hall radiator had stopped working—and into the bathroom, spending a minute or so. A second door off the bathroom opened into Cammy’s room. He knocked.
“Time to get up.”
“One more page.”
Wyatt entered her room. Cammy lay on her side in bed, reading by the bedside light, her fine blond hair fanned out on the pillow. No freckles on Cammy—she had Linda’s coloring. Wyatt was darker. Cammy didn’t even glance at him, her eyes never leaving the book—a big thick book, no illustrations. Cammy was only in second grade. Had he even been able to read in second grade? She turned the page, an automatic kind of movement with her hand, like she was a reading machine.
“You said one more.”
“Two. I meant two.” Her eyes sped up, back and forth, back and forth.
“I don’t want to go to school.”
“Tell me about it.”
Now she took her eyes off the page, looked at him. “Okay,” she said. Cammy threw back the covers. She was wearing flannel pajamas with a bear pattern—friendly-looking bears, tumbling around—the sleeves frayed and a couple of buttons missing.
Wyatt returned to his room, did fifty push-ups and fifty crunches, like every morning, then showered, dressed, and went into the kitchen. Cammy was at the table, eating some kind of chocolatey-looking cereal and reading her book. He made toast, opened the peanut butter jar and a jar of raspberry jam. Someone had used the same knife in both, mixing peanut butter in with the jam and jam in with the peanut butter. It all got mixed together anyway once you started eating, so what was so annoying? Maybe just because of who the someone was. Wyatt ate his toast with butter and nothing else.
Not long after, Wyatt walked Cammy to the bus. It was light now, but no sun, just a low, unbroken ceiling of cloud. A cold wind blew from the west, buffeting the bare branches of the trees, of which there weren’t many in Lowertown, and scouring away what was left of the last snowfall, leaving frozen brown earth and some icy patches. The school bus stop was halfway down the next block, and some kids were already waiting, most of them bigger than Cammy and all wearing gloves or mittens.
“Where are your mittens?”
“Put your hands in your pockets.”
Cammy put her hands in her pockets. Wyatt’s hands were bare, too, but not from forgetting: Once the boys of
Lowertown reached middle-school age, they stopped wearing gloves, also wore their jackets unzipped even in the coldest weather, or abandoned jackets altogether for hooded sweatshirts, which was what Wyatt was wearing now.
They stood at the bus stop. A
sign swung back and forth in the wind. One kid’s nose was running. No one said anything. The bus came and the kids got on, Cammy last. The driver was an old guy named Mr. Wagstaff; his nose was running, too. He looked at Wyatt over Cammy’s head and said, “Hey, Wyatt, stayin’ in shape?”
“Keepin’ those grades up?”
“Yeah.” Which was stretching the truth a little.
“Gotta stay eligible,” Mr. Wagstaff said. “Need that bat in the lineup.” East Canton High had a strong baseball tradition, and a lot of geezers like Mr. Wagstaff came to every game. Wyatt, now a sophomore, had made the varsity as a freshman, had ended up starting in center field and leading off. He loved baseball, had always loved it and been pretty good, but making the varsity and then doing so well—he’d hit .310, stolen twelve bases without being caught once, and gone errorless in the field—Wyatt still had trouble believing it; the best thing that had happened in his life, by far.
“I’ll be eligible,” he said.
“Atta boy,” said Mr. Wagstaff. The door closed with a hiss and the bus drove off. A little kid in the back made a face at Wyatt out the window.
Wyatt walked back to the house, turned the knob on the side door that led into the kitchen, found he’d forgotten to
leave it unlocked. He went around to the front door; also locked. He felt in his pockets. No keys, meaning he was locked out of his car as well.
“Christ.” A breath cloud rose from his mouth, got torn apart by the wind. He walked around to the bathroom window—sometimes left open a crack, even in winter—but it was closed. He tried it: closed and locked, as he knew all the other windows would be, too. This wasn’t the kind of street, or neighborhood, or town where people left their houses unlocked. Wyatt returned to the side door and did the very last thing he wanted to do, which was knock. Rat-a-tat.
He listened. The house was silent. Wyatt tried again, harder this time, and listened again. Still nothing. “God damn it,” he yelled, and pounded on the door. It swung open, just like that, and there was Rusty.
Rusty wore a ratty old robe, held together over his beer gut with one of those meaty, freckled hands. His hair stuck up from his head in clumps, and one of his eyes was partly crusted over. He gazed down at Wyatt, but not as far down as in years past, with how Wyatt was growing; gazed down without saying anything, also without moving aside, blocking the entrance with his big, barrel-shaped body. Wyatt knew him, knew he was waiting for “Sorry,” or “Excuse me,” or at the least Wyatt looking down, unable to meet his gaze. Wyatt didn’t look down. No telling how long this could have lasted, but after only a few seconds Wyatt caught a break, the wind rising suddenly, driving a cold blast through the doorway, making Rusty flinch. He shook his head like it wasn’t even worth it to waste a word on Wyatt, and backed away.
Wyatt went inside, found his keys, looked around for his backpack with no success, finally realizing he’d left it in his locker at school. Had there been any homework assignments? For sure in geometry, his favorite subject—he was carrying a B in it so far, had even gotten an A in math once or twice—it was the only subject he liked at all, but he always tackled geometry homework in some other class, English, history, environmental studies, health, none of which interested him. As for those others: he had to do enough to stay eligible. First practice was only a month away. As he went out, he heard Rusty pissing in the bathroom.
Wyatt’s car sat in the driveway: Mustang, twenty-two years old, bought for $450 from Mannion’s Salvage, fixed up by Wyatt and Dub Mannion, varsity catcher and Wyatt’s oldest friend, even though Dub was one year ahead in school. Maroon, with tinted windows and brand-new alloy rims: a thing of beauty. Wyatt scraped ice off the windshield with the tips of his fingernails, got in, turned the key. Rumble rumble, va-voom. He loved the sound of that engine, 225-horse V-8. Wyatt backed out of the driveway, looking both ways, felt the iciness of the street under the tires. He had a feel for this car, for driving in general—even the driver’s ed teacher had said so. Wyatt sped up, still going backward, turning the wheel just so. He whirled through two perfect backward doughnuts, never touching the brake, then eased out of the spin and drove the two miles to East Canton High, staying under the speed limit the whole way and coming to a full stop at all the stop signs.
Dub was already in the student parking lot, standing
beside his ride, an F-150 with
on the side in gold letters. Dub had a big round face that almost always looked happy, but not now.
“Heard the news?” he said as Wyatt got out of the Mustang and locked it.
“What are you talking about?”
“School committee met last night. They cut it out of the budget.”
“They cut baseball?”
“Cut everything—baseball, football, basketball, even marching band.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“Town’s out of money.”
“How can the whole town be out of money?”
Dub shrugged his big shoulders. The school bell rang.