The Book of the Three


The Prom came and went. That is the way these things are. There are no new stories to tell about staged events. Junie went with Maria. Did she wear pink or blue? Were there sequins? They danced. Probably they held hands. Maybe they even kissed. He did not say. We did not need to know. Those things play out the way they play out. Here the story is what happened after. Here the story is how that particular staged event came to be upstaged. Forgotten. The story is how the next day everything changed forever. Our game started the next night at dusk. The sky was pink and the field was pretty.  How red and brown was the infield dirt. It was good to be on the field warming up. It was good to sit in the outfield grass and reach for our toes. It was good to hear the pop-pop-pop of Junie loosening up in the pen. The place was packed. Nothing was wrong. Everything was right. The world smelled like hotdogs and popcorn and fresh-cut grass. Junie told us his arm was live. He never said such things. Even when it was plain to see. But even he had to say something. Boys, it’s all working tonight. All I need’s one run and we’re all set. Good lord how live his arm was that night. Both of them. Good lord how he was pouring it in there. He had that ball on a string. It thought just like him. It darted and dipped and ducked. We had seen Junie no-hit people. We had seen him throw perfect games. Twenty-seven batters and twenty-seven outs. It was nothing special anymore. But that night was different. By the sixth inning not one of their hitters had touched the ball. Not even a tick back to the screen. Eighteen batters, eighteen strikeouts. They did not have a chance. Everyone knew it. We were not nervous. The way it is is this. Whoever is throwing the no-hitter sits off by himself in the dugout. He makes himself look busy. He makes himself look calm. He makes himself look like he has no idea what is happening. Everybody else makes sure not to look at him. Not to touch him. Not to even breathe in his direction. Pretend he is not there. Pretend this is not happening. That is the way it is. The three of us that night sat at the far end of the dugout. Sometimes we sneaked glances down at Junie on the other end of the bench. We whispered to each other. We could not help it. It was plain to us our time with Junie was drawing to a close. He had appointments somewhere else that we could not go. There he sat with a towel draped over his head. He spat sunflower seeds. He seemed no different than us. What if you had Babe Ruth on your high school team? we asked. Shoeless Joe. Satchel Paige. Way out here in the boondocks. Would you know it? Could you be sure it was something as big as that? Why here? Why now? Why him? Why us? What does it all mean? What do we do when he is gone? These were the kind of questions we did not expect an answer to. But we thought all of them that night. And some of them we even dared to whisper out loud. He mowed them down in the seventh and the eighth. Out we came for the ninth. Coach asked Junie if he was okay to finish it off just because that is what he always asked and he did not want to do something different and jinx it. Junie nodded. He walked to the mound. He was as calm as he could be. Flashbulbs flickered in the stands. They all knew this was something to see. Something to save forever. It was the heart of the order. Three, four, and five. Three went called strike, check swing for a strike, swing-and-a-miss. All fastballs. Four went swing-and-a-miss on three more fastballs. Each one a little higher and hotter than the last. Then it was Five. Five was a big old boy with a slow bat. Junie had no trouble with him his first two times up. He poured in a fastball. Five swung. The ball was already in the mitt. Strike one. It got quieter. Five pounded the plate. Here comes another fastball. Five swings like he is underwater. Way late. Strike two. Everybody in the stands rises up and starts to clap their hands. None of us on the field can hear it. None of us can hear anything. We are caught up in it. Five steps out of the box. He takes off his helmet and puts it back on. He stares out into centerfield, then right. He looks puzzled and then determined. Everyone there knows he is overmatched. He is alone. Junie toed the rubber and looked in for the sign. He shook his head once then he nodded. He set to deliver. Here it comes. What it was was the sound of the sound rushing back in. The ping of the ball meeting metal. The gasp of everybody. The sick smash of a ball tearing into a skull just sixty feet, six inches away. All one on top of the other. All of it making just one sound. Things sped up. The ball went right to somebody in the infield. Whoever it was stepped on first. Five forgot to run. He still held the bat in both his hands and stared out at the lump Junie had become. There was a rush out to the mound from all directions. Some woman in the stands screaming. Others telling her to hush, she was not helping. Soon a siren wailing in approach. The great big sweeping gate in right was opened. In came the ambulance. Out came the flat board. There were calls for us to stay back, give him room. They got him on that board. They shut him up in that wagon. Coach went along. He bit his lip so as not to sob. The ambulance eased over the infield and out from whence it came. The Junie we knew was gone for good. There was nothing left to see. We had won districts again. We had won it on a perfect game.