the writing disorder


len joy

New Fiction

(Novel excerpt, from American Jukebox)

by Len Joy


November 1934 — five miles north of Maple Springs, Missouri

      Dancer’s first memory is of the fire. There is a frost on the ground and the cold seeps into his bare feet as he stands by the water pump between the hay barn and the farmhouse. Flames peek from the upstairs bedroom windows and tease the edges of the roof. His eyes sting. Neighbors from the nearby farms have rushed to help. Dancer’s mother works the pump and the water gushes into the milking pails, which are handed from one woman to another down the line to their men who swarm over the burning house.
      His father Walter runs across the top of the front porch roof and empties his buckets through the window. The flames hiss and retreat, but then snap back again. He jumps down and grabs two more pails. A ladder is propped against the porch, and Walter, with a bucket in each hand, races up the ladder like it’s a staircase and hurls more water on the flames. Over and over again he runs from pump to porch to roof and back while Dancer waits for him to put out the fire. His father can hoist seventy pound bales of hay with one arm. He can fix any piece of equipment ever made. He can do anything.
       The flames reach the roof. When the embers leap from the farmhouse to the barn, his mother stops pumping. She walks over and picks up Dancer. Her cheeks are shiny with tears.
       Two of the men grab Walter as he tries to climb the ladder one more time. The roof collapses and then the feed silo ignites and the barn explodes. The flames make spooky shadows on his dad’s sweaty, soot-streaked face.
       Most people remembered Dancer’s father as a whiskey-runner. As the man who could outdrive any revenue agent in southeast Missouri or Arkansas. But that wasn’t who he was. That’s just what he became.

Summer 1939 (five years later)

      For a while it was an adventure. Walter Stonemason hired on with Cecil Danforth, delivering his moonshine all over Missouri and Arkansas. The family lived in a shack close by Cecil’s whiskey-making operation. Cecil lived out of his truck and whenever he moved the still — which he did every few months so the revenue agents couldn’t find it — the family moved too. Some of the places were better than others. Up north in the hills around Salem they had a real cabin with a wood floor and a bedroom for Dancer’s parents. But mostly it was one-room tarpaper shacks with dirt floors.
      With all the uprooting it was hard to make friends and after a time Dancer stopped trying. During the summer when folks were extra thirsty, his father was on the road six days out of seven and his mom worked in town cleaning houses. For most of those long summer days, it was just Cecil and Dancer. Dancer spent hours bouncing a rubber ball against the cinderblock wall that protected Cecil’s still.
      Cecil Danforth was an ugly whip of a man — gray and grizzled and twisted like a dog’s chew strip. His overalls were grease-shiny and his hair long and matted. He only shaved when he bathed, so once his beard got heavy, Dancer kept his distance. That set fine with Cecil – he wasn’t much for kids. But one hot summer day after he got his batch percolating he came out from behind the wall, hunkered down on a hickory stump with his corncob pipe and watched as Dancer hurled his rubber ball against the cinderblocks.
      “You got yourself a good arm,” Cecil said. “How old are you, boy?”
       “Eight,” Dancer said. On the next toss he tried to throw extra hard and the ball bounced wildly off the wall and almost hit Cecil perched on his stump.
      “Hey, you got to get control. Make that ball go where you’re aiming, just like Dizzy Dean. Did I ever tell you about the time I saw him pitch?”
      “No sir,” Dancer said.
      “Cards were playing the Cubs,” Cecil said. “That son of a bitch Stan Hack slid hard into second base, spikes high. Took a big slice out of our boy, Leo Durocher. Let me tell you, that didn’t set right with Mr. Dizzy Dean.”
      “Was Leo hurt?” Dancer asked.
      Cecil spit a fleck of ash off his tongue. “Nah, old Leo’s tough as a walnut tree. But that didn’t matter, none. Baseball team’s a family, just like your old man and all those other boys out there running my whiskey are part of my family. Dizzy looked out for Leo just like I look out for them.”
      “What did he do?”
      Cecil sucked hard on his corncob pipe. “Next time Stan Hack came to the plate, Dizzy planted his fastball right in Stan’s wallet.” He cackled at the memory. “You should have seen the look on Hack’s face. Goddamn that was sweet.” Cecil stood up and headed back to his still. “Yes sir. Dizzy knew how to play the game.”
      All that summer Cecil captivated Dancer with his baseball stories. Baseball was more than a game. A baseball team was a family. A baseball player was never lonely. He always had his teammates and everyone looked out for each other. That was part of the code they lived by. And the pitcher, more than any other player, protected the team. Dancer wanted to be like Dizzy Dean. He reckoned that being a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals might just be the best job in the whole world.
      When Cecil wasn’t recounting some baseball story, he’d talk about Walter and his hard-driving exploits. Walt was his clean-up batter. Walt always came through in the clutch. Walt knew all the backroads and could outrun anyone. Walt was like a son to him.
      Cecil Danforth was full of talk about loyalty and honor and family. But in the winter of 1945 when Dancer’s father got caught by a revenue agent in Fort Smith, Cecil’s notion of family changed. They were holding Walt in the county jail, but the local sheriff offered to release him on “bail” for five hundred dollars. Dancer and his mom called on Cecil for help.
       “Five hundred dollars?” Cecil said, his face all scrunched up like it had been that day Dancer dropped one of his cases of whiskey. “Can’t do that. Got everything tied up in inventory.” He turned away from them to toss another log on his fire.
      “What are we supposed to do, Cecil?” Dancer’s mother asked, spitting the words at him.
      Cecil shrugged. “It’s his first pinch. They’ll go easy on him,” he said.
      But Cecil was wrong.


September 5, 1953

       Dancer Stonemason drove through Maple Springs headed for Rolla. His left-hand rested gentle on the steering wheel and in his pitching hand he held a baseball — loose and easy — like he was shooting craps. The ball took the edge off the queasy feeling he always got on game day. His son Clayton sat beside him and made sputtering engine noises as he gripped an imaginary steering wheel, while Dede just stared out the window with other things on her mind. Dancer turned down Main Street, past the Tastee-Freeze and Dabney’s Esso Station and the Post Office and the First National Bank of Maple Springs and Crutchfield’s General Store and then, at the outskirts of town, the colored Baptist Church with its neatly-tended grid of white crosses and gravestones under a gnarled willow. The graveyard reminded him of the cemetery up north near Chillicothe where his mother was buried with the rest of the Dancer clan. She had died in the flu epidemic of ’47, while Walt was away in prison. Across from the Baptists, A-1 Auto Parts blanketed the landscape with acres and acres of junked automobiles. His dad’s Buick was out there somewhere.
       They turned north onto Highway 60 and the ’39 Chevy coughed and bucked as he shifted into third. The Chevy had been his father’s car, but when Walt Stonemason was released in the spring of ’50, Cecil Danforth gave him a new Buick Roadmaster as a welcome home gift. It had more whiskey-hauling capacity than the Chevy so Cecil probably figured it was a good investment. Dancer had pleaded with his father not to go back to Cecil, but Walt didn’t reckon he had any better options. With his wife gone, he didn’t care much about anything. Six months after he got out, on an icy October evening with the highway patrol in hot pursuit, he lost control of the Roadmaster and ran it into a hickory tree, killing himself.
       As he cruised north on Highway 60, Dancer’s fingers glided over the smooth cowhide as he read the seams and adjusted his grip from fastball to curveball to changeup. He had a hand built for pitching — a pancake-size palm and long, tapered fingers that hid the ball from the batter for that extra heartbeat. It was the Saturday before Labor Day and Dancer’s team, the Rolla Rebels, was hosting the Joplin Miners. Rolla was only an hour’s drive from Maple Springs, but Dancer had his family on the road early. This was going to be a special game. Not for his team — the Rebels were in third place going nowhere — but today would be Clayton’s first baseball game. The first time he’d see his dad pitch.
       The hot-towel Missouri heat, which had suffocated them through July and August, had finally retreated to Arkansas. A few puffy clouds dotted the sky and the air was light and fresh. Dede’s head lolled backwards, her eyes closed as she let the cool wind from the open window billow her white cotton dress. She only wore that dress to church and special occasions. It didn’t get much use.
       Her short blonde hair, which wrapped around her ears and curled down the nape of her neck, was still damp from her morning escapade. While Dancer was trying to shave, Dede had slid open the shower curtain, fogging up his mirror. Her hands were draped over the top of the shower head as the hot spray pelted her breasts. “Soap me, honey. Do my back.” She wiggled her ass.
       ”You’re getting water on the floor,” Dancer said.
       She looked over her shoulder at him. “You know if I squint really hard, with all this fog you look just like Gary Cooper.”
       “He’s taller. Close the curtain.”
       She grabbed a washcloth off the shower curtain rod and turned to face Dancer. She slowly rubbed the cloth down her belly and over her pubes. “Come on, Coop, do my back.” Water was pooling on the floor.
       Dancer had set down his razor and stepped over to the tub. “Turn around. Put your hands on the wall.”
       “Anything you say, sheriff.”
       He took the washcloth and soaped her back and her little butt. As he brought his hand up between her legs she reached around and slipped her hand into his boxer shorts.
       “Come on in, the water’s fine,” she said.
       Dancer had managed to resist. Dede knew he couldn’t fool around on game day, but she didn’t care. She could never get enough and now they had a problem.
       They’d started dating when Dancer was a senior. Even though she was two years younger than him, she had been the one to make the first move. He’d never been with another girl, but Dede made it easy. She seemed to know too much for a fifteen year old.
       Traffic was light and Dancer had the Chevy cruising along at close to sixty. Beside him, Clayton pressed his foot down on a phantom gas pedal and his sputtering engine revved into a high-pitched whine. He drove hard just like his whiskey-running grandfather and he looked like him too. The wheat-colored hair and the dirt tan and the perpetual motion energy — neither Walter nor Clayton could ever sit still for an entire meal.
       Dancer glanced over at Dede. She had a crooked mouth and a gap between her two front teeth that he hadn’t noticed when they first met because of her eyes. Her eyes were big and wild and crazy-blue and when she looked at him he was lucky if he could remember his own name.
       And now with her face half-covered by her wind-tossed hair she looked so innocent. She didn’t look like she was two months pregnant. Her belly was still flat and her breasts hadn’t swelled, not like they had when Clayton was on his way.
       Maybe the doctor was wrong.
       After Clayton was born, Dancer had found an offseason job at the Caterpillar plant – parts inspector – dollar an hour and boring as hell. He wasn’t cut out for factory work, but they needed the money. When they moved him up to Rolla, the pay was better and he thought he’d get out of the factory, but Dede fell in love with the red brick house on the hill east of town, so they bought it and then he had a wife and a baby and a house and a mortgage and another offseason back in the factory inspecting parts. And now with a new baby on the way, he’d have to work overtime just for them to survive.
       Dancer reached over and tugged down on the brim of the Cardinals baseball cap he’d given Clayton. It was several sizes too big and Dede had bobby-pinned the back so it wouldn’t fall off.
       “Hey, Dad, don’t do that.” Clayton pushed the brim back up, and then yanked his imaginary steering wheel hard to the right, while making a throaty, gargling sound. He buried his face in his mom’s lap.
       “What happened?” Dancer asked.
       “Crashed. I couldn’t see,” Clayton said.
       Dede ruffled his hair. “Oh no. You won’t get to watch Daddy pitch.”
       Clayton shot back up in his seat. “Daddy’s going to strike them all out, aren’t you, Dad?”
       “Your daddy can’t strike everyone out. He’s not Superman,” Dede said. She winked at Dancer.
       Dancer squeezed the ball into Clayton’s small hands. “I’m going to try.”

       Dancer walked through the parking lot to the centerfield gate where all the players entered the stadium. On the warning track that ringed the outfield, Mr. Seymour Crutchfield, the owner of the Rebels, stood with his hands clasped behind his back listening to his son-in-law, Doc Evans, the manager of the Rebels. Doc had that look men get when they’re trying to explain something to an important person like a boss or a father-in-law and that important person doesn’t get it. Mr. Seymour Crutchfield, wearing the black wool suit and bow-tie he was born in, looked like an undertaker who’s been told the family doesn’t want the deluxe eternity package.
       As Dancer crossed the track and headed toward the infield, Doc Evans signaled for him to come over. Mr. Seymour Crutchfield nodded sternly as Dancer approached the men. “Morning, Mr. Crutchfield,” Dancer said. He turned to Doc and waited.
       “Stop in my office before you go out for warm-ups, son,” Doc said.

       The locker room was a concrete bunker under Crutchfield Stadium that even on the hottest days was cool and damp and smelled of liniment and sweat and mildew and Doc’s cigars. The only player who had arrived before Dancer was Ron Bilko, who sat on the bench next to the row of banged-up metal lockers that lined the front wall. Bilko was in his underwear, eating a hot dog and studying a crumpled issue of The Sporting News like it was a foreclosure notice. Next to him on the bench was a cardboard tray with a half-dozen more hot dogs.
       “What’s the problem, Ronny? Someone take away your homerun title?” Dancer asked as he opened the locker next to Bilko.
       Bilko shook his head. “Hell no. Still leading the goddamn league.”
       “So why you look like your dog died?”
       Bilko smacked the paper down on the bench. “Goddamn Enos Slaughter,” he said. He grabbed another hot dog.
       Enos Slaughter was the right fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. The one man standing between Bilko and the major leagues. Last few months a man couldn’t have a conversation with Ronny without Goddamn Enos Slaughter joining them.
       “Slaughter? He’s not still playing is he?” Dancer said, pretending like that was a serious question. Dancer and Bilko were the top minor league prospects in the Cardinals organization. At the end of the season, most of the major league clubs had started to bring up their promising young players to give the veterans a rest and check out the prospects. But the Cardinals’ skipper, Eddy Stanky, didn’t want a player if he didn’t have a spot for him. The Cardinals had an all-star outfield led by Stan Musial and Slaughter and a rock-solid corps of pitchers that never seemed to get injured. There was no place for Bilko or Stonemason.
       Bilko showed Dancer the stat box for the Cardinals. “Look at that. That old man’s batting .294. Thirty-seven goddamn years old. SOB ain’t ever going to retire.”
       Dancer flipped the paper over to the minor league stats. “Hey. Siebern’s got twenty-seven homeruns — only three behind you. He could hit that many today.”
       Norm Siebern was a power-hitting lefty for the Joplin Miners. Twice this year Siebern had smashed Dancer’s fastball out of the park.
       Bilko picked up another hot dog. “I ain’t worried. No son-of-a-bitch going to hit three homeruns off Dancer Stonemason.”
       “Glad you’re so confident.”
       “…’cause after the second homerun you’ll plant your fastball right between his numbers. Give that son-of-a-bitch a decimal point.”
       “Good idea, Ronny.”
       Bilko winked. “Have a hot dog, Dancer. Put some meat on those bones.” Bilko pushed the tray towards Dancer. “Dede coming today?” he asked.
       “Already here. We brought Clayton. He’s never seen me pitch.”
       “You’re a lucky man, Dancer. Got a good woman and a boy who looks up to you. Ain’t nothing better than that.”
       “Dede says we’re going to have another one.”
       “Another kid?” Bilko jumped up and thumped Dancer on the back. “Goddamn Dancer that’s great. When’s she due?”
       Dancer pulled his uniform out of his equipment bag. The Rebels wore a gray pullover wool jersey with two rows of decorative buttons running down the front. It was supposed to look like a Confederate officer’s longcoat. When Doc had taken over as skipper he had the Stars and Bars taken off the back of the jersey. That had pissed off some of the boys, but Dancer didn’t mind. It was hot enough pitching in those wool uniforms without having a Confederate flag plastered on his back. “March or April, I guess. Probably right in the middle of spring training.”
       “Well this time make sure you get her to the hospital so you don’t screw up the date.”
       Dancer was playing in a day-night doubleheader the day De de went into labor. Waiting for Dancer to return, she delayed too long and had to get help from the midwife who lived down the road. Clayton was born at home just before midnight on August 30. It was a difficult delivery and when Dancer got home an hour later he rushed Dede and their new baby to the hospital. He told the admitting nurse that Clayton had just been born and she put down the 31st as the birthdate. Later they tried to correct the error, but the hospital wanted an affidavit from the midwife and it didn’t seem to be worth the hassle. Clayton’s official birthday remained August 31, 1949.
       “Nearly went broke paying the hospital bills last time. Don’t know how we’re going to pay for this next one.” Dancer grabbed a hot dog and stuffed it in his mouth. “And that boy eats like a horse,” he said. “Hard to get by on meal money and eighty bucks a week.”
       Bilko put his hands on Dancer’s shoulder. “Major league pay, that’s how. I hear the Cardinals get ten dollars a day just for meals. When I play for the Cards I’m going to have a t-bone every night.”
       The locker room door flew open and Billy Pardue stuck his head in. “What the hell you doing, Dancer? Stop playing pattycake with Old McDonald and get your ass out here. We got work to do.”
       The Rebel players were either young hotshots like Dancer and Bilko or aging veterans on their way down and just trying to hang on for a few more years. Billy Pardue was one of those guys on the way down. But he’d had his day. Not only made it to the big leagues, he got to play in the fifth game of the 1943 World Series — Cards versus the Yankees.
       Billy had forgotten more baseball than most players ever learned. And he’d shared it all with Dancer. Even showed him how to throw a tobaccy-spit pitch. That specialty required the pitcher to glob the ball up with juice. When thrown properly, the ball would squirt out of the pitcher’s hand and waggle its way to the plate like a leaf in a windstorm. It was, in Billy’s words, “a fucking unhittable pitch.” But Dancer couldn’t stomach tobacco-chewing and besides he figured with his fastball he didn’t need to cheat. Not too much anyway.
       Dancer tied the laces of his spikes and pulled on his gray Rebel cap, which hadn’t set right since he got a GI-style crewcut last month. He took off the cap and rubbed his hand over his bristly head as he checked himself out in Bilko’s cracked mirror. The sun had turned his light-brown hair almost blond.
       “You’re pretty enough, sweetheart,” Billy said. “Get out here so we can go over the line-up.”
       “I’ll be right there, Billy. Doc wants to see me first.”
       Billy spit his tobacco juice in Dancer’s direction. “Doc ain’t going to be the one out there on the mound when the shit hits the fan. Make it short.” He spit again and slammed the door.

       Doc was in his office, feet propped on his desk, reading the New York Times. Before every game he studied that Yankee paper like it was the Bible or The Sporting News. Doc was from someplace back east.
       He knew his baseball, but he was skipper because he’d married Mr. Seymour Crutchfield’s wall-eyed daughter, Melissa. He wasn’t really a Doc either, but he wore wire-rim glasses and his gray hair was always brylcreemed real slick. What with the glasses and the gray hair and the newspaper-reading and the rich wife, he seemed a whole lot smarter than the rest of the boys, so they all called him Doc.
       He’d been a pretty fair shortstop before the war. Had an invitation to spring training with the Tigers back in forty-two, but enlisted instead. He was part of the 45th Infantry Division that landed in Sicily in July ‘43. Got his right arm shot to hell, just outside Salerno. That was it for his baseball career. There wasn’t much demand for left-handed shortstops.
       Doc motioned for Dancer to take the seat, and then kept reading the paper, like he’d forgotten about him. Dancer tried not to fidget. Billy would be pissed if he didn’t get out there while the Miners were taking batting practice. Finally Doc folded up the paper and placed it on his desk.
       “I don’t know what this world’s coming to, son.”
       “Yes sir.”
       “Eisenhower’s a damn fool to settle for a tie in Korea. Truman would have never let that happen.”
       “No sir.”
       “And now look at this. Russians just exploded an H bomb.” He poked his finger at the headline.
       “Yes sir.”
       “The world’s a dangerous place.” He shook his head. “Do you have children, son?”
       “Yes sir. My boy Clayton just turned four and we got another one on the way.”
       Doc took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You aren’t Catholic are you?”
       “No sir. My mama was a Baptist. Dad wasn’t much of anything. They both passed, sir.”
       Doc gave a sympathy nod. “How you going to feed a family of four on what we’re paying you?”
       “Well, I was kind of hoping…” Dancer caught himself. Doc wouldn’t think hoping was any kind of plan.
       “You’re planning to make it to the big leagues, right? Get that major league paycheck. That boy Mickey Mantle just signed a new contract — seventeen thousand five hundred dollars. That’s a lot of beans.”
       “Goddamn Yankees.”
       “I just got off the phone with Mr. Stanky. Haddix has a sore arm and he’s thinking about shutting him down. Cards ain’t going anywhere. So...”
       Doc pulled out a cigar, sniffed it up and down and bit off the end. Dancer crept to the edge of his chair. Doc could spend ten minutes farting around with his goddamn cigars.
       “So…?” Dancer asked his voice breaking.
       “They might need you for the Labor Day doubleheader Monday.”
       Dancer jumped up. “Holy shit! The Cardinals!” His spikes almost slipped out from under him and he had to grab Doc’s desk to keep from falling.
       “Try not to kill yourself before you get there, son.”
       Dancer sat back in his seat. “But I’m still pitching today, right? My boy’s out there. He’s counting on me.”
       Walt had always been on the road when Dancer was little. And then just as Dancer was about to enter high school, he went to prison. Dancer had hoped that after he got out they would have time to build something, but it never happened. His father never even saw him pitch. Dancer wasn’t going to let that happen with Clayton.
       Doc cocked his head to one side. “I can’t send you up to St. Louis with your arm dragging around your ankles. Mr. Stanky would rip me a new asshole.” He puffed harder on the cigar. “Tell you what. You can go three innings. That’ll keep you fresh enough so you can still pitch in two days if Stanky needs you.”

       The Joplin Miners were still taking batting practice when Dancer joined Billy in the dugout. Billy pointed to the umpire out by home plate, Lester Froehlich, who in the offseason was Fish & Game Warden for Howell County.
       “Asshole fined me twenty bucks for poaching last year. Got my deer one fucking day before the season.” Billy leaned over and spit. “Here’s the deal on Froehlich. He’s got a low strike zone. He’ll give you a pitch down by the ankles, but anything above the waist he’s calling a ball. So keep the goddamn ball low.”
       After he finished on Froehlich, Billy started on the lineup, reminding Dancer where he wanted him to pitch each batter. Dancer wasn’t paying attention — he was far away, trying on his new uniform with those two red Cardinals perched on the baseball bat. The same uniform Dizzy Dean had worn.
Billy backhanded Dancer’s hat off his head.
       “Listen, boy. I know you got the call. You earned it and you’re going to be aces. But right now we got a game to play. You want to stay up in the Bigs, remember this — respect the goddamn game. Play every game like it’s your last.”
       “I’ll always respect the game, Billy.”
       “I know, kid.” He picked up Dancer’s hat and put it back on his head. “Holy shit.” Billy pointed to a new batter, who had just hit a ball off the Crutchfield General Store billboard behind the centerfield fence. “That’s Connie Ryan. Played against him back in forty-seven when he was with the Redlegs. Didn’t know he got sent down.”
       Ryan knocked the next two pitches over the left field fence. “We need a bigger ballpark,” Dancer said.
       “Don’t sweat him, kid. He’s a swinger. Keep it out of the zone, we’ll get him to chase. Just keep your head in the game.”

       While they sang the national anthem, Dancer scanned the crowd and found Dede and Clayton in the third row behind first base. He got a warm feeling thinking about Dede’s morning shower. He was half-sorry he’d passed up the opportunity. But tonight they’d have a good time especially after he gave her the news. The St. Louis Cardinals. Next year he’d make five grand, maybe more. Next year they could afford all these kids. Next year their lives would be different.
       As Dancer trotted to the pitcher’s mound there was an easy buzz to the crowd, as though the fresh-scrubbed families from Maple Springs and the gang from Paddy’s Lounge and the hillbillies from Cabool and the Klansmen from Mountain View had all been blended together into one big happy family all out to enjoy the last weekend of the summer. The afternoon sky was a great-to-be-alive blue and the air had a trace of autumn crispness. It was warm enough to work up a sweat, but not so hot that Dancer would be worn out after three innings.
       It was a goddamn perfect day.

       Dancer nestled the baseball in his glove as Billy signaled for a fastball. He gripped the ball across the seams, torqued his body so he was almost facing second base and then whip-cracked his right arm toward the plate. The ball exploded into Billy’s glove for a called strike. He struck out the first two batters on six pitches. The third batter was Connie Ryan. Billy made a target wide off the plate and gave him a thumbs up meaning he wanted the ball high. The pitch was chin-level and Ryan swung and missed. The next two pitches were even higher and he missed those too. Nine pitches — three strikeouts.
       In the bottom of the first, with two men on, Bilko hit his thirty-first homerun of the year. Dancer greeted him as he returned to the dugout. “Thanks for the lead, Ronny. I promise not to let Norm hit more than three today.” A safe promise with Siebern on the bench nursing a sore hamstring.
       Dancer cruised through the second and third innings without a ball hit out of the infield. He was in a groove — his fastball overpowering, his curveball buckling the batters’ knees. As he jogged toward the dugout at the end of the third inning he spotted Clayton jumping up and down on his seat waving his cap. Dancer had only thrown forty pitches. A couple more innings wouldn’t tire him out.
       Doc greeted him as he returned to the dugout. “Nice work, son. Bullpen can take it from here.”
       “Don’t take me out, Doc. I haven’t even broke a sweat. I got plenty left.”
       Doc shook his head and walked over to where Billy was taking off his shin guards. Billy nodded, then trudged over and sat down next to Dancer. “You done great, Dancer. Let someone else finish the job.”
       “Got a perfect game going, Billy.” A perfect game — no hits, no walks, no errors – was something special. A baseball player couldn’t walk away from a perfect game. That wouldn’t be respecting the game.
       Billy stared down at his shoes and spit. “I know.”
       “Don’t seem right to quit now. Gotta try, don’t I?”
       Billy put his gnarled hand on Dancer’s knee. “Okay, Dancer.” He walked over to Doc and whispered in his ear.
       Doc stood up and pointed his finger at Dancer. “As soon as they get a hit, I’m pulling you out.”

       Bilko hit another homerun in the third to give the Rebels a five run lead. When Connie Ryan came up again in the fourth inning, Dancer waved off Billy’s sign for a curveball and Ryan hit his fastball even farther than the balls he had hit in batting practice. It was just foul. Billy raced to the mound and told Dancer if he had any fondness for his teeth, he best not shake off any more of Billy’s signs. Dancer didn’t think he was joking about the teeth. Billy called for a curveball and Ryan popped it up for the third out.

       By the fifth inning his fastball had lost its pop and there was a hot spot on his index finger that burned whenever he threw the breaking ball. But somehow Dancer kept getting them out. When he took a seat on the bench after the sixth inning he was all alone. Nobody dared talk to him.
       Doc just stared at his feet, shaking his head and mumbling. Didn’t even smoke his cigar. Doc couldn’t take him out with a perfect game on the line. And Dancer would still be able to pitch on Monday. Three days rest was for old men. Dancer was young and strong. He’d be ready, no matter what.
       The first two batters in the seventh worked full counts — Froehlich wasn’t calling anything above the belt a strike — but Dancer got them both to fly out.
       Connie Ryan was up again.
       Billy Pardue called for a curveball and Ryan again smashed it over the left field fence, but just to the left of the foul pole. The crowd breathed a sigh of relief. Billy called for a changeup and Ryan hit a bullet over the first basemen’s head. Dancer scuffed the mound in disgust, but Froehlich signaled foul. Billy called time.
       “You ain’t fooling him kid. Throw this the way I taught you and let’s go sit down.” He handed Dancer the ball, a glob of tobacco spit nestled between the seams.
       Dancer looked over toward first at Dede and Clayton. He wiped the sweat off his brow and gripped the ball with his fingers between the seams like Billy had shown him. The ball floated toward home and Ryan smiled as he stepped into the pitch, but as it reached the plate it dive-bombed into the turf. Ryan missed it by two feet. As Dancer hustled to the dugout he could feel Froehlich staring at him.
       In the eighth the Miners batted as though they had somewhere else they wanted to be. Seven pitches and Dancer was out of the inning. One more inning.

       Dancer massaged his arm as he walked to the mound for the ninth inning. It was sore, but it was a good sore. Nothing was going to stop him now. Froehlich stood at home plate, hands on hips, staring at him. Dancer offered a nod, sort of humble-like, as he reached the pitcher’s mound. If Froehlich noticed he didn’t show it.
       First batter, Wagner, had struck out twice on curveballs. Billy called for another curve. Dancer’s pitch missed the plate by five feet. The hot spot had turned into a blister and the blister had popped. Billy called time and walked slowly to the mound.
       “I can’t throw my curve,” Dancer said, his voice tight.
       Billy laughed and thumped Dancer on the back like he’d just told him a dirty joke. “Don’t look at your hand. Smile. Work the corners — in out, high, low. It’s the bottom of the lineup. Just three more outs. This is the game that counts, Dancer.”
       Billy walked back to the plate like he was on a Sunday stroll. Laughing and joking with Froehlich and Wagner about Dancer’s wild pitch. He called for a fast ball inside and Wagner smashed it deep to right, but the wind kept it in the park and Bilko caught it at the wall.
       Heinz, the Miners slick fielding shortstop was the eighth batter. Heinz couldn’t hit his weight, and he didn’t weigh much. Billy signaled fastball and Heinz squared around and bunted the ball to the right of Dancer, toward the shortstop. Dancer dove headlong and speared the ball before it could get by him. He pivoted on his knees and flung the ball sidearm to first base. Heinz was out by a step.
       Billy had run down the first base line to back up the play. As he trotted back to home he glared at the Miners. “You’re down five runs — swing the goddamn bats.”
       Dancer rubbed down the baseball and waited for the pinch hitter. Norm Siebern bounded out of the dugout. A murmur rolled through the crowd as they recognized the Joplin slugger. He took a couple vicious practice swings, then stepped up to the plate, smiling at Dancer like he was an old friend.
       Billy gave him a target off the outside corner and Dancer’s pitch was knee-high three inches wide of the plate. Siebern took the pitch for a ball, then moved closer to the plate. Dancer’s next pitch was in the same location and Siebern drove it out of the park, but foul by ten feet. After he hit it, he stood at home plate admiring the flight of the ball. Froehlich threw Dancer a new ball and Siebern stepped back into the batter’s box. He took a slow, deliberate swing and pointed his bat at Dancer’s head. Siebern wasn’t respecting him. Dizzy Dean would have never let a batter get away with that.
       Dancer nodded at Billy and then unleashed a fastball right at Siebern’s chin. The slugger hit the turf like he’d been shot, but as he was going down the ball hit his bat and bounced harmlessly foul down the first base line.
       Billy cackled, “Hey Norm, I think the kid wants your ugly mug off the plate.”
       Siebern dug in, but this time a respectful six inches farther back. Dancer caught the outside corner with a waist-high fast ball, but Froehlich called it a ball.
       Two balls, two strikes.
       Dancer came back with a change-up and Siebern started to swing, but at the last moment held up. Froehlich called the pitch high.
       Full count.
       Dancer stared in at the plate. Siebern wasn’t smiling anymore. Billy crouched low, holding his glove practically on the ground. Dancer exhaled through his teeth and threw with everything he had left.
       As soon as he released the ball, he knew it was a bad pitch. Right down the middle, but chest high. Billy came half out of his crouch to catch the ball, then pulled it down ever so slightly and held it there. Siebern dropped his bat and headed for first.
       “Strike hreeee!” Froehlich croaked as he punched the air with his left fist.

       The next thing Dancer knew Billy had him in a bear-hug and all the guys were grabbing him, pounding him on the back. A sea of teammates carried him toward the first base seats. Dede was in the aisle with Clayton and he lifted them both over the rail. Dancer’s throat ached as he kissed away Dede’s tears. Her tousled hair tickled his face as she wrapped her arms around him. He wanted to tell her how much he loved her and how things were going to get better and better, but the crowd cheered so loudly he couldn’t speak. He could hardly breathe. Together they hoisted Clayton on to Dancer’s shoulders. Clayton clung to his dad’s neck with cotton-candy sticky hands, as the three of them paraded along the fence from first base to third base while the crowd chanted, “Dancer! Dancer! Dancer!”
       It was a goddamn perfect day.
       The next day Dancer was on his back porch soaking his hand in ice water when Doc pulled into the driveway in his navy blue Mercury cruiser. Doc smiled, an unnatural look for him, as he walked over to Dancer. “How’s the hand, son?”
       Dancer jumped up from his chair and wiped his hand dry with Dede’s dishtowel. “It’s great. Just soaking out some of the soreness.”
       Doc stepped on to the porch. “Let me see.”
       Dancer held out his hand. There was a nickel-sized open sore on the pitching side of his index finger. Doc frowned. “You pitched a great game, Dancer. You’re going to remember that game for the rest of your life. Hell. We all are.”
       “What about the Cardinals?”
       Doc shook his head. “You can’t pitch with your hand like that.”
       “I can still throw my fastball.”
       “Son, it’s the big leagues. You got a good fastball, but you ain’t no goddamn Bob Feller. Without a curve they’ll kill you. I can’t do that to you.”
       Dancer hung his head and stared at his wounded finger. Doc patted him on the shoulder. “I’m telling Stanky you can’t pitch on Labor Day. He’ll probably bring up that kid from Columbus.”
       “Then what?”
       “You’ll get your shot. Next year. Take care of that hand.”
       Billy had told him to play every game like it was his last. He had done that. He’d respected the game and honored the code. But Doc was right. He was young. He’d get another chance.

Dancer went back to the Caterpillar factory for the offseason. He took a job in the foundry because it paid better than being a parts inspector — over two dollars an hour plus overtime. It was backbreaking work and it took its toll on a man, but with another kid on the way, they needed the extra money.

Len Joy lives in Evanston, Illinois. Recent work has appeared in Annalemma, Johnny America, Pindeldyboz, LITnIMAGE, Hobart, 3AM Magazine, Righthand Pointing, Dogzplot, Slow Trains, 21Stars Review, The Foundling Review and The Daily Palette (Iowa Review). He has recently completed a novel, “American Jukebox,” about a minor league baseball player whose life unravels after he fails to make it to the major leagues. His blog, “Do Not Go Gentle…” ( chronicles his pursuit of USA Triathlon Age-Group Championships.

Publications & Awards
Chicago Tribune (August 26, 2005) “The Driver”
Antithesis Common (Spring 2006) “Patrimony”
Finalist Personal Essay Contest (June 2006) “Where Your Treasure Is…”
3rd Place Canadian Travel Stories Contest (Dec. 2006– “Riding a Greyhound Bus into the New World”
3 AM Magazine (December 2006) “Rocky Point Crabs — 1978”
Boston Literary Magazine (January 2007) — “What Wives Do”
21 Stars Review (June 2007) “Life Sentences”
Nights and Weekends (June 2008) “Mr. Tolerant”
Hobart (February 2008) “Happy Hour”
Slow Train (July 2008) “And Somewhere Men are Laughing”
Daily Palette (Iowa Review) (November 2008) “Driving Lessons and How I Saved the YMCA”
Right Hand Pointing (August 2009) “Harlow Comes Home”
Pindeldyboz (September 2009) “Fifteen Minutes”
LITnIMAGE (October 2009) “The Cloud Game”
Dogzplot (October 2009) “Pickup Line at the Ritz Carlton”
Short Story Library (October 2009) “Casualties” (nominated for Dzanc Books “Best of the Web 2010”)
Annalemma (November 2009) “Letting Go” (an excerpt from the novel “American Jukebox”)
Bartleby — Stokes (January 2010) “Dalton’s Good Fortune”
The Foundling Review (October 2010) “Without a Trace”
Diddledog (Winter 2010) “The Lie Detector”
Apollo’s Lyre (December 2010– “The Old Fashioned Christmas Spirit”
The Foundling Review (March 2011) “Mary Bryan Cake”
Linnet’s Wings (March 2011)– “Some of this is True”
Northville Review (April 2011) “Menage a’ Trois”
Johnny America (summer 2011) “My Father’s Ice”
New Millennium Writing Comp. (summer '11) Honorable Mention: “Don’t Let Stars Get in Your Eyes”
Eunoia Review (November 2011) “4 A.M.”

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