“Can’t you throw any harder than that?”
“I could, but you couldn’t catch it.”
“Aw, baloney. You throw like a girl.”
“No, you catch like a girl.”
“I ain’t had any trouble catchin’ anythin’ you’ve thrown.”
“I been holdin’ back. I don’t wanna scare you.” Jimmy Wagner and Peter Kostura had been playing catch for the better part of an hour. Jimmy was glad to have the company, though he would never admit it. Peter was four years younger than he was, a mere twelve, and he knew he’d get ribbed by some of the kids on the street if they knew he was messing around with such a punk. But where were they now? Truth to tell, there wasn’t much to do this time of year in Cleveland. Especially on Kingsbury Run. So they played catch on Jackass Hill. What else was there?
“All right,” Peter screeched. His voice still hadn’t changed, and it tended to break when he got loud. “You asked for it.” He reared back his arm and tossed the baseball with all his might.
Jimmy caught it without trouble. “Oooh. My hand is stingin’.” He laughed. “The Bambino probably couldn’t hit that one.”
“He’s a goner.”
“He’s retired. He ain’t never gonna be a goner.” Jimmy grinned. “But you are.”
“Yeah? Let’s see what you can do.”
“Happy to oblige.” With the advantage of four more years of muscles, well-honed by the menial jobs he worked to keep himself fed, Jimmy hurled the ball back.
Peter caught it. “Hah! See, you ain’t exactly Lou Gehrig yourself.”
Jimmy grinned. He hadn’t thrown the ball half as hard as he could.
He liked Peter. Kids were everywhere these days: no work, no one watching the schools, lucky if they even had parents. But friends-not just street trash but actual friends-were hard to come by on Kings-bury Run.
His father had told him-the last time he saw the man before he disappeared-that there had been a time when Kingsbury Run was a nice neighborhood. The wide, deep gorge stretched all the way from Cleveland ’s industrial area, the Flats, to East 90th Street. Once upon a time, according to his father, people had come here for picnics because the green seemed to stretch forever, and there was a brook and trees that provided shade. Even wildflowers. Folks used to come on dates, his dad had said. It’s where I took your momma, first time we stepped out together.
Jimmy had to wonder if his father had made the whole thing up, if it was just as false as a lot of the other stuff he said. Ever since the Crash, as long as Jimmy could remember, Kingsbury Run had been dirt and weeds and trash and bums. Over thirty different railroad tracks crisscrossed the Run, feeding supplies to the factories in the Flats and bringing in trash from all over the country. Hobo Jungle, some folks called it. They built the shantytown that housed the poorest and most desperate of the aimless wanderers who came to town looking for work, looking for a better life, and finding nothing.
Jimmy’s family came from the north side of the Run, where most of the colored families congregated, near Woodland Avenue. The working-class white folk lived on the south side of the Run, most of them with funny names he couldn’t pronounce. His father had said those names could give you a clue to what part of Europe or Asia they came from, but he’d never managed to figure it out. He didn’t spend that much time on the south side of the Run. He knew he wasn’t welcome. Things were more comfortable here, in no-man’s-land-at least during the day, when the bums were either scrounging for work or sleeping it off.
“Are we playin’ catch or countin’ sheep?”
“Sorry,” Jimmy mumbled. He lobbed the ball back toward his pal, who caught it with ease. Peter was actually a pretty salty ballplayer, not that he would ever tell the kid that. Course, Peter still saw his dad every now and again. His dad took him to a real-live Indians game at Municipal Stadium. And his mom had a radio, so they could listen to the games and Walter Winchell and The Shadow and all the other swell stuff that came over the airwaves.
“Are you ready for my fastball?” Peter shouted.
“I can handle it.”
“I’m gonna burn a hole right through your hand.”
“Gosh willikers. I’m a-tremblin’.”
“You sure you’re ready?”
Jimmy cracked a smile. “Give me everythin’ you got, champ.”
Peter did. He threw the baseball as hard as he could-right over Jimmy’s head.
He knew they shouldn’t have been playing on Jackass Hill. It was great for sledding, when there was snow, but a stupid place to play catch. The ball sailed over the crest of the hill down a sixty-foot slope and into a gully.
“No way I’m goin’ down there,” Jimmy said.
“Well, I’m not goin’.”
“You threw it.”
“You missed it!”
Jimmy sighed. This was a bum deal, but it was his only baseball and he didn’t want to lose it.
“All right,” Jimmy shouted. “You’re probably too puny to make it down there and back up again.”
“Why should both of us go?”
“Because it’s a race. Whoever’s toughest gets the ball first. Go!”
Both boys tore into action, barreling down the hill as if their shoes were on fire. Jimmy was closest, so he took an early lead, which only got wider as the race proceeded. He still had the advantage of age, not to mention at least fifteen pounds. Despite the fact that it was a cold day, sweat dripped down the side of his face as he ran at his very best speed. He was panting and short of breath, but that didn’t matter. His manhood was at stake. He couldn’t be beaten by a kid four years younger. Couldn’t even let him come close.
Jimmy blazed his way through the bushes and tall grass and weeds till he hit the gully, well ahead of Peter.
“No fair!” Peter cried. “You had a head start!”
Jimmy cackled. “Wimpy!” He adopted a fake, high-pitched British voice. “I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!”
He scanned the gully, searching for the baseball. The weeds and bushes were mostly stomped down, but it could still be a chore to find something as small as a baseball, particularly one that had already lost most of its cover and was more brown than white.
He started toward the north, tracing the length of the gully, hoping that no matter where the ball went it would eventually roll back to the lowest point. He pushed aside some weeds and something caught his eye-
Jimmy froze, chilled to the bone. His lips parted, but no words came out. He wanted to make a noise, a really loud noise, but he couldn’t do it.
Couldn’t move, either. And he really truly desperately wanted to move.
Finally, a toe at a time, he managed to get his body working again. He raced back up the hill, twice as fast as he had come down, his eyes wide and his face wild.
He practically collided with Peter. “Don’t go down there!”
Peter stared at him, confused. “What? Did you find the ball?”
Jimmy slowly shook his head. “Something else.”
Jimmy grabbed Peter’s arm. His hands were ice cold. “Like, a man.”
“A man? What kinda man?”
Jimmy could barely form the words. “A man with no head.”