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 got on game days. His son, Clayton, sat beside him and made sputtering engine noises as he gripped an imaginary steering wheel, while Dede, Dancer’s wife, stared out the window with other things on her mind.
They cruised 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. At the town’s only traffic light, he turned left toward the highway. At the edge of town they passed 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 Festus, where his mother was buried with the rest of the Dancer family. She’d been gone fifteen years now and some days Dancer had trouble remembering what she looked like.
Across from the Baptists, A-1 Auto Parts blanketed the landscape with acres of junked automobiles. His father’s Buick was out there somewhere. Walt Stonemason had been a whisky-runner for Cecil Danforth. He knew every back road and trail in southern Missouri and there wasn’t a revenue agent in the state who could catch him.
At his father’s funeral Cecil told Dancer that Walt was the best damn whiskey runner he ever had. Dancer wanted to ask Cecil if his dad was so damn good how’d he manage to run that Roadmaster smack into a walnut tree with no one chasing him. But Dancer knew better than to ask Cecil those kinds of questions.
They turned north onto Highway 60, and the ’39 Chevy coughed and bucked as he shifted into third. As he cruised north, Dancer’s fingers glided over the smooth cowhide of the baseball as he read the seams and adjusted his grip from fastball, to curveball, to changeup. He had a hand built for pitching – a pancake-sized 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 because today would be Clayton’s first baseball game. The first time he’d see his dad pitch.Dancer was eight when his mom got sick. He went to live with Cecil’s brother Clem and his wife Ruthie. They had nine kids so one more didn’t matter much. One day in late May his dad showed up at the schoolhouse and told Dancer they were going up to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play.
The Cardinals’ stadium was packed with more people than Dancer had seen in his whole life. They sat in the upper deck behind home plate. Dizzy Dean pitched for the Cardinals and the crowd cheered madly every time he took the mound. In his last at bat he hit a foul ball that was headed straight for Dancer. He stood and cupped his hands to catch it, but at the last moment the man in front of him leaped up to catch the ball. It splatted against his palms and the man yelped as the baseball rolled into the aisle. The usher retrieved the ball and handed it to Dancer.
Dancer fell asleep on the ride home. He woke up when his father stopped the car in front of Grandpa Dancer’s house. His father told him that his mom had passed, but Dancer already knew.
The hot-towel Missouri heat, which had suffocated them through July and August, had finally retreated to Arkansas. A few wispy clouds hung on the horizon, 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 on 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 shower. As Dancer had attempted to shave, she flung open the shower curtain and wiggled her ass, letting the hot water pelt her breasts. “Soap me, honey. Do my back,” she said.
“You’re getting water on the floor,” Dancer said.
She glanced over her shoulder at him. “If I squint really hard, you look just like Gary Cooper.”
“He’s taller. Close the curtain.”
Water was pooling on the floor. Dancer 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.
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.
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. He reminded Dancer of his father. The wheat-colored hair, the dirt tan, and the need to race everywhere even when there was no place to go.
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, wild, and crazy-blue. They had met when Dancer was a senior. Even though she was two years younger, she had been the one to make the first move. He’d never been with another girl, but Dede made it easy. She knew too much for a fifteen-year-old.
But now, with her face half-covered by her wind-tossed hair, she appeared 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 – a dollar an hour and boring as hell. He wasn’t cut out for factory work, but they needed the money. When he moved up to the Rolla Rebels, the pay was better, and he thought he’d be done with the factory, but Dede fell in love with the red brick house on the hill east of town. So they bought the house, and then he had a wife, a baby, a house, 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.
“Hey Dad, is that the ballpark?” Clayton asked. He pointed at a well-groomed Little League field that was in a clearing surrounded by spruce and poplars.
“No. It’s just over the hill, beyond the fairgrounds.”
Mr. Seymour Crutchfield, the owner of the Rebels, was a merchant. His father had built a general store in downtown Maple Springs fifty years ago, and Seymour had taken the idea of that general store and built stores all over Missouri and Arkansas. When he expanded into Rolla, he bought the Rolla Rebels baseball team because their stadium was sitting on the land he wanted to develop. He built his store, renamed the stadium, and hired his son-in-law, Doc Evans, to manage the team.
Clayton creased the brim of the Cardinals cap Dancer had given him and leaned forward in his seat to get a better look. The hat was several sizes too big, so Dede had bobby-pinned the back so it would stay on.
“Are you going to strike them all out, 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.”
As they crossed into Phelps County and the outskirts of Rolla, the woods and small lakes that had lined the highway for the last twenty miles gave way to cheap motels, filling stations, and car dealerships. The Phelps County Fairgrounds, with its huge parking lot and grandstand, stretched along the east side of the highway for nearly half a mile. Beyond the fairgrounds and next to the brand new Crutchfield General Store was Crutchfield Stadium, home of the Rolla Rebels.
Dancer pulled the car up to the box office. “They’ll have your tickets here. See you after the game.”
“Not so fast, mister,” Dede said. She leaned across Clayton and kissed Dancer hard on the lips.
“Mom, you’re squishing me,” Clayton said.
As they slid out of the car, Dede leaned back in the window. “Now don’t wear yourself out,” she said. And then she giggled and skipped away with Clayton to pick up their tickets.
Dancer parked close to the centerfield gate where all the players entered the ballpark. In centerfield, Mr. Seymour Crutchfield, looking like an undertaker in his black wool suit and bow-tie, was shouting directions to one of the Negro groundskeepers who was on a ladder applying a patch to the Crutchfield General Store sign that covered twenty yards of the center field wall.
“A little higher, boy. And move it to the right. A little more. That’s it.”
The sign had read, “Over 100 stores in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas.” Now the “100” had been covered up and replaced with a “150.” When Dancer had joined Rolla, the store count had been fifty.
Doc Evans stood beside his father-in-law, puffing on a cigar and looking impatiently at his watch while Crutchfield finished his instructions. When Doc spotted Dancer, he waved him over.
As Dancer approached, Mr. Crutchfield turned to him. “Look at that, Dancer. One hundred fifty stores. Next year there’ll be over two hundred. Y’all be able to shop at Crutchfield’s no matter where you live in Missouri.”
Dancer was surprised Crutchfield knew his name. “That’s really something, Mr. Crutchfield.”
“Yes, it is, son. Yes, it is.” He looked back at the sign again and frowned. “Hey, boy!” he said to the groundskeeper who had started to fold up the ladder. “Could you clean those bird droppings off the corner of the sign? Right there by the ‘C’?” He pointed to the big “C” in Crutchfield, then turned and faced Dancer again. “Wilbur has some things to discuss with you, so I’ll let you two get down to baseball.” He extended his hand. “Good luck, son. It’s been a pleasure.” He shook hands like a preacher, holding on just long enough to make Dancer uncomfortable, and then he walked over to get a closer look at his sign.
Doc Evans stared at his father-in-law walking away and slowly shook his head. “Just stop in my office before you go out for warm-ups. We can talk then.” As he walked off toward right field, still shaking his head, it sounded to Dancer like he muttered, “Bird shit.”