Clouds of Glory

Atlantic Prize Story



MARTY went on whittling an elm switch, pretending not to notice Joe Briggs wheeling a new bike out into the street. Joe climbed on the brown leather seat and zigzagged toward Marty, staggering the front wheel.

Marty still didn’t look up. Joe rang the bell. Whitish elm strips curlicued up from the steel blade of Marty’s penknife.

‘They just brought it,’ Joe said.

Marty nodded.

‘For my birthday,’ Joe said.

Joe straddled the red and white bike, his left foot on the pedal, his right on the curb. Marty smoothed the point of his switch. Joe blinked the red taillight, but Marty didn’t notice. The light was too faint in the summer-day brightness. Joe polished the handlebars with the rolledup sleeve of his shirt. He could see his face, drawn thin and wavy, in the silver shine.

Joe was smaller than Marty, scrawny, his white arms thin as rake handles, his face pinched and pale. Joe had something the matter with his bones; he kept breaking his arms, and once he’d fallen from the parallel bars at school and broken both legs. That’s why his people were always buying things for him, anything he wanted, almost, because he was sick so much of the time, lying in bed reading paper-covered books.

Marty played mumblety-peg with his penknife. Joe shrugged. He spun the pedal of the bike with the toe of his canvas tennis sneaker. He wasn’t so excited about the new bike now. It was just a bike.

Two girls, Joe’s sister and the next to the oldest Sheehan girl, began batting a tennis ball back and forth in the middle of the street. Marty grinned at the clumsy way they’d toss the ball up, then lunge at it with their rackets, missing it half the time. Marty made a razzing noise with his lips. Girls.

Joe crouched low over the handlebars, clutching the rubber handgrips. He was roaring down the track in the big million-dollar race. Lightning Joe Briggs. A whole lap ahead of the others, his tires spitting dust in their faces. Everybody yelling, ‘Come on, Joe!’ Whirring around and around, hitting seventy, eighty, ninety. Crowd going wild. Throwing straw hats, programs, pop bottles. Sweat smearing his face, wind slapping his goggled eyes. Girls all shrieking, so afraid he’d hurt himself; men all saying, ‘That guy sure can take it.’ Burning up the track. ‘Come on, Joe!’

Marty drew himself up, slivers of elm sticking to his brown corduroy pants, worn tan and smooth at the seat. Marty looked the bike over.

‘Keen, ain’t it?’ Joe said.

‘It’s O.K.’

Marty brushed Joe aside. He sat down on the bike seat, bouncing, jiggling the handlebars.

‘I’d rather have a jalopy,’ Marty said.

‘You wouldn’t know how to drive it.’

‘Hell I wouldn’t,’ Marty said, turning the handlebars like the steering wheel of a car, pressing his hand down on an imaginary horn. ‘The old man lets me steer every Sunday when we go out to Aunt Lou’s for eggs.’

The girls’ tennis ball dribbled toward Marty. He scooped it up in his freckled hand, and flung it at the Sheehan girl, frightening her.

‘Last Sunday I had her up to fiftyfive,’ Marty lied,

‘It’s nice like for going to the store,’ Joe said, nodding toward the bike.

Marty laughed. He suddenly shoved off from the curb and sped toward the Sheehan girl, making her jump. She squealed and struck at him with her racket. Marty circled her, then feinted at Joe’s sister. The Sheehan girl threw the tennis ball at him. It bounced off his back. Marty grinned; he coasted down the street, then pedaled back, stopping under the shade of the big tree.

‘Smooth, huh?’ Joe said.

‘It’s O. K.’

A thin man with stooped, bookkeeperish shoulders carried a short ladder up on the porch of a yellow frame house down the street. He climbed up and fitted a bulb into the porch light socket. The new people had just moved in that morning; the van had come while Marty’s mother was doing her breakfast dishes. She’d left them in the sink and gone down to sit on Mrs. O’Donnell’s porch and watch.

‘You seen the new guy?’ Joe said, nodding toward the yellow house down the street. Marty shook his head, then asked how big the new guy was. Joe showed him. Smaller than Marty.

‘Oh,’ Marty said. ‘Just a kid.’

Joe’s mother called him in to run an errand for her. Joe raced down the street. He was the great Doctor Briggs rushing medicine to Alaska; he was Dick Tracy, Superman, Buck Rogers. He was Ace Briggs, the famous Yankee pitcher, and he’d just escaped from the cellar where a gang of crooks had locked him up, hoping to make the Yanks lose the deciding game of the Series. He had only ten minutes to make the ball park. Everybody was counting on him. He had to make it. He had to!

‘Punk,’ Marty muttered to himself, staring after the small, crouching shadow disappearing around the corner in front of Kassel’s Grocery. ‘Just a punk.’

The street was quiet again. Pigeons pecked at the curbing, sparrows fluttered in the big trees, rustling leaves that had dried and curled in the July sun, crinkling at the edges like partly burned paper. It was a street of white and yellow frame houses, cottages, duplexes, and a few larger houses with ‘Room for Rent’ signs tacked out front. A street of clerks, semi-skilled workmen, minor salesmen, old couples with pensions and boarders.

In the drowsy quietness Marty could hear shouts from the vacant lot in back of the houses on the east side of the street. The older fellows would be choosing up sides. Bert Sheehan, Jack Conwell, that red-headed guy who lived in the house where the Daughertys used to live — they’d all be out on the lot playing ball.

Tubby Daniels and Bill Fenster came out of Bill’s house, Tubby swinging a baseball bat. Tubby started knocking out grounders to Bill, the two girls moving from the street to the sidewalk, the Sheehan girl showing off in front of Bill Fenster.

‘Punk kids,’ Marty mumbled.

He belonged with the guys out on the lot. Les Hillman had been playing ball on the lot all summer, and Les wasn’t more than a few months older than Marty. Les hadn’t even started smoking yet.

‘I’ll hit out some flies,’ Marty said, taking the bat from Tubby’s hand.

Marty batted out short flies at first, then began to swing harder. The ball shot up high above the thick-branched trees and house roofs, bounded in the street six or eight yards behind Bill and Tubby. The new guy sat on the porch of the yellow frame house, watching. His mother, a plump, red-faced woman, her head wrapped up in plaid gingham, shook her broom at Bill.

‘You’re gonna break a window sure’s shooting,’ the new guy’s mother said. The boy on the porch slunk into the house.

Marty laughed and waved Bill and Tubby still farther down the street. He wanted to slug. He hit the ball as if he hated it. Slugger. Couldn’t those guys out back see what a slugger he was?

‘Butterfingers,’ Marty jeered at Bill for letting the ball plop through his cupped hands.

Les Hillman crossed the street, heading for the back lot. He was swinging a fielder’s glove. He barely nodded at Marty. He was whistling.

Marty tossed the ball up jauntily, swung and missed. He spun around, almost tumbled, braking himself with the bat. He grinned foolishly, reaching out for the ball trickling down the sloping street. Les disappeared behind the O’Donnells’ house. Marty had a feeling Les was laughing at him.

Marty dropped the bat in the street and walked away. He was tired of kids. Tubby went back to knocking out grounders to Bill. Marty sat on the curb. Les Hillman. He’d beat hell out of Les Hillman.

‘Guess what I just got,’ Joe Briggs said, padding up behind Marty, holding something behind his back.

Marty said he didn’t give a hot damn.

Joe brought out a new first baseman’s mitt. The yellowish leather made a crackling sound when Joe worked his fingers in it.

‘My married sister just brought it over,’ Joe said, slapping the mitt, bending down to scoop up a hot grounder, then throwing the runner out at second for a neat double play. Nice work, Briggs.

‘I asked her for a catcher’s mitt,’ Joe said, ‘and this is what she got.’

‘Ain’t bad,’ Marty said, slipping the mitt on, cupping the soft leather, banging his right fist into the hollow by the base of the thumb.

‘It’s better’n Jack Daugherty’s, even,’ Joe said.


There hadn’t been a first baseman’s mitt in the neighborhood since the Daughertys moved away.

‘I’ll break it in for you,’ Marty said.

‘No,’ Joe said, trying to take hold of the mitt, ‘I want to break it in myself.’

‘Maybe you don’t hear so good,’ Marty said, clenching his fist in the mitt, thrusting it up like a boxing glove.

‘It’s my mitt, and I’m gonna break it in.’

Marty shoved him back against the trunk of the big tree.

‘It ought to be broke in right,’ Marty said.


Marty cut across the Schiffmans’ yard, ducked behind the O’Donnells’ house, then followed the footpath down to the narrow brick alley which separated the back-yard fences from the vacant lot. He clambered up the embankment, heading toward the crude, unmarked diamond. He wasn’t striding along so cockily now.

He slapped the mitt. He stuck out his chest so hard he almost coughed. Once he got in with the older guys he’d be all set. Bert Sheehan was a good guy, Bert would take him in. Just wait till they saw how he could slug. He heard the bong of a clean base hit, the shouts from the sidelines. His mouth was so dry he couldn’t whistle.

He tried to walk like that new outfielder the Yankees had found somewhere down in Texas, the one everybody called the Texas Ranger. He swung his arms loosely from his shoulders, squinting away from the sun, like the Ranger getting set for a high centre-field fly. He was taking his time. That new guy from Texas sure could hit. Marty wished he were as tall as the Ranger. Then he’d lick the world. He’d lick Bert Sheehan.

Bert’s side was in the field, Bert pitching. Les Hillman was playing first — with, Marty noticed at once, an outfielder’s glove. Marty grinned to himself; he slapped the new mitt. From now on he was gonna play ball every day with the fellows. He could almost hear Bert and Mike Connors choosing up sides, Bert winning the toss, picking the first man. Marty, of course. ‘Marty’s on first,’ Bert would say, patting him on the back.

Marty drove his right fist into the cup of the new mitt.

The batter, some big guy Marty hadn’t seen before, grounded out. Les sent the ball whirling to second for a pep-up. Bert stood in the box, wiping the sweat from his forehead. Bert called out something to Jake Kassel, the shortstop. Jake nodded. Bert never had to tell anybody on the lot twice.

‘How’ya, Bert?’ Marty said, trying to say it like that Golden Gloves fellow that came to see Peggy Sheehan.

Bert was winding up. He didn’t pay any attention to Marty. Les was grinning.

Bert’s side had only two outfielders, Marty noticed. Bert could put him on first and Les in the field. Marty rubbed dirt over the mitt; it was too newlooking. He ground spit and dirt into the leather with the knuckles of his right hand. He ought to have some linseed oil.

When the teams changed sides, Marty sauntered up to Bert and, rubbing his right hand nervously over the mitt, asked if he could get in the game.

‘Full up,’ Bert said, pushing past Marty, nodding toward the tin water bucket. One of the kids on the sideline brought him water in a cracked coffee cup.

‘You need another guy in the field,’Marty said.

Bert shook his head. He drank half the water, poured the rest over his black hair.

‘I could play first,’ Marty said.

Bert, noticing the mitt for the first time, reached out his hand, and Marly gave it to him.

‘Pretty nice,’ Bert said, and he motioned Les over to see the new mitt.

Les tried it on, pounded it with his fist. It felt like a million dollars, a bigleague feel.

‘You try it out, Les,’ Bert said, and they walked off, leaving Marty on the sideline with the kids.

Marty hadn’t sat with the kids on the lot, just watching, for nearly three years, not since he was now to the neighborhood, a punk kid shooting marbles and playing ‘run sheep run’ with the girls. Maybe Bert didn’t know how Marty Seacrist ran things on the street. Just ask Joe Briggs or Bill Fenster, ask anybody who ran things. Just ask.

Marty swaggered away from the kids.

Les had an old ball, broken loose at the seams. He tossed it to Marty.

‘Throw me a few,’ Les said. ‘Want to get some of the stiffness out of the mitt.’

Marty’s right hand closed over the ball, pressing down the loose flap. Bert Sheehan was swinging a bat just across from Marty, warming up. Bert said something to Les about playing deeper next time Lefty Orme came up. Les half turned to answer Bert. Marty hurled the ball at Les’s legs, striking his right knee. Les staggered back, sinking to the ground, his arms wrapping around the hurt leg. Bert caught hold of Marty and slapped his cheek.

‘You did that on purpose,’ Bert said, gripping Marty’s upper arm, shaking him like a puppy with an old shoe in its mouth.

‘I did not,’ Marty whined. ‘He told me to throw it. He told me.’

Les stood up on his left leg, his right bent at the knee. He kneaded the soreness with his fingertips. His lips were trembling; he was trying his best not to cry. But he hurt. He wanted to be home in his own room, in his own bed. Then he could cry and no one would know. He hurt all up and down his leg.

The older fellows closed in around Bert, Marty, and Les. The kids crept up behind the older fellows, peeking between them.

Marty shivered in the summer heat.

Bert waved his arms, moving the older fellows back until they formed a large oval, giving Marty and Les plenty of room. Bert told Marty to wait until Les could stand up straight.

‘You tell him when, Les,’ Bert said.

Les began to walk around the lower end of the oval, jogging the soreness out. Marty’s throat was like withered raisins. It hurt him to swallow. His hands were cold and damp, like fresh fish.

‘O. K. now, Les?’ Bert asked, and Les nodded.

Marty hung back. Bert pushed him toward Les. Marty guarded himself against Les’s first feeling jabs. Les, trying to put most of his weight on his left foot, twisted around, shielding himself with his right forearm, feinting with his half-open left fist. The crowd jeered Marty into attacking; Marty struck timorously at Les, clipping him once on the mouth. Les’s teeth ripped the skin from Marty’s knuckles. The older fellows kept shouting advice to Les, calling Marty names, while the kids held their breath, afraid to say anything.

The sweat and dust in Marty’s panting mouth made a sticky, salty taste. His left temple was bruised, his hands raw. When Les began to close in, Marty tried to grapple with him, but Bert pried him loose. Les caught Marty’s right eye. Marty yelped. Les aimed again at the eye, his fist glancing off the bone of the upper jaw. Marty bawled; he groped out for Les, hoping to lock those flailing arms in his, but he couldn’t find Les. Everything was cloudy, and his head spun like a flipped coin. Les came up from the ground with a blow that made Marty yell, then double up on the sun-cooked clay. Marty clapped both hands over his eye, whimpering.

The older fellows led Les over to the shade of the big oak tree across from third base. They brought water for his face, and Les stretched out on the bench, resting his game leg.

The kids didn’t move. They stared down at Marty. Always before it had been the kids who were down, staring up at Marty. Curled up on the redyellow clay, moaning, he looked different to the kids. He looked smaller.


Marty sat on the curb, shaded from the afternoon sun by the big elm. He picked bits of grayish skin from his raw knuckles. His eye was like a bruised pulse, swollen, yellow and purple, the lid shut like a drawn curtain.

Tubby and Bill Fenster went by without speaking to him.

Damn little punks.

Marty sat with his right temple resting in his cupped palm, hiding the puffy eye. The punks must have heard. Marty flung a rock at a gray-blue pigeon with brilliant sea-colored neck feathers.

The two girls were sitting across the street on the Sheehan front porch, shelling peas into an aluminum pot. Marty saw Joe’s sister point at him, and then the two of them snickered. Marty spat out the word his father used to describe his brother’s wife.

Joe Briggs pedaled hurriedly up from Kassel’s Grocery. Injun Joe Briggs out to save the Pony Express. He had to beat the pony rider to the gulch and head him off from the bloodthirsty band of red critters waiting just over the mesa.

‘Where’s my glove?’ Joe said, reining in his sweating horse.

Marty nodded back toward the lot.

‘Let’s see the eye,’ Joe said. He’d heard about the fight from Tubby and Bill.

‘The whole gang of ‘em hopped me at once,’ Marty said. ‘Wouldn’t fight fair.'

Joe stared down at the eye, purple and yellow like a pansy. It made him swallow hard to look at it.

‘They better not come anywhere near this street,’ Marty said. ‘Unless they bring the whole gang.’

Joe said he was going to ride over to the lot and pick up his new mitt. The old Indian fighter bent low over the flying mane of his spotted horse, digging in his spurs while arrows whizzed past his head with a sound like angry hornets. ‘We been through worse than this, Pinto,’ Injun Joe murmured, and the horse galloped on across the sage. Suddenly an arrow struck Injun Joe’s shoulder. His arm dropped like a heavy sack; the old frontiersman raced ahead, sagging in the saddle, half crazy with poison and pain.

Marty humped along the curb away from the tree. He opened his penknife and practised throwing it at the thick trunk. He couldn’t make the blade stick in. The two girls across the street had brought out a portable phonograph. The music was sad; it whined like a hurt cat.

Tubby and Bill came back with the new boy down the street.

‘Here’s the new guy,’ Tubby said.

Marty sneered at the little punk. Marty asked him what his name was, and he said, ‘Bob.’ Marty said, ‘O.K.’ He drew the knife back over his shoulder, aimed with narrowed eyes, then hurled it at the tree. The butt end of the knife hit the trunk. Marty motioned the new guy to go fetch the knife.

The music was got-the-blues music, crybaby music.

When the new guy came trotting back with the knife, Marty suddenly stuck out his foot and tripped him. The new guy sprawled face down in the dry, yellowed grass.

‘Just don’t get smart, see?’ Marty said.

The girls were watching him. The Sheehan girl was winding the phonograph, and they were both watching him across the white porch railing.

The new guy got up, brushing flecks of dirt and dead grass from his pants. His elbow was skinned.

‘After this,’ Marty said, ‘you watch your step.’ He grinned. He’d made a good joke. He frowned at Tubby and Bill until they laughed, too. He stood up, his bad eye away from the new guy. ‘Watch your step.’ That was sure funny.

Joe rode up with his new mitt slung across the handlebars. Joe said the mitt was dirty and torn. Marty said, ‘ Whatta you want it for, anyway? Beanbag?’ Marty told him to take it to a shoeshop and get the torn place sewed up. Joe liked the way the new guy was staring at his bike — like it was something swell.

‘Just got it this morning,’ Joe said. He let the new guy ring the bell, take hold of the rubber handgrips.

‘It’s a honey,’ the new guy said.

Joe got off and let the new guy straddle the bike, getting the feel of it. The new guy kept shaking his head and saying, ‘It’s a honey.’ Joe told him to try it out, ride around the block. But, just as the new guy started to push off with his right foot, Marty grabbed the handlebars and jerked his head back toward the sidewalk. The new guy climbed off and Marty bounced down on the leather seat.

’I told him he could ride it,’ Joe said.

‘Dry up, wet spot,’ Marty said. He’d heard Bert Sheehan say that once to Jake Kassel.

‘It’s my bike and I said he could try it out.’

‘Who you telling what to do?’ Marty said, hopping off the bike, backing Joe across the grass on to the sidewalk.

The girls ran out in the street, shouting at Marty. The Sheehan girl caught hold of his arm, and Joe’s sister tried to kick his shins.

‘You leave go of him,’ the Sheehan girl said, tugging at Marty’s sleeve. Marty broke away from her. ‘I’ll call Mr. Dugan,’ the Sheehan girl threatened. Mr. Dugan was a detective. He lived next door to the Sheehans, and he got passes to all the big shows downtown.

‘Joe just got out of the hospital last month,’ Joe’s sister said.

‘Just so he won’t forget again,’ Marty said, ducking away from the girls, slapping Joe’s face. Marty wheeled around, thrust his foot out behind the new guy, shoved and tumbled him in the stiff, wiry grass. Marty glared at Tubby and Bill. They backed away from him.

Marty climbed on the bike, resting his feet on the pedals.

The two girls took Joe home. Scarface Joe Briggs hid his face between the shoulders of his two bodyguards. The Killer was after him. ‘You can’t quit the rackets, Scarface,’ the Killer had said. ‘You know too much.’

Marty pedaled down the street on the new bike.

Scarface ducked the spray of the submachine gun as the Killer roared past him in his black sedan. Scarface clasped his shoulder. The Killer had winged him. Scarface’s two molls dragged him into his new hideout. He staggered up the steps, clenching his fists. He’d square things with the Killer. He’d choke him with his bare hands.

Scarface’s mother told him to lie down on the sofa. She brought him a chunk of fresh gingerbread, and while he turned to his place in Pirates in a Sea of Blood his molls made lemonade for him.

Marty pedaled as far as the grocery store, then turned around and headed back up the street. There was no one in sight except old Mrs. Schiffman, sweeping her porch. Marty looked around for Tubby and Bill. They must be in Bill’s house playing on Bill’s homemade pingpong table. Even the new guy had gone. Marty watched Mrs. Schiffman waddle back into her cottage. He shut his ears on the roar that thundered in from the back lot, the roar of a home run or a neat double play. To hell with the lot. He pedaled away from the sound of shouting; he swung around in a leisurely arc and coasted down the street. His street. Marty Seacrist’s. He’d shown the new guy who ran things, and if Bert Sheehan or Les Hillman ever had the nerve to come around, he’d show them too. Marty’s face had the fighting fierceness of a dictator parading down a street silent as the rubble of a shelled and beaten city. Silent, and, except for the small, huddled figure on the red and white bicycle, quite empty.