On hearing the bad news from their friend Chico, the rest of the Goatsucker Gang stood like statues of marble, or trees struck by lightning. Each boy stared straight ahead, his soul reeling, his thoughts incoherent, his body just seconds from breaking down like a jalopy on its last leg.
Chico was leaving. Chico their good buddy. Chico the smartest guy of their whole gang. Chico who had won every sandlot ballgame they had ever played against the Uptowners and still managed to get higher marks in school than anybody else they knew, and that included studious Maria Olancho who they had heard would probably be their high school salutatorian —whatever dumb thing that was supposed to mean.
Chico’s father was a rocket scientist—an aerospace engineer to be even more accurate. Two months before, he had been offered a job at NASA, but that meant that his family had to move to someplace called New Orleans. It sounded French to Willy, but Nort said it was Spanish. Whatever it was, and wherever it was, the boys didn’t enjoy the idea of Chico leaving. They’d never see him again.
Mikey broke the draining silence. ‘Hey Chico. Drop us a line every now and again, hoh? Postcard or something from this New Orlando place, will ya?’
Chico casually wiped his face, hoping the guys wouldn’t see him brushing tears away instead of a gnat or a mosquito. ‘Of course, Mikey. Whatcha think? I might disappear and never come back around again? Think I’m some kinda fake friend, do ya?’
‘Naw!’ two or three of the gang exclaimed. ‘Never!’
‘Good then, cause you’d have me all wrong if ya did think that.’
‘Hey,’ Theo added. ‘Are you really a Indian, Chico? My daddy says we got some Cherokee in us, but when I look in the mirror all I see is a white kid. Blue eyes, red hair, freckles—the works!’
‘Yep. I’m Indian. I’m Diné.’
‘I never heard of that tribe on any Western flick I ever seen!’ exclaimed Kingston. His first name was Randy, but he liked going by his surname.
‘But Kingston believes you though,’ supplied Greaser (whose real name was Gerald). ‘He ain’t sayin’ he don’t believe you’re a Indian, Chico.’
‘So where’s this New Orlaneens place?’ asked the kid they all called Mars Bar. ‘Is it in America? Is it too far away to ride our bikes?’
‘It’s in Louisiana,’ replied Chico. ‘That’s a state down South.’
‘Man that’s far! Who’s gonna help us win our games against the Flopdowners?’ cried Nort. ‘Gosh darn it! There goes the neighborhood!’
Chico grinned. ‘Ha! Those Uptown wussies couldn’t win a game if they had Babe Ruth on their team! Or Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio!’
All the guys scuffled their tennis shoes in the sand and laughed. They knew it was true, but still—Chico was the one who had really beaten the other sandlot team. And now he was leaving—and it looked like for good.
‘I really will come back to see you guys—one day,’ Chico promised, but he knew it wouldn’t happen. He didn’t want to move to New Orleans, but when you’re a kid you have to do what your parents say. After all, they probably know what’s right—most of the time, anyway. But what can you do about it when you’re eleven? It’s not like anybody’ll hire you at a good job yet, and getting a place to live might be pretty hard too—especially without a job! And with a rowdy dog like Scallywag!
Willy disappeared suddenly and was gone for a few minutes, but when he came back he handed Chico something lumpy wrapped up in tinfoil. ‘You takin’ Scallywag with ya? Here’s a uncooked beef bone for him. Scruff decided he don’t like bones no more.’
‘Thanks Willy! He’ll like this!’
‘But I bet he’ll hate New Orlando!’ Mikey added. ‘All them creampuff French poodles runnin’ around all dolled up with ribbons and poof-balls for legs! And pink painted toenails!’
‘Gross!’ screamed Big Linguini, the tallest of the gang. ‘That’s disgustin’! What kinda damn dog is that?’
‘I don’t think New Orleans is like that, fellas,’ said Chico hopefully, ‘but if it is, I won’t be stayin’ for long. Dad can just work for NASA by himself.’
‘That-a-boy Chico!’ bellowed Nort. ‘No sissies in our gang—even if we do move a million miles away and never see each other again!’
‘So, whadda we do now?’ asked Kingston. ‘We all grew up together in this ol’ neighborhood, and now one of us is leavin’. Well I’m leavin’ too then!’
‘Me too,’ cried three or four of the guys, and eight heads wagged up and down, all agreeing that everybody was leaving if Chico was leaving.
‘We’ll never find a pitcher or a better switch-hitter than Chico!’ screamed Theo as he ran to his friend and wriggled under his left arm. Nort was under Chico’s right in no time, Big Linguini and Mikey had his legs, and before another second passed the neighborhood hero had been hoisted high on the shoulders of his best buddies in the whole wide world.
‘Hip-Hip Hooray! Hip-Hip Hooray!’ they cried as a full moon crept over the nearest hill and a few of the brighter stars began to twinkle in the indigo.
‘Let me down! Guys! Put me down! You’re actin’ like I just saved you boys from drownin’ or somethin’. Geesh!’
‘We’re just gonna miss ya is all, Chico,’ said Greaser tearfully.
‘Yeah,’ said a few of the others.
‘We don’t want ya to go, buddy,’ added Mars Bar.
Tears shot out of Chico’s eyes like tiny liquid rockets. ‘I gotta go, gang. I ain’t gotta choice.’
Seeing Chico let his emotions go willy-nilly turned everybody else into lawn sprinklers.
‘Would ya look at us all?’ said Willy. ‘Cryin’ up a storm like a buncha little whiny girls.’
‘Thank goodness there’s no real girls around to see us,’ added Big Linguini as he whipped his bandana out and blew his nose.
‘But there is, though,’ declared a familiar voice behind them.
Whirling around, the boys faced Maria Olancho standing akimbo with her lips pursed and angrily tapping her foot.
‘Hey Maria,’ said Chico, thinking on his feet like he always did. ‘I hear you’ve got a pretty good arm. And, ah, these fellas are gonna be needin’ a new pitcher.’