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Hometown legend, p.10
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       Hometown Legend, p.10

           Jerry B. Jenkins
 
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  “I know you can’t do nothing bout the past,” Lee said. “What’s done is done, and no matter what anybody says, we know you held out long as you could before letting anybody go. But you know well as we do that we’re down to where you just can’t cut anymore and stay in business.”

  “Well, that’s my problem, Mr. Forest,” I said. “If more trimming can be done, I’ll find it.”

  “I’m—we’re not trying to tell you your business, but we been around long enough to know when you’re at the limit.”

  “Getting close anyway,” I admitted.

  “It’s down to just Wilson and us manufacturing state-side, ain’t it?” he said.

  “Yeah.”

  “How long before they go overseas?”

  I shrugged. “They’re fighting it tooth and nail like we are.”

  “We need something new,” Lee said.

  “Baseball gloves, I know,” I said.

  “That got to you, did it? Well, bless Bev’s little heart.” He paused. “You know, sir, you and her …”

  “I’m studying ball gloves,” I said.

  “That’s all we ask,” he said, and the others smiled. “Glove leather is softer, easier to work with. More steps, but we can learn it. We can do it better’n anybody in the world, just like with the footballs, and we’d love the chance to prove it.”

  “Not thinking about retiring?”

  Lee threw his head back and clapped both palms on his knees. “Retirement’s for old people.”

  We chatted a few more minutes and I wasn’t sure I was doing more than paying homage to loyal people. But they seemed happier after getting a little a my time. I didn’t promise anything, but I saw in their eyes that they’d give it all they had if I was to add ball gloves to the line.

  We were saying our good-byes when Ginny interrupted. “Sir, Alejandro is on your line and I think you’d better take it.”

  “I rang the doorbell and then I knocked, wanting to give Miz Beverly her car keys,” the young man reported. “I thought maybe she was in the bathroom or asleep and couldn’t get to the door. Stu said to just put the keys inside the door where she could find them, but when I pushed it open, I saw her on the floor.”

  I froze. “Was she, is she … ?”

  “Stu went in with me and she looked okay, but her breathing was real shallow and her heartbeat was weak. We called the hospital.”

  “Good!”

  “She’s there now.”

  “Memorial?”

  “Yes, sir. We’re on our way back to work.”

  Why hadn’t I seen her all the way inside and helped her lie down? How long might she have been on that floor if they hadn’t found her? I told Ginny to call the school and tell em I might miss my class and to tell Coach Schuler I might be late for practice.

  I jogged out to the parking lot, but course my car was gone. I spun around, and Ginny was at the door. “You let them use your car, sir.” It was bad enough being an idiot. I hated that it showed. Luckily, here came Stu and Alejandro.

  Twenty minutes later I slid to the curb at Memorial. Bev had already been assigned a room, and by the time I got there she was looking better. I wouldn’t say perky, but she was okay enough to start apologizing. “You didn’t have to come,” she said.

  I wished I hadn’t. The sickening alcohol and cleaning supply smells were already starting to overwhelm me. Any time I got close to a place like that it reminded me of Estelle’s awful final year. But I couldn’t just bolt.

  “What’re they telling you?” I said. “They drew blood and are running some tests. They might have to use a scope. They’re guessing some kind of infection, bladder or intestinal, something.”

  “Serious?”

  “They don’t think so. See? Not worth any fuss.”

  After what I’d gone through with Estelle, I stayed away from hospitals as much as I could. Even when Rachel was a tomboy and needed patching, I was in and out of there too fast for memories to start kicking in. I had panicked when it looked liked something could be seriously wrong with Bev, but now I just wanted out of there. I guess she could tell.

  “You go on now, Calvin. I’ll get back to work as soon as they’ll let me.”

  I stood in the doorway, lightheaded and miserable. “Take your time and take care of yourself,” I said, trying to cover my restlessness.

  I don’t guess I succeeded. She waved at me with the back of her hand, shooing me out. I was grateful.

  • • •

  The players didn’t say anything about Jackson running laps all during practice. I can tell you he didn’t just put in his time, half running, half walking like most would have. He jogged at a pretty good clip, and every once in a while he would sprint a hundred yards or so. Then he would run the stairs. Nobody told him to do that. Coach pretended not to notice, but I know he did.

  He spent most of his time hollering at the kids and talking about what he’d seen in the game film. I had watched it with him and was amazed that it looked even worse than I remembered in the live game. I couldn’t even talk with him about it, it made him so mad. He got angrier every day, and I hate to say it, but we didn’t see any progress on the practice field.

  “I’m worried about myself,” he told me as we left practice. “I don’t even want to talk to this team anymore.”

  “There’s plenty to say.”

  “It’s just that the more I study that film, the more I see how far we’ve got to go.”

  “So tell em that.”

  He shook his head.

  “Coming Wednesday night?” I said.

  “Nah.”

  “You don’t care?”

  “I don’t, Calvin.”

  “But if the kids somehow pull this off and the school stays open—”

  “Ain’t gonna happen and you know it.”

  He was right.

  “Anyway,” he said, “I’m seeing the wife tonight.”

  “Oh, sorry.”

  “Me too.”

  I didn’t know whether to ask, so I did. “No progress there either?”

  He shook his head and I left it alone.

  • • •

  I had learned to go to public functions separate from Rachel. She never seemed to mind being seen with me, but I knew not to push it. We were already pretty close for a dad and a teenager, but she was energetic and had her own mind and didn’t need to have me with her all the time. I was as scared as any other dad that maybe I only thought I knew my little girl, but we’d had the talk—you know what I mean—and I trusted her. I know parents always think their kids are perfect, but if she was fooling around while also going to church and praying and reading her Bible and living like a Christian, well, she’d have more to answer to than me. I don’t wanna be blind or naive, but, no, I’d’ve known.

  Rachel and her friends had decorated the gym with a huge flag behind a small platform that had enough chairs for the school board. In front of that was a small wood lectern facing a couple hundred folding chairs, and the whole place was decked out with saving-the-school banners and posters.

  I found a spot four or five rows back, across the aisle from where Rachel sat in the front row with Elvis Jackson. When no one sat near me I remembered how unpopular I was with people who had had a friend or relative lose his job at the factory. Even those who still worked there didn’t want to rub it in by looking chummy with me. I glanced around and no one met my eyes cept Bev’s friend Kim, who was sitting near the back. I kinda wished I’d noticed her on the way in so I could tell her about Bev. But the way she looked at me made me figure she already knew.

  Pretty soon everybody hushed and Principal Ferris stepped up and read a note: “We regretfully inform you that the members of the county school board will be unable to attend tonight’s meeting. Please accept our apologies.”

  All of a sudden the mood changed. People were mad and griping out loud. Everybody seemed to be looking at the back of Rachel’s head, including me. I don’t know what kind of a program she
d planned, but I knew it was pretty much for the benefit of the county board. Her hope had been to get some sorta commitment out of em. Elvis whispered to her; she nodded and went to the podium. I was nervous for her.

  Rachel smiled shyly when people applauded, and she pushed her hair behind her ear. I could only imagine how self-conscious she felt. I woulda been even worse.

  “You know,” she began, “if the county’s not gonna support us, we have to do it ourselves.” Many clapped. “A lot of people have been leaving this town over the past few years, but the people in this gym love this town …” Now they were cheering. “… and they love this school! And some of us students don’t want to be bused to some other school. Everybody is always saying to put your money where your mouth is. If we show we are willing to do our part, the county board will know we’re serious.”

  Shazzam hollered, “Oh, boy, here we go with the money pitch! You’re sounding like church now, girl!”

  “No, no, no,” Rachel said. “I’m not asking you folks for a dime. We’ve already got the money.” That got everybody’s attention. “It is called the Jack Schuler Scholarship Fund.” People gasped and groaned. She had lost her audience. “There are thousands of dollars in it we could use toward saving our school!” But people were waving her off and standing to leave. “Now come on folks! Some of you have younger kids! Do you really want em going to Rock Hill?”

  People were leaving in droves. Even Elvis Jackson stood and stared Rachel down. “We can help hundreds of kids instead of just one football player!” she tried, but people booed. Jackson rushed past her. She grabbed him and the mike picked up her saying, “Elvis, I’m sorry.”

  He turned on her. “Save your prayers. I don’t need em. And I don’t want a groupie.”

  She looked like she’d been kicked in the gut. I wanted to gather her in or punch out Jackson, not to mention everybody who’d walked out on her. But I just sat there so she’d know I was still with her. When it was finally just her and me, I said, “Need a ride home?”

  We didn’t talk till we got in the door. “I’m not gonna win this, am I, Daddy?”

  “No. But I love you for trying.”

  “You want me to go to Rock Hill next year?”

  “Course not. But they’re gonna have one heck of a football team with our underclassmen.”

  “That’s not funny.”

  “Sorry.”

  “They don’t need our guys anyway,” she said.

  Couldn’t argue with that.

  20

  Thursday Coach showed up for practice angry as I’d ever seen him. He wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t look at anybody. I couldn’t imagine what had happened. It had to be something at the rehab center. I mean, how long can you stay mad over a bad game, a bad game film, bad practices? Maybe he was finally getting it that high schoolers just weren’t the same as they used to be.

  I didn’t even get a chance to tell him about Bev. He starts in the coaches room telling me to have the players sit in front of their lockers with their gear on the floor. Once I had got em set, he came in, ears red, barely able to control himself. He wrote on the chalkboard the score of the first game, put his hat on the table, and began soft. “The other team is not your enemy. The spirit of division—that’s your enemy.”

  He picked up a football program and leafed through it. “Here is a vision of unity. Rock Hill. Undefeated for two years and, get this, not even outscored for one half in all that time! This team is a well-oiled machine, a Detroit V-8 screaming down the highway to the state finals. This team has mastered the fundamentals, but you dawgs have not. Now some of you may be joining them next year, but until then …” and he slammed the Rock Hill program to the floor, “… we are gonna do things my way! That means we start over again and go all the way back to the beginning when God created football.”

  Coach picked up a ball and waved it in front of the boys. “This is fifteen ounces of pure, gen-u-ine American leather, sewn around a rubber sack, eight laces across the top.” He slammed the ball into Brian’s lap, picked up his shoulder pads, and smashed them to the floor. “These are shoulder pads!” He grabbed a thigh pad and slammed it down, then a knee pad. “Thigh pad! Knee pad!” He picked up a helmet and pushed it into Yash’s stomach. “Helmet!”

  The players recoiled with every throw and shout. “Each one of those things has its own specific function, and you all are going to rediscover your own specific function on this team!”

  He put his hat on, said, “Coach, I’ll see you outside,” knocked over a water bucket, and kicked a football on his way out. We followed him to the tennis courts. It was an old tradition at Athens City that independent players got their minds right there.

  “First we crawl,” Coach said. “Then we walk. Then we walk together. Then we run the bone.”

  The two courts were made of hard-packed dirt, with a fence separating them. Coach placed the ball down and told the offense and defense to line up. “Jackson,” he said, “you come in at halfback. You want in the game, you’re gonna learn the bone. We’re gonna learn the old-fashioned way. Crime gets punished in Bama.”

  He put me in charge of the offense. “Call Formation Left 39 every time,” he told me. The only way that play works is for the runner to turn upfield when he gets the ball and follow the quarterback and the blocking guard. Start improvising or get tempted by what looks like lots of daylight if you skirt past them to the outside and, well, the play breaks down and you’re toast. On the tennis court, the fence either helps a runner avoid that temptation or becomes the price he pays.

  The defense was inspired because Jackson was carrying the ball every time, and they were led by the Shermanater—who Jackson had tricked into letting him stay in the game. Time after time Naters let his teammates key on the blockers while he shot through and drove Jackson into the fence.

  “No, no, no!” Coach would scream. “You’re running thirty to gain five! Trust your blockers! Turn upfield! Follow them! There’s nowhere to go out here. Those dawgs are working to make a hole for you. Your job is to follow them and when you get there, trust the hole’s gonna be open. You ignore them, they become useless. Line up and do it again.”

  Again and again and again. “Trust your blockers. One more time!”

  After one smash into the fence, Coach grabbed Jackson’s facemask and pointed him first to his left, then upfield. “Not that way! That way! Gain and maintain!”

  Jackson bled, arms shredded. Finally I whispered to Coach, “You always said we squeeze coal to make diamonds, not tear it to pieces.”

  “We got a colt needs breaking,” he said. “Do it again.”

  After a bunch more times getting blasted into that fence, Jackson couldn’t get up. Coach said, “One more time.” Jackson didn’t stir. Other players bent over, sucking wind. Buster stood over Jackson and hollered, “Water break!”

  Elvis started to stir, but Coach put a foot on his shoulder pad and held him down. “Not for you, dawg. Until you learn to trust your teammates, you’re not good enough to drink with em.” He knelt and knocked on Jackson’s helmet. “Whatsa matter, Jackson, you on empty? Is that all you got? I don’t need a quitter. Turn in your gear.”

  Coach stood and stepped back, and Jackson came flying to his feet. “No!” he shouted. “This is not over! I am not off this team! Do you hear me? One more time!”

  Coach, squinting, shot me a glance. Jackson ran back into position. Coach blew his whistle and announced, “Let’s go home.”

  21

  Rachel waited for Elvis after practice, determined to confront him. But as he limped past ahead of Abel, he didn’t even look up. “Elvis!” she called, alarmed at his wounds. “What happened?”

  “Tradition,” Abel said.

  Rachel would not be put off. She followed Elvis on foot but lost him a couple of miles out of town as he jogged through a cotton field. She found herself at Orville Washington’s farm, holding her nose at the sweetly acrid acres of manure spread amid the crop. She had
sweat through the back of her blouse and it stuck to her.

  There was no sign of Mr. Washington, a generous-sized black man who lived alone and tended the farm with a passel of day workers. Rachel crept between the barns and outbuildings and was soon forty or fifty yards from the farmhouse near a rickety stable, clearly past its use.

  She jumped when she heard Elvis. “You’re trespassing. Now go away.”

  Rachel stepped inside the stable and peered up at the loft. Elvis was silhouetted against the dim light. “Unless Mr. Washington knows you’re here,” she said as she climbed planks nailed to the wall, “you’re trespassing too.”

  Elvis busied himself with a bucket of water and a rag, dabbing his scraped forearms. His clothes hung on makeshift lines attached to the rafters. “What are you doing following me?”

  “I was afraid you were hurt.”

  He rolled his eyes. “Ah. And let me guess—you wanted to pray for me.”

  “As a matter of fact, no,” Rachel said, stepping close and staring into angry blue eyes. “I am not trying to steal your scholarship, and whether or not you like it, it is my job to pray for you, so you might as well get used to it.”

  He glowered. “Why don’t you just admit you betrayed me?”

  “Why don’t you just admit you’re acting like a three-year-old?”

  “All right,” he said, plopping onto a cot in the corner. “I accept your apology.”

  Rachel sat next to him. “Wow, this little groupie is just overwhelmed.” He was clearly not amused. “I’m on your team, Elvis. Long before I laid eyes on you I thought we could use that money for the school. I didn’t want to hurt you.” She studied him. “What happened to you today?”

  Elvis shrugged. “Good old Athens City tradition.”

  She took the rag from him, working on one of his deeper scratches. “You know, last time Coach Schuler was here, our school was the envy of the state. You could learn something from him.” Elvis met her gaze, then looked away. “Listen,” she said, “I’m not gonna say anything to my dad or anyone else about you living up here.”

 
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