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Hometown legend, p.18
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       Hometown Legend, p.18

           Jerry B. Jenkins
 
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  “Cause we’re out of our trees?” Snoot said, and everybody shook laughing.

  “Well, you are, but that ain’t it,” Coach said. “Bear with me. I’m serious now. If that tree can hide itself and do all that secret growing and establishing a foundation that can withstand 150 feet of height and four feet of diameter, how about you?”

  Boy, did that bring back memories! Coach hadn’t forgot a thing. By the time I was a senior, we coulda said that ‘How about you’ line in unison with him. “Well?” he thundered now. “How about you?”

  “How bout us?” Brian Schuler said, looking around, fighting a grin. “Ain’t we something?”

  Guys giggled and elbowed each other, but Elvis Jackson shouted, “Shut up! You guys stupid or something? The point’s obvious. We’re little more than nothing now. Nobody even sees us building. We started out losing and then we were even, then we lost again and won again, and now we’re one game up on the season and the league. It feels a whole lot better at 3-2 than it did at 1-2, doesn’t it? But we’re the only ones who know we’re heading toward the league championship, then into the playoffs, then the state championship. We’re nothing but a clump of fifteen needles right now, but come the finals we’re going to be towering over everybody else. We’re going to be 150 feet tall and four feet around. We’re going to be the big old Southern, what’d-you-call-it, Coach? Man! This would have been so much better if I could have remembered the name of that tree!”

  The team laughed so hard most of em were crying, including Coach. “The Southern Longleaf Pine, Jackson,” he said. “And I couldn’ta said it better myself, cept I woulda remembered the name.”

  • • •

  I stood in the long shadows watching the end of that practice and remembering the day when Buster Schuler would’ve tore some heads off before he would let anybody laugh at one of his inspirational stories. But he had gone past that. He not only let em laugh, he laughed with em. Course, it helped that Jackson got the point and pretty much taught it to everybody else before missing his exit there. But what had happened to Coach? First he’d let me doll up a new offense, and now he was allowing boys to get the point and get motivated without his bullying em?

  We always ended practices with suicides, a series of sprints that really tested who was in shape and who wasn’t. There was a way of faking how hard you were going, of course. Any coach worth his salt could tell. Sometimes you made guys run more when you thought they were dogging it. Other times you let em off cause they’d played hard and practiced hard and you didn’t wanna run em into the ground before the next weekend.

  Strange thing that day, though. Nobody dogged it. They seemed to enjoy it. Elvis always outran everybody, but Brian and Yash would give him a run for his money, and they usually wound up working harder trying to see who came closest to him. Today they did that and so did everybody else. I swear everybody was faster, working harder, and seeming to have fun doing it. Course even Jackson had to turn it up a notch, cause he would not be beat, no matter how psyched up everybody else got. Heck, I even got into the action. I forgot how old I was, how gimpy the knee was, and how final-exam tired I was. I used to be able to run pretty good and still had a little spring in my step. Course I took off about ten feet ahead of the guys, then turned around and ran backwards till they almost caught me, taunting em, making em holler about me cheating. “Come on, ladies! Can’t catch an old man?”

  After all that, as Coach and I were picking up the gear, the guys raced each other to the field house. That wasn’t something we told em to do. In fact, it wasn’t something we expected. After a good hard practice and a long round of suicides, the guys usually dragged their tails in.

  “You see that, Sawyer?” Coach said, heaving a bag of balls over his shoulder.

  “I see it, but I don’t believe it.”

  “Something’s happening with this team, son. They’re coming together.”

  “I think it was the speech, Coach.”

  “Okay, Sawyer.”

  “I do. I think you got em believing they can be like the Southern what-was-the-name-of-that—?”

  “Shut up.”

  • • •

  We liked the feeling in the locker room, and after the boys cleared out, Coach and I sat talking. “You know what, Calvin, I been seeing a little progress with Helena.”

  “Seriously?”

  “She wants to see you.”

  “She does not.”

  “I’m not lying. She can still be cantankerous, but there’s some kinda softness coming back, something I haven’t seen for years. That Mrs. Knuth says Helena is still sometimes telling people—when I’m not there a course—that she’s my wife. I mean, more people. I’m not sure what that says, but it sure doesn’t seem like she’s gonna keep hounding me to quit.”

  “Why she want to see me?”

  “We’ve been talking a bit about the past. I keep trying to steer her away from the bad stuff, you know. But she remembers you, and I talk about you a little. She remembers Rachel.”

  I should’ve told him I thought she’d already seen Rachel, though she probably didn’t know it. I’d let Rachel tell him, if she wanted to.

  “She’s curious about other people too,” he said, “and ones I’m sure she’d like to see. But she’s embarrassed about where she is and doesn’t want to see em till she starts getting out a little. But she knows you know where she is anyway, so …”

  “I’ll come soon as I can,” I said.

  “I’ve got some other news for you, Sawyer. News from Indiana.” He grabbed a manila envelope out of his desk drawer and slid out a letter and a form and picture. “Is that a face or what?”

  It was a little girl with big, sad eyes, kinda greasy hair, smiling bravely. The form said her name was Jennifer Lucas.

  “Jackson’s foster sister,” Coach said, his eyes bright. “Look at the letter. They got her outa that trailer.”

  “Where to? Another foster home?”

  “They’ve got her at some kinda central home.”

  “Ugh. Like an orphanage?”

  “I guess. But that’s better’n where she was.”

  “We hope.”

  “Listen to this. ‘We appreciate your interest, Mr. Schuler, and you may rest assured that we will do all we can to insure the safety of every child under our jurisdiction. You may also let young Mr. Jackson know that we will keep confidential his general whereabouts, as he is now of age and entitled to his privacy. However, I would consider it a personal favor if you would inform him that Jennifer asks about him and would undoubtedly be encouraged to hear from him. I would be happy to pass along any messages and he may feel free to call the following number without fear that anyone will determine his whereabouts.’”

  “Jackson see this yet?”

  “Thought we’d tell him together,” Coach said. “But I’m sure he’s already run off.”

  “Yeah. To Tee’s. Rachel’s gonna see him there tonight. I’ll have her tell him we wanna see him during his afternoon study hall tomorrow.”

  “You can come early with all you got going on?”

  “I’ll make it work.”

  • • •

  I drove to Bev’s feeling like I’d downed a cold drink on a hot day. Besides the news for Elvis, the team was up, Coach was encouraged, and Bev was slowly getting better. I was still raising a kid on my own and watching the slow death of a business, a school, and a town, but nobody ever promised everything would be rosy. Anyway, I was in love.

  Rachel was there, waiting for me to take her to see Elvis. I didn’t expect to see Kim, but it was okay cause she seemed to be easing up on me. Bev was asleep, so Rachel went to the car and Kim and I talked in the living room.

  “You’re doing more than could be expected, Cal.”

  “More than you expected, you mean?”

  “I’m sorry I’ve been so hard on you. It’s just that you mean so much to her.”

  “Well, she means a lot to me too, Kim. I’m just sorry it too
k something like this to make me realize it. I don’t know if I was her whether I’d have waited that long for me to get a clue.”

  Rachel seemed put out when I got to the car. “I don’t want to miss him, Daddy. They close early and he gets outa there as soon as he can.”

  Driving over there I told her to tell him Coach and I needed to see him the next afternoon.

  “I’m not sure he’s even gonna talk to me,” she said.

  “He’ll talk to you.”

  “You don’t know everything.”

  She hadn’t said it as mean as it sounded. I gave her a look, but it wasn’t like she said something that wasn’t true. I didn’t come close to knowing half of anything. “Who could shut you out, honey?” I said.

  “He’s pretty mad.”

  “He can’t think you said that on purpose. How could you know about the wreck?”

  “How did you know?”

  “He told me. Told me and Coach.”

  “Then he probably thinks that’s how I know.”

  I pulled up just south of the diner.

  “Speaking of Coach, Daddy, there’s something I need to tell you.”

  “Shoot.”

  “Bev and I saw Miz Schuler at the rehab center.”

  “I figured.”

  “She didn’t know who we were and we didn’t tell her. She said we looked familiar and that she bet we were from Athens City. We just told her we were friends and that we wanted to read some Bible verses to her and pray with her.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Then she said something weird and Bev and I just looked at each other and didn’t know what to say. On the way home we decided we wouldn’t tell anybody, but there’s not much I don’t tell you.”

  “Cept that you and Bev had become buddies. Did you promise her you wouldn’t tell me what Miz Schuler said?”

  “No, but you have to promise not to say anything.”

  “To Coach, you mean? Is this something he should know?”

  “If it’s true, he knows. I don’t know, maybe you already knew this. Maybe he told you. For all I know, she could have just been babbling.”

  I was curious, but I wasn’t going to make Rachel tell me.

  “Bev was reading Luke 1:45 to her, something Bev says she likes to read to women when she doesn’t know where they’re coming from as far as what they believe and all.”

  “Remind me what it says.”

  “Oh, let’s see, it’s that one about Mary that you hear at Christmas. ‘Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of what the Lord told her.’ Something like that.”

  I nodded.

  “That really got to Miz Schuler somehow. She looked real sad and dazed. I figured maybe she was disappointed in God, like that promise wasn’t for her, you know? But pretty soon she interrupts us and she says, ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.’ I thought I knew what she was talking about.”

  “Jack.”

  “Sure, but she wasn’t. She said, ‘God took my baby girl.’ Scared me to death, Daddy.”

  “Her baby girl?”

  Rachel nodded. “Bev says, ‘You lost a baby?’ And Miz Schuler says, ‘Before she was even born.’ That’s when Bev and I looked at each other and Bev asked if she could pray. Miz Schuler didn’t say anything, didn’t bow her head or close her eyes or anything. She just kept staring, and Bev prayed for her. Then we left. Did you know anything about that?”

  I shook my head. “And it’s not the type of a thing I could ask Coach about either.”

  “Should I have told you?”

  “It’s okay.”

  I told Rachel I was willing to wait, but she said, “I hope Elvis and I will talk awhile, Daddy. If we do, maybe I can get him to walk me home. If I can’t, I’ll call you.”

  “I’ll be sound asleep soon, hon.”

  “Well, if I don’t call in half an hour, I won’t need a ride.”

  I couldn’t really sleep without Rachel safe and sound in the house. I sat by the phone, still dressed and nodding off. Finally, she called. “I just wanted you to know you could go to bed, Daddy. He’s gonna walk me and we’ll talk on the porch.”

  “Everything’s all right, then?”

  “I didn’t say that, but this is a start.”

  33

  Rachel had found the door locked at Tee’s but the lights were still on, so Elvis had to be there. She knocked and knocked until he emerged from the back. He stopped dead and frowned, then unlocked the door and backed away, dragging a chair out from a table. He sat and looked up at her. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll seat myself.”

  He said, “I’ve still got a lot to do here.”

  “Then let me help you. I’m not done talking to you, and I need you to walk me home so my dad doesn’t worry about me.”

  “And you think all you have to do is say the word and I’ll do that?”

  “Elvis, I’m sorry for whatever I said that made you mad. But you have to understand that I don’t do this stuff on purpose. I asked you to tell me about your parents the other day and you blew me off. I used a stupid story to make a point today and set you off again. I thought I knew how to talk to people. Most kids like me and don’t get all bothered by what I say, even if it’s something dumb. So can you give me a break? If I insult you, can you just assume I didn’t do it on purpose? Cause I wouldn’t.”

  He looked down and she thought she might be getting through. “Elvis, I see something in you that you don’t see. You’ve got this shell around you that keeps you from, I don’t know, seeing stuff.”

  He sighed.

  “I know that sounds silly,” she said, “but it’s like your world is small. I mean, this is a small town, maybe smaller than where you came from, but you’re all tied up inside yourself and you’re missing stuff you could be excited about.”

  “You’re back to ‘Everything’s beautiful’ now?” he said. “You admitted losing your mom wasn’t some Sunday school story you could tell all your life.”

  “You’re right and I was being phony, even if I didn’t know it. But look at you. Do you have any friends?”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “See? I’m not trying to put you down. It’s just that I see this guy who could be so cool, who people would love if you’d give em a chance. You’ve got so much going for ya, but you’ve also got this attitude. I know more about you than anybody in town, but I hardly know you at all. You won’t let me in. Does anybody know how you got here? Where you’re from? That you didn’t have parents? Okay, you had parents until you were ten. But see? You’re looking at me like I’m saying something to hurt you, and I just want to know you.” She stopped and shook her head. “Come on, give me a towel or a broom or something and let’s get this place done so we can talk at my house.”

  Rachel talked as they worked, feeling as if she was building a fragile wall that kept falling around her. “All I’m asking is that you give me a chance, Elvis.”

  “A chance? You didn’t even want me to touch you!” “I thought we were past that! I told you, I don’t take that lightly. If you’d think about it, look outside the personal little fort you’ve built, you’d let me know enough about you that I’d believe you really want to be my friend. Who knows? I might even hold your hand.” Elvis scowled. “C’mon! That’s a joke. Give me a laugh, at least a smile. You’re not gonna treat me like some girl from back home, because I’ll bet they didn’t know you either. Am I right?”

  He was wiping down the counter. “Yeah,” he said.

  Half an hour later, as they walked to her house, she said, “Okay, I’m starting, but one of these days, it’s gonna be your turn. You wanna know the truth about my mom? I was only five, but I knew it was coming. She was real sick, and then she went into the hospital. I don’t know how I even knew about people dying or getting better, but I wasn’t hearing the answers I wanted when I asked my dad or my grandmaw when Mama was coming home.

  “They’d say they didn’t know or they were
n’t sure or they wanted her home as much as I did. I never believed that. I wasn’t good at putting things into words, but nothing was like it used to be. Grandmaw or my dad putting me to bed just wasn’t the same. They didn’t hug the same. They didn’t smell the same. They didn’t read me the right stuff or sing me my song.

  “Every night they tried harder and must’ve got hints from her. I don’t know. They probably told her I wasn’t sleeping well or that I was getting up in the night, and they’d all of a sudden start reading me the same stories Mama read me or singing the same song. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted my mom back and I didn’t want to wait any longer.” Rachel looked at Elvis in the darkness. “You sure you want to hear all this?”

  “If you want to tell it,” he said, emotion in his voice.

  “I got to see Mama about once a week, and she looked worse every time. Somehow I knew she wouldn’t be coming home unless she started to look better. I’d say, ‘Mama, you’re white!’ and someone would tell me not to say that. I’d say, ‘You got more tubes than before,’ and I’d be told not to say that. I’d say, ‘I want you home,’ or ‘Sing me Sunshine,’ and I’d get shushed. Finally I got so mad at everybody telling me not to bother Mama that I just started crying real loud. I was hysterical.”

  Rachel’s eyes stung. “Grandmaw and one of my aunts were saying, ‘Don’t make Estelle go through this. Take her out.’ Daddy picked me up and I was yelling, ‘I just want Mama to sing Sunshine to me!’ He was crying when he set me down in the hall and held onto me so I wouldn’t run back in, but next thing you know, Mama was calling for me. I said, ‘She wants me! Daddy! She wants me! Let me go!’ And he made me promise to be quiet if he took me back in.

 
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