The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Mark Twain

Thursday, April 28, 2011

More Writing! And resources for writers

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by and taken a look at the writing samples I've posted here.  If you're interested, much more is shared on a couple of writing sites I belong to:
A free writing website that allows users to post their work for review and to take a look at that of others.  It's a registration site, but free.  My work appears under the username bluewhite:
This site is hosted by Harper Collins, a UK publishing house.  Registered users post portions of novels-in-progress for review by fellow authors.  Authors compete for a handful of coveted slots that earn reviews from the HC editorial board.  It is also a registration site, but is free as well.  I have a couple of my works on there that can be seen here:

Thanks all!  And more to come here at The Lightning Bug!


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Shades of Gray: Chapter Twenty-Nine

The final chapter!  Thanks to everyone who has followed Ted's story this far.


            After a fifteen-minute ride that Ted found every bit as harrowing as the one on Furious Rhythm, they arrived at the parking lot for Papa Bear’s.  When he’d gotten in the Jeep Ted hadn’t known Jake’s license was all of four days old.  Several near misses with fellow motorists and one very lucky pedestrian had cleared Ted’s mind, and nearly his bowels.  Somehow they’d gotten to their destination in one piece, and Ted leapt out of the vehicle, resisting the urge to kiss the ground like a liberated hostage.
            Papa Bear’s was as much of an eyesore as the Stockbridge Planning Board would allow, and that only here, out on the crowded commercial artery leading from the highway to the downtown, tucked at the end of a strip mall alongside a Rite Aid pharmacy and an Everything for a Dollar store.  The asphalt expanse between building and street was jammed as it always was on a Saturday night; only three years old, the novelty had not worn off.  Ted negotiated his way past Volvos and Chevys, Jake and Meg trailing behind, to where a large neon bear beckoned patrons into the bright yellow entryway of the chain family restaurant.
            The lobby of the restaurant was cluttered with standard kitsch, haphazard displays on the wall of vanilla sports memorabilia and anachronistic farm tools alongside velvet renderings of 50’s movie stars.  A young woman in a red shirt and black pants intercepted them with a broad plastic smile, short and cookie-cutter peppy, with a wad of bubblegum in her cheek.  She asked pointedly if they had called ahead for a table, and only then did Ted notice the dozen people sitting in the faux-wood benches, clearly waiting to be seated.
            “It’s fine,” Ted glanced down at the gum-cracking hostess’ nametag, “Becky.  We’re looking for someone who’s already seated.”  He ignored the proffered light-up coaster designed to alert them when they’d won the table lottery and looked easily over her head into the vast and crowded dining room.  Ted had been there once, with Mike and Lisa and the kids, and he remembered it as mediocre fare consumed with so much background noise that conversation was nearly impossible.  Little had changed, and the cacophony of voices echoed from every direction. 
            “There,” Jake pointed toward a secluded booth in the back corner, where Jill’s unmistakable red hair was visible.  Ted brushed past Becky’s protests and strode toward Jill and her companion.  Jake and Meg followed, conscious of the ripple of gossip Ted’s appearance had caused, the buzz in the restaurant somehow growing even louder in anticipation of An Incident.  It made Jake uncomfortable and he shrunk into his letter jacket, while Meg virtually skipped down the aisle, knowing she was part of the show and loving it.
            Ted arrived at the cozy booth in the corner, unaware of the attention fixed in his direction.  There were two people in the vinyl red benches, seated across from each other and deep in conversation.  One was Jill, beautiful Jill, the face he had come to love so much, looking back at him now with her mouth a round O of shock.  The other was a tall, thin man Ted had never laid eyes on before but hated on sight.  Angular face, long nose, thin lips and curly brown hair turned as one to examine the intruder. 
            Ed Kendall.
            “Can I help you, buddy?” Ed asked, and as he glanced at Jill he realized who had interrupted their dinner.  His eyebrows pinched together and his face flushed red.
            “I’m not your buddy.  And I’m here to talk to Jill.”  Ted had not taken his eyes off her.  The background noise had died away, replaced by an anticipatory silence, like that of the crowd at a baseball game before a meaningful pitch.
            Ted never saw Ed burst out of the booth and slam into him with his shoulder, knocking Ted to the floor to the audible gasp of the other patrons.  Ted quickly scrambled back to his feet and fixed Ed with a malignant stare.  Now this guy had his attention. 
            “Damn it, Ed!” Jill moved to get on her feet, but Ed threw an arm back to block her.
            “Sit down, Jill.  This is that Gray dude, right?  You told me he took off, that he was bad news, a real scumbag.  I see what you meant.”
            Ted’s ears were burning, though he knew Jill would never have said anything like that.  It was just talk, and Ted had had a lifetime of talk, was sick to death of talk.  And he wasn’t about to let a pencil-neck jerk like this get under his skin, let alone land another sucker blow.  He looked at Jill and her eyes were pleading with him, but he couldn’t read them.  Was she begging him to stay?  Or begging him to go?
            “Jill, I came back for you.  I’m not going to DC.  I was wrong to leave.”  He threw all of the cards down on the table.  “I belong here, we both do.”
            He saw the punch coming from a mile away.
            Lifting his left arm Ted easily blocked the clumsy assault and dropped a sharp jab to Ed’s temple.  The other man dropped to the ground with a groan, and Ted ignored him, ignored his smarting knuckles, focusing just on Jill, who was crying now.
            “Jill…” he reached out for her, and she raised a hand in response.  Their fingers touched, and Ted knew he’d made the right decision, knew that everything else could be sorted out later.  That was when the screaming started.
            “He’s got a gun!”  It was not one shriek, but several, and suddenly the back corner of Papa Bear’s was no longer such a popular place.  Ted turned slowly around to see Ed Kendall, kneeling on the ground, his eyes barely focused, an angry red welt above his left ear.  In his hands was a snub-nosed pistol he must have had stashed in his jacket.  Time slowed as Ted moved to ensure he was between the weapon and Jill.  What the hell was this maniac doing with a fucking gun? was Ted’s first thought.  His second was to notice that Ed’s right index finger was moving, squeezing the trigger of the pistol. 
            No shot came.  Instead a blur of gray and white exploded from the watching crowd and smothered Ed, knocking the weapon from his hands to skitter harmlessly across the floor.  In moments, Ed was pinned beneath the tall and lanky form of Bobby Craig, who crouched with one knee jammed into the prone man’s back.
            “Somebody call the cops,” he muttered, looking down and avoiding eye contact with Ted.  Kid always was good in the clutch, thought Ted absurdly.  Glancing toward where Bobby had come from he saw the boy’s father, and their eyes met for a silent moment.  Oxygen rushed back into dozens of lungs that had held their breath, and Jill, who had thrown her arms around Ted as Kendall had taken aim, detached herself.  She took a couple of steps forward.
            “Careful, Miss Ward,” grunted Bobby.  Jill ignored the warning, standing alone and staring down at Ed.  The face on the floor was splotched red with wrath, gasping as Bobby exerted painful force on one awkwardly bent arm.  She leaned low, her heart still beating fast, but she wasn’t angry any more.  She felt nothing but pity for the broken man on the tiled restaurant floor.
            “Goodbye, Ed,” Jill said.  Straightening, she turned back to Ted Gray, who stood unmoving, his clothes filthy and his hair a mess.  In two quick steps she was in his arms, feeling him against her, feeling at home.  In a few moments two uniformed members of the Stockbridge Police Department arrived, and after a few questions Ed Kendall and his gun were collected and taken away. 
            “I love you,” Ted murmured into Jill’s hair.  Looking over her shoulder he saw Bobby, hands in his pockets, finishing his interview with one of the cops.  “Thanks, Bobby.  I owe you one.”  The words were out of his mouth before Ted had really even thought about what he was saying. 
            “How about helping me graduate?” Bobby asked quietly, sweeping his long hair out of his eyes.  “I – there’s still a recruiter or two that have said they’ll still consider me, based on how I finish the year.”  Jill looked up at Ted, pulling away slightly.
            “Well?” she asked.  “Are you going to be around?”
            Ted looked into Jill’s bright green eyes and broke into a wide grin.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Shades of Gray: Chapter Twenty-Eight


              The rickety pickup truck rattled to a stop on Old Mill Road.  Ted, frozen to the bone, stretched out his stiffened legs and hopped out.  The jarring landing on the dirt of the roadside sent a surge of pain through his chest that made him suck in his breath. 
            “Thanks George,” he called to the old man in the cab along with his two German Shepherds.  George Strickland leaned out the window, John Deere cap perched on a white head, lit cigarette dangling from his mouth.
            “You sure you’re all right, boy?” he yelled back, and Ted nodded wearily.  He had crossed to the northbound shoulder in a blood-chilling dash and walked for half an hour before George Strickland of all people had stopped to see if he needed a ride.  George had lived in Stockbridge all his life; his family had owned the Strickland Apple Orchard for generations.  Like everybody else in Stockbridge, it seemed he owed Archie Gray an old favor and was happy to pay it back to his son.
            “Ho-kay,” George shouted.  “Sorry again about the bed – the boys won’t allow anyone up front.”  He grabbed the muzzles of his dogs and shook them affectionately.  Ted had been just as happy not to ride between Grant and Lee, though it had been a body-numbing experience.  The old pickup slowly engaged into first gear and puttered off into the darkness.  Ted turned and hurried down the long dirt driveway, turned to mud in the autumn rains and now frozen into uneven ruts.  It was pitch black, and he tripped a couple of times negotiating his way, but managed to keep his feet.  When he arrived at the house the front entryway was lit but all of the windows were dark, and there were no cars in the driveway.  He rang the bell and knocked, but there was no answer from within.
            Ted had been certain she’d be here.  He knew Jill, and on a night like this there was no way she’d want to be alone.  Apparently the whole family had gone somewhere together.  But where?  Mike and Lisa’s? he thought.  That was probably the best bet, but it was all the way across town.  He was exhausted, his bruised ribs were aching, and his entire body was ice cold.  He’d never make it on foot.  There were bicycles in the garage, but that was locked and Ted had no idea where the Wards kept their spare key.  He slumped against the front door, wondering if he should just wait out here until they got home.  But his heart was bursting to see her now, and it was so damn cold!  The barn would be a warmer place to wait…
            The barn…
            Ted jogged down the small hill to the barn, sliding open the main door.  The smell of hay and manure filled his nostrils, and he could hear the low snuffling of the three horses inside.  He’d never ridden before, having a modest fear of horses, but he had once or twice helped Jill to brush down the old mare, Furious Rhythm.  She was a retired racehorse the Wards had adopted ten years before, and now was quietly living out her days content to make a circuit or two of the paddock a couple of times a week.  He ducked into the tackroom and gathered together a saddle and stirrups, bit and bridle.  Ted was glad Jill had shown him how rig up the gear on the horse then, and he wished she were here now as he tried to remember the process.  Of course, if she were here now I’d never be trying to do this by myself.  He wished then that he hadn’t been so adamant about refusing to ride when she had offered.
            Ted laid down the equipment by the door to the stall where Furious Rhythm was standing.  She’d been asleep when he entered the barn, but now was wide awake and watching him, her long graceful head moving slowly from side to side, as if to tell him to forget it.
            “Sorry, old girl,” Ted murmured.  He took an apple from a basket by the door and held it out as a peace offering as he approached her.  The horse sniffed at the gift, and in one swift motion devoured it.  Placing one hand on her side, Ted used the other to rub the mare’s nose.  She stared at him with her great brown eyes, and Ted leaned in close and whispered, “One more race left in you?”
            It was as if she’d heard his plea and decided to help.  She let him place the saddle on her back and secure the bit in her mouth.  After a few minutes of trial and error he seemed to have it all hooked up correctly.  Now he just had to get on.  He closed his eyes and thought of Jill, thought of the message she’d left just a few hours ago on his answering machine.  You’re a special man…
            A special man would get on the horse, Ted thought.  Images from the John Wayne movies his father had loved and made him watch on Saturday afternoons leapt to mind.  It had always seemed so easy to them, to the point where they could mount on the run or even from a second-story window.  Taking a deep breath, he seized the reins and put his left foot in the stirrup, swinging himself up.  His ribs protested, but to his utter surprise and delight he found himself sitting in the saddle, even facing in the right direction.  Not wanting to hurt the mare, he gently nudged at her sides with his heels.  She turned her head to look at him with a bored and unimpressed expression.  The he remembered the clicking sound Jill made with her mouth when he’d seen her ride.  He managed to duplicate it, and Furious Rhythm moved forward at a leisurely walk.
            Fine, thought Ted.  At this rate we’ll get there in time for Christmas.  Holding on tight as they emerged from the barn, he made the noise again, and kicked with his heels as hard as he dared.  Her ears flattened and the horse lurched forward, nearly unseating Ted in the process.  She picked up speed, and Ted guided her as best he could up the driveway and onto Old Mill Road.  He bounced on the saddle like popcorn in a popper, finally electing to virtually stand in the stirrups and absorb the turbulence with his legs.  It was better, and he almost felt like he knew what he was doing.  Then she shifted into another gear, and the wind whipped past Ted’s ears with a low roar, his legs starting to ache and ribs screaming in agony. 
            Jill, Ted thought.  He gritted his teeth and held on.
              After a dizzying and petrifying ride through town, Ted and Furious Rhythm made the turn onto Langdon Street.  Eat your heart out, Paul Revere, thought Ted as they jogged down the road together, slowing to a stop in front of the Heathers’ house.  Ted swung his leg over his steed to dismount, and was rewarded with a cramp in his quadriceps.  His foot caught in the stirrup and he fell awkwardly to the ground with an unceremonious thud.  There was a last whimper of pain from his chest, which had all but given up on being allowed to rest.
            He climbed to his feet, and shook off the unnerving sense that the horse was laughing at him.  He patted her on the side while he tied her to the Heathers’ mailbox.
            “Good girl,” he murmured.  “Thanks.”
            Legs tender, Ted limped to the front door and knocked.  He heard a young voice yell, “I’ll get it!”  The door opened and there stood Nan Heather, twelve years old, blond hair like her sister and mother, but curly and short, and with dark features like her father.  When she saw Ted her eyes bulged.  He put a finger to his lips and winked, and her face split into a broad smile, gleaming with silver braces.  Ted nudged past her and up the stairs into the living room.
            Mike and Lisa were there on the couch, silent and stunned as Ted hobbled into the room, Abby asleep between them.  Meg Heather and Jake Hurlford were cuddled on the hearth of the fireplace, where a low fire was sputtering.  Rip Heather was there, mouth open as he had clearly been regaling Jake with some tale of his own athletic exploits, stopping as Ted entered. 
            “I thought you were leaving?” inquired Mike.
            “I thought I was, too,” answered Ted, shuffling into the room.  He wanted to sleep for the rest of his life, he was so tired, but he’d never felt so alive.  “Where’s Jill?”  His eyes raked the room like artillery fire, searching for that missing face.  No eyes would meet his, as if there was some great secret he wasn’t in on.
            “Mike, man, I’m not kidding.  Abby’s here with you guys, and no one is home at her parents, so where the fuck is she?”
            “Coach Gray!” gasped Meg in mock horror at the curse, but her mother shot her a dark look and she fell silent.
            “That’s Mr. Gray,” he corrected, the slightest hitch in his voice.  And he returned his gaze to Mike Heather, who never took his eyes of the label of his beer bottle, as though he’d never found the Budweiser logo so compelling.  The continued silence rained on him like physical blows.
            “Somebody tell me where she is!” he bellowed.
            “She’s at Papa Bear’s.” It was Meg, her young face a mixture of reluctance to tell him and mild shame that no one else would.  “Coach…Mr. Gray, she’s with someone.”  The floor opened beneath Ted and threatened to swallow him whole, and the cold and fatigue and labors of the journey back to Stockbridge caught up to him all at once.  He felt a million years old in that moment, felt as he had standing over the graves of his parents.  Completely lost and alone.  The easiest thing in the world would be to sink to one knee, as he was about to do, then to the floor, and never get up again.
            Ted wasn’t sure if that was his father’s voice or his own.  It hardly mattered.  His mouth became a hard, thin line. 
            “Thanks, Meg.”  He turned to Mike.  “Give me your keys, Mike.”  His friend shook his head.
            “I can’t, man,” he whispered.  “Ted, it’s Kendall.  It’s Abby’s father.”  The edges of Ted’s vision darkened, as though he would pass out, but he pushed it back.
            “If there’s a chance for them,” Lisa murmured, gently, “don’t you have to give them a chance?”
            “Mike, give me your damn keys.”  It was as though he hadn’t heard them.  He stood in the middle of the room, swaying slightly as he fought back the waves of exhaustion that crashed over him.  There was silence again, as painful and achingly lonely as before.
            “Fine,” he finally said, his voice empty and flat.  He thought of another horse ride, this one even longer, out to the commercial strip where Papa Bear’s family restaurant was.  He couldn’t face that.  “Thanks anyway.  I’ll walk.”  He headed down the stairs and out the front door.
            Ted was heading up the street when he heard the front door of the Heathers’ house open and then swing closed loudly.  He grinned.  I knew Mike wouldn’t let me down.  But when he turned, it wasn’t his friend, but his friend’s daughter, boyfriend in tow.  Meg ran toward him and grabbed his arm.  She had hurriedly pulled on a sweatshirt and was pulling her long yellow hair free as she smiled at him, tugging him back toward the driveway.
            “Jake’ll drive,” she volunteered breathlessly, and he nodded, a sheepish grin on his face.  Jake was a tall boy, athletic and handsome, polite and hardworking.  He was the proverbial old man’s idea of what a young man should be.
            “I got your back, Coach Gray,” he said as they piled into his Jeep.  Ted got into the front seat as Meg squirmed into the cluttered rear, amongst football pads, golf clubs, and schoolbooks. 
            “Thanks, Jake.”  He was about to correct him about the form of address, but let it go.  “You were great tonight, by the way.  Hell of a game, kid.”  Jake laughed.
            “We’d have got them if Bobby wasn’t such an idiot.”  He started up the engine.   
            “Meg,” Ted craned his neck at the young girl folded into the back.  “Go inside, OK?”  Her face lit up as she laughed prettily.
            “And miss this?  Are you kidding?”  She reached forward and squeezed Jake’s shoulder.  “Let’s go.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Shades of Gray: Chapter Twenty-Seven


              Ted sat quietly alongside Maria in the tan leather seats of her luxury BMW.  There was a stony silence as she drove and he stared out the window, watching the last familiar buildings of Stockbridge slip by the window and into the darkness.  Maria guided the car onto the highway, shifting smoothly into fifth gear.  She began to speak over the gentle hum of the engine.
            “Shame about the game,” she murmured sympathetically.  Ted did not respond, but kept looking out into the night.  “What I don’t understand is why you just gave away your biggest advantage.”
            “What?” that got his attention.
            “That stud you had at quarterback.  Would you have won if he had played?”
            “I think so,” Ted replied.  “Yeah, we probably would have, the way our defense played.  But…”
            “So you chose not to play him,” Maria interrupted him.  “When no one would have faulted you if you found a way to keep him eligible.  Hell, the entire town was begging you to play him, from what I hear.”  She shook her head.  “What were you thinking?”
            “That it was the right thing to do?”  Ted turned in his seat to face her.  She laughed.
            “That’s so cute.  Just like my father.”
            “Just like your…?”
            “The whole naïve fair play thing.  He sees it like you do, which is nice in the classroom but not in the real world, Ted.  During the campaign we found out that his opponent had cheated on his wife, and we had the goods to prove it.  Father wouldn’t hear of it, said it had nothing to do with the issues.”  She rolled her eyes.  “But you can’t give up an edge like that in the big leagues.  There’s too much at stake.  So we leaked it anyway.”  There was a touch of pleasure in her voice, a deliberate, daredevil courting of disaster that frightened Ted.
            “Did he…did Dr. Varsalone know?” he asked.
            “No,” giggled Maria.  “We did it for him, and it ruined that other poor bastard.  We probably would have won anyway, but that sealed it.”  She seemed very self-satisfied, and she took her eyes off the road to glance at Ted.  “We got you out of there just in time, honey, or you would have gotten too old and set in your ways.”  She reached over and put her hand on his knee.  “But you can still be taught.”  Ted looked at her hand and then up at Maria’s glowing face.  Had she always been like this?    
            “Hey, where are the tickets out of Boston?” he inquired casually.
            “In my purse,” she indicated the leather handbag between the seats.  Ted saw the two paper envelopes jutting out, and he took them.  He stared at the one with his name on it. 

Gray/Theodore Boston 22:55 09NOV02 Washington DC 00:45 10NOV02

            The print on the ticket began to swim before his eyes in the dim light, and in his head, he heard Jill Ward’s voice.  I’m so proud of you…don’t let them take that away…  But again in his life, he was giving it away for free, willingly heading down the path away from integrity.  And again, too, he was leaving someone behind.  
            “No,” he whispered.  “Not like this.”  He looked at Maria.  “Stop the car.”  She returned his gaze with a fleeting, confused look.
            “What?  Ted, are you kidding?  This is the interstate.”
            “I know.  Stop the car,” he repeated.  She pulled over onto the shoulder.
            “Are you sick?  What’s wrong?”
            As the BMW slowed to a stop, Ted grabbed his bag and jacket and got out.
            “Ted!” shouted Maria.  “What the fuck are you doing?”  He turned and leaned back into the open door.  There was a harsh glare from the dome light in the car, but she was still beautiful.  God, she was beautiful, and perfect, and everything he didn’t want.  He tore the plane ticket neatly in half and then again into quarters, dropping the pieces into the seat he had just vacated.  He pulled on his jacket in the chill of the late evening, and smiled at her. 
            “Goodbye, Maria.  Tell your father I’m sorry.  But there's someplace I'd rather be.”  He closed the door, stifling her protest, and headed off on foot down the side of the four-lane southbound highway.  The lights of the oncoming traffic flashed brightly in his eyes, illuminating his uneven breath.  He could feel the taillights of Maria’s rented BMW receding behind him, could imagine her stunned surprise.  He knew that before long she would make the transition from hurt and rejected to haughty and pissed, and after a few moments he could hear the engine gun and the vehicle screech out into the highway.  He turned, briefly, to watch it disappear into the distance until he couldn’t distinguish it from the other cars.  For the second time in his life he had walked away from Maria Varsalone.  But this time he wasn’t running away.  He was running home.
            Jill, he thought.  I’m coming. 

Shades of Gray: Chapter Twenty-Six


            Jill stood in the bathroom of her apartment, trying to hide the puffy redness of her eyes.  She couldn’t believe she was going to see Ed Kendall.  After she’d hung up on him he’d called back, several times, and in her misery over Ted’s departure she’d agreed to see him.  A pitifully small voice was screaming in the back of her mind about how he had hurt her, about how she still loved another man, a better man.
            A man who chose someone else, she thought angrily.  Or was that even true?  It was hard to remember if he had left or if she’d driven him away.  And Ed…cocky, smooth Ed Kendall, Sigma Nu legend and the creep who had walked out on her when she was pregnant with Abby. 
            He’s her father.  That was the painful truth of it.  Green eyes, still rimmed with pink despite her best efforts, stared back from the mirror.  No matter how much of a jerk he’d been then, no matter how much it had hurt when he’d left, he was the girl’s father.  Jill had always thought she wouldn’t need one, that they were fine, just the two of them.  But in the past weeks she had seen how Abby had seized hold of Ted, how she clearly had been longing for that presence in her life.  And for the first time, Jill truly realized how lonely she had been herself, how much she needed it, too. 
            But Ted was leaving, leaving them both, and Jill had broken her own heart to set him free of this town that was strangling him.  The prospect of being alone again was too much to face, and Ed was in town.  I don’t need to forgive him, she thought.  God knows I don’t have to love him.  The simple truth of it was that he was here, in Stockbridge, begging to be a part of her life, while Ted was running away to better things than Jill Ward.  That has to count for something.
            Jill turned off the bathroom lights and gathered up Abby.  She hadn’t told her daughter what she was doing that night, only that Mom was going out and she’d be staying at Mike and Lisa’s.  With her parents out of town it was the only place she felt comfortable leaving Abby for a couple of hours while she met with Ed.  It would be a while, she thought, before she introduced the two.  So soon after the loss of Ted she had no desire to let any man hurt her daughter again.
            “Come on, honey,” she called, taking Abby’s hand.  Her daughter looked up at her, and as always she was astonished at how like her own eyes her child’s were.   

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shades of Gray: Chapter Twenty-Five


              Funny thing about miracles, Ted thought on the bus back to Stockbridge Saturday night.  They happen more often when you have a great quarterback.  It was eerily silent on the dark bus, none of the spent players talking or laughing, none of the coaches reviewing the game.  There wasn’t much to talk about or review.  The game had started badly and gotten worse.  Chris Stanley had been awful, completing only a handful of his passes, and knowing there was no passing game to fear, the Northport Cougars stacked the line against the running game.  The final score was a disheartening 14-0, the low point total a testament to the gutsy play of the Stockbridge defense.  Paul Green played the game of his life, with fifteen tackles and three quarterback sacks and two fumble recoveries.  It just hadn’t been enough.  If Bobby had played…but Ted refused to let himself follow that thought all the way to the end.  It was finished.
            As the bus pulled into the parking lot at Stockbridge High School, Ted got off first and stood at the door, thanking each of the players for their effort and dedication, shaking their hands and hugging many of them.  Finally his coaches passed by, and he thanked them as well. As they moved on as a group toward the locker room, he stopped Bill Pope.  The assistant coach looked much older than Ted remembered.
            “I know,” Bill said.  He smiled a little, almost by way of forgiveness.  “We gave ‘em a hell of a run, didn’t we?  Not too shabby.”  Ted nodded, and found the next words impossibly hard to say.
            “I…I’m done, Bill.  Thanks for everything…back then, these last years.  I owe you a lot.”  The older man shook his head and put a beefy hand on Ted’s shoulder.  There was a long pause.
            “Go get ‘em, son.  We’ll mind this store.”  He walked away, stopping once and turning to face his former head coach. 
            “Your dad would have been proud of you.”  And he disappeared into the shadows.
            Ted went to his car, trying not to think of Bill’s final words.  He drove to his apartment in silence, staring straight ahead as he drove past the old school and down the familiar turns of Lincoln Street and Front Street.  Parking in front of his building, he saw Maria Varsalone’s red BMW parked in front of him.  As he got out, she emerged to greet him.  She was dressed impeccably as always, in a long black coat and stylish white hat.  She was beautiful, Ted thought, and as she hugged him he made no effort to pull away.  He rested his head on her shoulder for a moment, then stepped back.  She looked at him with a dazzling smile on her face, which darkened as she noticed the yellowing bruise on his forehead.  He dismissed any questions about it with a gesture.
            “If you want to get cleaned up and pack, I’ll wait for you down here.”  He shook his head.
            “Nah.  Come on up, it’s chilly out here. I just want to throw a couple of things in a bag and get out of here.  I can come back for the rest later.” 
            “Okay.”  She followed him up the stairs and into his tiny apartment.  Ted spent a few minutes collecting some clothes, his shaving kit, and a jacket.  Maria perched patiently on his couch, smiling at him each time he passed by.  Finally he was ready, opening the door so she could go out first.  As he passed after her, he noticed his answering machine on the table by the entryway.  He hesitated, then pressed the PLAY button.
            “Hi.”  He knew the voice right away.  Jill.  
            “I know you must be on your way out,” she continued, and it sounded as if she’d been crying.  “I’m not calling to ask you to stay, OK?  I just…I just wanted to say I’m so proud of you and everything you did these past days.  I know how hard it must have been for you.”  Her voice broke on the recording, and for a moment Ted thought it was over, but it wasn’t.
            “You’re a special man, Ted Gray.  Don’t you let them take that away from you down there.  Take care of yourself, OK?  I…I love you.  Goodbye, Ted.” 
            Ted stood in the doorway for a long moment, looking down the hall stairs to where Maria had just gone, then back at the machine.  Then he pressed DELETE and left, closing the door behind him.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Shades of Gray: Chapter Twenty-Four


            The next day at school he brushed off questions about the purple bruise on his head, claiming he had tripped up the stairs at home.  No one believed him, least of all Mike Heather, who eventually stopped prying because he was more interested in talking about the night before.
            “You were fantastic,” he chortled over coffee in the staff room before class.  “I wonder if they’ll still be thinking about that stuff come baseball season.  One fewer parent breathing down my neck about how their kid is the next Nomar Garciaparra and it’ll be worth it.”  He looked at Ted, his eyes narrowing.  “You got out of there pretty fast last night.  Didn’t want to collect the accolades?”
            “Yeah, right,” Ted snorted.  “There must have been some pretty pissed off people, too.  I just feel bad for Bobby, his dad putting him through that.” Ted sipped at his coffee, which was still too hot.
            “Well, we’ll all be there in Northport tomorrow afternoon for the game, along with the rest of town.”  Mike patted Ted on the shoulder, and he winced at the jolt of pain in his battered ribs.
            “Thanks,” he replied weakly
            Ted somehow made it through the day, glad for once that some of the people in the hallways were avoiding him, as it kept his tender body from being jostled.  He saw Jill once, maybe thirty feet down the corridor, but forced himself not to track her down.  He would be leaving tomorrow night, and he didn’t want to jerk her around.  Or change my mind, he thought.   He endured the pep rally that afternoon, far more subdued than it would have been otherwise.  Lurking at the back of the team, he allowed the senior players to take his customary place addressing the crowd, not risking a mixed reaction to him. 
            After the final walkthrough with the team that night, he gathered the players around him on the darkened practice field.  He ignored the fact that many of them were probably still upset.  He ignored the fact that the night air in his lungs made his bruised chest ache.  Looking around at his guys, he smiled.
            “You guys are the Stockbridge Wolves,” he said quietly.  “And tomorrow you’re playing for the state football championship.  You earned that right.  Not one man, all of you.  Don’t let that chance pass you by.  Don’t be anything less than your best tomorrow.  Don’t think about who’s not with us, but how far we’ve come together.”  He paused, closing his eyes.  He smelled the distinct scent of sweat cooling, of filthy mesh practice jerseys.  He could hear the little coughs of boys battling colds, the distant shouts from the parking lot.  Ted wanted to remember every detail.
            “No one believes we can win tomorrow,” he continued, opening his eyes and scanning the shadowy faces pressing close around him.  “Except us.  I do.  I believe it.  Do you?”  There were nods, a few muttered responses.  He waited, silently, and more players began to answer, progressively louder.  After a few moments the scattered words became a yell, and then a prolonged cheering.  Ted found Chris Stanley’s eyes and grinned.  Maybe, just maybe, there would be a miracle in Northport the next night.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Shades of Gray: Chapter Twenty-Three

Things get worse.


            It had been relatively warm that morning for early November, and Ted had walked to school.  On his way home after the hearing, however, the weather had changed dramatically.  It was maybe twenty degrees, with the first few snowflakes of the year dancing on the swirling gusts of arctic air.  Ted lifted the collar of his heavy coat against the wind and hunched forward, shivering.  He was almost to his apartment building when he passed the entrance to the Riverbank Tavern, the favorite watering hole for locals.  It was nearly ten, and light, warmth, and noise poured from the bar as the front door opened, and three figures stumbled out into the night.  One Ted recognized as Mitch Summer. 
            Mitch had graduated with Ted eleven years before, and had flunked off the football team their senior year.  A construction worker in town, Mitch was a heavyset man with a ruddy complexion made even more crimson by drink and now the cold.  With him were two locals with familiar faces Ted did not know by name.  They staggered suddenly out onto the sidewalk, and Mitch lumbered into Ted blindly, bumping him hard.  Ted took a couple of steps back and raised a hand by way of apology.  Not interested in a conversation with the drunks, he started to continue on the hundred feet or so to the front door of his building.
            “Hey!” bellowed Mitch.  “What the fuck, man?”  He shoved Ted with both hands in his back, sending him nearly sprawling against the concrete curb.  Ted caught himself and stood back up.  He glanced over his shoulder.
            “Sorry, Mitch.  Didn’t mean to get in your way.  See you around.”
            “It’s Gray!” Mitch Summer yelled in recognition.  Ted paused long enough to nod, then headed back down the sidewalk.  “What, too good to talk to us, you pansy-ass bitch?”  Ted heard a few quick footsteps behind him and turned just in time to catch a fist with his jaw.  He spun around from the ferocity of the blow, and tasted the warm blood in his mouth.  Turning around he felt another, connect on his temple, forcing him to the ground.  There was a ringing in his ears as Ted pushed against the ground to get up when he felt a punishing kick in his ribs, and then another.  He could hear the voices of the men he did not know, jeering at first, but then confused.  They sounded far away.
            “Mitch, man, what the fuck?” they asked in slurred tones. 
            “Knock it off, man, let’s go!”  The blows stopped, and Ted lay quietly on the sidewalk, blood dripping through his clenched teeth.  The voice that came from behind his right ear was guttural and angry, and stank of whiskey.  He tried to get up, to fight back, the rage and shame burning in his heart, but there was a knee in his back and a hand on the back of his neck holding him down.
            “Fuck you, Ted Gray, you stuck-up prick,” Mitch Summer rasped.  “So much goddamn better than everybody else.  I always hated your guts, you faggot.”  He spit on Ted’s cheek, hot and wet.  “But you’re just a loser like the rest of us, ain’tcha?”  Ted felt the fingers clench the hair on the back of his head and rap his forehead hard into the asphalt once.  The world swam as he fought to stay conscious.  The pressure on his back was gone and he rolled over, but his assailants had left.  He stared up at the night sky, shocked at the visceral frenzy of the attack.  He clambered to one knee, then unsteadily to his feet.  There was a sharp twinge in his side, and he sucked in his breath at the pain, wondering if the ribs were broken or just bruised.  He touched his head and felt a huge egg emerging there. 
            Staggering the last few yards to his apartment, Ted slowly climbed the stairs, gasping at the pain on each step.  Once inside, he gingerly took off his coat and found an icepack for his head.  Swallowing a handful of Advil, he sank gently into his couch.  He knew Mitch Summer was bad news, but the depth of his hate was a surprise to Ted.  He was just drunk, he thought.  Just bad timing.  It was a bad lie, but all he could manage at the moment.  Ted picked up the phone to call Jill, but somehow dialed Maria Varsalone’s number instead.  After few rings her voice mail picked up.
            “Maria,” he said.  “I’ll meet you Saturday night after the game.  We’ll go to Washington together.”  He hung up.
            I have to get out of this town.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Shades of Gray: Chapters Twenty-one and Twenty-two

Chapter 22 is long.  It is for all of the teachers and coaches I have had the privilege to know.


            Thursday was a fuzzy blur to Ted.  He conducted exams for his students in his other classes, and tried to think about the game, but that only kept  bringing his mind back to the special meeting later that night.  As he sat at his desk during the last period of the day watching his freshmen plow through their World History test, he reviewed his handling of Bobby Craig.  He searched for mistakes, for things he could have done differently, but no matter how he looked at it he kept coming up empty.  The boy had failed, despite all the help Ted could give, and it would likely cost the player his future and both of them a state title.  More than that, he thought.  I’m probably finished here. 
            What if they restore his eligibility tonight? Ted mused.  His integrity would be intact and he’d have his star player back.  He rolled that around in his mouth for a few minutes, but the taste was repulsive.  It would be wrong, it would be dirty and unethical and he couldn’t do it.  Sanctioned cheating was still cheating.  No way out there.  At that moment he decided that if the School Board overruled him and reinstated Bobby, he would resign immediately and accept the Varsalones’ offer.  His heart ached with the realization that this could be his last day in Stockbridge, that after everything his family had done here, it could all end tonight.
            He gazed about the classroom, at the backs of the twenty-five young kids bent over their desks.  There was Meg Heather’s long blond hair, in a plaited braid this morning.  Mike and Lisa, he thought, knowing they’d understand but not sure if they’d agree with him or not.  There were several freshman football players in the class, including Jay Scarpinski, a hell-on-wheels linebacker that Ted had looked forward to having on his varsity.  Now he’d never see what kind of player he could become.
            The bell rang, and the students dashed off final answers and brought the completed exams to his desk before heading off to whatever waited for them after school.  More than a few regarded him with a mixed look of concern and disbelief, as if he were a zoo animal with a large sign hanging on his cage: North American Football Coach.  Endangered.
            Ted gathered his things into his shoulder satchel and moved down the hallway toward the locker room.  He was enveloped in a sort of fog, watching the usual post-school scene with a strange detachment, as if he were not there but rather watching from afar.  A couple of his players and students nodded at him in greeting, but most of the kids made no sign of recognition except to move out of his way, so that instead of dodging and weaving his way through, he had a clear path. 
            He noticed his footsteps had betrayed him, carrying him not down to the locker room, but into the math wing.  He stopped walking and stood quietly, watching Jill outside her classroom, talking animatedly with her department head, Clark Morgan.  Clark taught calculus, was a bright and able educator, and his son Al was a stalwart on Ted’s offensive line.  He was a large man, tall and ponderously fat, with thick glasses perched over a thick moustache that made him look like a nearsighted walrus.  He was popular with both students and staff, but as he noticed Ted standing a few feet away, he stopped talking to Jill and stared darkly at his colleague from the history department.  It looked briefly as though he might say something, but instead he turned and lumbered off down the hallway.
            Ted took a few steps toward Jill, but she raised a hand in a gesture of refusal.  He knew from the look on her face that she’d been defending him against Clark Morgan, and that this was tearing her apart as much as it was him.  She also knew as much as he did that the worse this got, the more any chance of him staying diminished.  She looked at him for a long moment, green eyes full of sadness and a little bit of pride, then backed into her room and closed the door.
            Ted leaned against the corridor wall and closed his eyes.  What else can they take from me? 

            Practice that afternoon was, oddly, a little better than the day before.  It seemed that the staff had decided to go about their business as if Bobby would be reinstated tonight.  They gave Ted a wide berth, as though he was in his final hours as the head coach.  Ted spent most of his time with Chris Stanley, doing everything he could to make the boy ready should he need to play Saturday.  The junior backup was nervous and jittery, and his passes were well off the mark.  It was still an awkward, uncomfortable exercise, and when seven o’clock came Ted was relieved.  It was not unusual for his assistants to address the team after practice, so he stood aside as Terry McAllister spoke to the players in a low, rumbling drawl.  It was dim and cold on the practice field, lit only by a few sparse light banks glowing high above the turf.  Ted watched his breath puff out in front of him, embracing the clean, crisp air that filled his lungs.  He tried not to think that it could be his last practice.  Finally the players broke their massive huddle, and shuffled off to change and head home. 
            Who am I kidding? Ted chuckled grimly to himself.  Nobody was going home. He headed for the auditorium, knowing it would be full.
            Full was an understatement.  As he walked through the corridor leading to the assembly hall, there was a low buzz like thousands of bees that grew louder as he approached.  As he moved into the huge room, the noise hit his ears like a physical blow, a thousand people crammed into the space, all talking at once.  Ted moved to the stage, where a long table was standing.  The nine members of the Stockbridge School Board milled about behind the table, engaged in their own conversations.  There was Tap Avery, tall and thin, in an immaculate gray suit, perfect brown hair shot through with silver.  He caught Ted’s eye, and smirked, a self-satisfied look that turned Ted’s stomach.  Something inside him snapped, and as he looked around the auditorium, Ted decided there was no way he was going to allow that smug bastard to have his way.
            His steps suddenly lighter than they had been in days, Ted mounted the stairs to the stage and sat down at a side table where a hastily-made paper tag displayed his name.  Next to him was Principal Beck, who smiled and patted him on the knee under the table.  Across from them, at a similar table, were both Robert Craigs, senior and junior.  Bobby was in a buttoned shirt with a loosely knotted tie, hair unkempt as usual, looking down at the microphone before him in terror and, Ted thought, more than a little shame.
            The board members broke off their conversations and made their way to their seats.  Tap stood behind his seat, fingering his gavel, savoring the moment.  He then rapped the small wooden mallet against its pad on the table, and the burgeoning crowd began to settle down.  Once the auditorium was silent, the chairman took his seat.  Ted wondered where Jill was in the audience, but the stage lights made it impossible to see much detail beyond the first few rows.  He put her from his mind and focused on the matter at hand.
            “This special emergency meeting of the Stockbridge School Board is now convened,” intoned Tap Avery in a smooth, confident baritone.  “We are meeting in public session to determine whether to accept or deny the petition of Mr. Robert Craig, appealing the academic suspension of his son and seeking to reinstate his athletic eligibility.”  There was a low murmur from the crowd, which quickly subsided as Tap continued.
            “First, we will hear from the petitioner, Mr. Robert Craig, Sr.  Sir, please present your petition.”  The elder Craig adjusted the table microphone in front of him, and cleared his throat.  He then began to read from the pages in front of him in a slow and deliberate voice.
            “Chairman Avery, members of the Board, first thank you for convening this special hearing on such short notice.  It is gratifying that you recognize the urgency of this matter.  Our request is simple.  We ask that Mr. Gray’s decision to render our son academically ineligible for athletic participation be overturned.  Bobby is willing to engage in whatever makeup exams or extra credit is needed to repair his grade average, but we feel this decision by Mr. Gray unfairly targets our son and deprives him of his future livelihood.  We respectfully request that Bobby’s eligibility be restored.  Thank you.”
            Mr. Gray, thought Ted wryly.  Not Coach.  He shook his head.    
            “Thank you Mr. Craig.  Will the members please note that before me is a petition signed by over a thousand registered voters in the school district, supporting Mr. Craig’s request.”  Tap indicated a pile of pages in front of him, then turned to face the other wing of the stage.  “Ms. Beck?”  Beth Beck pulled her microphone closer.
            “Thank you Mr. Chairman.  As Principal of Stockbridge High School I support Coach Gray’s decision and find that it is based on sound pedagogical standards and that the young Mr. Craig has been given every opportunity to fairly achieve the required marks.  I recommend that the Board reject Mr. Craig’s petition as irregular and without merit.”  She paused.  “Sir, I want to see Bobby play Saturday as much as anyone, but if we make an exception here, the message we send to our students is terrible.  The rules cannot be different for regular students and star football players, Mr. Chairman.  Coach Gray’s decision was the right one and you should support him.”
            God bless you, Beth Beck.
            “Thank you, Principal Beck,” Tap muttered.  “I will now open this matter for comment from the Board.”  After a brief pause, a number of hands went up along the table.  Here we go, Ted thought.  Tap pointed first at Eileen Thomas, an older woman who had been on the Board for years.
            “I don’t like it,” she snapped without prelude.  Tiny and topped by a shock of thick white hair, Eileen had once been a formidable Board member, but as she got older she became more unpredictable and ornery.  “The boy failed an exam?  In my day I don’t even know if the football players took damn exams.  Frankly I don’t know what the one has to do with the other.  Let the boy play, he’ll make up the work.”  She sat back, hands folded in her lap, as if that were the end of the discussion.
            “I’m sorry Mr. Chairman,” said Sally Bergeron coolly when she was called on next.  Sally was new on the Board, a homemaker with two kids in the junior high.  “It seems to me that Mr. Gray has done everything right here.  It also seems to me that he has every reason to make sure Bobby can play on Saturday, and no reason to suspend him except because it’s right.  He’s exactly the kind of teacher we should have in our schools, and I hope he stays long enough for my girls to be in his class.”  Ted had never met Sally before, but he was grateful that a rookie Board member would have that kind of courage.
            “Sally,” grinned Ron Nelson from down the table, shaking his head patronizingly.  “This isn’t some afterschool special.”  Ron was a housing contractor with a junior son who started at cornerback for the Wolves.  “You can’t really be that naïve, can you?  Look at him sitting over there.  He can’t stand to see this kid do what he couldn’t, so he’s going to hold him back.  It’s petty and small, and I wish it wasn’t true, but…”
            “Oh come on!” shouted another member of the Board Ted didn’t know, Isaac Bond, an older man.  “You can’t be serious!”
            And it went on like that for nearly an hour, as the nine people sitting behind the long table discussed right and wrong, high school sports, and a little too much psychoanalysis of Ted for his taste.  No consensus seemed to be emerging, and as far as Ted could tell, the Board was fairly well split, with four members on either side of the issue.  The ninth member had been quiet throughout the proceedings, and as the evident stalemate continued, she patiently raised her hand.  Surprised, Tap called on Marilyn Turner.  Her son Dave had graduated with Ted, though they hadn’t been teammates and Ted only vaguely remembered him.  A dignified retired secretary, Marilyn spoke in soft, precise tones when the room fell silent as she was recognized.
            “Mr. Chairman, I would like to hear from Mr. Gray.”  There was a hushed ripple of sound through the audience, a wave of audible anticipation, as Ted rose to speak.
            “Thank you, ma’am.  It’s certainly been interesting to sit here as the good members of the Board have been discussing my relative merits.  But really, this has nothing to do with me.  This is about Bobby Craig.”  He pointed at the young man.  “I love this kid.  The idea that I’d hold him back from some dusty record of mine is as ludicrous as it is insulting.  He’s a far better player than I was.  He’s a great high school quarterback.  He’s a no-doubt Division I college quarterback, scholarship material.  But he’s not pro football good.  And as much as I can teach him on the football field, my responsibility in the classroom is far more important.  In five years he’s going to be doing something other than playing football, and if we fail to prepare him for that, shame on us.”  Ted paused, looking down and rapping on the table with a knuckle.
            “But this is also about more than Bobby, it’s about the other students, many of whom are here.  None of them are going to be pro football players, either.  Most of them are going to have to get into college on their academic records, and I won’t cheapen their efforts by giving away for free what they’ve worked so hard to earn.  We prepare these kids in the classroom and on the practice field for life, trying to teach skills and knowledge but more importantly by trying to impart character and judgment.  How can I look these kids in the face ever again if I tell them to make good choices and then bend the rules because it would be convenient?”  He turned back to the Board.  “How can you?”
            “Finally, this is about more than these kids, this is about you, all of you.  It wasn’t so long ago, eleven short years, that I was a student,” he continued, lowering his voice to just above a whisper.  “It might as well have been a century.  When I screwed up, and a teacher or coach threatened to tell my father, I was scared to death.  I would have cleaned out all the school bathrooms with a toothbrush on my hands and knees if it meant my old man wouldn’t find out I’d talked back on the practice field or failed an exam.  Now, the kids are the ones threatening to tell their parents!  And somehow I’m still scared to death.  Scared that if I say the wrong thing to a girl whose skirt is too short or touch one of my players the wrong way on the shoulder, everything I have could be taken away from me.
            “Well,” he laughed.  “Go ahead.  Be agents for your kids.  Be their lawyers.  Be their friends.  Be anything but a damn parent.  And when you’ve driven out the educators and coaches who are actually trying to teach these kids the lessons you seem to have missed, when men and women of integrity and passion do something other than teach because it’s a lonely, losing battle, then there’ll be no one left to blame.  I’d say I look forward to that day, but I’ll be long gone, folks.  So will Beth Beck and Mike Heather, and…” he almost choked up, his voice catching, “…and Jill Ward.  Ask your kids who their favorite teacher is, and they’ll be gone.
            “I know the Board’s going to vote however it’s going to vote tonight, and whatever comes of that, so be it.  But I’ll tell you right now, if you’re in favor of changing the rules for one kid because he’s a helluva football player, then shame on you.  If you made one phone call asking for one of these members to vote that way, shame on you.  If you signed your name to that petition over there, shame on you.”  Ted’s voice had risen steadily through his comments, and he had almost shouted the last sentence.  He stood, the cavernous hall deathly silent, no one breathing, but he was finished.  Finding his seat, he looked straight ahead, his eyes on Bobby.  The senior returned his gaze with swimming eyes, eyes full of regret that Ted would give anything to make right.  Beth rubbed his shoulder as suddenly the silence was broken by a few solitary claps that became full-fledged applause.  Surprised, Ted glanced to the audience.  It seemed that more than half of them were on their feet, shouting encouragement.  Gratifying as that was, Ted noted that many appeared to still be sitting, some yelling the opposite view.  He knew there would be many who resented his words, but he was beyond politics now.  If this was to be his last night in Stockbridge, then he would leave with the truth on his lips.
            Tap Avery angrily pounded with the gavel, shouting into the microphone for order.  It took several minutes for the chaos in the seats to settle down, but eventually the tumult was reduced to a low rumble.  The chairman looked at the other members of the Board, who seemed disinclined to continue the debate.  Ted wondered if he had made any difference.  Sure, he thought.  You probably made it worse.
            “Very well then,” grumbled Tap.  “If there are no more comments, I will entertain a motion at this time.”
            “Mr. Chairman.”  It was Ron Nelson.  “I move that the Board accept Mr. Craig’s petition and reinstate Bobby Craig’s athletic eligibility.”  There was a pause, and then Eileen Thomas chirped, “Second.”
            “All those in favor?”  Three hands rose in the air, and slowly Tap Avery added his for four affirmative votes.  Some voices started to whoop with joy in the auditorium, others shouted in livid fury as the chairman asked for those against.  Five hands were raised, and bedlam exploded in the hall.  Ted heard little of Tap Avery’s final comments, his head in his hands.  His decision had been upheld.  It was all he could do not to throw up.