Ted Gray walked to work every morning from his modest two-bedroom apartment above Stone’s clothing store on Water Street. It was clean for a bachelor’s space, with high ceilings and a view of the Stock River as it wended west toward the larger Piscataqua and then the Atlantic. He enjoyed the walk, liked seeing his students and the townspeople as they passed him on the sidewalk. When he had first come home it had been hard for him to move around in public, assaulted by the poorly veiled concern and confusion, always the unspoken hint of disappointment in the greetings. Ted Gray had come home, and no one knew why, though theories abounded at the RailStop breakfast counter and in the coffee shop. It was his parents’ death two years earlier.
had been too much for him. He’d finally climbed higher than was good for him. There was some bitterness, too, some shame. Ted Gray had been Stockbridge’s gift to the world. What was he doing back here like this, tail between his legs? Columbia
Slowly, as he settled into the routine of teaching and coaching, things had gotten better. People sustained eye contact a little longer, and when it became clear he had no intention of discussing his decision to come back, the question stopped being asked. Conversation turned from his winning throws six years ago to the winning play call the weekend before. Dust gathered on the Ted Gray of 1991, and it slowly became as though it had all been a dream or someone else entirely. Like it did for everyone else, the world had proved bigger than Ted Gray, and maybe there was little shame in that after all.
Mike Heather hustled to catch up with Ted in the staff parking lot. Mike was so physically non-descript that it was hard to imagine he’d made it to Double-A as a third baseman in the Chicago Cubs system twelve years before. He was tanned with a brown goatee and standard-issue coach’s beer belly, and he moved stiffly from the sequence of knee surgeries that had ended his playing career. His eyes still shone and darted about, though, as if at any moment a line drive would come scorching at him and need to be gloved.
“Hey Mike.” Ted slowed and allowed the older man to catch up.
“You guys even gonna break a sweat over Peterfield?”
“Come on,” Ted laughed. “You know better than that. Jesus, don’t jinx us first game out of the chute.” The two walked together for a moment, surrounded by students shuffling their way to homeroom.
“All right Teddy. See you around the water fountain. Taxonomic structure today!” He grimaced. Ted nodded, lost in his own lesson plan for first period. Suddenly he called out.
“Hey, Mike!” His fellow coach stopped and looked back over his shoulder.
“You were ’88, right?”
“And your sister Kate, she was ’93, wasn’t she?” Mike chewed his lip for a moment. He had four younger sisters, and Ted could see him trying to sort out the order and the dates.
“I think so. Why?”
“Was she friends with a Jill Ward?”
“What?” Mike yelled. The hallway was full of chattering students, and Mike had started to move away toward the science wing.
“Never mind!” shouted back Ted, not interested in bellowing her name in the middle of the crowded corridor. Mike was already gone, having disappeared around the corner. The bell rang, a long loud tone, and Ted moved into his classroom, stepping aside to let two late arrivals dash in before closing the door. He paused for a moment, shutting his eyes and gathering his thoughts. He’d never known himself to be so distracted, which bothered him immensely. Gradually the gears of his mind shifted to the disputed election of 1876 and his forthcoming lecture. With a quiet sigh and a shake of the head, Ted began his day.
It was a fairly routine series of classes and free periods punctuated by the tumult of the hallways, during which Ted had managed to put aside the aggravating question of Jill Ward and her historic resentment. Sitting at his broad classroom desk, Ted tried again to figure out why he was so preoccupied. When he’d walked into that lounge he’d thought the strange girl there attractive, but certainly not jaw-dropping gorgeous. He’d been on a date or two with better looking girls over the last couple of years as fellow teachers and other well-intentioned townspeople tried to fix him up with a variety of sisters or daughters or cousins. None had generated any fireworks or kept his attention for long with their waitressing careers or failed modeling stints.
Ted laughed. This was rock bottom. Ten years ago, even five years ago, he would barely have noticed. He would never have pulled out that yearbook, never have seen the irritating words, never have asked around about her like a junior high boy. He would have either ignored her altogether, or dealt with it directly. Things had been so much simpler then, when everything lay out before him in a sequence of straight lines, orderly rungs to be climbed on a predetermined ladder of achievement. Now life was a far murkier place, with few easy answers, and no clear path forward. He had only himself to blame, he knew that. This was all of his making, fruits of a decision he’d made five years before. He’d abandoned one thing in search of another, and in so doing had lost himself. If the Ted Gray of 1991, the confident boy king, was a thing of the past, what had he become?
He glanced at his watch. It was half-past two, and practice wouldn’t start for another hour. After a brief moment of paralysis, Ted rose from his chair and slung his leather bag over his shoulder. Whistling an old 80’s rock tune, he slipped out of his classroom and moved down the emptying hallway. He nodded or smiled at stray students on their way to afterschool club meetings or headed to the locker rooms for various sports practices. He lingered briefly to disengage a sheepish Bobby Craig from his current conquest, aptly-named field hockey star Melissa Lay. Chuckling at memories of his own coach’s similar efforts years before, Ted turned the corner and headed down the stairs to the math wing. It was a simple matter to find the room he was looking for from the brightly-colored signs taped to the wall next to each door.
She was in room 107. The sun was shining at an angle through the west-facing windows, tracing shafts of light across the beige floor and rows of empty desks. Jill was at a table in the back in a long brown dress, fiery hair up as always. Her attention was on the student seated across from her, and when Ted entered, knocking on the doorjamb, both looked up. Jill’s face was expressionless, but the young man popped up out of his seat with a broad grin splitting his acne-riddled complexion.
“Hey Coach. Getting some math help from Mrs. J-Dub.”
“That’s Miss J-Dub,” corrected Jill with a fleeting wry smile. For a moment her eyes found Ted’s, but she quickly looked away.
“Matty,” Ted nodded at his third-string senior halfback. “Good for you. See if you can bring Craig in here with you next time, huh?”
“Sure thing, Coach Gray. Hey, thanks again for the letter to UMass.”
“No problem. Let me know when you get accepted. And I expect my signed copy, got that?” Matt Pakal laughed.
“First thing. Hey, I’m out. See you on the field. Thanks again Miss J-Dub.” He gathered his books, shoved them into a battered backpack, and sauntered from the classroom. Ted dropped into the vacated chair and sat quietly, waiting. Jill was looking at him curiously.
“A signed copy of what?” she asked.
“You asked Matthew for a signed copy. Of what?” she repeated.
“You asked Matthew for a signed copy. Of what?” she repeated.
“Oh,” Ted folded his hands in front of him and leaned forward. “All my kids who get into college, I ask them to sign a copy of the acceptance letter for me.” He smiled, a little embarrassed. “I keep them in a binder down in my office. There are some damn good schools in there, you’d be surprised. A few Harvards, a couple Yales. Even an
. But my favorites are the letters from state schools sent to kids who had no business getting into college at all when I first met them. Matty’s will be one of those.” Oxford
“He is struggling with trigonometry,” offered Jill after a long pause. She was meeting Ted’s gaze now, and he was startled by how green her eyes were, the deep, lush green of summer grass.
“He’ll be fine,” Ted said. “He’s a worker. No natural ability at all on the football field, and not much more in the classroom. But he sets his jaw and gets it done. I wish I could say the same about my top-tier players. Bobby Craig and Paul Green are going to need some serious help to stay eligible this fall.” Jill rose suddenly, and Ted felt the temperature in the room drop.
“Is that why you’re here?” she demanded. “To ask me to go easy on your stars so they can play?”
“What?” Ted was caught off guard. “Of course not. Christ, lady, you’d have to take three trains and a cab to get close to how tough I’ll be on them. I’m just making conversation.” There was a prolonged silence as Ted looked at Jill and she looked at the floor.
“I - I’m sorry,” she finally murmured.
“For what?” Ted asked, seeing an opening. “For accusing me of academic interference on behalf of my players, or for Ted Gray Sucks?”
The color drained from Jill’s face. She sat back down and fingered anxiously with the silver bracelet on her left wrist. After chewing her lip for a moment, she took a deep breath and fixed those green eyes on Ted.
“Well,” she said, “that Ted Gray sort of did.” And for the first time, she truly smiled at him, white even teeth and deep dimples in the smooth pale cheeks. It was radiant, and Ted couldn’t help but smile back, and laugh, more deeply and honestly than he had in a long time.
“Let’s assume you’re right,” he replied. “Is the current version an improvement?” He was flirting now, the dormant muscles required creaking from long disuse. She cocked her head, squinting her eyes slightly.
“I couldn’t say. After all, until a moment ago I thought you were the same guy.”
“What was it?” he asked. “What was it that bothered you so much?” Ted felt a little pathetic even asking, but knew he couldn’t move past it until he knew. And all of a sudden he was painfully aware that he did want to move past it. Jill spread her hands and shrugged.
“Nothing, really. Everything. You were like this comet, this star fallen to earth, and no one could touch you. It all came so easily for you, and everyone loved you. It was all a little too much to take for a shy little girl writing her secret poems and knowing that her life would never be that way.” Ted shook his head.
“No sale. Some of that might be true, but a little insecurity isn’t the sort of thing you immortalize in your yearbook writeup. What happened, Jill? What did I do to you?” The emerald green of her eyes was so keen that her gaze was almost painful.
“It’s really pretty silly. Do you have to know?”
“Now I do.”
“Right. OK. Do you remember when you started dating Emily Sullivan?” Ted thought for a moment.
“Yeah, sure. Homecoming dance, senior year. We were the king and queen, I think.” Jill rolled her eyes.
“Of course you were. Well, if you were Mr. Perfect, Ted, Emily was right there too. Only she was nasty. I’m sure she was all smiles and short skirts for you, but to the other girls she was a first-class bitch. And landing you, that was sort of too much, I guess. So me and a couple of the other junior girls we kind of took it out on you. Nothing serious, but it was like our own little private joke. We’d say it to each other, instead of ‘this blows’ or ‘that’s unfair’. Ted Gray sucks.” Ted stared at her in disbelief.
“That’s it? That’s all?” She giggled.
“I told you it was silly.”
“You got that right.” Ted got up, dazed. He glanced at the clock over the door and winced at the time. Practice was in just a few minutes, and he’d have to hustle to get there on time.“Look,” he said, turning to Jill. “I gotta go, but I’ll let you make it up to me. Dinner, Friday. Charlie’s at seven.” And without waiting for a response, he left.