Jill had just finished getting Abby in bed, which had become a Herculean task in recent months. At eight o’clock each night they would convene on Abby’s small bed, after teeth had been brushed and long red hair combed free of knots the day had managed to tangle. The mother would tuck in the daughter, and as they’d done since the beginning they’d read together, usually a short story or book, though they’d been moving on to longer fare. Usually Abby fell asleep quickly, but lately one book would be insufficient to close the bright eyes for good. It had always been an important shared time for them, but it was becoming exhausting for Jill.
It must be the first grade, she thought as she sat at the tiny kitchen table grading advanced algebra exams. It was Jill’s favorite time of day, quiet and relaxed, a deep purple darkness outside the glassy windows, muffled sounds of the other tenants ending their day barely audible through the thin walls of the building. She took a sip from the cup of peppermint tea she’d made and savored the sharp taste and the warmth in her throat. Staring at the exam in front of her, the numbers swam as she tried to focus, tried not to think of Ted Gray. Maybe he’ll call. It was a half hope, since she wasn’t sure if she should speak to him if he did.
Jill had scarcely succeeded in concentrating on the task at hand when her phone rang. Sighing, she put down her red pen and walked to the couch, rifling through her purse for her cell. Upon finding it, she realized it wasn’t the cell but her home phone, on the wall in the kitchen. I’m more out of it than I thought. Her heart dipped a little as she realized it probably wasn’t Ted, since he usually called her cell phone. Maybe her mom? She picked it up after the fourth ring.
“Hello?” There was a long pause on the other end.
“Hi…Jill?” The voice was familiar. It might have taken her some time to place it, had he not introduced himself. “Jill, this is Ed Kendall.”
She almost dropped the phone. Ed Kendall, Abby’s biological father, and the last real lover Jill had known until Ted. She wanted to hang up, to tell him to go fuck himself, or to shout a thousand other obscenities she had saved up over the last seven years in the event she ever spoke to him again, but when she reached down they were all gone. Over the years it had simply been too much effort to maintain the hate at a full boil, though the thought of him still turned her stomach and made her knees buckle with old hurts. She had a hard time picturing his face clearly.
“Jill?” Jill realized she hadn’t spoken for a long time, and marshaled the strength to speak in more than a whisper.
“Ed.” She was pleased that her voice was flat, emotionless, failing to betray the churning mix of emotions in her belly. “What do you want? How did you get my number?” Ed chuckled, and the gentleness was alien to Jill. She remembered his laugh as cackling and cruel, usually directed at an unfortunate drunken fraternity pledge. No, she thought, that’s revisionist memory on your part. He always was charming, that’s how he got you in the sack in the first place.
“Jill, you’re in the phone book,” he replied. “And I want to see you.”
“What happened?” Jill asked sharply, unable to keep the scorn out of her voice. “Your girlfriend dump you, and now you’re calling all the women ever stupid enough to sleep with you before to see if you can get lucky again?” Her contemptuous tone bothered her a little, but this was Ed Kendall. She had once fantasized about running him over repeatedly with a dump truck until he was rolled out flat like a pie crust, not to mention other, more gruesome fates. Harsh words were practically cordial in comparison.
“I deserve that,” Ed answered, his voice losing none of its easy contrition. “But no, I haven’t been with anyone for a long time. Jill, this is a conversation I’d really rather have in person.” She snorted in response.
“You don’t deserve my time. In fact, I’ve already given you too much of that tonight.”
“It’s about our daughter,” Ed stated, and something inside Jill snapped.
“Don’t you dare,” she snarled. “Don’t you fucking dare call her that. You haven’t the right. You’re nothing to her, Ed, you’re just a check in the mail. You’ve never even met her.” There was another prolonged silence, and when he spoke again Ed’s voice sounded choked by tears.
“I know,” he mumbled. “I’ve been a fool, a dick, an asshole, all of it. I was a kid, Jill, and I was scared. But I know now that walking out on you, on both of you, was the stupidest thing I ever did.” Jill thought she’d be crying by now, but she realized she’d already wept herself dry for Ted Gray, and she had none left for Ed-goddamn-Kendall. With a laugh, she finally found the words she’d been groping for earlier.
“Go fuck yourself, Ed.”
And she hung up.
Ted collapsed on the couch in his apartment, weary beyond measure. Without question, the previous two hours had been the worst practice of his life. He’d first told the coaches, most of whom had lobbied for some sort of second chance, which irked Ted. It had been worse telling the players. The reaction had been split, with some small fraction trying to rally behind Chris, another portion exploding into anger with Bobby, and the lion’s share falling into a sullen silence that Ted knew was resentment against the coach who they believed could spare them this disaster with the stroke of a pen. The practice itself had been wooden and dispiriting, most of the players almost sleepwalking, and the obvious lack of offensive chemistry with Chris Stanley at the helm worse than could have been expected.
As Ted lay there contemplating his prospects of fleeing the country, his phone rang. God, I hope that’s Jill, he thought.
“Coach.” It was Robert Craig Sr., Bobby’s father.
“Mr. Craig.” Ted knew what was coming, and he wished he could find a fast-forward button to skip the next few minutes of his life.
“Coach Gray, you know I respect you, and am grateful for everything you’ve done for Bobby. I just can’t understand why you insist on failing him in your class.” The words were polite, but Robert’s tone was clipped and tense.
“Mr. Craig, sir, Bobby is academically ineligible. I would move heaven and earth to change that if I could, believe me, but I’m afraid your son is responsible for keeping his grades up. He knows that.”
“I’ve already had that conversation with him. I’m begging you, Ted, isn’t there something you can do? A makeup exam?” The pleading tone made Ted nauseous.
“No, I can’t. It wouldn’t be fair to the other students, and frankly, sir, I’m a little surprised to hear this from you. You know as well as I do this isn’t Bobby’s first problem in the classroom, and maybe if there was as much emphasis at home on schoolwork as there is on sports…” He wasn’t sure why he said it, whether it was the fatigue or the bitter taste in his mouth or the years of meddling sports parents, but as soon as it was out he knew it had been the wrong thing to say.
“Now see here.” The civility was gone from Robert Craig’s voice. “How dare you talk about my family that way? I know you used to be a big deal around here kiddo, but from what I hear you fell apart when you had your chance. Now you’re going to stand in my son’s way? What are you, afraid he’ll win where you couldn’t? That he’ll break your record? That someone else will be the best ever to play for the Wolves?” The anger was mounting on the other end of the line, and Ted simply remained silent, letting the other man unload. There was nothing he could say anyway, and the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach grew.
“If you won’t help, I’m calling Tap Avery. He’ll get this straightened out, and if you’re put out with the trash on Friday morning, so be it.” The slam of the phone in the cradle was loud in Ted’s ear as Craig hung up. Replacing the phone on its wall mount, Ted rubbed his eyes. He could hear the lines humming now, knowing that in a small town like Stockbridge it would all be arranged by morning. Robert Craig would call Tap Avery, a member of the School Board. Tap would call Superintendent Peter Yancy, who would call Stockbridge High Principal Beth Beck.
Wait for it, Ted thought. At eleven o’clock his phone rang again. It was Beth.
“Ted,” her voice was almost as tired as he felt. Ted liked Beth Beck. She was a tough, friendly woman in her late forties, a fantastic administrator and a great English teacher before that, as well as a staunch supporter of Wolves football. “There’s going to be a special meeting of the School Board, tomorrow night. I guess you can figure out what’s on the agenda.”
Why not sooner than that? Ted wanted to ask. Instead he made a noncommittal grunt.
“It’ll be at the High School auditorium, after practice to accommodate you,” she said. “I stuck up for you, and I’ll support you tomorrow. But Tap Avery can make this very difficult for both of us.”
“Thanks, Beth.” Tap Avery owned three car dealerships in town, had been President of the local Rotary Club, and was a longtime member of the School Board, currently chairman. His son Marc was a sophomore receiver on Ted’s squad. “I’ll be there.” He hung up and began to wonder if he should just head to D.C. tonight.