Stockbridge High demolished the Peterfield Pilgrims the next afternoon, 35-0, behind the stellar play of Bobby Craig, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for another. The senior quarterback had blossomed under Ted’s tutelage, and coming into the season needed just sixteen touchdown passes to break his coach’s decade-old Stockbridge High record of forty-five in a career. Now he only needed thirteen.
Following the game Ted was surprised to see Jill in the parking lot, Abigail in tow. It was a perfect September afternoon, under a cloudless blue sky, and Ted was riding the unique high that nothing outside of winning a high school football game can create. Still, he knew enough not to come too close to Jill in front of her young daughter.
“So, this is Abigail,” he said from a few feet away, hands on his hips. She squinted up at him from under an oversized white baseball cap emblazoned with the dark gray Stockbridge Wolf, red hair the exact shade of her mother’s hanging long down her back.
“Only my teacher calls me Abigail,” she replied, her grin revealing several missing teeth. “Mostly everybody calls me Abby.” Ted glanced at Jill, who suppressed a smile of her own.
“Well, Abby,” Ted went on, dramatically emphasizing the name. “I like your hat. Did you enjoy the game?” She shrugged, a gesture that mimicked her mother perfectly.
“I liked the band,” she said, and Ted couldn’t help but laugh along with Jill.
“Honey, wait in the car for a minute?” Jill asked. Abby began to protest, then looked at her mother’s face and skipped off to the Volkswagen a few spaces away. Jill turned back to Ted. “She’s everything to me.” Her tone was suddenly flat and cold. “I wanted you to meet her so she was real to you, and so you’d understand that I could never let anything hurt her. I don’t know what that was last night, but I…”
“Haven’t done that in a very long time,” Ted interrupted. “Yeah, me neither.”
“I’m serious,” Jill persisted. “It’s not just me I have to think about, you know? I can’t just be one of your Friday night girls.”
“One of - ?” It was so absurd that Ted would have laughed if he wasn’t so insulted. “Jill, I understand that you’ve got hot and cold running water like everybody else, but I can’t take the quick changes, all right? Protect your daughter, fine, I can get that. But don’t hide behind her and use that as an excuse to push people away. So you got burned by that Ed guy, who by the way sounds like a real dirtbag to me that you’re better off without. I’m sure you’re the first one who’s ever had that happen. And if I recall, you just told me last night that you didn’t want to get treated differently because of the single mom thing. Well, make up your mind, OK?” Ted took a couple of steps away, his elation from the big win completely gone, then stopped. He looked back at Jill, who was standing with her arms crossed, staring at him.
“I enjoyed last night,” he said. “I think you did too, and I think it would be fun to do again sometime. We can go slow, we can take baby steps, we can forget the whole thing, whatever. That’s fine by me, too. But Jesus, stick your neck out or don’t. This whole hiding away from the world because you’re afraid of getting hurt isn’t going to work.” He paused and glanced at the ground, then back up. “Besides, that’s my gig, remember?”
Ted walked away, into the locker room where a couple of straggling players were filtering out, heads wet and faces grinning. He returned the offered high fives on his way to his office, where he sat down heavily in the chair behind his desk and sighed. His eyes fell on the videotape on his desk, the raw cut of the afternoon’s game. He wanted to run back up the stairs to the parking lot to see if he could still catch her, but she’d probably taken off. He stood, picked up the tape and inserted it into the VCR/TV in the corner. He sat back down, remote in hand, opened a notebook, and pressed PLAY.
A week went by. Ted focused his mind on his students, practice, and the coming game Friday night. The Wolves were visiting the Northport Cougars under the lights, and it would be the first big test of the season. The always-tough Cougars had knocked Stockbridge out of the playoffs in the state semifinals the season before on a heartbreaking last-second field goal. So Ted Gray did his best not to think about Jill Ward, or to wander too close to the math wing. He returned to his usual routine, but found that as much as he could try to push the pretty redhead from his thoughts, he kept coming back to his disclosures over the weekend about
. It had been so long since he’d thought about that, so effectively had he packed away the memories of that choice. What if he had stayed? Could he have kept his integrity, his idealism? He was startled to realize that when confronted with having everything he believed in taken from him, he had responded by giving it away voluntarily. Columbia
Mike Heather had asked Ted to stop by after Thursday night’s practice. It was nearly nine when Ted pulled into the driveway in front of the Heathers’ modest three-bedroom ranch on Langdon Street. The light above the front door was on, expecting him. In a few steps he was at the door, knocking. He was still running over in his mind the troubles his secondary was having with the coverage swaps in the Cloud Cover dime package when Mike’s wife answered the door.
“Hi Lisa,” Ted greeted as she hugged him with a kiss on the cheek.
“Ted.” She was smiling, but her face looked concerned for him. Ted ignored that. Lisa had been a very pretty girl when Heather met her in
, and was still attractive in a harried-mom sort of way. Heather had been with the Class-A Winston-Salem Spirits of the Carolina League, and Lisa a beer girl at their home stadium, Ernie Shore Field. It had been a quick courtship, and in the fifteen years since Lisa had given Mike two daughters and a son. “Come in.” North Carolina
Ted let the screen door close behind him as he entered the Heather house. It was a mild night, and moths danced around the porch light behind him. He loved the Heathers’ house. It was never tidy without being dirty, a pile of sneakers just inside the door and sweatshirts and book bags piled indiscriminately around the entryway.
“Mike’s downstairs,” Lisa said, and Ted nodded.
Nan!” came a shriek from upstairs. “ Nan!” It was getting louder. “Where the fuck is my green shirt!” The Heathers’ eldest daughter, Meg, emerged at the top of the stairs. Blonde, tall, pretty and fourteen, she was dressed in sweatshorts with the band folded down and a Wolves Baseball T-shirt with the midriff torn off.
“Megan!” Lisa shouted. “Watch your mouth!” Meg had realized that Ted was there, and blushed.
“Sorry Mom. Hey, Coach Gray.” Ted waved.
“Hey Meg.” Meg Heather was a freshman in Ted’s World History class, a pedestrian student but a high-energy girl who was a merciless flirt with her male classmates.
Nan’s got my green shirt somewhere, and I want it for tomorrow.” Lisa sighed. Nan was the middle child in the Heather family, twelve years old and aspiring to match her older sister in fashion sense and popularity, much to Meg’s constant disapproval.
“If I remember, that was once my green shirt. I’ll go talk to her.” Lisa climbed the stairs, turning to roll her eyes in Ted’s direction at the ongoing drama of teenage sisters. Meg turned to follow her, then stopped and smiled at Ted.
“Good luck tomorrow night. Jake said you guys are gonna beat the crap out of Northport.” Jake Hurlford was a junior, Ted’s starting inside linebacker, and Meg Heather’s boyfriend. Ted laughed.
“Tell Jake to study his read steps on the right guard when Northport goes to their double-tight package.” She giggled. “And where did you get such a dirty mouth?”
“From her old man.” Mike Heather came up the stairs from the cellar. “What did I tell, you, Megs? Not around your mom. She hates that shit. Now get back to the books.”
“Sure thing Dad. Seeya, Coach Gray.” Meg disappeared down the upstairs hallway to check on her mother’s progress with
Nan and the green shirt. Mike clapped Ted on the back and shook his head.
“Daughters, man. As if it wasn’t enough growing up with four sisters. You gotta be kidding me. And it’s getting worse now. Meg’s just like her mom, and that scares the shit outta me, ‘cause her mom was a frickin’ piece of work back in the day. Thank God for Rip.” Rip was the Heathers’ youngest child and only son, a wild nine-year old who held the dubious distinction of being the only player ever ejected from a Stockbridge Little League game for arguing a third strike call with the umpire.
Mike shrugged, and motioned for Ted to follow him into the basement. They descended the stairs into the portion of the house Lisa had ceded to Mike. The bulk of the basement was a large, finished room with thick carpet. There was a pool table, a big TV and a couch, and a desk where Mike did his teaching and coaching work. The walls were lined with pictures of Mike from his playing days, including a jersey under glass from his days with the Class-AA Charlotte Knights. There were trophies and newspaper clippings as well.
“Want a beer?” Mike opened the mini-fridge under a large signed picture of him with Greg Maddux and Mark Grace at 1990 spring training.
“Nah,” Ted demurred. “Big day tomorrow.”
Mike grunted, grabbed a Coors Light for himself and faced Ted.
“So, what’s up with Jill Ward?”
Ted had been examining a framed Stockbridge Sentinel story from 1988 about Mike being drafted in the third round by the Cubs when the abrupt question was asked. He stiffened, then looked at Mike with his eyebrows raised.
“You heard me,” Mike said, leaning on the arm of the wide leather couch. Ted laughed.
“Jesus, aren’t there any secrets in this town? We went out once.”
“Yeah, but word travels fast. Lisa works at the hospital with Jill’s mom.” Lisa was a registered nurse at
, where apparently Ted and Jill’s night out had been the topic of some front-desk gossip. “From what Lisa hears, it was pretty intense.” Stockbridge Regional Hospital
“Nice to know Jill felt the need to share what happened with her mom.” Ted was starting to think avoiding anything more with Jill Ward was a good idea.
“Don’t be a jerk,” said Mike, taking a pull from his can. “Apparently Jill went to get Abby after your date and she was walking on air, man. She didn’t have to say anything. Her mom told Lisa she hadn’t seen her so happy in years.”
Ted looked at Mike, and could tell that his friend was dead serious. He wondered why, if Jill had been so happy, she’d confronted him in the parking lot the next afternoon. Trying to protect herself? Or checking to see if he felt the same?
“Anyway,” Mike got up off the couch. “I’m no matchmaker, and I only bring it up because Lisa’s been hounding me about it. You do what you want, you’re a grown man, but if you like this girl you should give it a chance.” He walked over to his desk and pulled a file folder from the top right drawer.
“But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about, Ted.” Mike handed the folder to Ted, who looked inside.
“Quizzes,” Mike replied. He sighed. “Bobby Craig is dancing on that cliff, and so is Paul Green. I can help, but…”
“Legit, Mike. No funny stuff.” They had had this conversation before, and Mike nodded.
“Of course not. I’ve got them paired up with a couple of bright kids for some projects, and with some decent scores they can stay eligible. How about with you?”
“Too early,” Ted replied. “An exam next week, and then I’ll know more.” He handed the file back to Mike. “This isn’t anything we haven’t been through before.”
“No,” Mike admitted. “But you and I both know this year is different. You guys have a chance at the whole thing, but if Bobby fucks it up in the classroom, you’ve got nothing backing him up.” Ted knew Mike was right. Quarterback was the one position they were thin, except for their academically indifferent superstar.
“Bobby will be fine. Thanks for keeping an eye out.” Ted yawned and glanced at his watch. Almost ten. “I gotta go and get some sleep before tomorrow. See you in Northport.”