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Home > The Bleachers(14)

The Bleachers(14)
Author: John Grisham

Neely had nowhere to go, but he glanced at his watch anyway. "Gotta run, Nat. Thanks for the coffee."

"Thanks for coming by, Neely. A real treat."

They zigzagged through the racks and shelves toward the front of the store. Neely stopped at the door. "Look, some of us are gathering in the bleachers tonight, sort of a vigil, I guess," he said. "Beer and war stories. Why don't you stop by?"

"I'd like that," Nat said. "Thanks."

Neely opened the door and started out. Nat grabbed his arm and said, "Neely, I lied. I never hated you."

"You should have."

"Nobody hated you, Neely. You were our ail-American."

"Those days are over, Nat."

"No, not till Rake dies."

"Tell Cameron I'd like to see her. I have something to say."

* * *

The secretary smiled efficiently and slid a clipboard across the counter. Neely printed his name, the time, and the date, and put down that he was visiting Bing Albritton, the longtime girls' basketball coach. The secretary examined the form, did not recognize either his face or his name, and finally said, "He's probably in the gym." The other lady in the administration office glanced up, and she too failed to recognize Neely Crenshaw.

And that was fine with him.

The halls of Messina High School were quiet, the classroom doors were all closed. Same lockers. Same paint color. Same floors hardened and shiny with layers of wax. Same sticky odor of disinfectant near the rest rooms. If he stepped into one he knew he would hear the same water dripping, smell the same smoke of a forbidden cigarette, see the same row of stained urinals, probably see the same fight between two punks. He kept to the hallways, where he passed Miss Arnett's algebra class, and with a quick glance through the narrow window in the door he caught a glimpse of his former teacher, certainly fifteen years older, sitting on the corner of the same desk, teaching the same formulas.

Had it really been fifteen years? For a moment he felt eighteen again, just a kid who hated algebra and hated English and needed nothing those classrooms had to offer because he would make his fortune on the football field. The rush and flurry of fifteen years passing made him dizzy for a second.

A janitor passed, an ancient gentleman who'd been cleaning the building since it was built. For a split second he seemed to recognize Neely, then he looked away and grunted a soft, "Mornin'."

The main entrance of the school opened into a large, modern atrium that had been built when Neely was a sophomore. The atrium connected the two older buildings that comprised the high school and led to the entrance of the gymnasium. The walls were lined with senior class pictures, dating back to the 1920s.

Basketball was a second-level sport at Messina, but because of football the town had grown so accustomed to winning that it expected a dynasty from every team. In the late seventies, Rake had proclaimed that the school needed a new gym. A bond issue passed by ninety percent, and Messina had proudly built the finest high school basketball arena in the state. Its entrance was nothing but a hall of fame.

The centerpiece was a massive, and very expensive, trophy case in which Rake had carefully arranged his thirteen little monuments. Thirteen state titles, from 1961 to 1987. Behind each was a large team photo, with a list of the scores, and headlines blown up and mounted in a collage. There were signed footballs, and retired jerseys, including number 19. And there were lots of pictures of Rake-Rake with Johnny Unitas at some off-season function, Rake with a governor here and a governor there, Rake with Roman Armstead just after a Packers game.

For a few minutes, Neely was lost in the exhibit, though he'd seen it many times. It was at once a glorious tribute to a brilliant Coach and his dedicated players, and a sad reminder of what used to be. He once heard someone say that the lobby of the gym was the heart and soul of Messina. It was more of a shrine to Eddie Rake, an altar where his followers could worship.

Other display cases ran along the walls leading to the doors of the gym. More signed footballs, from less successful years. Smaller trophies, from less important teams. For the first time, and hopefully the last, Neely felt a twinge of regret for those Messina kids who had trained and succeeded and gone unnoticed because they played a lesser sport.

Football was king and that would never change. It brought the glory and paid the bills and that was that.

A loud bell, one that sounded so familiar, erupted nearby and jolted Neely back to the reality that he was trespassing fifteen years after his time. He headed back through the atrium, only to be engulfed in the fury and throng of a late-morning class change. The halls were alive with students pushing, yelling, slamming lockers, releasing the hormones and testosterone that had been suppressed for the past fifty minutes. No one recognized Neely.

A large, muscled player with a very thick neck almost bumped into him. He wore a green-and-white Spartan letter-man's jacket, a status symbol with no equal in Messina. He had the customary strut of someone who owned the hall, which he did, if only briefly. He commanded respect. He expected to be admired. The girls smiled at him. The other boys gave him room.

"Come back in a few years, big boy, and they will not know your name," Neely thought. Your fabulous career will be a footnote. All the cute little girls will be mothers. The green jacket will still be a source of great personal pride, but you won't be able to wear it. High school stuff. Kids' stuff.

Why was it so important back then?

Neely suddenly felt very old. He ducked through the crowd and left the school.

* * *

Late in the afternoon, he drove slowly along a narrow gravel road that wrapped around Karr's Hill. When the shoulder widened he pulled over and parked. Below him, an eighth of a mile away, was the Spartan field house, and in the distance to his right were the two practice fields where the varsity was hitting in full pads on one while the JV ran drills on the other. Coaches whistled and barked.

On Rake Field, Rabbit rode a green-and-yellow John Deere mower back and forth across the pristine grass, something he did every day from March until December. The cheerleaders were on the track behind the home bench painting signs for the war on Friday night and occasionally practicing some new maneuvers. In the far end zone, the band was assembling itself for a quick rehearsal.

Little had changed. Different coaches, different players, different cheerleaders, different kids in the band, but it was still the Spartans at Rake Field with Rabbit on the mower and everybody nervous about Friday. If Neely came back in ten years and witnessed the scene, he knew that the people and the place would look the same.

Another year, another team, another season.

It was hard to believe that Eddie Rake had been reduced to sitting very near where Neely was now sitting, and watching the game from so far away that he needed a radio to know what was happening. Did he cheer for the Spartans? Or did he secretly hope they lost every game, just for spite? Rake had a mean streak and could carry a grudge for years.

Neely had never lost here. His freshman team went undefeated, which was, of course, expected in Messina. The freshmen played on Thursday nights and drew more fans than most varsities. The two games he lost as a starter were both in the state finals, both on the campus at AM. His eighth grade team had tied Porterville, at home, and that was as close as Neely had come to losing a football game in Messina.

The tie had prompted Coach Rake to charge into their dressing room and deliver a harsh postgame lecture on the meaning of Spartan pride. After he terrorized a bunch of thirteen-year-olds, he replaced their Coach.

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