Home > The Bleachers(6)

The Bleachers(6)
Author: John Grisham

"When did you finish?" Neely asked.

"Ninety -  three."

"And they fired him in-"

"Ninety -  two, my senior year. I was one of the captains."

There was a heavy pause as the story of Rake's termination came and went without comment. Neely had been drifting through western Canada, in a post-college funk that lasted almost five years, and had missed the drama. Over time, he had heard some of the details, though he had tried to convince himself he didn't care what happened to Eddie Rake.

"You ran the eighty-three laps?" Neely asked.

"Yep, in 1990, when I was a sophomore."

"Still the record?"

"Yep. You?"

"Thirty -  one, my senior year. Eighty-three is hard to believe."

"I got lucky. It was cloudy and cool."

"How about the guy who came in second?"

"Forty -  five, I think."

"Doesn't sound like luck to me. Did you play in college?"

"No, I weighed one-thirty with pads on."

"He was all-state for two years," Paul said. "And still holds the record for return yardage. His momma just couldn't fatten him up."

"I got a question," Neely said. "I ran thirty-one laps and collapsed in pain. Then Rake cussed me like a dog. What, exactly, did he say when you finished with eighty-three?"

Paul grunted and grinned because he'd heard the story. Jaeger shook his head and smiled. "Typical Rake," he said. "When I finished, he walked by me and said, in a loud voice, 'I thought you could do a hundred.' Of course, this was for the benefit of the other players. Later, in the locker room, he said, very quietly, that it was a gutsy performance."

Two of the joggers left the track and walked up a few rows where they sat by themselves and stared at the field. They were in their early fifties, tanned and fit with expensive running shoes. "Guy on the right is Blanchard Teague," Paul said, anxious to prove he knew everyone. "Our optometrist. On the left is Jon Couch, a lawyer. They played in the late sixties, during The Streak."

"So they never lost a game," Jaeger said.

"That's right. In fact, the '68 team was never scored on. Twelve games, twelve shutouts. Those two guys were there."

"Awesome," Jaeger said, truly in awe.

"That was before we were born," Paul said.

A scoreless season took a minute to digest. The optometrist and the lawyer were deep in conversation, no doubt replaying their glorious achievements during The Streak.

"The paper did a story on Rake a few years after he was fired," Paul said softly. "It ran all the usual stats, but also added that in thirty-four years he coached seven hundred and fourteen players. That was the title of the story-'Eddie Rake and the Seven Hundred Spartans.'"

"I saw that," Jaeger said.

"I wonder how many will be at his funeral?" Paul said.

"Most of them."

Silo's version of a beverage run included the gathering of two cases of beer and two other guys to help drink it. Three men emerged from his pickup, with Silo leading the way, a box of Budweiser on his shoulder. One bottle was in his hand.

"Oh boy," Paul said.

"Who's the skinny guy?" Neely asked.

"I think it's Hubcap."

"Hubcap's not in jail?"

"He comes and goes."

Chapter Six

"The other one is Amos Kelso," Jaeger said. "He played with me."

Amos was hauling the other case of beer, and as the three stomped up the bleachers Silo invited Orley Short and his pal to join them for a drink. They did not hesitate. He yelled at Teague and Couch, and they too followed them up to row thirty, where Neely and Paul and Randy Jaeger were sitting.

Once the introductions were made and the bottles were opened, Orley asked the group, "What's the latest on Rake?"

"Just waiting," Paul said.

"I stopped by this afternoon," Couch said gravely. "It's just a matter of time." Couch had an air of lawyerly importance that Neely immediately disliked. Teague the optometrist then provided a lengthy narrative about the latest advances of Rake's cancer.

It was almost dark. The joggers were gone from the track. In the shadows a tall gawky man emerged from the clubhouse and slowly made his way to the metal poles supporting the score-board.

"That's not Rabbit, is it?" Neely asked.

"Of course it is," Paul said. "He'll never leave."

"What's his title now?"

"He doesn't need one."

"He taught me history," Teague said.

"And he taught me math," Couch said.

Rabbit had taught for eleven years before someone discovered he'd never finished the ninth grade. He was fired in the ensuing scandal, but Rake intervened and got Rabbit reassigned as an assistant athletic director. Such a title at Messina High School meant he did nothing but take orders from Rake. He drove the team bus, cleaned uniforms, maintained equipment, and, most important, supplied Rake with all the gossip.

The field lights were mounted on four poles, two on each side. Rabbit flipped a switch. The lights on the south end of the visitors' side came on, ten rows of ten lights each. Long shadows fell across the field.

"Been doing that for a week now," Paul said. "Rabbit leaves them on all night. His version of a vigil. When Rake dies, the lights go out."

Rabbit lurched and wobbled back to the clubhouse, gone for the night. "Does he still live there?" Neely asked.

"Yep. He has a cot in the attic, above the weight room. Calls himself a night watchman. He's crazy as hell."

"He was a damned good math teacher," Couch said.

"He's lucky he can still walk," Paul said, and everyone laughed. Rabbit had become partially crippled during a game in 1981 when, for reasons neither he nor anyone else would ever grasp, he had sprinted from the sideline onto the field, into the path of one Lightning Loyd, a fast and rugged running back, who later played at Auburn, but who, on that night, was playing for Greene County, and playing quite brilliantly. With the score tied late in the third quarter, Loyd broke free for what appeared to be a long touchdown run. Both teams were undefeated. The game was tense, and evidently Rabbit snapped under the pressure. To the horror (and delight) of ten thousand Messina faithful, Rabbit flung his bony and brittle body into the arena, and somewhere around the thirty-five-yard line, he collided with Lightning. The collision, while near fatal for Rabbit, who at the time was at least forty years old, had little impact on Loyd. A bug on the windshield.

Rabbit was wearing khakis, a green Messina sweatshirt, a green cap that shot skyward and came to rest ten yards away, and a pair of pointed-toe cowboy boots, the left one of which was jolted free and spun loose while Rabbit was airborne. People sitting thirty rows up swore they heard Rabbit's bones break.

If Lightning had continued his sprint, the controversy would have been lessened considerably. But the poor kid was so shocked that he glanced over his shoulder to see who and what he had just run over, and in doing so lost his balance. It took fifteen yards for him to complete his fall, and when he came to rest somewhere around the twenty-yard line the field was covered with yellow flags.

While the trainers huddled over Rabbit and debated whether to call for an ambulance or a minister, the officials quickly awarded the touchdown to Greene County, a decision that Rake argued with for a moment then conceded. Rake was as shocked as anyone, and he was also concerned about Rabbit, who hadn't moved a muscle since hitting the ground.

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