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Home > The Bleachers(8)

The Bleachers(8)
Author: John Grisham

Rake loved stories of players who refused to leave the field with broken bones and bleeding flesh and all sorts of gruesome injuries.

Years later, Neely would hear that Mal's broken ankle had, more than likely, been a severe sprain, but as the years passed the legend grew, at least in Rake's memory.

The Sheriff walked along the front of the bleachers and spoke to the others passing the time, then he climbed thirty rows and arrived, almost gasping, at Neely's group. He spoke to Paul, then Amos, Silo, Orley, Hubcap, Randy-he knew them all by their first names or nicknames. "Heard you were in town," he said to Neely as they shook hands. "It's been a long time."

"It has," was all Neely could say. To his recollection, he had never met Mal Brown. He wasn't the Sheriff when Neely lived in Messina. Neely knew the legend, but not the man.

Didn't matter. They were fraternity brothers.

"It's dark, Silo, how come you ain't stealin' cars?" Mal said.

"Too early."

"I'm gonna bust your ass, you know that?"

"I got lawyers."

"Gimme a beer. I'm off duty." Silo handed over a beer and Mal slugged it down. "Just left Rake's," he said, smacking his lips as if he hadn't had liquids in days. "Nothing's changed. Just waitin' for him to go."

The update was received without comment.

"Where you been hidin'?" Mal asked Neely.

"Nowhere."

"Don't lie. Nobody's seen you here in ten years, maybe longer."

"My parents retired to Florida. I had no reason to come back."

"This is where you grew up. It's home. Ain't that a reason?"

"Maybe for you."

"Maybe my ass. You got a lot of friends around here. Ain't right to run away."

"Drink another beer, Mal," Paul said.

Silo quickly passed another one down, and Mal grabbed it. After a minute, he said, "You got kids?"

"No."

"How's your knee?"

"It's ruined."

"Sorry." A long drink. "What a cheap shot. You were clearly out of bounds."

"I should've stayed in the pocket," Neely said, shifting his weight, wishing he could change the subject. How long would the town of Messina talk about the cheap shot that ruined his career?

Another long drink, then Mal said softly, "Man, you were the greatest."

"Let's talk about something else," Neely said. He'd been there for almost three hours and was suddenly anxious to leave, though he had no idea where he might be going. Two hours earlier there had been talk of Mona Curry cooking dinner, but that offer had not been pursued.

"Okay, what?"

"Let's talk about Rake," Neely said. "What was his worst team?"

All bottles rose at once as the group contemplated this.

Mal spoke first. "He lost four games in '76. Miss Lila swears he went into solitary confinement for the winter. Stopped goin' to Mass. Refused to be seen in public. He put the team on a brutal conditionin' program, ran 'em like dogs all summer, made 'em practice three times a day in August. But when they kicked off in '77 it was a different team. Almost won state."

"How could Rake lose four games in one season?" Neely asked.

Mal leaned back and rested on the row behind him. Took a swig. He was by far the oldest Spartan present, and since he hadn't missed a game in thirty years he had the floor. "Well, first of all, the team had absolutely no talent. The price of timber shot up in the summer of 76, and all the loggers quit. You know how they are. Then the quarterback broke his arm, and there was no backup. We played Harrisburg that year and never threw a pass. Makes it tough when they're sendin' all eleven on every play. It was a disaster."

"Harrisburg beat us?" Neely asked in disbelief.

"Yep, the only time in the past forty-one years. And lemme tell you what those dumb sumbitches did. They're leadin' late in the game, big score, somethin' like thirty-six to nothin'. The worst night in the history of Messina football. So they figure they've turned the corner in their sad little rivalry with us, and they decide to run up the score. With a coupla minutes to go, they throw a reverse pass on third and short. Another touchdown. They're real excited, you know, they're stickin' it to the Messina Spartans. Rake kept his cool, wrote it down somewhere in blood, and went lookin' for loggers. Next year, we're playin' Harrisburg here, huge crowd, angry crowd, we score seven touchdowns in the first half."

"I remember that game," Paul said. "I was in the first grade. Forty-eight to nothing."

"Forty -  seven," Mal said proudly. "We scored four times in the third quarter, and Rake kept passin'. He couldn't sub because he had no bench, but he kept the ball in the air."

"The final?" Neely asked.

"Ninety -  four to nothin'. Still a Messina record. The only time I've ever known Eddie Rake to run up a score."

The other group on the north end erupted in laughter as someone finished a story, no doubt about Rake or some long-ago game. Silo had become very quiet in the presence of the law, and when the moment was right he said, "Well, I need to be going. Call me, Curry, if you hear something about Rake."

"I will."

"See y'all tomorrow," Silo said, standing, stretching, reaching for one last bottle.

"I need a ride," Hubcap said.

"It's that time of the night, huh, Silo?" Mal said. "Time for all good thieves to ease out of the gutter."

"I'm laying off for a few days," Silo said. "In honor of Coach Rake."

"How touchin'. I'll just send the night shift boys home then, since you're closin' shop."

"You do that, Mal."

Silo, Hubcap, and Amos Kelso lumbered down the bleachers, the metal steps rattling as they descended.

"He'll be in prison within twelve months," Mal said as they watched them walk along the track behind the end zone. "Make sure your bank is clean, Curry."

"Don't worry."

Neely had heard enough. He stood and said, "I'll be running along too."

"I thought you were coming to dinner," Paul said.

"I'm not hungry now. How about tomorrow night?"

"Mona will be disappointed."

"Tell her to save the leftovers. Good night, Mal, Randy. I'm sure I'll see you soon."

The knee was stiff, and as Neely crept down the steps he tried mightily to do so without a limp, without a hint that he was anything less than what they remembered. On the track, behind the Spartan bench, he turned too quickly and the knee almost collapsed. It buckled, then wavered as tiny sharp pains hit in a dozen different spots. Because it happened so often, he knew how to lift it just so and quickly shift all weight to his right leg, and to keep walking as if everything was normal.

Chapter Eight

WEDNESDAY

In the window of every shop and store around the Messina square there was a large green football schedule, as if the customers and the townsfolk needed help in remembering that the Spartans played every Friday night. And on every lamppost in front of the shops and stores there were green-and-white banners that went up in late August and came down when the season was over. Neely remembered the banners from the days when he rode his bike along the walkways. Nothing had changed. The large green schedules were the same every year-the games in bold print, outlined by the smiling faces of the seniors; along the bottom, small ads of all the local sponsors, which included every single business in Messina. No one was left off the schedule.

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