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Home > The Bleachers(9)

The Bleachers(9)
Author: John Grisham

As he entered Renfrow's Cafe, one step behind Paul, Neely took a deep breath and told himself to smile, to be polite-these folks, after all, once adored him. The thick smell of things frying hit him at the door, then the sound of pots rattling in the distance. The smells and sounds had not changed from the time his father brought him to Renfrow's for hot chocolate on Saturday mornings, where the locals relived and replayed the latest Spartan victory.

During the season, each football player could eat once a week at Renfrow's at no charge, a simple and generous gesture that had been sorely tested shortly after the school was integrated. Would Renfrow's allow black players the same privilege? Damned right came the word from Eddie Rake, and the cafe became one of the first in the state to voluntarily integrate itself.

Paul spoke to most of the men huddled over their coffee, but he kept moving toward a booth by the window. Neely nodded and tried to avoid eye contact. By the time they slid into their seats, the secret was out. Neely Crenshaw was indeed back in town.

The walls were covered with old football schedules, framed newspaper stories, pennants, autographed jerseys, and hundreds of photos-team photos lined in neat chronological order above the counter, action shots lifted from the local paper, and large black-and-whites of the greatest of Spartans. Neely's was above the cash register, a photo of him as a senior, posing with the football cocked and ready to fire, no helmet, no smile, all business and attitude and ego, long untamed hair, three days' worth of stubble and peach fuzz, eyes looking somewhere in the distance, no doubt dreaming of future glory.

"You were so cute back then," Paul said.

"Seems like yesterday, then it seems like a dream."

In the center of the longest wall there was a shrine to Eddie Rake-a large color photo of him standing near the goalposts, and under it the record-418 wins, 62 losses, 13 state titles.

According to the predawn gossip, Rake was still clinging to life. And the town was still clinging to him. The chatter was subdued-no laughter, no jokes, no windy stories of fishing triumphs, none of the usual spats over politics.

A tiny waitress in a green-and-white outfit brought them coffee and took their orders. She knew Paul but did not recognize the guy with him.

"Is Maggie still around?" Neely asked.

"Nursing home," Paul said.

Maggie Renfrow had been serving scalded coffee and oily eggs for decades. She had also dealt relentlessly in all areas of gossip and rumor surrounding the Spartan football team. Because she had given free meals to the players she had managed to do what everyone else in Messina tried to do-wiggle in a little closer to the boys and their Coach.

A gentleman approached and nodded awkwardly at Neely. "Just wanted to say hello," he said, easing out his right hand. "Good to see you again, after all this time. You were something."

Neely shook his hand and said, "Thanks." The handshake was brief. Neely broke eye contact. The gentleman took the hint and withdrew. No one followed him.

There were quick glances and awkward stares, but the others seemed content to brood over the coffee and ignore him. After all, he had ignored them for the past fifteen years. Messina owned its heroes, and they were expected to enjoy the nostalgia.

"When was the last time you saw Screamer?" Paul asked.

Neely snorted and looked out of the window. "I haven't seen her since college."

"Not a word?"

"One letter, years back. Fancy stationery from some place in Hollywood. Said she was taking the place by storm. Said she'd be a lot more famous than I ever thought about being. Pretty nasty stuff. I didn't respond."

"She showed up for our ten-year reunion," Paul said. "An actress, nothing but blond hair and legs, outfits that have never been seen around here. A pretty elaborate production. Name-dropping right and left, this producer, that director, a bunch of actors I'd never heard of. I got the impression she was spending more time in bed than in front of the camera."

"That's Screamer."

"You should know."

"How'd she look?"

"Tired."

"Any credits?"

"Quite a few, and they changed by the hour. We compared notes later, and no one had seen anything she said she'd been in. It was all a show. Typical Screamer. Except that now she's Tessa. Tessa Canyon."

"Tessa Canyon?"

"Yep."

"Sounds like a porn star."

"I think that's where she was headed."

"Poor girl."

"Poor girl?" Paul repeated. "She's a miserable self-absorbed idiot whose only claim to fame was that she was Neely Crenshaw's girlfriend."

"Yes, but those legs."

They both smiled for a long time. The waitress brought their pancakes and sausage and refilled their coffees. As Paul drenched his plate with maple syrup, he began talking again. "Two years ago, we had a big bankers' convention in Vegas. Mona was with me. She got bored, went to the room. I got bored, so I walked along the Strip, late at night. I ducked into one of the older casinos, and guess who I saw?"

"Tessa Canyon."

"Tessa was shuffling booze, a cocktail waitress in one of those tight little costumes that's low in the front and high in the rear. Bleached hair, thick makeup, twenty or so extra pounds. She didn't see me so I watched her for a few minutes. She looked older than thirty. The odd thing was how she performed. When she got near her customers at the tables, the smile came on with the purring little voice that says, 'Take me upstairs.' The glib one-liners. The bumping and rubbing. Shameless flirting with a bunch of drunks. The woman just wants to be loved."

"I tried my best."

"She's a sad case."

"That's why I dumped her. She won't come back for the funeral, will she?"

"Maybe. If there's a chance she'll bump into you, then yes, she'll be here. On the other hand, she ain't lookin' too good, and with Screamer looks are everything."

"Her parents are still here?"

"Yeah."

A chubby man wearing a John Deere cap eased to their table as if he was trespassing. "Just wanted to say hello, Neely," he said, almost ready to bow. "Tim Nunley, down at the Ford place," he said, offering a hand as if it might be ignored. Neely shook it and smiled. "Used to work on your daddy's cars."

"I remember you," Neely lied, but the lie was worth the effort. Mr. Nunley's smile doubled in size and he squeezed Neely's hand harder.

"I thought you would," Mr. Nunley said, glancing at his table for vindication. "Good to see you back here. You were the greatest."

"Thank you," Neely said, releasing his hand and grabbing a fork. Mr. Nunley backed away, still waiting to bow, then took his coat and left the restaurant.

The conversations were still muted around the tables, as if the wake had already begun. Paul finished a mouthful and leaned in low. "Four years ago we had a good team. Won the first nine games. Undefeated. I was sitting right here eating the same thing I'm eating now, on a Friday morning, game day, and, I swear this is true, the topic of conversation that morning was The Streak. Not the old streak, but a new one. These people were ready for a new streak. Never mind a winning season, or a conference title, or even a state championship, they're all peanuts. This town wants eighty, ninety, maybe a hundred wins in a row."

Neely looked around quickly then returned to his breakfast. "I've never understood it," he said. "These are nice folks -  mechanics, truck drivers, insurance salesmen, builders, maybe a lawyer, maybe a banker. Solid small-town citizens, but not exactly earthshakers. I mean, nobody here is making a million bucks. But they're entitled to a state championship every year, right?"

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