Home > The Bleachers(12)

The Bleachers(12)
Author: John Grisham

"Reardon held on?"

"By sixty votes. The turnout was the largest in the county's history, almost ninety percent. It was a war with no prisoners. When the winner was announced, Rake went home, locked the door, and hid for two years."

They stopped at a row of headstones. Paul walked along them, looking for someone. "Here," he said, pointing. "David Lee Goff. The first Spartan to die in Vietnam."

Neely looked at the headstone. There was an inlaid photograph of David Lee, looking all of sixteen years old, posing not in an Army uniform or a senior portrait, but in his green Spartan jersey, number 22. Born in 1950, killed in 1968. "I know his youngest brother," Paul was saying. "David Lee graduated in May, entered boot camp in June, arrived in Vietnam in October, died the day after Thanksgiving. Eighteen years and two months old."

"Two years before we were born."

"Something like that. There was another one who hasn't been found yet. A black kid, Marvin Rudd, who went missing in action in 1970."

"I remember Rake talking about Rudd," Neely said. "Rake loved the kid. His parents still come to every game, and you wonder what they're thinking."

"I'm tired of death," Neely said. "Let's go."

Chapter Ten

Neely couldn't remember a bookshop in Messina, nor a place to get an espresso or buy coffee beans from Kenya. Nat's Place now provided all three, along with magazines, cigars, CDs, off-color greeting cards, herbal teas of dubious origin, vegetarian sandwiches and soups, and a meeting place for drifting poets and folksingers and the few wanna-be bohemians in the town. It was on the square, four doors down from Paul's bank, in a building that sold feed and fertilizer when Neely was a kid. Paul had some loans to make, so Neely explored by himself.

Nat Sawyer was the worst punter in the history of Spartan football. His average yards per kick had set record lows, and he fumbled so many snaps that Rake would normally just go for it on fourth and eight, regardless of where the ball was. With Neely at quarterback, a good punter was not a necessity.

Twice, during their senior year, Nat had somehow managed to miss the ball with his foot entirely, creating some of the most watched video footage in the program's history. The second miss, which was actually two misses on the same punt, resulted in a comical ninety-four-yard touchdown run, which lasted, according to an accurate timing of the video, 17.3 seconds. Standing in his own end zone, and quite nervous about it, Nat had taken the snap, released the ball, kicked nothing but air, then been slaughtered by two defenders from Grove City. As the bail was spinning benignly on the ground nearby, Nat collected himself, picked it up, and began to run. The two defenders, who appeared to be stunned, gave a confused chase, and Nat tried an awkward punt-on-the-fly. When he missed, he picked up the ball again, and the race was on. The sight of such an ungainly gazelle lumbering down the field, in sheer terror, froze many of the players from both teams. Silo Mooney later testifed that he was laughing so hard he couldn't block for his punter. He swore he heard laughter coming from under the helmets of the Grove City players.

From the video, the coaches counted ten missed tackles. When Nat finally reached the end zone, he spiked the ball, didn't care about the penalty, ripped off his helmet, and rushed to the home side so the fans could admire him at close range.

Rake gave him an award for the Ugliest Touchdown of the Year.

In the tenth grade, Nat had tried playing safety, but he couldn't run and hated to hit. In the eleventh, he had tried receiver, but Neely nailed him in the gut on a slant and Nat couldn't breathe for five minutes. Few of Rake's players had been cursed with so little talent. None of Rake's players looked worse in a uniform.

The window was filled with books and advertised coffee and lunch. The door squeaked, a bell rattled, and for a moment Neely was stepping back in time. Then he got the first whiff of incense, and he knew Nat ran the place. The owner himself, hauling a stack of books, stepped from between two saggy shelves, and with a smile, said, "Good morning. Lookin' for something?"

Then he froze and the books fell to the floor. "Neely Crenshaw!" He lunged with as much awkwardness as he'd used punting a football, and the two embraced, a clumsy hug in which Neely caught a sharp elbow on his bicep. "It's great to see you!" Nat gushed, and for a second his eyes were wet.

"Good to see you, Nat," Neely said, slightly embarrassed. Fortunately, at that moment, there was only one other customer.

"You're looking at my earrings, aren't you?" Nat said, taking a step back.

"Well, yes, you have quite a collection." Each ear was loaded with at least five silver rings.

"First male earrings in Messina, how about that? And the first ponytail. And the first openly gay downtown merchant. Aren't you proud of me?" Nat was flipping his long black hair to show off his ponytail.

"Sure, Nat. You're looking good."

Nat was sizing him up, from head to toe, his eyes flashing as if he'd been guzzling espresso for hours. "How's your knee?" he asked, glancing around as if the injury was a secret.

"Gone for good, Nat."

"Sonofabitch hit you late. I saw it." Nat had the authority of someone standing on the sideline that day at Tech.

"A long time ago, Nat. In another life."

"How about some coffee? I got some stuff from Guatemala that gives one helluva buzz."

They wove through shelves and racks to the rear where an impromptu cafe materialized. Nat walked, almost ran, behind a cluttered counter and began slinging utensils. Neely straddled a stool and watched. Nothing Nat did was graceful.

"They say he's got less than twenty-four hours," Nat said, rinsing a small pot.

"Rumors are always reliable around here, especially about Rake."

"No, this came from someone inside the house." The challenge in Messina was not to have the latest rumor, but to have the best source. "Wanna cigar? I got some smuggled Cubans. Another great buzz."

"No thanks. I don't smoke."

Nat was pouring water into a large, Italian-made machine. "What kinda work you doing?" he asked over his shoulder.

"Real estate."

"Man, that's original."

"Pays the bills. Pretty cool store you have here, Nat. Curry tells me you're doing well."

"I'm just trying to breathe some culture into this desert. Paul loaned me thirty thousand bucks to get started, can you believe that? I had nothing but an idea, and eight hundred bucks, and, of course, my mother was willing to sign the note."

"How's she doing?"

"Great, thanks. She refuses to age. Still teaching the third grade."

When the coffee was brewing properly, Nat leaned next to the small sink and stroked his bushy mustache. "Rake's gonna die, Neely, can you believe that? Messina without Eddie Rake. He started coaching here forty-four years ago. Half the people in this county weren't born then."

"Have you seen him?"

"He was in here a lot, but when he got sick he went home to die. Nobody's seen Rake in six months."

Neely glanced around. "Rake was here?"

"Rake was my first customer. He encouraged me to open this place, gave me the standard pep talk-have no fear, work harder than the other guy, never say die-the usual halftime rah-rah. When I opened, he liked to sneak down here in the mornings for coffee. Guess he figured he was safe because there wasn't exactly a crowd. Most of the yokels thought they'd catch AIDS when they walked in the front door."

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