“Oh yeah, he’ll be there for a long time.”
“For whatever you want. Can I call her?”
“No, not yet. Let’s just talk.”
There was no talk for a long time. They watched a pickup truck roll to a stop near the gate. The driver was a heavyset man with faded jeans, a denim cap, a thick beard, and a limp. He walked around the end zone and down the track and as he stepped up to the bleachers he noticed Neely and Curry sitting higher, watching every move he made. He nodded at them, climbed a few rows, then sat and gazed at the field, very still and very alone.
“That’s Orley Short,” Paul said, finally putting a name with a face. “Late seventies.”
“I remember him,” Neely said. “Slowest linebacker in history.”
“And the meanest. All-conference, I think. Played one year at a juco then quit to cut timber for the rest of his life.”
“Rake loved the loggers, didn’t he?”
“Didn’t we all? Four loggers on defense and a conference title was automatic.”
Another pickup stopped near the first, another hefty gentleman in overalls and denim lumbered his way to the bleachers where he greeted Orley Short and sat beside him. Their meeting did not appear to be planned.
“Can’t place him,” Paul said, struggling to identify the second man and frustrated that he could not. In three and a half decades Rake had coached hundreds of boys from Messina and the county. Most of them had never left. Rake’s players knew each other. They were members of a small fraternity whose membership was forever closed.
“You should get back more often,” Paul said when it was time to talk again.
“Folks would like to see you.”
“Maybe I don’t want to see them.”
“I don’t know.”
“You think people here still hold a grudge because you didn’t win the Heisman?”
“They’ll remember you all right, but you’re history. You’re still their all-American, but that was a long time ago. Walk in Renfrow’s Café and Maggie still has that huge photo of you above the cash register. I go there for breakfast every Thursday and sooner or later two old-timers will start debating who was the greatest Messina quarterback, Neely Crenshaw or Wally Webb. Webb started for four years, won forty-six in a row, never lost, etc., etc. But Crenshaw played against black kids and the game was faster and tougher. Crenshaw signed with Tech but Webb was too small for the big-time. They’ll argue forever. They still love you, Neely.”
“Thanks, but I’ll skip it.”
“It was another life.”
“Come on, give it up. Enjoy the memories.”
“I can’t. Rake’s back there.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I don’t know.”
A telephone buzzed from somewhere deep in Paul’s nice dark suit. He found it and said, “Curry.” A pause. “I’m at the field, with Crenshaw.” A pause. “Yep, he’s here. I swear. Okay.” Paul slapped the phone shut and tucked it into a pocket.
“That was Silo,” he said. “I told him you might be coming.”
Neely smiled and shook his head at the thought of Silo Mooney. “I haven’t seen him since we graduated.”
“He didn’t graduate, if you recall.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot.”
“Had that little problem with the police. Schedule Four controlled substances. His father kicked him out of the house a month before we graduated.”
“Now I remember.”
“He lived in Rake’s basement for a few weeks, then joined the Army.”
“What’s he doing now?”
“Well, let’s say he’s in the midst of a very colorful career. He left the Army with a dishonorable discharge, bounced around for a few years offshore on the rigs, got tired of honest work, and came back to Messina where he peddled drugs until he got shot at.”
“I assume the bullet missed.”
“By an inch, and Silo tried to go straight. I loaned him five thousand dollars to buy the old Franklin’s Shoe Store and he set himself up as an entrepreneur. He cut the prices of his shoes while at the same time doubling his employees’ wages, and went broke within a year. He sold cemetery lots, then used cars, then mobile homes. I lost track of him for a while. One day he walked into the bank and paid back everything he owed, in cash, said he’d finally struck gold.”
“Yep. Somehow he swindled old man Joslin out of his junkyard, east of town. He fixed up a warehouse, and in the front half he runs a legitimate body shop. A cash cow. In the back half he runs a chop shop, specializing in stolen pickups. A real cash cow.”
“He didn’t tell you this.”
“No, he didn’t mention the chop shop. But I do his banking, and secrets are hard to keep around here. He’s got some deal with a gang of thieves in the Carolinas whereby they ship him stolen trucks. He breaks them down and moves the parts. It’s all cash, and evidently there’s plenty of it.”
“Not yet, but everybody who deals with him is very careful. I expect the FBI to walk in any day with a subpoena, so I’m ready.”
“Sounds just like Silo,” Neely said.
“He’s a mess. Drinks heavily, lots of women, throws cash around everywhere. Looks ten years older.”
“Why am I not surprised? Does he still fight?”
“All the time. Be careful what you say about Rake. Nobody loves him like Silo. He’ll come after you.”
As the center on offense and the noseguard on defense, Silo Mooney owned the middle of every field he played on. He was just under six feet tall with a physique that resembled, well, a silo: everything was thick—chest, waist, legs, arms. With Neely and Paul, he started for three years. Unlike the other two, Silo averaged three personal fouls in every game. Once he had four, one in each quarter. Twice he got ejected for kicking opposing linemen in the crotch. He lived for the sight of blood on the poor boy lined up against him. “Got that sumbitch bleedin’ now,” he would growl in the huddle, usually late in the first half. “He won’t finish the game.”
“Go ahead and kill him,” Neely would say, egging on a mad dog. One less defensive lineman made Neely’s job much easier.
No Messina player had ever been cursed by Coach Rake with as much frequency and enthusiasm as Silo Mooney. No one had deserved it as much. No one craved the verbal abuse as much as Silo.
At the north end of the bleachers, down where the rowdies from the county once raised so much hell, an older man moved quietly up to the top row and sat down. He was too far away to be recognized, and he certainly wanted to be alone. He gazed at the field, and was soon lost in his own memories.
The first jogger appeared and began plodding counterclockwise around the track. It was the time of day when the runners and walkers drifted to the field for a few laps. Rake had never allowed such nonsense, but after he was sacked a movement arose to open the track to the people who’d paid for it. A maintenance man was usually loitering somewhere nearby, watching to make sure no one dared step on the grass of Rake Field. There was no chance of that.
“Where’s Floyd?” Neely asked.
“Still in Nashville picking his guitar and writing bad music. Chasing the dream.”
“He’s here, working at the post office. He and Takita have three kids. She’s teaching school and as sweet as always. They’re in church five times a week.”
“So he’s still smiling?”
“Still here, teaches chemistry in that building right over there. Never misses a game.”
“Did you take chemistry?”
“I did not.”
“Neither did I. I had straight A’s and never cracked a book.”
“You didn’t have to. You were the all-American.”
“And Jesse’s still in jail?”
“Where is he?”
“Buford. I see his mother every now and then and I always ask about him. It makes her cry but I can’t help it.”
“Wonder if he knows about Rake?” Neely said.
Paul shrugged and shook his head, and there was another gap in the conversation as they watched an old man struggle in a painful trot along the track. He was followed by two large young women, both burning more energy talking than walking.
“Did you ever learn the true story of why Jesse signed with Miami?” Neely asked.
“Not really. Lots of rumors about money, but Jesse would never say.”
“Remember Rake’s reaction?”
“Yeah, he wanted to kill Jesse. I think Rake had made some promises to the recruiter from A&M.”
“Rake always wanted to deliver the prizes,” Neely said, with an air of experience. “He wanted me at State.”
“That’s where you should’ve gone.”
“Too late for that.”
“Why’d you sign with Tech?”
“I liked their quarterback Coach.”
“No one liked their quarterback Coach. What was the real reason?”
“You really want to know?”
“Yes, after fifteen years, I really want to know.”
“Fifty thousand bucks in cash.”
“Yep. State offered forty, A&M offered thirty-five, a few others were willing to pay twenty.”
“You never told me that.”
“I never told anyone until now. It’s such a sleazy business.”
“You took fifty thousand dollars in cash from Tech?” Paul asked slowly.
“Five hundred one-hundred-dollar bills, stuffed in an unmarked red canvas bag and placed in the trunk of my car one night while I was at the movies with Screamer. Next morning, I committed to Tech.”
“Did your parents know?”
“Are you crazy? My father would’ve called the NCAA.”
“Why’d you take it?”
“Every school offered cash, Paul, don’t be naïve. It was part of the game.”
“I’m not naïve, I’m just surprised at you.”
“Why? I could’ve signed with Tech for nothing, or I could’ve taken the money. Fifty thousand bucks to an eighteen-year-old idiot is like winning the lottery.”
“Every recruiter offered cash, Paul. There wasn’t a single exception. I figured it was just part of the business.”
“How’d you hide the money?”
“Stuffed it here and there. When I got to Tech, I paid cash for a new car. It didn’t last long.”
“And your parents weren’t suspicious?”
“They were, but I was away at college and they couldn’t keep up with everything.”
“You saved none of it?”
“Why save money when you’re on the payroll?”
Neely reshifted his weight and gave an indulging smile.
“Don’t patronize me, asshole,” Paul said. “Oddly enough most of us didn’t play football at the Division One level.”
“Remember the Gator Bowl my freshman year?”
“Sure. Everyone here watched it.”
“I came off the bench in the second half, threw three touchdowns, ran for a hundred yards, won the game on a last-second pass. A star is born, I’m the greatest freshman in the country, blah, blah, blah. Well, when I got back to school there was a small package in my P.O. box. Five thousand bucks in cash. The note said: ‘Nice game. Keep it up.’ It was anonymous. The message was clear—keep winning and the money will keep coming. So I wasn’t interested in saving money.”
Silo’s pickup had a custom paint job that was an odd mix between gold and red. The wheels glistened with silver and the windows were pitch black. “There he is,” Paul said as the truck rolled to a stop near the gate.
“What kind of truck is that?” Neely asked.
“Stolen I’m sure.”
Silo himself had been customized—a leather WWII bomber jacket, black denim pants, black boots. He hadn’t lost weight, hadn’t gained any either, and still looked like a nose tackle as he walked slowly around the edge of the field. It was the walk of a Messina Spartan, almost a strut, almost a challenge to anyone to utter a careless word. Silo could still put on the pads, snap the ball, and draw blood.
Instead he gazed at something in the middle of the field, perhaps it was himself a long time ago, perhaps he heard Rake barking at him. Whatever Silo heard or saw stopped him on the sideline for a moment, then he climbed the steps with his hands stuck deep in the pockets of his jacket. He was breathing hard when he got to Neely. He bearhugged his quarterback and asked him where he’d been for the past fifteen years. Greetings were exchanged, insults swapped. There was so much ground to cover that neither wanted to begin.
They sat three in a row and watched another jogger limp by. Silo was subdued, and when he spoke it was almost in a whisper. “So where are you living these days?”
“The Orlando area,” Neely said.
“What kind of work you in?”
“You got a family?”
“No, just one divorce. You?”
“Oh, I’m sure I got lots of kids, I just don’t know about ’em. Never married. You makin’ money?”
“Getting by. I’m not on the Forbes list.”
“I’ll probably crack it next year,” Silo said.
“What kind of business?” Neely asked, glancing down at Paul.
“Automotive parts,” Silo said. “I stopped by Rake’s this afternoon. Miss Lila and the girls are there, along with the grandkids and neighbors. House is full of folks, all sittin’ around, just waitin’ for Rake to die.”
“Did you see him?” Paul asked.
“No. He’s somewhere in the back, with a nurse. Miss Lila said he didn’t want anybody to see him in his last days. Said he’s just a skeleton.”
The image of Eddie Rake lying in a dark bed with a nurse nearby counting the minutes chilled the conversation for a long time. Until the day he was fired he coached in cleats and shorts and never hesitated to demonstrate the proper blocking mechanics or the finer points of a stiff arm. Rake relished physical contact with his players, but not the slap on the back for a job well done. Rake liked to hit, and no practice session was complete until he angrily threw down his clipboard and grabbed someone by the shoulder pads. The bigger the better. In blocking drills, when things were not going to suit him, he would crouch in a perfect three-point stance then fire off the ball and crash into a defensive tackle, one with forty more pounds and the full complement of pads and gear. Every Messina player had seen Rake, on a particularly bad day, throw his body at a running back and take him down with a vicious hit. He loved the violence of football and demanded it from every player.