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This is Part Three of a three-part story.
He opened his front door, tossed his keys in the ceramic bowl that sat atop the console table and, laboring past it, collapsed on the couch. He was dog-tired, and his shoulder hurt.
He’d just come from baseball. It was the first day of the spring season, and he’d thrown batting practice for over an hour. He hadn’t thrown to live hitters in at least five years. If he’d played baseball at all during that time, he’d probably played catch for 15 minutes or so with one of his young nephews. He definitely hadn’t thrown seriously since his senior year of high school.
He’d been a starting pitcher on the varsity, so he had a pretty good idea of what he was doing when he took the makeshift mound that afternoon. Granted throwing batting practice wasn’t the same thing as game pitching. He wasn’t trying to blaze it by the hitters or fool them with off-speed junk, and instead kept a pretty consistent and measured velocity.
Still, he wasn’t a young kid anymore, and not having thrown seriously for five years, he should have stretched a lot more before he started. His tight shoulder was just starting to ache, and he knew that by morning he’d probably be in significant pain.
Practice was held indoors. Even though the first day of spring had come and gone, there was still almost a foot of snow on the ground. It had been an unusually cold and snowy late winter, and until the weather warmed enough to melt the crusty layers, caked like dirty frosting over the school’s baseball field and adjoining grounds, the Missiles had to hold their practices inside the Monteboro High gym using rubber baseballs.
That was his second athletic practice of the day in that same gym, with the two sandwiched around eight hours of work at the newspaper. He hadn’t even had time to eat lunch. It was 6:30, and besides being exhausted and sore, he was famished.
He looked around his living and dining rooms, and into the kitchen. He’d become so accustomed to his surroundings that rather than providing a sense of comfort and reassurance, his home’s familiarity left him even more depressed. For the last few months, nothing about it changed, and that sameness was a constant reminder of not only his escalating OCD, but a debilitating loneliness from which he never seemed able to escape.
He was the tidiest person he knew, and he kept an absolutely immaculate house. Without anyone else to mess with his regimented lifestyle and well-ordered housekeeping – “a place for everything, and everything in its place” his mother used to say – his home always looked the same. It never ever changed.
The problem was that constancy conjured up painful recollections of Lara and her absence from his life. It was strange, but he missed having to pick up after her! At least, that meant there was something alive and animated about his existence, and someone with whom to share it. Not anymore.
He hadn’t seen her or talked to her in over three months, since the night he dropped her off in Winnetka. She didn’t return with him to Pennsylvania after Christmas. In fact, she didn’t return at all.
He wondered if perhaps it was his fault that he didn’t read the signs. There were signs. He just didn’t see them, or if he saw them, didn’t interpret them correctly.
Lara wasn’t happy teaching at New Madrid Elementary School. That was obvious. With the exception of Juliette, she didn’t get along with any of the other teachers, and she hated her principal, Joyce Schroeder. Apparently, the feeling was mutual.
Throughout the fall semester, Mrs. Schroeder conducted a number of informal observations of Lara’s classroom. Lara complained that after each one Mrs. Schroeder always had something snide or cutting to say to her – “There’s hardly any visual stimulation in your classroom, Ms. Wachter. Do you honestly think that you’ve created a classroom environment that is motivating your students when they have to spend seven hours every day staring at you?” He and plenty of other people liked staring at Lara, so besides being a fucking asshole thing to say, it didn’t make any sense either.
But that was all a mere prelude to the formal process of telling Lara how much she sucked. Mrs. Schroeder’s official evaluation began with a pre-observation meeting in the beginning of December, followed by a formal observation held a week and a half before Christmas break. She called Lara in to conduct the post-observation conference on December 18th, three days before Ingrid’s birthday party.
When Lara came home that day, he was gone. He was at a basketball game against New Madrid and didn’t return home until fairly late. Lara didn’t tell him what Mrs. Schroeder had to say until the long, painful drive back to the Midwest four days later.
Suffice to say, the evaluation was not a good one. In fact, its last sentence pointedly summarized just how disapproving Mrs. Schroeder kurtuluş escort was of Lara’s teaching: “Unless she can make significant improvements during the Spring Semester, improvements to her classroom environment, instructional strategies, and interpersonal relations with students, parents, and colleagues, I cannot recommend renewing Ms. Wachter’s contract for next year.”
When she read that, Lara just shut down. Unbeknownst to him, she’d boxed up all of her clothes and possessions that night. By the following Saturday morning when she dropped Ingrid off at the Nagy’s house and picked him up to begin the long trek back to Chicago, she’d already submitted her resignation… effective immediately. On the ride home, she made him promise to sell her oil-burning Chevy and send her the money.
Those were just more unpleasant topics of conversation he’d had to endure on the 11-hour trip to her parents’ house. He drove the entire way. Lara said she was too upset to take the wheel and refused to give him a break to take a nap, despite the fact that he told her he’d only gotten about an hour of sleep the night before. “Whose fault is that?” she’d asked.
When he dropped her off in Winnetka after the long drive, he had to carry six or seven heavy boxes of her clothes and possessions into her parents’ garage – the same boxes he’d had to load into the bed of his truck that morning around 7:00. When he was done, he drove to the nearest Motel 6, checked in, and fell asleep on the king-sized bed without getting undressed or even bothering to pull back the covers.
The next day he drove the rest of the way home to “celebrate” Christmas with his family in Omaha. It was nice to see them all – his parents, brothers and sisters, as well as nieces and nephews. Still, after what he’d been through over those past couple of days, it wasn’t the most festive of holidays.
But unlike Lara, after the five-day vacation, he returned to the Pine Creek Gorge. He could probably have talked himself into quitting his job with The Gorge Reader, though he would never consider quitting a job without giving his employer sufficient notice.
But he knew he could never do the same thing to Paul. He owed it to Paul to finish out the basketball season, and since he’d also promised Dave Robey that he would coach baseball in the spring, he had commitments to stay in Monteboro until around the first of June. Besides, he loved coaching. It was more fun than just about anything he’d ever done.
As tired as he was, he knew he needed to eat something. He got up from the couch and wandered into the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator door, he searched the shelves and trays and found some apples. To help sate his hunger, he grabbed one. There was plenty of food in the fridge that he could have prepared – as he usually did – into a decent, healthy meal, but he was too tired to cook. Rummaging through the freezer, he found a frozen, sausage and cheese pizza. It would do. He unwrapped it, laid it on the cutting board, then set the oven to 400°, and returned to the living room.
He was too tired to read and concluded that there was nothing worth watching on TV, so he decided to listen to some music. He searched the sizeable stacks of his record collection, found Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and threw it onto the turntable. The vapory music that spilled from the speakers in the corners of the room seemed an apt complement to his mood.
He reclined on the couch for a few minutes munching the apple and listening to “So What.” Then, over Miles’ atmospheric, modal experimentation, he heard the annoyingly obnoxious buzzing of the oven’s temperature alarm, so he went back out to the kitchen, tossed the pizza onto the top rack of the oven, set the timer, and threw the apple core in the garbage can. As he was returning to the living room, the doorbell rang.
He opened the door to find Paul and Juliette standing on his screened-in porch. “Hey, what are you guys doing here?” he asked with a bleak smile. “Come on in.”
Paul and Juliette had visited his house numerous times before, but it was still a bit of a surprise to see them at his front door, and this was the first time he could ever remember them arriving unannounced. Most of the time, when he socialized with the Nagy’s, he went to their farmhouse. It was lot more secluded, which made partying there preferable, and the setting was so beautiful that he never tired of visiting the place.
And Paul and Juliette enjoyed hosting him. Besides dozens of pick-up basketball games played in the barn loft, he’d spent the fall hiking the trails behind their house and the winter cross-country skiing those same trails.
And then there were the parties. He’d probably been to six or seven of those – big bashes, small dinner parties, and, of course, the fête pour deux he’d enjoyed with Erika Eriksson, the night of Ingrid’s birthday.
The two levent escort stepped inside, and he closed the door behind them. “We just picked up some groceries at TOPS, and thought we’d stop in to see how you’re doing. Juliette’s a little worried about you”, Paul said nodding to his wife. He motioned for them to sit on the couch, and as did, he took a seat on a wing chair facing it.
“Worried about me? Why? Am I that pathetic?”
She answered with a wan grin, “No, it’s just that you’ve seemed so sad lately. I just thought you needed some cheering up. We’d like to invite you out on Saturday night.”
“I seem sad?”
Juliette stared at him with a kind of amused disbelief, and then nodded at the music coming from the adjoining room. “That’s not exactly the cheeriest of tunes, is it?”
“Well, it may not be particularly cheery, but it’s still pretty fucking great! Anyway, what’s going on Saturday?”
“A rally for the team. Win or lose on Friday night, this season is definitely worth celebrating – it’s the most successful one in school history: more wins than any other year, and Monteboro has never come close to advancing this far in the playoffs. You’re such a big part of all of that success, so we really want you to be there.” She flashed him a big smile.
Though the JV basketball season had ended three weeks earlier, the Varsity was still alive in the playoffs and scheduled to play Reading Catholic Central in the Class A Semifinals in Williamsport on Friday night. The winner of that game would advance to the state championship, and a probable date with Monessen, a school from south of Pittsburgh. Monessen was the two-time defending PIAA Class A Champion.
“For the team?” He was confused. “Who else will be there?”
“Everybody… well, the cheerleaders, the people that have been following us all season – parents, teachers, and the folks from the community. I think they’ll be a lot of people there, hopefully hundreds.”
“At your place?” He couldn’t fathom the idea of that many people descending on the Nagy’s small farmhouse, while the ground outside was covered in snow. Maybe in the summertime, when people could hang out outside. It might work then, though it still wouldn’t make much sense. But now? No way.
Paul’s clarified, “No, no, no, it’s not at our place. It’s not even a school event. It’s gonna be held a few blocks from here at the Monteboro Community Center on Queen Avenue. The Boosters came to me and asked if they could put something together. It’s an adult thing for the community, they’ll be serving beer, along with sandwiches of some kind, but with the exception of the team members and the cheerleaders, it’s not for the students at all.”
“The Booster Club president, Frank Schmidt, and the Chamber of Commerce president – I can’t remember his name… Gunter… Gunter Fasching, or some crazy German name like that – it was their idea. They want to honor the team, and they asked me if I’d say a few things. I couldn’t really say no.”
“If everyone else is going to be there, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t invite the student body. And they’re serving beer? What’s the deal with that? Isn’t that a little… I don’t know, hypocritical, considering we’re celebrating a bunch of underage kids winning basketball games?”
“Yeah, you’re right, it is; but I don’t know if you know this, Tom – even though the younger generations in this town aren’t particularly aware anymore of all of this ethnic shit, Monteboro was mostly settled by Germans about a hundred fifty years ago, and some of the descendants of the town’s founding fathers – the old Pennsylvania Dutch families – are still pretty active in the school and business community.”
“Anyway, it turns out there’s a long history of German beermakers in Monteboro. Before Prohibition, there were three breweries here! Can you believe that? In this little town? Two out of the three didn’t survive Prohibition. Now there’s only Scholz Brewery left, but that’s a family-run business, and pretty successful.”
“Anyway, it turns out that one of the Scholz is still big in the Chamber of Commerce. He’s donating the beer and sodas for the event, and some other people are donating the food. It isn’t going to be this long drawn-out thing – probably just a little over an hour. I think they just want to draw attention to what the team’s accomplished – a kind of community version of a school pep rally – but I think that everybody on the team should be there, you know, for the town and all, and, of course, we’d really like it if you’d come.”
“Yeah… I guess I can.” His expression gave away his reluctance.
“Well, that’s not exactly the reaction I was hoping for!” Paul grinned. Still, he could tell Paul was only half-joking.
“I know, I know. I’m sorry I’m not more enthusiastic. I mean, I’m all excited about the game on Friday, and everything. I’ve watched the tape maçka escort of Reading Catholic, and I just finished the scouting report for you. I’ll bring it to practice tomorrow.” He sighed deeply. “It’s just that, I’m pretty fucking tired. We’ve only had the one today, but these double practices are already kicking my ass!”
The varsity team was holding practice all week at 6:00 a.m. to prepare for the semifinal game. Paul had offered to practice before school to accommodate Dave Robey’s baseball program, which was starting its own season that week. Since the baseball players needed to practice inside the gym because of the snow, Paul decided to hold practice from 6:00 until 7:30, so the players could make it to their first classes at eight. That way the gym was open after school for baseball.
When Paul first told him about the change, he didn’t say anything, though he wondered why it wasn’t the other way around – baseball in the morning and basketball after school. Of course, that wouldn’t have helped him in the least. But then Paul let him in on his ulterior motive for inconveniencing his own team to the benefit of the baseball program.
The Class A State Final was to be held at Hersheypark Arena, in Hershey, just outside of Harrisburg. To allow all eight of the Boys and Girls championship games to be played on that same day in that same arena, the small school division championships were being held in the morning, and the Class A Boys game was the first one scheduled. It started at 8:00 a.m.
Paul wasn’t overconfident, and he certainly didn’t assume that the team would advance that far. Considering they were up against a powerhouse program in the semifinals, the odds were clearly stacked against them. Still, planting that idea in the players’ heads was a probably a really smart psychological ploy.
On the other hand, in the event that they did win on Friday night, Paul wanted the Missiles to be used to playing early in the morning. In order to play well that early, he reasoned, you have to practice that early. And so, that’s what he told the team. “You want to win a PIAA championship? Then, you’re going to have to win an eight o’clock game. If we want to play well at that hour, we need to get used to doing it. I’ve said it all year, guys, you only play as well as you practice.”
Not one of the players complained about the change. They’d bought in to that season hook, line, and sinker. Winning tends to have that effect. Besides, other than having to get up and come to school when it was pitch black outside, the change didn’t much affect them. Every one of the 12 kids on the varsity basketball team participated in a spring sport – most of them baseball. But they were all excused from spring sports practices until their winter seasons were over.
In the end, the only one who suffered because of the rescheduling of basketball practice was him. To add insult to injury, in addition to the two practices each day, he had to work eight hours.
That realization swept Paul’s face, and he apologized. “Shit! I’m sorry, Tom! I forgot all about you coaching baseball! Why didn’t you say something? Look, if you want to miss practices for the next few days – that’s fine.”
He shook his head side-to-side emphatically, “I’m not gonna fucking do that! This is the biggest game in the history of Monteboro High. I want us to win more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my life. Well… almost anything.” His mind wandered to Lara.
“You’re a trooper, Tom. Your commitment to the program has been amazing all year long! Still, that’s asking an awful lot of you. Do you want me to talk to Dave? I’m pretty sure he would be happy to excuse you from baseball until our season is over. I’m certain he did the same thing I did – just forgot that you’re coaching both sports. Besides, he’s missing half his players. I think he can handle things on his own until basketball season is over.”
“Nah, that’s okay. We’re leaving for Williamsport right after school on Friday, right?” Paul shook his head. “That means I’ve only got double duty for three more days this week. If we win on Friday, I’ll ask him if I can skip baseball next week.”
“You sure? I don’t want to burn you out. We wouldn’t have made it this far without you, you know.”
“I seriously doubt that. You told me before I ever agreed to coach that you thought you had a winner this year.”
“Yeah, I did, but I was hoping we’d win conference, and then I thought one… maybe two playoff games tops. I had no idea we’d get this far. This is all gravy!” Paul beamed a huge smile, “Tom, it’s so fucking much fun! And it wouldn’t have been half as much fun without you.”
“Thanks, that’s nice of you to say that. I’ve really enjoyed myself. Coaching is way more fun than I thought it would be, and it’s helped take my mind off…” He paused, the smile draining from his face, “…you know.” Neither Paul nor Juliette said anything. They understood.
“Well, we better get the groceries home”, Juliette reminded Paul.
“Yeah, we better get going.”
“I’ll see you in the morning. Oh, what time is the rally on Saturday?”
“Seven, and hey, I’m sorry about forgetting about baseball. I really am.”
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