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Authors: Jerry B. Jenkins

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BOOK: Hometown Legend
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“Might be a crank, Calvin,” Bev said. “But you’d better listen to this.”

I grabbed the phone. “Yeah, uh,” the recording began, “I’m sorry I missed Sawyer, but this is Buster Schuler and I’d appreciate
a call back.” He left a number with no area code and a nearby prefix.

“Where’s that number from, Bev?” I said, mouth still full.

“Was that really him?”

“I’d know that voice anywhere. That number local?”

“Fairhope, if I’m not mistaken.” Bev was never mistaken. “Shall I dial it?”

I swallowed quickly and shoved my lunch aside, nodding. “Just tell me when it’s ringing.” I didn’t want Coach Schuler to think
I was so bigheaded I had to have a secretary place my calls. Bev dialed, waited a beat, and pointed at me. I sat up and actually
straightened my tie.

“Fairhope Rehabilitation Center.”

“Um, yes, ma’am. I’m returning Bust—ah, Mr. Schuler’s call.”

“One moment, please.” She covered the phone and I heard her calling out to him and telling him he could take it on the house
phone.

“Sawyer?”

“Coach?”

“Well, nobody’s called me that in ages, but how in the world are you?”

He’d never been one for small talk and I knew he’d appreciate me helping him get to the point. “I’m good. What are you doing
here?”

“I’d like to come see you,” he said. “But I’m not ready for people to know I’m in town.”

“I’ll meet you anywhere.”

“Well, I’d like to see you there at your work, and maybe I’m kidding myself to think people would still recognize—”

“Course they would, Coach, but if you want me to tell em to leave you be and—”

“I’d rather no one even knows.”

“You got wheels? Well, course you do. You know the place. Park in the alley between Shipping and the water tower. I’ll be
waiting by the door. You coming now?”

“Right now.”

I stood and spun in a circle, wondering how I could tidy up the place fast. Bev, as usual, came to my rescue. “You have to
eat,” she said, hurrying in. “I’ll scrape the crust off this place and he’ll just have to accept the rest. Now sit and finish.”

I sat and wolfed as Bev swept off my credenza, the top of which I hadn’t seen in years, and dumped stuff into file cabinets
and onto shelves. “It’ll take him twenty minutes,” she said. “And we’re working with years of buildup here.”

I finished ten minutes later and tried to help her, but Bev just took my arm, pointed me and my fast-food trash toward a garbage
can in the hall, and kept working. When I returned my office looked halfway livable and she was spraying something that knocked
out the food smell. She pointed to my chair, I sat, and she picked up the phone and called reception.

“Ginny,” she said, “keep an eye on the driveway and give Mr. Sawyer’s phone one buzz when a car pulls in toward the receiving
dock. No trucks, just a car. Thank you.”

The wait seemed forever but I knew I couldn’t concentrate on one other thing anyway. When the buzz came, I leaped from the
chair and headed to the side door. On the way I said, “Bev, you’re the best.”

“Yeah,” she said, winking. “I know.”

There would have been no mistaking Buster Schuler, especially when he got out of his ancient blue Mustang. The mustache and
sideburns had gray in em and the eyes were wrinkled like a man even older than the coach had to be by now. But he wore the
same white shirt and tie and I daresay the same hat. I don’t believe I have ever seen him without a tie, not in the classroom
or on the field, even during practice. He looked pale and stooped.

He hurried up the concrete steps and shook my hand, patting me on the shoulder. “Aren’t you ever gonna get older?” he said,
forcing a smile but having trouble maintaining my gaze.

“I was about to say the same,” I said, leading him inside.

“You know I’ve never tolerated liars,” he said, not unkindly.

Bev nodded to him and took his hat, then left us alone in my office. I know all that management stuff about sitting next to
a guest rather than behind your desk so you even the playing field, but my office wasn’t big enough for more than one guest
chair. And when Coach Buster Schuler was in a room,
no
seating arrangement would level the playing field.

I sat, gripping the arms of my chair, tucked my chin, and looked at him with my eyebrows raised. We both knew this was no
social call, so I just waited. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder
in Bev’s direction. “You and her?” he said.

“Nah.”

He rubbed his palms together, clearly more nervous than I was. I knew he’d get to the point. He’d come this far.

“It’s Miz Schuler,” he said. “And I need your help.”

“Anything, Coach,” I said.

Coach suddenly looked stricken. “Where’s my manners?” he said. “How’s that little girl a yours?”

“That little girl’s a sophomore at Athens City,” I said.

“Rachel.”

I nodded, impressed.

“And I was so sorry about Estelle.”

“Thank you. I got your card.”

He nodded, looking miserable. “I’d say it’s been a lot of years,” he said. “But, believe me, I know how fresh a loss like
that feels.”

I nodded, waiting.

“Miz Schuler never forgave me.”

What could I say to that? I just pressed my lips together and shook my head.

“Most people don’t know that she had a problem long before we lost Jack. Long before I killed him, is what she’d say.”

“Oh, Coach, no. You know better.”

He shrugged. “Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. She was an alcoholic long before that, you know.”

I shook my head. I really hadn’t known.

“Well, a problem drinker anyway. We had a tragedy early in our marriage, couple years after Jack was born. She always resented
my obsession, that’s what she called it. Football. She only barely tolerated Jack playing. Did people know that?”

“Some, I suppose.”

“She wasn’t supportive.”

“I know.”

“She made me pay by drinking more.”

This was painful. It was so good to see him, but I hated how beat down he seemed. “Don’t feel like you gotta tell me—”

“But I do, Sawyer! I’m here asking for help, and you gotta know why.”

“I don’t need to know anything but how I can help.”

“Well, then I feel like I need to tell you, okay?”

“If listening helps, I’m all ears.”

He looked to the ceiling, then breathed a heavy sigh. “I know everybody wonders why she didn’t know what she was getting into
when she married a football player. She was kind of a society gal. Prettiest thing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t believe she’d
look twice at me, and like a dummy I thought it was the jock stuff she liked. Turns out she saw potential cause my grades
proved I wasn’t as dumb as I looked or sounded. How was I to know she was on a mission to make a businessman outa me?”

I stared at him. What he was telling me was exactly what I’d been afraid of with Estelle when we fell in love. A lot of people
probably thought she’d pulled me out of football and into the business. Truth was she took me the way I was and would have
been just as happy if I was a coach somewhere. But I didn’t think that way. I would have enjoyed it, but football wasn’t my
whole life. She was. And I’d wanted to give her a life that wasn’t so far from what she grew up with and I’d wanted to prove
to her family that she hadn’t married so far below her class. I don’t think I ever convinced them or me of that, but the fact
is I never felt the pressure Coach was telling me about now.

“I loved her, Sawyer. I truly did. I still do. But it was unfair of her to try to change me and then to blame all this on
me.”

I agreed but didn’t dare say so. I didn’t know what he wanted to hear, but I wasn’t gonna take sides against the woman he
loved.

“What happened, of course, proved her right, at least in her mind. I haven’t been able to reason with her since.”

I couldn’t imagine a dozen years of that. “I’m surprised you’re still together,” I said.

He snorted. “Wouldn’t be if it was up to her. I can’t tell you the number of times she’s thrown me out. She sees Jack at the
foot of the bed, says he’s blaming her for letting him play football. You and I both know Jack loved the game. He was a rascal
and I don’t know if I ever taught him a thing, but I never made him play.”

Coach was silent, as if waiting for a response, but I was still back on the ghost story. One thing I knew for sure and would
never say out loud was that if Jack had played the way his dad wanted him to, he’d probably be an NFL player today. My mind
was reeling.

“So, when she, uh, kicked you out, you left?”

“Counselor told me to. Said a woman who’s lost a child is temporarily insane and you gotta do what makes sense to her for
a while, even if it makes no sense.”

I was lost. “So you’d leave and then come back?”

He nodded.

“She’d what, come to her senses for a while and ask you back?”

“Never. I’d just stay away a few days and then after school one day, I’d drive home instead of to the hotel. She wouldn’t
even comment, as if she hadn’t noticed I was gone. A few weeks later she’d get it in her head that since she never saw Jack
in the casket, he’s still alive and I gotta go find him. I try to reason with her, she imagines a conspiracy, and out I go
again. This here, this is almost a relief.”

“This here?”

“What’s happened to her now, which is what I came to tell you. See, I’ve had her in and out of alcohol treatment centers,
nothing permanent. Expensive. Where I taught school they wouldn’t cover it because they called it a preexisting condition.
It never helped anyway. When she wasn’t drunk she was crazy, so I never got a break.”

His voice was shaky and he drew in a breath. I wanted to cry too, but I didn’t figure that would help. I didn’t know what
he was looking for, but it didn’t seem like sympathy.

When he got himself together, he said, “I don’t mean to put her down, Sawyer. I’m just trying to tell ya.”

“I know.”

“I still love her. I don’t even know why. She’s given me no reason for twenty years, but I was raised that you love your wife
and you keep your commitments.” He shook his head. “Course I always thought I could love her through this and get her better
too.”

“Maybe someday.”

He looked down. “I’m past hoping,” he said. “Anyway, this last year I can’t keep her sober. Somehow she always finds booze.
Lies, negotiates, finagles, you name it. Typical stuff, they tell me, but I’ve never seen anything like it. I finally got
a doctor to tell me she’s a full-blown alcoholic and could kill herself if she keeps drinking. Insurance where I am still
won’t cover it, but God gives me this idea. At least I think that’s where it came from. I was praying and pretty soon I get
this idea, so two and two equals four or whatever. I call Weeks Bay County and find out I worked at Athens City long enough
that part of my pension includes coverage for this kind of a thing. Only hitch is, she’s got to be treated here. Somehow there’s
a spot for her at Fairhope Rehab, and I’m in the car with her the next day, driving all the way from KC. Had to have her doped
up and restrained just to get her here. Now she says I must hate her and want her dead so she hates me and wants me dead and
she never wants to see me again if I don’t get her out of there and all that.”

“A nightmare,” I said.

“A relief,” he said. “God forgive me, I need the break.”

I kinda knew what he meant, but again, I was just listening, not trying to advise him. “So, what’re you gonna do, Coach?”

“I’m gonna do right by the woman I love.”

It sounded so strange it was almost funny. After what I’d just heard I didn’t know whether I was supposed to laugh or cry.

“I’m serious,” he said. “I’m going to find a room, get me a job, visit her every day whether she wants me to or not— I mean,
I’m not gonna make a scene, just be faithful and be there so she can never say I wasn’t. And I’m gonna try to make a life
for myself.”

“Doing what?”

“I was hoping you could help with that.”

“Me?”

“You said you’d do anything.”

“But—”

“You run the biggest business in town.”

“Coach, I—”

“I’ll do anything, Sawyer. I’m not proud. Put me on the line. I might not still be strong enough to be a turner, but I can
cut or sew or whatever you want.”

“Coach, I’ve laid off two hundred people since you left town.”

He smiled a sad smile. “That’s my fault too?”

“It’s just, how do I justify hiring on somebody new when so many old friends have had to move away cause I didn’t have a spot
for em?”

He stood quickly. “I understand,” he said. “Really, I do. I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s not like you owe me anything.
I’ll find something.”

Now I was standing. “Coach,” I said, forceful as I could muster, “I want you to do me the favor of sitting yourself back down.
Now, I mean it. I can’t imagine telling you what to do, but you came in here willing for me to be your boss, I need you to
listen to me for just a second. Please.”

Coach sat back down and I moved around to the front of my desk, suddenly grateful for Bev and her clearing enough of a spot
to where I could sit atop it. “One a the advantages of the position I’m in is that I don’t answer to anybody anymore. If I
want to put you on, and I gotta tell you, it’d have to be part-time, then I can just do that. I think I owe you more than
you may think, and even if I don’t, this town does. I might take some heat for it, but that’s my choice.”

“Sawyer,” he said, “I preciate that, I really do. But the truth is I didn’t know how bad things were here and I didn’t know
you had to cut the labor force and all. I couldn’t ask you to do that—”

“But I want to.”

“I understand, but it wouldn’t be good for either of us. I don’t need much. I’ll manage. I was just checking possibilities
and you seemed to be the place to start.”

And then it hit me. I may not be the brightest bulb in life’s marquee, as that guy Garrison Keillor says on the radio, but
this one finally banged me so hard I had to smack myself in the head. Unless you’re dumber’n dirt, you’d thought of it before
me and probably did.

BOOK: Hometown Legend
3.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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