Here is chapter 24. To buy the book or take a look at the reviews so far, click here.
I remember every detail of the evening Sherry Johnson came back to me; every word of it. It was late August, just before school began, and I was watching television – the Cincinnati Reds playing the Pittsburgh Pirates. When she knocked it was already dark outside; probably after seven-thirty. Of course I was shocked to see her there. I hadn’t spoken another word to her since the Lincoln game, and so far as I knew, she was continuing her relationship with Murphy. Murphy went through girlfriends quickly throughout his high-school career, but Sherry was one in a million and I thought Murphy was smart enough to see that. Those kinds of assessments were his special strength. I believed that she had been enough to sober him up; to convince him that he’d never do any better and that he would serve his own ends best by staying with her. I had made a determined effort to stay completely away from her and from the subject. I knew there was nothing I could do that would not make matters worse for me. I never said a word to anyone.
But I had not gotten over her, and but for that night I probably never would have. She looked different in that evening glow. I had never seen her more beautiful. Her face was halo-bright and she wore a dark-colored print dress and high heels and her hair had been cut. She looked older. If not for her attachment to Murphy, I would have known what this meant. It was all to make me feel more comfortable; more assured. That she was ready for me.
She could not have missed the emotion that seized me when I opened the door and saw her. I don’t know what she saw from the outside, but inside I was completely emptied. It was as if a high wind had rushed through me and instantly swept every pillar and post inside of me away. I was light-headed in that moment and literally weak in the knees. I was oddly conscious of my own breathing. But our greetings, of course, were casual.
Well. Hey there, Sherry. What brings you out here my way?
Hi, coach. I just have something I wanted to talk to you about. Can I come in?
She stepped inside in the same calm manner she had first entered my classroom, as if this was something that the two of us had done every day for years. She looked around the room and at the television. I could sense that same scent of her that I had learned to love not long before; her perfume and the bouquet of her fresh body.
You a Reds or Pirates fan? She asked.
She walked across the room to an armchair and passed by me more closely than necessary.
She sat and looked at me in a way that I understood meant for me to take a seat, too. I did.
She rested her hands on the arms of the chair and looked for a moment at the television and then at me, as if I was the one who had arranged this meeting; as if I should have something to say. I said nothing and acted unaffected and she was still while she acted as if she was really interested in Kent Tekulve’s side-armed pitches to Davy Concepcion. Concepcion finally grounded out to second to end the inning and Sherry looked at me and spoke.
“Well, she said, how have you been doing?”
“I’m fine, Sherry. Just fine. And you?”
I’m not sure of the answer she wanted, but that wasn’t it. She dropped her hands into her lap and looked at them for a moment and then looked at me directly.
“I’m not going to play around here, she said. I know how you feel about me. How you felt about me, at least. And I know what I did to you. I’ve been on the other end of that before. It wasn’t fair to you, I know, but I hope you can understand at least something of the way I felt. I was scared, in a way.”
“Sure, I said. I nodded, as if I was nothing but an understanding father, but I thought that heaven had opened.”
“I have something to say, something to tell you, but it’s more than one thing. And I want to try to be fair to you this time.” These words caught in her throat and she paused and looked down at her lap and then back at me and with gathered resolve she said, “It’s important to be fair. I’m going to start talking and I don’t want you to say anything or do anything until I’m finished. Okay?”
I was so moved by this that I could not keep up my façade and I abandoned my detached, fatherly tone and spoke to her as a peer, as a potential lover. I was sitting next to the television and I switched it off.
“Okay, Sherry. I’m listening.”
She looked away from me as she began. “I don’t know how much I need to say about what went on between us before. I think you were as sensitive to that as I was. You knew I was interested in you. You couldn’t have missed that.” She paused and looked back at me. “You can answer that one.”
“Yes. I knew.”
“And I think you were interested in me. That you thought about me in a different way.”
“Well. I was happy about that. Very happy. I’d had my fill of high-school boys by then; enough disappointment. They’re just a bunch of posers. None of them that I’ve seen are half of what they think they are. I’d had too much of nothing. I couldn’t even fake it anymore. And I could see – I could tell – that you’d had disappointments, too, that no one around you really understood you. That you were trying to do something, trying to live in a way that no one around you was living or even had the guts to try. I was so impressed by that. I feel the same way, really – like no one around me gets me, like I want more and believe that life has more in it than most people – everyone around here, at least – even sees or wants. It drives me crazy. And I thought – I know, really – that you and I connected in that. You know. Wanting more. Believing that there is more out there. I’ve never had that kind of connection with anyone else. For a while I felt like I had really started to live life and had gotten away from all of the fakery and pretense and just complete emptiness that I saw in the world around me. You may not have known all of that. But, don’t say anything.
“I felt really good about us, and hopeful. But I was scared. It was weird in a way. The age difference. I was just a kid. What would everybody say? What would my mother say? What could we do? How much time would it take? How many years? Sometimes I thought that maybe I was dreaming it all. That you were just being nice to me in the way you would to any student, and I was scared.
“Then Brandon showed an interest in me. I liked him; I can’t deny that. And I let myself think that he was different. But it was more a way out of my trouble – my fear and my doubt. It was all rushing in on me. Brandon was my age and this would be normal and maybe that’s what I should do, I thought. I thought he was a nice guy, a good guy. This was a chance to walk away from all of the complications I feared and, if I didn’t, well, then, it might be that very soon that I couldn’t walk away at all. You never did anything to confine me, but I felt trapped and I saw Brandon as a way out. I could go back to being a little girl. Simple. No problems.
“I was wrong. I was wrong all the way and I know that now. I don’t know what I should have done – what we could have done – but I was wrong to do what I did. Brandon is not a nice guy. I guess I should have figured that out pretty quickly. When I look back on it I can see what I should have seen before. He was just like all the rest of them, only worse. But I didn’t want to see it then. I was safe there, I thought. I was being normal; having fun. I didn’t want to think that there was anything wrong. I don’t know how well you really know him . . .”
“Oh,” I said, “I know him.”
“Don’t say anything, Coach. I’m going to call you Carl.”
“Anyway, what I want to say to you now is that I still feel the same way about you. I think what we had or have is real and I want to follow it through. I don’t care what anybody else thinks and I think my mother will get over any objection that she might have when she gets to know you. I never told you this, but my dad was a fan of yours. He saw the same things in you that I do.”
I was bursting. It was all I could do to keep from crying. This was everything I wanted. Everything I would ever need. I knew that then.
“What I am telling you is that I won’t do that again. Ever. I don’t want any more of it and I’ve learned my lesson. I’m ready for anything you are and you can trust me. But, don’t say anything yet.”
I couldn’t have spoken if I had tried. The room we were in was no longer a room of long silence where I lived alone. All was changed. I was a stranger there – a happy stranger. She sat there, the final piece, maestro of the domestic orchestra. The person that everything around her had been made for – the chairs and the sofa, the pictures on the walls, the carpet, the walls themselves. None of it was mine – everything around me had been put together for her, to protect and shelter and inspire her as she brought life into the world and light to everything she came near and feeling to everything she touched. All of civilization had evolved for this very arrangement. All had been designed for her, and she had been designed for me.
“I’m going to have a baby.”
“I am almost certain.”
My stomach tightened and the blood dropped in me. “Brandon?” I asked.
“Yes. There was never anything else like that with anyone. I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I didn’t plan to do it. I knew it was wrong. I had never done that before and I was onto him by then. But he has ways.”
“What does he have to say about this?”
“He doesn’t know. Nobody knows. I don’t want him to know. I don’t want him to have any power over me. He broke it off with me about a month ago. Just after . . .
“But I’m not sorry about that. About him going. I was for a while. I’ve been so upset. Shook up.
“I should have ended it, myself, but I felt powerless. He’s not a good guy. I’m really surprised that you put up with him as long as you did. He’s not the right kind of man for me. I don’t want any more dealings with him.
“I know what this looks like. Like I’m only coming back to you because I’m desperate and because only somebody like you can pull me out – can save me. And I know that all of that is true. I am desperate. I’ve never been so scared in all of my life. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. And you can save me. From everything, in the long run. But I do love you. I loved you before and I love you now and I think you love me and I think you need me and I think you are a big enough man to . . . help me. You can never know how much I regret coming to you this way. You can’t imagine how much I wish I would have done this before. I will spend my whole life appreciating what you do for me.”
It was a lot for any man to hear. To take in, all at once. And I give myself some of the benefit of the doubt for that. I was not an experienced man; not a sophisticated man. But I have the benefit of hindsight now. Of perfect, complete, 20-20 hindsight and I know what I should have said. I have practiced it in my mind a thousand times and each time I practice it I imagine the look on her face and I imagine the life we might have had together.
I should have taken that brave and beautiful girl in my arms and held her and felt the anxious, rushing pulse of her blood and let her cry. She had not cried throughout that whole speech, that whole confession, and, even then, I marveled at that. I should have taken her in my arms and whispered to her that everything she had just said – all of it, every word – had made my fondest dream come true. That her child would be my child, without reservation. I should have told her that she was right about everything she thought about me, only that my love for her and my need for her was greater than anyone her age could ever imagine. I should have told her that she knew me and saw me as no one else ever had. I should have told her that if everything either of us had suffered or feared was to lead us to this moment then it was all worth it. I should have told her that we would have all of life that we had imagined and longed for and indeed that we had all of those things now, this very moment, in promise. I should have whispered to her that any mistakes she had made were nothing compared to the one big, long mistake my whole life had been and that what she was giving me was not a chance to save, but to be saved – that my empty life would be turned around in a moment. I should have realized that all of my idolatry – my worship of basketball, of success and recognition, of escape from routine and responsibility, of escape from God – all of it would be forgiven and redeemed in this one act. I should have told her that she had found the right man in me and that I had no fear, no fear at all, of anything that life might bring our way. That she was enough. I would have known as I held her in my arms that nations had gone to war for less, far less, than what she was offering me. I should have said that all I wanted out of life from that moment forward was to be the man she thought I was – that she wanted and needed me to be. I should have laughed and told her to call her mother and I should have laughed more and told her to call the preacher and I should have told her that there was nothing to fear or regret or be sorry for. I should have showed her the empty bedroom in my house and told her that we would have to paint it and that we would have to start thinking about names. I should have been her strength and her rest. I would have felt strength and joy returning to her as I held her in my arms, as her sobbing would finally stop and she would pull herself away as a girl and then lean back into me as a woman and kiss me in a way that I had never been kissed and in a way that she had never kissed anyone. She would have told me that she had never felt more loved than now; that she would never, ever forget this day; that she would never leave me. And she would have told the truth. The whole world – the whole universe – would have changed. From there I would have been given the joy and grace that I had spent my life deliberately frustrating and plotting to avoid. My life, for the first time, would have been given color and I would have had music and I would never have been alone again. I would have been a man.
But I didn’t. I didn’t take her in my arms. I left her sitting there in that chair and I told her that all of this was a lot for me to take in. I was sure, I said, that she would understand that. There were implications, I said. Of course, she understood all of that; expected that. I let her out of my house. I never held her or kissed her. She never cried. I knew, even then, that all of those things I should have said were true, but I could not bring myself to accept the idea of spending my life raising the child of Brandon Murphy, a man I hated.
I told her that I would call her. That was cold enough. But I never called her. About a week later one of her friends – another cheerleader who had graduated – stood on my porch. She had left her car running and would not come in. She told me that Sherry did not have the problem she had come to me about. That she hadn’t had to do anything; that she’d just been wrong. Jumped the gun about it.
I never spoke to Sherry again.