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Between Now and Then


ISSUE:  Winter 1988

On the screen the Greenwood tailback crouched.

“Look,” Parker said. “See how far back his right foot is? Ten to one he totes the mail.”

In slow motion the quarterback spun and handed the ball to the tailback, who broke outside, off the tight end and the tackle’s double-team.

Parker said, “Is he coming back?”

Bill Mason, the head coach, said, “Yep.”

“Good.”

“It won’t matter,” Mason said. “You can just about bet they won’t be in the I. Dantone always tries to surprise you in the opener.”

Mason shut off the projector, then removed his wire-rims and rubbed his eyes. Lately, Parker had noticed, Mason’s eyes always looked red. Maybe he’d started drinking. If so, Parker hoped none of the players caught him buying alcohol. That would set one hell of an example.

Mason folded the glasses and stuck them in his shirt pocket. He said, “I want to go ahead and tell you this before I tell anybody else. This’ll be my last year here.”

“What?”

“Time to quit.”

“Quit coaching?”

“Yep.”

“What do you plan to do?”

Mason said, “Guess.”

“I don’t know.”

“What do failed coaches usually do?”

“Sell insurance.”

“Interested in a comprehensive health policy?”

“My God, Bill—it’ll kill you.”

“No, it won’t,” Mason said, but he didn’t sound as if he believed it. He stood, hitched up his khakis, and flipped on the light switch. “I’ve got children, and children get big and go to college. I just don’t make enough here, Jackie. All along I’ve hoped I’d get the chance to coach college ball, but I’m 38 now, and there’s no use fooling myself anymore. This is as far as I go.”

Parker trained his eyes on a stack of shoulder pads in the corner. Mason had made him uncomfortable. He did not like man-to-man talks. The few he had ever had were with his father, and they were one-way affairs in which his father did all the talking and he did all the listening. They had occurred five or six years ago, near the end of his father’s life, and he remembered them with embarrassment. His father had confessed that he slept around on Parker’s mother, that often on Sundays he drank before delivering his sermons, and that any day of the week he would rather fish than preach.

It troubled Parker to see that Mason, a man he respected, had mapped his life out so badly. Just yesterday Parker had told his players, “In 1979, I’ll be thirty. Sometime between now and then, I’ll decide whether I want to be the best strength coach on the planet or the best defensive coordinator on the planet, and once I’ve made up my mind, dying’s all that’ll halt me.”

Now he made himself face Mason and say, “Well, I guess you have to do what you have to do.”

“Everybody does.”

After practice Parker changed clothes and drove home.

Until July he had occupied room 5 at the Delta Vista Motel. Three or four times a year his mother would drive up from Jackson and clean his room and wash his dirty clothes, which he usually shoved under his bed or tossed into the back seat of his VW. But during the summer a Pakistani family had bought the motel, and since they refused to rent by the month, he had taken a room in Emily Turner’s house.

Emily was in her late twenties, a small woman with blonde hair and powder-blue eyes. Her ex-husband Burt owned the local Chevrolet dealership, billed himself “Trader Burt” in TV ads, and spent his weekends piloting a peppermint-candy-striped hot air balloon, which last year he had landed near midfield during the fourth quarter of the State-Ole Miss game. Mason said his current girlfriend was an MDJC sophomore.

Parker’s arrangement with Emily included breakfast and supper. He liked her cooking but had just about decided the arrangement contained one flaw: her kids were always present at mealtime. Her daughter didn’t bother him too much, but her eight-year-old son tormented him. Every night the kid quizzed him nonstop and then found fault with Parker’s answers.

Tonight Richard said, “How come Tubby Ethridge and Phil Fratesi and James Hill all stand up?”

Parker heaped mashed potatoes on his plate. “So they can read the backs and get to the ball fast.”

“So how come Bubba Bowen and Lee Harper don’t stand up?”

“They’re tackles.”

“That’s a dumb reason.”

Parker glanced at Emily. She was listening to Margaret talk about a snake some kid had brought to class in a tow sack. He leaned toward Richard. “Richard,” he whispered, “just between you and me, you better hope I’m coaching the Dallas Cowboys by the time you get to high school.”

Richard said, “You won’t be.”

“Richard,” Emily said, “let Jackie eat.”

Parker smiled to show her she’d lessened life’s worries by one hundred percent. As always, she failed to notice him.

That evening, when he stepped out of the shower, he found both children standing in the bathroom gawking at him. They shrieked “Jackie!” and ran. On the way to his room he heard Emily downstairs berating them.

“You mustn’t ever do that again,” she said. “Besides. There’s nothing funny about the way a man’s made.”

When he came to work at Indianola, Parker had convinced Mason weight training was essential. That first year, they bought a Universal Gladiator and two thousand dollars worth of free weights, and every night for three months they worked on the weight room, painting the walls the school colors, installing foam rubber padding, and assembling the Universal and a squat rack. This season Parker expected the work to pay off. Some of the linemen had gained as much as thirty pounds.

Over the summer, he had developed a soft 50 defense like the one Tennessee ran. It was based on the assumption that your linebackers were your best athletes and ought to make most of the tackles. The defensive tackles’ responsibility was to keep the offensive tackles from releasing inside on the linebackers, who were always moving at the snap, reacting to the flow of the offensive backs.

Friday night, Greenwood lined up in the wishbone. On the sideline Parker watched them shred his defense. They led at the half 21-13.

Jogging to the locker room, Mason said, “Be strategic, Jackie.” His breeziness angered Parker. No wonder the man had not advanced.

Inside, Parker seized chalk, X’d and O’d the board. “When they run the triple option,” he said, “we’ll use prearranged stunts. We’ll call them A, B, and C. In A, the tackles tackle the fullback—don’t worry about whether he’s got the ball, just put his butt on the ground. Ends flatten the quarterback. Onside linebackers and corners have pitch. In B, ends and tackles loop. End and onside linebacker take the dive back, tackle takes the quarterback, corners and safeties have pitch. In C, tackle and linebacker hit the fullback, safety comes up and knocks the snot out of the quarterback, end and corner foreclose on the pitch man.”

He laid down the chalk and stared at the players until they all got nervous and quit drinking Gatorade. “Right now,” he said, “we couldn’t face our Maker. Let’s get back out and mince ass.”

Greenwood graced the end zone no more. Indianola won 30-21.

Usually, Parker went to Spicey Lott’s Burgers after a game and ate the meal he’d been too nervous to eat before the game. Tonight, however, he drove straight home. He’d stopped at Spicey’s yesterday for a chocolate shake and before leaving had forecast a shutout.

When he walked into the house, he found Emily relaxing in the living room. She was sitting on the couch, watching Johnny Carson, her bare feet drawn up beneath her. She wore a pink gown with MOMMA stenciled on the front in white letters, and she held a tall glass in her hand. Parker spied a lime wedge floating in the glass.

“Hi, Jackie,” she said. “Did you win?”

“Just barely.”

“How many points?”

“Nine.”

“That’s not so little. How about a drink to celebrate?”

This was the first time she’d suggested they socialize. Back when she rented him the room, she’d been downright rude. “I don’t want a stranger moving in with me,” she’d said. “Unfortunately, I need your money.” She worked at Seymour Library, lived in the house her father had left her, and, according to Mason, refused to accept alimony from Trader Burt.

With approval, Parker noted now that her toenails were unpainted. He hated painted toenails. “Sure,” he said.

“What’ll you have?”

“Gin and tonic—but make it weak.”

“Weak?”

His cheeks heated up. He said, “I’m always preaching to my players about taking care of their bodies, and I like to practice what I preach.”

She said, “Bodies do need taking care of.” She slipped on her house shoes, picked up her glass, and carried it into the kitchen.

She returned with a fresh drink for herself and another one for Parker, who had sat down on the couch. She kicked off the house shoes and joined him.

“You got off to a good start,” she said. “Cheers.”

They raised their glasses.

“I hope you have a good season,” she said. “Especially since it’s Bill’s last.”

“You heard about his plans?”

“Burt told me.”

“Hard for me to understand—he’s won two conference championships, and we’ve got a strong team this year. We might win the state.”

“He has family responsibilities,” she said. “Speaking of families, Richard’11 probably bombard you with football questions the second he lays eyes on you. I hope you won’t mind.”

Parker said, “What a great kid.”

“He and Margaret went with Burt to the ball game. It’s Burt’s night off from his girlfriend. She spends Fridays at her dorm.”

Parker stared intently at the TV: David Frye stood onstage impersonating Nixon. Parker said, “That’s no laughing matter.”

“You’re telling me.”

“I meant the TV. Watergate.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, I think Watergate’s funny as hell.”

“What’s funny about it?”

“The sight of several bastards in free fall.”

Parker envisioned Nixon frozen in midair. “When you put it that way,” he said, “I guess it is funny.”

She didn’t reply, so Parker sipped his drink and after a while began thinking about his next opponent. Belzoni’s coach always tried whatever gadget plays he had seen on TV over the weekend; Parker would spend tomorrow and Sunday with Mason, glued to the set. He looked at the wall clock, saw that it was eleven-thirty, and decided to say goodnight.

Suddenly Emily shifted position. Parker’s sharp peripheral vision, which in college had made him impossible to crack back on, now alerted him to the square inch of bare breast visible between the buttons of Emily’s nightgown. She sat there unaware, drinking occasionally, the ice cubes tinkling in her glass. Once or twice she stifled a yawn.

Toward midnight Parker moved closer.

“It’s a good thing our arrangement includes meals,” Emily said. She put on a white terry cloth robe and walked over to her dresser.

Parker lay in bed watching her. “How come?”

She was brushing her hair. “Because,” she said, “if our arrangement didn’t include meals and I offered to cook breakfast for you, you might get scared.”

Parker knew what she meant. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said.

She turned, walked to the bed, and, bending, pecked his lips. “I bet you do,” she said. “I’m going to cook breakfast. Join me if you want to.”

When she left, Parker closed his eyes and tugged the covers up under his chin. He inhaled the smells of the room, the odor of hairspray, perfume. He had always liked lying in a woman’s bed, but he did not like those things that tended to occur when you got up and put on your clothes. His last girlfriend, whom he’d met in Jackson at an MEA conference, lived in Laurel, and though she understood why he could not visit on weekends during the fall, she did not understand why he could not visit during winter and spring. He said attending coaching clinics helped him stay a step ahead of the pack. She said, “You’re several steps ahead of me.” She broke off the relationship a year ago last summer. When Mason asked if he still saw her, Parker said, “She wasn’t what I thought.”

He climbed out of bed now and gathered his clothes. His jockey shorts dangled from a lamp in the corner.

In the dining room, he found Emily seated at one end of the long oak table. She was crunching a piece of toast and reading The Jackson Daily News. Parker’s plate, his silverware and his coffee cup had been arranged at the other end of the table.

He said, “Did you ever notice how long this table is?”

She looked up from her paper. “Eighty-one and three-quarter inches,” she said and resumed reading.

Parker said, “Let’s see . . . that’s seven inches longer than me.”

“Is it.”

“Maybe I ought to move down there.”

“If you want to.”

Parker ferried his breakfast to Richard’s usual place and sat down. The paper hid Emily’s face. He said, “You know, I just don’t like the way Gerald Ford looks.”

She lowered the paper, flipped it over, and studied the front-page photo. “Now that you mention it,” she said, “he does look a little bit stiff.”

“Are you a Democrat or a Republican?”

“I’m unaligned,” she said. “Completely.”

Parker laughed and so did she. He felt free to eat.

When he finished, it was almost eleven. He’d promised to meet Mason at twelve, but before that he had to drive to the bus station and send a film to the coach in Grenada. He said, “What are you up to today?”

She laid the knives and forks on his plate and stacked it on hers. “I’m up to nothing now,” she said. “But Burt’ll bring the kids home at four, so I’ll be tied up after that.”

Parker would be busy with Mason until five-thirty or six. He said, “Couldn’t you get a babysitter? I thought we might drive over to Greenville tonight and eat supper.”

“What made you think that?”

Parker said, “Emily, are you playing hard-to-get?”

“You already got me. Remember? You slid across the couch and whispered in my ear and I whispered in your ear, and after we’d whispered for a while, we kissed, and then you stuck your hand in my shirt and I—”

“What is it with you?”

“It’s nothing with me.” She stood and picked up the dishes. “I could get a baby sitter, but I’m not going to because I promised to take the kids to see a movie this evening. On Saturdays I put them to bed at ten-thirty. After that, I’ll be sitting in the living room reading a book or watching TV. You’re welcome to come sit with me. In fact, I wish you would.”

That afternoon, watching Georgia Tech play Clemson, Parker told Mason, “I hate trick plays. If I had my way, I’d outlaw traps and reverses and flea-flickers—anything sneaky.”

Mason said, “Then you’d have to outlaw sneaky defense.”

Parker happened into the living room at ten-thirty. When Emily felt the kids were asleep, they went to his room and made love. Afterward, she propped herself up in bed and surveyed the scene. Parker watched her eyes rove over his scattered clothes, the piles of ungraded drivers’ ed quizzes, the waist-high stacks of Sport and Sports Illustrated. Wadded scraps of paper littered the room.

She pointed at the wall beside the bed and said, “What’s this?”

Parker, leaning over, saw the rows of X’s and O’s. “I ran out of paper,” he said. “I meant to erase it.”

“I hear you’re a fine coach.”

“I still have some things to learn.”

“You think they might offer you Bill’s job?”

He already knew Mason planned to recommend him. But he’d hatched plans of his own. In the last year, he’d become friends with Lou Huggins, the defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Huggins had told him Tennessee would need a defensive end coach next year, and he’d said that if Parker’s defense played well this season, he could probably persuade Bill Battle to give him a job. Parker planned to ship Huggins all his game films.

Parker said, “I guess they might offer it to me. I’m not counting on it.”

“I hope they do. If that’s what you want.” She pushed back the covers and slid out of bed.

“Leaving?”

“I have to.” She dressed, cracked his door and peeked out, then whispered goodnight.

He stayed away the next couple of nights, but then he began going to the living room most evenings. Emily was usually reading, but she closed her book when he sat down.

“How was your day?”

“Fine. How was yours?”

“Fine.”

They’d sit a while in silence, until he cleared his throat and said, “Want to go upstairs?”

In bed her body strained against his. She whispered his name, clutched his hips, and pulled him deeper. He detected need and warned himself to watch out. After they made love, she disarmed him. She asked if he always gnawed a woman’s ear lobe when he came. Pointing at his stockinged feet, she claimed sex minus socks was beyond him. He said “Baloney,” shed the socks, and to his amazement failed to achieve an erection.

She said, “Samson’s hair. Parker’s Gold Cups.”

During the day, he saw her only at breakfast. Though the library was two blocks from the school, she never asked him to eat lunch with her. She never suggested they go shopping. At first, he found the lack of demands puzzling. But after a while he thought he understood. He’d lived in Indianola four years, and though Emily had been divorced for much of that time, he’d never seen her in a restaurant, in a store, or on the street with a man. Aside from Trader Burt, a few truckdrivers who pulled long hauls for Lewis Grocery Company, and four or five chronic drunks who more or less lived at the Beer Smith Lounge, every guy in town over 25 was attached. Except Parker.

He knew a tactical advantage when he saw one. But as the weeks passed and he continued seeing Emily, he felt an urge to relinquish the edge.

One night in bed he said, “We’re seeing a lot of each other.”

She said, “That’s because we keep taking our clothes off.”

“Be serious. We see each other every night, but I know next to nothing about you.”

She rolled over and propped her chin on his chest. Her blue eyes were inches from his. She said, “What do you want to know?”

Parker heard himself say, “Everything.”

She told him she had grown up in Indianola and gone to college at Ole Miss, where she married Burt when she was 20. The next year, after graduation, she gave birth to Margaret. Richard was born 15 months later, the same day Burt flunked out of law school.

Parker knew Burt as the nuisance who showed up at Legion Field wearing black nylon coaching pants, an old-gold turtleneck, and a black-and-gold IHS cap. He and the kids sat right behind the bench. In critical moments he hollered at Mason. “Bill. Hey, Bill. Run Sam Tiery on the double reverse.”

Lately every time Burt yelled, Parker thought of Emily. That disturbed him. His mind belonged in the game.

He said, “So Burt studied law.”

“He wanted to be a politician. Back in ‘68, he ran for the state legislature. He thought he could win if he appealed to the working man, so he bought a hard hat and rented a bulldozer and had a TV commercial filmed with him driving the machine. He liked the ad so much he trucked the bulldozer to rallies on a flatbed. He’d drive it around a vacant lot, push over a few bushes, and get his picture in the paper. The thing was, he didn’t really know how to handle a bulldozer. He lost control of it in Morehead. Plowed down a row of parking meters, ran over a VW, tore up the pavement, and smashed into the pool hall. He spent five times more than any other candidate and finished dead last in the primary— got fewer than 300 votes. He started sleeping around after that. At least I don’t think he did it before.”

“What attracted you to him?”

“His seriousness.”

When he laughed, she said, “I mean it. He was four years older than I was, and he used to lie in bed puffing on a cigarette and telling me all he hoped to accomplish. None of it quite panned out. He’s a small-town businessman who runs after young girls. But I’ll tell you one thing. He can fly the hell out of that balloon. Land it on a penny.”

With his thumbs, he parted her bangs. He said, “Emily, why do you stay in Indianola?”

“I like the nightlife.”

“Come on.”

“Okay—it’s because I don’t want to move the kids away from Burt.”

“He left you.”

“I know, but I just couldn’t move them away. Not under any circumstances. He’s still their father.”

“So you put your own life on hold. For how long? Ten years?”

She sat up. The covers rolled off her shoulders. She clamped her fingers around his wrist and pulled his hand to her breast. “I’m living,” she said. “Feel my heartbeat? I eat, I sleep, and I breathe.”

He felt her pulse beneath his palm. Wetting his lips, he observed, “Of course, there’s me. You’ve got me.”

When he woke the next morning, he wished he had not said that. But Emily behaved no differently that evening or any other evening, so he concluded he’d done himself no damage.

The defense recorded four straight shutouts after the opener and would have registered a fifth if the offense hadn’t turned the ball over on the three against Leland. In the remaining four games they gave up six, three, seven, and three points. The team finished ten and zero. After the last regular-season game, the superintendent told Parker unofficially that the school board would offer him Mason’s job. Parker said “Great” and left it at that.

The state playoffs began the week before Thanksgiving. Indianola drew Bay St. Louis and lost a coin toss determining the home field. Mason moaned about that, but Parker did not: Tennessee played LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday. He phoned Lou Huggins and told him where the playoff would be. Huggins said, “That’s great, because I need to see you,” and promised to attend.

The team bus left for the coast at five on Friday morning. Parker had told Emily he’d eat breakfast at Weber’s Truckstop, but when the alarm woke him at 3:45, he smelled bacon and heard eggs sizzling. He put on his bathrobe and went downstairs.

Emily said, “Good morning.”

“You didn’t have to get up to cook my breakfast.”

“I couldn’t cook it lying down.”

“You know what I mean.”

She pressed the eggs with her spatula. “I thought coaches were naturally superstitious.”

The morning of the opening game, Parker had forgotten to brush his teeth. Every Friday since, he’d walked around with a dirty mouth. He said, “I guess some coaches are.”

“Well, I’ve cooked your breakfast every Friday morning, and since the team’s been winning, I think I better do it now. I don’t want to stand between you and success.”

They ate breakfast, drank coffee. He showered and packed his bag. On the way, he kissed her and said, “See you Saturday evening.”

“Sure,” she said. “And good luck.”

Indianola led 3—0 with two minutes left. Then Bay St. Louis switched to the shotgun, a formation they hadn’t shown all year. Four times the quarterback hit his wide receivers in the seams between the zones. Ten seconds remained when the split end, running a pick, screened James Hill, who should’ve had the tailback man-to-man. The tailback caught the ball on the five and outran Parker’s safety.

“Tough luck,” Huggins told him in the dressing room.

“It wasn’t luck. They just beat us.” He glanced at Mason, who sat on a folding chair, calmly unlacing his Spot-Builts. With New York Life, he’d show up, perform his job, and go home. But Parker needed goals. He believed in the divinity of effort.

Huggins said, “Let’s step outside.”

In the parking lot, he said that Bill Battle planned to hire someone else to coach the defensive ends but he wanted Parker to join the staff as strength coach. “Our weight room’s not in great shape,” he said, “but you’ll be able to buy whatever equipment you want and design a program that suits you. You’ll have a free hand.”

Parker said, “Ever see a grown man dance by himself?”

Since Battle would like to meet him, Huggins said, why not catch a bus up to Baton Rouge for the game? He said the athletic department would pick up the tab for flying him home, so Parker returned to the dressing room and asked Mason if he’d pick him up Sunday at the Greenville airport.

Mason said, “Sure. Anything up?”

“Coach Huggins invited me to see the Vols play.” He preferred not to mention the job until he’d signed a contract. Anyhow, this was not the time; Mason had just coached his last game and lost. “Maybe if I watch enough good defense,” he said, “I’ll learn how to hang on when I’m ahead.”

The team bused to the Gulfport Holiday Inn, which faced the beach. Mason stood at the front of the bus and announced that he planned to dip his feet in the water. Most of the players followed him.

Parker said, “I’ll be there in a minute.” He entered the hotel and rode the elevator up to his room, where he called Delta Airlines and booked a flight. He was walking out when the phone rang.

Emily said, “It’s me.”

He’d resolved not to think of her tonight. Sooner or later, he knew, he’d have to tell her about the job at Tennessee. He recalled how she looked alone on the couch, a drink in her hand, the TV murmuring nonsense.

He said, “Hi. This is a nice surprise.”

“I listened to the game on WNLA. I’m sorry, Jackie. But the defense played well.”

He sat down on the bed. The best thing to do, he decided, was to tell her about the job right now. That way, he wouldn’t have to dread it, and he wouldn’t have to feel like he’d deceived her.

“The night wasn’t a total loss,” he said. “I got offered a college coaching job.”

Telephone silence ensued. No single moment he’d lived through up till now had yielded greater discomfort. This morning when she cooked his breakfast, he’d felt pleased, and not just because he was hungry. He wanted to see her before he left.

“Where?” Her voice sounded remote.

“The University of Tennessee.”

“That’s . . . well, it’s wonderful. They have a good team, don’t they?”

“Pretty good. They’re six and two right now, but they’ve got LSU tomorrow night.” He told her he planned to attend the game in Baton Rouge and then fly to Greenville Sunday evening.

He thought she might ask if he needed a ride. Instead she said, “Congratulations, Jackie. It’s late. I think I’ll say good night.”

He said, “Good night, Emily . . . . See you Sunday?”

“Sure,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He woke wanting to call her, but Mason lounged around the room drinking coffee and reading the sports until time to leave. The team bus unloaded Parker at Trailways, so that he could board a bus to Baton Rouge.

Huggins met him in the lobby at the Hilton, then showed him up to Battle’s room and introduced him. Battle chatted with him half-an-hour, his eyes darting from Parker’s face to the TV, where Alabama disassembled Kentucky. He said the coaching position would have to be advertised, but it was Parker’s if he wanted it. Parker assured him he would kill for it.

At Tiger Stadium that evening, he walked the ramp to the mezzanine, begged change from a vendor, found a phone booth, and dialed Emily. No answer. She’d probably hauled the kids to a movie.

Tennessee won the game 17-10. Parker stood atop the UT bench trying to keep track of the action, but he registered little save color and sound. Storms of Dixie beer cups bombarded the UT cheerleaders. A guy dressed up in a Tiger suit strutted the opposite sideline. The Tennessee band played “The Tennessee Waltz.” And through it all Parker thought of Emily. Clearly she cared about him. The question was, had she begun to count on him? No one had before, at least not for long, and he thought Emily knew more about men than any other woman he’d known. She should have been able to size him up.

Mason dropped him off on Sunday evening at nine. Only the hall lamp lit the house. Emily had tacked a note to the door.

Jackie, the children are at Burt’s. Unfortunately, I’m in bed with some sort of awful bug. I don’t think you should come near me this evening. It might be contagious.

That night he slept badly. For one thing, he doubted that she was sick. She just wanted to avoid him. She had a history of recovering from injury, and this was probably the way she went about it, hiding till the hurt subsided.

Equally troubling to Parker was his disappointment when he discovered he wouldn’t see her this evening. It occurred to him that he’d counted on it. He hadn’t seen her Thursday evening because he’d gone to bed early. Friday and Saturday he’d been away. Now he needed to taste her mouth, smell her hair, hear her voice. He missed her sense of humor, and he hated to think his stint as her straight man was over.

He needed her this much after only three days. Weeks and months, he knew, would not diminish that need. Unlike her, he could not put a loss behind him.

“Here you are.” She handed him his plate. It contained a huge omelet.

Her eyes were clear, her hair neatly brushed. She leaned over, poured coffee into his cup. Then she sat and buttered her toast.

He said, “Feeling any better?”

“Yes.”

“Think it was a virus?”

“Probably. Those things wipe me out for a day or so.”

He sliced the omelet. “This must be an inch thick. Nobody else makes them like you do.”

“Thanks.”

“Looks like I won’t go to Knoxville after all.”

“Oh?” She reached for the salt shaker. “Why’s that?”

“I found out the school board’s going to offer me Bill’s job.”

“That’s nice.” She salted the omlet, cut a wedge out, and ate it. “I’m surprised,” she said, “that you’d rather have Bill’s job than the one at Tennessee.”

He said he found college coaches unsavory: they all wore polyester suits, styled their hair like Glen Campbell, and paid their players on a per-tackle basis. Then he stared intently at his omelet and added, “Plus, I don’t want to move away from here.”

When she laid down her fork, it clicked against her plate. She said, “You love Indianola that much?”

“Not Indianola. Here.

“Oh. You mean the house. You want to buy it?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No. I don’t.”

He was sweating. Little rivers streamed from his armpits. He said, “I mean you.”

“You want to buy me?”

“I want to live with you.”

“You already live with me.”

“I want to keep living with you.”

“What if I raised the rent?”

“I can pay.”

“Can you?”

Her lips hinted at a smile. He knew then that he loved her. The knowledge only terrified him a little bit. “Yes,” he said, “I can.” He licked his dry lips. “Maybe we ought to have a contract.”

When she spoke, her voice was quiet. “I’d love to leave here with you,” she said. “Really I would. But I can’t—I’ve already told you why.”

“I know.”

“I hate to think of you leaving,” she said. “You can probably imagine what life’s like for a divorced woman with children, especially in a town this size. But you better be sure stay ing’s what you want. I don’t want you to hate me down the road.”

Parker said, “I want to stay.” Fifty-one percent of him meant it. He would have to be content with majority rule.

They finished their meal, then sat on the couch drinking coffee until almost eight o’clock. Before Parker left, they arranged to meet for lunch.

On the way to work he walked by Legion Field. The rickety bleachers seated two thousand. The dressing rooms— portable buildings purchased from Indianola Lumber Company—leaked and would soon need replacing. The field was hard and pocked. Every dry day during the summer, he and Mason hooked up sprinklers. Mason had done that for more than 15 years. Parker supposed he might break the record.

When he walked into Emily’s yard that afternoon, Richard was trying to place kick. He charged the ball and squibbed it ten or twelve feet.

Parker said, “You’ve got to get under it.”

“Show me.”

Picking up the ball, Parker said, “Remember that time you told me I’d never coach the Dallas Cowboys?”

“Yeah. What about it?”

“You were right,” Parker said.

He teed up the ball and stepped backwards.

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