I'm loitering outside the gymnasium, thinking about how the man made me. My composure is on a steady decline, picturing the face that launched thousands of sneakers into forward sprints, pushing ahead into uncharted areas of pubescent athletic triumph. He wouldn't like this cigarette in my hand. I'm thinking about how before I made Bernard Trost infamous, I used to be a kid with learning disabilities and a flimsy hold on painful shyness. And then, suddenly, I was precious, something worth fighting for, someone worth losing your job over. Here, on a night when I should be honoring the man, I'm thinking about whether or not I was worth the unemployment checks.
"Did anyone get there yet? Anyone you know?" says Linda.
"No. Well, yeah, actually, I know everyone, and everyone knows me. Just no one close." I've been giving half-hearted waves since I pulled into the parking lot of my old high school. They all remember me. Nobody forgot. Thank God for cell phones, and thank God for Linda's patience. I don't know what I would be doing right now without them. "I kind of wish I could blend into the wall."
"Aw, baby. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm just nervous. Do you think I got really ugly in the last ten years?" I say.
"Not enough for anyone to notice."
"Thanks, Linda, that's great. Why didn't I bring you again?"
"You said you thought I'd be bored. I think you were scared I'd find out about all the stupid stuff you did in high school." The truth is I didn't want her to see me this paranoid.
"Oh! Wait! I see Curtis and Lucy. I'll call you as soon as the ceremony lets out. It shouldn't be more than two hours."
"Tell your coach he did a fine job, and wish him a happy retirement. He'll be so glad to see you, Abbott, I know it. He'll be so proud to see you all grown up."
"Yeah, definitely. Thanks, Linda. I love you." Hearing Linda hang up the phone reminds me of riding away on the school bus, watching my mother smile from our stoop. It's an entirely unsettling feeling.
"Abbott! I didn't think you could get any taller! Or skinnier!" says Curtis, locking up his truck. There is something strange about the way Curtis and Lucy are walking. It seems off. Senior year, they were the couple that could make most anyone feel uncomfortable. They would bolt out of class, and the second they found one another, the hallway was engulfed in their crazed and slightly annoying passion. Around them, you were instantly turned into something unnecessary. I was Curtis's best man long before they got married. I had been standing uncomfortably off to the side since they met. As they get closer, I realize that they aren't holding hands. They are so far apart.
"Thirty-five years. He's been teaching for longer than I've been alive," I say, hugging them both.
"If anyone from this place deserves a retirement party, it's Trost. I mean, he did put up with you two," says Lucy. Lucy still looks vaguely like the cheerleader she was when we met. We would all walk into things, pretending not to stare at her.
"I can't believe he's still on the ball. They'll probably have to put me away when I'm his age," I say. They stare down nervously. "Oh, shit. What is it?"
"You haven't heard?" Curtis's voice sounds strained. "They put him behind a desk a few years ago. He hasn't been able to coach the team for a while now; he isn't all there. He started forgetting. The school pushed him to leave. I guess they kept him on the payroll this long out of respect for what he " he stops talking and rubs his nose.
"Jesus Christ. I thought he was just ready to get his pension." I hate to admit it, but I'm almost relieved. The idea of facing the man after all this time was unbearable. It's a terrible thought, but I'm glad he won't recognize me. I had ten years to justify his belief in me, and I couldn't do it. I'm in middle management. I won't be changing the world anytime soon.
"Hey! It's Dwight Holbrook!" says Lucy. "Look, he's helping his wife out of the car over there."
"The old guy's got balls showing up to Trost's farewell ceremony. Sworn enemies," mutters Curtis. "Isn't that right, Abbie?" he says, smiling. It's impossible to understand the legacy of Bernard Trost without explaining the story behind my black eye. Holbrook created us both one night with a flick of his wrist, a single blow. Trost became a hero, as well as an outcast, and I had a whole lot of weight placed on my back, a whole lot of pressure to try and be worthy of an all-out brawl between two well-respected coaches.
"I still think it may have been a foul," laughs Lucy.
"Oh, quiet down! You were too busy shaking pom-poms!" says Curtis. He gives her a quick kiss to let her know he's kidding. She may be right though. We've all thought long and hard about the last game before graduation. I had been perfectly content sitting on the bench, staring at Lucy, and letting Curtis run up and down the court. But our team played rough, and one of the real players was injured. Before I knew it, I was standing on the slick, painted wood, struggling to keep my knees from shaking. The ball came near me, and I awkwardly leapt in front of someone, elbowing my way past him. The referee called a foul, but Trost wasn't having it. The opposing coach, Holbrook, stormed the court, and the men were inches from each other, red faces scrunched in anger. It looked pretty nasty, so I decided to come clean. I wanted to tell Trost that I thought the ref was right. As I walked up behind them, Holbrook gesticulated wildly, accidentally knocking his hand into my eye. I hit the floor, hard, my face swelling up. Trost watched me fall, and then he let out a frightening battle cry. Holbrook knew what was coming, but Trost got the jump on him, grabbed his collar and cracked him in the ear. Both men were in their prime, so the fight lasted for several minutes. No one stopped it. It came to its conclusion when Holbrook fell, unconscious, and Trost stood over him, heaving like a triumphant gladiator.
"We should head in. I don't want to miss anything," I say. Holbrook and his wife look like two little prunes, hobbling into the gym.
"Did you hear? He couldn't remember where he parked his car. That's when they really knew, when they found him near the main doors in the morning. Yeah, he was fast asleep."
"He was always too proud. He never would have told them himself." I'm trying very hard to read the pamphlet I was given, over the din of the table next to us:
An Evening for Bernard Trost
A Fond Farewell to a Teacher and a Friend
Guest Speaker: Dwight Holbrook
"Wait a minute," I say. "Holbrook's the guest speaker?"
"So, that's why he's here. What could he possibly have to say about Trost? That he's got a wicked left jab?" jokes Curtis. Lucy rolls her eyes. They've got the whole gym set up like a restaurant: clean tables, waiters, and a makeshift chandelier hanging from the ceiling. We used to sweat on these floors.
"Sshh! It's starting!" I say, as the lights dim. There's a ratty looking projector in front of the stage. Images of Trost, leading his men to victory, begin to pass across the screen. Even a lame slide presentation can't reduce the man's intensity. Curtis and I are transfixed.
When the slideshow ends, we all clap, and I see Holbrook waddling up to the stage from the back of the gym. "Someone should tell him to keep his hands up," whispers Curtis, poking me in the side. The stage squeaks under his small, pudgy legs. "He looks like he joined the Lollipop Guild," laughs Curtis.
"Can you stop, please?" I ask. Curtis is right. The incredible shrinking coach. I lean forward as he clears his throat.
"Many of you are probably wondering why I'm here." Curtis and I exchange a quick glance. "I've known Bernard for many years, and I'm honored to speak on his behalf. There is no one in this profession that I respect more. We've had some tough times together, but things seemed to work out in the end." I sink a little lower in my seat, as Holbrook begins a wildly inappropriate commencement speech. Gym teachers aren't really known for their eloquence and social niceties. "When Bernard was fired for our altercation, I fought very hard to get him back where he belonged. For those five years, I consistently offered Bernie financial support in his time of need." I whip my head around to see if anyone's looking at me. "But, of course, he consistently refused. He'd say, 'I'm not a charity case, Dwight.'" The audience chuckles uncomfortably. Trost and his wife divorced during those five years. I'm positive that money had something to do with it. I'm not laughing.
"I'm happy that so many of his former students are in attendance tonight." He glances slowly around the room, smiling to a few friendly faces. I shield myself with my pamphlet. "I'm sure that if his lovely ex-wife Marie was still with us, she would be right here in the front row." I remember that Trost had a tremendous picture of her in his office. Well, the frame was tremendous. The picture was far too little, and it looked very much like the work of a jock, clumsily attempting to decorate. The joke we had was that he just wished he had a bigger picture of her. "You know, I cried when I found out that Bernie was hired back. The time he spent away from the kids really killed him, and I felt joyous at the thought of him with a whistle around his neck again." The stage curtains begin to ruffle, and there seems to be some kind of commotion in the back. And then, like an old dream come to life, Bernard Trost wanders out near the podium. He stares at Dwight Holbrook for a moment before a young teacher walks out and escorts him back offstage. Holbrook nervously straightens his tie. "He can't wait to see you all, so I'm just going to make this last part brief. We all owe something to Bernie for the amount of care and dedication he put into his work. There will never be another one like him. Ladies and gentleman, Bernard Trost." We all stand up and clap, as Trost, having ruined the impact of his entrance moments earlier, anticlimactically shuffles back to the podium.
Trost never dressed immaculately; he cared more about your jump shot than he did about the clothes on his own back. Any day without armpit stains on his sweatshirt was a good day. This may be part of the reason for the strangeness of his appearance. The suit he is wearing looks too loose, as if his tailor had anticipated sudden weight gain. His silver, thinning hair is partially combed, although there are wayward strands sticking up from the top of his head. In his younger days, Trost refused to wear anything that would constrain his athletic ability, and it makes me think that this is the work of someone else. Some worried department chair, moonlighting as the event planner, afraid that a crazy old man will take his pants off in front of a crowd. They're probably sitting on the sidelines, waiting to rush out the minute Trost starts behaving oddly. Holbrook left a glass of water for him near his index cards, and Trost drinks it all down before he speaks. We wait patiently.
"Thank you. Thank you all so much." He takes his reading glasses out of his top pocket and holds the index cards way out in front of him, slowly focusing on the speech. "I never thought that my retirement party... would be so lovely."
"What?" I whisper to Curtis. It is instantly clear that the speech has been prepared by someone other than Trost. He would never use the word "lovely." Curtis seems to get the point, too.
"Well, what do you expect? They don't want him to make a fool of himself," whispers Curtis.
"I'd rather he did. At least it would be real," I say. Trost struggles for a few seconds in between each phrase.
"I'm grateful to everyone that has helped me get to where I am today. I do not have any regrets whatsoever." Yeah, I'll bet. I wish they would let him say how he really feels. I wish they would let him say how everything fell apart during those five years. How he never should have hit Holbrook. And I would stand up and agree, and apologize to him and beg for his forgiveness. And even if he said no, I would feel better just for asking. "Some say that that " he fumbles for his place, " that I was the greatest coach this school has ever had." He looks up from the cards. "Well, I don't know about that actually. There was Bill Tuttle a few years before me, and he was pretty good. Never really cared for me though, always sat at a different lunch table." I smile as he begins to go way off course, and improvises with a bizarre digression on lunch table ethics. "You never really see people sit and talk closely at the lunch tables anymore. We used to have three long tables and and that was it. Now, each department has its own, uh its own little room for that sort of thing." The event planner/speech writer/hair comber scurries out and whispers in Trost's ear. "Alright. Well, in conclusion, I want to thank you all again for coming. I hope everybody has a wonderful night. Make sure you turn the lights out when you leave, because I used to forget, but " He is gently dragged away from the microphone, as we all stand up and clap again. Silly event planner. He thought he could control Bernard Trost. Luckily, no one can hear my laughter over the applause.
"That was interesting," says Lucy. Trost vanished behind the curtain after his brief appearance. As the ceremony came to a close, the three of us escaped out the back door.
"This is the same door we used to cut class," Curtis says, knocking on the wood.
I say, "You could afford to miss practice. I think I needed all the help I could get."
"It was unfair, he never yelled at you. I always got the shit end of the stick." We walk in strange silence around the side of the school and back into the parking lot.
"Abbie, it was wonderful to see your face again. Call sometime, so we can all meet up? And bring Linda, too. How is she?" asks Lucy.
"She's fine. She said she'd wait up for me. She's probably watching a nature documentary right now. A Day in the Life of a Badger, or something or other. The world of a biology teacher."
"Let's not make it another two years, okay?" says Curtis. They both hug me together, like the team they used to be. I watch them walk back to their truck, at arm's length from one another. I know it's presumptuous of me to think I can figure out the current state of their relationship in a glance, but it makes me sad and reflective anyway. They just seemed like something you could bet on. It was comforting to think of their love as fresh and exciting. It made me feel closer to youth and further from the middle of my life.
I stand in their empty parking space for a moment and fumble with the change in my pockets. Two little prunes walk past me on the way to their car. He saw me first, and I can no longer hide behind a pamphlet, so I make the first move. "Coach Holbrook! That was really brave of you to come and speak tonight. I'm happy you were here," I say.
"Brave? What do you mean 'brave,' Abbot Cohen?" he says, squinting his eyes. I stand completely still. He slowly breaks into a smile. "I was looking for a rematch." We laugh, and I shake his hand. "Your face is better. You didn't look so good the last time I saw you."
"Yeah, no thanks to you, sir."
"Why are you still standing out here? Don't you want to go home?" he says, helping his wife into their front seat.
"Nah, not yet. I think I want to wait around for Trost. You know, to say hello and goodbye." He shuts the door and stands up straight, seeing right through me.
"None of that business was your fault, Abbott. In all the talks I had with him, he never blamed you. He lost his temper, and so did I. He just lost it faster. And the depression and the divorce weren't your fault either." Holbrook smiles at his wife through the car window. "It just gets frustrating when you can't do what you love. I guess I know how you feel, Abbott. I needed to get a few things off my chest tonight too." I smile and think about Holbrook's inappropriate speech. It was inappropriate for us, and absolutely necessary for Holbrook. "But I don't want to worry about blame anymore. It seems like we've both thought about it enough. I don't think he actually regretted doing it, the bastard. He always talked about that fight like it was one of his proudest moments. It may have just reminded him of better days, when he was strong enough to whip a brute like me." It's strange hearing him talk about the fight like this, especially because I have to lean down a little to be at his eye level. "Also, it was the whole idea of it: protecting one of his own, defending the innocent. If he could do it all again, I'm certain that he wouldn't change a thing." We both look towards Mrs. Holbrook, sitting calmly in the car. "Take care, Abbott. You shouldn't feel guilty when you think of Bernie; you should be happy you were a part of each other's lives." As Holbrook pulls away, I remember how intimidating he used to be.
I hang around outside for a few more minutes, smoking, and pacing back and forth. I don't want Linda to stay up too late. Finally, Trost, and a very exhausted looking event planner, step out of the gym. "Coach! Coach Trost!" I say, running over to them.
"Bernard is tired right now, and he needs to get some rest. If you'd like, you can come back and see him tomorrow. It's his last day, and he'll be clearing out his office," says the event planner. Trost stares at me for a minute and then turns away. He doesn't recognize me.
"Oh, all right," I say. I figure that I might as well get everything out, since this will likely be my last opportunity anyway. I know it's self-centered, and I know this night is for Trost, but I need to be able to think of my coach without feeling culpable. It doesn't really matter that he won't understand. "Coach, I just want to tell you that I'm sorry for everything that happened. I've felt guilty for a long time now, and I hope I haven't ruined your life." Silence. The event planner gives me a puzzled look, and then takes Trost's arm.
"Come on, Bernie," he says. I turn back towards my car and breathe out heavily. At least I got the chance to tell him, I say to myself. I flip through the channels on the radio, trying to find the station we used to listen to in Curtis's car. It probably doesn't exist anymore. I should call Linda and tell her how everything was, tell her I'll be home soon. Someone knocks on the car door, startling me. I shut off the radio and roll down my window.
"You two refuse to show up to class! If you skip out on me again, I'll have to write you up. You both know I don't want to do that. Curtis is a good ball player, but he's cocky, and that means he's trouble. You don't want to go down that road, right?" I nod my head. "What?"
"Yes, Coach Trost."
"And you need a haircut. I can't have my players walking around with shag on their heads."
"Yes, Coach Trost." He meditates for a minute and folds his arms.
"And stop looking so damn insecure all the time. You run up and down this court like a monster's coming to get you. You're a good boy, and you're strong, and you don't have anything to be so afraid of. You have a you've got a lot to " He rubs the stubble on his chin. "This is a Volvo, right? Good make." He gazes at the hood. "Mind if I take a peek, see what you're running with?"
"No, sir. I don't mind." I go to pop the hood, but the event planner comes over and kindly ushers Trost back to the car. He mouths the words "I'm sorry" to me, as he places Trost in the back seat. My phone rings, jolting me out of astonishment. "Hi. Sorry, I know I said I would call."
"How'd it go?" Linda asks.
"It was good," I say, still somewhat dazed from the conversation I had moments earlier.
"Did you see him? Did you see the coach?"
"Did he remember you?"
"Yeah he remembered me. I'll be home soon, okay? Love you."
I watch the event planner turn out of the parking lot, away from the lights of the school and into darkness. I don't think about Trost's hand balling up into a fist, watching me hit the ground. I don't think about him getting the jump on Holbrook, stepping up tall, laying the first blow - those two titans, toe to toe, for all of eternity. I just picture Trost, arriving at assisted living, being helped into his bedroom. I'm sure a game is on, and he leans back in his chair, kicking his feet up. The walls are covered in jerseys, plaques, and commemorated plates from bygone teacher appreciation nights and division championships. And there are photos. Photos of me, of Curtis, of his ex-wife, and every single face he ever shouted at or cheered on, squeezed together in shots for the yearbook and at celebration dinners. It doesn't really matter if he can't remember them all, because they're in the room with him anyway.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Matthew Longo. All rights reserved.