Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Real Dusk

I shake some of the raindrops off my umbrella and shut it. I grab the door and enter Shepherd's Pub, looking to the back corner of the front room to the table where we usually sit — he's not there. Things are different, alright.

I walk to the back room and see him sitting beside the billiards tables, staring intently at his mug, ignoring the three televisions in the room that are talking about him again. Mercifully, the volume's off.

"Hey Jerry," I utter as normally as I can, knowing well not to ask how it's going, or what he's thinking about.
"Hey, Al. Good seein' you. Yours is still cold," as he motions to the second drink on the table.

Though it's in a different room, our table is dressed the same, with Jerry's gold Miller Lite staring across at a tan-topped brown Guiness that I corral as I slink into my seat, setting my umbrella beside me in the booth.

I take off my coat. For an instant, silence freezes the room, and I begin to let out a discomforted exhale as Jerry speaks.

"I can't believe this is happening." My eyes fall shut for a moment. I was hoping he'd wait to bring it up. You know, a little small talk first. So I could at least get some beer in me. "Joe's gonna lose his job. The whole program's on fire."

His tone is tired, but not remorseful. He seems exhausted, not guilty.

"Yeah well, the whole thing's a shit storm. I don't know what to tell ya. You're the one who supplied the gas." As I grab my cold mug for comfort and send it toward my mouth to take a drink, he looks up at the television for the first time. He knows he's screwed up, and it shows. But his look is still mere regret, not guilt.

"It's not right that the program has to go through this. Even with the charges. It's not a football thing."
The dark ale slides down my throat and I'm able to look him in the eye. It is and it isn't a "football thing," but I explain to him that it doesn't matter.

"You're a coach, of course they're gonna run with it. You can't expect 'em to ease up just because none of the victims (this word evokes a sharp blink) played on the team. You fucked up real bad, Jere, if it's true, that is."

"... Do you think I did it, Al?"
My stomach flips inside out. Of course he did it. He had to've.
"It's hard to say no, with what I've seen in the paper. But since I'm right here, I'll ask ya straight up, did you do it?"
He goes for his beer, calm but compressed. I take a sip too, relieved I'm no longer the one talking.
"What I did with those kids wasn't right. But it wasn't illegal. Those things they said I did — it's not true. I didn't go that far."

The answer he had to give. It wasn't natural for Jerry to politic, as he normally worked best outside the limelight. But here he was, telling me his bowl of shit was sanitary. I don't believe him, but I let him think I do. After all, I wish it were that way.

"So, you got a good lawyer, you gonna fight this thing off?"
He does, and he tells me he will.
"Good, so I wouldn't wanna see you wind up in jail. Especially with the shit they got you charged with."

With that, Jerry freezes. He sighs, staring at the brim of his cup with longing, as if he wanted to jump into it. I have to pull him back.

"So if Joe can't be out there this weekend, it's gonna be tough for 'em to get the win."
"Yeah, but if Stupar and that Hodges kid can keep Martinez contained, and get some push against Burkhead, Nebraska's got nothin' for us."
"Welcome to the Big Ten, mother fuckers."
"Still Penn State, still Linebacker U." He laughs. A forced laugh, but one he relishes. We talk about the game itself for a while, but, the scandal's effects on the program are too big to avoid for too long.

"Who would replace Joe now if he does get let go?" he asks me.
I'm hearing Tom Bradley, though Larry Johnson's also been mentioned. We talk about it a little, but none of it really matters. All that matters is that we're talking. It feels like old times, out front by the bar. But now with everything out in public, he's hiding back here in privacy. And all along he was the same guy. Jerry taught me a lot of things, nearly all of which won't be invalidated by his trial. But I can't shake the shame of talking with someone accused of such evil. It doesn't sit right with my conscience, but I'm all he has left at this point, so I finish a couple more rounds to settle it down.
"So the Second Mile, are they gonna have to shut that down too?"

He sets down his drink and sighs. Probably, he says. I can't help myself — I feel comfortable. I don't feel like I'm drinking with a felon, let alone a serial child molester. I look him in the eye, and it feels okay, I don't feel like he's the devil as the media is uncovering him to be. He changes the subject, asks how are my wife and kids, and as the word rolls off his lips, I feel like I would trust them with him — he's just Jerry.

"They're good, Jerry. Kellen is just in high school, he's playing safety at SCA, on the JV team of course. Candice is still in middle school, but she's doing real well. How's Dorothy? Is she behind you on this?"
 "Yeah, she believes I didn't do anything illegal. I'm worried though. She knows I need her right now, who knows what she'll do when this is all over."
"Yeah, she doesn't seem like the kind to walk out, though."
"Hope you're right about that." He finishes the final third of yet another round. "But the boys — Jon hasn't been talking to me. E.J., I don't think believes me, he thinks I fucked those kids."

Despite my efforts, I cringe slightly. I look up to the television to avert my eyes to see Joe rambling incoherently to a group of students outside his house. "Don't say that — that way. It creeps me out just hearing it, Jerry."
"Well I've heard it enough over the past few days to jump off a bridge." He retorts, and for a moment he looks guilty, and then "— I'm fine though, Al, I wouldn't do anything criminal. Like I said, I didn't do ... those things."

I believe him, outwardly. In my mind, my doubts are mounting.  "Right. Sure hope you can prove it, pal."
"I did so much for them. The charity, the coaching, the whole thing. Look at my home. I worked so damn hard to make the kids happy — my whole life, it's what I wanted to do. And I was lucky I guess to do it for so long. But for this to come of it. I know I made some stupid decisions that I now regret, but it's not like I'm a monster. I loved those kids. I wouldn't, you know ..."
"— I know, Jerry. I know." We finish one final round in silence. "... Well I've gotta get going, Jere."

I offer and sign off on the tab (he did just shell out 100 grand for bail). As we walk outside, Jerry's paces are slow and unsturdy. His eyes are on the floor, and not sifting through the patrons of the front room like they would normally be. He's wearing a forlorn and glumly scowl as opposed to the traditional jolly smile glazed onto his face. He doesn't want to go home — or anywhere. My family is visiting relatives in Georgia in two weeks for Thanksgiving. Jerry's future plans are much more complicated and cloudy.

As we step outside onto Hebert Street, Jerry has to walk the other way to go to his car. I give him a hug and wish him well. As I turn away from Jerry, I realize that I may have just seen him in public for the last time, but I guess that's yet to be determined. I begin to walk the half-block to my car, and realize I forgot my umbrella back at our booth. After a moment's contemplation, I decide to leave it. It's not too cold out, and if there's anything I learned tonight, it's that there are worse things than a few raindrops on an insulated wool coat.

--Eliot Sill

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