Home > The Bleachers(13)

The Bleachers(13)
Author: John Grisham

"When did you open?"

"Seven and a half years ago. Couldn't pay the light bill for the first two years, then it slowly came around. Rumor spread that this was Rake's favorite place, so the town got curious."

"I think the coffee's ready," Neely said as the machine hissed. "I never saw Rake read a book."

Nat poured two small cups, on saucers, and placed them on the counter.

"Smells potent," Neely said.

"It ought to require a prescription. Rake asked me one day what he might like to read. I gave him a Raymond Chandler. He came back the next day and asked for another. He loved the stuff. Then I gave him Dashiell Hammett. Then he went nuts over Elmore Leonard. I open at eight, one of the very few bookstores to do so, and once or twice a week Rake would come in early. We'd sit in the corner over there and talk about books; never football or politics, never gossip. Just books. He loved the detective stories. When we heard the bell ring on the front door, he would sneak out the back and go home."


Nat took a long sip of coffee, with the small cup disappearing into the depths of his unruly mustache. "We didn't talk about it much. Rake was embarrassed because he got sacked like that. He has enormous pride, something he taught us. But he also felt responsible for Scotty's death. A lot of people blamed him, and they always will. That's some serious baggage, man. You like the coffee?"

"Very strong. You miss him?"

Another slow sip. "How can you not miss Rake once you've played for him? I see his face every day. I hear his voice. I can smell him sweating. I can feel him hitting me, with no pads on. I can imitate his growl, his grumbling, his bitching. I remember his stories, his speeches, his lessons. I remember all forty plays and all thirty-eight games when I wore the jersey. My father died four years ago and I loved him dearly, but, and this is hard to say, he had less influence on me than Eddie Rake." Nat paused in mid-thought just long enough to pour more coffee. "Later, when I opened this place and got to know him as something other than a legend, when I wasn't worried about getting screamed at for screwing up, I grew to adore the old fart. Eddie Rake's not a sweet man, but he is human. He suffered greatly after Scotty's death, and he had no one to turn to. He prayed a lot, went to Mass every morning. I think fiction helped him; it was a new world. He got lost in books, hundreds of them, maybe thousands." A quick sip. "I miss him, sitting over there, talking about books and authors so he wouldn't have to talk about football."

The bell on the front door rattled softly in the distance. Nat shrugged it off and said, "They'll find us. You want a muffin or something?"

"No. I ate at Renfrow's. Everything's the same there. Same grease, same menu, same flies."

"Same bubbas sitting around bitchin' 'cause the team ain't undefeated."

"Yep. You go to the games?"

"Naw. When you're the only openly gay dude in a town like this, you don't enjoy crowds. People stare and point and whisper and grab their children, and, while I'm used to it, I'd rather avoid the scene. And I'd either go alone, which is no fun, or I'd take a date, which would stop the game. Can you imagine me walking in with some cute boy, holding hands? They'd stone us."

"How'd you manage to come out of the closet in this town?"

Nat put the coffee down and thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his highly starched and pressed jeans.

"Not here, man. After we graduated, I sort of migrated to D.C... where it didn't take me long to figure out who I am and what I am. I didn't sneak out of the closet, Neely, I kicked the damned door down. I got a job in a bookstore and learned the business. I lived the wild life for five years, had a ball, but then I got tired of the city. Frankly, I got homesick. My dad's health was declining, and I needed to come home. I had a long talk with Rake. I told him the truth. Eddie Rake was the first person here I confided in."

"What was his reaction?"

"He said he didn't know much about gay people, but if I knew who I was, then to hell with everybody else. 'Go live your life, son,' he said. 'Some folks'll hate you, some folks'll love you, most folks haven't made up their minds. It's up to you.'"

"Sounds like Rake."

"He gave me the courage, man. Then he convinced me to open this place, and when I was sure I had made a huge blunder, Rake started hanging around here and word spread. Just a second. Don't leave." Nat loped away toward the front where an elderly lady was waiting. He called her by name, in a voice that couldn't have been sweeter, and soon they were lost in a search for a book.

Neely walked around the counter and poured himself another cup of the brew. When Nat returned he said, "That was Mrs. Underwood, used to run the cleaners."

"I remember."

"A hundred ten years old and she likes erotic westerns. Go figure. You learn all sorts of good stuff when you run a bookshop. She figures she can buy from me because I have secrets of my own. Plus, at a hundred and ten, she probably doesn't give a damn anymore."

Nat put a massive blueberry muffin on a plate and laid it on the counter. "Dig in," he said, breaking it in half. Neely picked up a small piece.

"You bake this stuff?" Neely asked.

"Every morning. I buy it frozen, bake it in the oven. No-body knows the difference."

"Not bad. You ever see Cameron?"

Nat stopped chewing and gave Neely a quizzical look. "Why should you be curious about Cameron?"

"You guys were friends. Just wondering."

"I hope your conscience still bothers you."

"It does."

"Good. I hope it's painful."

"Maybe. Sometimes."

Chapter Eleven

"We write letters. She's fine, living in Chicago. Married, two little girls. Again, why do you ask?"

"I can't ask about one of our classmates?"

"There were almost two hundred in our class. Why is she the first you've asked about?"

"Please forgive me."

"No, I want to know. Come on, Neely, why ask about Cameron?"

Neely put a few crumbs of the muffin in his mouth and waited. He shrugged and smiled and said, "Okay, I think about her."

"Do you think about Screamer?"

"How could I forget?"

"You went with the bimbo, instant gratification, but in the long run it was a bad choice."

"I was young and stupid, I admit. Sure was fun, though."

"You were the ail-American, Neely, you had your pick of any girl in the school. You dumped Cameron because Screamer was hot to trot. I hated you for it."

"Come on, Nat, really?"

"I hated your guts. Cameron was a close friend from kindergarten, before you came to town. She knew I was different, and she always protected me. I tried to protect her, but she fell for you and that was a huge mistake. Screamer decided she wanted the all-American. The skirts got shorter, blouses tighter, and you were toast. My beloved Cameron got thrown aside."

"Sorry I brought this up."

"Yeah, man, let's talk about something else."

For a long, quiet moment there was nothing to talk about.

"Wait till you see her," Nat said.

"Pretty good, huh?"

"Screamer looks like an aging high-dollar call girl, which she probably is. Cameron is nothing but class."

"You think she'll be here?"

"Probably. Miss Lila taught her piano forever."

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