June 16, 1996
At the edge of the creek a willow’s tapered leaves floated on the gentle current. The water was cloudy with mud from the previous day’s rain but Stephanie’s horse, Juniper, drank thirstily. Her father’s horse watched from a distance. Nearby there was a small pebbly beach where Stephanie and her younger brothers could launch canoes and inner tubes. Stephanie sometimes even went swimming, although yesterday she’d had a bad scare, one that she hadn’t been able to shake off. She had come down to the creek by herself, riding Juniper without a saddle. It had been hot, in the nineties, and the water was so clear she could see straight to the bottom. She didn’t have her suit with her so she went in wearing her clothes, a lightweight T-shirt and shorts. The swim was as refreshing as she’d imagined, but when she mounted Juniper, he reared up in surprise at her wet clothes and then bolted toward the woods, trying to throw her. It took less than a minute to subdue him, but as Stephanie realized what a fragile thing her body really was, time slowed down in a way that seemed almost supernatural, the seconds stretching to accommodate her fear. She didn’t tell her parents what happened, afraid they would stop letting her go for solo rides. She loved to go out on her own, loved the calm that descended as she meandered along the wooded trails that surrounded the farm.
But it was also nice to be with her father, to have him to herself for a while; it felt like it had been months, maybe years, since they’d spent time together, just the two of them. Stephanie had deliberately distanced herself, wanting to become more independent, needing to be more independent, in light of her mother’s dependence on her. She’d thought her father would take over after she left for college, but instead it seemed that Robbie would. He was at that age—the age when you begin to look offstage, to wonder what’s going on behind the scenes of family life.
Her father rode one of the newer horses, a palomino whose sandy silver mane matched her father’s graying blond hair. Beneath the black dye, Stephanie’s hair was as light as her father’s, though technically he was her stepfather; he had married Stephanie’s mother when Stephanie was four. Every once in a while it would occur to Stephanie that she and her father were not related and she would wonder what her life would be like if her real father had lived. But her real father was not so real to her. He was a man in a posed photograph in her mother’s frilly wedding album.
“That tree’s going to fall soon.” Her father pointed toward the willow whose trailing branches hung over the water. “It’s going to stop up everything.” Its trunk leaned at a forty-five-degree angle, the roots clinging like fingers to the banks.
“Robbie and Bry will like that,” Stephanie said. Her younger brothers loved to build dams on the little stream that ran through their backyard. It seemed to her a distinctly boyish thing: to want to manipulate the landscape. When she was their age, she made boats from feathers and bark and watched them float away. She would make wishes on the boats. How many dozens of boats had she sent downstream when her mother was pregnant, wishing that Bryan would be a girl? Sweet, gullible Bry. Her other wish, the one she’d chased with fleets of twig and leaf, was for her mother to feel better. To forget whatever special torment distracted her from life. There were months, even years, when that wish seemed to come true. But just when Stephanie would begin to relax, to believe that her mother had finally paid off her debt of sadness, it would return.
Stephanie was always the first to notice. It would take her father weeks to catch up. Sometimes Stephanie loved him for his obliviousness and sometimes she hated him for it. She was relieved to be going away to college. When she got her acceptance letters, her father told her about winning a football scholarship when he was her age, how proud and surprised he’d been that his hard work had actually paid off. He hadn’t grown up in an athletic family; no one had encouraged him to play sports or to spend his free time lifting weights and running laps around fields of grazing horses. Once, Stephanie asked why he hadn’t learned to train horses, like his father, but he only shrugged and said he wasn’t a horse person. Stephanie wasn’t a horse person, either, but she liked visiting her grandfather’s farm in Pennsylvania, liked being far from Willowboro, Maryland, where everyone knew her as the coach’s daughter.
Her mother seemed freer here, too. All week long she’d had energy for everything: for cooking, for riding, for hiking. Even for minigolf, which she typically hated because it reminded her of the country club where she worked.
“We should probably get back,” her father said. “Do you want to lead the way? Otherwise you’re stuck looking at a horse’s ass.”
“Dad, you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.”
He laughed and Stephanie smiled at how easy it was to make her father laugh—she barely had to attempt a joke—and how good it felt anyway.
The ride home was quiet and still, with just the sound of the horses’ hooves clopping on the mud-packed ground. The trees arched over the trail, the leaves glowing green in the summer sun. Stephanie thought dreamily that it was like the end of Sleeping Beauty, when the thorns that surround the castle magically rearrange themselves to form a tunnel directly to the castle door.
“Do you hear that?” her father asked. “Sounds like an ambulance.”
“I thought it was cicadas.”
“It sounds close, like it’s on the drive. I hope Grandpa’s okay.”
“What’s the matter with Grandpa?”
“Nothing. He’s just getting old. I get nervous, the way he climbs the rafters. I have to remind him that he’s almost seventy. But he doesn’t want to hear that.”
The mew of the sirens got louder and then stopped. Was that good or bad? Juniper picked up the pace.
The creek trail was a loop that began and ended at the far corner of the fenced-in pasture adjacent to the stables. The pasture was a long, narrow rectangle, the length of two football fields, at least. Stephanie came out of the woods and approached the wooden gate. She could see a white ambulance in the distance: it was parked outside the barn, the back of the vehicle pulled up to the door.
“Oh my God.” Her father dismounted to unlatch the gate and then climbed back onto his horse and galloped ahead without waiting for her or even looking back. Stephanie was so surprised by his wordless departure that she stood at the gate for a moment, uncertain of what to do next. The peaceful mood of the walk was gone, but her body hadn’t gone into panic mode, not like her father’s. He was acting on instinct; he was going after his father. Or her brothers. Oh God, her brothers. She thought of how reckless Robbie could be. How he would swing so high on the rope swing and then leap off to land on the gravel lane, instead of into the hay. Her mother was always telling him to stop, that he was going to hurt himself.
Stephanie led Juniper through the gate, trying not to startle her. But there was fear in the horse’s black long-lashed eyes. Stephanie wished for her grandfather’s gentle presence. What if he had fallen or had a heart attack? Dread rippled through her body.
Juniper raced across the field, going almost too fast for Stephanie, who had to lean forward and squeeze hard with her thighs to keep her balance. Her father had left the front gate open and Juniper slowed at its entrance but ran up to the barn, which was on a slight rise. Stephanie pulled hard on the reins. The ambulance was driving away. Her father and grandfather stood in the barn’s doorway, her grandfather holding on to the palomino’s bridle. Robbie and Bry were nowhere to be seen.
“What happened?” She was looking down from her perch atop Juniper’s saddle, and they were looking up at her with naked pain. Stephanie felt time slow down the way it had the day before, when Juniper tried to throw her.
“I need you to go to your brothers,” her father said. “They’re up at the house. The police are coming and I have to go with them to the hospital.”
“What happened? Please, you have to tell me what happened.”
“Your mother . . .” His face contorted. “She hanged herself with the rope swing. Robbie found her.”
Her grandfather just kept staring at her.
Stephanie pressed her face into Juniper’s mane, which smelled like the muddy creek and the warm sun and the rich animal murk of farm life—a beautiful, decaying perfume.
The boy cried helplessly in Dean’s office. He wiped his face with his scrimmage jersey, but it was too sweaty to be of any use to him. Even without his pads, the boy’s shoulders were unusually square and broad. He looked like a grown man, with dark stubble already arriving in the late afternoon. Dean remembered scouting him from eighth-grade Field Day. He was big even then, uncoordinated but strong, his thick black hair growing as wildly as his body and long enough for a ponytail. He threw the shot put like it was nothing much, something slightly heavier than a softball. His name was Laird Kemp. Dean stood on the sidelines and watched him, writing a summer conditioning regimen on the blue index cards he always carried in the side pocket of his windbreaker. He gave it to the boy and told him to try out for junior varsity football in the fall. Four years later, Laird was their middle linebacker, the linchpin of their defensive unit. And he was telling Dean that he was sorry, but his family was moving in two weeks. His dad’s company—Mac Truck—had transferred him to another one of their corporate offices.
“I’m sorry, Coach. I know I should have told you sooner. I don’t know why my dad has to take this job.”
“I’m sure he has good reasons.” Dean knew Laird’s parents fairly well. Like Dean, they weren’t originally from Willowboro, which was a significant line of demarcation. They were also better off than most and lived in one of the nicer suburbs outside of town. They liked football as much as anyone and gave generously to the Boosters, but it wasn’t their priority. They probably wanted Laird to spend his senior year preparing for college.
“I don’t want to go to a new school,” Laird said. He took a deep breath to steady himself. “I’m happy here. Things are good for me.”
“Things will be good for you in your new school,” Dean said. “I’ll give a call to that coach over there. I’ll tell him how lucky he is to have you joining his team.”
Garrett Schwartz, the assistant coach, appeared in Dean’s doorway. “You’re leaving? You can’t leave! We need you!”
Typical Garrett: awkward, blunt, and easily excited. He was the athletic director in addition to his role as assistant coach. His slightly built figure was a familiar sight at the beginning of every game as, clipboard in hand, he checked to make sure the facility was clean, the scoreboard turned on, the bleachers pulled down, and the soda and snack machines stocked and lit. He checked in with the cheerleaders, the Boosters, the refs, the coaches, and anyone else he recognized. He always had a whistle and a stopwatch around his neck, the stopwatch strung on a gimp lanyard that the cheerleaders had made one year for Spirit Week. Dean had given his lanyard to Stephanie.
“Don’t worry about us,” Dean said to Laird. “Go and shower. We’ll tell the team tomorrow.”
“I can come to practice tomorrow?”
Garrett began to brainstorm ideas for a replacement as soon as the kid was out of earshot. No one was as built as Laird—or as aggressive. That was the thing about Laird; even though his temperament was mellow, almost timid, he was ruthless on the field. Dean had a theory: Because Laird had always been big for his age, he’d had to learn how to be gentle, or risk hurting littler boys. When he played football, he could show his true strength.
“What about Jimmy Smoot?” Garrett asked. “He bulked up over the summer.”
“He’s fast,” Dean said. “He’s got a sprinter’s build. You don’t let that kind of speed go.”
“I’ll put him down as a question mark,” Garrett said. “All the Smoots are linebacker material. It’s in their genes. I went to high school with Jimmy’s cousin. His nickname was Bear.”
Garrett knew everyone in Willowboro. He had lived in the area all his life. Dean had arrived when he was twenty-six. Even after fifteen years of coaching and a half-dozen championship teams, he still felt he was regarded as an outsider.
“Okay, here’s an idea,” Garrett said. “I’ve actually been thinking of it for a while, but I sat on it because I know you don’t like to poach from other teams.”
“That’s a firm policy of mine,” Dean said.
“I know, but there’s this pitcher on the baseball team, a junior, and he’s a big guy, okay? Kind of a gut, maybe, but we can work with that. He’s got a really fast pitch. He’s already being scouted. His name’s Devlin, Mark Devlin.”
“I know Devlin. He takes gym every year,” Dean said. “I don’t want him getting injured.”
“But he wouldn’t necessarily,” Garrett said. “And I think if we leaned on him, he would play.”
“You asked him already?”
“I ran the idea by him in the spring. I was at a game. He said he didn’t see himself as a football player, but you should see him pitch, he’s an animal. He’ll hit the batters if he has to.”
“If he doesn’t come here voluntarily, I don’t want him,” Dean said. “Remember Tyler Shelton? He ruined his knee playing football. Lost a basketball scholarship because of my dumb sales pitch. Trust me, you don’t want that kind of guilt.”
The phone rang and Dean picked up right away. It was Stephanie, reminding him in a sour voice to be home by four.
“I have a dinner shift, okay?” she said. “So please don’t be late again.”
“You know I can’t get home early on double days.” “You’re going to have to figure something out, because I’m only here one more week. Or did you forget that, too?”
The line went dead, but Dean said good-bye before hanging up. Garrett made a show of flipping through the papers on his clipboard.
“Everything okay?” He glanced at Dean quickly.
“I have to get home,” Dean said, ignoring Garrett’s half-assed attempt at meaningful conversation. Garrett didn’t really want to know. No one did. “Would you mind taking a look at the playbook? Find all the ones that we wrote for Laird. We’re going to have to change things up.”
“I’ll mark it and make a copy for you.”
“You don’t have to do that. We can compare notes tomorrow.”
Dean left, grabbing his cap on the way out. He’d worn his oldest one today, with the retired logo: a sunrise between two mountains with a small bird gliding in the corner. Now the bird—an eagle—was front and center, the mountains in the background. The sun had been removed.
Outside there were piles of grass clippings everywhere, but no mower in sight. The groundsman liked to start and finish his days early and was probably already at home on his deck, enjoying a cold one. When Dean first started coaching at Willowboro, it had been up to him to maintain the football and practice fields, a side duty he had thoroughly enjoyed, riding atop the whirring mower in the early evenings, feeling at once productive and leisurely as the sky above turned orange and then pink and then violet. He’d lime the sidelines in the dusky light and they would seem to glow. The next morning it would all be waiting for him in bright primary colors.
Dean always felt as if he needed August, as if these long days of practice, unfettered by academic or familial demands, were an interlude that restored him in some way, a time of simple feeling and nostalgia that connected the man he had become to the boy he had once been. It was the time of year when he felt that he knew who he was.
But this year that clarity was gone.
Don’t try to get to the end of your grief. That’s what his mother-in-law had told him. She had moved in with them for a few weeks over the summer, and Dean still missed their latenight conversations.
Two teachers waved to Dean from the other end of the lot. Dean waved back vaguely. He didn’t know the other faculty that well. He was sequestered in the east annex, where his office, the weight rooms, and the locker rooms bordered two gyms, one large and one small. The teachers’ lounge was at the other end of the school. That was fine with him. Although he taught PE, Dean didn’t think coaching had much to do with teaching. He was more like a mechanic, or a horse trainer, like his father. The point was, he didn’t consider his work to be intellectual. He’d never thought this was unusual, but Nicole had seized on it on one of their first dates.
“But the kids learn so much from you,” she’d said. “Of course you’re a teacher.”
“All I care about is winning games. If they happen to learn something in the process, that’s just a by-product.”
She’d laughed, but he wasn’t going to be one of those men who claimed that football was “character building.” It wasn’t a civilized sport. The training could be brutal. The players were often crude. He could think of few lessons that would serve anyone for a lifetime. It was a moment-by-moment kind of game. That was why he needed it now. All summer long he had been living “one day at a time,” as everyone advised. It was an act of will not to look ahead, not to think about all the ways his future had been destroyed. He tried not to look back, either, but that was harder. Everyone said he couldn’t blame himself, but Dean knew they were all thinking the same thing, that it would never happen to them, that they would never let it happen. And at the same time everyone told him how shocked they were, how they had no idea, how they never would have guessed that someone like her, a woman so, so, so . . . they always struggled to say what had fooled them. So normal, perhaps. Or maybe: so undefined. So easy to project happiness onto.
Maybe they all just had crushes on her. Dean got notes of condolence from her country club clients, most of them male, all of them recalling Nicole’s sunny nature. She always had a smile for me, one wrote. As if that meant anything, Dean thought bitterly. He hated how grief made him cynical. The world, for him, was now full of shortsighted, awkward idiots.
From HOME FIELD. Used with permission of William Morrow. Copyright © 2016 by Hannah Gersen.