Friday, March 4, 2005, 3:38 p.m.
Rick Wilhelm’s office and wardrobe signified a successful man. He often folded his fingers into a steeple as he sat at the large oak desk of a Division I athletic director, framed photo of picturesque wife and daughter placed on its edge, exhaling with a prideful relief at how accomplished he had become. But sometimes the sigh was one of regret and confusion, feeling like a fraud – a child dressed up in an adult costume pretending to play-act like they were conducting grown-up affairs. Either way, he had a habit of pulling a bottle of Lagavulin 16 from his desk drawer and sipping down a finger while he thought it over.
He had dreaded asking Jerry to step down. Coach had been like a father to him, and was a near-deity in Custerville. But business was business. It had to be done, and when Jerry accepted his fate without the slightest objection, Rick couldn’t believe his luck. He’d spent close to a week feeling too queasy to eat, watching Sportscenter reruns at 3 a.m. in his den while he scripted potential awkward scenarios and considered how he’d respond to them. Rick doubled up and drank two fingers after Coach had hugged him and left his office that day.
The still fresh, yet-to-scab-or-scar guilt made him shudder and ask his secretary to hold any calls while he poured himself three fingers. Rick had arranged every last tribute at no expense to soften the blow and properly honor Jerry’s forced retirement. But it still made him feel rotten and fraudulent.
It only took a few sips before Rick began to think about the very thing he had poured a drink in order to forget. A memory he had long ago flung down into the well of his soul, learning over time to ignore the echoes of thrashing in the bile that stagnated at its bottom (and the classiest selection to drink when he couldn’t).
June Lagerstadt, Coach’s seventeen year old daughter, had been the epitome of forbidden fruit. A senior at Custerville High, she was still coltish and mousy, less than six months removed from losing her braces. She had begun to grow into her alluring beauty – an attractiveness that was only enhanced by her off-limits status – and had become not only a go-to punchline for locker room sex jokes, but also the fulcrum of a unanimously agreed-on bet that would net any Red Man player who managed to bed her a prize pool of $10 per teammate.
A man wants what he can’t have, but Rick, the star point guard, could have anything he wanted back then. When June showed up at a Sigma Nu kegger with some high school friends one Saturday night, Rick poured her a half-foam red Solo cup of cheap beer and promised not to say a word to Jerry. As he ran two clasped fingers over his lips and flung an imaginary key over his shoulder with a wink, her knees buckled just a bit. He knew right then and there, and leading June by the hand as the pair exited the party a couple hours later, Rick discreetly slapped palms with a few teammates on the way out, his tongue poking out from a chesire grin.
‘Do you ever worry about things?’ she whispered to him later that night as he felt stifled by the muggy sweat haze from their bodies pressed together.
‘Like what?’ He squeezed her shoulder with the arm that was draped around it, which tingled from the weight of her neck pinning it against his pillow.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, softly tracing a finger along the whale belly white of his upper arm’s underside. It was close enough to his snake-pube infested armpit to cause Rick to jerk with ticklishness, but he braced himself to avoid showing it, basking in the glow of her idea that he was a wise person worthy of seeking advice from. ‘Just, like, feeling scared, I guess. Like you’re not ready for it? And feeling weird because it seems like everyone else is.’
‘Not really,’ he said, kissing her forehead, clearing his throat a bit after licking the makeup residue from his lips. Rick understood the anxiety she described, having felt it nightly as he tried to fall asleep, but wanting to maintain the status of the pedestal she had placed him on. ‘It’ll get easier as you get older. I promise’. She wriggled into his body and purred like a cat, running her tongue over his neck before pecking it with a subtle kiss, her best learned guess as to what a sultry sex object would do in such a situation.
He ended up throwing away the sheets she bled onto, and can still hear the heartache in her voice when he told her a few days later after incessant calls to his dorm that he wasn’t interested in a long-term thing. It was a wounded warble, every decibel still clear and sharp enough all these years later to make him down the rest of his whisky in a knee-jerk reaction to the discomfort. He coughed and gagged a bit, wiping the dribble from his chin with the back of his hand, careful to avoid getting any on the French cuff of his dress shirt.
After composing himself with a shrug of the shoulders and a tug at his tie knot, Rick stared at the framed Sports Illustrated cover of Jerry being carried off the court that hung on his wall, suddenly aware of the air conditioner’s hum. He ran a hand over his slicked hair brittle with gel and let out a long sigh before pouring himself another finger.