Ruination

 

For several reasons, when his playing days were over, the old quarterback decided to come back home. (Monte Dutton sketch)
For several reasons, when his playing days were over, the old quarterback decided to come back home. (Monte Dutton sketch)

Sipping a cup of coffee, Haney McGee thought about Ebby Newlin, the old man who didn’t drive a car, worked his whole life at a gas station without ever running one, and looked out for the kids from the wrong side of the tracks.

Haney had been in Denver, trying like hell to keep from getting hammered by Rich Jackson and Lyle Alzado in the snow of Mile High Stadium. He was in the locker room, wondering if the club was going to give the young backup a shot, when he got the word that Ebby had died. He sent flowers, having no way to explain to management why he needed to get back to the Carolinas because a man who changed oil till he was seventy-two years old meant more to him than his own father.

The world had no more Ebby Newlins. It had no filling stations, really, just places to pump your own gas and pour your own cup of coffee. Kids didn’t hang out. They just punched emojis into their smart phones. If a man like Ebby tried to help out a kid nowadays, they’d probably claim he must be a pedophile and ship him off to the state asylum.

By Monte Dutton
By Monte Dutton

Someone in town, or maybe several, had wanted to get Haney together with Josh Locklin, who had become the town hero during the previous high school season. Everyone seemed to think he was both the smartest kid and the best athlete around. It had taken a while, but the kid finally said he had first period off on Tuesday and would meet Haney at the Big Red Diner for breakfast. Haney was early. Josh Locklin was late. The word around town was that the boy was “going to the bad.”

It was cloudy and overcast, but when the kid walked in, he was wearing sunglasses and a ballcap turned backwards. Haney could see why he wasn’t going to play ball in college. He wasn’t tall enough to be a bigtime prospect. Six feet, tops, probably more like five-ten. He probably claimed six feet. Haney had never known a quarterback who didn’t claim he was taller than he was, himself included. He seemed ill at ease, maybe even high. Haney asked him what he wanted, and the kid said a sausage and egg biscuit would be cool, that and a Coke. Haney had the breakfast plate with grits, bacon, and toast. He refilled his coffee and came back to the table with everything on a tray.

Haney could tell Josh was dreading this whole scene.

He set the tray on the table, shook hands with the kid, and commenced to spreading butter and jam on the toast. He tried to break the ice.

“When I was in New England, I couldn’t even find instant grits in the grocery store,” Haney said.

“I don’t much care for it myself.”

Haney shrugged his shoulders.

“Everybody’s different.”

The kid wasn’t going to volunteer anything. He hadn’t come here because he’d wanted to meet a pro ballplayer. Haney might as well have been Sammy Baugh. Just looking at the kid, wishing he could see the eyes behind the shades, Haney thought, well, this is going to be one colossal waste of time.

What a shame. I could teach this little shithead something if he’d let me.

“Josh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you stoned?”

“Course not. No.”

“Good.”

Josh looked around. A group of old men, older than Haney, was carrying on at a big table about ten or fifteen feet away. Probably met here every morning. They were telling tales about how City Council didn’t have any sense, and making disparaging remarks about “that Obama,” and there wasn’t a bit of danger of any of them eavesdropping on a conversation nearby, even if it did involve the great Haney McGee and the young whippersnapper who’d led the Red Rovers to their latest state championship. Haney had played in a Super Bowl, but he was still just as famous around Saugus for helping give the high school its first title.

Back in seventy-one.

Even the kid had enough sense to know the old geezers couldn’t hear well enough to tell what the old ballplayer had said to him.

“I’m just here to help, son,” Haney said, seasoning his grits and stirring the butter around in them. “Your life is changing. I just want it to be for the better. You’re all resentful because, in this town, everybody’s in your shit, right? Trying to give you advice you don’t need. You can’t wait to get out of this town and get out on your own.”

“Yes, sir. That’s the truth.”

“Well, I’m gonna try not to waste your time, Josh. Whether I do or not, that’s for you to decide. One thing I reckon you ought to know about old folks, even as old as me, is we were all young once, and most of us made mistakes, and one of the reasons, I think, was, when I was a kid, every time I asked a grown-up about doing something, they’d just say no.

“Well, what if you gon’ do it, anyway? Ain’t no way to get no advice. So you go out there and fuck things up on your own, and that’s a terrible way to learn lessons.”

“How come you think you know so much about me?” Josh asked.

“Ah, I just been doing my homework. I hear what people saying around town. I looked you up on Facebook, and what I gathered is that you don’t do much with that because everybody and their goddamned brother’s on it, so I expect there’s some other mechanism, some other way to keep things a little more private between you and your buddies, and you text a lot, and, basically, you don’t want privacy so much as you want to pick and choose what you say to who. I didn’t come over here to preach to you. I wasn’t no saint when I was your age. I ain’t no saint now, but I made it this far, and I might can help you steer clear of a little bit of trouble along the way. You want another biscuit?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Here.” Haney gave him two dollars. “Get another one. You probably need to get away from me for a minute and decide whether or not you can trust an old broken-down has-been.”

The kid didn’t offer any dissent, but he took the money and went to the counter. Haney was half expecting him to bolt.

“What do you do?” Josh asked when he got back. “I mean now.”

“Me? I play golf, and talk on the radio, and get paid to sign my name on bubble-gum cards. I drink a fair amount, but usually just when people want to be able to say they got drunk with Haney McGee, and talk about that time the New England Patriots got the hell beat out of them in the Super Bowl.

“It ain’t a bad life, not for an old man who can’t hardly walk when he gets out of bed in the morning. I don’t think you’re making a half-bad decision not playing ball in college. Looks like you got out of football with most of your joints still oiled and working right.”

“Yeah, I’m good,” he said, and he seemed to be struggling to remember what he wanted to say. “I want to go to State, and State don’t seem much interested in me playing ball, and I don’t want to go to none of the schools that do want me.”

“I don’t blame you, Josh. I don’t blame you a bit. What you gonna study?”

“Pharmacy.”

“Well, that’s good, too. Put you in grad school, what, a year?”

“I think so.”

Josh didn’t sound like he’d thought about it too much. When Haney heard a kid claim he wanted to be a pharmacist, it raised a red flag, because it meant he was interested in drugs, and while Haney was growing up, he’d known, oh, six kids who’d said they’d wanted to be pharmacists, and four of them had extra credit when they’d gotten there, and two of them, best he remembered, had served time once they’d gotten out of school and found themselves in a position to sample the merchandise.

The sausage was good. Good sausage was hard to find.

“Let me tell you what I think,” Haney said. “I think kids from any generation are about ninety percent the same, and the ten percent gets magnified. The world changes, and, shit, the changes get faster every year, and maybe I just feel the way I do because I’ve gotten old myself, and I prefer to believe I can relate to kids. It’s kind of ridiculous. I’ve gotten too old for a kid like you to trust me, but when I was coming along, I was glad I had guys who’d take a special interest. In this town, every ballplayer used to have a fellow, not from his family, who’d look out for you, take you to supper, buy you a steak. I wish it was that way now, but it ain’t.

“Now, Josh, when I was your age, what? You’re eighteen, right.”

“Yeah.”

“When I was eighteen, I could buy beer. Had to wait till twenty-one to buy liquor, but even before I was eighteen, it wasn’t all that hard to get. I was right accustomed to drinking beer way back when. I’d even gotten to where I could pace myself just right, not get too wasted, have enough sense to talk my way out of trouble if I got in it, but, man, I had some close calls.

“Mainly, I was lucky. I’d like to think I didn’t get wild till I was old enough to handle it, but, basically, I think it’s just nature. The difference between somebody who drinks and somebody who’s a drunk is that some people drink from the bottle, and, some people, the bottle drinks from them. Some people will do whatever they do to excess, whether it’s drinking, smoking, sex, Jesus, weightlifting, whatever. It’s the reason that the fancy television evangelist gets caught with a whore or something. It’s not that his religion ain’t genuine, it’s just that there’s a fanaticism, a self-destructiveness, that just runs through the bloodstream of some folks. If he drinks, he wants to get completely wasted. I used to have a teammate, with the Colts, and every time me and him got to drinking, it was a tug of war between him and me, with him trying to yank me down the toilet and me trying to pull him out. You know what I’m saying?”

“Yes, sir.”

Josh didn’t know what Haney was saying, or if he did, it was because he was guilty of just what Haney was warning him about. But he was young. He was invincible. He was blind. Nothing like that was going to happen to him. If the kid was ever going to comprehend Haney’s words, it was going to be when it was too late.

Or maybe Haney was just wrong. Maybe he couldn’t relate to these kids anymore. It was futile to preach. No sense trying to get the kid to trust him, except that he’d said he would try.

“Things today ain’t worse than they were when I was a kid. Kids ain’t worse,” Haney said. “They couldn’t be. When I was a kid, we had Vietnam, and our leaders getting assassinated, and the civil rights movement, and then Watergate, and all that piled up on us and made it where we stopped trusting anybody, didn’t believe in nothing nobody told us. People questioned authority, and it wasn’t altogether a bad thing, but it left scars, and the events of this generation are going to leave scars in you, and you can’t let them consume you.

“I said I’d talk to you, but I can’t make you believe what I got to say. You’ll probably be about the same way I was your age, and one day, maybe you’ll sit down and try to talk some sense to some kid who thinks you’re too old to listen to, and on, and on, and on, one generation to the next. The best thing I can tell you is, whatever your mistakes are, learn from them. When you’re digging a hole, and you run into rocks, don’t keep on digging.”

“Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir.”

“Ah’ight,” Haney said. “I’m done preaching. If I can ever help you, let me know. If I can’t, you ain’t no different than I was your age.”

Haney knew he’d said too much. Try to ram something down a kid’s throat, and it’s likely to make him do the opposite. That sure as hell hadn’t changed. His breakfast was getting cold, and Haney decided it was time to finish it. The kid had to go to class, and Haney had a tee time in Greenville with an old buddy who used to block for him.

Josh surprised him then.

“Can I ask you a question, Mr. McGee?”

“Beats hell out of me just sitting here talking.”

“What do you think about smoking pot?”

Haney wished he’d take those sunglasses up. He just knew Josh’s eyes were red. Second period must be study hall. Or phys-ed assistant.

The old man took a deep breath.

“Uh, I’d say, well, I ain’t got a kid, or at least the one I got, I don’t see but twice a year,” he said, “but I got friends in this town who got kids about your age, and when we get to talking amongst ourselves, most of us feel the same way. It scares hell out of you that your kid might get into something that’ll get him killed or send him to jail, but I think, privately, we sort of agree that if the kid’s gonna do something, he’d probably be better off smoking weed than drinking liquor. Getting hooked on booze is a terrible thing. Pot don’t make you as crazy. It don’t make you want to whip somebody’s ass just ‘cause he looks at you wrong. It don’t make you get mad, stomp out of the party, and drive your car a hundred damn miles an hour and kill yourself running into a tree.

“I ain’t recommending that you get stoned on a regular basis, though. I got high from time to time when I was playing ball. I expect the ballplayers of my generation screwed things up royally for kids of yours. We didn’t have to worry about drug testing, didn’t know there was no drugs that would enhance our performances. You know what’s the truth? When I played pro ball, there wasn’t no shortage of things to get into – drugs, booze, wild women – but the ones who couldn’t handle that shit, they didn’t last long. I expect it’s about the same way for an insurance man, or a car salesman, or a … pharmacist.”

“Well, honest to God, Mr. McGee …”

“Call me Haney. I never have liked being called mister. I just look like an old man. I still got a lot of kid in me.”

“I got to get to school, Haney,” Josh said. “I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Seriously. I do.”

Haney handed the boy a business card.

“If I can help you, let me know,” he said. “Call me. Send me an email. I’m on Facebook and Twitter. I’m not much of a role model, but I’m honest.

“Or don’t. If this was 1971, and you were the old man trying to talk some sense into me, I’m satisfied I wouldn’t have listened. You got that right, too. But I done all right for myself. I come out of it.”

 

Josh Locklin enrolled at State in the fall, and, for a while, he fared well academically. Haney read in the local weekly that he’d made the Dean’s List and sent him a Facebook message congratulating him. From time to time, he’d think about the kid and send what he perceived to be good advice. He knew better than to advise Josh to be good. He wrote him to be “good enough” and trusted the smartest kid in town to perceive that it was another way to suggest he be smart enough to stay out of trouble.

About once a week or so, Haney took a look at Josh’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. Good-looking women seemed to like him, but he moved from one to another at consistent intervals. He published lots of photos of parties – in stadium parking lots, residences, nightclubs, next to swimming pools – with careful, but suggestive, references. He appeared to have made friends with several of the State football players. Haney figured he was just enjoying the college life, no more or less than any other freshman trying to escape his hometown. Occasionally, Josh would return his message with a short expression of appreciation.

Then Josh grew secretive. His posts grew less frequent. The last message Haney got from the boy made some reference to his grades falling off a little and how he needed to buckle down and do better. During his sophomore year, Haney bumped into Josh’s father, whom he knew slightly the way he knew a hundred others in town, and Virgil Locklin said the boy was trying to get himself sorted out and was sitting out a term. The next Haney knew, Josh had transferred to another school, a smaller state school thirty miles away, but he still seemed to party around State a lot and hang out with the football team.

Another time, Haney was sitting next to the Sheriff on the dais at the county Touchdown Club Banquet, and while they were chatting, the Honorable Benton “Dub” Feathergill asked him if he knew a kid named Josh Locklin, and Haney said they’d had a conversation once, a few years back.

“Boy ain’t up to no good,” Feathergill said. “He’s been hanging out with the wrong people, and some of them are pretty heavily involved in selling dope. Seems like he makes a lot of late-night trips to town.

“I know the boy’s got a good side to him. I know he was a damn good ballplayer. It ain’t my place to straighten him out. If somebody don’t do it, we gon’ bust him, and if that comes out, his being a big hero’s gonna backfire. The Solicitor will make an example out of him. I’m just passing that along, Haney.”

“I don’t know him,” Haney said. “The one time I talked to him, I thought he was a decent kid. If I hear something, I’ll let you know.”

“I’d just as soon you let him know,” the Sheriff replied.

 

Josh Locklin wasn't a bad kid. He just went to the bad. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Josh Locklin wasn’t a bad kid. He just went to the bad. (Monte Dutton sketch)

Josh had gone off to college thinking he could manage everything. He’d spent his entire life hearing people tell him how smart and athletic he was, and he’d gotten to where he believed them. He was also accustomed to charming his way out of trouble. Like a juvenile shark swimming out into open water alone for the first time, he’d found the going a little tougher. The plan at first had been to sell enough weed to be able to get high off the profits, but he got interested in more than getting high. He’d found out quickly that Adderall would help him study, and cocaine would wake him up, and pills were even better than weed to get him laid.

Some of his old pals from home hadn’t gone to college. Some of them had gone straight into business for themselves. Josh ran a little store out of his apartment. He’d moved off campus as soon as he’d become eligible to do so as a sophomore. The school didn’t even allow smoking cigarettes in the dorms anymore. Campus just cramped his style. He hung out at the athletic dorm a lot, though. He made friends there quickly. The trouble with college athletes was that they were accustomed to getting things without paying for them, and it caused Josh a few problems when he tried to collect. One problem was the head football coach paying him a little visit to suggest he find himself some new friends. When he enrolled in the branch school, business wasn’t bad. He had little competition, but keeping secrets was harder.

Meanwhile, the boys back home were getting restless. They’d work with him. They were his friends. But bigger folks than them weren’t so understanding, and Josh’s overdue accounts were becoming a problem that wasn’t easily remedied. He needed some money, big money, and he needed it fast, or else find another place to hide that was a lot farther away than Swainsboro. When Josh got high, he was starting to get paranoid and suspicious, and it didn’t used to be a problem. He took his shotgun back to school with him, and it wasn’t because he was going deer hunting. He didn’t feel secure, though. He needed something he could carry, and pretty soon he got his hands on a damned impressive handgun. He took it out in the country one evening and figured out how to work it. He could shoot the hell out of it once he took a snort of coke. Josh wasn’t going to kill anybody. He just needed it for protection. Some people thought he had money, and it might have been because that’s the way he acted.

Josh knew he had to get out, and he knew it wasn’t going to be easy because he couldn’t just walk away. He needed help. He needed to get his hands on some serious green. He’d played football for six years, dozens of touchdowns, and completed hundreds of passes, and, by God, he was damned if he was going to get his legs broken now.

 

Haney McGee looked up Josh Locklin on social media from time to time, just to keep up with him. Josh occasionally posted a photo – him with his latest lovely, or a group of drunks, hoisting Bud Lights, in the parking lot of a football stadium – but nothing too controversial. Haney knew he had to be out there somewhere. He understood there was some new social media that was designed with privacy in mind, something that would allow someone to post a photo, or message, anything, that would somehow disappear after the intended recipient saw it. Haney didn’t really understand it and didn’t have much interest. His interest in Josh Locklin wasn’t enough to get him examining the latest trends, but it was enough, one night, to get him to poke around and find Josh operating some kind of secret account. He just started cross-checking the followers of those who followed Josh, and he discovered an account named after the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. In fact, Haney found dozens of Pablo Escobar accounts. One of them was named “Pablo Escobar, Numma Sehmteen.”

Seventeen had been Josh Locklin’s football number. Haney tried to follow the account. It was “locked.” Then he checked out Josh’s regular page, the one that had his name attached. It was locked, too.

 

In July, the local paper ran a story about how Haney McGee had been asked to give a speech on behalf of his former teammate, Dontavius Tinsley, a defensive back being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Haney wasn’t Hall of Fame material himself. He’d been a good quarterback, not a great one.

Somehow, Josh happened upon the article. His mother had subscribed to the local weekly for Josh. Most weeks, he just threw it in the trash. This time, though, the news on his nosy adviser caught his eye. He called up his best hometown buddy, Nikita Jenkins, and together they devised themselves a plan.

Josh needed some money and thought he’d found a way to get it fast. First, though, he needed to case the joint. He’d never visited Haney McGee at home. He had two weeks until McGee headed off to Canton, Ohio. He figured he’d head home Friday afternoon, pay the old bastard a call and tell him how much all that free advice meant to him. Then he’d do a little trade with some of his old buddies, pick up some supplies from some of his others, head on back to college, and make himself a little money. Maybe a few items he’d observe at McGee’s house would improve his credit rating among his business partners.

 

It was about dark on a July Friday. Haney had played golf with the usual crowd. He’d shot 87, which was a little worse than usual. It had been too damn hot. When they got through, he and his old high school teammate, the city councilman now, and another, the car salesman, and a third, the one that sold real estate at the lake, had spent a couple hours at the bar. Haney had probably drunk three beers, but he still felt a little piqued from the sun, and he’d driven home sleepy and tired. He didn’t want to go to sleep, so he showered and put on a tee shirt and a pair of sweats, brewed a mug of coffee, and sat in his easy chair, with an ice pack on his hips, when the doorbell rang.

It wasn’t so bad. Haney hadn’t had quite enough time to get “stove up.”

He opened the front door. “Yeah?”

Haney looked Josh Locklin over. Physically, he was muscular, more so than when they’d met four years earlier. His face had aged. He’d be twenty-two now. If Haney hadn’t known, he’d have figured twenty-five or six.

“Mr. McGee.”

“Haney.”

“Yeah, Haney,” the boy said, sticking out his arm to shake hands, a bit too theatrical, looking just like back at the restaurant that time, on the edge of impaired.

Haney thought, well, maybe I’m just an old coot, thinks everybody’s on something.

“Hey, there, Josh. It’s been a long time. Come in. Excuse the mess. I actually don’t get many visitors.”

“Aw, you know you got all kind of women.”

“I got enough money to get a room,” Haney said. “I don’t let none of them in here unless they got a taste for cleaning.

“Come in. Sit down, Josh. What brings you over to see me?”

He walked in the door, looked around the living room, and sat on the couch.”

“Want a beer?” Haney asked.

“Yeah. Sure.”

There wasn’t a whole lot to see. A bunch of plaques and pictures ringing the kitchen table. A large, framed poster above the couch. Nice stereo system. Big-screen, high-def TV. A ballgame just starting. Haney came back around the corner from the kitchen with two Bud Lights.

“I started pulling for the Red Sox when I was with the Patriots. I don’t really watch that closely, but I usually have them on while I’m reading and, you know, checking the Twitter.”

“This is a pretty simple place,” Josh said.

“Yeah, I used to have a lot bigger one. Me and my ex-wife lived on the edge of a golf course outside San Diego. That’s where my career ended. Baltimore, New England, Buffalo, San Diego. Only thing I carried with me everywhere was the number fourteen. I come out of San Diego minus a wife and a kid about grown. Now I don’t see much of neither one of them. It was kind of a bad time all around.

“This is the cabin I built back when I was just out of college, starting out in the pros, so’s I could come home and not have to stay with my folks,” Haney said, “but you didn’t come over here to look around my little house.”

Actually, yes, Josh thought.

“No, I just drove home, and, well, I got to thinking that I hadn’t never had much to say to you in the past couple years to where you stopped sending me those occasional notes, and I thought, well, I needed to stop by and let you I appreciated them even if I didn’t hardly show it.”

Haney thought the boy was putting lots of effort into sounding and looking wholesome, but he still wasn’t quite buying it.

“So, you out of school yet?”

“No, sir, not quite. I should get done in the fall semester.”

“Ain’t going to pharmacy school no more.”

“Nah,” Josh said, “to tell the truth, I’d about forgot I was ever gonna do that. I’m majoring in business. You know. Smart thing to do.”

“Yeah. Great.”

“Haney, you were, like, a big football star. Are you, like, happy, just living simple?”

“I’m fine. I’m not broke. I got money in the bank that’ll carry me the rest of my life, Josh. My divorce was bitter, and it cost me a lot, but it made me just decide, the hell with it, go on back home and live out your life. I ain’t in the news all the time. I still do a little radio commentary, every now and then a small-time game on TV. I work about as much as I want to, and I drink about as much beer as I want to, and I’ve been to the big cities and the country-club life, and, you know, son, it’s not that I love this little pissy town. It’s just that, over time, I’ve gradually concluded I ain’t fit to live nowhere else. The past is what it is. I’m trying to just live in the present.”

Haney noticed the look on Josh’s face. “That still ain’t you, is it? You don’t want nothing to do with this town.”

Actually, the look was panic, not disapproval. Josh was noticing that there wasn’t much valuable in Haney’s house. He hadn’t expected a 1,200-square-foot house in the woods, hidden from view and a quarter mile off the highway. He’d expected 12,000 square feet.

There was a trophy on the mantel above the fireplace, which obviously wasn’t in use because a love seat sat right in front of it.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to it.

“AFC championship,” Haney said. “You get one of those even if you didn’t win the Super Bowl. I got a ring, too. Want to see it? Want another beer?”

“Yeah. Both.”

A crowded bookcase sat against the short wall separating the living room from the kitchen. Haney held two beers, one in his left hand and the other pinned against his chest. He grabbed a little container from somewhere on the shelves and handed it to Josh with the beer. It was lovely, big, shiny, gaudy, with diamonds embedded in it.

“Nice,” Josh said and handed it back. Haney replaced it on the shelf. Fourth one from the bottom, on top of some books. Josh wondered what he could do with it.

Haney gave him a little tour. He had another wall full of plaques and pictures in his office. Same in the guest bedroom. The small bed there was covered with his suitcase, half packed. An electric guitar was mounted on the wall, autographed by someone. He noticed Josh staring at it.

“Great rock guitarist,” Haney said. “Me and him used to be friends. He used to invite me backstage. Thirty years ago. He’s still touring. Heap of folks my age still go see him.”

“You play, huh?” A Martin acoustic sat on a stand.

“Little,” Haney said. “Just a little something to do, sitting around watching the Red Sox lose. Got a few minutes to kill. It’s good for the soul. You?”

“I gotta bass. I just fool around with it.”

“Bring it over sometime. We can play.” Haney knew it wouldn’t happen.

They sat down again and sipped their beers.

“Well, I’m glad I decided to stop by,” Josh said. “I better be running along.”

“Come by any time,” Haney said, opening the door. “It was good to see you, Josh.”

He watched the boy drive away through the open blinds in the guest bedroom. The boy backed out to the side and lit a cigarette as he drove back down the gravel road to the highway.

It was some kind of cigarette. Haney scratched his head, not sure what that was about.

 

Dontavius Tinsley had rushed for 3,197 of his 9,882 career yards while paired in the same backfield as Haney McGee. They were close. Had each other’s backs. Dontavius was a deserving Hall of Famer, and Haney was honored to give a short speech to honor him. Nonetheless, he dreaded the trip to Canton, Ohio. Another teammate, Lennie Savage, was already in the Hall, and that loudmouth was one of the reasons why Haney had returned to his hometown and retreated from the public.

Two years after the Super Bowl debacle – Haney had thrown four interceptions – Savage had intimated to a gossipy men’s magazine that the quarterback had been on the take. Haney thought it a classic example of the best defense being a good offense. Savage hadn’t mentioned that two of the interceptions had bounced off his hands, one of them in the end zone. If anyone had been on the take, it was Savage. He was a great receiver, though, just not much of a man in Haney’s estimation. He dreaded being in the same state with him, much less a building.

Savage was quite the mingler. Haney wasn’t. Not everyone shared Haney’s dislike of the gregarious flanker, but not everyone had been slandered by him. The two hadn’t spoken in ten years. Every time Haney had been asked about it, he’d said he the insinuation was beneath him and he wasn’t going to dignify it with a comment. Then, if some radio talk jock pressed him further, he’d just say, “I made my comment,” and hang up.

When he got to Canton, Haney enjoyed bumping into ballplayers from his time and some before it, but Lennie Savage crouched in the corners of his mind, and pride welled up, and Haney had to settle himself. Gin and tonic helped.

The speech went well. Haney resisted efforts by the image experts to see it ahead of time. He had no hidden agenda. It just wasn’t any of their business. He drew a few laughs and a few tears. It was the standard operating procedure of the hall-of-fame induction. He and Dontavius Tinsley embraced to the sentimental enjoyment of those present.

Naturally, Lennie Savage had to screw everything up.

The sidelines of the exhibition game – the Hall of Fame Game, on national TV – were crowded with dignitaries, not just the members of the Hall, but teammates, children, and an unusually high number of “sideline reporters.” Haney didn’t want to be there. He just followed the crowd, and, unless he was mistaken, there wasn’t any place in the grandstands for him to sit. The enjoyable part of the weekend seemed over. Now Haney felt what he had dreaded, that this was the Hall of Famers’ gig. He had no business there anymore. He was just a hanger on.

Haney had no warning. He was just standing next to Dontavius, trading nervous quips and trying not to let TV catch him picking his nose or something, when one of the sideline-reporter babes – they were almost all eye-catching – started talking to Lennie. Haney was aware it was going on, but he wasn’t watching the interview. All of a sudden, Lennie walked toward him, cameraman and reporter-babe, extending her microphone, walking alongside.

“This here’s my old teammate,” Lennie said. “We ain’t spoke in ‘bout ten years. Haney, I love you, brother.”

Then Savage embraced him. Haney shrank from him and elected not to wrap his arms around Savage in return. He held his arms back, like he was extending his wings. His face became a frozen mask of shock.

The reporter – her name was Kimmie something or other – bored in.

“This is the quarterback Lennie Savage played with, Haney McGee,” she said. “Haney, you seem reluctant to accept Lennie’s apology.”

The microphone was pointed at his mouth. For a few seconds, Haney was silent. Finally, he said, quietly, “Uh, I didn’t hear all he had to say, ma’am, but he didn’t apologize to me.

“I got nothing else to say.”

Kimmie nervously kicked it back upstairs. She and her cameraman hurried away. Lennie Savage rolled his eyes at Haney.

“That’s typical,” Savage said. “Just fucking typical.”

“Wasn’t my idea,” Haney told him.

Then Haney walked away. Dontavius chased him for a few yards. Haney just waved his arms, back turned. Leave me alone. I’m out of here. As in, out of the stadium. Out of the league. Gone. Don’t ask me to come back no more. Haney’s flight home wasn’t supposed to be until Monday morning. He was going home now. If he had to hitchhike. If he had to drive a rental car through the night. He went back to the hotel and packed his clothes. Someone had picked him up at the airport on Friday. He took a cab back. He had to connect through Philly. It cost him a bundle. He got home at one in the morning, tried to sleep and couldn’t. He asked the Lord to forgive him for hating another human being so much. It wasn’t the first time.

 

At sunrise, Josh Locklin sat in front of Haney McGee’s house with Quan Jenkins, and this concerned Josh because he would have preferred it be Quan’s older brother Nikita, who had been in his balling posse. In other words, Josh was tight with his old teammates, and Quan was just a kid who was trying to be bad. There wasn’t going to be much to it. If an alarm went off, they’d just grab what wasn’t tied down – the ring, the trophies, the guitar, maybe the high-def, big-screen TV if they could keep cool – and haul ass in ten minutes because Josh figured that was about as fast as the cops could get there. The remote location of McGee’s house was bound to cause a little confusion.

If no alarm went off, they’d clean the place out. Quan was cussing nervously, trying to hide his fright. They put on gloves. Didn’t want to leave prints. No one was going to suspect one of the town’s heroes stealing everything another one had. Josh felt a little bad about it, but, hell, these were desperate times, and he had to get some brothers off his back.

“Josh, man, ‘fore we go in there, could we smoke a muhfuh’in’ joint?”

“You think it’ll settle yo’ ass down?”

“Knowin’ it would.”

“Ah’ight,” Josh said. “Then we goin’ in. Be ready to stay cool if an alarm goes off.”

He had one rolled. It was supposed to have been for a celebration.

 

Haney McGee wasn’t sleeping soundly, but he was sleeping. The sound – the main component was the splitting of the wood in the door frame – caused him to jump, and sudden movements in the morning weren’t pleasant for a man of his age and wear. Adrenaline surged, too, though, and after the first stab, Haney didn’t feel much more pain. He crept out to the little hall where openings to his bedroom, office, living room, bathroom and two closets came together. The door to the living room was closed. Haney had a shotgun leaning in the small closet, one where shelves housed trophies and plaques he’d never gotten around to hanging on the walls. Some went back to college and high school. The Remington .12-gauge held five shells, but only two were in it. When such a gun was used for hunting, it had to be amended in a manner where only three shells could be fired without reloading. Haney didn’t hunt. He’d never converted it for hunting. The gun was for protection. He’d never had to use it before, other than to bust a few squirrels’ nests just for target practice.

It was noisy in the living room. Haney could hear two voices. One was talking about what a dumbass Haney was for not having an alarm. He said they were home free. Haney had an alarm system. He didn’t activate it when he was home. The other voice – it sounded like a black kid – said he wondered which one of the remotes was attached to the DirecTV. Haney heard the TV come on. That was good. He didn’t think they could hear him shove three more shells into the Remington.

The Smithsonian Channel was on, but one of the intruders knew his DirecTV. Haney heard the TV switch to rap music.

It sounded as if one of the intruders was carrying something out. Probably Haney’s guitar. He waited. He hadn’t been a ballplayer for a long time, but he was still adept at thinking quickly. He heard the door open again. The two voices were close together again. Near the front door. Haney counted to three in his mind, put his hand on the knob, turned it, kicked the door open, and fired the shotgun over the heads of the two boys. One, a black kid, opened the front door and hauled ass. The other, white, pulled a pistol out of his pants. Big one.

It was Josh Lockin.

“Freeze, Josh. Settle down.” Haney just said it loudly enough to be heard. He didn’t yell. “Don’t do nothing stupid. Put it down.”

Josh hadn’t cocked it, but he didn’t let it go. Haney kept the shotgun trained on him, reached over and grabbed a barstool sitting next to the kitchen table, sat it behind him, and leaned against it.

“I hope you fucking needed the money,” Haney said.

The kid finally sat the pistol on the cushion of the couch. It was still in easy reach of his right hand.

They could hear a door slam.

“Quan’s gonna be running a ways,” Josh said. He patted the pocket of his cargo shorts. “Keys right here.”

“That name ought to be enough to get him picked up,” Haney said. “Sit down.”

Josh sat on the couch. Now the gun was near his left hand.

“I ain’t going to jail,” Josh said. “Can’t afford it.”

Haney wondered whether he meant money or reputation. Probably both.

“Why in hell you need money so bad you feel like you gotta steal shit from me?” Haney asked.

“I’m in a hole, man. I’m desperate.”

“I was wondering why you come see me. What? Was you trying to get up the nerve to ask me to help? No. That wasn’t it, was it? You were casing the joint.”

Josh didn’t reply.

“I feel like I know you a little, Josh. You been taking advantage of your reputation for a long time. You been getting away with shit ‘cause of who you were. Hiding what you are now. That shit’s done run its course.”

Haney studied the kid. He looked a little wild-eyed. He was considering his options. If he got arrested, it would be big news. It would ruin everything. Was he willing to go all the way? Was he willing to kill just so he might get away with burglary? Murdering Haney McGee, the town’s only resident who was in any way famous, would be big news, too. He didn’t have a good choice. Haney didn’t think he was in his right mind. He was on something, probably several things. Haney thought he might make the wrong choice. Josh needed to cut his losses, but he wasn’t. Haney could tell he wasn’t.

Josh stood up again, backed up toward the door. The gun was back near his right hand again.

“I don’t want to shoot you, son.”

Josh was sizing him up, too. He decided Haney wasn’t going to shoot him.

“You ain’t going nowhere, Josh,” Haney said.

The boy turned a little toward the right, just shading that way. He reached for the gun and got it cocked.

Haney was lucky. He didn’t have time to hoist the shotgun to his shoulder, just had to fire from the hip, trying to aim a little left of center. He anchored the gun on his right thigh. That’s what took the kick and cause his bad knee to jerk against the cartilage holding it in place. The shell hit Josh’s right shoulder, throwing shoulder, like a screaming swarm of bees. Josh fell backwards against the door of the closet perpendicular to the front door. The pistol flew forward and bounced off the coffee table. Somehow, it didn’t go off. Haney walked up, picked it up off the carpet, uncocked it and stuffed it into his sweat pants, where he wasn’t too confident it would stay, so he sat it on the coffee table. His cell phone was lying there, too, charging. He picked it up and called 911, told the dispatcher he’d shot someone trying to break into his home, told her the son of a bitch was going to live, but he needed some deputies and an ambulance dispatched to his address, which he gave her.

The dispatcher said, “Why, this is Haney McGee.”

“Sure is. This Mabel Brewster?”

“Why, you recognized my voice.”

“Get some folks out here in a hurry, Mabel. I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up.

He looked at Josh Locklin, the ruined hero, writhing on the floor.

“You’ll be all right, kid,” Haney said. “It’s all over but the crying.”

 

              I hope you got something out of this short story. My third novel, Crazy of Natural Causes, will be published soon through the KindleScout program of Amazon. The books I’ve already written, both fiction and non, are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

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