The whole town was delirious. People were on their feet, cheering wildly, hardly believing what was about to happen. Gardnerville had just hit a long pass and was down 23-21 with four seconds left in the game. They just had to kick a 27-yard field goal to beat Consolidated, their oldest and biggest rival, for the first time in eight years.
Cole Daley stepped in behind the holder. Everyone knew he could make it: most of them were there a few weeks before when he nailed a 45-yarder. The snap and the hold were good, the ball rose into the cool night and seemed to be, had to be, dead on…but then it curled just left. The visitors’ bench and stands erupted, while the hometown side deflated like a dollar-store beach ball.
Cole took the blame at the postgame press conference, telling the few reporters, “It was completely my fault. I didn’t plant my other foot right, and I missed the angle.” But when Bobby Dean Glenn heard that on the radio, he jabbed the “Off” button and spat out the window of his pickup. Bobby, as everyone knew, had been on the team that won the state title in 1979. He was a reserve, slow and a little small for a defensive end, and his butt never left the pine in the big game. But no Gardnerville squad since had gotten anywhere near that far.
“The kid’s got no nerve,” he groused to his buddies the next morning over coffee at the Good Day Café. “None of ‘em have any mental toughness. Or physical toughness either, because if you try to make ‘em tough nowadays their parents and the school board come screamin’ bloody murder.”
“He’s a good kid,” Ray said. “Works at my cousin’s place. Always on time, real polite to the customers. ‘Course his old man’s not around. That might have something to do with it.”
“He hit that big one against Central, remember?” Doug chimed in. “Then he misses a short one.”
Bobby snorted. “That’s what practice is for. Back in my day, we knew we’d better be good every time or we’d get our asses kicked.” He waved irritably to the waitress for a refill. “I heard him on the radio sayin’ he didn’t plant his foot right. Well, if you’re a kicker, what else should you know how to do?”
When Cole went back to his after-school job in Ray’s cousin’s hardware store, most of the customers, if they said anything at all, said “Too bad,” or “Good season.” But a few of them gave him dirty looks and one man grumbled “It wasn’t but 27 yards.” That night as Cole rode home on his bicycle, Bobby pulled up alongside him and called “Careful on that bike! Better plant your foot!”
A couple of weeks later, Cole came into the Good Day to get a cup to go before school. The boys were at their usual table, and as Cole turned to leave, Bobby said, just loud enough for the whole room to hear, “Don’t forget to plant that foot now.”
Cole didn’t look at them and never changed his expression as he headed out the door. “I heard he’s coming out for basketball again,” Doug said once he was gone.
Bobby shook his head. “Probably can’t shoot any better’n he kicks. There goes that season too.”
“He shot pretty good last year,” Doug replied. “And we need him for experience. We only got one other senior.”
When Cole missed a layup in the first game, someone yelled, “Hey number 12, you forgot to plant your foot!” As the season wore on, a couple of freshmen got hot and one night Cole didn’t get in the game until the last few minutes, and right away he heard “Plant that foot!” But he still played hard, hustling up and down the floor until the final buzzer.
Spring brought graduation and just after the 4th of July, Cole’s mother Suzanne came into the café. Wanda, who was running the register, asked about Cole. “He’s great,” Suzanne said, beaming. “He’s already off to college. The University of Illinois.”
“Illinois?” Bobby piped up. “Thought I heard he was going to Auburn.”
Suzanne looked at him, still smiling, but barely. “Well, he applied to different places and he liked Illinois. It’s really a fine school. He decided to take some summer classes and get settled in before fall.”
“That’s a long way,” said Wanda. “It must be hard.”
“Oh, it is,” Suzanne replied. “I never thought such a small house could feel so empty. But you have to let go sometime and he just loves it there. Thank goodness for email and texts. And Skype.”
“Well, I guess Illinois’s all right,” Bobby said. “Nothing wrong with Auburn, though. Seems like a kid’d want to stay close to home.”
Suzanne turned toward him with her mouth suddenly taut and fire in her eyes. A few tables away, Greg Burdick chuckled and took out his phone. He’d seen that look before, many times, in her fourth-grade class. This was going to be good.
“And what young man would want to stay here?” she demanded. “Where you do one thing wrong and have to hear about it for the rest of your life?”
Startled, Bobby said, “I don’t know what you mean, I –” but she cut him off. “Don’t you lie to me, Bobby Dean Glenn. He told me what you did that night when he was riding home.”
She leaned over the table, staring down at him. “I could have killed you dead but he said he’d just have to live with it. But why did he have to live with it?” No one was eating anymore. “He’s seventeen years old. He made a mistake in a game. And he owned up to it. But you and your good-for-nothing friends never gave that boy a chance.” Suzanne folded her arms. “How would you like it if everybody kept reminding you how your girlfriend ran off with that tractor salesman?”
Bobby tried to say something, anything. She held up her hand. “Not one word. But let me tell you what I told Cole when we said goodbye,” and her expression softened. “Be good, but be yourself and be happy. There’s a whole new world out there. Don’t fret about the old one,” and she picked up her takeout and left.
Everybody was looking at Bobby. “What?” he barked, then muttered, “Guess it’s the wrong time of month for her.” People looked down uncomfortably. But Kristin, the waitress, who was about to give Marge Edmonds her breakfast order, marched over to Bobby’s table. She poured the little pitcher of milk she was holding in one hand into the bowl of cornflakes in the other, and then she dumped the cornflakes right over Bobby’s head.
The room exploded in laughter. People guffawed, hooted, and clapped as Kristin emerged from the kitchen with another bowl and pitcher. “Sorry for the delay,” she said nonchalantly as she set them in front of Marge, who was about to split her sides.
Bobby sat there with soggy cornflakes falling into his collar, milk running down behind his glasses, and the bowl riding atop his head like a World War I Army helmet. With as much dignity as he could muster, he removed the bowl and stood up. “Wanda, if you think I’m payin’ for this –” he began, but she stopped him with, “The coffee’s on the house. But I’ll have to charge extra for the cereal,” and the place erupted again.
Bobby stalked out, shook himself like a dog to get rid of the milk, glared at the two bemused women on the sidewalk watching him, and got into his truck. He wasn’t halfway home before his phone buzzed. “Bobby, you old goat, you’re supposed to eat those cornflakes, not wear ‘em!” Ray howled. “I tell you what, you ought to send that to America’s Funniest Videos.”
Video? Another call: “You can’t talk like that in front of a lady, especially when she’s armed and dangerous!” Another one: “I’ve heard of breakfast to go but not all over your head!” And: “Hey Bobby, I’m buying a new tractor. Let me know if your girl comes back!”
By noon, Greg’s cellphone footage was everywhere and Bobby had 37 calls. That evening, the network news anchor said, “Tonight, we have a lesson in civility from Gardnerville, Alabama,” and the phone rang again. Bobby didn’t pick up, just walked out the back, sat in an old chair, and stared across the yard. He was still there after the sun went down, the air turned chilly, and the moon came out.
Cole was reading in the lounge of his dorm when a girl he’d recently met sat down next to him. “Hey,” she said, “what was the name of that town you said you were from?”
Later he checked his email: Dear Cole: When I saw the video, I laughed so hard I woke up the cat! I know you didn’t want me to make a fuss. I just couldn’t keep quiet.
I’m sure this will blow over. But you might save that video so someday you can show your kids that Grandma was a firecracker — and she loved you very much. Be happy.
Copyright 2018 by Dave Swan