“Hey! Look who it is! The man of the hour!”
Gray stood up from the couch where he and his friends were playing on his Xbox 360. Unlike the day before, the basement was noisome and thick with cigar smoke. I tried not to cough as Gray stuffed his cigar in his mouth and greeted me with a one-armed hug. If I was going to have to be inhaling this crap, this night was going to be even longer than I anticipated.
“Hey, man,” I said, breathing through my mouth.
“You know the guys, right?” he said, keeping his arm around me. “Lenny Racine.”
“What’s up?” Lenny muttered, lifting his chin, but keeping his eyes trained on the TV. His black hair was slicked back from his face, as unctuous as I remembered it. Lenny was one of those guys who was always rocking the Sopranos style. As I recalled, he enjoyed constantly pointing out other people’s shortcomings and picking on anyone smaller and less tough than himself. I never understood why Gray was friends with him.
Rick, a scrawny guy with red hair and freckles who had played fourth-string receiver a couple of years ago, got up from the couch and shook my hand.
“Hey, Mike. Nice game the other night. You were like some maverick out there. What did you do, make up half those plays yourself?” he asked.
“No. They were in the playbook,” I replied. “Most of them, anyway.”
Rick laughed. “Wish we’d had you playing quarterback when I was on the team,” he said obsequiously. “You think you guys are going all the way this year?”
“Maybe,” I replied. “We’ll see.”
Rick was an affable guy, but he had always been kind of malleable, which wasn’t my favorite characteristic in a person. Whatever Gray said, went. He was a total follower. His cigar sat in an ashtray in front of him and looked as if it hadn’t been touched. He had probably only taken one because all the other guys had.
“And, of course, Ogre,” Gray said.
Ogre—whose real name was Todd Ogretski—lifted his large hand for a punch. I touched my fist to his. Neither of us said anything. Ogre was renowned for his silence. He barely ever spoke, and when he did, it was almost always in platitudes. Back when he was the leading linebacker on our team, the only things I had ever heard him say were “We play to win” and “The glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Stuff like that.
“So, what have you guys been up to since graduation?” I asked.
“I’ve been working at my dad’s shop, taking some classes at the community college on the side,” Lenny answered. His father owned one of the bigger auto body shops in the area. “Ogre mainly sits around and sucks his parents dry.”
Ogre picked up a plastic cup and chucked it at Lenny. It bounced off Lenny’s head and hit the floor.
“Hey! Watch the hair!” Lenny said.
“Lenny’s hair is sacrosanct, Gray said.
I laughed. “What about you, Rick?” I asked.
“I’m going to SUNY Binghamton,” he said proudly. “Just home for the weekend.”
“I am not,” Rick protested, turning beet red under his freckles. “I just like to follow the team. I think it’s cool to be into your alma mater.”
“Yeah. I love it when alumni come to games,” I said.
“Please. Don’t encourage him,” Lenny said, his thumbs pounding away at his controller. “The guy lives vicariously through you.”
Rick ignored him. “Have you seen some of the stuff they write about you, Mike? You’re totally revered around here.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said, growing embarrassed.
“How’s the new coach? I hear he’s punctilious, but it seems to be working,” Rick said. “Do you think you guys’ll beat Dorchester next weekend?”
“I think Gary Robinson is the best running back in the division. How’re you guys gonna shut him down?”
“Aw, man! Leave the kid alone!” Lenny said, standing. He paused his game and threw the controller down. “See? You were too accommodating, and now this little idiot’s never gonna shut up,” he said to me, whacking Rick on the back of the head so that his hair stood up.
“Ow!” Rick protested. “I was just asking a couple of questions.”
“Maybe you should give him something,” Gray said with a smile. “Throw him an anecdote from Friday night’s game, and then we can get on with things.”
I noticed that everyone was looking at me with interest—even Ogre and Lenny. These guys played on the mediocre teams that were an antecedent to our current success. Now I had everything they had wanted back in their glory days. So I obliged. I sat down and told them all about the game on Friday—what it was like to be on the field and face down Westmont. It was the least I could do, considering I was planning on cheating them out of their hard earned cash—if I had to—as soon as humanly possible.