Danny Wilson kept fiddling with his tie as he watched the people filling into the gymnasium. He had coached close to four hundred basketball games in this very room and had never once been as nervous as he was on this night. He was seated up at the dais right next to George Haller, his principal and long-time friend. He looked over to where Haller stood bent over Superintendent Michael's table. He felt a twinge of disgust at the image. Superintendent Michaels was both a pompous ass and a first class douche.
Danny thought to himself that his mom would have been impressed to see how many people turned out for his retirement dinner, and then that thought segued into the realization that he had last seen his mother alive at another dinner just six months before this night. It was at Thanksgiving and this year, it was just the two of them. Glen, his older brother, had dinner at his son's, and Scot, the youngest by two years, lived in Arkansas with his second wife. Danny's two daughters had dinner in Santa Barbara at his youngest daughter's house. He would have been there too, but his mom was sick and embarrassed by her incontinence and rarely left her house. He rememberer that they had gotten into an argument that night.
"All that I'm saying is that a man your age needs some female companionship. You want to end up all alone like me?"
"Why do we always have to have this conversation, Ma? If I wanted to date somebody, I would."
The stare she gave him made her look so much like a bald eagle, that it almost made him smile. "Pshaw! You just waiting around for Jennie to come back, and she's dead. She ain't ever coming back. You need to move on with your life, Son."
He lied. "I ain't waiting for Jenny, Ma. I know she's gone. I just ............. I just a.............what would happen to you if I started dating."
She snapped at him, "Don't you dare try to put this on me, Danny Wilson!"
He cleaned off the table, threw away the paper plates, and bagged the left overs and placed them in his mom's fridge. He kissed his mother on her cheek when he left. Getting in his car, he looked back, and she was still sitting in the doorway in her wheelchair. He honked his horn, blew her a kiss and waved goodbye. The next day, after school let out, he returned to her house to get some left-overs. She didn't answer the door, and he knew right away what he find when he walked into her room.
A loud noise in the back of the auditorium snapped him back to the moment, and he looked up and saw a tall, blonde entering the room. It was the captain Julie Whitlock and most of the members of 1994 State Championship team. They were honored guests and were quickly escorted to one of the front tables. They took turns waving to Danny as they as they were seated.
George Haller walked over to where he sat, "Almost time, Coach. You doing ok?"
Danny nodded and then asked, "What did Michaels have to say?"
George made sure no one was listening before he answered, "Same shit, different day. I sure would like to punch that miserable bastard in his face." Then he hurried away, scurrying over to the table where Board member Susie Archuleta and her husband Jim were sitting with County Supervisor Janie Serna and her significant other.
Julie Whitlock was radiant looking as usual, the perfect image of a strong, confident woman. It made Danny remember another time when she didn't look so great or so strong. Her parents had divorced her Freshman year, and her mother pretty much abandoned her. She lived with her father Leo who had never gotten over the divorce. He spent most of his time at the Rosewood Bar and Grill, leaving Julie to make out on her own. One day, she came home after practice and found her father lying in a bathtub half filled with bloody water and with most of his brains plastered against the bathroom wall. Danny was the first person she called, and he called the ambulance and hurried right over and found her sitting outside on the porch, trembling in the cold night air. He had somehow known to grab a blanket and wrapped her up in it and held her until the ambulance arrived.
Jenny and him were still together back then, and Julie's mother was more than happy to sign the papers that allowed Julie to come stay with Danny and his family. His girls loved it; Julie was like their big sister. He smiled as he remembered all of the times they would drive as a family to go watch Julie when she played on scholarship for Medford State.
He remembered that Jenny and his marital problems didn't manifest until after Julie left for college. He had come home from practice one day to find Jenny out back by the pool drinking a margarita in the November fog. Out of the blue, at least to him, she announced that she didn't love him anymore and was leaving. Later, while cleaning out her closet, he found the want ads section from the local paper. Jenny had been looking a apartment for a while. He looked at the date and did the math. It was right after her dad had died.
Danny instantly knew something was up when George had called him into his office a little over two weeks ago because George had never called him into his office in all of their years of working together. He came in nervously and sat down in the big, comfortable red leather chair in front of George's desk. George was on the phone, so he waited. When George got done, he hung up the phone and looked at Danny and tried to talk. It took him more than a couple attempts before he could get words out. Finally, he said, "I ain't gonna shit you, Danny. Those numb-nuts across the fence are forcing me to try to get you to resign."
He was surprised he kept his composure so well despite the fact that he felt that he had been punched in the gut.
"And what if I don't feel like retiring? I love my job. I'm good at it, and you know it."
"I do. I've always said that you're the best damn literature teacher in the whole state, but you know the drill. Same way they forced Riddenour out last year. You know as well as I do, that Sam should have been teaching Chemistry at the university level. Didn't matter to them. They only knew that they could hire three young hot shots for what they were paying him. Don't matter if they could teach or not. Michaels only sees the bottom line. They already plan to kill off the both the Honors and Literature classes. You don't go along and they'll have you teaching remedial English to worse behaved kids in the whole school, and there's nothing I can do about it."
Danny leaned back in his chair and took a measured breath before answering, "The saddest thing George, is that there was a time when you would have fought them like a lion protecting his young."
George's shoulders collapsed, "I know, but that was back before Carmen took most of everything I owned. With her behind me, I could have took on the world. Now? Hell, I've been a principal for over thirty years, and I'm living in a trailer house on the outskirts of town."
It looked like George was getting ready to cry,"Give me the damn papers, George. I don't want to work for these assholes anyways." As he signed the papers, he added, "You do know that you're probably next."
George gave his friend a sad smile, shrugged and whispered, "I know."
Danny suddenly found himself wishing that Jenny was still alive to see this. She always believed that his coaching was just a hobby. She never understood how much it meant to him. In his mind, he was a coach. It was a role that he had been born to play. She treated basketball like it was another woman and never understood that there never was any other woman as far as Danny was concerned. He loved Jenny with all his heart while knowing that he could never make her happy. Her dad dying had taken away her ability to laugh and smile.
He had been driving home after a game one night and heard two guys on the radio talking about a company who could get your Alexis to speak to you in the voice of a departed loved one. When he got home, He went and opened a desk drawer in his office and took out a small white box containing Jenny's last cell phone. He knew that if he called her on that phone, he could hear her voice on the answering machine. The phone was dead and there was no charger in the box, so he placed the phone back in the box and returned it to the drawer.
Jenny died a year and half before his mom, sandwiched between the death of his father the year before and his mother's death the day after Thanksgiving. She had gotten brain cancer right after leaving him and fought a very valiant fight before succumbing to the disease. He had gone to see her in the hospital and held her hand as she filled him in on all of her struggles. She had cried the moment he entered the room, and later one the nurses who cared for her during hospice told him that Jenny had always talked about him and said that she knew he loved her, but he never knew how to say it.
The dinner went remarkably well. He had prepared a speech earlier in the day where he planned to expose Superintendent Michaels for the ass that he was. Julie Whitlock's speech though had spoiled the plan. When she was finished talking there wasn't a dry eye in the room, including Danny's, and the fiery rage contained in his speech had been condensed down to a small puddle of sadness and frustration.
The Archer family were the last ones to speak before Danny's own remarks. He had taught every member of the family for three generations. Conrad Archer, the grandfather, told the assembled crowd how much he appreciated being able to trust a school system that had such high quality veteran teachers like Sam Ridenour and Danny Wilson. As the crowd rose to their feet when the man of the hour was introduced, Danny sought out Sam Ridenour's eyes and the two long-time colleagues shared a knowing smile.
It took several for the applause to die down enough for Danny to start talking. In lieu of the angry speech he had written, he spoke simple words straight from his heart. He almost broke down a few times but kept together pretty well. He closed out his own remarks by saying how much he loved what he did and that given the choice he would do it all again. It was kind of noticeable afterwards that he hugged nearly everybody in the room except for one table.
The crowd rose to its feet again when he ended. While he smiled and looked out across the room he remembered that while searching for some triple A batteries that morning, he had found Jenny's cell phone charger. He got the phone out of the drawer and plugged it in right before he walked out the house to go to the dinner.
He drank four stiff Scotch and waters before he worked up the nerve to call her number. "Hello. This is Jenny. Sorry, I can't come to the phone right now. Please leave your name and number and I promise, I'll get right back to you as soon as I can. Or, you can just leave a message if you prefer. God Bless you."
When the beeper sounded and before he could even think about what to say, he started crying and the words flowed out like water from a busted dam, "Hi Jenny. It's Danny. I love you and I miss you so much................... If you can hear me, please come home."