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A colleague remarked over lunch one day that Rick seemed distracted. Was everything OK?
“My marriage isn’t.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Me, it seems.”
He wanted to change, he really did. He joined a health club and tried self-help books, but they didn’t do much good. “Change, yes,” he told his colleague. “But into what?”
The divorce papers arrived that same day.
One week prior to the memorial the sports columnist Babe Sweet published a recap of Tommy’s athletic accomplishments. He reminded readers Tommy had not been a one-sport wonder. After high school, basketball behind him, he became one of the country’s best young tennis players. The column mentioned the career-ending knee surgery, the guest gigs at swanky clubs, the charity circuit matching him with ghoulishly enhanced celebrities. He recounted how gossip TV was always fingering Tommy as the paramour of B-list actresses. Browning alumni ate it up. “From the moment this Hollywood-handsome competitor won his first major tournament,” Sweet gushed, “Tommy Portland was recognized as a talent to be reckoned with. And though he never wed, he once cheekily informed this reporter that his marital status didn’t deny him the favours of multiple wives.”
When they arrived, flower- and food-laden mourners were already filing into the Portland rancher, a bland, post-war abode with a string of last year’s Christmas lights drooping from the eaves. Tommy’s mother and siblings were receiving condolences in the basement rec room. Plastic chairs had been set up in the yard to handle the overflow.
“A good turnout at your farewell is the only compensation for dying young,” Ken said. “But hang on too long and there’ll be nobody left to dig the hole.”
Though the family had never been devout, a place was cleared for some rent-a-cleric to address the mourners. His eulogy, over in minutes, was a Christian burial template. Family friends and former teammates next spoke of Tommy’s athletic heroics. A husky jock in a decades-old club jacket choked up and had to excuse himself. His wife finished for him. Rick spoke last: “Tommy is best remembered for his extraordinary athleticism, and so he should be. But to this Browning Buccaneer, he was also a special friend.”
No one, of course, talked of Tommy’s business failures, his drug problems, the shattered hearts. Photos of him mounted throughout the house, like the photos accompanying Babe Sweet’s articles, were decades old: the deceased in the flush of youth. A local TV station used a more recent image, but photo-shopped. It was as though his flaws, even the aging, breached the rules of myth-making.
They convened in a corner, draining a bottle of gin, just as they did back in the day, when the periphery of school dances and house parties had served as a kind of blind for admiring unattainable birds like Mary Slocumb. Each of them wore his team ring.
“I was going to wear my jersey, too,” Ken said, “but I couldn’t squeeze into it.”
“It’s all those fries,” said Rick, who would know: he hadn’t been able to fit into his either.
“Look who’s here,” said Dave, turning to a stooped figure elbowing a path through the crowded living room.
It took Coach Tillman a few minutes to remember them, especially Rick, but when he did, they all slapped palms. “I’d tell you guys to give me a dozen pushups,” said the coach, frail now and wheezing, “but we’d have to call an ambulance. One stretcher for each of us.”
As he made his way through the house he was struck by the number of female alumnae who’d turned up. He couldn’t help but wonder how many of them had been with Tommy. “The concubines,” quipped Nate Beardsley, a former centre with the Bucs. “You’d need a hall to accommodate them all.”
From the far side of the room Ken was trying to catch his attention. He was pointing to a woman coming his way.
“It’s Mary,” said Nate. “Still carrying the torch for Tommy.”
“What ever became of her, I wonder,” Rick said.
“She married well,” Nate said. “Several times, I heard.”
She brushed by Rick as though he was a road sign, there to be ignored. A few more drinks and he made his move, the erstwhile It Girl hunched over the buffet table. Just once he wanted her to look at him, the former Arnold P. Smedley Insurance Man of the Year (Western Region), and not around him or through him.