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“Mary? Rick LeFlore. I was with the Bucs.”
She glanced at his ring for verification. “I came in just as you finished talking, Mick,” she said, “but I can’t seem to place you. What position did you play?”
“All over, really.”
How very ordinary she seems now, he thought, as she stood before him stuffing her heavily made-up face with baby shrimps. If only the boys of Browning High had known back then how her cover-girl complexion would pinch and crack like a leather glove left out in the rain. How her shape would expand and her ankles bloat, a mere human after all. “That was quite a team,” Mary said, but before Rick could think of a reply she was surrounded by still-loyal members of her high school fan club.
In the kitchen he recognized Ray Sullivan, who’d been a point guard. They hadn’t seen each other since commencement. Rick raised his right hand for a high-five, but Ray just scowled. Rick seemed to remember him losing a girl to Tommy but wasn’t clear on the details. Someone at Jimbo’s said Ray had found religion.
“Did you and Tommy stay in touch?” Rick asked.
“We were never close,” Ray replied. The name of a carpet cleaning outfit was stitched to the shirt pocket of his service uniform. “I wondered who’d show up,” he said. “I figured you would, LeFlore.” Without a prompt Ray began recounting how his girlfriend Sandi had fallen for Tommy. The strongest love may expire, but the wounds of a cuckold fester forever. “We’d even talked about getting married.” Ray said he’d warned Sandi that Tommy collected girls the way some people collected long-play albums. “You listen to it a few times, then put it on the shelf.”
“You two never reconciled?”
“She moved to Ontario. Last I heard, she had three kids.”
“Not many of us survive as long as we have without a few setbacks. Even I—”
“All you guys,” Ray erupted. “You worshipped him. Sure, he was good-looking. Yeah, he could sink a basket with his eyes closed, he could smack a tennis ball like no other. But if a couple was having problems, he’d take advantage. Just because it was the great Tommy Portland, everything was forgiven.”
“We were young, Ray. Tommy was—”
People nearby began inching away.
“That was a long time ago, Ray.”
“You considered him a good friend, right LeFlore?”
“Most people here do.”
“Your Jill and my Sandi were close in high school. They confided in each other.”
“What of it?”
Tommy’s old bedroom was on the second floor. The room reminded Rick of a shrine, the trophies preserving victories on the court, in the pool, at the diamond. There were photos of Tommy in Speedos and tennis whites, in a succession of cottons, polyesters and flannels. Tommy receiving an award, Tommy pumping some poobah’s hand. An entire shelf was reserved for his high school basketball career. Team portraits had been framed, an open scrapbook preserved all the write-ups. Tommy’s Buc jersey shivered in the warm air blowing through a vent. Rick leaned in for a whiff, but there was nothing, the garment had been sanitized.
Ray had reminded him of the night a few of the Bucs dropped by Tommy’s. The conversation, as it often did, segued to girls, to who had the biggest, the juiciest — to inflated adolescent scorecards. The team captain confided that he always asked each of his “dates” for a memento. He indicated a shoebox on the desk. “Something to remember them by.”
“Makes perfect sense,” a teammate said.
Rick found the box, as Ray said he might, in the closet. One girl had given up a strand of hair, someone else contributed a locket. There were bracelets, rings, ribbons. There was a gold chain, scented letters, a mixtape, even a pair of panties, the trinkets and treasures of the pursued and the temporarily valued, of the deceived and the betrayed. The cheerleader’s kerchief was near the bottom. It felt firm, as though it were wrapped around thin cardboard. His thoughts raced back through the decades to the delirious spectators and pounding drums, to the squeak of sneakers on the gleaming hardwood floor and the players gathering beneath the basket, every eye tracking the final, arching shot. Rick unfurled the kerchief and found a Valentine's card pinned inside. It took him a moment to recognize the handwriting.