Michael Hudson pulled into the dark stadium parking lot and had his choice of spots near the entrance to team headquarters. Like every other Monday morning after a loss, the only other cars at this hour belonged to the head coach and his executive administrator, Phyllis.
Michael hustled down the gloomy hallway and settled at his desk. Before he turned on the computer, his office phone rang. “Hello?”
“This is Phyllis. Coach wants to see you.”
“Did he say what it was about?”
“No. But he said to bring your laptop.”
Michael gulped. He began his professional football coaching career six years earlier as a low-level quality control assistant and dream crusher. When the team decided to cut a player during training camp, Michael summoned him to the head coach’s office with that fear-inducing phrase: “Coach wants to see you. And bring your playbook.”
A thin glaze of sweat covered his forehead as Michael rushed to the coach’s suite. The knot in his stomach grew two sizes larger when Phyllis jerked her head toward the office without looking up. He knocked and pushed the door open.
Coach Foster swiveled around and pointed to a chair in front of his immaculate desk. A rumpled blanket lay on the sofa beneath the window, and dark circles gathered under his sunken eyes. He reeked of stale coffee and sweat and still wore his customary game outfit—long-sleeve red t-shirt, oversized team hoodie with sleeves cut off above the elbow and wrinkled khakis. “Have a seat.”
Michael sat and stifled a nervous yawn. “Tough game yesterday.”
“We’ve had a lot of those this year. Not exactly what we expected, was it?”
Michael shook his head. The previous day’s loss to Orlando eliminated the team from playoff contention with two games remaining, and players and coaches had trudged off the field amidst a cascade of boos. “Guess not.”
Coach Foster’s future had been the subject of speculation for weeks. Fans clamored for his head on social media and talk radio after every loss. He leaned forward and clasped his meaty hands on the desk. Two gaudy championship rings from his playing days reflected the light from the banker’s lamp.
“Listen, Michael, I’m under a lot of pressure here to make changes. I had a long meeting with the owners last night, and I’ve convinced them we can reset next year. The pieces are in place to make a run for the title, but they demanded changes to mollify the fans. They’re worried about season ticket renewals and losing sponsorships.”
When the Louisville job had opened in the summer, Michael had jumped at the chance to join a team with championship ambitions even though it meant moving across the country for the third time in four years. Since he’d been with the team less than six months, he made an easy target. His defensive backs had played well, but he had no roots in the city, no long-term ties to the team. “I did my best, Coach. I wish I could say something to change your mind.”
“This is strictly a business decision, not football. I appreciate everything you gave to this team, son, and I hate for it to end this way. You have a bright future in this league. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear your name as a potential head coach in a few years. You are a great teacher.”
Michael removed the laptop from his backpack and placed it on the desk. Listening to Coach Foster prattle on about his strengths and his promising future took him back to his days as the designated dream crusher, when he repeated a similar mantra to every crestfallen player: “There are thirty-one other teams in the league. All you need is the right opportunity. Plenty of players who make All-Pro were cut as rookies. Even a few Hall of Famers got cut before they found the right team. Keep working hard and be ready when your phone rings. Your career is not over. It’s just beginning.”
He hoped those words made a difference to players who had chased their goal since high school. Dreams built on countless bruises and enough sweat and blood to fill a bathtub don’t die easily. Listening to the same spiel pour from Coach Foster’s mouth made Michael realize how empty the words truly were. Broken dreams are like broken hearts. Putting the pieces back together takes time.
He stood and extended his hand. “Thank you, sir, for giving me my first job as a position coach. What I learned here will make me a better coach and person.”
“Everybody gets fired in this business, sooner or later,” Foster said when Michael reached the door. “You’ll be all right, kid. Your phone will ring off the hook after the holidays. Go home and visit your mother. This will be your last chance to spend Christmas with your family for a long time.”
* * * * *
The lull between lunch and dinner was Hannah Knight’s favorite time at Bean’s Restaurant. While the chefs readied the kitchen for the evening rush and the wait staff tidied up, she roamed the dining room, speaking with dawdling customers or re-arranging seasonal decorations.
Anise Watson bustled in the front door with her eight-year-old daughter, Maddy, in tow. She and Hannah had sat next to each other in band class for six years, from middle school through high school. They had intended to go to UMass together and study music, but life had altered those plans during their senior year, when Hannah’s father suffered a stroke.
With her older brother away at Boston College, she took over the restaurant, a temporary job that had lasted thirteen years. She waved away a waitress and carried menus and a pitcher of water to the booth.
Anise ignored the menus. “Grilled cheese and fries for Maddy and chicken salad for me.”
Hannah scribbled the order on her note pad and smiled at Maddy, who had inherited her mother’s curly brown hair and hazel eyes. “Are you singing in the pageant this year?”
The girl stuck out her bottom lip and folded her arms across her chest.
“She’s a little nervous about being on stage,” Anise said.
Hannah knelt next to Maddy and patted her arm. “You’ll do fine, sweetie. I was on a lot of stages when I was a kid, and do you know what I did? I looked into the crowd until I found my mom and dad, and then I’d pretend I was in my parlor playing for them. When you’re on stage, find your parents in the crowd and sing to them.”
Maddy wrapped her arms around Hannah’s neck and squeezed. “Thanks, Miss Hannah. When were you on stage? Were you a singer?”
“That’s been a long time ago, honey. Now have fun and break a leg.”
Maddy scrunched her nose. “You want me to fall off and break my leg?”
Anise laughed and embraced her daughter. “No, honey. That’s a show biz saying for good luck.” Before Hannah turned away, Anise grabbed her arm and leaned closer. “What are you doing Friday night?”
Hannah’s heart sank. Another attempt at a set-up. “Nothing planned. Why?”
“Jeff’s cousin is in town, and I thought you two might hit it off. We got a sitter for Maddy and are going into North Adams for dinner and a movie. You should come. You’d like Van. He’s tall.”
Hannah crossed her arms across her chest and glowered. Anise had been trying for years to set her up with relatives, friends and co-workers, each one richer, nicer, better looking—or taller—than the previous match. Hannah appreciated her friend’s diligence but had sworn off blind dates and set-ups after the disaster with Simon, the dashing Northeastern law student with wavy hair who swept her off her feet one summer while he clerked with a district court judge.
A whirlwind romance led to a long-distance relationship that seemed headed for a trip down a church aisle—until he returned the next summer with a woman he had met in law school and introduced her as his fiancée.
“Verticality is important in a man, for sure. But I’m looking for a little more than height.”
“Come on, Hannah. You know what I mean. You never go out any more. When’s the last time you went on a date?”
“A few years,” Hannah said.
Anise squeezed her wrist. “More like five years. Come out with us. You’ll have fun. I promise.”
After Simon, Hannah followed Anise’s advice and enrolled in an online dating service. A series of regrettable first dates ensued. When the last match found out she ran a restaurant, he invited her over for an intimate dinner and led her into the kitchen, where he had laid out all the ingredients for Broccoli Chicken Casserole.
While he watched sports on television, Hannah prepared the dish, cranked the oven too high and slipped out the back door. She deleted her profile that night and spent the next two days scouring the list of emergency phone calls on the town website, worried his oven had caught fire and burned down the house while he sat in front of the television, glued to whatever sports match was on.
“I don’t know. Let me think about it.”
Maddy tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “Mom, I’m hungry.”
Seeing her chance, Hannah slipped from Anise’s grasp and headed for the kitchen. After passing the order to the assistant chef, she retreated to her office and slumped into the chair at her computer, watching the feed from the security cameras until Anise left.
* * * * *
Coach Foster had promised Michael the team’s publicity department would wait until that evening to issue a press release, but football teams have more leaks than Presidential administrations. Reporters began texting and calling before Michael returned to his cramped, one-bedroom apartment. The around-the-clock sports channels broadcast his humiliation to the nation before lunch. He even trended on Twitter until a video of a dog ski-jumping over a flaming barrel pushed him aside.
His phone beeped and buzzed every minute, mostly from his agent. He ignored them all until the familiar ring tone he had assigned to his mother— the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—snapped him from his malaise. “Dah dah dah duuuuuuuuh.”
“Emily just called with the news. What happened? I thought things were going well?”
Michael settled into the sofa. “Me, too. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. They needed to fire somebody, and all the other assistants had been here at least six years and have families. How would it look if he fired one of them the week before Christmas?”
“So he’s got a heart but no brain. Makes you wonder how he became a head coach.”
Michael laughed. “There’s no IQ test for being a football coach, even in the pros.”
His mother’s soothing voice poured through the connection. They talked for more than an hour, their longest chat since his father died four years ago. The conversation eventually worked around to the upcoming holidays.
“Do you have any plans for Christmas?” she asked.
“Hide out in my apartment, order Chinese and wait for my phone to ring.”
“Come home. You can wait for the phone to ring here, and I’ll feed you real home-cooked food. Emily would love to see you, and the boys want to see Uncle Mike. You haven’t even met your nephew Ellis yet. He’s almost two years old.”
It had been a long time since his mother played a guilt card. A devout practitioner of New England self-sufficiency, she had left career decisions to Michael as he bounced around the country pursuing a dream that took him from home and kept him from his friends.
He hadn’t spent more than a week in Ratledge Falls, a sleepy hamlet tucked in the northwest corner of Massachusetts, since the summer before his junior year in college. He hadn’t visited since his father’s funeral, when he flew in the night before and left the morning after for a game in Portland.
Catching up with old friends and meeting his two-year-old nephew sounded like the perfect respite before jumping back into the coaching grind after the holidays. The words of Coach Foster weighed on him: “This will be your last chance to spend Christmas with your family for a long time.”
“Sure, Mom. Let me get some loose ends tied up down here. I’ll catch a flight Friday and stay through Christmas.”
The smile in his mother’s voice lifted his spirit. “Send me the flight info. Emily and Elliot will meet you at the airport.”
Michael disconnected the call and leaned back on the sofa. He had lived in Louisville for six months and had yet to learn the name of his next-door neighbor. The only friends he had made were other coaches and staff members, and the only women he had met were their wives.
A few had promised to introduce him to unattached friends after the season ended, but the offers would be rescinded now that he had been fired. Setting someone up with an out-of-work football coach was not exactly a ringing endorsement for either party.
He lay back and dialed his agent, Cassandra Levin, before she called for the tenth time.
She answered on the first ring. “Are you okay?”
Michael cleared his throat. “Yes, I’m fine. A little shocked, that’s all.”
“Did he give you a reason?”
“Business decision. Fans have been grumbling about staff changes for weeks, like that ever solves anything.”
“Don’t let this shake your confidence. You won’t be unemployed long, I promise. This is a temporary setback. St. Louis, Utah and Portland will all be looking for head coaches in a couple of weeks, and maybe one or two more teams. Hang tight and stay by your phone. Getting you a better job will be my number one priority.”
Cassandra’s assurances made him feel better. She had been his representative since Memphis drafted him nine years earlier. Most agents would have dumped him after his career-ending knee injury two games into his third season, but she had encouraged him to consider coaching and guided him through the transition. An entry-level coach’s salary was so small, compared to the players she represented, she waived her commission until he became an assistant position coach four years earlier.
“I will. Thanks, Cassandra. I’m going to get out of Louisville and stay with my Mom for a while.”
“They do have cell service in Rutledge Hills, right?”
“Yes. Running water, too. And it’s Ratledge Falls.”
“Why don’t you fly out to Los Angeles the weekend after Christmas? We can look at all the possibilities and map out a plan. Plus you can buy me that steak dinner you owe me. I found a great new steakhouse in Laguna Beach.”
A statuesque red head with a movie star’s smile and swimsuit model’s body, Cassandra had been flirting with him after he and Suzanne parted company. Wary of a long-distance relationship and unsure if the attention was anything more than client relations—she represented dozens of professional athletes and coaches—he had so far kept things professional. “That sounds good. I could be out there on the twenty-sixth.”
“I’ll set it up and email you the details. Can’t wait.”
After hanging up, Michael wandered into his bedroom and sat on the bed. Nondescript landscape paintings hung over the dresser, and a row of cardboard boxes lined the wall, still unpacked from his summer move. Knowing the vagabond life of an assistant coach, Michael always rented furnished apartments near the stadium to make getting to work—and eventually moving—easier. He believed the same interior designer had decorated every one of his sterile places; beige carpet, off-white walls and flowered wallpaper in the bathrooms.
With nothing to keep him in Louisville, he decided not to spend three days wallowing in self-pity before flying to Ratledge Falls. It took less than three hours to pack his clothes and the few knick-knacks he wanted to keep and turn in his apartment key. Deciding not to worry his mother, he didn’t call and made it as far as Rochester, N.Y., that night.
He awoke early the next day for the final four-hour leg, eagerly anticipating the look on his mother’s face when he pulled into the driveway. He grabbed a muffin and bottle of juice in the hotel lobby and cast a wary glance at the rolling gray clouds speckled with red fringes stretching across the horizon before him. If all went to plan, he would be home in time for lunch and a bowl of his mother’s beef stew.
I hope you enjoyed this sample. If you'd like to read more, you can purchase it on Amazon. It's available for free on the Kindle for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.