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Team Manager: SWISH!

Devon Layne


Copyright ©2021 Elder Road Books


Chapter 1

ARDITH GRAVES had finished her fourth and final session of girls’ PE for the day and was headed for two sections of Latin, after she choked down her sandwich and coffee in the faculty lounge. She had a lot on her mind that day. It was only the second week of school, but things were gelling in two of her PE classes. She liked the fact her classes weren’t overcrowded. In fact, none of the classes at Hugh Bartley Senior High in Bartley, Iowa was crowded. In a four-year school with only about 200 students, you didn’t get much overcrowding. Through a number of state and federal grants, the school had stayed reasonably current with the times and well-staffed.

“Jim, can I ask you a question or two?” she asked when she approached the table where her counterpart, Jim Byers, was sitting.

“Sure, Ardith. I’m all ears.”

“How are the prospects for the boys’ basketball team this year?” she asked, seemingly out of the blue.

“Well, we’ll field a team. There’s never a shortage of boys who want to play. Off-hand I’d say we might do better than our two and twenty season last year. But even among the Triple A schools, we aren’t a powerhouse. If we had twenty fewer students in our school, we’d stand a chance in Double A. Only a chance, though. Why do you ask?”

“I’ve got girls who can play ball,” she said. She just dropped that one on the table and let it lay there. Jim pulled back in his seat and stared at her before he started shaking his head.

“No. No, we’ve got too many boys who want the positions on the team. I can’t even imagine the blowback I’d get if I gave positions away to girls. No. You can’t even seriously think the girls could play against the boys’ teams on our schedule. No.” Jim ran out of ways to say no and fell silent.

“I thought as much. The girls would bear the brunt of things with ill will from the community and I don’t want that. But Title IX has been ignored in this school for ten years. That’s the last time there was a girls’ team. What would you think about us starting a girls’ team up again? I checked the IGHSAU website and we could still get registered with a team and get a schedule for this winter. I tell you, Jim, I have some players.”

“The Armor sisters,” Jim said, nodding.

“Right. But they’ve managed to talk another three girls into playing with them. They always split the twins between their two three on three teams but Natalie switches each day. Jim, these girls are good. It would be a shame to waste their talent when an opportunity is right around the corner.” Ardith sat back and let Jim mull that over a while.

“You weren’t here when their older sisters were. Our women’s gym instructor wasn’t really an athlete and didn’t go to bat for them. They just played pickup games and wasted their time here. But two years ago, after they graduated, they went to State and walked on with no formal playing experience. I expect they’ll be the starting forwards this season. Strange isn’t it? That family had two sets of female twins and then followed the second set with a solo.”

“How are we going to fund it?” Ardith asked. “I have so much work to do to get us registered and a schedule pulled together. Then I’ll need to hold tryouts, get equipment, coordinate practice schedules with you and the boys, and put together a winning team. I’m only one person! I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I will.” Now Ardith was getting excited. If Jim supported her, it was good to go. After all, he was the boys’ coach and athletic director.

“Wait. Wait. Easy now. We haven’t got it approved by the school board yet. We’ll need to approach it with care. You hit the first obstacle head on. I’m not giving up departmental funding to start a new team, so we need to come up with money somewhere. Let’s give that some thought. You need to handle getting the contacts made and approval for a season. Then get competitors on a schedule. Remember, you can’t have games at the same time as the boys. That shouldn’t be a problem because all the other schools have the same restriction.”

“Okay. You know I’ve never done this before, Jim. I hope you’ll spend a little time with me to get me on the right path,” Ardith said.

“I will, but you need a team manager. As soon as your team is approved, you need to focus on coaching. I know you played college ball, so I’m not worried about you being able to do that. But a team manager can handle all the detail work. Believe me, you’ve only scratched the surface of the things that need to be done. Someone has to organize scorers and officials, make sure balls are properly inflated and ready for practice or games, and even have water ready for the players when they come off the court. Towels in the locker room. Laundry done. That kid’s job is almost as big as yours.”

“Where am I going to find a girl like that?” Ardith asked.

“I doubt you will,” Jim said thoughtfully. “Consider having a boy to do your grunt work.”

“A boy as manager for a girls’ team? He’d be on the make all the time.”

“Not the boy I’m thinking of. He’s a nice kid. Unfortunately, he’s small and wears thick glasses. He tried to manage the JV team last year, but he got bullied a lot by the players. Rogers didn’t let me know about it and let it get out of hand. The thing is, he was good at it but was driven off by a bunch of assholes. Excuse my language. When I found out about it, I put in a request to terminate Rogers and I’m watching Andy, his replacement as JV coach, like a hawk.”

“Would he even consider coming back as a manager? Even for a girls’ team? I can well imagine that girls could be as unmerciful as the boys were. I’d have to watch them all,” Ardith said. Jim laughed.

“Dennis Enders would probably pay to manage your team, just so he could be near Natalie Armor.”

“That sounds like trouble.”

“Oh, I don’t think you’d ever have trouble with Denny. One of the things I like about him is how respectful he is of others. He has a sister with Down Syndrome and he takes care of her as if he were the big brother. She’s three years older than him but he protects her and makes sure she has what’s needed to be successful. I know his mom depends on him. He knows he’s no great catch for a girl and I know he’s got a crush on Natalie, but I don’t think he’d ever even approach her. For one thing, she’s six or eight inches taller than he is.”

“Sounds like a possibility, then. I don’t have him in one of my classes. I’ll have to look him up. I’ve got a planning period between the two Latin classes this afternoon.”

“Now that’s something that has puzzled me,” Jim said. “How did an athlete like you end up teaching Latin. Or even being able to teach Latin?”

“Oh, Jim. I played basketball, but I majored in the classics. And believe me, I’ve heard every dumb jock comment men could throw my way, each of which I answered with an appropriate Latin phrase.”

“What phrase?”

“Descedite pedicabo!” she responded.

“Okay. What does it mean?”

“Roughly, ‘Fuck off’.”

Jim looked at her and both started laughing.

“I had no idea Latin had such a phrase,” he said.

“It’s a bastardization, but it works.”

“Okay. It’s time to bless the little ones with our knowledge. Here I go to Algebra I and II, while you go impart the wisdom of the classics.”

The two coaches left the faculty lounge with ideas brewing in Ardith’s head along with visions of a girls’ championship basketball team.

Ardith didn’t waste any time heading to the school office during her planning period and asking about Dennis’s schedule. During her off period, of course, he was in Geometry. She wrote a note requesting that Dennis come to the coach’s office after school to discuss an important matter with Coach Graves. The note was carried by a runner to Mr. Felton’s Geometry classroom and was delivered. Ardith returned to her classroom and began listing out the various responsibilities she would want her team manager to take on.

In Ardith’s mind, the team, the schedule, the board approval, the equipment, and the State Championship were already a done deal. She conveniently ignored the fact that she had not even spoken of it to the young women to see if they would or even could be involved.

“Coach Graves? I got a note asking me to report here after school. Is this right?” Dennis asked from her doorway. It was the first chance she had to actually lay eyes on the boy. It was easy to see why he was subject to bullying. He was stereotypically a nerd. He couldn’t have topped five-two and a hundred pounds. His hair was untamed and looked like he’d cut it himself. And the thick glasses made his eyes look huge.

“Please come in and have a seat, Dennis,” she said as she quickly scrawled another note to herself to warn the team about bullying. “You were recommended to me by Coach Byers. I understand you have some skill in managing a team.”

“I’m sorry, Coach. I’m not interested in going back to the team. It was okay at first, but the stuff just got to be too much for me. I won’t put myself in that situation again. You might have noticed that I’m not big and strong. It’s hard to defend myself against guys who want to shove me in a locker or… do things to me,” he said. Ardith came alert. This might have gone even further than Jim knew. She wasn’t sure how she could get to the bottom of the comment about doing things to him. What things?

“I’m truly sorry you suffered. You know, don’t you, that Coach Rogers was fired for letting that behavior continue and the entire season was cut short? You could bring charges if it was as bad as that.”

“I’d have to leave town,” he sighed. “I’d never be safe here.”

“I hope you’d consider me a friend and come to talk to me about any recurrence that happens. I have no tolerance for bullying of anyone. I’ve been through it enough in my life to know what it’s like.”

Dennis wondered what the young coach had been through. He’d heard about her but had no overlap with either her girls’ PE class or her Latin classes. This was her second year at Bartley High and she’d come here straight out of college. He figured that made her only around twenty-four or twenty-five. She seemed okay.

“Anyway, I’m not asking you to go back to that team. I am, however, interested in having you manage a new team. Starting up a new team is a challenge. There are all the details about equipment, uniforms, schedule, recruiting parents for scoring, helping with practice, and all the other things you learned how to do last year.” She thought she saw him cringe a little. “Minus the bullying. I’d like you to become my team manager.”

“What team, ma’am?”

“Oh, I didn’t say, did I? Girls’ basketball. We’ve got a solid core that I see work out every day. I want to build them into a team and I’d like you to help.”

“Girls can be bullies, too,” he responded.

“These won’t be. I’ll stake the team on it and expect you to help enforce it. Will you try me, Dennis? Trust me to be the coach and I’ll trust you to be the manager.”

A moment of silence stretched out between them. He had liked learning how to manage a team and even liked doing it if it hadn’t been for the other stuff. Until the unchecked bullying, he’d thought maybe he’d like to make sports management and therapy his career. It was something he could do, even though he couldn’t play. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad with girls. And, if there was going to be a girls’ basketball team, it was a sure bet that Natalie Armor and her sisters would be on it. He squeezed his legs together at the thought. Natalie was tall and beautiful and nice. She’d intervened once when she saw three of the basketball players tormenting him. When it looked like she could be in trouble, her two sisters had stepped up to either side of her and backed the guys down. Being with Natalie would be great.

“I guess so,” he breathed. “Yeah. I’d like to manage that team.”

“Can you start right away and help me get organized? I expect we’ll practice right after school and would like to hold tryouts in a couple of weeks. Can you do it?”

Dennis was nodding his head. He’d need to get samples of the scoring sheets, parental permission forms, and health forms from Coach Byers. Maybe Coach would help him get some of the older equipment from the equipment locker. He’d need a key. There were some spare practice jerseys in the towel closet but he’d need everyone’s size to order game jerseys. His mind was moving almost as fast as Ardith’s had been.

“Yes. Yes, ma’am. Coach. I can start getting things coordinated right away.”

“Good. I got a copy of the manager’s duties from the files. Take this and the permission form home with you to read over and get a parent to sign for you. Then, meet me here tomorrow after school and let’s put together a team.” She stood and offered her hand to Dennis. He shook it firmly and took the papers from her.

“It won’t be like last year, Mom,” Dennis pled with his mother that night. “Coach promised she’d ride herd on the team. She needs me to start right away.”

“She? What kind of a team has a woman for a coach?” his mother demanded.

“Um… the girls’ basketball team,” Dennis said quietly.

“She wants a boy to manage a girls’ team? I’m not sure I like this any better. I’m going to call and have a talk with that coach. What’s her phone number?”

Dennis pointed at the bottom of the permission sheet where the coach’s phone number was printed. His mother shooed him out of the kitchen and he went to play with his sister.

“Dennis, come here, please.” It had been nearly two hours since he’d been sent from the kitchen while his mother ‘made a call.’ He’d begun to lose hope that he would be allowed to manage the team.

“Yes, Mom?”

“I’m going to sign this permission slip again if you’re sure it’s what you want,” she said.

“Yes, Mom. I believe it’s a great opportunity to show what I’ve got.” Dennis put on his most winning smile.

“That has me concerned, too. Den, you’ll be working closely with girls. You haven’t had much experience with that other than with your sister, and as much as we love her, that’s different. The whole process of earning respect from your team includes respecting them. Don’t let yourself get carried away or get too familiar.”

“I won’t, Mom. You know, until my experience last year, I’d thought that I might become a trainer one day. I’m literally not big enough to play any sports with my eyesight, but I love the game and this will let me be involved. This opportunity revives some of my hope for the future.” In reality, Dennis was stronger than he looked. He couldn’t see well enough to play, but he worked out every day and was a big sports fan—especially basketball.

“I’m very proud of your determination and attitude.” She signed the form and handed it to him.

“Um… Mom? Were you talking to Coach Graves that whole time?” he asked.

“No. I called some other parents. Then I had to really think hard about this and talk to your father. If this turns out like last year, I won’t stop at getting the coach fired. I’ll close the school’s athletic program. And believe me, I could do it. Do your part to keep things on an even keel. Okay?”

“Yes, Mom.”

Dennis wanted to tell someone but he didn’t really have any close friends. Telling his father wouldn’t be pleasant. He’d been drinking heavily already by the time Dennis got home from school. It was like that when he was between jobs. Dennis wanted to help his father get well and stop drinking but didn’t know what he could do. At least even as big as his father was, he wasn’t an abusive drunk. When he drank, he curled up inside himself and sulked. Only Mom could get him sober and looking for work again.

The only other choice was Margaret. His sister would grin at him and say ‘Oh boy!’

“Guess what, Peg. I have a new job,” he said when he joined her in front of the TV. She looked over at him with a puzzled expression.

“Do you have to go to the Center like I do?” she asked. Peg worked half days at the Opportunity Center, which specialized in teaching and training the mentally challenged.

“No. This is a job at school managing the girls’ basketball team.”

She frowned at him. “If they make you cry, I’ll hit them.”

“You won’t have to, sister.” He moved over and put his arm around her. “This is different than last year. I’ll be working with girls and not the bullies.”

She nodded and said, “Okay.” Then she went back to watching America’s Got Talent, singing along with the competitors. Dennis thought she had a sweet voice and didn’t mind her singing along with the show.

He opened his laptop and started making a list of things he needed to do in order to get the team started. He used the ‘Duties and Responsibilities’ sheet Coach had given him and started breaking them out in an organized fashion and prioritizing them according to a timeline. He looked up the athletic association schedule and added the season start dates and the schedule for the end of season tournaments, then looked up the schedule for the boys’ team so he could mark off times when they wouldn’t be able to play.

Eventually, he closed the laptop and told his sister it was time to get ready for bed. She smiled and went immediately to the bathroom. Margaret was good when there was an established routine. In ten minutes, she was finished in the bathroom and dressed in her pajamas. She brought a story book to Dennis and held it out. He patted the seat beside him and opened the book to the next story they were ready to read. It was all children’s stories and this was at least the fifth time he’d read them all to her, but she loved them and he didn’t really mind reading aloud. When the story was finished, he handed the book back to Peg, gave her a kiss on the cheek and she padded off to bed with a stop at their mother’s chair for a goodnight kiss. When she was gone, Dennis got up to take care of his nightly routine.

“I never tell you how proud I am of the way you treat your sister,” his mom said when he kissed her on the cheek. “Your affection and love do more for her than anything I could possibly do. Thank you, Dennis. You’re a good boy.”

He went off to bed and thought a long time about managing the team. Visions of Natalie Armor kept interrupting his train of thought and by the time he fell asleep, he didn’t really feel like he’d been a good boy, but he was very relaxed.

Chapter 2

DENNIS’S MOTHER knew that if there was to be a girls’ basketball team, the Armor girls would be on it. Their older sisters never had the opportunity to play in high school, but were already making their mark at State. Mrs. Enders knew their parents supported their athletic endeavors but their pleas to the school board for a girls’ team had gone unheeded. If Coach Graves was successful in getting a team started at Bartley High, the Armor girls would be a part of it.

She also knew her son had a crush on the youngest, though she was equally certain the girl was completely oblivious to it. Ah, to be fifteen again. The first person she called to ask about the proposed team was Lily Armor. She hadn’t heard about the team yet, but was excited to get behind it and listened carefully to what Dot had to say about it.

“Natalie, Roberta, Daniella, please come to the living room for a family conference,” Lily called. John laid down the book he was reading and turned off the television. He’d agreed to the family conference after his wife’s conversation with Dennis’s mother. The three girls wandered into the living room and took their customary seats on the sofa. Family conferences weren’t unusual. They were thinking it might involve vacation plans for Christmas break. Maybe they’d get to go somewhere besides their grandparents’ house. When everyone had settled, Mrs. Armor began.

“I know you girls all have your eye on following your sisters to State. And you know I’ve petitioned the school board every year to get a high school team started. Their excuse has always been they didn’t have a coach or a budget for girls’ athletics. This year might be different.”

“Really, Mom? That would be so cool!” Roberta said.

“It’s not definite yet, but there is a coach now and she’s willing to go to the board to fight for a team.”

“Ms. Graves? She is so cool!” Natalie said.

“Yes. I spoke to her a few minutes ago and she’s enthused as well. You three might think you are a shoo-in for starting on the team, but you’ll need to prove yourselves. And remember, it takes more than three players on the court. You’ll need to truly work with a team and be sure everyone gets a chance to play.”

“We can do that, Mom,” Daniella said. “We’ll stop and see Coach Graves after school tomorrow. We’ll make sure she knows she can count on us.”

“Yes, I thought you would do that and that’s what I wanted to discuss.” The girls were almost comical in the way they cocked their heads at the same angle. Sometimes, Lily thought they must be triplets but one waited a year to be born. “When you talk to Coach Graves, you’ll also meet your team manager.”

“She has a team manager already? Who? Diane? She should be on the court. Who is she?” Natalie asked.

“She is a he.”

“A boy is going to manage the girls’ team?” exclaimed Daniella. Unlike her sisters, she had very little interest in or use for boys. “If one of those dumb jocks gets in my face, I’ll rip his balls out by the root.”

“You will do no such thing,” her father said. John hadn’t lived with six women for this many years without learning how they thought. His daughters were fairly predictable. “You will treat your manager with respect and he will treat you with respect.”

“Um… who is it?” Natalie asked quietly.

“You might not know him. It’s Dennis Enders. He is not your average jock,” Lily said.

“I know Dennis,” Natalie said. “He’s been in my class for like ten years. He’s like almost invisible and sometimes gets picked on because he’s so little.”

“Please try to use fewer ‘likes’ in your sentences. Good English elevates your standing in the eyes of others,” Lily said.

“Isn’t he the guy who was getting picked on by Lee Smith and his cronies last year?” Roberta asked.

“Yeah. I never saw three guys turn tail and run like when the three of us stepped in,” Natalie said. “I just felt bad for Dennis. They picked on him just because he can’t defend himself.”

“That’s what this conversation is coming down to,” John said. “I expect you girls to set the example regarding not bullying. You’ve been raised to be better than that and stepping in to stop it last year was exactly what I expect of you. It takes a lot of courage for a kid like that to step into a role where he’s been bullied before. And as socially backward as he may seem, it takes a lot of courage for a boy who is small in stature to accept a position working with girls who are all taller and outweigh him.”

“This could be the opportunity we’ve been trying to create for all five of you girls,” Lily said. “We’ll go to the school board meeting Tuesday and back Ardith in getting this done. But if we hear of any bullying by the girls—on the boy or each other—we will just as quickly ask that it be disbanded. Are we clear?”

“Yes, Mom.” Daniella and Roberta looked to Natalie. Even though she was a year younger, they often deferred to her as their spokesperson.

“We’ll be responsible, Mom and Dad. Nobody deserves to be treated the way Dennis was last year and I’m glad Coach Rogers got canned for it. We’ll make sure the other girls get the message,” Natalie said.

“Okay,” Mrs. Armor said. “I knew we could count on you but we had to hear it explicitly stated. Now, remember, this isn’t public news yet, but knowing this town, I doubt there is a hermit left who hasn’t heard by now. Talk to Coach Graves and Dennis and see what you can do to help.”

The family conference was over and three very excited girls headed for bed.

By 2:30 when the final bell rang, the school was buzzing with the rumor that a girls’ basketball team was forming. Opinions ranged from excited enthusiasm to a shrugged ‘who cares?’ Dennis nearly came in his pants when Natalie looked at him in their English class and gave him a thumbs up. She’d never said a word to him since intervening on his behalf last year. The incident with Lee had been the spark that ended with Coach Rogers being fired and the three worst bullies getting expelled. Natalie and her sisters had shrugged it off as just being decent people and didn’t expect anything in return. They weren’t sure if there had been any bullying so far this year. They hadn’t heard of any.

All three arrived at Coach Graves’s office at the same time Dennis did. Dennis held his breath when he saw the three Amazons approaching. He quickly rushed to open the door and stood aside for them to enter.

“Ladies,” he said as he motioned them in.

“Thanks, Manager,” Natalie said. Dennis followed them into the office. There weren’t chairs for everyone so they stood in front of Ardith’s desk, almost at attention.

“Well, news travels faster in this town than wildfire,” Ardith said. “Dennis, we’ll get to our meeting in a minute. What can I do for you ‘ladies,’ as Dennis so politely called you?” Dennis could tell by the amused expression on Ardith’s face that she was playing with the girls. He still held his breath. Roberta and Daniella looked at their sister.

“We wanted to thank you for working at getting us a basketball team,” Natalie said. “And volunteer to do anything we can to help. We also wanted to let you know that we have no problem at all with Dennis being our team manager. Not that you need our permission, but we thought Dennis should know that he has our support.”

Dennis nearly melted as he managed to say, “Thank you.”

“Yes, thank you,” Ardith reaffirmed. “There can’t be much secret that I have my eye on you three to help get us started. But you have some others who have been playing in your scrimmages. We’re going to need a full team, not just three women. I’m glad you’re willing to help recruit. As you spread the word, be honest with the girls. It’s likely they’ll break a fingernail. This isn’t a place for beauty queens.”

“Yes, ma’am. When can we tell them we’ll have tryouts?”

“I don’t really have a schedule yet. I need to go before the school board Tuesday.”

“Coach?” Dennis said. “I checked the calendar and we could have tryouts two weeks from today. It fits the schedule and there is a precedent for having a new team begin practice ahead of the official date set by the IGHSAU.”

“Good work. Let’s make that our tentative date. Remember, you can’t post anything prior to the board meeting. They could shoot the whole idea down.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ve made a list of parents and boosters we can call to help us at the board meeting. I figured I was going to need the list for recruiting scorers,” Dennis said. Ardith pulled back in surprise.

“That’s… good thinking, Dennis.” She looked at the girls. “Any doubts about why I want him as our team manager?” All three girls grinned and looked at Dennis. He could feel his face heating up.

“No, ma’am. Dennis, we could help by splitting up the list and making phone calls. I know our parents are already planning to attend,” Natalie said. Dennis wondered a bit about Roberta and Daniella having not said a word since they came into the office. Well, they were juniors and probably were just leaving things to Natalie because she was his classmate.

“I can email a list if you’ll give me your addresses,” he said.

“Um… Let us give you our phone numbers so you can text them to us,” Roberta said. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d checked email. Dennis dropped his head.

“I don’t have a cell phone,” he mumbled.

“What? How do you text anyone?”

“I don’t… I’ve never had anyone to text to and smartphones are expensive,” he said.

“I’ll fix that as an official expense of the department. In the meantime, you ladies do have email accounts, don’t you?” Ardith asked. The girls nodded. “We’ll have official communications via email, so start checking it regularly. There will be some attachments like the schedule, permission forms, health forms and such. Dennis, we’ll need to send those out in advance of tryouts to anyone who signs up. We’ll especially need the permission slips to be turned in at tryouts.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Dennis sat in a folding chair by the desk and opened his laptop to make some more notes to himself. Ardith and the girls were all surprised at how fast his fingers moved on the keyboard.

“Okay, girls. I think you and I both got what we wanted from this meeting. Dennis and I have some more work to do. Good enough?”

“Yes, Coach. You can count on us.” The girls turned and left the office to Dennis and Ardith.

“You seem to be a step ahead of me,” Ardith said to Dennis when the girls were gone. “I like that. Why don’t we start with what you have and I’ll add to it or subtract as we go?”

“Okay. I hope you don’t mind I did some work on this without discussing it first. I made a chart with dependencies and a timeline. It shows what needs to be done first and what we can do on a parallel path. I need to add getting permission slips sent to everyone who signs up for tryouts.” He turned his laptop screen toward Ardith and went through his flow chart. Ardith was suitably impressed.

“Sponsorship,” she said. “We need a booster club for our Lady Wolverines.”

“Angelines,” Dennis said automatically.

“What’s that?”

“A female wolverine is called an angeline. I kind of like the fact that they have a reputation for being ferocious, but they have ‘angel’ in their name. It also means a talkative and fun woman. In ancient Greek, it meant a messenger from God.”

“You are a font of miscellaneous information,” Ardith said. “The Angelines it is.” Ardith used some of the time they had together to further get to know Dennis and his interests. She was impressed with his knowledge of sports conditioning. They worked for about an hour and took off. Ardith was satisfied with the results but also more determined than ever to get her team approved.

To her credit, Ardith realized the boy she’d been convinced to recruit as a team manager was a treasure equal in value to the team itself. She needed to make sure he had the tools to be successful. So, Saturday morning she headed into Des Moines to do some shopping. It was at a discount store that she found what she needed. What Dennis needed.

He wasn’t going to spend hours talking on the phone or web surfing, but his classmates, who would become his team, communicated almost exclusively with text messages. She picked up a generic smart phone for $50. She wasn’t rich, but she was living within her income since she moved to Bartley. She looked at the screen and thought about those thick glasses. He seemed to see okay when using the laptop, but maybe… She put the phone down and selected the next model up with a bigger screen. It was $20 more for the phone, but she wanted to be sure he’d actually use it. Then she bought a $15 SIM with unlimited talk and text and 4 gigabytes of data. She was out of there with a smartphone for her team manager for under a hundred bucks. Each month, she’d log on and put another month of service on his SIM. She walked through the mall, intending to hit the sporting goods store, just to price out team uniforms. She stood staring at the beautiful uniforms on display, designing the perfect one in her head.

She really needed a sponsor and it was a cinch that she wouldn’t find one in Des Moines. She was simply too far out of town. The same would be true of Ames. No, she needed a local sponsor. She was trying to identify who the potential businesses might be when she passed the Eyecare Center. Like all mall stores, it had huge posters advertising its services, including Lasik surgery. Wow! Almost $2,000 per eye. Well, she wasn’t his sugar momma. She liked the kid but that was just too much.

She thought about stopping for a nice lunch but she’d just spent almost a hundred dollars and some of her dreams. She headed home.

Once there, she sent an email to her new assistant, knowing now that he didn’t yet have a text-capable phone. She asked simply if she could visit Dennis and his parents on Sunday afternoon.

It was evening before she got a response back.

The email sent Mrs. Enders into a tizzy.

“Mom, Coach Graves sent a message asking if she could visit us tomorrow afternoon,” Dennis said, carting his laptop with him. His family wasn’t well-off, but his mother had found the money to get him a laptop computer when he started high school and added a cable modem to it so he could do his studies and research online. It wasn’t a top of the line model or the fastest on the market, but Dennis had it with him all the time, it seemed.

“Us?” she asked.

“Coach said me and my parents. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if Peg was there, too. I hope it’s not a problem with me being the team manager. Everything seemed okay yesterday. I even got to speak to Natalie.”

“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Enders went through the list of things she needed to clean and prepare for a guest. The house wasn’t dirty but one always wanted to put the best foot forward when someone came to visit. It so seldom happened. “Give me a few minutes to think about it. You don’t have to answer immediately. She doesn’t know if you even got the message on a Saturday afternoon.”

Dennis went back to his room and finished the task he was working on: sending the contact list to the Armors.

Cleaning was the least of Dot’s concerns. She immediately went to her bedroom. Will had not come out today at all but that could be a good sign. He often stayed in bed when he dried out.

“Will, I need to talk to you a minute, honey. Okay?” she wasn’t shy or cowed by her husband. He was a big man but wasn’t domineering. She just didn’t want to startle him or wake him up if he was asleep.

“It’s okay, Dot. I’m awake. I’m just thinking about what a mess I’ve made of my life. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not concerned with that right now. Are you doing okay?”

“Yeah. Hardly shaking now. Give me a few hours and I’ll be back and go find more work.”

“Honey, our son needs us,” Dot Enders whispered. Will sat straight up in bed.

“What is it? If that Smith kid has been after him again, I’ll…”

“Shh. Shh. It’s okay. There’s no trouble. But his coach wants to visit with the family tomorrow. It would be nice if you could join us.”

“Of course I’ll join you. Who is his coach? They fired that last guy, didn’t they?” he asked.

“Yes. This is a different team altogether. He’s going to manage the girls’ basketball team.”

“Girls?” Will chuckled a bit. “Maybe that will help him grow up a bit. What does the coach want?”

“I’m not sure. She and I talked Thursday night when Dennis brought home the permission slip. I wasn’t going to sign it until I was assured she would look out for him and protect him like that other coach didn’t. She probably wants to drum up our support for the school board meeting Tuesday night,” Dot said.

“Hmm. That sounds reasonable. Don’t worry. I’ll be ready.”

“I knew I could count on you when the family needs you.”

“I need to get some more sleep. Why don’t you invite this coach—her?—to Sunday dinner? We have enough to feed one more, don’t we?”

“There’s always enough for one more,” she said, smiling. Will lay back down and shortly started snoring.

He was a good man, Dot reminded herself again. It was just bad luck that had ruined their chance at farming. She understood why he needed to hide at the bottom of a bottle. With a mentally challenged daughter and extremely nearsighted son, she sometimes took a nip late at night herself before she went to bed. But as soon as Will understood that his family needed him, he would be sober instantly.

She softly kissed his unshaven face and went to see what she had that she could fix for Sunday dinner.

Chapter 3

ARDITH JOINED the Enders family for Sunday dinner and to present Dennis with his new smartphone. She’d already activated the SIM and put her own number and that of each of the Armor girls into the directory. He immediately sent her a text that said, “Thank you.” It seemed that even if they’d never had one, this generation automatically knew how to use a smartphone.

“There’s enough data bandwidth on it to send a few photos or use GPS to get us to a game,” she explained. “There probably isn’t enough bandwidth for you to watch movies or listen to much music. But listen carefully to this. It is school property and not personal property. Make sure you follow the rules regarding allowed content. Sending and receiving nude photos or sexting, for example, is strictly forbidden. Not that I think that is something you would do, but you need to know that online bullying is the same in my book as in-person bullying. Be mindful.”

“Yes, ma’am. I will,” he answered politely.

“This seems like a lot more than his previous coach was willing to do,” Will said. “Why are you providing this kind of benefit?”

“I met Coach Rogers and have to say I didn’t like him. I don’t think he really cared about either the game or his players,” Ardith explained. “He was so shallow-thinking that I doubt he ever considered whether his team manager could communicate with the team. If you’ve read the job description I gave Dennis, you know that he will often be required to contact me or our players. In today’s world, I consider a cellphone to be a requirement of nearly any job. Since it’s a job requirement, I felt the school should pay for it. There aren’t really any other benefits.” She laughed at that and the family joined her. Margaret laughed loudest, though it was doubtful that she understood the joke.

The truth was, Ardith didn’t know if the school would cover the expense or not. She’d made the decision and purchase without consulting anyone. She needed to educate herself on what she could and couldn’t expense. If nothing else, though, she’d deduct it from her taxes as teachers could deduct various non-reimbursed classroom expenses. She could bend that rule this far.

“I think you know our concerns,” Dot said. “I’m still worried about sending Dennis into that department. I trust your commitment and integrity, but I know you won’t be able to monitor everything that goes on.”

“That’s another reason for the phone. It’s a safety device. I’ve programmed both my number and 911 into his speed dial. As well as your home number here. This will give Dennis a means of calling for help if the need arises. And Dennis, I expect you to use it if the need arises, not to try and tough out a bad situation.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Dennis was pretty overwhelmed. He couldn’t believe his coach had come through with this. He was determined to do the best job he could. He had just a bit of hero worship going on for his coach.

“Now, how are we coming along with getting people to the board meeting Tuesday night?” Ardith asked.

The Tuesday night school board meeting was one of the best attended in recent memory. Few remembered how Bartley School District had remained independent when so many schools had been consolidated years ago. As it happened, Hugh Bartley, the last of the Bartleys to live in these parts, saw that his beloved community was beginning to die out as people moved closer to the cities for work. His will left his entire estate to the school district to build a new high school and maintain its independence. The school itself had drawn some people to settle nearby. And when consolidation did hit, it was two smaller communities just five miles away that joined Bartley. Among them, they had just enough students to get state and national funding for their schools.

Unbeknownst to Ardith, she owed her job to Hugh’s endowment because he endowed the Language Department with the caveat that Latin was always to be taught at the school. And Ardith’s Latin classes had as many students as either the French or Spanish classes—the other two languages taught there.

The new high school was built according to Hugh’s specifications and on property he donated, anticipating expansion of the larger cities outward to a community that had large developable tracts of land for those who wanted to live in the peaceful countryside instead of the bustling city. That hadn’t really happened much yet. Technically, the school was larger than was needed and the building housed the junior high as well as the high school, though the younger kids were kept well-separated from their older counterparts. The gym, located between the two wings of the school, was big enough to house a game with fans on both sides of the court. Of course, the home section had a few more rows than the visitors’ section. There was a separate practice court for the junior high and the entire gym could be opened up for big events like commencement.

Unfortunately, the gym was underused. There were just too few athletes to be found in Bartley. So, when the board received the annual petition to start a girls’ basketball team, they were ready to deny the motion automatically until they saw nearly a hundred fifty parents crowd into the school cafeteria to support the petition.

“It appears we have people here who wish to speak to this petition. As soon as we get the microphone hooked up, I’ll ask you to form a line over on that side of the room and come forward one at a time to address the Board,” Superintendent Jones said. There was some shuffling around as people lined up and the maintenance man set up the little podium with a microphone on it and brought another to the Board’s table. “When you come to the microphone, please state your name clearly so we can be sure it’s recorded. Try to make your statements clear and concise. We will impose a three-minute limit on speakers but don’t feel you need to use it all. If this meeting goes over two hours, we’ll adjourn and schedule a second meeting to continue. First?”

“My name is Lily Armor. We have presented a petition to add girls’ sports to the athletic department every year for the past six or seven years. Ignoring Title IX mandates, the Board has always told us it didn’t have the resources to hire a coach and didn’t have a person on staff who could take on that position. Now we have a school employee who is willing to take on that responsibility. We would like the Board to approve our petition to start a girls’ basketball team at Hugh Bartley High School.” Mrs. Armor moved away from the podium.

“We have in hand a request from Ms. Ardith Graves that matches the petition and in which she agrees to take on coaching the girls’ team without additional compensation for one school year,” Jones said. “Ms. Graves, would you like to confirm your position and state your qualifications?” Ardith went to the Board table instead of the podium and accepted the microphone from Mr. Jones.

“I’m Ardith Graves, PE and Latin teacher at Hugh Bartley High School. I agree to take on the responsibility of coaching a girls’ basketball team for one school year without additional compensation. I believe we will show the community how valuable having this team can be in building community spirit, enhancing the development of players, and providing a badly needed extracurricular activity for our young women. I have a degree in the Classics with a minor in Physical Education from Winston University where I was a first string player for the Winston Wildcats. In addition, I have coached numerous intramural teams from junior high school on up. I know and understand the game, the conditioning, and the strategy for training a young women’s basketball team.”

“Thank you. Next?” Jones called. “Uh… Ms. Graves, would you stay nearby here, please? Some of the questions to be asked may be directed to you.” He turned his attention back to the podium where Dennis’s mother stood. She had carefully coordinated her statement with Ardith during their meeting Sunday.

“My name is Dorothy Enders. Last year the athletic department allowed a team to bully and harass a younger team member. I’d like a clear statement regarding the school’s policy and preparedness to prevent that from happening again.”

“Is Coach Byers here?” Jones asked. The coach stood and approached. Jones handed him the microphone.

“I’m Jim Byers, Athletic Director for Hugh Bartley High School. Thank you, Mrs. Enders. I’ve wanted to make a statement about this for some time. First, the coach who was responsible for that team was released and a new coach hired for the JV basketball team. Much of that team could move up to varsity this year and will be under my direct supervision. I have established and posted in the athletic facilities, locker rooms, and gym a zero tolerance policy regarding bullying, abuse, and harassment. I am terribly ashamed that this incident was committed and allowed go so far before I was made aware of it. I ask parents to contact me immediately if they hear of any similar acts committed in our program. Once they are shown to be guilty, the player or staff member will immediately be removed from the team and all contact with the other team members. I will not treat victims as perpetrators. As coaches and teachers, we have a responsibility to nurture through athletic activities, not to damage our charges. Ardith?” He handed the microphone to her.

“Thank you, Jim. I’d like to double down on what my immediate supervisor has said. I am committed to good sportsmanship on and off the court. I want to say this to the young women who plan to try out for the team. If I hear of bullying or abuse involving my team or staff, on or off the court, I will immediately disband the team—not just suspend the player. I want to trust you and will not take betrayal of that trust lightly. This is the responsibility not only of the coaches, but also of the team members themselves.”

“Thank you, coaches. Next comment?” A man stepped up to the podium. He was dressed in a tie and sport coat, unlike most of the parents who wore jeans and T-shirts.

“I’m Wilmer Dietz of Dietz Chevrolet here in town. Many of you know me from the Wolverine Booster Club. Even though my own kids are grown and moved away, I’d like to see us start a new Angeline booster club. I’m informed that a female Wolverine is called an Angeline. She’s just as fierce as her male counterpart but has ‘angel’ in her name.” He was interrupted by some laughter. “I’m willing to seed the Angeline Booster Club with a $1,000 starter so the new team can buy uniforms. I’d like to ask the rest of you in the community to join me with whatever you can scrape together. I know you don’t all have a business you can tap for this. Don’t feel like you need to contribute your life savings. But can we get a dollar? Five? This is an effort that requires the support of our whole community.”

There was a rousing round of applause for his little speech and the Board seemed to have its last objection answered. Ardith swung around to where Dennis was sitting with his parents, grinning.

There were another three or four people who spoke up in favor of the move, but mostly, everything had been said. The five board members put their heads together while people returned to their seats and shuffled their feet.

“Ladies and gentlemen, students, parents, faculty, and supporters, the School Board has come to a consensus to approve the creation of a women’s basketball team at Hugh Bartley High School. The Lady Wolverines will adopt the name Angelines. We should all remember why the name change when we start explaining it to our friends and neighbors who aren’t here. Ardith Graves is hereby appointed coach for the team. Now, we do have some other business to take care of.”

There was a lot of shuffling as most of the people in the room left and the Board got on with their meeting.

“Do try not to take me by surprise too often,” Ardith said when they met Wednesday afternoon. “That was quite a shock to discover you had already located a sponsor for our team.”

“It was an accident,” Dennis said. “I mean that. I put all the booster club members on my call list to try to get them to the meeting to support us. Mr. Dietz wanted more and more info. I kept explaining more details about what we would need to get started. When he started talking about the Lady Wolverines, I told him about the Angelines and he really liked it. He asked how much uniforms cost these days. They’re about a hundred to one-ten for a full set. That’s home and away uniforms, two pairs of socks, a shooting shirt, and tear-away warmups. I was doing some online shopping Sunday morning before we met, just so I’d know what we were talking about. I’m sure you already knew that. But I explained to Mr. Dietz that price and that we could have as many as fifteen girls on the team. That’s when he surprised me and said he’d put up a thousand and was sure we could raise any more funds we needed in time. I sure hope so.”

“That’s good work, Dennis. You know we’re going to need some equipment, too. Mostly balls, practice jerseys, and travel equipment. Let’s go talk to Coach Byers about what he has available that we can commandeer.”

The coaches’ offices were on opposite sides of the locker rooms, so they walked down the hall and Ardith knocked on Jim’s door. He motioned them in.

“Are you here to raid the equipment locker?” he asked immediately. He grinned at them and Ardith started laughing.

“Darn it, you’re ahead of me again,” she said. “And no matter what we can or can’t get, this guy next to me was some of the best advice you could have given me. It’s hard to believe how wasted he was last season.” Dennis dropped his head a bit and shuffled off to one side.

“Okay, so you need balls, towels, first aid kit, rack, travel bag, clipboards, and score sheets. Anything else?”

“Tape,” Dennis volunteered.

“Yeah. Seems like we need tape for every sport. You might need knee and elbow pads, too, but I recommend you have each team member furnish her own. There’s a team manager workshop over at Perry in two weeks on Saturday. I plan to take all the boys’ managers with me. You two should come, too,” he said. Dennis had his laptop open making notes and jotted down the date and time of the workshop.

“How do we stand, Jim? I don’t have much budget to work with. Hopefully, the booster club will get enough contributions to handle the basic expenses.”

“I’ve got basketballs back there that date back to the fifties. I think we can get you enough practice balls and a rack for them with no trouble. We have a towel service that picks up and delivers weekly. You just need to make sure they are all in the laundry bags and stacked at the loading dock. I think we can slip in an increase in the number of towels we need without it being noticed officially. We cover gym classes, so adding enough for your team shouldn’t be a problem. Let’s go back to the equipment locker and see what we can round up.”

They went to the cage where equipment for the sports the school participated in was kept. The school didn’t have a football team. If they drafted one out of every three boys in the school to play football, they’d only just make the forty recommended for the team. Baseball and basketball were a different case altogether. They usually had full fifteen-member varsity and junior varsity basketball teams and some kids played intramural ball. The baseball season usually filled out a full team roster as well. Track was the other major sport. It required starting blocks, electronic timing devices, shot and discus, and a chalk machine shared with the baseball team for marking lanes and foul lines. Stored overhead, were crossbars for the high jump plus an inflatable landing bag for it. Dennis knew there were weights and mats in the training room.

“You know, Ardith, if you’re successful with the basketball team and there’s enough interest, you should consider starting a girls’ track team, too. Keeps them interested and in shape after the season.” From that point, the coaches went over the equipment, handing Dennis balls that he put on a rolling rack and marked for the Angelines. When they thought they had everything that could be provided Dennis spoke up.

“Coach, last year I saw a stack of practice jerseys that didn’t look like they were used all season. It will be helpful to have those for scrimmages. Girls can’t exactly play shirts and skins.”

“Where are those?” Coach Byers asked.

Dennis crawled to the back of the locker and brought out a box with lightweight jerseys intended to be worn loose over a T-shirt.

“I’ll be. I wondered who ordered these and when?” Jim said. “Well, I think this comes under the category of finders-keepers. You win the practice jersey contest.”

Coach Byers handed Dennis a new Spalding basketball, still in the box.

“Coach?” Dennis asked as he looked at the new ball.

“Every team needs a game ball. Just for games, got it? And make sure all the balls are properly inflated before tryouts, I know that one I handled was soft.” They laughed and left the locker to return to the coach’s office. He rummaged around in his desk and brought out a key which he handed to Dennis. “You know the lecture on keys,” he said. “No unauthorized use. Don’t lose it. Turn it in at the end of the season. Sign here to indicate you got your key.”

“Can I check it first?” Dennis asked. The coach nodded and Dennis ran to the locker to try the key.

“I hope you really use him,” Jim said to Ardith. “That boy has potential. I wish we’d been better at keeping track of what was happening last year and I’m thankful that he’s willing to come back.”

“Me, too,” Ardith breathed. “He’s golden. I just hope he’s strong enough to not get walked on by the girls. So far, they’re accepting, but I’ve only talked to the Armors and a couple of others. I don’t want to be a mother hen watching over him, but I’ll keep an eye out.”

Chapter 4

“OKAY, LADIES. Thank you all for coming to the tryouts for the Bartley High School Angelines basketball team!” The girls on the bleachers cheered, happy to be able to try out for the team. Ardith was a little disappointed that only fourteen girls signed up. She could, of course, just take them all on the team, but she wasn’t really sure why a couple of them were there. They showed no sign of ability or interest. And there was a cheerleader among them as well. That wouldn’t work. Well, she had to work with what she had.

“First, before you set foot on the court, you need to hand your permission slip to our team manager, Dennis. Those of you who make the team will need the medical form, also given to Dennis.”

“Isn’t he a bit young for a team manager? What is he, ten?” Carol Reston asked with a laugh.

“Let me tell you something ladies,” Ardith said. “Dennis has already earned a place on this team. You are all trying out for one. Figure that out.” There were nods and Dennis blushed when Natalie shot him a thumbs up. “We’re going to start with your basic stats. I will be measuring your height and body mass. Then we’ll do some general warmups. Following that we’ll do a few speed and jumping tests. You’ll get two chances at each test and we’ll take the average of the two for your score. Line up at the scale and give Dennis your name and age before you step on.” The girls lined up and started toward the scale where Ardith measured height and weight and gave the numbers to Dennis.

“This is embarrassing,” Judith Long whispered to Dennis after she gave him her name and age of fourteen. “Don’t you dare tell anyone how much I weigh!”

Dennis made a zipping motion across his mouth. “It’s no one’s business but Coach’s,” he said. “I won’t even remember.” That wasn’t precisely true.

Ardith had put Dennis through the tests earlier in the week so he would know what was needed and how to help the girls trying out to perform their best. The SPARQ test included lane agility, standing vertical jump, kneeling power ball throw, three-quarter court sprint, multi-stage hurdle, and max touch measurement. Dennis was exhausted by the time he was through all six stages, but his results weren’t bad for a guy his size. The girls who were the least athletic, of course, fared the worst, some not managing to throw the 2-kilo power ball more than three feet. The three-quarter court sprint saw times from 2.5 seconds to 5 seconds. Then Ardith turned to some of her own tests.

Dennis had given each girl a practice jersey with a number pinned to the back so he could follow Ardith up and down the sideline taking notes as she spoke to them.

“Now, we’re going to do some ball handling exercises and I’ll be watching you dribble, run, shoot, and pass. These are more subjective exercises and I’ll be evaluating what I see on a general quality scale of one to five. I want to see how you handle the ball. I’m also looking at your endurance. Basketball is a game of running. On average, players run a little over two-and-a-half miles during a game of thirty-two minutes. The running is almost always sprint and stop, sprint and stop. Any questions?” No one raised a hand. Ardith pointed out seven girls. “You seven are first up. Grab a ball from Dennis and line up under the basket at this end of the court. Now, dribble the ball as quickly as you can run down the court to the other end. Then turn and dribble back. Remember, I’m looking for both speed and ball handling.” She blew her whistle and the girls took off. One bounced the ball off her foot and ended up chasing it all the way to the end. She did better on the way back.

When they all reached the end line again, Ardith blew her whistle to stop them. “This time I want you to back up down the court while dribbling the ball. Ready?” She blew the whistle again. There was really only one of the girls who maintained control of the ball while she ran backward down the court. Two actually fell on their butts. When they returned, she blew the whistle again. “Rack the balls and second seven come to the court.”

Dennis followed Ardith taking notes for about two hours before she had the girls sit on the bleachers and listen to her. Dennis handed towels and water bottles to the sweaty girls.

“That does it for today. I’m going to have a little discussion with you about why you want to play. Think of it as a job interview. I’ll call you to my office after school Monday and Tuesday and show you your tabulated test results. It may take us that long to get them figured out. Please give some thought about why you want to be on this team and the schedule that will be posted on the team bulletin board next to my office. Your appointment time will also be on the board. You are responsible for checking the board for your timeslot. If you don’t show up, you won’t be on the team. Yes, this is a test. If you’ve decided after this little practice today that you don’t want to be considered for a place on the team, it would be courteous of you to let Dennis know so he doesn’t schedule you for an appointment. Okay, that’s it. Hit the showers and get dressed. Drop your towels in the bin by the locker room door and be out of here in twenty minutes. We want to go home, too.”

“Well, you aren’t the shortest any longer,” Ardith said to Dennis when they sat to go over the interview notes Wednesday afternoon.

“You’re putting Brenda Grant on the team?” Dennis asked. She was the only girl who tried out who was shorter than Dennis at just five feet even. “I thought she was a cheerleader.”

“Says she’d rather play basketball than cheer for someone else playing. And her numbers were all good. She’s powerful and in good shape.”

“Yeah,” Dennis agreed. Brenda was petite but one of the prettiest seniors in the school. She had a great shape.

“Of course, we have the Armors. They feel in some ways responsible for the team and its success. If Natalie isn’t voted the team captain, it will only be because she’s a sophomore. With only Roberta, Daniella, Brenda, and Carol in the upper grades, they might go with one of the older girls. The other six are all freshmen and sophomores, which speaks well for our team’s future.”

“Only six? Did you cut four?”

“Two were told they had to try out by their parents but weren’t really interested. One came just to see what it was like. And one didn’t bother to show up for her interview. Here’s something, though. There were twelve playing at the noon scrimmage today. I talked to some of the girls and they said they wouldn’t mind playing intramural but couldn’t make the time commitment for the team. You know what that means?”

“Really? Do you think there are enough of them to have intramural teams?”

“We’ll have to test the waters. I don’t want to turn anyone away who wants to play. I’ll talk to Jim and Andy. Maybe we should make intramural mixed teams,” Ardith mused.

“Wow! We’re really becoming a progressive school,” Dennis said. “Why I remember a time when girls could only cook and sew. Now look. They think they can play on boys’ teams.” Ardith was shocked. He said it with such a straight face that until he started laughing, she thought he was serious.

“You are going to either become my best decision at this school or my constant nightmare,” she breathed.

“May I apply for both positions?”

“Go home! Get the roster ready to post tomorrow morning. And don’t forget to tell your parents about the manager training session Saturday. We’ll ride over with Jim, Andy, and the four boys’ managers. I can’t believe the school is giving us a bus for the trip.”

Dennis headed out and started the walk home. On the way, he thumbed Natalie’s phone number and sent her a text. *Guess who made the team?*

It was only a few seconds before he got a response. *Don’t tell me. They let u play, too?*

*No. Shorter than me.*

*Really? Brenda gave up cheer squad?*

*Yeah. I’ll send the rest of the roster as soon as I get home.*

*Can’t wait. CU.*

Dennis was elated. Just a few weeks ago, Natalie Armor was someone he worshipped from afar. Now he was texting with her. Life was pretty damn good.

Until he saw three boys walking ahead of him. He recognized them at once. All three had been suspended or expelled, but as far as he knew, they were still just hanging around town. He knew Lee was working part time at the Phillips 66 station. And Jerry was working at the C-Store. He’d heard rumors that Jerry thought he was the drug kingpin. He never could remember the other boy’s name but they spelled trouble if you ran into them. He looked around quickly, hoping they didn’t realize who he was, and cut through Mrs. Davis’s yard to get to the next street. Her dog put up a fuss and Dennis caught a glimpse of the boys speeding up to chase after him.

Fuck! If he took time to call for help, they’d catch up to him before he got the call made. He poured on the speed and cut back through the Klienfelters’ yard to hide behind their storage shed.

“You’re sure it was him?”

“I’d recognize that little shit a mile away. He owes me a world-class blowjob and I’ll get it even if I have to beat him unconscious and then fuck his mouth.”

“He must have cut back to Maple Street.” The boys left through the yard and headed back the way they’d come. Now Dennis had time to make the call. He ignored 911. The county sheriff could take hours to get there. He called Coach Graves.

“Coach, it’s Dennis. I’m being chased. They’ll kill me.”

“Where are you?”

“On Oak Street headed toward home.” Just then he passed the gap between two houses and the boys on the next street over saw him.

“There he is!” They started after him and he took off running again.

“They’re right behind me,” he gasped. He didn’t hear Ardith saying she was on her way. He just clutched the phone in his hand and ran as hard as he could. He’d run the three-quarter court sprint in under three seconds, but he had to get a lot farther than seventy-five feet to be safe from these thugs. He could hear their feet getting closer and then felt the shove on his backpack. He stumbled forward sliding on his knees.

“Think you can run away forever, punk?” Lee spat. He kicked Dennis in the stomach, doubling him over. “You owe me for getting me kicked off the team and expelled. I’ll start with the blowjob you owe and then I’m going to beat the crap out of you.” He unzipped his pants.

“Are you crazy, man?” one of the other two demanded. “Right here in the middle of the street?” The one Dennis couldn’t remember the name of looked even bigger than he had last year.

“Who’d see?” Lee snapped. “Okay. Okay. On your feet pussy. Let’s find someplace more comfortable. For me.” He was dragging at Dennis’s backpack strap, trying to get the boy to stand up. Dennis had just gone limp. He was too scared to move. He heard tires squeal behind them and someone laying on the horn.

Ardith slid to a stop and slammed her car into park, jumping out and snapping pictures as quickly as her feet hit the ground. The boys looked at her as if she was a madwoman and began to run. At that moment she was. She pulled Dennis to his feet.

“Get in the car. We’ll run them down,” she shouted. Half a block away the three looked back and saw the car headed toward them. They cut through yards to get to the next block over, taking advantage of the gaps between houses that were mostly open and unfenced. That’s just the way it was in their small town. Ardith raced to the next cross-street and squealed around the corner. There was no sign of the boys.

“Do you know who they were?”

“Yeah. I don’t remember the name of one of them. I know the other two.”

“Call the sheriff on 911. We’re going hunting.” She slowly cruised up and down the town’s few streets as she held out her hand for Dennis’s phone.

“911, state your emergency please.”

“I want to report an attempted mugging in Bartley. I’m taking the victim home but we’ve lost the attackers. We have pictures and at least two of their names.”

“The sheriff is half an hour away from Bartley. It will be dark by the time he gets there.”

“Have him come to 425 Elm Street. I’m taking the victim home and will wait there for the sheriff.”

“I’ll have him put you on his patrol list and he’ll get to you soon.”

“On the list? I called with an emergency!”

“You have stated that the victim is safe now and you’ve lost sight of the perpetrators. The sheriff will get to you as soon as he can. Have a good day.”

The line went dead and Ardith swore beneath her breath as she handed the phone back to Dennis. She drove up and down the streets one more time and then took Dennis home.

“Mom! Coach Graves is with me.” Peg came running down the hall and threw her arms around her brother.

“You’re late,” she chided him. “I want dinner.”

“I’m sorry, sister. We’ll get dinner right away. But Coach Graves needs to talk to Mom.” Their mother came into the room from the kitchen.

“What happened?” she demanded. “Your pants are torn and you’re all scraped up.”

“Lee Smith,” Dennis said. “He and Jerry Unger and that other kid that runs around with them. They met up with me on the street and I couldn’t outrun them. Coach came to rescue me.”

“I called the sheriff,” Ardith said. “He’ll come here to get statements if you don’t mind my staying a few minutes. I’m just glad I was close enough to respond when Dennis called.”

“Oh, dear. If your father finds out about this…”

“If I find out about what?” Will said coming in from the garage. He took one look at his son and said, “That boy again? I swear I’ll kill him this time.”

“Take it easy, dear. Please don’t do anything rash. The sheriff is coming. Let’s let him take care of it.”

“Bunch of do-nothings. The Smiths have the sheriff in their pocket. He won’t touch them.” Will was stone-cold sober. He was like that when he was working and the grain elevator had hired him early in September for the late-season harvest. Corn had started to come in from around the area. It was good work, even if it only lasted a month or two. But nothing got him upset like his boy being attacked by that Smith kid.

“Dinner’s ready to be served. Are you hurt more than the scrapes, honey?” Dot asked.

“No, Mom. I’ll have a sore side where he kicked me, but that’s all.”

“Well, go wash up then and come to the table. Ms. Graves, I’ll set another place if you’ll stay.”

“Thank you. I suppose I’d better wait for the sheriff.”

Dinner was quiet. Ardith tried to engage in conversation, bragging about what a great help Dennis had proven himself already. His dad reached over and ruffled his son’s hair. Peg copied the gesture and giggled. After dinner, Ardith watched Dennis read to his sister and send her to bed. The sheriff finally showed up about nine, three hours after it had been called in.

He took the statements from Ardith and Dennis and closed his note pad.

“Well, I can drive by and give Lee a warning. It’s really just your word against his,” the sheriff said.

“What about the photos I took?” Ardith demanded.

“They don’t really say a thing. Looks like three boys helping a kid who fell down. I can’t really blame them. You’re the reason he got expelled and has to go to North Fork to finish school. Something like that is going to cause hard feelings.”

“Dennis didn’t get him expelled,” Will exploded. “His abuse and bullying got him expelled. Don’t you dare blame my son for that.”

“Well, be that as it may, I’m just saying. I’ll go over and have a chat with the Smiths.” The sheriff turned and left without another word.

Ardith saw a cold look come across Will’s face and shuddered. She didn’t want to be on the receiving end of that kind of look.

Dennis got the new team roster posted first thing the next morning. His hand was wrapped in a gauze bandage. He’d spent half an hour picking pieces of gravel out of his hand after everyone had left and it bled freely. His side hurt and it was difficult to stand up straight.

He tried to stay out of sight from the new friends he had on the team and went home with the departing crowd right after school was out.

He was surprised at the text message he got as soon as he was home.

*What happened?*

*Who’s this?*

*Amy. Put my number in your contacts.*

*I fell.*

*It was my brother, wasn’t it?*


*I knew it. He was weird all last evening. Didn’t go to work.*

*Not just him.*

*LMG Lee Smith n Harry Conway.*


*Okay. LMK if you need anything, teammate.*

That was quite a message and Dennis scrolled through the conversation again. He didn’t know Amy very well. She was a freshman but he’d figured out she was Jerry Unger’s little sister. He’d kind of avoided her because of that, but she called him. He wondered how she knew something happened.

It turned out the whole team did.

Chapter 5

“WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING,” Brenda said at the informal gathering of the basketball team. She was the smallest on the team, but also the oldest at nearly eighteen. “I’ve been on his end of abuse. Why do you think I chose not to be a cheerleader any longer? I’d go to war if I found out one of you had been raped or abused.”

“What can we do?” Rosie asked. In a weird switch, she was the tallest player but also the youngest ninth grader on the team.

“We should make sure he doesn’t have to walk home alone,” Natalie said. “They caught up with him after he stayed late to help Coach with the team selection. It’s our responsibility.”

“Oh, just a minute girl. Coach says we have to put up with him as our team manager. Nobody’s paying me to be his babysitter.” The only other senior on the team, Carol had little use for underclassmen—especially Dennis. She was seriously reconsidering whether she even wanted to be on a team with these children.

“How much do you charge an hour?” Daniella asked. “Maybe we can pay you to care.”

“I don’t need this. I thought we were meeting for team business. When kindergarten gets out, call me.” Carol got up and left the room. Her teammates watched her go, wondering if she’d be back.

“Back to the problem,” Natalie said. “What else can we do?”

“Those three guys are the problem,” Diane said. “We should report them to the police.”

“I heard the sheriff came to visit Dennis later that night,” Roberta said. “Get this, it took him three hours to respond. And when he’d taken statements from Dennis and Coach, he said it was just his word against theirs. Everyone knows the Smiths are untouchable.”

“How do they get so much money?” Leanne asked. A tenth grade classmate of Natalie and Dennis, she was the only black girl on the team. That made sense in a way. Hers was the only black family in town.

“Oh, you don’t know?” Brenda asked. “What’s the major cash crop of this part of Iowa?”

“Corn,” chimed several of her teammates.

“And what’s the major ingredient of moonshine?”

“Corn,” whispered Leanne.

“Right. I don’t have anything against the alcohol industry particularly. If he created a legal business and paid the taxes, I’d say fine. Successful businessman. But Lee’s great grandfather started a still in the backwoods during prohibition almost a hundred years ago. Everyone knows they’re still making moonshine. And it’s stronger than legally allowed. Competes with Everclear,” Amy said.

“How do you know so much about it?” Leanne asked.

“My brother. He’s one of the bullies and brags about what Lee’s 180 proof moonshine will do to a man. So, I looked it up. 180 proof is ninety percent alcohol. In the United States, moonshine is limited to being distilled at eighty percent alcohol and can’t be bottled at more than 62.5%.”

“How do they get away with it?”

“Money,” Brenda said.

“And fists,” Amy added. “That’s how Jerry got involved. He and Harry were recruited to help Lee as an enforcer. If they can’t buy you off or you get too expensive, you can expect a beating. Probably beat until you’re crippled. I hear that’s what happened to Mr. Jenkins at the grocery store. That was before these three, though.” Claude Jenkins was fifty-seven years old and worked as a stock boy in the grocery store. A job he’d held since he was twenty years old after a beating so severe it left him brain damaged and with a permanent limp.

“I’ve been a classmate of Lee’s since kindergarten until he was expelled,” Brenda said. “He’s always been a bully. I don’t think he’ll ever change unless someone gives him a taste of his own medicine and leaves him in the same condition as Mr. Jenkins.”

“I personally don’t think we should do that,” Natalie said. “But can we work out a way for Dennis not to need to walk home alone after practice?”

“I drive to school,” Brenda said. “I can sometimes take him home. I wouldn’t want to do it every night. It would be too much like dating.” All the girls laughed at that.

“We can take a shift,” Roberta said. “With three of us, we’ve been driving to school since we got our licenses.”

“I’ll turn sixteen soon,” Diane said. “Mom’s already said Jude and me can use the car so she doesn’t need to come and get us after practice.”

“That’s really nice of you, Diane,” Natalie said. “I’m glad you’ll have transportation to get back to White Center. I was worried about that.”


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