Authors: Mike Lupica
“Okay,” he said.
They all got up, started walking over to thank Bobby for the food. Jake acted as if he'd forgotten something at the table, went back there and slid a ten-dollar bill, what he'd brought with him for dessert, underneath the saltshaker as a tip. Then he went over and shook Bobby's hand himself, Bobby saying, “Make sure you say hi to Wyatt, you talk to him.”
When they were in the parking lot, Nate and Barrett were talking about their free meal like they'd won some kind of lottery.
“Maybe there's no such thing as a third-string Cullen in Cullenville,” Barrett said.
THEY DROPPED OFF NATE FIRST, AT HIS SMALL TWO-STORY
house on the outskirts of town, almost to the border of Ashton. Nate's dad drove for UPS and his mom worked as a teller at the same bank, Granger National, that Libby Cullen's dad had once run.
On the way back to the Cullens' spread, all hundred acres of it, a working ranch that raised Black Angus cattle and horses, Barrett was still talking about Calvin.
“You know what bothers me the most?”
“None of it should bother either one of us,” Jake said. “That was just Calvin being Calvin. He's fine.”
“If he's already made up his mind that Casey's gonna be our starter, what's he stressed out about you for?”
“Maybe it's just another way of him looking up the field,” Jake said. “Maybe he's worried that if Casey can push Tim out of a job, I can do the same to Casey.”
“Well, maybe he's right about
then,” Barrett said. “Like a blind squirrel finding an acorn.”
“Except I'm not as good as Casey,” Jake said. “So Calvin doesn't need to go hunting more acorns. Casey seems to be feeding him just fine.”
“My daddy says that if you think of yourself as a backup, that's all you're ever gonna be,” Barrett said.
They had made it to the other side of town now, the west side, were on the bumpy back road that felt like dirt, getting close now to the ranch. It was one of those Texas summer nights, under what they called the big sky, when you felt like you didn't even need headlights. All the light you needed came from the stars and the big moon hanging in the sky.
“Bear,” Jake said, “I only think of myself as a backup because I
“Sounds more like a backup
to me,” Barrett said.
“More like a basic truth. There's nothing wrong with being a backup.”
Barrett took a deep breath, blew it out so hard it put a circle of fog on the windshield.
“No, there's nothing wrong with it. Unless you tell yourself you're not good enough to start, in which case maybe you don't
to be good enough.” He paused, like he was deciding whether or not to keep going. Then he did. “And if you've spent your whole life believing your daddy didn't think you were good enough, then maybe you can't let him down.”
Jake turned his head and looked at Barrett, his eyes on the road, lit by the dashboard and the sky. He was never a big talker, even when Nate wasn't around. So this was the same as a long speech for him.
“I never said anything about not wanting to let my dad down,” Jake said.
“So maybe I'm saying it for you,” Barrett said. “You got him. You got your brother. Everybody in this town acts like y'all are some kind of football royalty, like y'all just fell into it like a pig in slop. But they don't take time to think what it must be like to be you. Have to walk in their football shoes. I don't know a whole lot about the Mannings. But I know their dad Archie
favored one son over the other. Wish I could say the same for
Not even Jake's mom had ever come out and put it straight to him like this, the truth that Jake carried around inside himself. You heard people all the time, grown-ups mostly, telling you to speak from the heart. Only now Barrett wasn't just speaking from his heart.
He's speaking from
mine, Jake thought.
They passed through the main gate to the ranch. Barrett pulled over and stopped the truck next to a fence that Jake had painted last summer to earn extra money. No cattle around now, no horses, just open fields on both sides of the gravel drive where Jake and Wyatt used to come down and throw the ball around, sometimes their dad with them.
“C'mon,” Bear said to Jake, “let's see that fancy new throwing motion of yours.” Like he was reading Jake's mind.
Jake said, “Even if I did want to throw, where would I find anybody this time of night good enough to
“Ha-ha,” Bear said.
Jake got out, and the two of them climbed over the fence, the way they'd been climbing this fence to play football since they were kids. And after just a few minutes, Jake knew, just by feel, that he was already more comfortable throwing the way Coach Jessup had shown him at Cullen Field.
Barrett had trained his headlights on the field they were on now, and with that and the light from the sky, they could follow the flight of the ball just fine. It was late, and neither one of them cared, acted like they didn't have a care in the world, laughing and woofing on each other, Barrett not only looking like a guy who could be a decent tight end, but doing some funny imitations of the little shimmy Calvin would do after he caught a touchdown pass.
“Need two favors,” Jake called out to him at one point.
“You got 'em.”
“Don't ever shake your hips like that in front of anybody except me,” Jake said. “And don't ever dance fast with Emma Jean.”
“Later it gets,” Barrett said, “funnier you get.”
They weren't under the lights of Cullen Field on a Friday night of Texas high school football. But it was all right, Jake thought. More than all right. Out here with his friend, under the lights they had, Jake was happy.
Tonight he loved it.
THE NEXT SUNDAY, THE DAY BEFORE SCHOOL BEGAN, WYATT
surprised his family by showing up at about three in the afternoon, no advance warning, just walking through the front door.
His coach had given the Longhorns the day off, and one of Wyatt's freshman teammates lived two towns over. So Wyatt had hitched a ride and here he was, his hair shorter than when he'd left for Austin a few weeks ago, a little soul patch of hair under his lower lip, something his mother noticed immediately.
“You must be a college man now,” she said, pulling back from hugging her oldest son. “Seems to me you still couldn't grow facial hair when you left.”
” Wyatt said. “I just chose not to.”
“I think it's cool,” Jake said. “Coach McCoy said no facial hair for us, that the times might change but he won't.”
The brothers didn't hug each other, just did lean-in shoulder-bumps.
“Maybe someday if you're starting,” Wyatt said, “you can be the one to get him to change some of his ways. I never could.”
Troy Cullen, just in from a ride on his favorite cutting horse out to check some broken fence at the far end of the property, said, “You know in my dayâ”
Far as he got before Wyatt, grinning at Jake, said, “In
“The only day that really mattered,” Jake said.
“Couple of comedians I raised,” Troy Cullen said, taking off his black Resistol cowboy hat and banging the dust off it. “But in my day, we'd
to shave first thing after the game, when the girls would start to come around.”
Libby Cullen smiled. “And, Lordy, weren't they always around you like bees around honey?”
He put his arms around his wife, his sweetheart since Granger High, and said, “Who can explain the power Cullen men have over women?”
“It's almost like a scent you give off, dear,” their mom said, waving her hand in front of her nose. “Unless that's just the smell of horses.”
Then she said for the Cullen men to go sit down and get reacquainted in the den while she made up a batch of iced tea for them.
Jake wondered why they needed to get reacquainted, leastways his dad and Wyatt. Wyatt had only been gone a day under three weeks, and Troy Cullen had been in Austin more than half that time watching the Longhorns get ready for their season. The last time he'd been over there had been on Thursday, watching a nighttime practice.
Now he wanted to know if the left side of the offensive line had gotten any better, and if Wyatt was on the same page finally with his senior tight end, and whether or not they'd put in more play-action.
Wyatt said, “Yes, yes, and yes,” then was telling them bothâbut really telling his dadâhow they'd strapped on their helmets the last couple of days and practiced for real, Wyatt scrambling yesterday and taking such a hard lick from an outside linebacker, he thought it would take till the middle of this week to catch his breath.
“Hits'll get even harder when you're wearing the orange for real,” his dad said.
“Tell me about it,” Wyatt said.
“Hey!” Troy Cullen said, turning to Jake. “Why don't you go ask Mom to fix us up some guacamole and chips to go with that iced tea?”
Jake nodded, got up, and left the two of them there, Wyatt telling their dad now that he was throwing the ball as well as he ever had in his life, didn't matter who he was throwing to these days. And saying he felt that more and more the coaches were tailoring the offense around him even though he was just a freshman.
From the hall he heard his dad's big voice telling Wyatt, “Everyone's got to stop thinking of you as a freshman and understand you were a college QB when I dropped you off there.”
When Jake got to the kitchen, he grabbed a dish towel and put it over his arm like he was a waiter and gave his mom the order.
“I think your sense of humor was one more thing you got from me,” she said.
“I think Dad was afraid I might interrupt while he and Wyatt were game-planning for Washington,” Jake said.
“Oh, you know your father and Texas football,” she said. “He's never gotten over that the Longhorns didn't want him when he was coming out of Granger High.”
Jake grinned. “You think Wyatt's coaches are gonna mind when dad starts trying to explain football to them?”
Libby Cullen turned around at the counter and smiled now. He'd see it sometimes when his dad was going on about something or other, being an expert on something new because he was an expert on everything, usually in a voice you could hear all over the property. It was a smile that loved her husband, understood him,
made fun of him all at the same time.
“He's an involved football parent,” she said.
“Well,” Jake said, the words out of his mouth before he could stop them, “at least with the other quarterback in the family.”
The smile disappeared off her face, wiped clean, as she said, “Jacob Cullen, your father loves both his sons, and you know it.”
Jake wondered, thinking about what Bear had said the other night.
But that was a thought that stayed inside him, the way it always did. He dropped it, just like that. Jake understood something about himself: He'd always hated tension, his whole life. Had always gone out of his way to try to make things right with the people around him, even when he knew they were wrong. Even when they were a part of his own family. “My pleaser” his mom had always called him, always letting him know that she thought that was a good thing.
But the truth was, Jake didn't know how much his father loved him. Just knew he didn't love him the way he wanted him to.
The way he loved Wyatt.
He carried the guacamole and a bowl of chips back to the den. His mom carried a tray with the pitcher of iced tea on it, glasses, cut-up lemon and lime and even oranges, because she knew Wyatt loved orange in his iced tea. Libby Cullen, Jake knew by now, never did anything halfway, not even a snack, where her family was concerned. Jake had always thought she was the one who really did know everything, in her quiet way, that quiet way she said Jake got from her.
She sat with them for a few minutes, listening to Wyatt's report from preseason practice, the one she had been getting practically on a daily basis from her husband, who had been living the whole thing right along with Wyatt.
“Game's starting to slow down now, that's what I see happening,” Wyatt was saying.
“Wish I'd see it happening for me,” Jake said.
“Yeah, little brother,” Wyatt said, still calling Jake that even though Jake was taller now. “I forgot to ask, how you goin' so far with the blue and white?”
Jake walked over to pour himself some iced tea, saying over his shoulder, “Gettin' there, I guess. Coach Jessup's been working with me a bit after practice, and that's helped. Can't get a read on Coach McCoy, though, except when I mess up and get that hundred-yard stare of his.”
When Jake turned back around, waiting for a response, he saw Wyatt staring down at his cell phone, sitting there next to him on the couch. Giving it that quick look down you gave your phone when you had it out like that, seeing if a new text had come in the last five seconds or so.
Wyatt held up the phone now to Jake. “Calvin,” Wyatt said. “Wants to meet up in town later, hear all about UT.”
Then: “You were saying something about Coach McCoy?”
With that, Wyatt stood up and said, “Might as well head in to town now, meet up with some of my guys.”
Meaning his old teammates at Granger. Like he was still captain of the team. Didn't ask Jake if he wanted to come along; Jake didn't expect him to. Jake never took it as mean or took offense, just saw it as Wyatt being Wyatt.
Libby Cullen said, “You just make sure you're home in time for dinner, college man.”
“Wouldn't miss it, Mama, been thinking about your home cooking since I woke up this morning.”
Wyatt gave Jake a pat on the head as he went by him, said he'd text him later when he knew where he was going to be, probably at the new Amy's Ice Cream that had opened in Granger during the summer, trying to give Spooner's a run for its money.
“Have Dad show you this pass I threw when he was watching us Thursday night. Coach said it was the best deep sideline he'd seen, no lie, since your boy Eli hit Mario Manningham the Super Bowl before last.”
Then he was gone.
Troy Cullen was already pointing his remote at the big screen, saying, “Man, did he ever get 'er done with that throw. Just gimme a second till I find the right place on the DVD I burned.”
Jake said, “Love to.”
He felt his dad looking at him then, turned and saw the funny look on his face. Jake realized as soon as he spoke that Troy Cullen hadn't heard him right.
“Well, hell, son, I love you, too,” he said.
Jake had to sit there and watch more than just the throw Wyatt was talking about, had to watch and listenâmostly listenâas his dad broke down the last twenty or so plays of practice like he really was one of Wyatt's coaches.
“Good for you to see what it all looks like at the next level,” his dad said, staring intently at the screen, like he was going to pick up on something he'd missed the other times he'd watched these same plays.
Jake thought to himself,
I can't handle the level I'm
and he's already talking about the next one.
” Troy Cullen said now, freezing the picture, showing him where all the downfield receivers were, all covered, then hitting Play again as Wyatt checked down to his tight end for a ten-yard gain. “See the feel your brother has for this game at nineteen, 'fore he ever takes a for-real snap in college football?”
“He's really something,” Jake said.
When the film session was finally over, Jake went up to his room, got on his computer for a while before he got a text from Barrett telling him that he and Nate were on their way over. They wanted to go into town and just hang out.
Barrett arrived about fifteen minutes later, and the three of them were on their way into Granger, Jake telling his buds that Wyatt was home.
“Whoa,” Barrett said. “Wyatt
? You get to, like, talk to him?”
Barrett had never been Wyatt's biggest fan; neither had Nate. Neither one of them went too far making a thing out of it, mostly keeping it light, sarcastic comments about Wyatt being Mr. Perfect, in Jake's family and in Granger.
Jake said, “Let's not start in on my brother.”
Barrett said, “Who thinks you're just one more person in this town's supposed to kiss the ground he walks on.”
“C'mon, Bear,” Jake said. “You grew up in our house almost as much as you did your own. You know Wyatt's not really like that. He's just got his own deal goin', is all.”
“Whatever.” Dropping it like he'd taken it as far as he wanted to. Or as far as Jake did.
When they got into town, Barrett parked the truck in front of RadioShack, saying he needed a new phone charger. Then the three of them walked around a bit. Most of the stores were closed on Sunday afternoon. They ended up walking past the hardware store and the feed store and Jake's Deli and Mo's Coffee Stop and Artie's Mobil Mart gas station and convenience store, which was always open, even on Thanksgiving and Christmas. They walked the four blocks of Granger's main downtown area and then crossed the street and came back, none of them in any hurry or needing to be anyplace, enjoying their day off from practice, nobody mentioning that school would be starting in the morning, the official end of summer, even though their summer had really ended the day practice had started.
Wyatt doing with the 'Horns?” Nate said.
“You can ask him yourself, you want; he just texted me he's at Amy's already.”
“Man, now that
good news from your brother. I've been thinking about Amy's since we got to town,” Barrett said. “Tryin' to decide whether to get me a shake or a banana split.”
“Why's it got to be either-or?” Nate asked.
As soon as they walked into the front room, they could see the big crowd in back, past the counter, bunch of tables pulled together, Wyatt right in the middle of it all, his back against the wall, holding court the way he used to at Stone's after another big win for Granger High.
A bunch of players were there, Jake saw, Calvin and Melvin and Casey Lindell and some guys from the defense. Wyatt was doing all of the talking, everybody laughing now at something he'd just said. Almost like high school still hadn't ended for Jake's big brother.
Or might never end, at least in all the good ways.
Barrett said, “You sure you want to do this?”
“You feel like we'll be joining the crowd,” Nate said, “or the audience?”