After the funeral, the Widow sneaks out the back door hoping to avoid the reporters, but they are already there, waiting for her.
They charge when she steps outside, microphones thrust at her like daggers. They need quotes, the only things they care about are quotes, especially short quotes and pithy quotes, the kinds of quotes they can replay every ten minutes until people can recall them with the ease of ad slogans. The Husband had always been unfazed by the microphones, the shouting, the camera’s red eyes glaring at him; he seemed more comfortable when surrounded, was an expert at manipulating them. All it took was a simple hand gesture or a folksy aphorism. Even the unruliest of mobs would laugh at his jokes and then part gently and slip away, like a stream diverting around a rock.
But scandal invites more coverage than success. Scandal is more provocative, sells newspapers and ad space. There have never been this many reporters at one time, all jostling with one another to close in on her, to entrap her and physically extract quotes from her if necessary. Her world darkens and shrinks to the size of a bathroom stall.
She knows some of them—Hank and Sedrick and F. Wilson. She has attended charity golf tournaments and University fundraisers with them and allowed them into her home for coffee and cake. Over the past decade, they have been present for at least twenty dinners in honor of the Husband, ceremonies at which some former player would deliver a speech about what an inspiration the Husband was and then they would bestow upon him the Presidential Award for Courage or the U.S. Army Award for Leadership or the University Board of Trustees Award for Whatever. F. Wilson—who himself has emceed two of these events—once asked her what it felt like to be married to such a remarkable man, and seemed disappointed when she shrugged and said, “we all look the same in our underwear.” She tries to catch his eye now, but he drifts toward the edge of the pack like a teenager distancing himself from his parents at the mall. She wants to remind them all that she is a widow and she is in mourning, but that won’t appease them. All she sees are suits and arms and expensive haircuts, and everyone sounds the same; she cannot hear the actual questions over the buzz of collective accusation. As in: why did you marry a monster? As in: what are you going to do for the victims? As in: how could you have let this happen?
Her sons—where are her sons? They should be here pulling her to safety and they are not.
* * *
The Widow’s Husband used to be Important, Very Important. At the turn of the century, Time named him one of the 100 most influential men in American culture. The biographers have written five books about him, one for each decade of his coaching career. For many years, it was a rite of passage for young sportswriters to interview the Husband and write about his integrity and old-fashioned values. Few interviewed the Widow; these articles invariably reduced her to a secondary character, an old-fashioned homemaker too busy ironing slacks and prepping dinner to join the men in conversation. One of them dubbed her “the grandmother of college sports,” a nickname intractable and resilient as the ivy overtaking their back yard. There is a statue of him on the University’s campus, and a second had been commissioned prior to the rumors, prior to the protestors and the reporters camping on her lawn like vagrants.
Although he let the hero worship go to his head sometimes—started thinking he was too big a deal to, say, wash his dishes after dinner or that he was too busy to take his wife out to the movies for their monthly date—his importance, more often than not, was an incredible luxury. They drew applause just for entering a room, received gifts in the mail from adoring fans, never had to wait on a table or a reservation anywhere, and their sons were guaranteed good jobs in town. The family name was engraved on buildings across campus. They had the financial freedom to do nearly anything they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it. They personally met three U.S. presidents. All the good fortune meant the Widow had to spend much of her time writing thank-you notes, but it would be wrong for her to complain about a life in which the greatest hardship was always having to thank people for their generosity. Her mother died while giving birth to her and her father worked in the coal mines until his early death. She spent her adolescence living with her callous and severe grandmother, completing one year of high school before dropping out to work, first as a seamstress and then later as a secretary.
Was it wrong to have exploited his fame for her benefit? Should she feel guilty now for having allowed people to treat her nicely and living a life that was, in comparison to her upbringing, positively opulent? Does the scandal invalidate all the good they did? The Widow asks her Older Son these questions while they sit in a darkened living room behind drawn curtains. She wants him to tell her it’s okay, to wrap an arm around her shoulder, and say something like the Husband used to say, something inscrutable but reassuring like, “Darlin, sorrys don’t help nobody but the judge.”
The son shrugs, makes a sound like someone blowing out a lit match. Says, “I don’t know, ma. Maybe?”
Her son was never very smart. He never understood.
* * *
In her old life, she could count on the other wives to visit her during the slow days and the road trips, and she could bake them muffins and gossip about the neighbors over tea. She tells her Older Son that she wishes she could just make some cookies and take them down the street to Helen B., but there are too many people in the way, and anyway Helen B. has stopped returning her phone calls.
The Older Son says, “Muffins? Cookies? Don’t you get what’s happening right now?” There is contempt behind the bloodhound droop of his eyes. He is in the middle of crafting another press release on his laptop. Later, he will make a spate of phone calls to talk radio shows in hopes of salvaging the family name.
“It would be nice to be normal again,” the Widow says.
“Christ, ma, normal?” He slaps his laptop shut. “Muffins.” He scratches at the bald spot on the crown of his head. “Don’t you want to be, like, enlightened? You have permission to quit it with the Betty Crocker shit.”
The Older Son has three advanced degrees because they could afford to buy him degrees and the University owed them for their loyalty; the Husband could have taken more money at another school, could have job-hopped across the country like so many other coaches, but he did not. He stayed, always; the loyalty was key to his legend. “I like baking,” the Widow says. The son’s phone lights up and he answers on the first ring.
* * *
Someone published her phone number on the Internet, and people around the world have been calling for two days. To what end? To vent their rage, to frighten her, to bully her, to blame her. The Younger Son doesn’t understand why she even has a landline, let alone why she keeps it connected now amid the steady white noise of ringing. But she has always had a phone and she is too old to undo everything she knows about how the world works.
They sit quietly in the living room, the Husband’s recliner empty, the sons flanking her on the couch like prison guards. The television screen shines on her like a spotlight.
The sons are fiddling with their cell phones, playing games or texting or whatever they do instead of talking to her. The Widow flips through a Reader’s Digest, stares at the pages but never processes any words. In the back, there is a half-finished crossword puzzle, the Husband’s handwriting tilted right at its trademark thirty degree angle, as if being pushed by a strong tailwind. She scours the words he’s left behind as if hoping to find an encoded message from him. An explanation. An apology.
On TV, a journalist reveals new allegations while standing on her lawn, his back turned to the house. The word “alleged” is a safety net for the media, frees them to say any vile thing they want. The alleged sources are anonymous and are alleged to be offering enough evidence to annihilate the Husband’s legacy. The alleged victims are all children, or were at the time of their alleged victimization. The alleged crimes are unspeakable and unknowable; they are the kinds of things that didn’t exist when she was a child, that have always seemed to her like a product of the new generation, even though her rational brain knows better. The new accusations are alleged to have been the continuation of a thirty year pattern of sordid behavior. The allegations are so horrifying and extensive that they could be enough to ruin not just the family but the entire University.
How is a wife supposed to digest that kind of information about her husband? What is anyone supposed to say when faced with alleged child victims and alleged assaults and alleged ruined lives? “Can we turn this off?” she says. “Please?”
The Older Son says, “We have to stay out in front of the story. Best offense is a good defense, you know that.” The Husband is to blame for her son’s love of clichés.
* * *
Both sons’ phones buzz at the same time. They read something on their respective screens and then the Older Son harrumphs and snorts. Like the Husband, he does this because he wants someone to ask him what he’s snorting about.
“What’s wrong now?” the Widow says.
“Nothing, ma.” He does not look away from his phone.
He snorts again.
“You might as well just tell her,” the Younger Son says.
“What’s the point?”
“She’s going to hear about it eventually.”
“Then you tell her.”
Life has become a barrage of sad news. Every day there are new layers of depravity to explore. She does not want to know anything else, but also she does not want them to keep something from her.
The Older Son says, “How does her knowing do us any good?”
The boys go silent again. Scrolling and tapping and frowning.
She tosses her magazine on the coffee table and rises. The Younger Son stands to prevent her from leaving, but she brushes past him. “If you don’t want to talk to me, you don’t have to be in my house,” she says. When she pulls the front door open, the oxygen is sucked out of the room and the roar of questions whooshes into her home like a wildfire. Her sons hesitate, then charge with heads down through the fray. She slams the door behind them and watches the media chase them to the car before they drive off, presumably to the lawyer’s office. When they’re out of sight, she calls F. Wilson.
The Husband was known as a strong man, and in some ways he was, but the Widow knows better. She is the only one who has seen him sitting on the floor of a darkened closet after a bad loss, head in hands, refusing to eat; has seen him buckling under the weight of his father’s glare, his granite hands still a terror in old age; has seen him struggle to repair something as simple as a running toilet, tossing wrenches in frustration and blaming faulty tools; has seen him overcompensate for his long absences by spoiling the sons with useless trinkets; has been the only person to see him cry, which he did on weekday evenings for years when he would get gin-drunk on the recliner and stare blankly at the TV well past midnight. He was good at affecting strength, at channeling his weakness into rage and an obsessive work ethic. He carried himself like a General, insisted that people call him Coach, even asked her to refer to him as Coach when dealing with the public, which request she did not honor even once. He knew how to dial into the neuroses of his players—my kids, he always called them—and push them beyond their natural limits. The road to excellence is paved with exhaustion, he said, often enough that the quote is engraved on the base of his statue.
The University fired him the day after the story broke, and he seemed to age thirty years, his body deflating, his face sagging on him like a cheap Halloween mask. He did not leave his bed for three days, only sitting up to slurp on the broth she delivered to him. He tried growing a beard, thinking he could somehow fool the reporters and sneak off to freedom. He asked her to go outside and shoo them away, as if they were just a flock of itinerant birds causing a nuisance. “Let’s go travel,” he said, over and over. “Let’s get out of this place and see the world.”
A week into their confinement, she sat across from him at the dinner table and finally screwed up the courage to ask if all the accusations were true.
“Since when do you not trust me?” he said.
“Why can’t you answer me?”
“It’s insulting.” He scraped his fork across his plate, swirled it in his mashed potatoes.
“The things they’re saying—”
“I know what they’re saying.”
“You have to put an end to this.”
“Since when do you get involved in football business?” He left his plate at the table, and went downstairs to his home theater, locking the door behind him. As she scraped his uneaten food into the garbage, she heard him queuing up footage of an old game.
* * *
F. Wilson arrives in the morning. She wants to give him some quotes so he can run them in the morning and the story will fizzle out by tomorrow evening. By next week, there will be a new outrage somewhere else and everyone will leave her alone and forget about the Husband. This is how the cycle has always functioned.
If anyone is going to tell her side of the story, it should be F. Wilson. Usually the beat writers here use this job as a springboard to a more high-profile post, but F. Wilson has been in town for three decades, since his days as the team’s long-snapper. The Husband himself is responsible for getting F. Wilson this job, always valued having one of the writers in his corner during the inevitable rough patches, the losing streaks, the occasional flare-ups of scrutiny and investigations by the College Integrity Board. He has been here long enough to send all four of his children to the University, and to know her children as well as anyone outside the family.
F. Wilson shakes her hand as he enters; like so many players, his hands are enormous. An image of the Husband’s hands flashes into her mind, big as catcher’s mitts and advancing on an unseen victim. The word victim lodges itself inside her, somewhere between her heart and her lungs, presses on her like a tumor.
“I know you have to do this story,” she says. “I know you don’t have a choice.”
Leaning against the kitchen counter with his phone and his coffee in hand, he scans the room like a prospective buyer at an open house. “Haven’t been here since Coach passed.”
“I’m sorry it’s a mess,” she says, although she doesn’t know why, because she isn’t sorry, and it’s barely a mess, and probably it should be an even bigger mess than it is right now. Suddenly, she feels moved to knock over the flour container on the counter, to dump the trashcan onto the table, to throw her weight against the china cabinet and tip it over, shatter everything inside.
He scribbles something in his notepad. “Hey, can I record this? Is that okay?”
She waves a hand at him to indicate that recording is fine. “When do you think this will blow over?”
There have been controversies before—players cheating on tests or being paid by boosters or committing misdemeanors—but the Husband always got to be the hero of those narratives, eliminating troublemakers and then proselytizing about the importance of institutional ethics.
“It’s a complex story,” F. Wilson says. His phone buzzes, and he flips it open without an apology, and it occurs to her that maybe there isn’t any place for her in this world anymore.
Outside, the protestors are chanting. She can’t decipher the words nor the strategy; what, exactly, are they protesting? The man they want is dead. She is as culpable for the alleged crimes as the Queen of England. But they need somebody to shout at, somebody to absorb their rage.
Sometimes the students would gather like this after a big game, would wait for the Husband to return from his road trip and they would chant his name. He would grant them a kingly wave and they would proclaim their love for him as he disappeared into the house. They always dispersed by sunset and they cleaned their messes, were careful not to trample the azaleas planted astride the front door.
“So, okay, let’s get this thing started,” F. Wilson says, motioning for her to sit at the table with him. He is sweating and rumpled and does not look her in the eye. “Can you maybe talk about how you’re feeling?”
“How I’m feeling?”
“You know. Your emotions. People are interested in that kind of thing.”
“My husband is dead and people who hate me are sleeping on my lawn,” she says. “How do you suppose I feel?”
F. Wilson’s hands are in constant motion, wiping sweat or clicking his pen or pushing buttons on his phone. He has built his entire career around avoiding tough stories. He is a nice man, but limited in his usefulness. She should never have invited him, but now he is here.
“You know him as well as anybody,” the Widow says.
“He was a good man, wasn’t he?”
F. Wilson gulps his coffee like a college boy chugging beer at a tailgate party. “Yeah, yes. Of course he was.”
“Do you think he’s guilty?”
“It’s not really my place to decide,” he says.
“I wish people would stop acting like I’m too fragile to hear the truth.”
F. Wilson shakes his recorder. “It’s not working.”
“I’ve been thinking,” she says, while he fiddles with buttons on the recorder. “Do you think good people can do terrible things?”
“It’s really not for me to say.” He stands and pulls the chain on the ceiling fan. “This heat, man.”
The fan is old and it wobbles on each revolution, the cords rattling against each other. The wallpaper in here, hung by her sons fifteen years ago as a Mother’s Day gift, is peeling away at the seams, the walls beneath emerging—a foamy, bilious green she’d nearly forgotten.
“What do you, ah, think about that?” He tilts his cup as if there is more coffee hidden in there somewhere, peers into it like Elmer Fudd into his shotgun. “That thing about good people doing terrible things?”
“I used to believe it wasn’t possible,” she says. “But now I think it happens every day.”
Part of the deal you make when you become the Coach’s Wife is that he will often not be there. He will be at practice every day from August until January. He will take road trips every other weekend in the fall. He will attend benefit dinners and political fundraisers and speaking engagements and television interviews. He will leave you alone for weeks in the spring if there is a kid in Gainesville who can jump over a Chevy, and he will expect you to listen to detailed scouting reports on every one of those kids upon his return home. He will never offer to bring you with him because he says you’ll be bored, and anyway someone needs to stay home with the kids.
The better he is as a coach, the worse he is as a husband.
Still—football paid for the house and a life unlike anything her parents had ever dreamed for her. It saved her the graceless aging of a blue-collar worker, the arthritic hands and the aching back, the permanent limp. She was liberated from long evenings working overtime, from having to wake early to clip coupons to save fifty cents on light bulbs and toilet paper, from the relentless pressure of daily survival. By the time the boys had graduated and moved out, the Husband had earned enough money and records and accolades that there was no more benefit to him coaching anymore.
Fifty years ago, he’d promised her that football was a means to an end, a career that would give them everything they’d ever wanted, but it was the only end. There was nothing else.
In the beginning, wins energized him like Saint Paul after his conversion, but the wins were a pathology; he was greedy for wins, wins were the only thing that kept him afloat. Losses made him ugly and bitter, and wins only made him want more wins.
She used to root for the team more passionately than any diehard, but she hasn’t watched a full game in almost twenty years, got in the habit of reading on Saturday afternoons and checking the results on the news before the Husband came home. She hoped for frequent losses, disastrous performances on national TV, widespread second-guessing of the Husband. It was the only way. She didn’t want to see him embarrassed, didn’t want to deal with his moodiness, but he would never quit on his own; he would have to be fired, or at least pushed gently into retirement. Seventy-two was too old to be obsessing over game plans and spending months on the road recruiting teenage boys to play football.
Was it selfish of her to want her own husband to come back to her? Was she wrong to expect more from a marriage than two sons and a pretty house?
Last summer, she asked him to take her to Europe, and he said, “if you want to travel so bad, you can do it whenever you want.”
“The whole point is to go with you,” she said.
“And I do what? Quit? Let someone else run my team?” He turned the television volume up to signal the end of the conversation, like he always did.
He was married once before, nobody knows. He was twenty-one and she was eighteen and they were reckless. He got her pregnant, they married, and she miscarried. A year later, they quietly divorced. She met the ex-wife once, when the Husband was in the early stages of becoming a legend and a school publicist told him he needed to do some work “curating his past.” So they called the ex-wife into town, had a student show her around and treat her like a visiting dignitary. At the end of the day, the ex, buzzing on complimentary wine, signed a gag order promising never to reveal her past with the coach. She was pretty in a faded way, probably she was the most beautiful girl in town before real life had intervened; her hair was pulled into a hasty ponytail, and her head was bowed as if prepared to take orders. She never spoke to the Widow, did not want to meet the children, had no children of her own. When she signed the gag order, the University dispatched her and they never heard from her again.
* * *
After F. Wilson leaves, she calls the boys to ask for help digging through the Husband’s belongings. She wants to trash most of them and donate the rest, but the Older Son suggests they auction off his personal effects on the Internet. The Widow asks why anybody would want fifteen year old dungarees rubbed bare in the knees and he says, “Do you have any idea how much these are worth? Especially now that. Well. You know.” He claims the family name is toxic, none of them will ever be able to work again. He has already been fired and the Younger Son will lose his job soon. “We’re going to need the money,” he says.
The Widow is not worried about money, has enough to last her until she’s long dead, but the sons say the family may get sued, and they need a safety net. The boys never developed any useful skills, never learned how to do anything besides rely on their father’s name, and now that skill has become their greatest obstacle.
When they were born, she was still working as a secretary for an optometrist in town—this was before football coaches got paid like executives, back when the Husband had to work a summer job installing fences. That world: she remembers it distinctly but it feels so foreign that she wonders if she has imagined it all.
The Older Son was intense from the start, not a smiley, giggling baby, but stern and unhappy; during games of peek-a-boo, he scowled at her as if resenting her disappearances. He thrived in school and at work, was steady and reliable and as joyless as a day at the dentist. The Widow attended to him the way a mother should, fed him and clothed him and read him books, but never felt any particular affection for him, nor sensed that he wanted to be loved by her. She did not confess this feeling to the Husband, afraid it made her a terrible person—what kind of broken woman doesn’t love her own son?—and she worried that someday she would be stuck with a whole brood of cold-hearted children.
The Younger Son was born five years and one miscarriage later, and he was a much more lighthearted boy. Too soft, the Husband said from the start. He was the one she worried about when he was out of sight, the one she had to pick up at school because he’d burst into tears during history class, so upset by reading the fraught history of the Native Americans or the grim details of trench warfare. He was the one who was bullied and who begged his parents to send him to another school. He was the one who fell in love every other month in high school and had his heart broken so many times that it never recovered. The Younger Son had maladies and injuries and illnesses; he needed her, relied on her, while the other never even pretended she was necessary. Every pain the Younger Son felt, she felt it too, twice as deeply, knew instinctively when he’d been hurt, became expert at analyzing the sound of the phone’s ring to determine when it was telling her he’d been pushed down a flight of stairs or that the police had caught him digging through some girl’s garbage trying to retrieve a love letter he’d sent her. When children are young, you can solve their problems easily; they want something off a shelf, you reach it, their stomach hurts, you give them medicine and make them chicken soup. But the older they get, the more complex the problems they are and the more helpless a parent feels. It was outside her power to protect him as he moved through high school and college, and every time he ran into trouble, she begged the Husband to make a few phone calls, to pull some strings, to do whatever it is that powerful men do to make things better. The Husband insisted she was softening him up, she shouldn’t give in to his hysteria. “He spends too much time with you,” the Husband said. “He might as well wear an apron to school.”
Times like that, it was hard to explain why she had married him, a man so stubborn and limited in his comprehension that he thought everyone had to carry themselves like linebackers. Some boys are meant to do different things, she tried explaining, but he said, “Boys are boys and they’ll do whatever you train them to do.”
But the Husband made the calls still. He pulled the strings.
Hadn’t she, then, abused his power too? Hadn’t she turned a blind eye to it all?
There is one clip of her that plays on a loop while the news analysts talk over her. She is standing at her front door, groggy and disheveled, wearing a nightgown the Husband bought her twenty years ago. She looks disoriented, even deranged, a relic about to be steamrolled by the new media age. Across the world, every day, people are seeing this image: a bewildered fool who doesn’t even know what has been happening in her own home. Like a less savvy Edith Bunker. There is a sad history of women famous for being painfully oblivious to the crimes of their husbands, of being the last people in the world to know what their husband is truly like. She is looking out at a dozen reporters, the first responders, the ones who came banging on the door before sunrise to tell the Husband he’d been busted and to demand the family’s reaction. She hadn’t looked outside when they knocked, hadn’t prepped herself for the ambush of the cameras. The banging, she was sure, was the Younger Son, drunk again and wanting to sleep in his old bedroom. A fight with the wife, a reprimand at work, a panic attack—all of the above. She opened the door, expecting the Younger Son to push past her and stomp up the stairs to his room where his bed was made and his mail was sitting on the bedside table. In the morning, he would slink down to the kitchen, tell them everything was fine, take three hardboiled eggs from the refrigerator and walk home.
Her sons, she later learned, had already heard the news. They had read about it on the Internet and were—even at the moment she stood on the lawn in her nightgown—meeting with the lawyers and publicists across town. But they did not think to warn her. She viewed this omission not as cowardice, but as a pattern of perpetual neglect; they don’t think about her unless they have to.
Watching the footage for the thousandth time, she notices something new: the Husband is not surprised at all.
She has always focused on her own expression, the evolution from confusion to defensiveness to alarm as the reporters outlined the scandal for her. But now, while an expert panel debates exactly how monstrous the Husband was, she sees the Husband more clearly; for a moment the camera changes focus, the Widow blurring in the foreground while the Husband stands two steps behind her, hiding within the confines of his doorframe as if sheltering himself from an earthquake. He opens his mouth once but emits no sound, and he is already fading, leaving her to defend him.
In this moment of clarity, here is what she realizes: he knows exactly what is happening, knew this moment of reckoning was coming and still didn’t tell her.
The camera returns to her in time to catch her now-infamous sound bite: couldn’t this wait until morning? Viewing herself, her indignance, her total incomprehension, she sees her lack of education mapped across her face and the thought of it shames her in a way it never has before.
* * *
Did she ever love the Husband? It is difficult to say now, in hindsight. All she can see is the indifference, the absence, the occasional cruelty toward her son. It takes an immense effort to remember those long-ago dates, the two of them on a picnic in the field behind her grandmother’s house, honeymoon dinners when they sneaked kisses across a candlelit table, the feel of his calloused hands on her back as he guided her through a crowded train station. The hopeful moments, the nauseous anxiety waiting for him to return from Lincoln or Madison or Baton Rouge. The times when she bought into the fairy tale that the Husband had sold the public—they were supposed to be a throwback to an era when America was great, and every now and then it seemed true enough. Probably she did love him; otherwise she never would have endured so far into the marriage, never would have overlooked all the flaws and the warning signs, and instead would have left him, taken her Younger Son and started a new life in Kansas City, where she had family and could support herself well enough. She respected his work ethic and agreed with the values he professed in so many interviews: responsibility, respect, rigor. She’d once considered him a good man, if stubborn and sometimes unfeeling, and she had never lost faith that he loved her back, which seemed like enough, most of the time. If she tries very hard, studies the old black-and-whites of them hanging on the wall, their hands clasped, their smiles candid rather than posed, she can feel it again, that searing, bone-deep love, the love so strong it felt like a disease, the unexplainable bond that drew her to him and even now has her trying to find ways to rationalize it all away, to find an out somewhere.
* * *
The conventional wisdom suggests the Widow must have known. Some take it even a step further: how can we be sure she wasn’t involved? they say. Suddenly, a lifetime of trying to live decently and privately has been subverted by cable news gossip; the only way to prove one’s innocence anymore is to allow oneself to be filmed at all hours of the day, forever. Even as the expert panelists condemn her, she can’t help watching; every hour there are new revelations, new documents uncovered, new victims, and she is learning more about the Husband after his death than she has in many years. He liked talking about football, the lawn, the boys, and TV. He did not talk about what he felt. She never asked him what he did in his office, what happened behind closed doors, because it never occurred to her that there might be something she had to know. His work was his work, and the last thing she wanted was to invite more football talk into her life.
What they are saying on the news now is this: some of the crimes happened in the Husband’s office, but some also happened in her basement. In. Her. Home. And she didn’t know. How had he managed to keep it secret from her for so long? How many times had it happened in her basement while she sat two floors above, ignorant to all of it?
A woman on TV says it’s not uncommon for this sort of thing to happen. “Everybody has something to hide,” she says.
In fifty years, the Widow had kept three secrets from him:
One—there has always been a stash of chocolate hidden in the attic, even though he outlawed chocolate in the house, said it made the mind weak. Sometimes a woman needs chocolate. A small, victimless rebellion, pitiful in its scope.
Two—She’d been secretly sending cash to his ex-wife for years, not as hush money, but out of guilt for having stolen the comfortable life from her.
Three—she once saw the Younger Son kissing another boy, his best friend, down in the film room while the Husband was out of town. They were topless and lying on the floor beside each other, quiet except for their rapid breathing.
Even her memories of the Husband seem false now, as if maybe she was accidentally remembering a different man. Maybe all along he’d been this other person and she never had the will to see it.
She remembers: the Husband thrashing through the house, ranting about recruiting violations committed by other schools, calling Hank and F. Wilson and Sedrick and telling them that without honor the game is nothing.
She remembers: the supernova of pride erupting from her when they unveiled the statue, when they inducted him into the school’s Hall of Fame, when they gave him the key to the city.
She remembers: meeting those boys, so many of them, thousands of them. Sons of friends, boys at junior football camps, the countless players who had been through their house, who has spent nights there because their home lives were so miserable, who had trusted her and the Husband, and now she tries to remember if they gave her any hint, if there was a cry for help, if they flinched when he approached them.
She wakes in the middle of the night, finds that she has rolled onto his side of the bed for the first time since his death. Thinks about nights when he trudged upstairs from his basement film room just before sunset, flopped into bed, resting a hand gently on her side before descending into a fitful sleep. Mornings on his rare off-days she pushed her hips back into him, invited him to kiss her on the nape of the neck, slipping into languid, dreamy sex, one of the luxuries of a comfortable marriage. Evenings alone, she waited, sometimes past midnight, for him to check in with a phone call, to tell her everything was okay and he would be home soon.
One of the other wives told her “you should find somebody to help out at home, if you know what I mean.” The town was crawling with former players, young athletic men capable of gymnastic sexual moves she’d never even imagined. Former players, the other wife said, made for discrete liaisons—if they caused a scandal, it would damage the program, and nobody ever wanted to damage the program—and they were always willing, either out of lingering bitterness about their playing days or a displaced love for the coach. The other wife offered to arrange a meeting, but the Widow refused, never gave in to the temptation even on nights when she desperately wanted to, if only to feel the weight of someone else in bed beside her, to hear his breathing and to feel like she was not completely alone.
She’d heard stories about the other men on the road, the girlfriends they’d stashed around the country, the disgraceful revelations that had ruined careers. Many of the wives in this business accept infidelity as a compromise for their financial security; another wife once told the Widow she was being naïve if she thought the Husband was clean, it was stupid to expect men in power to resist corruption, and the Widow said, “well, maybe I’m stupid then.”
Maybe she was stupid, and that’s all there was to the story.
* * *
Along with the hospice nurse, the Widow tended to him during the final week, wiped his brow and dumped his vomit into the toilet and crushed his pills into applesauce. She sponged his lips and tried speaking to him, but he had stopped talking.
The story metastasized until it was being called the biggest scandal in sports history—there was talk of a cover-up, there were pictures, there was video. The day the lawyer called to inform the Widow that the police had acquired a warrant to search their home, the Husband stopped breathing on his own.
They connected him to a machine to force oxygen inside his lungs. The Widow asked the boys to leave them alone for a moment, and she leaned close to his ear and told him, “you do not get to die like this.”
The ventilator buzzed and whooshed and his chest rose and fell.
“You think this is fair to me? To let me clean up your mess?”
The ventilator buzzed and whooshed and his chest rose and fell.
She did not kiss him on the forehead or press her hand to his heart, because even though she insisted publicly that he was innocent and was a decent man being dragged down by the media, looking into his gray eyes, she already knew the truth.
* * *
In the morning, the sons wake her, standing over her bed and wielding the morning newspaper. The front page headline reads: COACH’S WIFE: IT HAPPENS EVERY DAY
F. Wilson’s article quotes only that half-sentence, paints her as a woman in denial, a woman so blinded by her loyalty (not love, but loyalty, as if she was his cocker spaniel) to the coach that she cannot see the truth. It is a flood of distilled outrage, an attack on her character and her entire family. The article is framed by others commenting on F. Wilson’s reportage; the most charitable column says she’s “a simple woman from a different time” who doesn’t know any better.
There are five missed calls from F. Wilson on her phone, an answering machine message that she will never listen to.
The Older Son says, “What’s the one thing we told you not to do?”
The Younger Son says, “It’s like, what were you thinking?
The Older Son says, “She wasn’t thinking, that’s what.”
The Younger Son says, “Ma, this is bad.”
The Older Son tosses the newspaper in the air, walks out of the room as the pages scatter across the floor like dying leaves.
The Younger Son sits on the bed beside her while his brother bangs things around downstairs, slamming drawers shut, clanking dishes together in the sink, every movement an announcement of his anger.
“I just wanted to talk to someone,” she says.
“That’s why you got us. That’s why you got lawyers.” He grabs her hand in a clumsy effort to comfort her. His hands are exactly like the Husband’s, the same network of raised veins clustered at the wrist, the fat thumbs and the extraordinarily long pinkies, the skin milky like weak tea. He tells her a group of outraged activists read the headlines online, and overnight they spread across campus firing paintballs at the statue and the buildings bearing the family name. The Older Son’s house was pelted with garbage, The Younger Son’s tires slashed. Someone has spray painted the word Shame across the Widow’s front door.
Downstairs, the Older Son is on the phone with the lawyers, shouting, “I don’t know what we’re going to do with her.” Another cabinet slams. “I can’t be babysitting all day.”
The Younger Son begins crying. He is incapable of coping, has never handled stress well. He turns away, tells her not to look. As if she’s never seen him cry before.
“We’ll get through this,” she says.
“How can you say that?” He pulls his hand away from hers. “What if we don’t get through it? What if it only gets worse?”
The reporters outside are setting up, the protest chants as loud as any football crowd. Helicopters buzz overhead as if covering a war zone. The Younger Son gasps for air between sobs.
The Widow asks: “How much of it is true?”
“I don’t know everything.”
“Did he ever,” she begins, and cannot finish, is physically incapable of giving voice to the notion that he could have hurt the boys. Her son hides his face in his hands and makes a sound like a sick dog.
She leans into him, feels the shaking of his body against hers and wishes she could carry him back to a time when none of this existed, wishes she could undo everything for him. Her son is drowning and she cannot save him.