This is Part One of a three-part story.

They had already begun the slow descent. Both of them worked a lot of hours and were rarely home. When they did see each other, the smiles were fewer and farther between, and when they were shared, didn’t last as long. But it was more than that. She just didn’t seem to appreciate him anymore, and at times, he had to admit, he wondered if he even liked her, much less loved her.

They had come to this small town together, despite neither one having a connection of any kind to it. They made a pact after both finished school, and the pact had become something of a contest. Whoever was offered the first “professional” job would take it, and the other would accompany him or her to wherever that job led. Lara won.

She got a position teaching 4th Grade at the elementary school up in New Madrid. It was a tiny school, in a tiny town, in another state, hundreds of miles from Evanston, but it was a job, and even if it didn’t work out, she reasoned, it was experience, and it would be invaluable in getting another, better job. She didn’t mind the kids, or at least, most of them. The teachers and administrators, on the other hand, were quite a different story.

There was one exception: Juliette Nagy, who taught 6th Grade. Lara and Juliette had become good friends, a friendship that was only more securely cemented because he’d recently been befriended by Juliette’s husband Paul.

He was writing for the local paper, The Gorge Reader. He pretty much wrote everything that appeared in its scant pages — local government stories, promos for community or business events, a community calendar, and most importantly, all of the news connected to the Monteboro Area Public Schools, especially the high school’s sports teams. It was only a weekly, and its distribution was less than 2000, but in that part of the Pine Creek Gorge, it was required reading.

Even though it was his first professional job, it was a step down — at least a step-down from his expectations, however unrealistic. He had dreams of someday writing investigative exposés for The Washington Post, The New York Times, or The Chicago Tribune. He would have been more than happy to have found work as a fact-checker at The Omaha World-Herald or The Des Moines Register. That, at least, would have been legitimate journalism no matter how demeaning. This wasn’t that.

And if he hadn’t lowered his standards enough, he’d now begun moonlighting. Besides his job as small-town newspaperman, he was also a coach — Assistant Varsity Basketball and Baseball — for the Monteboro Missiles, the local high school teams — so named because of the Air National Guard base several miles outside of town on State Route 44.

Technically, he was Assistant Coach of the Varsity Boys Basketball team, Head Coach of the JV team, Assistant Coach of the Varsity Baseball team, and Head Coach for JV Baseball, but the titles were euphemistic at best. The truth was, he and Paul Nagy were the Missiles’ basketball staff, and he and Dave Robey were Missiles baseball. There were no other coaches in either program.

Though the teams were competitive enough, he wasn’t expecting to get a call from Penn State any time soon. This was small town athletics and about the only attention it garnered came from the locals. To them, winning meant bragging rights over their neighbors a few miles up or down the pike. No one else paid much attention at all, and not a single kid in the region stood a reasonable chance to go on to play college sports. Besides, if it was anything, this was football country.

It was Paul Nagy who had talked him into coaching. Paul was a Science teacher at Monteboro Middle School and Head Basketball coach at Monteboro High School, and during that fall when he and Lara first moved to the area, Paul was searching for an assistant coach.

They met on the front steps of Monteboro High when he showed up a couple days after the school year began and a week in advance of the first football game of the season to interview Greg Lamont, Monteboro’s Head Coach.

He was a bit taken aback by the coaching offer from someone he didn’t know. “What exactly are my qualifications to be your assistant coach?” he sheepishly asked the short, stocky, young man, two or three years older than he, who had introduced himself only five minutes earlier. “Is it that I’m warm-blooded?”

“Well, that’s true; you are warm-blooded, or at least you appear to be!” Growing more serious and seemingly more prescient, Paul asked, “Did you play basketball in high school?”

“Yeah,” he answered hesitantly, “but I wasn’t any good. I was barely decent enough to make the varsity team and just bad enough to ensure I never played!”

“Where was that?”

“Omaha, Nebraska — Creighton Prep. Technically, we were the ‘Junior Jays’ because of our connection to Creighton University, but that name sucked, so everybody called our basketball teams kurtuluş escort the ‘Jumping Jesuits.'” He smiled.

“Catholic high school in Omaha — are you kidding me? There were probably more kids in your school than there were people in my hometown! Trust me, that’s clinches it — you’re more than qualified for the job! Remember, we’re not talking the NBA here.” He paused. “So… were the Jumping Jesuits any good?”

“We were alright. We won the State Championship my junior year.”

“You call that ‘alright?’ You must have especially high standards.”

“No, not really. It’s just that we were in the big school division. Do you know how many big schools there are in the State of Nebraska?”

“I have no idea. I’ve never been there.” Paul, he would come to understand, had never been anywhere outside of rural Pennsylvania, yet he wore his provincialism as a badge of honor.

“Let’s just say there’s a good chance there were probably more doughnuts in the Monteboro High teacher’s lounge this morning than there are teams in Division 1-A of the NSAA.”

“I don’t know — the high school teachers love their doughnuts!” Paul joked with a wink of his eye.

He shrugged his shoulders. “There were the Omaha and Lincoln schools, and that was pretty much it. Bottom line, when you win the State Championship in Division 1-A, you’re the best out of maybe a couple dozen teams, if that. Winning that particular division in Nebraska is not necessarily a mark of excellence. It’s about the same as winning the conference.”

“In my book, a championship is a championship.”

He shrugged again. There was no point in arguing. “Speaking of championships, have the Missiles hoops teams won any lately?”

“No, not for a while, but we’ve come close to winning conference recently. We finished second the last two years, and we’re probably the favorites this upcoming season. If it makes any difference to you, I think you’d be signing on with a winner.”

“I don’t know; I’ll have to think about it.” His face wore a doubtful expression.

“Look, why don’t you come over to my place on Saturday night, and we’ll talk a little more. I don’t expect you to rush into any decision, but I sense that we might have something in common.”

He tilted his head skeptically. “Yeah, what’s that?”

“Just come over on Saturday night, and we’ll find out.” Paul smiled, and changing the subject asked, “You married?”

“Nah, not yet.” A glum expression stole across his countenance, a look that any astute student of human nature might understand as a sign of relationship difficulties. Apparently, Paul Nagy was just such a student.

“Well, based on that answer, you obviously moved out here with a woman.”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Good — bring her with you on Saturday. What’s her name?”


“What does Lara do?”

“She’s a teacher — elementary school, up in New Madrid.”

“No shit! My wife Juliette teaches there, too! They must know each other.” He got a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. One of the very few conversations that he and Lara had had recently was a drawn out critique of the faculty at New Madrid Elementary School. Lara hadn’t painted a very pretty picture.

“I’m sure they do. That isn’t a very big school. My guess is it’s probably about the same size as Monteboro Elementary.”

“Actually, it’s smaller — not much, but a little. By the way, here’s my number”, Paul said, scribbling the digits on the corner of a page in a spiral notebook he was carrying. He tore it off and handed the slip to him. “So, what do you say — you and Lara Saturday night at our place? It won’t be a gourmet meal, probably just burgers. I’m sure Juliette will be interested in socializing with Lara outside of work.”

He didn’t say anything, just took the slip of paper and put it in his front pocket. “Well, I’ll come, but I can’t answer for Lara. I’ll have to ask her.”

“Yeah, that’s probably wise. Better not to force your better half into a commitment, right?”

He didn’t answer, but the expression on his face spoke volumes to anyone that’s ever been in a relationship fraught with discord. He made it clear he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He looked at his watch. “Listen, sorry to cut this short, but I need to find Greg Lamont. Can you point me in the right direction?”

“Sure! The football field is just behind the school. Just follow that sidewalk,” he said, pointing. “You’ll run right into the bleachers. Practice should just be ending. By the way, call me before Saturday, and I’ll give you directions to our place, okay?”

“Sure, and thanks for the invite. It was nice to meet you”, he said, shaking his new acquaintance’s thick paw.

“Yeah, you, too!” Paul said, and turning back to the middle school a few hundred yards to the north, the stout, young man began striding away purposefully.

When he got home levent escort that night, he mentioned meeting Paul, and asked Lara if she knew Juliette Nagy. Lara perked up when she heard the name. It was one of the first times in several weeks that he’d seen her brighten up.

Lara Wachter really was a very cute girl, and that was especially true when she smiled. She had a tiny space between her front teeth that gave her face a unique and singular appearance when its viewer had the good fortune to witness a grin. While those smiles weren’t rare, they weren’t all that common either. Lara’s detached demeanor was her most arresting trait.

She had medium-length brown hair with blonde highlights that she wore in a sort of messy ‘do that gave her a kind of punkish aura. It was her signature physical attribute, and he certainly liked the disheveled look. It made her appear even younger than her 21 years. She looked — and this is an irrelevant but accurate observation — just a little bit like Katie Couric, the morning TV personality, who was all the rage at the time.

She was very short, about five feet tall. And though she was relatively slender and in remarkably good shape for someone who never exercised, her body was compact and sturdy, even muscular. If she had been taller, with her wide shoulders and round hips, she might have carried herself more imposingly. Her olive-colored skin; dark, brown eyes; untidy hair; tiny, pug nose; and plump lips made her look almost impish, but she sported moderately large breasts for someone so small, and when she dressed provocatively as she often did, he curves never seemed to end.

“He’s married to Juliette?” Lara asked excitedly.

“Yeah, and they’ve invited us to dinner at their place on Saturday night. You interested in going?”

“Well, yeah, I mean, it’s not like we have any other options in this godforsaken place.” He ignored the negativity. It wasn’t worth mentioning the fact that it was Lara who’d brought him here. She knew as well as he did that he’d just come along for the ride. It wasn’t easy, Lara said, finding teaching jobs, and he could “get a gig with any old newspaper, radio or TV station.” Even without their pact, he wouldn’t have considered not coming with her, because, well, that’s what supportive boyfriends were supposed to do.

“So, what’s Juliette like?”

“She’s pretty and really nice, too. In fact, she’s the only one who’s nice. She strikes me as a bit old school, but in a sort of laid-back, hippie way. She’s definitely not a hipster, but at least you can talk to her about music and movies and books, and shit like that, even though she’s not real up-to-date on anything. I think she’s really into gardening, and she told me that she’d just bought a loom. I think she’s started making clothes and other things with it. Oh, and they’re both really into cycling.”

“Oh, yeah! Cool!” Since he’d arrived in the Gorge, he’d been doing a fair amount of cycling, always by himself. “Does she talk about Paul, at all?”

“Yeah, a little. I gather that he’s a lot like her, and it seems like she’s really in love with him. I think they live in a farmhouse or, at least, out in the country somewhere. I got the impression that they’re into this “back to nature”, environmental sort of thing, you know, self-sufficiency and reducing their carbon footprint and all that stuff.”

“Well, that’s cool.”

“Yeah, we should probably be more concerned about that shit, too.” This was an ironic statement, coming from Lara. While she drove her badly-in-need-of-a-tune-up Chevy the 30 miles back and forth to New Madrid each day on underinflated tires, burning oil like a smokestack, he rode his bike to work. While he faithfully recycled newspapers, magazines, cardboard boxes, bottles, and cans, she tossed them all in the garbage can, so that he had to dig them all out later that same day. While he drank filtered tap water, she refused anything other than bottled water in plastic containers. He had dozens of other examples, but he kept them all to himself.

“You’re right; we should. By the way, I didn’t tell you the main thing he talked to me about.”

“What’s that?”

“He wants me to coach basketball with him.”

“Basketball? What the hell do you know about basketball?”

“Not too damn much! I played in high school, that’s about it. But Paul thinks, based on that, I’m more than qualified.”

“You watch enough of that stupid game on TV; you’d think you’d know something! How come you never told me you played basketball in high school. That’s kind of funny — you, a jock!” She started giggling.

He was glad to see her enjoying herself, since it had happened so rarely in the month or so they’d been there. He just wished that it wasn’t at his expense. The truth was it annoyed him, more than he cared to admit. For one thing, he’d told Lara, more than once, that he played sports in school, but, more maçka escort than that, it was as if she considered him effete and incapable of having mastered any physical skills and coordination, as if he was too pathetic to have competed in athletics. In reality, he’d grown out of all that — decided while he was still in high school that he didn’t need to prove anything to anyone. “Yeah, I played baseball, too, but I quit both during my senior year.”


“We started a band. After that, I didn’t have time for it. Besides, I didn’t really give a shit about sports anymore.” He paused, but she didn’t say anything, “So, can I call Paul and tell him we’ll come over?”


The following Saturday morning he invited Lara to go for a bike ride. Even if she found the towns of the Pine Creek Gorge boring and filled with intolerably unsophisticated people, there was no way, he thought to himself, that she could deny the fall beauty of the Pine Creek Trail as it meandered through the gorge.

He’d packed a small picnic lunch, and they stopped at a particularly beautiful spot on the river. He spread out a blanket, and they ate their lunch in a little clearing right next to it. He figured it was good idea to take a little break before turning around for the two-hour ride back to Monteboro.

But she hated the picnic, and even more than that, she hated the bike ride. With two hours of silence gnawing at his brain, he spent the ride home trying to figure out why she didn’t like their new home.

He knew she didn’t care for the people. They were largely uneducated, working class, and insufferably average, and having come from an internationally-recognized university in a world-class city, she simply couldn’t abide their sameness and uniformity.

But as much as she struggled with the residents of the Gorge, it wasn’t really the people that made the area so unappealing to Lara, even as she considered most all of them unforgivably conformist. He had come to believe that he, too, was now part and parcel of that profane horde.

And that bothered him. When they first met — just a little over a year ago, she regarded him as intriguing, exciting, and even a little “exotic.” She’d actually used that term to describe him once — the day they first met on the Arts Green. “Why?” he remembered asking innocently enough, “What makes me ‘exotic’?”

“You’re from Nebraska!” He laughed out loud when he heard that.

“Nebraska is ‘exotic?’ Are you insane? How in god’s name is Nebraska ‘exotic’?”

“No, the State isn’t exotic, but the people who come from there are! There aren’t very many of you! That makes you rare and uncommon!” It made him smile — even made him feel good, because it meant that he stood out, that, perhaps, he really was different and unique. But now they were in the Allegheny Plateau, and she’d lumped him in with all the other faces in the crowd — the proletariat masses she looked down upon.

Still, it really wasn’t the people of the Gorge or even him that disgusted Lara. They were all just the byproducts, the consequences of the real problem. The real problem was the place — the dank, dark woods that seemed to engulf everything and everyone. And the woods were the symbol of something even more evil — the inexorable isolation, the separation from all places alive, thriving, and animated.

Buffalo was the closest major city, at just under three hours away. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were both four-hour drives. Cleveland was nearly five, as was New York, the only one of all those cities that Lara had any real interest in.

Having grown up in a medium-sized city like Omaha, he was fascinated by all of those larger, metropolitan areas. Besides, none of the drives seemed all that far, and, coming from Nebraska, he found it hard to believe that anyone could consider Pennsylvania remote.

More than that, he had long lived by the motto, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” He could probably have lived just about anywhere and come to tolerate, enjoy, and even love the place. He believed in letting his experiences shape him, rather than trying to shape his experiences. Consequently, he was much better suited than Lara to adapting to new and different people, places, and things.

Lara, on the other hand, was a born and bred Chicagoan, and studying at Northwestern had done little to prepare her for life in a small town. For all her professed beliefs in progressive tolerance, she was more set in her ways than almost anyone he had ever known. He had a strong feeling that the move wouldn’t work out.

He sensed that was the case from the get-go, and he had pointedly, but gently reminded Lara to carefully consider her decision before she accepted the job in New Madrid. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to move to rural Pennsylvania; it was that he wasn’t sure Lara could handle it, and if she couldn’t, he had a sneaking suspicion that he would somehow end up paying the price.

She insisted she could, and he sensed that her decision to accept the job was an attempt to prove him wrong. But, once she’d signed the contract, he was all in. He would make it work for himself, and maybe, just maybe, if it worked for him, it might work for her.



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