The Symbiotic Club

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

This work contains adult themes and is not intended for children.

Chapter 6 - The Long Shot

The Friday night after my initiation into the club, the local team had a critical away game. With two games remaining in the regular season, they were 4-4 overall, but were 3-0 in the conference, in a tie for first place. Their remaining games were against two of the conference leaders. This week's opponent was 6-2 and 2-1 in the conference; next week's competition was 7-1 and 3-0 in the conference. If our squad could pull out a win this week, they could be pitted against their chief rival, the defending conference champions, for the conference title and to advance to the state championship playoffs.

This week's game was expected to be close, but the opponent was considered the favorite. The home field advantage wasn't all that great since we were less than 20 miles away. Their primary advantage was an explosive offense. The key for our team was to secure an early lead and depend on our defense and running game to manage the clock, keep our fans in the game and keep their crowd out of it.

They scored first on a short pass to the flat and a long, scrambling run by their half back. The roar from their side continued while our fans were subdued. Still, our team methodically ran the ball to a first and goal from the five. Their students stood around the fence at that end of the field. I was taking pictures from that corner and couldn't hear myself think.

We tried an option play but their end contained our quarterback forcing him to pitch the ball and their linebacker dropped our back for a two yard loss. Next, a draw play gained four yards. A straight handoff put the ball inches from the goal line. Our coach called a timeout, looked at his playbook and talked with the quarterback. Sam "Wild" West huddled the remaining players.

Fourth and goal, the decision was to go for it. The quarterback took one step to his right and wedged himself between his center and guard. He met a charging linebacker who drove him backwards to the ground. Fortunately the blitzing linebacker had mistimed his charge and was ruled offside. Despite protests for the opposing coach and jeers from the fans, the ball was inched half the distance to the goal.

Again, the coach called time and conducted the team huddle himself. The defense had an eleven man front. Our line was in a no gap formation; a back flanked wide on each side and the remaining back was two yards behind the QB. Again he took one step to his right, then pivoted and gave the ball to the full back who plowed left into the line that had moved forward a good foot. It was a clear touchdown. The half ended at 7-7.

Our team took the kickoff and consumed almost the entirety of the third quarter before scoring on a short run. The momentum, after our first TD, had clearly shifted our way. The home side of the field sought to spur on their players. Everyone knew they could score quickly.

The quarter ended and they got the wind to their back. It was second and three just short of mid field. Their QB dropped back with ample protection. His end had our safety bested by a step near our 30. The pass was a half step short; the end slowed and the ball dropped into his hands just as the safety reached him. He dropped the ball. The crowd called for pass interference but didn't get the call.

Third and three, the quarterback rolled right. It was the same play as for their TD. As the QB released the ball, our linebacker came in front of the halfback snagging the ball in flight and raced fifty yards. The 14 point lead proved too much for the home team.

After the game, the radio station had first rights to interview our head coach; so, as often was the case, I talked with Wild West. I asked him what he said to the team with fourth and goal.

"You know they're such a good group! It's easy to keep them up. They're peaking at the right time, aren't they? They could go all the way! It's possible."

I thought, "Anything's possible." Their toughest game could well be the one the next week. It was a home contest, but that could be our only advantage. Our rival was 8-1, having had an easy victory that same night. Their only loss was to an Atlanta school in an early season contest that many thought could be a preview of the state championship game. Our rival had seemed to get only stronger as the year advanced.

"Hey," said West, "Y'all all dressed up. Are you gonna go to the dance tonight? Do you have your eye on some particular girl, now? O, I think you do. You don't have your poker face on there! Now, you're gonna have to tell me who she is. I might know her, could give you some advice. I've taught most of the girls your age in the area, you know."

"I'd just as soon keep it to myself; she doesn't even know I'm alive yet."

"All the more reason to tell me! Come on, you can't keep a secret from me. I'm your primary source of information.

"I'm the one who got you in the club.

"I can probably get prime seats for the playoffs for you - well, your date 'cause you'll be busy during the games. Come on, cough up the name."

"Okay, okay. I could well hold you to that promise of tickets if you make it on. It's Wanda Drake."

"O! I was gonna say it was no promise; but, now I ain't worried. She's a little old for you, isn't she? And way out of your league? Well, I shouldn't discourage you. A man needs to go for a long shot every now and again."

The dance was going strong when I finally made it to the club. The winning of the game may have given it an additional spark. The band was a rock group; so, I thought that I could dance with somebody if not Wanda. I looked all around the ballroom and watched the dance floor. I didn't see her anywhere. I headed to the bar thinking I could become an alcoholic before I established any love life.

As I entered the lounge, I saw her standing at the bar with three men dressed in expensive-looking suits. I felt outnumbered as well as outclassed. Doubt quickly emerged. I summoned courage to act before the doubt became fear.

"Excuse me, Wanda, would you like to dance?" I hoped my voice was adequate to be heard.

"Do I know you?" Her question turned my legs to rubber.

"I'm Russell Hunter. I'm a reporter for the Daily Democrat." Surprisingly, my voice sounded stronger.

Wanda looked at her gentlemen friends.

One of them said with disdain, "He's a sports reporter."

Wanda looked back at me, "Oh, yeah," she said, shrugged her shoulders, and said, "Why not?"

I thought, "Miracles do happen."

Wanda was as artistic on the dance floor as she was in the courtroom. As we danced, she moved with a precision that demanded that I do the same. I was able to execute the required steps with few exceptions. On my errors, she recovered gracefully. I enjoyed being as one with her even if it were only in the dance. I asked if she wanted to stay for the next dance.

She looked as if she did. She had obviously enjoyed our first, but she responded that she had best return to her companions.

I decided to ask her to dance again when the band played a slow tune. During the next two rock numbers, no one asked her to dance. Then, the notes of a ballad filled the air. I walked toward her, only to see her start to the dance floor with one of the suited men.

I felt completely foolish walking across the room with no place to go. I continued to the dance floor and watched them dance. There she was in his arms instead of mine. I wanted to hold her. The disappointment settled over me as I returned to the bar.

As the tempo increased, the couple returned to the bar. I thought, "Take what they give you." I asked her to dance when the next song started. She accepted quickly. My dancing improved with the second dance, at least my confidence increased in her presence. When the dance was over, I asked if I could call her sometimes.

"I don't think that'd be a good idea, Russell."

At least she knew my name.

On Tuesday of the following week, my phone rang.

"Hello, Russell, this is Wanda Drake; I'm sure you remember me."

My heart stopped.

"I'm out of the county at the moment trying a case on a change of venue; so, I can't take long. Please listen. I won't answer questions and you can't use my name. You can get the information from court records. He's 18. It's public. It may help our team; I'd like to see them win. It'll also be a good story for you. Mostly, it should be publicized. Check out Bill Williams." She hung up.

Bill Williams was the star and leader of the rival team. Her change of venue must have been to that county.

I thought about Wanda phoning me as I drove the 30 miles that afternoon. It wasn't a romantic call by any stretch, but it did show she had thought of me.

The records were supposedly open but it took some persuasion to get the access. Williams had been convicted of a DWI and of an assault. The state trooper, recognizing Bill, had tried to get him home without an incident; but, Williams landed a punch. From the brief record, it seemed the prosecution was willing to drop or reduce the assault charge, but given the state trooper had to testify with a shiner, the judge had to convict Williams for assault. The defense attorney was able to get sentencing postponed but the reason wasn't stated.

I went from the court house to their practice field. The team was still there. I was told that the practice was closed by a coach at the gate. I told him I just wanted a quote about the Williams conviction.

That got the head coach. "I can't stay away from the team very long," he said. "I'd hope you'd give us some understanding here. He's just a lad."

"I'll certainly stress his young age in the article as well as any extenuating circumstances you care to provide."

"I ain't gonna help you ruin this man's life. Get your own extenuating circumstances. That's your job isn't it? Now get off my field!"

I did talk to the arresting officer and went to Williams' home to get a perspective on the story. No one in Williams' neighborhood was helpful. The story ran in our next day's edition. Calls from the Constitution came that evening.

The story ran state wide the next day. The thrill of breaking a story of state-wide focus absorbed the pain I felt in losing $57 to Bob Dalton that night.

On Friday, the Georgia High School Association announced that it was launching an investigation into the conviction and any wrong doing by the school, its football coach and/or his staff. That afternoon, the school announced that Williams had been suspended and wouldn't play that night. Our coaches had drawn game plans for that possibility on Wednesday. Our boys' spirits were high. The rival team came in down.

We got an early lead. They missed both the talent and the leadership of Williams. However, Wild's perception that his team was gelling had some merit. Our QB found and connected with open receivers on timing routes, a new accomplishment for them. The local players looked like a completely different team than they did just seven days earlier. They won by 12 points.

The buzz at the club was definitely greater after this victory. More people had come from the game to the dance. I went first to the bar where she had been the previous week. She wasn't there.

I looked throughout the ballroom without success. I returned to the lounge. It was busy; even the barstools were occupied. I stood in line to buy a beer.

"Mr. Hunter, fancy meeting you here." It was Bob Dalton. "Who're y'all with?" When I informed him that I was alone, he invited me to their table.

I thought, "Give it a try," and followed him to their table. Dalton introduced me to his wife, Babs, and the girlfriends of his two sons. I continued to look around for Wanda.

"Who y'all looking for?" asked Bob.

I hesitated and then said, "Wanda Drake. Do you know her?"

"I know who she is."

Babs asked, "Do you have a date with her?"

"No, I don't actually know her that well."

"What y'all interested in her for anyway?" asked Bob. "She's awful skinny. You need a woman like my Old Lady here with some meat on the bone...."

Bob continued, but Mrs. Dalton cried out, "There she is," so loudly that I was sure everyone in the room would hear. I turned slowly toward the door. It seemed that Wanda might have heard; she was looking in our direction. She was with two men. Although, they were different from the three last week, their apparel placed them in the same class.

I hated to appear so eager, but with Mrs. Dalton's announcement, the die was cast. I excused myself and went to ask Wanda for the next dance.

Her response was rapid and positive. My heart leaped with joy. As we walked toward the floor, she said, "You did well with the story."

"Thanks, I owe it all to you."

"Don't mention it. Literally, don't ever mention it again." Her tone was steel, but once she finished, she smiled. "Perhaps you can return the favor someday."

Then she continued, "You're here with the Daltons?"

"They just invited me to their table."

"So, you know them fairly well?"

Next, she said, "They're interesting people."

I frowned at this comment.

Seeing my frown, she added, "with all their money and connections."

"So you don't know them?"

"Only by reputation," she said as she started moving to the music.

Wanda stepped to the hoedown as aptly as she had swung to the bop. I struggled to keep pace. At the end of the song, I sought to maintain contact with her. "Would you like to join me with the Daltons?"

"No, I'm with friends. I better get back to them. You can just tell me about the Daltons sometimes."

I couldn't make sense of her words but was encouraged that she thought of us as having a conversation at some time in the future.

As I did the week before, I waited for a slow number and when it started I made my way toward her. This time, the men seemed to be in an intense discussion. I moved her away from them. We danced close without talking. She seemed to be enjoying the contact as much as I.

"Thank you," she said when the music stopped.

I thought that I had to start a conversation. "Do you truly like western music?"

Wanda stopped walking just ahead of me. She turned and looked directly at me. Even her pivot was magnificent. It seemed that she started to say something, but stopped herself. She looked away, smiled and said, "I'm adaptable."

She was a prize, perhaps beyond my winning. I wrestled to seize the moment. Again, she was walking away from me.

"Are there any interesting court cases on the horizon?" I asked.

"There doesn't appear to be." She slowed her pace.

I moved up beside her. "Perhaps I can do you a favor this week. Coach said he could get me tickets to next Friday's game if I wanted to bring someone as a guest."

She stopped and looked at me, pondering. I was hopeful but I didn't breathe.

"Let's walk out into the lobby," she said.

Once in the lobby, she said, "I like to dance. Thank you for asking me. But, I don't want to lead you on."

"You think one of the Dalton sons would be better for you!?" I barked it out without thinking.

"Oh, is that what you think? You've got me all wrong!"

She continued in a much softer voice, "My interest in the Daltons isn't personal. It's professional. That's where I thought you might be of some help. I know they're not a good element. Far from it!

"You didn't strike me as, well, like them. I think I can trust you. You handled the Williams situation well. I can trust you, can't I? You'll keep this conversation between us?"

"Of course."

"You being a journalist, you may be able to learn things here that I can't.

"Tom, you know, Tom Bruce, the D. A., he's too concerned about fundraising. He doesn't want to alienate any large contributors. But, these Daltons are violent people. Bob has gotten the boys out of scrapes that would have landed most people in jail. It's not right. I'd like to get something on them that would send them away for a long time." Her voice and body reflected how serious she was.

I waited without moving a muscle but inside I was smiling; she had taken me into her confidence. Finally, I said, "So we're going to be friends."

She smiled. "I think I'd like that, Mr. Hunter. Do you think you can manage just being friends."

I thought, "Well, it's a start," but said, "Yes."

"In that case, let's talk about the game Friday. I'll accept your offer if we take my Buick instead of that little VW of yours; we come back after the game, no staying over, no hanky-panky. We can share the driving."

"Sure, I've got to be here to cover the college game Saturday. It's only like 120 miles to Statesboro. We can manage that fine."

She drove, and talked, going to Statesboro; I listened. I had to admit that her car was more comfortable than mine and road smoother. It was a wonderful sensation being in her presence in such luxury. I saw the quality of her life style. I would have to step up considerably to support it.

I learned how hard it had been for her to get into law school. When she graduated, only 5% of the state's attorneys were women. She had had professors who told her to her face that they didn't believe women should be lawyers.

She had been adopted as a toddler by a couple who were well on their way to becoming wealthy. She felt they had earned their status. I wondered if there was a connection here to how strongly she felt about the Daltons. I was enjoying listening to her too much to raise that analysis.

Having come this far, she believed she could go further although it would be an uphill battle. No woman had ever been Governor of Georgia. There had been women U. S. Senators but the first woman, who hadn't been married to a previous Senator, had just been elected in Connecticut. These possibilities represented Wanda's ambitions. It became clear to me that she would need a spouse who could supply financing or connections or both.

Coach did give us good seats. I was on the end of a row with Wanda on my right. The 50 yard line was just to her right. We were in the third row; I had easy access to the field as needed.

We got the ball first. It was apparent that our boys were nervous. Our QB and receivers lost their newly acquired ability to complete timing passes. We did manage to cross midfield before we had to punt.

Our defense was more its usual determined self. It didn't yield any big gains and held on our 32. Statesboro set up for a field goal. I knew the kicker's stats; this distance was close to his maximum.

The kicker aligned the tee. The snap was clean. The ball was placed perfectly. There was no pressure on the kicker. The ball arched straight toward the goal. The arch peaked several feet from the crossbar, but clearly above it. The ball came curving down onto the bar. An inch sooner and it would have bounced back onto the field; but, it had the extra inch. The Statesboro team led 3-0.

Our offense did improve a little on the next series and our defense did much better, intercepting a pass to end a drive. The teams went in at half with the score still 3-0.

Their offense struggled to start the third quarter, but so did ours when we got the ball. We needed to do something while we had the wind to our back. Yet, the third quarter was almost over before we again got the ball. Then they intercepted. It looked as if they were moving for a TD when they bobbled a handoff. When the hill of bodies was dismantled, we had the ball.

Fortune seemed to have smiled on us and our team was grateful. Even going into a strong wind, we moved the ball. Not only was the option working, the QB and receivers had their timing back.

We moved the ball within their 20. Their defense dug in and throttled our running game. They held us on third down, dropping our back at the nine. It was fourth and two.

Our head coach called his final time out. A field goal into the wind could tie the game. That was risky. He needed a play for two yards or more.

The stands were unusually quiet when the teams came to the line. Our QB rolled right; he had his tight end breaking free at the two. The QB led him perfectly as he crossed into the end zone. The people around us went wild. Then, they saw the red and white cloth on the ground. They went quiet. Holding was the call. Our left guard had grabbed a jersey as our QB released the ball. Now it was fourth and 7.

The call was more difficult and we had no more time outs. This time, the QB rolled left. There was no one open. He dodged a would-be tackler and tucked the ball. He moved quickly toward the 10. A Statesboro player met his at the 10. He stayed on his feet for several more steps. I thought this could be close, but he had stepped out of bounds at the 10. Statesboro got the ball. The final score remained 3-0.

Everyone wanted the post game interviews to be short. I could get quotes before press time on Monday. I figured I'd get a better perspective later, but Coach West surprised me.

"We have nothing to be ashamed of," he told me. "You know, life is more about losing than winning. You have to lose often. You win seldom. And, as the poem says, you need to know that neither is what it's all about. It's about the involvement, the accepting of the challenges that are life, living with those challenges, adapting to 'um and enjoying it all as you see what happens. You know, this group of players understand that more than any group of young people I ever worked with."

I drove home. We talked some about what a good game it was and how proud we were of the team. Then Wanda closed her eyes. I enjoyed driving the powerful car with its power steering, power brakes, hi-fi stereo and quality heater. I thought about what Coach had said. I thought about the challenges that were Wanda's life. I hoped for more, but was pleased to think that I was a friend of someone who wanted to be a part of history even if it was a long shot for her.

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