Carl autographed a copy of Sports Illustrated for a hunchbacked old coot in a brown corduroy jacket and a blue Red Sox baseball cap. He shook the man’s hand as he returned the magazine, and then he watched him skitter across the cavernous blue lobby of the multiplex. The old man shoved his prize into the face of a plump, silver-haired lady in a purple overcoat and pointed in Carl’s direction. The woman sighed, squinted, and waved across the lobby at Carl. Carl grinned and waved back.

The cinema was quiet at the start of the business day. The sounds of the local light rock station seeped softly from the bevy of speakers that lined the walls. The smell of freshly buttered popcorn wafted across the lobby. And at the ticket counter, a solitary cashier was manning the register. The pimpled teenager was counting out the cash in his drawer, and Anna Simonson, in her manager’s blazer, was hovering over him, checking the boy’s work. Carl stared at his old flame.

Anna had long, straight blond hair and bangs cropped right above her eyebrows. Her skin stretched taut over her cheeks and under her chin. She had a small nose and small eyes and only her wide, thick lips gave her thin face weight. The curves of her body were, for the most part, hidden behind the straight lines of her dark blue blazer, which matched the color on the walls, but her breasts jutted outward in a stubborn refusal to be restrained by the bland uniform. She had never looked as good as she did that morning. In his memories and his daydreams, and in his old high school yearbook, she remained perpetually in sepia, but her beauty was best experienced in person, in full color. Carl reached into his suit coat and felt around the inside pocket for the small felt box, the gift he’d brought back from Cincinnati for her. When he found it, he clutched it in his hand.

The cashier finished counting and slid his drawer shut as Carl approached the register. Anna looked Carl’s way for the first time, and she beamed. The cashier asked, “How may I help you?”

Anna folded her arms across her chest and stood up straight, waiting for Carl’s response in silence.

“I’ve come to see about a girl,” said Carl.

“I don’t think we’re showing that one,” the cashier informed him, searching his computer screen to be sure.

Anna’s face contorted. She held back a laugh.

The kid continued, “You want to see something else?”

“What would you recommend?” Carl asked, smiling at Anna as the kid began to recite the list of current attractions. Each of them, it turned out, was “wicked good,” for one reason or another.

Anna tapped the cashier on the shoulder and cut his recitation short. “I think I’ll handle this one, Chuck. Mr. Jacobson and I are old friends.”

“Oh. I, uh…” the cashier stuttered, raising his gaze to meet Carl’s. “You’re him, huh?”

“I’m who?” asked Carl.

“The guy. The, uh…” The cashier paused, and smirked. “The football player.”

“Go ahead and say it,” said Carl, leaning across the counter.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sir.”

“I bet you don’t,” said Carl, growling as he stood straight again. “I’ve been back two hours and somebody wants to start this shit already.”

Anna spoke. “Carl, maybe you should calm dow—”

“Say it! Go ahead! I hear ten times worse on the field every fucking Sunday.”

The cashier moved to pick up the phone, but Anna clutched his shoulder. “That’s enough,” said Anna, taking the phone from him and setting it back in its cradle. “Mr. Jacobson and I will meet in my office.”

Anna motioned for Carl to come around the corner and disappeared through a back door behind the counter. Carl started the way she had pointed but stopped when the cashier muttered, under his breath, “There are cameras all over the place.”

“What did you say?”

The cashier snorted. “Just don’t try anything. Everyone knows what you did to her.”

Carl inhaled deeply, then continued around the corner.

He had succeeded in every aspect of his life except this. Women swooned at the sight of his dark, chiseled face, a gift from his mother. And men trembled at the sound of his booming, articulate baritone, the only genetic hand-me-down his long-dead father had left him. His tall, muscled body helped him bring home a sizable paycheck every Sunday. A new silver Cadillac sat in his garage back in Cincinnati, back where the rumors had not followed him, back where kids lined up in shopping malls, trading cards in hand, waiting for his autograph. But here, back home, people could not forget, would not. Except for old coots who didn’t know any better, or didn’t care.

Anna held her office door open, a somber half-frown on her face. She closed the door behind him, then wrapped her arms around his barrel chest, resting her head on his shoulder. Carl hugged her back and closed his eyes. He didn’t realize he was squeezing too hard until she gently pushed against his ribs and stepped away.

“Easy there, big guy. I missed you too, but you don’t want to break me in half, do you?”

Carl set his hand on the back of his neck and tried to knead the tension away. He cast his eyes downward.

“I’m sorry about Chuck,” said Anna, as she sat on the edge of her desk. She motioned for Carl to have a seat on the leather couch she’d somehow managed to fit into the smallish room.

“That kid is a punk,” he said. “Pure and simple.”

“You know I’ve tried my best to put an end to all that stuff. Almost since the day it started.”

Carl sank down onto the couch, its soft brown cushions yielding under his weight. He leaned forward, his upper body slouching toward Anna.

“It would be nice if you didn’t let it get to you, though,” she said. “Like you said, guys say things ten times worse on the field every Sunday, and you don’t take their heads off.”

“Well, actually, I do. Or, at least I try to,” said Carl, grinning. “You know, all that tackling and wrestling each other to the ground… I’m not doing it because I like the smell of the other guy’s sweat.”

Anna laughed. “Listen. I thought we were doing dinner.”

“Just couldn’t wait to see you,” he said.

Anna smiled. “Me neither.” She stared at her watch. “I wish we could just run off right now. We have so much to catch up on. These phone calls and emails have been great but it’s been…” She stared over at him. “Six years, right?”

Carl nodded.

Her eyes looked glassy, like she might cry. “I’ll see you tonight though, right?”

“Absolutely,” he said as they both stood up.

They wrapped their arms around each other to say goodbye, and though she did her best to muffle it in the folds of his coat, he heard her give a little whimper. Carl slipped his fingers through the river of her blond hair and rubbed her neck.

On his way out, Carl cast a murderous look at the cashier, waiting for a moment to see the kid’s response, which was a pained expression—punctuated by a quivering lip—that made Carl think he’d just made the kid piss his pants. Satisfied, Carl stepped through the glass doors into the parking lot and headed for the car.

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