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"I'm sorrydid you say they cut the entire athletic budget?" Julia pushed her chair back from her desk and stood to face Ty Chambers, ex-jock, current jerk, her boss and the principal of Milton High School.
"The district is in real financial trouble, Julia. You know this. The budget was voted down and we're on austerity spending. It's one of the compromises the board had to make to preserve resources for student necessities like Advanced Placement classes and guidance staff."
He gestured around her office with a look that clearly showed how little he thought of her kind of necessity.
Julia's guidance office wasn't really an office. The cubicle was carved out of a corner of the library and assembled from movable walls. It wasn't even big enough for angry pacing, which was what she needed to do right now to avoid saying something to Ty that would get her fired.
"But the whole athletic department? The board actually cut the boys' basketball program? No Milton Tigers?"
"Yes, the board cut the entire department," Ty affirmed.
Ty had been a Milton Tiger; he was wearing his state championship ring on his hand today as he did every day. He'd gained at least fifty pounds since his playing days, so the ring was probably stuck on his finger, but no doubt a guy like him saw that as a bonusa perma-ring to match the Tiger tattoo he'd likely gotten during his freshman season. Most ex-Tigers took the team more seriously than they took just about anything, yet Ty was standing calmly in her office, telling her they'd cut the program. Right.
"The boosters put the money back for the boys, didn't they?" she asked. Not that she needed to. A first-grader would have known the answer.
The Milton Tigers basketball boosters, an independent club made up of former players, parents, community leaders and anyone who wanted to be part of the fever that gripped Milton every Friday during basketball season, was flush with cash and power. The boosters funded all kinds of perks for the boys and their fans. Why not a whole season?
"Community support through the boosters is funding some programs, enabling them to continue at their current levels despite the board cuts," Ty intoned. She moved a stack of files filled with the names of kids who needed so much more than she could offer back from the edge of her desk, praying for self-control. Ty never spouted that community-support line spontaneously. It was a rehearsed speech to cut off arguments about why her girls' team of basketball players would be sitting home this winter while the boys' team went on undisturbed. "Some programs like boys' basketball."
"The Tigers are the heart of Milton High. You know that."
Ty was right. She knew all about Tigers basketball. She knew the Tigers regularly turned out state championship teams and that the booster support for one athletic team in a small community like Milton was astounding. She knew the boys' basketball team had fewer scholar-athletes and more kids who walked a thin line between exhibiting high spirits and committing juvenile offenses than any other team in the school. She also knew the sexual favors the Tiger cheerleaders allegedly handed out to the team went beyond anything their parents could conceive of. So yes, she knew what the Tigers meant to the school and she didn't like much of it.
"Boys' basketball survives and everything else gets cut?"
"Boys' basketball has the only team with an active boosters group. Other teams can start cultivating community funding."
"Basketball season begins in two weeks!"
Ty didn't smile, but she sensed how much he wanted to.
Not for the first time in her life, Julia wished she knew how to bat her eyelashes and cozy up to a guy to get what she wanted. It would get a better reception from Ty. Unfortunately, growing up with three older siblings who lived in cutthroat competition with one another, she'd learned to always follow up an elbow to the stomach with a kill shot to the groin, not bat her eyelashes. She didn't have feminine wiles and she was unlikely to find any in the drawers of her beat-up steel desk. So she stuck with what she knew how to do. When you face a problem, pummel it until it gives in.
Stepping out from behind her desk, she got right up in Ty's space. She didn't care if he was eight inches taller than her and still had the frame of a jock. She'd been at odds with him since his first year as principal when she testified at a district hearing that ended with the suspension of the team's starting forward for threatening a teacher's aide in the art room. She wasn't about to duck from Ty now. Her brothers had trained her not to show fear.
"Bullshit," she said. "You got together with your cronies and pulled a miracle for the only team you care about. But my girls get a lot out of playing. At least they're not on the streets stirring up trouble, or sleeping with one of your precious Tigers."
Ty didn't look ruffled, which pissed her off even more. He was probably loving every second of this. "The school is grateful for the help the boosters provide," he acknowledged.
"You can find some money for the girls' team and you know it," she went on.
"My hands are tied."
"What if I forgo my coaching stipend?" She used that money to provide extras for the girls on the team, like monthly pizza parties and movie nights, but she'd worry about more funding once she convinced Ty to give her team back.
"You can't think this is going to fly without a protest. What about Title IX? You can't have a team for boys and not for girls. I'll file a lawsuit myself." She had no idea how to file a lawsuit, or even if she had a case, but her three older siblings were all lawyers and Ty knew it.
He turned around from the door and glared at her. "You're going to push this, aren't you?"
"Yes," she said, every molecule in her body wanting him to dare her.
"Fine. You can have girls' basketball. There won't be much of a budget, but that's okay, because you said you'd work without a stipend. This is a bare-bones operation, Julia. You want ityou've got it. However, I guarantee you nobody cares. You'll save the girls' team and work your butt off, and nothing will change."
He'd relented so quickly it confirmed her suspicion that he'd expected her protest. He'd probably already cleared some money for the girls with the boosters, which meant she'd given up her stipend for nothing. He had no idea how much she wanted to step on his foot or spit or do something that would make an impact on his big, blond, jockish certainty that only the boys' team mattered. Her anger got the better of her.
"How about a bet?" she asked. She was gratified to see his eyebrows lift in surprise. At last she'd gotten a reaction.
"What kind of bet?"
"We make it to the state tournament."
He laughed at her.
She hated being laughed at.
"And our girls' boosters raise enough to fund the tournament trip and housing."
"Julia, you just dived right off the deep end."
"Does that mean you accept the bet?" she demanded. The logical part of her mind that had set up automatic withdrawals for her rent and her car insurance screamed at her to shut up, accept the funding and move on. But the impetuous part of her mind that had taken the bait when her brother Henry goaded her into streaking at her parents' Christmas party at the age of six told her she better not let Ty off the hook.
"What's my offer? After your team makes the tournament and your mythical boosters raise the cash, what do I owe you?"
"Full funding for next year, including a summer camp. With academic enrichment."
He snapped his fingers as if to say "chump change."
"Fine. And when you lose?"
Her foot twitched toward his instep, but she controlled herself. Barely. "Name it," she said.
"You run the Boosters Bash in March. You throw the party and you plan and deliver the sincere thank-you to Coach Simon, the Milton Tigers and their fans after another championship season."
She shook his hand so fast the conversation was over before he'd finished laying out his terms. She'd rather quit her job than fete the Tigers and their supporters, but that didn't matter. What mattered was meeting Ty's smug smile with one of her own.
He left, and she felt the effects of adrenaline in her shaking hands and sweaty neck. She lifted her hair with one hand and fanned her skin with the other, musing about the bet. At least the terms were straightforward. Without boosters and a winning record her team was sunk. She'd have to get those two things. Quick.
School was out for the day, so she locked up her office behind her, but made sure her cell number was on the whiteboard on her doorin case any of the kids needed her.
As she cut through the library on the way to her car, she called her brother Henry, and caught him on his cell phone, at their mom's. He was taking down the awnings to prepare for winter.
"I'm stopping by," she said. "Don't leave until I get there, okay?"
Main Street in Milton was like a skeleton stripped of flesh. The storefronts were still there, but almost all the businesses were closed. A restaurant called Murphy's. A furniture and lighting store. A barbershop with a red-and-white-striped pole. The history of the town was written in the names on the open storefronts. Julia drove below the speed limit, letting the sad street sink in. She lived in a small apartment just off Main Street and walked past the tired storefronts practically every day, but she was usually so busy with her life that she never really saw her neighborhood.
Even if she was the very best guidance counselor, would anything she did alter the bleak outlook for Milton? On a good day at work, she connected a kid with a necessary resource, be it tutoring, counseling or sometimes just a website. But her reach was small and the problems in Milton were not.
It took her less than an hour to drive to Jericho, the town she'd grown up in. A mere forty miles from Milton, Jericho was thriving. The economy had a solid base in Jericho State University, one of the New York State university campuses. A pretty Adirondack setting, low crime and good jobs coupled with the culture of a college town drew young families, who built up the tax base so the Jericho public school system got better and better. Julia was, frankly, jealous of the Jericho school budget.
She pulled her Volkswagen into a space in front of the gingerbread Victorian she'd grown up in. Henry was on a stepladder, unhooking the last of the awnings from the front porch. Their two older siblings, Allison and Geoff, were partners in a Manhattan law firm, but Henry had moved back to Jericho. He'd bought the house next door to their mom a few years ago after he was hired as the vice president for legal affairs at SUNY Jericho. Julia teased him about the family compound, but her mom was happy to have one of her children so close.
"Hey, Henry," she called. "Got a basketball?"
"Garage," he said, his voice tight as he struggled to control the rolled awning.
"You want me to help with that?" she asked.
He rested the awning on the porch. "I'm pretty much done. Why do you want the basketball?"
"To see if a miracle has taken place."
She trotted down the driveway and across the grass, into Henry's yard. Inside the garage she spotted a bin of sports equipment and grabbed a basketball from the top.
Just then, her mom, Carole, opened the front door. She was wearing a red silk suitwhich meant this must be one of her volunteer days. After retiring from her law practice several years ago, Carole kept herself busy with a full volunteer schedule. She and Henry walked down the steps and watched as Julia dribbled and shot the basketball at the hoop their dad had installed over the garage for Geoff's seventh birthday.
The ball missed the basket, falling far short. Julia grabbed it again and tried for a layup, but she was too far under the basket and she missed once more. The ball hit the rim and dropped fast, banging her on the head. Her mom's quiet "Oh, dear" made Julia feel foolish and compounded her irritation.
"Come on!" she said as she kicked the ball away from her feet. "You're round. The hoop is round. Why won't you just go in?"
"Maybe because you're a terrible basketball player, Coach Bradley."
"Henry, don't tease your sister," Carole said.
Julia rubbed her head as her brother dug the ball out from under the bushes and sent it back to her with an easy bounce pass.
"The school district cut all the sports today," she said. "Austerity budget."
"I'm so sorry," her mom said.
Julia shot the ball a third time, and it hit high on the backboard before bouncing back toward her. "Not to worry. I made a little bet with the principal so he'll get the boosters to pay for the season."
Henry whistled. "Of course you did. Let me guess. He taunted you."
"Laughed at me."
"That's straight out of my playbook circa fifth grade. A little mocking laughter and you'll take any dare."
"I know, Mom. It was dumb and I shouldn't lose my temper. I'm planning to work on that after I turn thirty-five." Which gave her three more years to knock heads with Ty. Maybe she'd get him trained to her will before she had to give up her temper.