Duke awoke to thoughts of Melissa. Hard under the covers, he scanned his room, saw an empty twin bed beside him, heard the dull roar of the bathroom shower. A chill ran through him to his shoulders. Opened curtains unveiled a muddy sky bloated with muck and drizzle, the radio tower of a nearby building ripping into the palette and upward, past the window. The television flashed muted images. The dimness of a morning hotel room.

A finger to corkscrew sleep out of his eyes. A moment to recall how her cigarette rested on her lip, how she used it as an appendage to the conversation, how she dragged hard to make it to glow, but lost nothing in the transfer from filter to lung, not even a small trail of smoke.

He removed his covers, walked to the sky.

It bulged. It would pour. Longer cleats. Firmer grip. Shorten the drop.

Think high on throws. In the rain, receivers liked to stay up and clean and they ran routes harder and longer. Rain took the film of the game away, the dusty shade, and put it in Technocolor. Frames moved slower, recognition faster. That was the secret of it: You could pass easily in the rain, if you realized you could see better, hear crisper sounds, anticipate. Duke remembered when it clicked for him, in high school, junior year at Richardson, sleet/rain mix, third quarter, second and eight, an audible he wasn't supposed to make, post pattern by Ben Wilkes, Ben with a step, then two, the defender caught up in the slush, Duke tossing a low rope to the middle of the field, Ben under it, keeping his feet above the mush, skating into the end zone, the game's only touchdown, the perfect record intact, Bill Reed, wind-beaten, sad-faced old head coach, incredulous, nothing to do but fetch Duke by the shoulder pad, clutch his facemask, and say, more plainly than Duke had expected, "That's bigtime. Bigtime."

Bigtime. Bigtime in the rain. Nine college coaches in the press box, wet and pissed they'd flown and driven in for this black rift of clouds set against cobalt sky, this Montana mural, a brutal, surprise winter storm to see the kid with the release. Except that, except now, well then, they had seen something. The trip had been for something. Arizona. Southern California Texas. And Coach. Coach told Bill Reed, "What do I do have to do here?" And Bill Reed, not all that accustomed to the attention, even at sixty-four, said he did not know. He did not know.

Duke looked to the street. The throngs of blue, steam rising from their cups of coffee and hot chocolate, kept close to raised awnings and the movie marquee down the street from the hotel. An early-morning beer garden pitched its tent and unfurled tables and chairs. A breakfast line was forming at the outdoor buffet. The door behind him creaked. Marcus, Duke's roommate on the road, carried his small basket of soap, toothpaste and shampoo to a leather case on the desk near the television. Long black fingers moved over the items. A white towel wrapped around his waist, Marcus stood barefoot.

Duke requested a quiet backup for away games, someone who respected the distance he required. The coaches paired him with Marcus, a small second-team cornerback, a specialist on kickoff and punt coverage, one of the last names on the travel roster. "You keep me on there," Marcus told Duke once. "I'm the man who keeps you straight. You keep me legit."

Duke envied Marcus. Living underground. Marcus had plans for a custom body shop when he graduated, the investors were in line, and the customers, too - he'd become the football team's unofficial supplier of spoilers, sun roofs, truck flat beds raised and chopped in half. Margarique, Marcus' girlfriend, Maggie, Mags, hung close, fortunate, she knew, just to orbit this scene, a chunky, bulbous-looking Mexican girl, pregnant with Marcus' first child. Duke envied her because she accepted her good fortune with cheer; she was no whore, not after what wasn't there, not caught up in anything more than gratitude for being plucked from the tan, slightly rough crowd that swirled around the football team at parties. Before her pregnancy she and Marcus shared three joints in the hotel room before games, watching cheap horror movies, Margarita slumped between Marcus' legs, pot smoke dribbling off her lips.

"Sup out there?" Marcus asked.

"Gonna rain," Duke said. "Hard."



"Fuck man. Fuuuuck."

"You forget your long cleats?"

"Naw. I just hate the fuckin rain."

"Wrap yourself in one a them sideline coats."

Marcus blustered and walked back toward the bathroom. "You need it yet?"

"You going to smoke?"

"Couple hits."

"Lemme shit first, jerk off a little. Then you can do whatever."