Across American sports, across towns, across generations, that is one thing that never changes, and it didn't change for Kenny Wilcoxen. As a kid he once saw a man go on the basketball court and smash his dad on the shoulder with an arm wrapped in a cast. "You're the reason we have juvenile delinquents in this country!" the man yelled. Kenny's father had been spat upon, jeered at, booed and ridiculed. One time Kenny asked, "Dad, why do you do it?" And his father said, "That's their right, son." And so Kenny grew to accept hate as part of the job, and the hate never seemed to bother him. He pursued officiating with every ounce of obsession inside him.
When the obsession was stifled, when the hate finally got to him, Kenny found himself in a little shelter, trying to poison himself and escape from the fans and parents and coaches, from purple screaming faces and the mailman and the answering machine. Things would get back to normal soon. He figured they would find him by dusk. The services would be Monday at Walnut Methodist. Rimington would get someone to fill in for him on Tuesday at the Kewanee-Wethersfield basketball tournament.
After about 25 minutes he started feeling dizzy, and his legs started getting numb. His skin got cold and clammy. He could feel himself going, and it scared him a little.
And then, for no reason at all, he heard Melissa's voice.
"Don't let them win," she was saying. "Don't let them win."
It was so clear that he looked around the shed to see if she were really there. Suddenly, the reality of what he was doing hit him. This is dumb, he thought. He slid queasily off the tractor and made his way to the door, staggering out into the late-November sunshine, heading toward that voice at Hardware Hank's, about a quarter mile away. His right leg wasn't cooperating. He was having to drag it along. The park was circling around him like a carousel. After a while he realized he could never make it all that way, and he turned in another direction, toward the soccer field and maybe the houses upon the hill.
Who knows why Dave McFadden decided to take his dogs out back just then? The dogs had been in the front yard, where McFadden was helping his wife put up Christmas lights, but suddenly he got the urge to go out back and let the dogs run. When he went around the house, he caught sight of somebody out of the corner of his eye, an elderly person having trouble walking. He turned his attention back to the dogs. No, wait, it's a drunk. A drop-dead drunk on Saturday morning. What a world. No, wait, it's Ken Wilcoxen. And at that moment Kenny fell straightforward into the grass, still holding the letter in his hand.
McFadden's wife called emergency while McFadden ran down the hill and turned Kenny over. "God, Kenny, what have you done?" he screamed. He began to cry. He yelled at Kenny the way he had yelled at him when he coached him. "You're tougher than this! You're a fighter!" Kenny was incoherent, except for one thing he kept repeating: "I don't think I locked it." The shed door.
Walnut has no hospital and no paramedics. There is only a loud emergency whistle that pierces the town. But Walnut has volunteers like Skinny Andersen, who sells ambulances, and Sharon Gerdes, who lives up by the Tastee Freeze, and Mike Howlett, who ran to the fire station and jumped in one of the town's two ambulances. In less than five minutes Gerdes and Andersen and Howlett and about a dozen other volunteers came flying up the street and got Kenny on a stretcher. They set off for Perry Memorial Hospital in Princeton, a 20-mile drive. They all knew Kenny. Hell, he'd coached two of Mike's kids. And now, with no doctor and not much equipment on hand, they had to get him to the hospital before he died.
At Hardware Hank's the whistle made Melissa's heart lurch. When she saw the ambulance go past her window, she felt a cold wind inside her chest. But when the ambulance didn't turn down her street and instead headed toward the school, she relaxed and let her shoulders down.