He'd been only twelve when she'd won her first gold medal in Sydney. As he watched her standing in front of the crowd at the town pool almost exactly six years later he couldn't help but remember the elation that had swept through the town of Orange Beach, Florida that sultry fall day so long ago.
A local girl, a pretty, happy, perennially smiling girl everybody knew, his next door neighbor and ex baby sitter, she had exploded the last few meters of the Olympic pool and with one last desperate lunge had out touched a big shouldered swimmer from Germany and won gold for America. Gold for the people of Orange Beach!
A tall, bubbly blond from Florida, she somehow represented everything that makes America great. Looks yes. But it also was her openness, her ability to laugh, her kindness, all combined with hard work, perseverance and a willingness to learn, that made her the embodiment of the American ideal.
As he watched her talking he could see she was surprised at the size of the crowd who had appeared on what was her first day at her new job, her job as head coach of the Orange Beach High School Swimming Team as well as director of the Orange Beach Swimming Club. It had supposed to have been just an informal introductory meeting between the new boss and the staff and the swimmers.
But the mayor and full town council had appeared, Mayor Brown with speech in hand. The principal of the high school, the woman who had replaced his father just one year ago was also there. So was the publisher of the local paper. And about another thousand curious citizens of Orange Beach had turned up. They'd all greeted her with a standing ovation.
America's swimming darling had decided to come home. It had been heralded in the weekly Orange Sentinel — perhaps the biggest story in the town paper since the parade that had been held for her six years earlier. It had been almost four years since the boy had last seen her.
And every person in the town of seven thousand people knew what had brought her back. The story had been headline news on Fox and CNN and ESPN and the COURT channel for weeks. They'd all heard the 911 tape to the Las Angeles Police Department... the cry for help from a battered wife!
She'd married Kenny McGuire one year after returning from Sydney, a beautiful, double gold medal winning athlete who'd fallen in love with the star first baseman of our favorite team, the L.A. Dodgers. It was the perfect match — the gold medal winning swimmer and the baseball player with matinee idol good looks.
And of course, Kenny, being a Dodger made it even better. Just about every Orange Beacher was a Dodger fan. How could we not be with Vero Beach and Dodgertown, the spring home of the Los Angeles Dodgers just twenty-one miles away to the east. She'd met him the spring after she'd won the Olympic gold.
It had seemed like a fairy tale when they'd married. Now, Kenny McGuire wouldn't have lasted ten minutes if he walked down Main Street of Orange Beach today. And the tall teen knew he would have been at the head of the avenging pack! The boy was going to be captain of the high school swimming team that year. His name was Donald Graham. He thought she was the most desirable woman in the world!
JACQUELINE ANN MERRYWELL - Jam
"So, little Donny Graham is on the high school swim team," I teased, a big welcoming smile on my face as I looked up at the boy, then added, "Except he's not so little anymore."
"You remember me Miss Merrywell?" he asked shyly, a blush spreading on his cheeks.
"Miss Merrywell? Yeah, like I'm going to forget my favorite neighbor, the little monster who always gave me a hard time when I was babysitting him?" I answered, grinning, watching this cute boy who'd become such a handsome teen. The boy who now meant so much to me.
"I never did," he protested, grinning like an idiot, his face now beet red. It was a lovely contrast to his blond hair and blue eyes.
The crowds had finally left and now I was surrounded only by my two assistant coaches and the thirty some members of the high school swim team, the number one program in the state. And yours truly, battered wife or not, was determined to keep it there.
"Hey you, are you heading home?" I called out to Donny who was looking back at me as he talked to a beautiful, dark haired teen by the pool gate. Our meeting had just broken up.
I watched him as he gave a quick kiss to the girl and then turned and walked over to me.
"Yup... soon," he answered, his eyes flitting back and forth from mine to the girl by the gate. "Are you staying at your house tonight Miss Merrywell?"
"What happened to Jam? Isn't that what you and your crazy sister used to call me?"
"You weren't famous then," Donny responded with a grin.
I had always liked little Donny and his sister Gail. But who was this cute boy/man? This boy who could blush so easily while turning teenage girls knees to jelly? "My furniture doesn't arrive til Sunday. I want to check the house though," I added. "Gosh I've got so much I want to do before it arrives."
"I'll help," Donny promised.
"I'm going out now to see what work I have to get done. Want a ride?"
"Yeah, sure... please. Let me talk to Kim first for a second," he said as he looked back at the cute teen waiting thirty feet away. Lucky little girl I thought, a wave of nostalgia for my teenage years sweeping over me.
"Is your daddy home?" I tried to ask nonchalantly ten minutes later as I turned my Audi into the short, tree lined private cul-de-sac that held the Graham and Merrywell houses. But as I asked Donny a shiver of fear coursed through my body.
"You haven't heard?" he demanded looking over at me in surprise.
"What?" I asked as Donny started laughing.
"I thought you knew. He got married. Just last Saturday. I was his best man."
"What? Your father? To who?"
"You won't believe it," he promised with a huge grin.
"But he's too old," I stammered, completely rocked by the news. But I also knew Robert Graham would never think he was too old for any woman.
"She's hardly older than me," Donny added.
"Do you remember the Collins family... they lived over on Poinsettia Road?" the boy asked.
"Yeah sure, I went to school with Glen," I answered, completely mystified. Did he marry Glen's mother I wondered.
"Do you remember his sister Marjorie?"
"The younger sister?"
"Yup," Donny agreed, "she's twenty-two now. Just graduated nursing school. She married dad on Saturday."
"But... gosh, your daddy's got to be sixty now."
"Sixty-three. He's taken her on a six week tour of Europe for their honeymoon." I could see he was amused at my surprise.
"But why would she marry him? I mean, she was such a pretty little girl." But as I spoke I remembered the feel of him when he was inside me. Remembered how he had made my body thrash in ecstasy. For a second I felt a tinge of jealousy towards little Marjorie.
"You should see her now," Donny said, then gave a wolf whistle.
Thoughts and emotions flooded through my mind. Relief surely was the strongest but surprisingly I also felt jealousy and regret. "Who's taking care of you then?" I asked, offhandedly, completely lost in thought.
"Isn't that why you came home Miss Merrywell?" he asked me daringly, a grin on his face, "to baby-sit little Donny?"
"If you call me Miss Merrywell again I may put you across my knee young man," I joked back even while knowing that the only reason I'd come back to Orange Grove was the Grahams — father and son and daughter. "How's Gail anyway?" I asked as I thought of Donny's sister, stalling, still trying to catch up to my whirling mind.
"She left for Gainesville right after dad's wedding. First year... wants to study engineering," Donny answered, a certain disdain for the university choice of his sister clear in his voice.
"U.F.? Yuck," I groaned, my Florida State background and dislike of everything Gator showing.
"I know," the boy agreed, "She's turning into a loser." But watching him and remembering the two children from my babysitting days I knew how much they loved each other.
I actually laughed when I saw the two houses; delighted they looked exactly as I remembered them. They stood side by side, two-story houses that stood framed by the palm trees and lush Florida vegetation that surrounded them. They were sentinels for the vast orange groves that marched outwards behind them.
I hadn't been back since I'd convinced my mom to rent the house and move to California to live with me and my baseball playing husband four years ago. God, don't think about mom, I admonished myself even as the wave of sadness started to flow through my body. Mom, already dead six months.
"You okay," Donny asked, somehow sensing my pain.
"I was thinking of mom," I whispered, then wiped the tear from the corner of my eye.
"We wrote you... Gail and I... when we heard... your mom was always nice to us," Donny replied sadly. "She used to sneak us ice cream when dad wasn't looking."
"She liked you guys," I agreed and then ruffled Donny's blond curls.
Donny followed me as we toured from room to room in the large, two-story, deserted house. "I had cleaners in last week," I said offhandedly to Donny, my mind still trying to digest the news of his father.
"Yeah, we saw them. Gail was hoping you'd get here before she left."
"I was hoping to get some painting done this week, my bedroom, kitchen, living room, dining room, bathroom," I added as we walked. "I'll never get it done now."
.... There is more of this story ...