Every night around 7 they'd go out for a walk. Ronnie would buckle the baby into the stroller and call out to Linda, "We're ready. You coming with us, Lin, or are you going to wait for the limo?"

They'd walk the one short block down their own narrow street to the avenue, which was wide and tree-lined and had grand sidewalks, large enough for a whole family to walk on without feeling cramped. They'd turn left there and head west for a couple of blocks toward the elementary school, on their way passing a row of comfortable brick houses set back off the road and shaded by big, ivy-dappled trees.

No matter how lousy a day he'd had at work, no matter how sour he'd felt on the ride home, walking with his family in a neighborhood like this would always lift Ronnie's spirits, carry him aloft like a leaf in a steady breeze, so by the time they'd get to the open field on the side of the school Ronnie would be feeling bouncy, and sometimes he'd slip his arm around Linda's waist -- parking it on her hip -- and give her a little squeeze like he used to do in high school. How many years ago was it now, 15? Could it really be that long?

He hardly ever talked about high school anymore. He'd certainly never speak of it at work. There were five of them on the floor, all of them in competition for the supervisor's blessing. Where he went to school may have come up once or twice, but not what he'd done there. Why would it matter to any of them that he had played quarterback at West Utica? That's 15 years gone, and 500 miles away. And anyway, if he ever mentioned it, somebody surely would ask him about Linda, and God help him if he told people that she'd been a cheerleader; yeah, that was all he had to do.

So in a way it was their little secret: the quarterback and the cheerleader that nobody knew. Oh, they'd told the kid. But Bill was barely 3 years old, so what did it matter if he knew? Who was he going to tell?

Ronnie rarely even thought about high school anymore. But once in a while, on a walk like this, on a cool evening when you could already see the moon rising in the clear fall sky, he might. Once in a while on a walk like this, when the air was particularly crisp, when if he closed his eyes and breathed deeply he could catch one last glorious whiff of burning leaves, he might. Once in a while on a walk like this, when he'd pass the field at the elementary school and see those kids playing football, five on each side, running and diving on the soft, deep, green grass, he might, he very well might.

Football, he knew, was a fall game, its season strictly defined by climate. September. October. November. For football to be played correctly, there had to be leaves falling, leaves the colors of an autumn sunset, honest, blazing reds, yellows and oranges, leaves to cover the lawns in crinkly carpets, leaves to be trampled, raked and burned. Without leaves, football had no ambience. That they played it at all in the Sun Belt, where even the November sun can scorch like a branding iron, confused him. That they played it so well there depressed him.

It had been years since Ronnie had picked up a football. The last time he'd had a catch -- at the family gathering, Thanksgiving Day 1981, a few months before Linda became pregnant -- he noticed his arm wasn't so strong as it used to be, and his younger brother Jim didn't waste any time telling everybody that Ronnie's passes wobbled crazily, like they were doing a St. Vitus' dance.

The hell with it, Ronnie thought, and pulled on his jacket. Time to put the past behind. He gave the ball -- the ball he'd clutched to his heart and taken for his own that day he'd completed 11 of 14 and led the Devils over Chenango Forks for the first time in nine years -- to his father for safekeeping. But seeing how the ball had such special significance, his father gave it back, telling Ronnie to save it for his own son.

And today, on a walk like this, with the smell of football in the air again and a stiff wind at his back, Ronnie thought he just might go up into the attic and get that ball. For old time's sake he just might ask Lin to hike it to him, like she used to do after high school practice; he just might grip those laces the right way this time and float one out there in a perfect spiral 40 yards or so. And if he did all that, he just might ache for the day when he could say to his son, "Billy, run a 10-yard down and out, and I'll hit you at the sidelines."