As game time draws near coach Portella gathers his peewee soccer team in a circle, ready to dole out assignments. Like adolescent monkeys gathered at the foot of a tree we clamber for the status of our assigned branches. Coach Portella hushes our collective jabbering and jockeying. He begins to rally his tribe. He speaks of the need to try our best, do our part and win for the sake of the team.
“We are the Lions and we can be the best soccer team in the town! And we win by doing what’s right for the team, right?”
We all nod. Two boys behind me scream, their words pouring over me, “Right, coach!”
“For the team,” I whisper.
Coach works his way around the circle of expectant eyes as he assigns positions and responsibilities.
His eyes crinkle as he starts with our best athlete. “Wayne, you’re in goal again. Let’s see a second shutout, OK?” Wayne’s back is slapped. He beams and nods toward coach Portella.
“Mikey, with that leg of yours, you’re midfielder.” In slow motion, Mikey acts out a booming kick. More back slapping.
Autumn’s soft breeze kicks up leaves as coach continues around the circle, eventually finding me.
He purses his lips and nods ever so slightly, his Italian face seemingly flattened by an iron frying pan. He leans forward, placing his right hand on my shoulder. The combined scent of Aqua Velva and The Dry Look for Men envelops me. My gaze floats left to watch a set of ringed sausages squeeze my collarbone. Facing coach Portella I am captivated by a collection of spittle rimming his Serpico mustache.
“Listen, Beasley, you’re gonna shadow their striker, the Kappa boy, OK?”
“And like, he’s super-fast. And smart. He’s their biggest threat and, man, does he know what to do when he gets that ball. He cannot score on us. Understood, Kinkade?” I nod. “So you gotta be tenacious. Got it? Tenacious.”
“Huh? Te-what? I gotta be what?”
Ever so slowly coach Portella shakes his head.
“In the winter you play ice hockey, right?
“So who’s your favorite hockey player?”
“Bernie Parent! Philadelphia Flyers! Best goalie in the world!”
My New Jersey teammates hiss and scoff. Within a moment a tangle of tanned and brown arms fall upon my back and shoulders, shoving and poking me. Someone yanks my hair, pulling me down to a lower branch.
“Flyers suck, man!”
“Broad Street Bullies bite!”
“Rangers # 1!”
“You suck, Kinkade.”
From behind I am shoved hard, though coach Portella’s meaty grip keeps me from falling. Wheeling around, I strike the nearest teammate with an elbow to the chest. He collapses backward into the pool of boys before regaining his balance. He shoves me and I respond by jamming my hand under his chin. I push his face upward as he flails at me. A short distance away, parents quiet their conversations of work, the difficulties of parenting boys and the continued impact of the president’s resignation to monitor the swell of violence.
A second boy shoves me as coach Portella screams. “Hey! Knock it off you animals! Jesus H. Christ. Come on, man. You’re on the same team. Cool it now.”
He looks to the browned turf, our small cleats poking like spokes toward him. “No wonder the Commies are kicking our asses. Look at the bunch of you. You’re like frigg’n animals.”
“Animals,” I whisper.
One by one he stares us into silence.
He takes a long breath, resigned, before returning his attention to me. “Kinkade, who, besides a goalie, is your favorite player?”
“Bobby Clarke, number 16, of the Flyers.” Again I am shoved from behind.
“Cool it you little shits! Save it for the field.”
His curse word freezes us.
He blinks slowly. A smile blooms across his face. “Clarke, huh?”
Again I nod.
“Well, listen, Kinkade, like I said before, you’re gonna be responsible for shadowing their center, their best player Danny Kappa. He’s beat’n the livin’ daylights outa everyone so I want you to give him a little of the Bobby Clarke treatment out there, OK?”
He smirks. “And maybe a little bit of the Moose Dupont treatment too. Get my drift?”
Understanding my role I return his smirk.
And with the definition of the word tenacious under my belt I take the field, glued at the hip to Danny Kappa.
Throughout the game I follow Danny, sticking to his side, bumping him, grabbing his shirt and once, when the ref was otherwise occupied, kicking Danny’s legs out from under him.
Time meanders toward the game’s conclusion, a tide drifting lazily from goal to goal.
I am indeed tenacious and without a shot on goal, Danny grows frustrated. He pushes me, curses me.
“You suck, Kinkade”
“You’re nothing but a shadow ‘cause your coach knows you can’t kick worth shit.”
“You’ll never score ‘cause you’re nothin’ but a big pussy, Kinkade. A pussy!”
The game wafts forward and we score our first goal. As I celebrate I throw my hands to the sky, screaming, unaware Danny is rushing me from behind. And with my sights set forward, he drops me to a knee with a forearm to the back.
My back and forth with the Kappa boy continues as midway through the second half, with the ref far up field, I come up from behind Danny and yank his shorts down, exposing half of his white Sears underwear. Teammates squeal as Danny yanks up the back of his pants, his face beet red, his heart hardened.
He responds to my successful attempt at embarrassment by biding his time and waiting for an opening. And just a few minutes later, as I stand behind the play scratching my jock, Danny cold-cocks me in the back of the head.
His teammates snicker as I bend over, surrounded by shooting white stars and fighting back tears.
A dull throb washes over the outside of my head.
A roiling anger percolates within.
Now it’s my turn to bide some time.
I wait patiently as the end of the game draws near. The play has slowed, the field spread wide as tired boys trot here and there. Then, following a long kick from our keeper Wayne, I see my chance to even the score.
Danny intercepts our goalkeeper’s kick at midfield, expertly gaining control with his chest and dropping the ball to his feet. Slowly at first, he begins to dribble up field. From maybe 10 yards away I watch as he picks up steam, moving toward me.
From the sidelines coach Portella screams, “Get in there Kinkade! That’s your man!”
Danny nudges the ball ahead, daring me to commitment myself. I bob on my toes as he is pursued from behind by a howling teammate. Danny gooses the ball forward – just a bit too far – and he is forced to rush ahead to retain control.
The black and white ball rolls to a position halfway between us.
And as the ball meanders toward me I hurtle forward, running to the rolling ball. Danny beats me there and, as he calibrates his speed to take control of the situation, I ignore the ball and drop my shoulder, ready to plow full speed into Danny Kappa’s chest.
He looks up from the ball. The last thing he sees is me beaming, wild eyed at the thrill of collision.
Air is punched from his lungs as he launches backward. With a thud he slams autumn’s hardened dirt. Tumbling, my momentum carries me forward and I am tripped by his flailing legs. I make certain to drop my knee somewhere around his balls. My right forearm strikes him in the side of the face as I slide over a flattened Danny Kappa. Under my modest weight he moans, unable to breath.
Scared of what awaits me, I scramble off his prone body. Climbing back to my feet I am frozen, captivated, by the sight of Danny’s arms and legs slowly clawing at the sky.
The crowd gasps.
The whistle blows.
From the sideline a parent screams, “Cheap shot!”
Rushing the field, Danny’s coach bolts past me cursing as he makes his way to his downed attacker. Coach Portella rushes me as the whistle blows a second time.
With red card in hand the referee grabs my shoulder and shoves me toward the sideline. “Red card! You’re outa here! Get the hell off my field!”
I protest, “What? I was goin’ for the ball!”
“You’re outa here! Now!”
I turn toward the sidelines. Pairs of narrowed eyes dole out silent verdicts. Leaving Danny behind I scan the crowd for my mother. A finger points and the crowd buzzes. From behind I hear a scream approaching. Looking over my shoulder I duck as Danny lunges at me, red-faced and wailing. He swings wildly with his right hand, his roundhouse striking my neck. He follows with a left and soon we are brawling. With my left hand I pull the collar of his jersey toward me and with my right I punch at Danny. My heart pounds and I wonder if I’ve peed my pants. He claws at me, scratching my face and arm as we fall to the ground. Additional fights bloom among our teammates and parents soon fill the field, pulling apart 12 year old combatants.
Pulled to his feet Danny gasps for air, his face blotchy and boiling. He howls, “I hate you, Kinkade. I hate you! I’m gonna kill you!”
Coach Portella drags me backward, barking, “What the hell were you thinking?”
Stunned at his look of disgust, I pull away, shaken.
Danny continues his screaming and cursing. Through tears I return his wails. “You’re a pussy, Kappa. I just kicked your ass!”
He lunges at me but is stopped by his father, one of the many parents sorting through children. Holding his son’s shoulders he stares first at me, then at my approaching mother. “Hope you’re proud of yourself, son.” Then, as my mother arrives on the scene Mr. Kappa levels his gaze. “Hope you’re proud of your son, Mrs. Kinkade. Very nice job.”
Chest heaving and fighting back tears I bark over the crowd, “He started it!”
Mr. Kappa shakes his head as if saddened by the sight of a homeless person. He taps his son’s shoulders and bends down to stage a whisper in his ear, “You’re the better man, Danny.” Looking at me, he concludes, “the better man.”
Seething, I scream above the milling crowd, “You’re son’s nothing but a big pussy!” I point to my scratched face, “He scratches like a baby! You raised nothing but a pussy! A pussy!”
Mr. Kappa’s jaw goes slack as I am cracked in the side of the head by my mother’s swift right. The debate over child rearing ends as I bend over, cupping my ear and adjusting to another moment filled with pain.
As I stare at the ground, pairs of shoes, cleats and sneakers drift away as I am left at the center of a circle of silence.
Mom fills the circle with instructions, grabbing me. “Come with me!”
Dragging me by the arm Mom jerks me toward the car.
“How dare you! How dare you embarrass me like that!”
Through tears I protest, “He started it! He punched me! In the back of the head! … a cheap shot!”
She looks over her shoulder before yanking me forward.
She returns her attention to me. She hisses, snakelike, “Shut up!”
Her breathing quickens as I continue, “But Mom, I was doin’ was what I was told. He punched me!”
Led by the arm I turn to watch as Danny, now the recipient of the game’s second red card, cries in protest before the referee. Today, he will not score.
I let loose a smile of a job well done.
And seeing my satisfied grin Mom yanks my arm down and across the front of her body, causing me to stumble to the ground, a disobedient dog jerked with a short leash.
She clomps furiously toward a parking lot filled with Chryslers, Chevys and Fords. As we step from the curb she once again tries to throw me off balance.
“How could you? You embarrassed me in front of the entire town! Everyone! And your father! You embarrassed your father too!”
“But mom, he…”
Crack! to the side of the head.
“Do not say another word.”
“Mom, I did what …”
Crack! to the side of the head.
She thrusts me to the car, my chest slamming the curved window of the station wagon’s rear door.
I comply, pulling in my left leg before she has a chance to slam the door on my ankle. Door shut, I am entombed in a silent bubble.
I listen to my own wheezing as Mom makes her way to the driver’s seat.
The engine roars. Gravel spits as she backs out of the parking space. Slamming the brakes, she heaves the station wagon forward, the front end swelling with the engine’s whine.
At the stop sign marking the exit from the parking lot she again slams the brakes. She throws the car in park and as traffic passes before us she turns and reaches for me in the back seat. I recoil, squirming across the bench-like second seat as she leans back, flailing at me.
As I huddle against the right side door she’s left to slap my shins and feet, both protected by soccer’s modest gear. My feet kick back in protest, striking her forearm and causing her to cease her efforts. She stares, startled, at red cleat marks pressed into soft white skin. She withdraws her arm and turns to face ahead. I watch as she sits silently, rubbing her arm and staring through the windshield. Her shoulders rise and fall as I cower in the back seat.
Her eyes narrow, her teeth clench as she speaks to the windshield. “I don’t know why you’re like you are but I’ll tell you right here and right now; you are in for a world of hurt when your father hears about this.” She smooths her skirt and collects herself. With deliberate care she adjusts soft brown hair around her ears. She shifts the rear view mirror to monitor me, finding me currently pressed against the door. She draws a long slow breath. Softly she repeats, “A world of hurt.”
She exhales before snapping the car into drive. We jerk into the flow of traffic and drive a familiar mile in silence before coming to a traffic light marking the left turn toward home. The light’s red warning stops our progress. Once stopped Mom dramatically clicks on the left blinker. She places the car in park and, again, turns to leap into the back seat. She claws at me. Instinctively my arms fly up and, finding my wrist, she yanks and twists, pulling me forward. My face approaches hers and I smell not fury, but a mixture of Lipton tea on her breath, Breck Shampoo in her hair and Calgon upon her hands. My arm bends unnaturally as she draws me closer. “I will not be embarrassed like that. Do you understand me?”
My shoulder drops, contorted by her effort. Wincing, I pull myself from her grip without answering.
As I slink from her reach she turns to face forward, waiting for the light to turn green. Exhausted, she slumps back in her seat.
I begin to wail, “What do you expect from me! Coach asked me to stay on him! So I did! What do ya want me to do?”
She ignores me.
“He. Hit. Me!”
She sits silently as I lower my voice, “Just like you hit me.”
Finding me in the rearview mirror her voice levels, “Shut your mouth, young man.”
“You care more about what those people back there think than you do about me!”
My head throbs, my arm stings. My heart heaves.
She turns to face me. “Shut up!”
Above the windshield the red light takes pity on me, finally relinquishing to green. Throwing the car in drive Mom slams her foot on the accelerator. Tires chirp as we swerve left, cutting off oncoming traffic. The smell of rubber creeps through floorboards to join squealing tires and a blaring horn in the back seat of the station wagon.
I tumble sideways, momentum pressing me against the rear door.
Looking up I watch colorful leaves blur into a spinning arc. Sagging electrical lines pulse through the frame of the door’s closed window.
And as I stare up at a blue autumn sky I notice my door is unlocked, the fat silver knob standing tall in the open position. With Mom navigating the car through its squealing turn I move quickly. Tugging myself upward I place my right forearm on the door’s vinyl armrest. Looking down I notice my arm is blotched red, finger prints tattooing my skin. I find the metal door handle. As blurred leaves and sagging electrical lines whirl overhead I yank the handle up and shove my right shoulder against the door.
The door explodes out, metal hinges protesting against the unexpected momentum of the lunging car. A rush of cold air bursts into the back seat to join the sound of horns and squealing tires.
I scream as the door handle tugs my right hand behind it. With my left hand I grope for a grip on the armrest. My body stretches to follow the flight of the door as it snaps outward like an uncoiling wing.
The eruption twists Mom round to find her screaming son hanging like one of those sad electrical lines, knees and thighs resting on the rear seat as hands clutch the armrest of a wide open door. Below my extended arms a surging stream of pavement rushes past. A tendril of spit leaps from my mouth, elongating and snapping in the hurling breeze. Mom’s scream joins mine as she slams the brakes and swerves to the side of the road. The sudden deceleration jerks my left hand from the armrest and it falls, skipping off the pavement, a stone dancing across a lazy stream.
With her left hand on the steering wheel Mom arches over the front seat to throw her right hand toward me, grabbing my left calf. As I’m dragged backward my shirt is pulled up and I feel the coolness of vinyl on my stomach.
Around me time congeals capturing me like a fly in amber.
We skid to a halt.
The rushing air vanishes and silence joins the hardening moment to fill the car. Gasping, my chest heaves against the second row seat.
Standing at attention, the door extends outward, inches from the rear bumper of a parked VW van. My arms, now limp, hang in the road, the knuckles of my left hand scraped white and bleeding. My head lolls over the edge of the seat as my palms come to rest on warm blacktop. The scent of burnt rubber fills my mouth.
Mom snaps the car into park and jumps from the driver’s seat. Running around the back of the wagon she falls to her knees next to my open door. Taking my hand in hers she inspects my knuckles, kisses my fingers and looks up to the sky. Above, colorful leaves and sagging electrical lines sing a silent song as Mom whispers a private something to the Virgin Mary.
Her eyes well as she pulls me into a hug.
Through the singing leaves autumn sunlight pauses, a river of twinkles now frozen in time.
She squeezes me tight, my face buried in brown hair. The scent of Breck Shampoo shoves aside the smell of burnt tire to fill me with relief.
Mom begins to cry.
And so do I.
For now, in this hardened moment, I am safe.