Issue 153, Winter 1999
The field is flattened like a book too long left open. There is the newly painted white crease of the spine, there the muddy dog-eared corner. The boys wait in their lines. The shouts are just beginning.
The parents fill the space around the soccer game, the space between the lines and trees, with their puffs of cigarette smoke, their folded corduroy arms, their red-white coolers and blue-pink baby strollers of silent brothers and sisters wrapped in afghans. The afghans are all gaudy, every one, because a prominent theory holds that children of the seventies should be exposed to mathematical patterns. Tangerine and lime geometry. The theory will pass, and the afghans will find themselves on the beds of guest rooms, then in attics, then in bags out on the sidewalk. These parents are intent on their children’s success, on their young boys out on the field this championship game. The boys know this. The boys, in their shiny striped shirts and long bright socks, are still trying to remember the rules to this game.
The autumn trees are quaking their crisp leaves, dropping them in dozens to the field, lurid hands or gloves thrown into a ring.
Off to the side, pushed back by the throng of parents, are the children who are in greater numbers than those on the field, the brothers and sisters of the champions, the ones not great enough today. Other days, in the future, but not now.They are brought along because no parent can stay home. Every doctor and real-estate agent knows the prominent theory of families being required to be on the sidelines, so they are all here, missing their appointments, applauding these first hesitant kicks towards the goal, these first stained knees. So the other children are brought along. They fill any gaps left between the parents and the trees, and wander into the trees themselves, towards the little gullies and rotted forts they’ve built over the years to house them during the shouting. That is, most of them do. A few are out beyond that, by the creek, and the shouting is unheard beside the water.
And in the corner of everybody’s eye, as if it were impossible to wish away, even in all the hopeful tussle of cleats on the field, the kicked mud and grass, is Mr. Poppy in his wool army coat out near the goalpost, clapping with his mouth open, urging on the team. In the gasping spirit of the game, all the parents try to forget him. But the sidelined children see him. Even the ones by the creek can see him. And later, when the last goal has been made and fiery-cheeked boys are shaking hands on the field, they will watch him through the raw fingers of a leafpile. Waiting for their parents, they will watch his happy applause, his glasses flaring in the chill sun.
It is cold, but only once you step into the navy shadows of the trees. The smell of the air is smoke and oranges, the rusty scent of dirt kicked up by boys, one lone cigar. Otherwise, by the creek, in that cold, there is no odor. Like some violet spell, the jangling creek silences everything. The creek, and around it the mealy dirt strewn with pull tabs from beer cans like silver insects, and around that the meager glade that to these children seems like a cathedral forest.
And here they are. Making little boats from pieces of wood, struggling to find a way to fit a mast onto a piece of bark without breaking it, carefully fitting an oak leaf as a sail. Debbie has discovered that a tuna fish can is the best raft, and she proves this in race after race. She is a bony girl, a sixth-grader formed like a bird with winglet shoulders and a tense face. In autumn her lips are always chapped, and her mouth constantly works at them, biting away the skin. Her long brown hair is held back by elastic trimmed with little clear baubles. Debbie is young, and smart, and has read A Wrinkle in Time too many times to recall. She often thinks of the heroine Margaret in her warm attic bed, combing that mousy hair. She often thinks of the adventures in store for girls with mousy hair. Again she places the tuna fish can in the water. Swiftly, haughtily, again it passes other boats.
From the field, if they could hear it, would come shouts of “Gary! Defense, Gary! ” which is a call to her older brother. A call from her father, who demands success.
Another boy there, Martin, is furious with Debbie’s boat. It isn’t a boat at all, he claims. You haven’t built anything, he tells her. Time after time, he straightens the bark rudder of his own ship, which he has named Darth Vader and which is overly complex for this kind of game. The only purpose is the survival of the boats through the metal glitter of small rapids, but Martin is intent on perfection: his has a rudder, and two acorn pontoons. Martin wears glasses strapped to his head with string. His hair is permed (a whim of his mother’s) and sticks out frizzily everywhere. Perms are not uncommon for boys at this time—some of the soccer boys even have perms. As a matter of fact, Martin himself is on the soccer team, and wears the shimmering uniform of the team in red, the long socks, the black cleats. Martin has been on the bench all season, though, so he has learned how to play in the woods. He has had time to perfect a bark rudder on a pinewood boat. And all this time he mumbles; it is a poem he is to speak at a school assembly, one his mother picked from Emily Dickinson. It is an inappropriate choice, but she is a woman who reads poetry, caught in this spiral of split-level houses, so she tries. Martin surely doesn’t know what it means, but he is memorizing it, and rattles it off constantly and quietly. The words run together like this: I cannot live with you it would be life and life . . .
Debbie’s boat sinks and she chews rapidly on her lip. She finds another raft, a shelf fungus growing on a tree, pokes a mast in it and wins again. The triumph of mousy-haired girls. This game wasn’t her idea, though. It was Kristin’s, and Kristin seems hardly to be trying.
Away from them, Martin’s team is loudly winning, and the boys do little dances they’ve seen on television. Their red shirts shimmer in that sun, and Mr. Poppy applauds. He smiles his happiness everywhere.
Kristin is another matter. Down by the water, she takes off her shoes and steps in. The creek parts around each leg, ruffling at her ankles. It must be icily cold. She has four boats going at once, all the same kind: a moss raft carrying a stone. She has begun to realize how prone to sinking they are, but some of the thrill of boat races is the fragility of the crafts, and there is joy in watching things drown. She is younger than the other two, a sister of a soccer player like Debbie, but really nothing like Debbie in any other way. Thin blond hair in pigtails, tan coveralls rolled up to her knees, a pink vinyl jacket half off her shoulders, the buttercup hood hanging behind her like another head. She’s strange to all the other children. She’s known to lead groups of boys down this creek to a huge pipe that leads under a road, a superstitious place none of the boys will enter. She’s known for walking in there all alone. Parents warn their children from her, their own kind of superstition. Kristin isn’t bright or skillful. She isn’t charming or talented at “Fur Elise" on the piano like the other girls, doesn’t show up at parties in a pink prairie dress or know a single tap dance, but she is dangerous. Look at her in the water without her shoes, while everyone else breathes clouds into the chill air. Look at how careless her life already is.
In a few years, her brother out there in the soccer team will be hit by a car. The whole neighborhood will be struck with horror, and she will turn to her mother in the kitchen and see that face unveiled for a moment. Her mother will show something so reckless in a parent: she will show her own dislike for her daughter. It will hide itself in her face quickly, and she will run to hold Kristin close. But Kristin will have seen and known it. That’s years from now.
Off by the field, at halftime, coolers are being emptied of their Gatorade, and the air steams from hot chocolate falling into Styrofoam. Debbie’s bully brother Gary walks dejectedly towards his thickly mustached father, who is silently smoking a cigar. It’s his cigar that covers the air with smoke. Gary is waiting for the words he knows are coming.
Martin by the water rattles off his Dickinson: I cannot live with you it would be life . . .
The parents are in their halftime poses: pouring chocolate, lighting another cigarette, chatting up a neighbor, rubbing a boy’s red ears to heat them. Martin’s parents are here, finally worrying about their son, although he’s been gone before and they find nothing too awful in his being alone.
A prominent theory says that children of the seventies need time alone in order to be geniuses. They hope that what he is doing is some sign of genius, and they wish that they could see it. She in her brown leather coat, her black oval sunglasses, her ponytail of black hair, casting her glance to people she doesn’t really know. He remembers his own youth and lack of skill at sports, remembers too how their own son almost did not make it to the team. The other fathers petitioned for Martin to be left off, for the improvement of team skill, for a rowdier sport. Martin’s father, also in glasses, also in a leather coat, fought in his nasal voice for his son’s admission, but only won because the league rules say it is a public team, meant for all boys in the sixth grade. He hopes that Martin never heard about this. Kristin’s parents are also here, talking to their son, and if they knew what was to come they would hold him tighter, allow him little vices, little tantrums; but no parent can know such a thing.
The parents turn their heads to lock on their children, and those who cannot find their children keep their heads revolving. So many corduroy coats and crocheted scarves. So many leather buttons. They are trying not to notice Mr. Poppy, or think of Mrs. Poppy, who has left him.