By Joseph Weiner
So, at a soccer field in Western Pennsylvania, I bump into this guy I used to know. It is a fear of mine, meeting anyone today from those years. Anytime I drive north from Maryland I have that fear. It is an irrational fear but a fear nonetheless. There are bigger towns and cities north. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are towns, bigger cities, maybe I could call home. But north, it seems, are the small little towns trapped in foothills, trapped in a way of thinking I’d rather not be subjected to again. They want to be something else, these small towns, but it’s just talk.
Today is a big Under Seventeen Soccer Match, and my daughter is the starting goalie for a top-ranked Maryland team. The job makes her either the hero or the goat. The ride home that follows will have its mood set by that result. It’s always tough being the “goalie’s parent.” Trust me: she is getting better at this, and so am I. Her soccer days will end soon; it is not what she wants to do anymore. It is something I think I’ve forced on her since she was twelve. I don’t think I am a bad father; it’s just that she is talented, and I know it.
There is dew on the grass, so you can trace the team’s movements in the tracks they leave on the field. Shuffles and stops, slides and tackles move the moisture and the turf. It is a triumphant dance of multicolored jerseys, swinging pony tails, screams and cheers. She handles fear and pressure with grace and resolution. I am sure she gets those qualities from her mother.
I preferred the games before the big rule change that affected where the parents could sit. It used to be that we got to sit behind our team, but the authorities that govern the games started putting all the parents on the same side, so we would quit harassing our kids and bugging the coaches. Under the old rules, I would have been spared bumping into Jimmy. He is a little awkward as he approaches; maybe at first he is not entirely sure it’s me. After all, I hardly look like the kid he knew in high school. Now we have kids the same age as in the days when we knew each other.
“Joey Weinstein, is that you?”
The y on the end of my name gets my full attention. Nobody uses that y now; my wife does not even tease me with it when she is angry with me. I get a “Mister” from her when I have crossed the line, or a “You son of bitch” when I am really in deep. From experience, I know to retreat. But I can’t get away from Jimmy, never really could. He is there now in front of me, on a day when I’d rather take my lonely place at the far end of the field as the goalie’s dad. See, nobody talks to the goalie’s parents during the game; it’s just too hard. We pace; we are frantic; we often can’t watch. It has gotten so bad that my wife won’t even make these trips anymore. The start of the game signals my retreat from the other soccer parents, and I will stand on the side of the field my daughter defends. Nobody will approach me; it is the only benefit I see as part of being the goalie’s dad. I won’t have to hear any soccer mom talk about why her kid should start and why someone else’s daughter should not. Some year from now, each will come to the revelation that none of our daughters are good enough — that paying for college is inevitable.
So, here is Jimmy, extending his hand toward me. I know that hand; I have felt that hand in harder ways many times before. I reach my hand toward his; I am adult enough to handle this. The inside of his hands are rough. Notched fingers grip my hand and shake firmly a few times. Each shake takes me back.
Sometime in the early eighties, my family moved. Small towns suck for the most part. To tell someone where you are from, you have to reference them to a bigger city nearby. This reference does little justice to the small town or to you. It does even less of a job in telling anyone who cares to listen something about who you are. You have to understand, the town I wound up in, the town we moved to, was one of those small towns, a place only noted by referencing the larger city I had moved there from.
This small town had narrow streets with abrupt ends and unforgiving turns. Driving over fifteen miles per hour was an error in judgment that dented the metal of your car. Those dented metal machines were parked awkwardly in yards, half in and half out of dust, dirt and gravel driveways. The most dented no longer risked the streets and had gardens like hair growing up from beneath their hoods. It was all haphazard, the arrangement of the houses and the landscaping. Even rows of flowers and bushes and neatly-mown yards were the stuff of the larger city. Here, the grass grew unevenly; the vines crept over the porches unchecked. The mulch held no lines, just oozed the odor of the farmers’ fat cows into the still morning air. My house was one of those unkempt places, sitting crooked in the yard.
That was the worst part of it — the stink as you came closer. The paper mills’ large smoke stacks were middle fingers in the air, spewing their smell, puffing out dirty gray clouds, at all times, like grumpy chain smokers.
Between drags they would say, “Hey, stupid, you really do live here?”
Jimmy lived on the side of town, closer to the mills, the smell eating at him every day.
I can see the smokestacks in his eyes, even now, can hear them in the choked sound of his voice when he says, “I thought that was you, always standing by yourself.” It’s lost on him that I am the goalie’s dad, and this is my place.
I did live there, in the same shit town as Jimmy, and while I might like to forget, I know I cannot. I should not. The town is never far from me, and today Jimmy brings it close, reminds me why I don’t like driving north. There were pleasant days with mild sunshine that warmed you with a little hope. Then there were other days where the clouds roamed over mountaintops, each telling a different story in its shape, casting darker shadows into the valley and making the stream seem sinister. Those same clouds darkened the green forest that ran thick with its fingers of scratching pine branches and needles.
This was the hopelessness of it, the prison made of mountain ranges and guardian smoke stacks. Only one small, gray sliver of road dared a pass between them. It wove its way from the town’s center out to the mountains, disappearing, then reappearing further up, only to disappear again. I can feel the shadow of the mountains creep over me, leach its way through Jimmy’s fingers, wipe away the beauty of the morning. Suck it all down a drain that pulls the green grass and the dew from my view.
The people were the worst part. Jimmy was one of them. I was one of them. Like hens in a yard, they kept a pecking order. Throw in an outsider like me, and the yard turned even more violent. They had nothing better to do. What would the hens know of a hen from another town; what would they want to know?
I am lost in this vision when he coughs out, “Which one is your daughter?”
I point to Hannah, in the goal, and he remarks that it’s a tough job. It might be the most human thing he has ever said to me, and I feel my shoulders unknot just a bit.
“And which one is yours?” I don’t care, but I know I have to ask.
Jimmy points his cracked finger toward a large blonde girl. He lets out a toothy smile while he points. My luck, she is playing forward striker and that will mean, at some point, she will touch Hannah, as Jimmy has touched me. She is a skilled player, and I can see in her the command that good players have. We are only minutes into the game, but our defenders already fear her power and speed.
Jimmy is calling to her now, “Go get ’em, Bets. Have at ’em.”
Bets is short for Betsy-Ann, he tells me. It’s more information than I want to know. At that moment, she takes a long through ball and breaks past the defense, alone and on her way to Hannah. It’s a nightmare.
So much of my life in that town was a nightmare.
Nightmares. The boys at school told me Jimmy was coming for me — again. Wes said to meet Jimmy in the old baseball field behind the YMCA, after school, after detention. He told me Jimmy had said, “You better not pussy out.”
See, fights don’t work like we see them in the movies — not with a coordinated effort of kung fu high-flying kicks. They end fast, in thirty seconds or less, without much resolution, but that means you have to do as much damage as you can in a small space of time. If not, they are likely to happen again and again. They’re dirty, nasty affairs, and pretty much anything goes. Girls don’t understand this violence; they stand aside, laugh and giggle as the boys punch each other out. They don’t know the fear in us, and we are afraid to show it to them.
This was how it had been from the time I moved there. It took only a day for a boy to start beating the top of my head, his fat fist beating the drum.
“My daddy says you have horns on the top of your head,” he shouted, swinging away, chewing tobacco bits leaving his mouth at a speed nearly as fast as the punches that came.
Somehow, I survived this contest, but that only brought on more of the same. I was nastier than they thought I might be. I think I came to understand something about violence. Something you can only learn about yourself after you have punched someone in the face and discovered you like it more than just a little. I see some of this in Hannah. She has an edge. She guards the goalie box like it is her sovereign state. She likes the contact. I think I wish, sometimes, she’d like it just a little less. I gave this edge to her, and if I could take it back, I would.
So, I had to meet Jimmy in the field behind the YMCA. It would have been easy to say that I could not go, but then that cowardice would invite others to try me. It was a silly code, but it was one, nonetheless. I had fought with Jimmy twice, and the last effort had earned me a week’s suspension, a month’s worth of detention and the possibility of criminal charges. That last time, in an effort to make sure it was the last time Jimmy came after me, I had stuffed his head in a locker and slammed the door until his ears bled. You would think that would have been enough, but it wasn’t. That was how the days went in this small town. Violence thrust its way into every corner of my life, inescapable each day, predictable as the sunrise and the chilly winds that blew down the mountainsides. Now here was Jimmy, again. Tomorrow it would be someone else: Wes, Terry, Billy. The person did not matter; all assured me that tomorrow would be a beat-or-get-beaten kind of day.
And I could imagine Jimmy’s father saying, “You let that Jewboy beat you? You’d better kick his ass the next time.”
The YMCA field was set back into the woods and was never used for baseball games anymore. The grass grew up and was eating the chain-link fence surrounding the field. The dugouts were unpainted, and the benches inside filled your pants with splinters. This was a dangerous place of broken glass and bonfires. It was the wrong place to get into a fight.
A fight was supposed to last thirty seconds or less, quickly broken up by teachers or coaches, but the abandoned baseball field did not offer that safety frame. Walking there, I worried. Jimmy would have his crew, his damaged pride at stake and his head full of piss and vinegar. Driving him, the fear of what his dad might do to him if he lost again. I had few friends, but Danny walked alongside me. Danny could be counted as a friend most days, but, in truth, he had a gambling interest in this contest. With his lunch money at risk, there was no telling where his allegiance might lie.
“Hey, Danny . . . if I start losing bad, man, break this thing up. Okay?”
Danny’s response inspired little confidence. “Sure, man,” hardly sounded like a promise.
Now Bets is crushing in on Hannah’s box, the defenders can’t catch her, and all I can see is the YMCA field of my youth. Another day ruined by Jimmy. Hannah is moving off her line, she is charging toward Bets, cutting down the angles. The parents are on edge, frenzied cries from both sides, and my world spins and tilts. Jimmy, chewing tobacco stuck in his teeth, is smiling a toothy grin. Each of his cheers is accented by spittle flying from his mouth.
Danny and I had climbed through a hole in the left field chain-link fence and walked toward the dugouts. There must have been twenty of them already gathered. They were all waiting around home plate, milling about, kicking up dust, pacing in nervous anticipation, pushing and shoving, playfully punching at each other — hyenas really. Jimmy was there — tight blue jeans, dirty tee shirt, big black army boots. Those boots, I remember thinking, would do some damage. Among the onlookers were other boys I had fought before. None were my friends. None of them would stop this.
Jimmy wasted little time, and I put up little resistance. The fight and drive to escape this day, this place, had drained from my feet, pushed through my pores by fear. Jimmy was beating me bad. My face was down in the stone chips and dirt behind home plate. The dirt collected in my eyes, and tearing made it worse, caking my face with streaks of mud. He was pushing me harder and harder into the stone chips, the punches landing heavy on my head and back. I was losing badly; where was Danny to break this up? There was laughter as the kicks started coming, those big black boots thumping me hard. Still no one stopped the fight. Fights should only last thirty seconds, but there, between home plate and the dugout, more time than that expired.
This was a new level of fear than I had ever felt before. I was a good thirty-second hero, a hallway fighter, but this was different. The fear was a liberator of sorts from any inhibition to hurt another. When the fight was really over, the boys were no longer laughing. They pulled Jimmy up off the ground, pulled him up out of his own blood, made brown by the caking mud. His face a lumpy mess, they were careful with how they moved him and began to carry him from the field. My hands were red and brown, clenched and trembling. I raised them in the air. And I asked them all if there was more — were there any more takers? Jimmy would not return to school that semester. It is not something I am proud of.
This is what I remembered when Jimmy stuck out his hand to me on the soccer field.
Now he stood next to me, screaming at his daughter as she stormed Hannah’s goal. Almost there, top of the box. I knew little about Jimmy’s recovery, less about where he went in the years that followed. I moved on. But those days are still with me, and these are the kind of memories I don’t want for my daughter. Hannah’s at full stride now, and soon she will break down, lay out sideways, make herself big and try and cut Bets down. She needs to cut her down before she can make the move or get the shot off. It’s a gamble. Jimmy took one coming up to me. If I could admire anything about him, he did not lack courage. Or maybe he was just stupid.
I remember that the fighting lapsed in the months after the YMCA. The boys left me alone; the specter of Jimmy’s destruction was still too near for them. The school year slipped by, and, when it ended, I left that small town for good. Still, I found very little inner peace.
Hannah might stop this attempt on her goal, she might not. The game would be full of Bets testing her. Today she will be a hero — or a goat. As a boy, heroism was a concept that was beyond me. I’d just wanted out.
Jimmy is yelling something to Bets that I can barely make out. It sounds like “Juke her,” but maybe it’s something else. She is a player: she has been here before; her head is up; she knows Hannah is coming. I make out Jimmy’s next holler: “Go through her!”
Go through her. Test her, test me. Beat Jimmy, beat Bets — somehow it’s all a contest that never ends. Mr. Hoopler, our homeroom teacher, was on me again: “Say the Pledge of Allegiance in Hebrew or Yiddish or whatever language your people speak.” It was not a joke, and, by now, even my classmates had become uncomfortable with Hoopler’s prodding. I didn’t know Hebrew, and for that matter, my Yiddish vocabulary mostly accounted for foods I liked but never got to eat.
I had told Mr. Hoopler “No,” on every occasion, and it had passed. But the day came when it would not. Mr. Hoopler was angry, “Aren’t you a proud Jew? How can you not know the language?”
There was no answer that would suffice, and when I told Mr. Hoopler to back off and leave me alone, things escalated. Hoopler was a tall thin man, but still bigger than I was. He dragged me from my chair, pressing his face so close to mine that I could see the dandruff flakes, like white snow, on the top of his bushy eyebrows. Hoopler reeked of hard liquor and kept pressing me against the wall of the room, dredging up fear. “You mouthing off to me, boy?” With the last press and his raised arm, it was on. I don’t remember it all, but there was surprise and dread in his eyes that I can still see. He’d never expected I’d fight back, strike a teacher. Like Jimmy, Mr. Hoopler would not return to finish the school year. I endured weeks of suspension before the whole ordeal subsided. It is not often that the hens turn on the rooster, but, at last, they were finally done pecking at me.
The game is progressing, and the team from Western Pennsylvania is pressing their position forward. Bets is crashing the box. Hannah breaks down in front of her, lays out. The ball sticks in Hannah’s stomach, cuts Bets’s legs out from underneath her, and the first thing that hits the ground when Bets lands is her ponytail. Hannah is now on her feet. Her voice commands the defense to move. She is strong. She is fierce. My heart pounds in my chest. She looks down at the toppled Bets. She is better than me; she extends her hand. Bets does not take it. Jimmy is quieter now, just mumbling his encouragement.
Hannah will make a couple of more saves during the match but none as dramatic. They are afraid of her now, scared to come in her box. She will walk off the field a hero. The ride home will be a happy one; she will find it easier to like me today. This will be a good memory for her to have.
He stays by me for the rest of match, but we barely speak. I shake Jimmy’s hand again at game’s end and notice it is smaller now than I remember, lacking its old power and authority. His big black boots? Replaced by a pair of dirty sneakers made moist from the morning dew. They would not fall heavy on me today. Our conversation, small and cheap, will be hardly worth recalling. We were not friends then; we are not friends now. As our soccer day ends, and the teams gather to shake hands, he asks me “Do you get back to the burgh much?”
I tell him it’s been more than twenty years, so he adds, “We have a shopping mall now. The place is really growing up. But it’s still no place for you.”