So, you know, imagine this is one of your formative memories. Your dad takes you to soccer practice in Delaware Park in his maroon city-issue Crown Vic. And you, being you, hate it of course. You don't like the fact that you're so young they put girls and boys on the same team, that practice starts when you would otherwise be resting and thinking small you-thoughts and conversing with Matthias, the fictional mouse friend you made up one day while sitting in your seat on the 214 cheese bus because the bus aid Betty made you turn off your father's walkman and Queen cassette (both of which he lent you because, in his words, he loves you) because she said it was electronic paraphernalia, and for that reason and because so many shows mom lets you watch before bed and books from your father mention kids with imaginary friends and because you figure you're still young enough that it'd be mostly excusable to talk to yourself, you have made yourself an imaginary friend, and anyway you might be talking to Matthias the sword-carrying grey mouse and doing whatever else it is you do that so keeps your mind in such an endearing state of bluster and wonder, but the bottom line is all of this is made impossible by those strange and enigmatic hands that move the clouds above your curly head and the sun behind them and the perfect little hour-long blocks of time that comprise your unknowable little kid day.
Your father takes you because your mother says loudly one night that you're fat. She sits you down the next day and takes out one of the Naugahyde-bound photo albums that line the lower shelves in the living room and she makes you sit there while she looks through the big book for every picture of you in which you made the mistake of showing a round flushed cheek or a pale section of your little uncooked dough belly and piles them on the table and you sit and think about your little things like kingdoms and people who can cast spells and swords and stuff and she says she's going to tear up these hideous pictures of you and ever true to her word she does right then and there. You're too young to lament her summary destruction of these little mementos but you cry nonetheless because you know this all signifies a big change in your life and you feel the first fledgling flutter of nostalgia's turbid and dark and feathered wing. By around age thirteen you will know the whole bird intimately.
You never thought you were particularly fat, but then again you guess it all depends on who you're being compared to. A lot of your friends or more like classmates seem built almost identically to you, though there are of course those strange skinny ones who think it's fun to whip people with towels after gym and who have somehow had sculpted six-packs since they were restless and hyperactive toddlers with an interest in optics only insofar as it facilitated the ritual holocaust of ants and other exoskeletal miniatures that you, conversely, kept in a flat book-width terrarium that billed itself as a farm but which farm never proved fecund except olfactorily. And in any case who is your mother to say? What with her compulsive habits of yo-yo dieting and imposing seemingly absurd gastronomical restrictions on her couch-bound body (cf. the strange summer during which she was hell bent on eliminating all vitamin C from her system) and her ballooning and shrinking mercurial soma. And though you reproach yourself for it you think who knows fat better than she and you grin inside your head with Matthias because neither of you can find an answer to that question.
So soccer's the sport because you find yourself unwilling to mill around shirtless as you would probably have to if you chose to join the swim team, but you're not exactly confident in your ability to run around all day and all that, which lack of confidence is probably due in part to your mother's again quite loud proclamation to your father that your weak bones will probably break under the flabby inertia of the roiling sea of lipidified disuse that is your torso and environs (though it's probably pretty clear that I augmented that a little bit). And that night, the night before your first practice, the whole traumatic process of insult and accusation having been carefully timed by your usually immobile mother to coincide with the immediate start of the fall soccer season in Delaware Park, which opening day your father discovered when he phoned his old friend, your new coach, to ask if you might receive a spot on his crack team of boys, which spot was immediately granted not by virtue of the ringing steel timbre of the bond between your father and your soon-to-be coach but because your father had recently performed a fine bit of lawyering the end result of which being that your soon-to-be coach somehow did not end up serving jailtime for his sixth DWI in the last year, on this night before joining the crack team of towel-whipping, six-pack-having, ADHD-diagnosed squirrelly boys you cannot for the life of you fall asleep. Matthias snores audibly, taunting you in his catatonia. Dim blue glow of twilight and cigarette smoke clouds through translucent linen curtains. The sad Doppler-affected crackle and ragtime of the Mr. Softee truck warbling its way pigeon-wheeled and barely dairy down the street.
So you lie in bed and you don't recall falling asleep or rather you feel as if there was no border crossed between consciousness and sleep when you have a strange dream that you will still be able to recall years hence. You rise from your bed into the blurred blue and gray and you look around the room. Your feet feel distinctly the scratch of the blue clotted shag carpet that covers the floor of your room and you recall thinking within the half-dream that Stanley Steamer could do a useful number on the ragged rug, a continent of fabric that probably hadn't been given a well-deserved deep clean since it was trampled by the former owner and his friends and doused in thin lager beer and dip spit. You stand or so you think and you see the translucent overlay of a NASCAR racetrack as if from above and you use your half-dream eagle-eyed ability to magnify the situation and you zero in on a car, a sort of top-down cartoonish convertible in which you sit at the wheel and your father sits behind you cheering and waving his gangly arms. And then in a strange development that convinces you in retrospect that it all must have been a dream rather than a sort of lucid product of the same obviously quite extraordinary imagination that produced Matthias and the aforementioned snippet of conversation with that knighted mouse you find yourself whipping a yo-yo around the world, well around the racetrack, in the generally circular pattern flawed with crooked turns and hairpin bottlenecks, a yellow yo-yo with a thin string that makes your only slightly chubby middle finger purple. You feel suddenly that you have begun to cry out of your elbow. You clutch that elbow, your right elbow, to your heaving chest and you shiver with the violent sobs of your elbow's queer and unsurprising tear ducts. The tears travel up your arms and into your neck and with a sucking sound they crawl into the crusty corners of your eyeballs. You hear a pounding in the floorboards, the trotting canter of many rubber soled shoes, the meaty fists of the old owner and his friends in the floorboards armed with bent bottlecaps and pocket knives, the tools they used to carve P WAS HERE, J+M,
DRINKING with HAHAHA written over it, TIMMY O |||| |||| || into the banister of the creaky stairwell of your house. You think that they are the petrified loud voices of a youth now supplanted by old age. You are imaginative. You hear them scraping. Your mother slaps you in the face and you are in the warm light of the house's kitchen and you feel far more afraid than you were because of the dinner plate size of your mother's bloodshot eyeballs. She says often and loudly that you should reconsider your decision to shake and mumble and grip your right elbow like a quote palsied savant. She says you really should get a grip. She says get a grip.
So, again, you're in the Crown Vic the day after all this and you're quietly lamenting some vague new absence you feel in the right side of your chest, this of course being well before you learned that your heart in its pericardiac womb is located above your diaphragm on the left side of your chest, and you feel a sharp in your words debilitating pain in your right shoulder, this of course being after you learned that heart attacks give themselves away with debilitating shoulder pain when you saw the dad on That 70's Show have a heart attack on TV. Your palms begin to sweat on the maroon leather handle on the ceiling of the car that some genius decided to put there you guess for if the driver is just really bad and scary. You look at your father. He traces his finger around the rim of the tumbler of amber quote sauce in the cupholder between your two seats and as he does that he exhales smoke from his cigarette through his nostrils like the dragon in the final picture in your illustrated copy of The Hobbit, an ancient hardcover copy that, like most things you own, came from your father and which book the Czech exchange student named Vitek your mother had the clever idea of hosting for six months (Vitek was later expelled from your house by the same mother that invited him there for the fatal mistake of eating peanut butter out of the jar with two fingers, licking said fingers clean, and then reintroducing them into the jar repeatedly and according to your mother he did so with little to no remorse in full view of your mother, who was apparently so repulsed by this practice that she stood behind him in front of the light blue glow of the computer screen and tapped her foot while that same night he booked a flight back to Prague)——the point is Vitek used to read the book and he left dirty finger smudges on the nicest illustrations which felt to you like a slap in the face to your father—but so your mother fifteen minutes after making him book a flight made you a peanut butter sandwich with the salivated stuff (you of course had no way of knowing about the tainted nature of your sandwich being the trusting and otherwise occupied child you are) and packed it in a brown paper bag with an expired juice box-sized carton of chocolate milk, the straw to which carton was later found by you to be missing and to have left behind only its plastic wrapping glued to the carton like a spent condom, and a greasy Zip-Loc bag of crushed potato chips and sent you off to school the following morning with the bag and a why-didn't-you-get-up-when-you-heard-me-yell-your-name-spank to start your day.
So you're having what you're almost positive is an actual heart attack and you're thinking to yourself can I get a witness here? but you know if you tell your father he'll ask you to kindly refrain from being such a drama queen and truth be told we all know there's no way you're having a heart attack, but of course that doesn't change the obviously significant pains in your body. The pain is real, right? And if it's not a heart attack, then what is it? But then of course you admit to your father in your (note: entirely imagined) dialogue with him that he's right and you swear you'd stop hurting if you could but that you feel like some cruel god has cursed you with an extreme sensitivity to discomfort and pain and you mention to him (again, in your head) that this ability could prove useful in that it could signal a serious injury or condition well before modern medical technology might be able to detect it, dad. Dad, this is legit, you promise this is not just you being a quote manic weirdo. You promise, dad. And after all, what about whatever the hell happened last night, dad? Doesn't he know you and he raced around the track in like a father-son sort of racecar thing? The car is silent.
So your dad pulls up to the park and does that thing that everyone else seems to think it's OK to do where they park their cars half on the grass and half on the street like their children's memberships in a free afternoon soccer league makes it alright for them to trash the edges of a park designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. And there's a baseball diamond and you see like a speck in the sky a baseball come hurtling like a furious wingless cherub from heaven right through the passenger side of the windshield of your father's city-issue 1987 Ford Crown Victoria. You and your father turn to stare at the perfectly spherical hole in the glass and you notice the baseball is stuck between the headrest and the lower part of the passenger seat at the exact location where the top of your curly head was whipping itself into a hardly attacked frenzy something like 30 seconds before. Your father walks to the car to retrieve his three fingers of tequila from the cupholder and drains it after fishing a shard of glass out of the tumbler and then he has a revelation where you can almost see the little light bulb go on above his at this point probably fuzzy head and he places the empty glass in the hole in the windshield and it somehow fits perfectly. Alcoholic ingenuity, you think (again, this is more me than you).
You feel more and more nervous as you walk toward the soccer field with the most orange shirted U14's. You feel suddenly a strong urge to urinate which you do in small, intentionally invisible bursts because you know your black athletic shorts are black, though you recognize with dread and, strangely, a little bit of satisfaction that your mother will find her attempt to do the laundry like a quote house nigger (her words) interrupted by the yellow stain on your white underwear, which underwear the aforementioned squirrelly crew-cut Unabombers-in-the-making refer to embarrassingly as tighty whities, and then will avenge your petty robbery of her time by interrupting your attempt to do your Spanish homework while listening to your father's Warren Zevon cassette with that very silly recording of Iko-Iko on it, the original recording of which song by the Dixie Cups your father informs you every time he plays the song in his city-issue Ford Crown Victoria features the actual sound of actual spoons on actual Coke bottles, and will brandish the underwear and throw it in your face in what you think is a sort of funny reversal of the classic rub-the-dog's-face-in-its-own-shit-to-teach-it-a-lesson method of teaching a lesson, what with the feces coming to the face of the dog in this case, and then she will ask you who said you could listen to tunes while you do your schoolwork and then will take the cassette out of the little plastic stereo and crush it with the calloused bunion on her bare right foot, though of course you can only look slyly forward to the first part as the second, the whole thing about the broken cassette, will come as a bit of a surprise to you to say the absolute least. Your wet underwear irritates the inside of your pudgy thighs.
Your now-no-longer-soon-to-be coach lines you all up (turns out it is a co-ed team) and says your team name is Agent Orange and you hear chuckles, some quiet and some half past guffaws, from the sparse crowd of awkward parents standing (the fatter have pulled flimsy lawn chairs out of thin air and chosen to sit in them) on the sideline. You do not get it. You feel often that you do not get things and you are convinced that if you could understand the unfathomably wise and subtle humor of your parents' world you would be a king among kids, though of course you consider that you might just wait until you're old enough that you exist in that lukewarm fishtank of small jokes and cigarettes and red faces without knowing it, but then you feel it would be nowhere near as cool and you have what is for you a revelation that you really only like to want things and that when you get them you are bored and sweat springs from your palms when you think for a brief horrible moment that this may be the structure of everything. Matthias recommends that you get something resembling a grip and then you see your pinny-clothed compatriots running past you and you run along with them until you see your father throw his hands in the air on the sideline and you realize that the coach had separated the boys and the girls and you had elected to run with the girls. Had your mother been doing something besides grinning to herself sprawled on the living room couch, i.e. watching you at your first practice, you think she would have definitely yelled something mean to you or something like that or whatever. Your father mercifully stays silent.
You get winded on the jog back to where your team had gathered around your coach in the first place and you begin during said jog the mental tally of how many steps you ran during practice today. A chubby pale kid who is taller than you whose name you do not know but whose name I know is Campbell juts his chin out and blows air upward to get his messy hair out of his eyes and you think he looks exactly like an Old English Sheepdog, a picture of which dog is on the cover of one of your favorite books, a book your father gave you for Christmas about how dogs have the ability to love called, appropriately and vaguely bestiality-ly, Dog Love: Yes, It's Real by David Harrelson, Houghton Mifflin Co.Ó, 1988, a man whose name has the same distinctive pen name stink as Clive Hamilton, the pseudonym of author C.S. Lewis, the one line written by which author you recall being, “Look, a marvel!” from one of the Narnia books because you thought for a couple months that you had discovered one of the more embarrassing typographical errors in recent memory until your father informed you that no, the author was not in fact trying to spell the word “marble.” Campbell, whose name you do not know, spits. You cannot help yourself from gagging when you hear or see someone hack up a loogie and spit, just as you are so nauseated by the thought of the possibility of inhaling the moist expulsion of gastrointestinal stench that people typically call burps that when you are within ear- or eye-shot of a belching offender you cover your nose and mouth with the collar of your shirt for no fewer than three seconds, and this case being no exception you gag and feel the hot acidic bile singe the back of your throat and whatever tube it is that leads to your nose. Your teammates begin kicking balls around and you go to return an impossibly fast lob only to find yourself promptly seated and bewildered on the grass with the hot salt of tears welling in your eyeballs. Your cheeks explode in embarrassment. You wonder why it is that humans have yet to develop a mechanism with which they might control that understated but instantly revealing blush, that cheek-wise betrayal of one's true feelings that is so rude it doesn't even bother to ask the ego if it can rear its blotchy head. You look to the sideline and see that your father is absent or at least no longer where he was. You think this is no cause for alarm, you just wonder where he went, you know, just because whatever he's your dad. His former post is now occupied by a stereotype: a fat white man in white too-short shorts and a Hawaiian t-shirt sitting in a lawn chair with an ingenious little holder for a miniature umbrella at the top. Some guy patented that, you think.
Campbell, whose name you do not know, will be the goalie, two buzz-cut little rubber bands will be the defense, and you and two other kids who are so unessential to the plot of this story and who, if I were to describe them, would appear so unbelievably two-dimensional and lame that you would think I had really let you down at this point as narrator and fabricator serve as the offense. Boys v. girls. You wonder why your ex-almost-coach would choose such a lopsided arrangement. A pimpled, braced teenager with gel in his hair and a black and white uniform on, to you and your teammates an elder of such stature and wisdom that he is secondary in terms of respect only to the temporally complicated coach, himself only bested by the constantly challenged but never, ever weakened wherewithal and sagacity of Mom and Dad, divorce being a fact of life for a grand statistically improbable total of one of you, Axl Drexel, a poor kid everyone knows was named in some illegally induced high or, more believably, low, a culinarily inclined kid who got in real trouble one day when he made his own lunch to bring to school (his parents having been up late the night before brewing up a particularly potent fertilizer for the small but growing crop of hydroponic weed in their attic, which fertilizer they gave the clever name Lexerd's Luau Laughing Hash) and packed a dimebag of what he thought was oregano to sprinkle tableside on his Triscuits and diced tomatoes to make what he calls bruschetta, the name of which elegant dish he insists on pronouncing in, in his words, the correct Italian way with the hard “ch” like “broosketta,” anyway the teenager with the gel and ref's uniform drops a ball at your feet with such palpable lethargy you start firing synapses toward feeling offended but you find yourself interrupted by the unbreakable barrier of the shin guard of the girls' team's forward, Maggie McCaffery, that vile harlot, as it forces its way between your buckled knees and straight into your hesitantly descending testicles, testicles that, if they had some sort of memory or brain, would have made a testicle-pact to stay hidden in the OK-kind-of-flabby security of your abdomen for the next decade or two. You fall. You see the dark green of the back of your father's polo shirt turned toward you, his bald spot keeping watch while he converses with a smiling blond woman. You let out a shrill shout. Your father does not turn but Campbell laughs so uncontrollably at your testicular misfortune that as you see out of the corner of your eye he is forced to steady his nothing-special shivering body against a goalpost.
Your coach calls your name and you shout in a quivering voice, perhaps altered maybe just a little bit to produce maximum dramatic effect, What? He says, Come here, damnit! I'm benching you! As you waddle toward him clutching your crotch you think it would be pretty funny if he meant he was going to benchpress you, like you know how people say, I bench 200, or whatever. Just a little pun that occurs to you. Just a little whatever. As you sit on the grass of the sideline opposite your father's sometime-vacant post, because there is no actual bench, just the ground, you try to come to terms with the profound, life-altering trauma of having your recently delineated erogenous zone invaded (you think, raped) by Maggie McCaffery's Adidas shin guard, a piece of phallic plastic probably purchased at Dick's, you know, in keeping with the whole phallus thing. You give up on the rape narrative. Your eyes uncross and you see across the field your father holding the hand of the sparkly eyed blond woman, a girl really, as they walk toward your father's city-issue maroon 1987 Ford Crown Victoria. You think, Hmm. You call, Dad. He does not hear. Your blah-blah-blah-coach tells you, Shut up, you. You think you really don't like soccer practice but you gave it the old kindergarten try and you think who can blame you for wanting to jump ship and jump ship you do, you run right across the field, the site of the testicular trauma and the scene of, as the reader will recall, a still-in-progress game of gender-biased soccer, ignoring the curiously quiet pleas for you to reconsider and stay with the team (i.e. no one was calling after you at all really), running to your father who at this point is halfway in the car and whose female companion is fully seated and buckled and prepared for lift-off, running until you see her lithe pale hand crawl up the right leg of your father's 32/34 Levy's and grasp what would be, on you, the post-testicular crater created by the forceful invasion of Maggie McCaffery's Adidas shin guard purchased at Dick's Sporting Goods, at which point you accidentally, without meaning to at all, completely unintentionally trip and fall, somehow, right on your extended index and middle fingers, which fingers force themselves, of their own gravitational accord, into the back of your throat, and which back of the throat convulses with your infamous gag reflex, the bane of so many pediatricians' tongue depressors and gloved hands and lab coats, such that you find yourself vomiting uncontrollably on the admittedly quite well maintained golf course that borders the soccer field site of the pulverization of your genitals for what seems like far too long until you look up and see a wisp of blonde hair exit stage left and your father walking toward you saying, Hush, for Christ's sake! What's the problem?! You can throw up, sure, but why the damn hell do you have to moan like that?! Get in the car, you, you're making a scene.
"Perhaps you too, brother, know nothing about this but are only pretending," flashed through my head, but only for an instant, I assure you. It was absurd, but what are you going to do? Thoughts come involuntarily. —Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863)