by Dan Townsend
In fifth grade we played soccer during recess. These were wild, twenty minute games that would manifest at the arrival of a ball. There were no goals, no orange cones, just some crumpled sweatshirts spaced out at either end of our field, which wasn’t really a field. It was a grassy patch, an area lumpy from collapsed gopher trails and the half-buried roots of horse apple trees.
We’d run and feel good, blasting air, not caring about boogers. New kids would approach mid-game and take sides. Sometimes one team would outnumber the other by three or four. A timeout would be called while a few well-liked boys ran to the playground for conscripts, to even things out. Some days, the game would balloon to twenty-five or thirty of us, all chasing the ball, sweating for a chance to kick the thing. Days like that we allowed girls to play. A couple were really good.
On occasions when the girls didn’t want to play or the teams were too unevenly numbered for the game to continue, someone would invite Massey to play. For a while, he would play like normal, running with the rest of us, jostling for position, and then, for no reason, Massey would pick up the ball. He would run past everyone, carrying it before his belly, clutched between his palms, all of us trailing behind. Then, when he’d get close, he’d bring the ball over his head and, with both hands, throw the thing between the sweatshirts. We would be yelling, cussing and name-calling, but he didn’t care, didn’t bother to acknowledge us. Without turning, he jogged to the playground, where he waited at the swings for recess to end. Later, if we asked him why he did that, why he picked up the ball, he’d only shrug and say he didn’t know.
After Massey, the teams dwindled to the die-hards, the boys who played soccer outside of school, in leagues. I would walk off with everyone else, but I watched them, hoping for the game to ramp up again. They played at half-speed, focusing on their footwork, practicing for another, more important day. When the bell finally rang, they’d walk to the cafeteria together, red and depleted, kicking the ball out ahead of themselves, as if they’d been playing for hours.
I wrote this piece while watching the World Cup, or rather, while trying to watch the World Cup. The games didn’t hold my attention. The hype-y analysis and sentimental human interest segments failed to build verisimilitude, only making the game seem more foreign. Still, the stadiums were packed with screaming fans. The heat was triple-digit. Everyone involved looked physically uncomfortable—granted many of them were very drunk. As I continued to watch, a specific dreariness set in. I felt left out, remiss that such strong emotions could exist under similar contexts in other people while not coalescing in me. The story came from that feeling.
Dan Townsend is a fan of the Dallas Cowboys and Alabama Crimson Tide. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where he works at a chain drugstore. His stories have appeared in Barrelhouse, Drunken Boat, and NANO Fiction among other publications. He’s on Facebook.