He was in the zone. He’d been in it since midway through the first half. It hadn’t happened in the first game of the season. He’d still played excellent, compared to everyone else on the field, but that didn’t console him. He supposed it was stage fright, but now that the cherry had been popped, there was no reason for a repeat; he’d break his body with pain and fatigue, force himself up to the plateau he’d established, before he let it happen again.
In the zone. The sense of unbeing. Lost in the task at hand, practically unaware that you’re performing that task, a sentient being turned into something only a few steps above a drone. His body had an answer for every scenario that could possibly occur on the field; his mind, now unneeded, had been jettisoned.
The soccer ball a white dot against the dark sky, rising, hanging, then, as the force of the kick wore off and gravity asserted itself, plunging down, somewhere just past midfield—Van hustled to where he thought it’d land. There was someone else already there: the Vikings’ center halfback, a bushy-haired Mexican.
“Uh-uh, you lil spic!” Van slammed against the enemy. The Mexican cursed him in a mixture of broken English and rapid-fire Spanish and jostled back. The ball descended, getting lost in the glare of the lights, then reappearing. They jumped. Van felt a forearm in the small of his back, another cleat whacking against his own. It wasn’t close; the Latino was much shorter and had little jumping ability. Van was able to head the ball where he wanted it, basically unmolested. His calves and thighs handled the landing without complaint, and he sprinted to the sideline to spread the field and make himself a good passing option.
Three blows of the whistle. Game over.
“Hunh?! It can’t have been eighty minutes already! I ain’t even tired!”
Grant walked over. His comrade-in-arms. Van on left fullback with that God-given southpaw foot and wicked speed, round-bodied Grant in the middle playing soccer like a linebacker. Rolly-polly Grant. Look at that motherfucker. I’m gonna run circles ‘round ‘em. Van knew that’s what the other teams thought. It was obvious in the way they acted, as if Grant was just a large, funny-looking boulder set in their way. Yes, they’d have to run around him, but it was nothing much to worry about, really, just a minor obstacle. They soon found out that while Grant wasn’t the fastest, he was telepathic on defense. He anticipated almost everything, every dribbling trick that those little waterbugs threw at him. And he was mean. His moon face transformed into a wild-eyed, snarling devil-mask as soon as the whistle blew to begin the game. He sneered and cussed. He jostled, rammed, slide-tackled, and generally used his advantageous heft in barely-legal ways to infuriate the opposing forwards.
But even Grant could make a mistake. Sometimes he’d think a feint was a real move, or a real move a feint. Someone would run by him. He’d curse and spin to begin the pursuit. But Van would fly in from somewhere and shatter the dribbler’s small triumph. Strip the ball, destroy the breakaway. They feared him when they could see him, leaning forward, watching the ball unblinking in that predatory stance, them dribbling toward him thinking he’s stopped me five times already, run the sideline, look for a pass, what?, this guy’s fast, man, he’s fuckin’ crazy. And they feared him when they couldn’t see him, wondering when he’d swoop in, where’s he at now? How much time do I have? They saw an opening, they took it, but suddenly there was no reason to continue. The ball was gone and some maniac hurricane was running with it in the opposite direction. This happens enough times and you get frustrated. You believe in yourself, you’ve been playing soccer for years….but this guy’s better, and he wants it, god fuckin’ damn he wants it. He’s a hellman, an absolute hellman.
“Shit,” said Grant, the devil exorcised from him now that the game was over, his moon-face comically innocent, “won’t nothin’ more than a lil warm-up, there.”
“Fuck yeah. I could run forever.”
The right fullback, Tommy, looked over in their direction. He hesitated, giving them a stare that could mean anything, then trotted off towards the bench where the rest of the team was gathering.
“Fuckin’ pussy,” hissed Van, glaring at Tommy’s retreating back. His absurd sun-bleached white-blond hair. His ridiculous tan. The asshole was orange, like he went to a tanning bed every damn day. He moved like a robot. Zero speed, zero aggression. He was the weak link in the defense, but he played because he “hustled” and “had a good attitude.” Meanwhile Stubs sat on the bench. Stubs who was late for nearly every practice, who mocked the coaches. Stubs with his smoker’s rasp, whose rage commanded his weak, ugly body to do things it shouldn’t have been able to do. A mean little mongrel. Van wanted him on the right, but Tommy played instead.
The fans were clapping, the more expressive ones yelling or chanting. It was a 2-0 victory against a decent opponent. The Woodward Boomers had defeated the Dixon Vikings. Van looked over at the metal stands. Most of the players’ parents were there. He could pick out his mom and dad sitting by Grant’s parents, all four chatting earnestly.
Van watched the fans cheer, and gritted his teeth. The score—two-nil! Another shutout, like the first game. He thought of their forwards: Brant, Taylor, and Tristan. When they ran, it looked like they were slogging through a swamp. I beat ‘em in sprints every time, like I beat everyone. I beat ‘em bad. But they don’t get it. They each had about one good sequence a game, usually when they caught a defender napping. Otherwise the ball pinballed around the midfield, where Clay, their middle halfback, killed himself trying to keep things under control. Goddamn warrior. They work him to death.
He was at the bench. He grabbed a paper cup and filled it with Gatorade from the giant orange dispenser. His jersey and undershirt were soaked through, as were his boxers and nylon shorts. The shin guards felt glued to his hairy legs. He felt himself coming down: body relaxing, mind waking up. He wiped some filmy gunk from his lips; removing it reminded him of the shower he now needed. He didn’t mind sweating as long as there was a game to play, but as soon as it was over he wanted the dirt, grass, and greasiness off his body.
The towering pole-lights glared down. Four of them, one on each corner. Miniature suns. He looked down at the thick green grass. Cut perfectly. A springy field, not concrete like most of the others he’d played on. The lines painted heavily, so white and straight that he regretted seeing them spoiled. Mr. Sanders, of the rec department, knew his work. Van kicked at a phantom soccer ball as he sipped his Gatorade. This is my place.
The team was chatting cockily, congratulating, deriding their vanquished opposition. The other team was already heading towards the bus. Van grinned at the thought of their long journey home; Dixon was a two-hour drive away. Their whole trip was a failure, and they would sit there, on the bus, the sweat congealed on their bodies, listening to music, haunted eyes watching the night roll by. He thought of the little Mexican he’d beaten at the end. They hadn’t encountered each other much during the game; the Mexican, although a halfback, was more defensive-minded. But Van was sure he’d remember the sight of that goddamn fullback, the one who’d harassed the entire front line, rendered their well-practiced assaults on goal impotent. Van flying high, the Mexican looking up, the lights halfway blinding him, losing the encounter, sweat flying, hearing Van grunt, the thump as the ball smacked against his head.
“Hey, good game, Van. Shuttin’ ‘em down right and left.”
Van turned and looked at Taylor. The slow-ass forward. The ladies’ man. He never wanted for pussy. How easy he made it look, gliding along the high school hallways, flirting, goofing off, always ready with some witticism. Van stared at his cocky grin.
You may be the macho man elsewhere, Taylor, but on this field, you’re nothing. Nada.
“When do I not shut ‘em down?”
“Never. That’s why you’re the man, Van.” It was about the hundredth time he’d used this unfunny rhyme. But now, as with every time before, spouting it made his grin double in size.
This was it—this was the trigger. Looking at Taylor’s face, a face untroubled by guilt. He’d played like shit, as usual, but Van knew it wouldn’t make the slightest dent in his ironclad self-confidence. He’d still be getting laid, still be well-liked for his irreverence, still have that easy coolness. This ain’t nothin’ more than an after-school activity for him. Like the fucking chess and poetry clubs.
Enough of this shit. Yes. He was a senior. He had tenure. Who else was going to say it, if not him? Clay was the supposed “leader”, but his captainship was appointed by the coach—he was a parrot, nothing more. The kind of harmless boy mothers swoon over, because he’s so “mannerly”, “honest”, and “hard-working.” Because he keeps his mouth shut.
Soon the season would end, and Van would walk off the field for the last time. He’d been giving it some thought lately, but not deep thought. He was like someone tentatively finger-probing an object that they suspect is scorching hot. But now he’d dropped his guard, unwittingly allowed himself to be burned. It was maddening, cruel—a death at age seventeen? His eyes began to tear and he felt a tremor in his throat. No. Nip that shit in the bud, Van.
He was standing beside Sampson, the coach. A short, round biology teacher. Played soccer somewhere sometime, so they chose him to coach. Mitochondria and chloroplasts morning and early afternoon, soccer in the evening.
“Hey, coach. I need to have a word with you.”
His voice was different; it had a sharp edge, the harshness of barely-suppressed anger and sorrow.
Sampson stopped packing his duffel bag and looked up. He rose slowly.
“Yes, Van? What’s up?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a few lingering players. Maybe they’d caught his tone and decided to hang around, see if this discussion had any sizzle. So? Let them listen.
“It’s about the management of this team.”
Sampson was usually emotionless, which was maddening to Van. He praised in that soft, dull voice, punished in that soft, dull voice. But now Van saw his eyes widen, just a little, almost imperceptible.
“Oh. I see.”
Sampson was also notorious for his long pauses. You asked him something and he thought and thought and thought. Pause all you want, you worthless cunt. I’ll stand here all night.
“Well….what, exactly, do you mean?”
“I mean we’ve got enough talent to stomp anyone. And I mean stomp ‘em, not squeak by with one or two goals every damn game.”
Sampson shifted, but still maintained his sleepy façade.
“I know we do. We have a good team, good players at every position.”
“Then why are we playing like this? This is last year all over again. Defense kills itself, gives ya’ll a shutout or maybe one goal given up, and the offense can’t score for shit and the wrong people are playing.”
Mild-mannered Sampson was beginning to wake up. He knew now he was in a battle, and he was going to fight, in his own soft way.
“First off, don’t use that language. Secondly, I know our offense is a little weak, but nobody else has stepped up. Our forwards have earned their spots. And I don’t know what you mean by the ‘wrong people are playing.’”
“Well, let’s start with the offense. Put Clay up front. Rotate in Drake and Kyle….”
“They’re sophomores. They’re not quite ready yet.”
“Who gives a damn about their….their….ah, what’s the word….class?! They’ve made a few mistakes, but they look better in their good moments than the three stooges we’ve got now! And the defense! Tommy, aka Slowpoke Rodriguez, instead of Stubs?!”
“Stubs? I thought it was obvious why he doesn’t play. He disrespects the coaches, doesn’t put any effort into practice….”
“….but in a game he goes insane! The whole team goes insane, watching him go!”
“Attitude is more important than talent. How many times have I said that? Don’t you believe that the ones who work the hardest and have the best attitude should play?”
“Yes! But they don’t! The charity cases play, because they’re easy. They don’t give you any trouble!”
“You’re getting a little too heated, Van—”
“I don’t care! This is my last year. My. Last. Year. I’ll be damned if you’re gonna ruin it for me!”
“So you’re going to tell me what to do? And I’m supposed to listen?”
“Yes! Because if you don’t….”
Don’t be a pussy. Do it. God, it would feel so good….
“….then I quit.”
The lingerers shot over a stream of confused, overlapping words: “Hunh?!”....”No way!”….“Hey, calm down, Van!”….“Pffft. He ain’t serious.” Van didn’t turn around; he stayed locked onto the small biology teacher in front of him. The pause….ah, fuck it all, say something!
“So,” began Sampson, “you’re telling me that if I don’t do things your way, you quit?”
“No. I ain’t perfect. I ain’t totally right about everything. But if you don’t make some major changes to this team, I don’t wanna play for you.”
“You’re willing to throw away your career?”
The pause. For the first time, Sampson looked over at the lingerers. Evidently what he saw wasn’t encouraging, because he looked shocked, then his face crumbled. Van wondered what kind of looks they were giving them both, but he didn’t turn around. He needed to see Sampson, needed to take in every word, every tic. And he felt that averting his eyes at this point would equal a defeat of some sort. Like some kiddie staring contest. Idiot….but still, his glare didn’t falter.
Sampson chewed on his bottom lip and stared down at the grass.
“….if that’s the case, I guess you won’t be playing anymore.”
“You’re not gonna change anything? Not one thing?”
What the fuck? He’s….he’s….Sampson looked lost. Van could see his mouth trembling.
“No. I don’t think anything really needs changing.”
Van peeled off his jersey. Dark blue, with “Woodward” on the front in yellow block letters. He looked at the number on the back: thirteen. Unlucky for some—but not for him. He picked it to show he didn’t give a damn about superstition. He needed skill and tenacity, nothing else.
He threw the damp garment at Sampson. He didn’t see if it was caught; he’d already turned and started walking across the field.
“You crazy motherfucker! You ain’t quitting!”
Stubs! So he was one of the lingerers.
“Damn right I am.”
“You’re a fuckin’ cunt idiot piece o’ shit moron!”
“He’s right, man.”
Brant, too?! But why? Who were the others? He looked back. Tristan, the turtle-forward, and Pyle, a freshman, a non-entity, were talking to Sampson. Sampson had folded the jersey and placed it on his duffel bag.
“You?” Van growled. “Why do you care?”
“Because you fuckin’ kill it. Kill it. We need you. What, you think I give a shit that you talked trash about me?”
“I would have.”
“Well, I got thick skin. We ain’t never got along, but if you think I lost any sleep over it, you’re fuckin’ mistaken.”
“Get away from me. You’re one of the reasons I’m leaving. I don’t wanna be near you.”
“Tough shit. I can’t let you fuck yourself over like this. This is how it is, Van: without you, that defense it gonna collapse.”
“You asshole!” roared Stubs. “Just play! Fuck Sampson’s queer ass!”
“Naw. I’m done.”
They buzzed around him. He felt an odd tension, a simultaneous craving for both solitude and attention. He might try to push them away, so he could rage by his lonesome—but if they actually left, he didn’t think he’d be able to hold it together.
He looked back again. Brant and Stubs continued to implore. The lights. That emerald field. He was by the stands. He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. Ha! What will they think? He remembered when he was an innocent freshman. The hazing, the sense of inferiority, the hours spent on the bench watching others perform. He practiced, he ran, he got better. Locking in the starting job halfway through his sophomore year. Winning the MVP award and being named all-conference his junior year. The newspaper clippings. Refusing to take water breaks during practice: “You think you can take one whenever you want during a game, ya pussies?” He envisioned his career as a documentary: Van Wheeler: The Wall. Released twenty years hence, enough time for his legacy to season properly. Interviews with teammates and opposing players. Commentary from the reporters who covered high school sports for the local paper. The look of amazement on their faces as they discuss the The Wall’s singular defensive ability. Forwards who’d gotten toasted chuckling good-naturedly at their past failures. Clips of the eponymous fullback himself, in middle-aged form, ruminating on his dynamic past: “I felt like I always wanted it more than the other guy”….“When I stepped onto that field, I knew that I was the best. It’s a feeling like no other”….“No, I don’t regret quitting. There was no other option, in my opinion. And look what it accomplished….” Well, what would it accomplish? A revolution? The overthrow of Sampson, the installation of a new coach, one with passion and competency? Van’s cell phone ringing, a young, intense voice on the other end: “Van. I want you back. No punishment, no apology necessary. Things’ll be different on my team, I promise you that.” An alternate reality: “Yes, I regret quitting. I think about it every day. There’s no telling what else I could’ve accomplished. Another MVP award? Gone on to play in college? There’s just no telling”….and another alternate: “I got my shit straight, turned right around and apologized to Coach Sampson. He nodded and nothing was ever said of it again. I always said he was a cold fish and an average coach, but that proved he had integrity. And lemme tell ya: that was the best decision I ever made.”
He thought it’d be fitting if they cut off the lights at this very moment. Darkness enveloping the field. But they stayed lit. He brushed past everyone and left.