Harry stands a few yards apart from his teammates, who cluster near a ten-foot tall inflatable tunnel, which leads out to Field #1, where the Little Bears are scheduled to take on the Little Rattlers in the final match of the 2018 Upward Soccer season. An impromptu game of Tag commences around Harry, and he steps away from the madness. He tugs on his bright orange jersey. He stomps the grass with his neon green cleats. The result: a demolished ant hill. Sweet victory! He pumps his fist. But for the Little Bears’ holding midfielder, a handsome soon-to-be five-year-old with shaggy brown hair and big eyes that twinkle, the mood never lasts long. Within seconds, Harry’s smile vanishes, and his memory—much longer than the elephant’s recall—kicks into overdrive. Harry remembers that he is hungry. Really hungry. Earlier that morning, he’d refused his father’s offers to scramble an egg, or toast an Eggo, or make a pepperoni-and-spicy-cheese sandwich with extra mayo (the boy’s favorite). Now, mere minutes away from kick-off, he blames his dad for the rumbling in his belly.
Harry stomps the ant hill a second time, and a third, and a fourth. He exhales and looks up past the fifty or sixty parents and grandparents waiting for the player introductions, their cell phones poised to record every adorable moment. His eyes settle on Field #1, and he remembers something more important than his hunger pangs. He remembers that he is ready. He is ready to sprint past all those grinning grown-ups, and out onto that soccer pitch, for Field #1 is not a slightly uneven patch of grass behind Kelleytown Baptist Church. Oh no, Field #1 is Stamford Bridge, the Cathedral-esque soccer stadium in London, where Harry’s beloved Chelsea Football Club chase not only silverware for the trophy case, but immortality.
After a season of brilliant positioning, last-ditch tackles, and goal-preventing clearances that made his father, a soccer junkie, swell with pride, Harry is ready to chase immortality, too. By kicking a ball into a net. Just once. Today, on this balmy, sun-dappled morning in mid-May, Harry is ready to push forward up the pitch, ready to break away from the pack, ready to go for goal. Today, he is ready to get his name on the score sheet, and once his status as a soccer god is secure, he can celebrate by dousing himself with a juice box compliments of the Team Mom.
But first, Harry must wait for an old man with a microphone to introduce all of the players.
“Good morning, folks,” the old man says, an unseen PA system popping and hissing like an old record. “Looks like the Good Lord’s given us another beautiful Saturday for Upward Soccer!”
A smattering of applause. An Amen or two. The old man thanks the fine people at Kelleytown Baptist Church for sponsoring the league. He congratulates the young’uns for their dedication and hard work. Oblivious to the restlessness of the players, he then provides a lengthy review of the sausage biscuits at the concession stand.
“Only a buck and two bits,” he says flashing gleaming white dentures. “Now that’s a deal!”
The adults chuckle. Some of the players force a laugh.
Not Harry, though. Brow furrowed in confusion, he wheels around and locks eyes with his father, who shrugs, unable to offer a non-verbal explanation for why a phrase like “two bits” is so damn funny.
On a roll now, the old man makes a quip about youth versus experience, and when the laughter subsides he asks for bowed heads. As he catalogues the many blessings Jesus Christ has bestowed on the decent people of Hartsville, South Carolina, Harry stomps on the ant hill a fifth time. The old man’s prayer completed, Harry claps his hands together and moves closer to the tunnel, which, in the almost nine minutes he’s been waiting, has become a metaphor for his transcendence, a symbol of his quest for glory, a portal that will transport him to another dimension where every shot is dead-on target. It’s Game Time!
The old man says, “All right, folks, our first match of the day is on Field #1 between the Little Bears and the Little Rattlers. Let’s hear it for ‘em!” Whistling. Hollering. Cell phones aloft, the red RECORD buttons flashing. “And now let’s meet the Little Bears!”
The old man starts with a toe-headed boy named Edward, who scored seven goals in the opening match. Edward jogs down the tunnel, slapping high-fives with adults along the way. Next is Ally, a pretty brunette with temporary tattoos all down her left arm. She bumps fists with her dad, a burly guy sporting real tattoos on his arms and legs, and then she, too, runs down the tunnel. The third player called is Eli, a pint-sized boy with curly hair and an infectious smile. Eli holds out his hand, but Harry doesn’t slap it. Crouched low like a tiger about to pounce on his prey, he is completely focused on the tunnel, on hearing his own name announced. He has no time for sportsmanship or camaraderie.
Harry’s father catches his son’s eye and makes a funny face. Harry looks away without smiling.
“Next up for the Little Bears is number 8–”
Harry doesn’t wait for his name to be called. Beaming like a sweepstakes winner, he runs down the tunnel, even hamming it up for the crowd as he gives everyone a thumbs up and emerges onto the soccer pitch. He joins his teammates at midfield, catches his breath, and scans the field from one side to the other. He shuts his eyes, moves his lips as if he is speaking. His father cannot make out what Harry is saying, but, if given the opportunity, he would gladly trade a year of his life to know. Is Harry reciting a prayer? Is Harry repeating a personal mantra? Is Harry silently singing “My Old School,” a Steely Dan tune that his father exposed him to when he was just three?
Harry opens his eyes. He taps one of his teammates on the shoulder, a red-haired kid wearing dark sunglasses.
“Tag,” Harry says and runs off, laughing. The redhead boy chases after him, dropping his sunglasses in the process.
Two games of Tag, one lengthy discussion between the two referees, and much cajoling and organizing by both coaches later, the game begins with a loud whistle.
At midfield a very tall girl wearing a white jersey boots the ball low and hard, and it pin-balls off one, two, three players in orange jerseys and comes to a stop near the sideline directly in front of the team benches. The players on both teams freeze. Parents yell for their kid to do something. Nothing happens. So one of referees, a teenaged girl, blows her whistle.
“The ball’s in play,” she says, gesturing at her watch.
Then, at varying speeds and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, all ten players on the field—five Little Bears in orange, five Little Rattlers in white—move toward the ball and surround it. Chaos ensues. There’s a tangle of legs and arms, a torrent of kicks and swipes, a cacophony of grunts and squeals. The ball bounces and ricochets and caroms a dozen times or more, but never breaches the circular barricade around it. During the scrum, both sides take causalities. One of the Little Rattlers falls down and crawls to safety. One of the Little Bears gets his toe stepped on and goes AWOL, walks over to the bench and sits down.
“Get the ball, Britney,” yells a fan. “Dribble it outta there!”
And that is precisely what the very tall girl does. Defying the laws of physics, she bursts through the tangle of legs and arms and dribbles clear of the blockade. On her own with acres of empty pitch before her, she uses long strides and barrels toward the Little Bears’ unattended goal.
Harry sprints back to defend, his shaggy hair bouncing.
The very tall girl dribbles into the box and moves closer, closer, closer to the goal, Harry running and panting like a dog chasing a Porsche. Only three yards from her target, the very tall girl cocks her right leg back and takes a shot, Harry sticking his foot out at the last second and deflecting what would surely be a goal out of bounds for a corner kick.
“Way to go, Harry!” cheers the boy’s mother.
The boy’s father observes quietly from the shade of the picnic area, far away from his lovely yet competitive wife and the rest of the maddening crowd. Despite the father’s intense love of both his son and of soccer, he rarely cheers, and he never, under any circumstances, calls out instructions to Harry like many of the other parents do. Instead, he’ll wait for Harry’s turn to sit on the bench and kiss the boy’s sweaty head, making sure to offer him a drink of water. “Stay hydrated” are about the only two words the father is comfortable saying during the games.
Having missed a goal-scoring opportunity, the very tall girl puts her hands on her hips. She looks down at Harry. She sticks her tongue out. Harry smiles. For the moment, he is happy with the Atta boy from his coach and the brief adoration of the crowd.
But by the time the halftime whistle blows, Harry’s memory kicks into overdrive once more. Sweaty and hot, he sits down on the bench and remembers that he still has yet to score a goal.
“Stay hydrated,” his father says handing Harry his water bottle. The boy snatches it and slams it on the ground.
The father kisses his son’s head and drifts back to the shaded picnic area where he belongs.
At midfield the Little Bears huddle around their coach, who reads off the names of those players starting the second half. Harry is not one of them. The coach calls for all hands in, but Harry refuses to join in, refuses to yell, “Go Bears” with the rest of his team. Instead, he lowers his head and walks slowly toward the sideline. Soon, three of his teammates are walking beside him, all of them cute, none of them caring at all about riding the proverbial pine. The red-headed boy has his dark shades on again, and he seems to be providing animated commentary on, well, everything. One of the coach’s kids, a tiny girl with wild dark hair, is politely trying to hold Eli’s hand, and if the smile on the lad’s face is any indication, he doesn’t seem repulsed by the prospect. Of the four benched players, only Harry is upset. Crestfallen, in fact.
Chin glued to his chest, bright orange water bottle dangling precariously from his fingertips, Harry views his benching as a major setback. It is an injustice. After all, he has plans to dominate the professional soccer world, if not by the end of the day, then certainly by the time he starts kindergarten in the fall some three months hence. His plans include playing right alongside Eden Hazard at Chelsea, and together the two strikers will score goal after marvelous goal and win all the big trophies: the FA Cup, the Carabao Cup, the Premier League, the Champions League, and, just as soon as Harry can make life on other planets possible and build a replica of Stamford Bridge in which to hold matches, the Intergalactic League. His plans are ruined though—because of a league rule stating that all players must play at least two quarters per game.
Harry plops down on the bench.
Watching from his solitary post in the picnic area, his father is relieved that Harry isn’t playing the third quarter, for the kid needs some practice dealing with disappointment, frustration, and boredom. “The sweet is not as sweet without the bitter,” the father has told Harry so many times now that the boy doesn’t even bother rolling his eyes anymore. Although it is morbid, the father often imagines that he will die soon (peacefully and with no psychological damage to wife or child), and he sees it as his duty—his moral imperative, if you will—to prepare his only son for the vicissitudes of Life. He doesn’t want to raise a happy child. No one, in his opinion, can make anyone else happy. What he wants, what he strives for, what he would gladly take in lieu of a winning lottery ticket, a Premier League Championship for his Tottenham Hotspurs, and all the top-grade sushi in the world is to raise a productive adult, one with an open mind, a kind heart, and a spine stronger than steel.
“Let’s go to work Little Bears,” the father calls out, the sound of his own voice sending a wave of nausea right through his soul.
Back on the field, there’s a problem. The Little Bears’ coach stops the referee from starting the second half. Bending down on one knee, he talks to one of his players, a large boy with a perpetual look of astonishment on his face. The coach speaks. The boy listens and walks off the field, sitting down in a foldout chair beside what looks to be his grandmother.
The referee and the coach exchange looks, and then the coach approaches Harry and the other benched players. In an overly enthusiastic voice, he says:
“All right, Little Bears, who wants to play the third quarter?”
Harry shoots his hand up into the air.
“You’re in, Harry,” says the coach, and Harry sprints onto the pitch, all his dreams possible once more.
When the referee’s whistle blows, Harry takes a running start and kicks the ball into the Little Rattlers’ half of the field. This time, everyone takes off after the ball and jockeys for control. After a corner kick in the Little Bears’ end of the pitch, the very tall girl accidentally boots the ball in the wrong direction, and everyone swarms around midfield. There, play stalls. For a full minute, the players randomly kick, swipe, and elbow, accomplishing nothing other than making some of the lighter-hearted parents laugh.
And then, quite randomly, the ball bounces clear of the cluster of orange and white jerseys and rolls right to Harry. Sensing that the pathway to the Little Rattlers’ goal is clear, he hesitates for a moment. Like the thoroughbred who actually catches the rabbit for once, he forgets what comes next.
“Go, Harry,” his mother yells, and Harry starts to dribble.
Picking up speed as he goes, he hears the thudding of little cleats behind him, none louder and faster than those of the very tall girl, who scored two goals in the first half. Fueled by his distaste for girls, especially tall blonde ones with superior soccer skills, he continues dribbling, keeping his touches close to his right foot while running as fast as he can. Entering the penalty box, he hears his mother yelling for him again, hears the other parents cheering, but he stays calm, focuses on maintaining control of the ball long enough to get within shooting range. In his head, he hears his father’s voice: “Strikers are ruthless. When you get near the goal, Harry, be as cold-blooded as a snake.” Thinking of his favorite snake, the lethal black mamba, he dribbles to within ten yards of the goal, eight, six.
The very tall girl, who is the closest player to the action, knows it’s too late and stops running. Her teammates stop, too. All any of the white jerseys can do is watch as Harry advances to within four yards, and then two yards before calmly and ruthlessly toe-kicking the ball into the middle of the goal, the black net rippling.
“I finally scored a goal,” Harry says excitedly and pumps his fist.
The boy’s mother cries.
The boy’s father keeps quiet, fearing that any outward sign of emotion on his part would cheapen the moment by drawing attention away from Harry. So he retreats to the restroom, where he can laugh and cry and hyperventilate in private.
After the goal, Harry puts it on cruise control. Throughout the last quarter, he adjusts (and re-adjusts) his black headband, checks out the crowd, jogs perfunctorily up and down the pitch, rarely getting involved in play. During a pivotal corner kick, he chats with a teammate.
The one time Harry does get involved and gains possession of the ball, he dribbles once, pretends to trip, and looks up at the referee, imploring her to give the nearest Little Rattler a yellow card. Mimicking certain Premier League Players that his father scoffs at and refers to as “divas with $600 haircuts,” he throws his arms into the air, incredulous and aggrieved.
Finally, with only seconds left to play, Harry makes a positive contribution. Having dropped by to defend, he makes a goal-saving clearance, and his father wonders if the boy is already nostalgic for those heady days when he—now an emerging star striker—did the grunt work of defense.
The final whistle blows. The Little Bears and the Little Rattlers line up and shake hands. On the sidelines, Harry stands quietly through another prayer, and then accepts a Gatorade and a mini bag of Oreos from the Team Mom. The boy’s mother showers his face with kisses. She congratulates him on his big goal.
“I finally scored,” he says, chocolate already smeared on his cheeks.
His father takes the boy aside with every intention of giving him a lecture. Unfortunately for Harry, his father is both a disciplinarian and a neurotic perfectionist, and the former English instructor turned stay-at-home-dad has every intention of admonishing the kid for pretending to trip, for whining to the referee, for loafing around the pitch for the entirety of the second half. With his arm around his son now, the father has every intention of saying, Yes, you scored, Harry Man, and I’m very proud of you, but do you understand that soccer is not only a sport, it is a metaphor for Life, and if you get into the habit of half-assing it out there on the pitch, you will, surely, begin half-assing it somewhere else, somewhere far more important than a soccer field. Are you going to half-ass it in the classroom? Are you going to half-ass it when it comes time for you to commit to a career, or to a woman (or a man, if that’s your preference)? Are you going to half-ass it when you have a son or daughter of your own, and he or she needs you—
“Daddy, did you see my goal?”
The father bends down for a quick fix of his drug of choice: the smell of his son’s head. He inhales quickly, kisses the boy’s sweaty head.
“I bought you a Chelsea jersey for your birthday,” he says, suddenly uninterested in giving a lecture. “Guess whose name is on the back of it?”
The boy’s eyes light up. “Eden Hazard?”
“Nope. Someone better.”
“Harry Everhart,” the father says. “That’s who.” He waits a beat, and then: “And don’t ever let me see you dive on a soccer field again, you understand me?”
The boy smiles, knowing full well that he had pretended to trip and that he would do it again. Why? For the same reason he scored the goal: because it was fun. And soccer, despite what his dyspeptic father thinks, is all about fun.