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Fiction #286
(published July 13, 2006)
by Robin Slick
My father quit school in the sixth grade and delivered newspapers until World War II broke out and he was drafted. When he finally returned, shell-shocked, to the United States he was hired at a factory where he happily and mindlessly made ball bearings and then married a pretty girl from the neighborhood who had dinner featuring all four food groups on the table each night promptly at 5:00 p.m. with a cheerful red-lipsticked smile.

A year later I arrived, a huge angsty kid who would be over six feet tall and two hundred pounds by his fourteenth birthday.

Back in those days we listened to our parents. No one called Social Services if they took a swing at us; in fact, on report card days you could hear the screams of other anguished kids all over my block. We respected the chain of command out of sheer terror.

My dad loved football and wanted me to play football so I played football and didn't ask any questions. But I wasn't like the other boys on our team. I didn't collect trading cards nor do anything else sports related other than watch the hapless Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday afternoons with my father. And that was only because he'd bribe me into it by letting me sip from his ever present can of beer.

"Pass interference! Pass interference! Penalty! Andy, did you see that? Wait a second, there's no flag on the play! Aw, jeez. I can't believe it. What the hell is wrong with the refs? Yo, morons! Are you blind? Andy, was that pass interference or am I crazy?"

"It was pass interference, Dad," I said, crunching on a pretzel and staring longingly at his drink. You're crazy, Dad. I had no idea what he was talking about. My mind wandered and I missed the play altogether.

I am positive that the only reason I made it onto the junior varsity team was because of my size and the fact that my father and the coach were both vets who drank at Jumbo's Tavern on Saturday nights.

And then on February 9, 1964, during my freshman year at Olney High School, I was sprawled out in front of our old black and white television only half-watching Ed Sullivan with my parents as was our Sunday night custom when Ed announced "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Beatles! Let's bring them on. . ."

I insisted on a guitar for my birthday the following month. I never put it down; I practiced all night long until my father would bang on my bedroom door, swearing. To punish him back, I'd ignore him whenever he brought up football. I was already starting to resent the time I'd be spending away from my music once I became a sophomore in the fall. But that was almost six months away. I'd worry about it then.

I bought albums by the Beatles, The Kinks, and The Rolling Stones. I sat on my bed and played them over and over again on an old plastic phonograph until I could duplicate every song note for note on my guitar. I hung out with kids who wore their hair long and wild and were against the war in Viet Nam. We were anti-establishment; we made fun of our Republican, money-grubbing, beer-drinking parents and everything they stood for and chose instead to make art and music and get high on $15.00 bags of cheap Mexican pot. I grew my hair down to my shoulders and hooked up with a bass player and a drummer. We called ourselves "Pegasus" and sucked up the obligatory heady Beatle comparisons made by our classmates.

But when football season rolled around at the end of that summer, despite the fact that I had lost interest in the game entirely and was paranoid about breaking a finger, I was too stoned to argue with my father. I let him drive me to practice without a word of protest. Once there, I just kind of went through the motions, telling myself the coach was never going to play me anyway because I sucked. Quitting wasn't going to be worth the torture I'd have to face at home with my dad. Besides, football gave me VIP privileges like being able to postpone tests and miss certain classes I hated. Still, I swore to myself that in a few months when the term was over the same would be said for my illustrious football career.

Olney High School didn't have a great season that year. The day of our last game, I celebrated what I deemed would be my last time anywhere near a football stadium by smoking a couple of joints about fifteen minutes before the coin toss. I didn't bother getting there in time for warm-ups because I rode the bench, and Christ, what was the coach going to do, punish me by kicking me off the team? Hey, it would be a relief if he did - he'd save me the trouble of quitting.

So I sat there all wasted, sneaking pieces of a chocolate bar and hearing Who songs in my head when one of our safeties got hurt. That was allegedly my position: Safety. The coach screamed "Andy, Andy, you're in!"

I felt like I was in a bad movie. Kids in helmets and shoulder pads turned into fire-breathing empty-eye-socketed he-monsters before my eyes.

I was going to get killed out there.

The crowd screamed, "Defense! Defense!" and I swear I could hear my old man's voice above the roar.

I got into formation and made deals with a God I no longer believed in. Please don't let me get hurt, I prayed, and I'll watch football with my father every Sunday for the rest of my stupid life.

My brain felt fuzzy but somehow my legs knew what to do and I ran and looked up to see the ball sailing right toward my head. All I had to do was reach up, grab it, and run. It was mine, all mine, and there wasn't another player around to stop me.

I watched in slow motion as the football started to fall and I leapt in the air and holy cow, I caught the sucker, tucked it under my arm like every coach I ever had tried to drill into my head - something I'm sure we all thought was hopeless — and I ran. I ran and I ran and I ran like I never ran in my life and crossed that goal line with a triumphant smile. Me, with my pot filled lungs and candy-bloated belly - I won the freaking game. Me. Freaking me.

Only no one was cheering. My teammates stood zombie-like on the field, their mouths wide open. The opposing team, however, were dancing around and laughing and giving each other high fives.

I looked up in the stands at my father, confused. His face was a mix of horror and an almost unbelievable agony.

As it turned out, when I caught that interception, I ran the wrong way.

"I was going to quit after this season, anyway," I told my father on the way home in the car.

My father stared straight ahead. His hands shook on the wheel.

He nodded, but sixth grade education or not, he was wounded more by what I didn't say.

After graduation, Pegasus broke up when our drummer went off to college and the bassist ended up in Australia where he joined a commune so he could live off the land though last time I heard, he was in real estate which is pretty damn funny when you think about it. I was in a few bands, I even toured for a couple of years, but then I fell in love and got married and needed a real job with a steady income. Oh yeah, I joined the suits alright, but I told myself it was okay because I'd never change inside and would always rock out to screaming electric guitars.

In a skewed version of history repeating itself, I had a son of my own with a taste for video games and rap music. I grit my teeth in distaste but never say a word while I wish for a world that no longer exists and probably, if I'm honest, never existed at all.

On Sundays we visit my ninety-year old father. During football season, we watch the game on a wall-mounted television sitting side by side by side on folding chairs.

A nurse passes us apple juice in plastic cups while we shout out our frustration at the referees.

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