Everyone Plays

by Joe WINTER
 

The first e-mail from Shirley, the league coordinator, arrived in my inbox Thursday morning. It said she needed volunteers to referee youth soccer games that coming weekend. I was on her mailing list because two years ago I had completed the one-day training program and had reffed a couple games, if you can believe that. I’m not the sort who normally volunteers for things, but that year my daughter’s coach said the league was desperate for refs and I figured I’d help out. I guess I was a more charitable person two years ago, before Laura and I got divorced. I deleted the e-mail.

The next day I received another e-mail from Shirley. This one was marked urgent and had the subject line in all caps: REFS NEEDED ASAP!!! I had no errands to run that weekend, no people to see. It was Laura’s turn to have Hallie. For me it was clear skies. I deleted the e-mail.

That night I was home smoking a joint and watching Animal Planet when the phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number on the caller id. At first I ignored the call, but then I thought — you never know, maybe it’s some girl who heard I’m single again, maybe an ex-girlfriend who wants to throw some fat on the fire for old time’s sake, or maybe —

It was Shirley. She was still scrambling to find refs to cover tomorrow’s games and my name was next on her call list. I was too stoned to come up with a plausible excuse right away, so I told her I’d cover a girls’ game tomorrow at the middle school. She said thanks so much.

The next morning I went in my closet and dug up my old referee uniform. I didn’t mind the shirt, bright yellow with black pin stripes, but the shorts and the socks bothered me. The shorts were too short, for one thing, and the socks went all the way up to my knee caps. They felt like pantyhose. The league wanted us to look professional, though, and insisted we wear this get up. When I was kid playing Little League it was a different story. Back then the umps were old guys in t-shirts who smelt like cigarettes and Brylcreem. I hung the whistle around my neck and pulled my socks up. I put the penalty cards in my back pocket and headed out the door. I looked forward to coming home and spending the afternoon getting high and jerking off in front of the TV.

When I got to the middle school I had a hard time finding a parking space. The league had two fields with games scheduled throughout the morning and afternoon. The place was overrun with kids of all ages and their parents lugging lawn chairs and plastic Igloo containers.

I was making my way over to the south field when I heard someone yell, “Hey Dad!” I turned and there was Hallie standing under a tree with her mother by a row of Porta-Johns. Hallie was holding the leash to a dog I’d never seen before, a big golden retriever. I walked over. Even from a distance Laura’s body language made it clear she wasn’t too jazzed about seeing me. I had lived with this woman for six years and knew how her mind worked. She was probably angry that she hadn’t spotted me first — that Hallie had called out to me before she had a chance to stop her. She nodded but didn’t say hello. She seemed a little jumpy and kept looking over at the Porta-Johns.

“Hey there Hallie,” I said, ignoring Laura for the moment. “What are you doing here? And who’s this handsome fella?” I said, meaning the dog.

“This is Taylor,” Hallie said. “We’re taking him on a walk.”

“Oh yeah?” I knelt down and stroked Taylor’s head. “Who’s dog is he?”

“Bret’s.”

I glanced sidelong at Laura. “Who’s Bret?”

At that moment the door to a Porta-John swung open and this tanned, middle-aged guy in a Tommy Bahama shirt walked out drying his hands with a paper towel. Taylor began to fidget and whimper and I knew then who Bret was. I stopped patting the dog.

“That’s Bret,” Hallie said.

Laura hurried over to Bret and said something to him. Bret listened as he walked. Laura introduced me as Hallie’s father and Bret as Bret. Not as her boyfriend Bret — just Bret. He thrust his hand out at me and said something about being pleased to meet me and all that.

I knew I’d bump into one of Laura’s boyfriends eventually, but I didn’t expect I’d be wearing short shorts and knee high socks when it finally happened. The sardonic smile playing at the corners of Bret’s mouth signaled he knew this ridiculous outfit placed me at a disadvantage.

It was an unnerving experience, happening upon what used to be my family and shaking hands with the guy who’d taken my place. Laura seemed just as uncomfortable. She stood off to the side staring down at the grass. I had to get the hell out of there.

I told Bret it had been a pleasure but I had a game to officiate. I held up my whistle as if I need that to prove the veracity of my excuse. He laughed and said, “By all means. Do what you have to do.” I said bye to Hallie and told her I’d come get her next Friday. I also said bye to Laura, if only to show Bret how unperturbed I was. Laura gave me a lame smile but didn’t say bye back. I waved a last time to Hallie. I left them standing together under the tree. Behind my back I heard Hallie tugging on Taylor’s leash. “C’mon Taylor,” she said. “Let’s finish our walk.”

When I got to the soccer field the teams were in the middle of their warm-ups. I went through the pre-game routine. I had each team line up so I could inspect their shoes and shin guards. I did the coin flip with the captains and gave them a canned speech about sportsmanship. Then I blew my whistle to start the game.

It was a mismatch. This was supposedly a game between ten-year-olds, but half the girls on the blue team could have easily passed for twelve or thirteen. A few of them were almost my height.

Five minutes into it I called my first foul. Two players were fighting for the ball and the player from the blue team — she must have weighed a buck ten at least — threw her elbow hard into the other girl’s chest, knocking her to the ground. I stopped the game and gave the blue player a yellow card. I warned her to watch it with the elbows. An asshole on the blue team’s sideline, the girl’s father most likely, yelled something about it being incidental contact.

Before long the blue team was up 5-0. The girls on the green team seemed to accept that this wasn’t a game anymore — it was punishment, an ordeal they’d just have to suffer through. They ran after the ball in a desultory, demoralized way, kicking at it indifferently. The girls on the blue team, though, showed no sign of backing off. Each goal they scored only made them hungrier and more aggressive. Their demented parents cheered and egged on. It made me angry to be part of a fiasco like this.

I was counting down the seconds to half-time when the hulking girl I had yellow-carded earlier tripped a green player from behind right in front of me, sending her sprawling on her face. I blew my whistle and held up the red card and told the blue player she was kicked out of the game. There was a groan on the blue team’s sideline, and the girl’s father came running out on to the field. He got right in my face, screaming like a lunatic that she was just going after the ball and what the hell was wrong with me. I didn’t hear everything he said. Spittle flew out of his mouth. I thought seriously about hitting him, but instead I took a step back.

“Listen cocksucker,” I said. “I’m a volunteer. You want to ref this lopsided bullshit? Go ahead — I’m done.” I walked off the field. The blue team’s parents jeered at me behind my back and I heard one of them say something about reporting me to league officials. I turned and walking backwards I gave them the finger with both hands. When I got to the Porta-Johns I looked around but saw no sign of Hallie and Laura. No sign of Bret and Taylor either. I peeled my shirt over my head and threw it in a trash can.

Hours later I was back on the couch in my living room, stoned and watching TV. I was naked except for the referee socks and the whistle which still hung around my neck. The phone rang. This time I recognized Shirley’s number. The answering machine kicked in and her voice came over the speaker. She said my behavior at the middle school that morning had “deeply hurt and upset” the children on both teams. She said that because of my outburst I was now disqualified from refereeing any future games. I thought she was done, but she went on, stating how my immaturity and foul language went against all the principles the league stood for. I got off the couch and picked up the phone. I could hear her droning on through the head set. Standing bare-assed in the middle of my living room, black socks pulled up to my knees, I pulled a great gulp of air into my lungs and blew the whistle full blast into the receiver. When I ran out of breath I put the phone back in its cradle and unplugged it from the jack in the wall. I sat back down on the couch, picked up the remote control and went to the onscreen program guide. In fifteen minutes the Discovery Channel would be airing back-to-back episodes of I Was Bitten, one of my favorites. I looked forward to a quiet evening at home.

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