Winter 2017, Sean Daly

Cruel Game

Sean Daly 

 

I was annoyed by the meeting. It was a cold November evening, and I wanted to be home by the fire. I saw the other two board members in the far corner of the coffee shop looking dour. I volunteered to chair the board which I had no devotion to. The coach was already hired. The uniforms bought. The playing fields and schedules were set, but my daughter was on scholarship. Had to lend a hand.

Cheryl, the treasure, didn’t even wait until I sat down.

“I want Coach Tom gone.” She unzipped her jacket and loosened her scarf. She opened up herself up to us in layers. She smiled at me but seethed underneath. “We can’t stand for this anymore,” she said.

“We got by-laws, Cheryl.” I said. I reached into my back pocket but they weren’t there. I didn’t even have a hot drink yet. We played for first place earlier in the day. The score was one to one. Cheryl’s daughter stood in goal with gloves the size of oven mittens.

Nervous parents sprinkled the side lines in lawn chairs. Cheryl yelled out defensive adjustments within earshot of Coach Tom, whose motto, They play, I coach, you watch came to me.

I ordered something or other.

“What’s wrong with a little chatter from the sidelines,” Cheryl said, “a little chatter,” as if yelling showered down by chance, like rain, and why couldn’t a coach understand that?

Ken, an even more reluctant member than me, stared into his coffee as Cheryl ranted. He wore work boats with jeans and a shirt advertising his debunked construction company. His arms and face in needed of lotion. He refused to be miffed by any of it.

“What do you think?” I asked him.

“He stormed off the field in the middle a game, big deal,” he scratched at his chalky arms, “I threw a hammer and walked off a job…once upon a time.”

“They’re ten years old!” Cheryl said while maintaining a smile.

“Fire him, then” Ken said, “but he’s not a bad guy.”

Getting rid of him was what she wanted, but she didn’t want to overplay it. She drifted back into her chair gazing over me as if something approached on the horizon.

So Cheryl daughter was getting pummeled with shot; a dam on the breaking point. Coach Tom made the substitutions, but not what anyone expected. He took out Peg and replaced her with Amber. Or was it Amber for Peg? Cheryl said for all to hear “is this a joke?”

Everyone gasped.

Tom flung his clip board down. He walked off the field. Everyone looked at me. I had no choice but to conscript Luis, the Mexican dad; the only other family on scholarship.

“Coach Tom has roid rage,” Cheryl said. She looked septic.

“So he’s got to go?” I said. I wanted to smooth it all out.

Practice fell on a Tuesday. I waited until it ended. I staked out the Coach from the parking lot. Watching and waiting. Coach Tom had a stocky build, but he moved with a deftness of a powerful dancer. A grace lost when he coached.

I got out of the car and approached him from an angle. He picked up orange cones in the far reaches of the pitch. I became aware of my thin, frail stature at that moment, and looked for exits. Up the hills maybe? He wore short shorts, and a fitted V-neck shirt that showed off his strength that exuded a whiff of insecurity, too.

Tom had his back to me as I approached, but he quickly turned around.

“I know what this is about,” he said. The perspiration on his arms glistened. I sensed he was cooling himself down, making an effort to contain himself.

“I was wrong and I apologized to the kids. I let them know that quitting is never an option.” He said. His voice was sedated in one-on-one conversations. Absent the coaching box, he had reasonableness about him, and a slight lisp. I imagined he had been bullied in his youth. It filled the open space with earnestness. “I quit on them, I know, but never again and I mean it, never,” he said. In the distance kids threw their pennies into a large bag. Some of the parents had penetrated the soft outline of their gathering. Ken stood with cones in his hands enraptured by his daughter’s juggling antics. For a minute I couldn’t find Cheryl then I saw her in the parking lot shielding her eyes against the dipping sun. She stared at me and Tom.

“The board met,” I said.

Tom became more in tuned with what I had to say. He stepped a little closer to me.

“This job means a lot to me,” he said,” not the puny salary, but I‘ll have other opportunities after this season.” I couldn’t escape his bleached white teeth. His hairless arms and legs. The wrestler in him.

“I’m sure it does.” I felt my mouth dry up.

“I’m moving on to a prep school after the season”.

I let him have his say. You can’t convict a man without hearing him out first. He showered me with bullet points “I’ve taught the girls about nutrition, sleep habits, moving without the ball.” He sounded like a worried child. “It’s Cheryl,” he said “I’m not stupid. I don’t know what she has against me. I can’t help it if her daughter let in the winning goal.”

“Tom,” I pleaded.

“You want to know the truth?” He waddled toward me.

“I could hear voices from the sideline and I didn’t want to explode which would have been worse,” he said, “I was doing the kids a favor, actually, by leaving, sparing them. Let me at least finish out the season.” He stuck out his hand, and as a reflex, I grabbed it and shook it.
“I’ll talk to the board about it.” I said

“The board!” he scoffed. He held my hand that extra second, “those misfits didn’t even hear me out.” He stormed off. I heard cars leaving the lot and sensed the void, when the pitch returned to a simple field dotted by Crows.

I checked the parking lot. Ken’s truck rambled over a speed bump, and he cocked his elbow out the windowed and saluted me on a job well done. All of the other cars left except for Cheryl’s. She remained in her Lexus with the engine idling.

“How’d it go?”

“Okay,” I said.

She frowned, “You didn’t do it, did you?”

I stammered for the right words,

“The board needs to discuss, again.”

“Look Phil,” she said. “Firing is unpleasant.”

“We didn’t even invite him to the meeting,” I looked for safety in Tom’s argument.

“The board has spoken.” She relaxed a little.

My daughter stared at me thought the windshield of my car, her expression questioning my misuse of her time. We decided to go to Inn-n-Out for a quick bite. I bumped into Ken in the long line that moved like a ribbon outside the door. We sat alongside him and his daughter, snug in our plastic booth.

“How’d he take it?” Ken asked.

“Not well.”

“Yeah,” he said beckoning me for more.

“I couldn’t do it. When I heard his reasoning I didn’t pull the trigger. ”

Ken just smiled at me and I caught sight of a little piece of bun and lettuce between his teeth, where plaque makes its home.

Not long after Cheryl summoned us back to her home for another meeting.

I drove up to Cheryl’s after work. I scrolled though the names at the kiosk. She buzzed me in. I drove along a wide avenue with huge homes and fenceless lawns. I looked for Cheryl’s address at the estates that were either tutor or California mission style, but there were no children on the street. Neither a bike or a skateboard to be seen.

I pulled into Cheryl’s drive way lines with landscaping that called attention to itself. Cheryl’s daughter answered the door.

“Come in,” She said with impatience. She had to know why I was there, but didn’t let on. I stood in the foyer and she returned to her violin that rested on an ottoman in the living room. Her teacher waved at me. The Help always recognizes itself.

The lesson commenced. Cheryl’s daughter didn’t call out to her mom, or give me directions. I found my way intuitively.

Soccer is the beautiful game, imbued magic. A certain brilliance can come down from above. Things open up. The ball can move from player to player that renders the opponent useless, but sometimes you are on the wrong end of this inspiration.

I walked down the hall way wondering if I should have taken off my shoes. Cheryl rested herself on a stool by the island in the kitchen. She lounged with her legs crossed at the ankles. The kitchen was French country with hunter green cabinets and yellow trim. Her dishware had a cheerfulness that wanted so much to be that happy home.

Cheryl still wore her business cloths, but semi unraveled. One button undone. Barefoot. She picked at a platter of food foraged after a meeting, I guessed. She waved in a familiar way as she did on Saturday mornings.

“Where’s Ken?” I said.

She offered me some cantaloupe cut into cubes. She had a husband who was introduced to me that looked like her twin with equally fine features underneath a Patagonia beanie, as I remember. There was no trace of him in the house.

“So is your daughter enjoying the team?” she said.

“Love’s it.”

Cheryl stabbed at the platter “I use to ice skate growing up. …didn’t do the team thing.” She nodded her head toward the room where Mozart drifted out “I told her that letting in a goal means that its gone through ten field players first.”

“That’s right”

“I told her that your only responsible for so much, after all, you can’t score,” She sounded matter of fact but her eyes seemed manic.

“Exactly,” I said.

She reached for some brochette.

The winger crossed the ball when she reached the end line. The moment it left her foot I knew it would be perfect, and it landed on the striker’s head who guided it in the goal. For a moment it looked like Cheryl’s daughter could have come off the line and punched it away. The celebrated from the opposing parents crushed us.

“We can only go so far with Tom,” Cheryl said. “He has to go, you know that. “I took on the role of her confessor. “We all know that, yet we find ourselves here again rehashing the events. Don’t we?”

I listened out for the Ken. No sound of him. Only Mozart.

The last practice came on a Friday. I staked out Tom from my car as I had before but I was sure to arrive before anyone else. To leave work early and meet Tom in the parking lot. He smiled and waved at me from his car. He looked whimsical. Happy even. I’m sure he looked forward to running with the girls, but I held him in my sights. There would be no doubt about it this time, no chance for him to clear away.

The board had spoken.

 

 

Sean Daly’s work has appeared in Yellow Mama, Bindweed, Jellyfish Review, Spelk and other publications. His novella Dirt Where the Lawn Should Be was a finalist in the Black Hill Press Summer Writing Project in 2015. He lives in Ojai, CA.

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