My son sucks at soccer. Look at him, playing with the string on his shorts, chewing his lip, watching the ball roll by. Pathetic. The coach looks back at me, sitting in my lawn chair, PowerBook on my lap. As if it were my fault. As if I am one of those fathers.
Alex runs over. Water break. This is your mother’s fault, I want to tell him. She’s the one who twists her ankles when she tries to run, hits the badminton shuttlecock backwards, dribbles the basketball off her feet. Blame her.
Instead I ask him if he’s having fun. Water dribbles down his chin.
Yeah, he says. I kicked the ball to Connor. Wasn’t that cool? I reach down, tie his shoelaces; maybe I should tie them together, tie him to the lawn chair.
Yeah, yeah. If he doesn’t care, why should I? He can’t help it that he sucks. But I also can’t help it that I care. Grant me that, at least.
The coach talks to Ben’s dad, Jeremy’s dad. Slaps them on the back. Your kid, he sure can play. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working. Keep it up. They’re laughing.
I estimate that, out of twelve kids, he’s the third worst. Jack actually sits down on the field and Hayden spends the entire game celebrating some imaginary goal. Their fathers are lucky; the kids suck so bad that clearly it must be some wiring gone wrong. Nothing could be done there.
Full of signs, the worldand they flash here like the oranges, reds of the players streaking toward the ball.
You, the signs all scream. You suck at being a father. No wonder I’m trying to hide.
I peek above the screenjust in time to see Alex looking over at me and the ball speeding to the side of his face. He crumbles like a cookie. Crumbs of Alex lie on the field.
I rush out. Alex kicks at the ground, holds his face, and cries, of course, loud wounded sobs that echo from field to field so the other games next to us stop.
Suck it up. Walk it off. My own father’s voice, I hear. I played an entire baseball game with a broken wrist, a football game with a separated shoulder.
On his face, a red splotch spreads, like something spilled. I pick him up, think of the way Boo Radley picked up Jem and carried him home.
Alex stifles his sobs against my chest.
We sit on the ground along the sideline. Sniffles now. An occasional tremor throughout his tiny frame.
And Alex says the magic words, the words I’ve been waiting to hear, the release from this hell: I think I’m done with soccer now, Dad.
I will carry him to the car, wave good-bye, get him a Happy Meal, take the top off the convertible, hold our arms up as we fly away.
Parenthood is about pain. That’s what my father taught me. So I suck it up.
Your team needs you, dude, I tell him.
Really? he asks
I rub his face, hold him. He stands up with a few minutes left. Coach pats him on the butt, sends him out.
Alex waves to me as the ball rolls by.
Randall has fiction forthcoming in several journals, and he begins Vermont College's MFA in Fiction Writing program in Summer 2004. He lives outside of Philadelphia with his wife Meg, a cabaret singer, and their two children, Jonah and Chloe. He's currently working on a short story collection.