Johnny America


Every­one Plays


The first e‑mail from Shirley, the league coör­di­na­tor, 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?”


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.

Filed under Fiction on June 8th, 2009

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