I was playing half the games. I’d play the first half, and then I’d sit down so that Wilma could get her turn. Wilma was a big girl; sort of shapeless. Nobody else could ever remember her name. I don’t know if she was a little slow in the head, or maybe only really, really, shy. At our age there isn’t much difference between the two. I don’t know why she played soccer. Probably her parents made her – like most of us. During the games she never even kicked the ball. She would stand around looking miserable, usually with her arms crossed. I guess it should have made me mad that I had to sit on the bench while she stood out there, useless, but I didn’t care. That’s probably why the coach always made me sit instead of any of the other girls.
You see, this was a recreational league. The rules said that everybody got to play at least half of the game, no matter what. Our team really sucked. All the girls that were any good had left a year earlier – they had gone off to play in the select leagues. That is where the teams get to choose who they wanted and the girls’ parents paid thousands of dollars so they could practice every day and go to tournaments in Europe and stuff like that. That’s not what we did. We were the girls nobody wanted.
We played on terrible fields in some rundown city park in some scary neighborhood. The girls on the select teams got the good fields, the ones with lights and smooth, level, grass.
The weather was always awful. It would be cold and rainy at first, then in the summer it would be so hot you couldn’t even think straight. The ground would dry out and split open like a tomato in the sun. There would be these big cracks and if you stepped in one, even if you didn’t break your ankle, all these crickets would come swarming out. It was really gross.
One game, the first one of the spring season, was really cold. It had been raining for days, the field was a muddy mess and the temperature wasn’t much above freezing. There was this big brown puddle in one corner of the field and Brenda tried to kick the ball when she slipped and fell in. It was weird – she completely disappeared. Who knows how deep that puddle was but for a few seconds there was no Brenda, only that brown water. Suddenly she came out, shooting up and out like a rocket. Brenda was a tough girl, never took anything from anybody, but she came out of that cold water crying like a baby. Her mother wrapped her in a blanket and took her away sobbing. She went home.
Some of the girls teased her about it the next week, but I didn’t like the look of that cold brown water and I knew how she felt.
Our coach last year, coach Barracha, would make us roll around in the mud before the games. He said, “I don’t want you girls afraid to get your uniforms muddy.” He had named the team River Plate. The other girls couldn’t understand why we were named after a plate. It seemed like an odd name to me too, but Coach Barracha was from Uruguay and I found that was the name of a famous river, and soccer team, from down there, so I guess that was OK. Coach Barracha was way too serious for our team. We lost every game and only scored two goals all season. At first he would get madder and madder every week until he finally gave up. When the season ended he didn’t even come to the Pizza party.
I was happy because I figured with no coach, there would be no team and I wouldn’t have to play this year. But then all the parents got together and convinced Eleanor’s Dad, Mr. Wiggins, to be the coach. That was terrible. Mr. Wiggins, like Eleanor, to tell you the truth, is kind of crazy. He renamed the team The Blue Squealers, which has to be the most embarrassing thing in the world. After giving us that terrible name, he pretty much did nothing. I guess that was all right; we weren’t going to get any better no matter what he did, and I guess he figured he might as well cut his losses.
With all the good players going to the select teams you would think that the other teams in our recreational league would suck as much as we did but no such luck. You see there were all these poor kids, these Mexican girls, who couldn’t afford to join the select league but still they lived for soccer. Their teams had Spanish names with the word futbol in them. They would beat the crap out of us, week after week.
Actually, when I was setting on the bench in the second half of these games I like to watch some of these girls play, even when they were thrashing my team. A lot of them were just small and fast and relentless, swarming and pushing, but a few were real artists. They could run and move and make the ball spin this way and that without even looking at it. Their game was a thing of beauty and for a second you could forget that you were sitting on a splintering bench in a run-down park watching kids trying to give a damn about a game that meant nothing.
Believe it or not, that year we had a good player. Really, her name was Missy Higgins. She was tall and fast and she said she had been playing soccer since, “I was in diapers.” Missy had been on a select team but now was faced with the humiliation of playing with us.
The girls talked about her all the time when she wasn’t around. They all said that she had been kicked off her select team because she had been caught drinking with some college boys while they were out of town on a tournament. That seemed to make sense to me, but I listen to the parents talk when I sit on the bench and I heard her mother say she had to quit select soccer because was having knee problems after a growth spurt and needed to get stronger before she could try it again.
At first I thought this was an excuse, because her parents must have been ashamed because of the drinking, but I watched her play and even though she was really good, a ten times better player than anyone else on the team, she was obviously in pain. She would grimace and groan, though nobody other than me seemed to notice. One game, she tried to make a sharp cut right in front of me on the bench, to keep the ball from rolling out of bounds, and her knees gave out and she tumbled onto the ground. I heard her mutter, “I’m a cripple,” as she pulled herself back up.
You would think that our team would be good with a girl like that but it didn’t really make any difference. First of all, soccer isn’t that kind of a sport. One player can’t make up for a whole team of suck. None of us could ever really make the ball go where we wanted it to. When we kicked it the ball would go squirting off somewhere else, usually spinning like crazy. It was kind of fun, trying to guess where the thing was going to end up. So we couldn’t actually pass the ball to Missy, even though we wanted her to have it and we tried all the time.
It didn’t take the other teams long to figure it out too. The other coaches would put two girls on Missy all the time, usually one big girl pushing on her from behind and a little quick one darting around in front. It must have been really frustrating for Missy, especially since that meant somebody else didn’t have anyone defending them, but good luck with that. When Wilma was playing the other teams would ignore her completely.
Missy tried really hard on defense, too, but it didn’t do much good. If the other team had the ball they would always kick it wherever Missy wasn’t at.
Still, Missy would usually score one goal almost every game. I remember her getting the ball and kicking a spinning arching shot that bent around the other team and sneaked in a top corner of the goal. The goal keeper stood there with her mouth hanging open. It was a thing of beauty.
In the end, though, all Missy could do is get us so we would lose, say, seven to one,
The time I sat on the bench I’d watch the girls on the other team, I’d watch Missy, and I’d watch the parents – our parents and the ones on the other team. Every game they would come trooping out of their trucks lugging their folding chairs and line up along the field. The other teams’ parents would bring air horns or wooden clacker things to make noise to cheer on their girls. They would jump up and yell at the referees and cheer for their kids. Our parents looked like they were waiting to get dental work done. They would clap halfheartedly at the beginning of the game but once the inevitable slaughter began they would go calm.
Sometimes, I would spot a little metal flask moving between some of the parents. Coach Wiggins hardly ever said a thing, though he would at least stand and pace through the game. He looked lost. I think I saw Brenda’s dad pass him that little flask once or twice, but I’m not really sure about that.
Wilma’s stepmother brought her to the games. Since Wilma played while I sat, I could watch her. I thought that her stepmother would at least watch or cheer a little, but she never did. She was a lawyer and would talk on her bright red cellphone or text away on her little Blackberry during the whole game. Some times she would do both; wedge her phone against her shoulder under her ear while she texted away with both thumbs.
Finally, it was the last game of the season. It was against the other team from the suburbs. They were called the DeeFeeters and they sucked almost as much as we did, though you would never know it from how cool they thought they were and how loud their parents would yell. They even had a father that would bring this big apparatus that had a tripod and a pole that he would crank up into the sky with a video camera on top. He had to film every minute like it was the Super Bowl or something. I hated those people.
Like I said, though, that team sucked almost as much as we did and even though they had scored two quick goals, they must have got lazy and Missy scored a goal and then Brenda tried to kick a pass and it spun and wobbled and bounced into the goal. The game was almost over and I was sitting on the bench getting excited that if we were lucky we might get out of there with a tie. You can have ties in soccer and it would be cool to not lose for once.
Well, there were only a couple minutes left and Missy was trying really hard and the other team kicked it past the line so we had a corner kick. Missy always took the corner kicks; she was the only one that could kick the ball all the way to in front of the goal. Missy went out and set everything up, Coach Wiggins always let her; she knew lots more than he did about what to do and what was going on.
From the bench I watched her take Wilma by the arm and move her away from everybody else, far away from where the ball sat by the little flag in the corner. It sort of made me mad; it looked like Missy was moving Wilma away from the action so she couldn’t screw anything up more than it already was. This wasn’t fair, no matter how bad and weird Wilma was she still deserved to be in the middle of things. It was strange though, nobody else was paying attention, they were all moving around and pushing against each other but I saw Missy saying something to Wilma, whispering in her ear. She was shorter and had to stand on her tip toes to get her lips close to Wilma’s ear.
Then Missy took Wilma’s shoulders and moved her – sort of almost pointing her in a certain direction, and then pulled her crossed arms down and making her hold them down at her sides. Then Missy walked across to the corner and took her kick.
I had noticed all year that Missy was getting stronger and her knees were hurting her less as the weeks went by. She ran up and kicked the crap out of that ball.
The kick arced up like a rainbow, going higher and farther that anyone had guessed, flying completely over the bunch of girls shoving at each other in front of the goal. It came curving down and, like a sniper shot, hit Wilma square in the chest. It fell to the ground right in front of her and for a split second Wilma stood there petrified, staring at the ball, but then she seemed to shake for an instant and stepped forward and kicked the thing.
Of course, nobody was anywhere near her and the goalie was completely out of position so the ball bounced a couple time and ran up against the back of the net. Everyone looked stunned except Missy who was jumping up and down and screaming. I couldn’t believe it, she knew exactly what she was going to do and she did it… perfectly.
I turned on the bench to Wilma’s stepmother, who hadn’t seen a thing. She was looking away and was talking into her phone.
“Um, Mrs…. Um… Wilma’s Mom?” I didn’t know her last name. “Wilma just scored a goal.”
She said something sharp into the phone, snapped it closed and then frowned and turned to me, “Oh God! What has she done now?”
“Oh, no, ma’am. It was a good thing. She scored a goal. I’m afraid you missed it.”
She stood there with her mouth hanging open, holding her phone in one hand and her Blackberry in the other, turning and staring at all the girls jumping and hugging Wilma in a big clump. I don’t think she ever really figured out what happened.
It would be a better story, I guess; if we had gone ahead and won the game, that Wilma had kicked the winning goal in our only victory. I’m afraid, though, there was too much time left and the goal really pissed the other team off and they scored three goals in the last five minutes and we lost five to three. I don’t care though, that goal was a thing of beauty.
I will always remember watching that goal from the bench. I think I would rather watch something like that than actually score an ordinary goal myself. It’s good to know that every now and then there is a perfect thing in this world. Also, as long as I live, I’ll think about and wonder what Missy said to Wilma when she whispered to her, standing there holding her shoulders, right before she kicked the corner. I wish I knew; I wish I had heard it.
That was my last soccer game. After the season I thought about what would be the best time to hit them up and one afternoon, when they were in a good mood, I went to my parents and begged them not to make me play another season. They went along with it, but I had to promise to sign up for band next year.
I’m thinking, maybe the flute.