Author’s note: This is the oldest story I’m showcasing here, originally dating from a college workshop taught by Ellen Douglas in Spring 1999. I always associate it with her, and it always makes me a little tearful to revisit it—as I’ve done many times over the years. Many scholars think of Eudora Welty as Jackson, Mississippi’s quintessential writer but I can’t tolerate her in more than small doses. For me, though, Douglas was it—scrappy where Welty was florid, unflinching in her violence but lacking Welty’s wearisome grotesquerie, with a straightforwardness about sex and race that made me think she’d actually had some of the former, and knew enough actual black folks to avoid making them in grand metaphors without first making them human. Anyway, Ms. Douglas was encouraging about “Soccer Moms” but appropriately hard-nosed, asking me rough (but right) questions about these characters and daring me to lampoon the male aggression even further than I had done originally. In 2002-2003, I got to return the favor—much more gently—while helping her assemble Witnessing, a collection of essays that would be her final work. She’s meant a lot of me, and so this story does, too, no matter how wobbly it stands today.
The story starts after the jump.
“Soccer Moms” by Walter Biggins
Protected under a Creative Commons License 4.0
Arlen Dill stands a bit away from the crowd of parents, watching his daughter on the grass. She’s the goalie for the Green Hornets, clad in emerald green and white block lettering. Her shorts are black, because Arlen forgot to wash the green pair before the game. God, she’s beautiful, though. A tall, thin corn stalk—complete with glowing blond hair, bound in a tight bun. A piercingly green corn stalk, shifting her weight from right foot to left foot with the wind, seaweed-green eyes clicking with every bounce of the soccer ball. She’s nine years old, and god is she gorgeous.
Arlen’s different; he knows this, looking down at himself. He’s a big guy, a tub of lard, really, in green sweatpants and a white, neatly ironed button-down shirt. He wears white socks underneath brown penny loafers. A black nylon windbreaker, crinkling and snapping in the wind, is slung over Arlen’s girth.
Henry Francis watches Arlen from the bleachers, sometimes for thirty seconds at a time. Every time, he thinks that he should make a citizen’s arrest on Arlen, in the name of the fashion police. He watches Arlen as he mutters, over and over and over again: “Goddamn it’s cold! Shit!” Mimicking his daughter’s movement, Arlen rocks from side to side. Every now and then, he mutters bizarre sounds like brrrlulu, his breath condensing in a little cloud around his lips.
Arlen didn’t bring gloves, and his sweatpants don’t have pockets. So he tucks his shivering hands into the front of his sweatpants, where they rub together against his groin. The cotton bobs up, like a couple of vibrant, slightly displaced erections. The action’s slow right now; it’s primarily midfield passes and out-of-bounds kicks. So Arlen looks around. The sky is a dull gray, but no clouds are distinct. The wind blows fiercely, and so dead leaves and freshly mowed grass—green and eerily bright—scatter in the cold air. With all the grass in the air, Arlen sniffles as he watches the game, alternately reveling in and recoiling at the sweetness of the pollen and chlorophyll.
The families, sitting on the bleachers with sandwiches and sodas, all look the same. They’re all perky mother-and-father units, with perfectly windswept brown and dirty blond hair, with two or three small brats who aren’t being looked after. They watch the action—can’t they ever get the damn ball out of midfield?—in crisp jeans and polo shirts, yelling their hearts out. “Go Danielle!” “Take this shot!” “Take her down!” “You can do it, D’Arcy!”
One guy stands out, a black guy with gold wire-frame glasses, clean-shaven. The man dresses conservatively, wearing a dark gray suit, white collared shirt, and a respectable black and gray tie. To Arlen, the man looks a cut above the rest of the parents in their casual attire. The man is also alone and is staring straight at Arlen. Henry’s been caught looking. He rises slowly, shaking off loose dirt, and walks over to Arlen Dill. Arlen jerks his hand out of his sweatpants, extending it for a shake.
Henry pauses for a beat, realizing where that hand’s just been, and then he shakes, gingerly.
“Henry Francis. Who’s your girl?”
“Gabrielle Dill. Gabby. She’s the goalie for the Green Hornets.”
“So you’re the one responsible. I was just talking to one of our parents about how to get rid of the Hornet’s goalie. I’ve got a sniper in my car, in case you’re curious. She hasn’t given up a goal today, has she?”
“Nope. You’re a Sidekicks fan, then. Didn’t think I recognized you.”
“My girl’s number seven, a right forward. Mary Alice.”
Arlen pans his eyes across the green, chalk-outlined field, until he find number seven. Mary Alice moves without any sudden starts or stops, but instead dances as she runs on the grass. Her long curls of black hair hang down around her brown face, but Arlen can just make out how intensely she watches the ball.
“How does she play like that? All that hair in her face.”
“I don’t know,” Henry says, “but she refuses to play any other way. Lord knows I’ve tried.”
“Maybe she could get it cut.”
“Oh no. Her mother would kill me if we got Mary Alice’s hair cut.” Henry pauses. “She’s got lovely hair, though, doesn’t she?”
The pudgy referee blows a whistle. Mary Alice slows down her stride, and jogs with her team to its bench. Her coach, a 40-something white guy in T-shirt and jeans, pats her on the back. Gabby jogs off the field towards her team.
“Halftime,” mutters Arlen. “Hey, isn’t it a little cold for April?”
Henry smiles. “Just a wee bit, yeah. You want something to warm you up? I’m going to get some nachos—do you want anything? A chili dog or something?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Not even a soda? They’ve got Cherry Cokes here. It looks like they’ve even got Dr. Pepper in bottles. I haven’t seen those in years.”
“I’m okay, really.”
“Alright, alright.” Arlen digs out two wrinkled dollar bills from somewhere inside his sweatpants, and hands them to Henry, who pinches the bills between his index finger and thumb. “Let’s just split a large order of nachos.”
“Good. You like jalapeños?”
“Jalapeños are fine. Thanks.”
Arlen watches Henry as he walks over to the concessions booth. He’s got a confident stride, and isn’t even shivering in the cold. Henry chats with the vendor as she piles on cheese and peppers, grinning and hand gesturing. They flirt casually with each other.
Arlen looks over to the Sidekicks, who are huddled around their coach. He holds a legal pad with scribbled play formations on it. His red face contorts wildly as he talks, but Arlen can’t make out a word that he’s saying. It’s all hot air, probably. The girls nod their heads a lot, but look vacant; only Mary Alice seems to be genuinely paying attention. Arlen looks at the Green Hornets’ huddle. The only difference is that the teams’ colors are reversed. He giggles a little to himself, but sobers when he realizes that Gabby isn’t paying any attention to her coach. In fact, she’s actively rolling her eyes and making faces, broadcasting her impatience. Her father’s face reddens—she should always listen.
“That vendor’s a cutie, isn’t she?”
Arlen whirls around to face Henry, who has returned with a steaming plastic plate full of jalapeños, a creamy cheese-like substance and soggy corn chips. Henry smiles confidently.
“Thanks,” says Arlen. “She’s a little young for me.” He takes a nacho and eats it.
“Well, me too. But I like her hair.”
Henry takes a cheese-laden chip and chomps down. He puckers as he chews, and looks at Arlen’s similar facial expression.
“You know what?” says Henry. “I think I found Jimmy Hoffa.”
The two men talk through halftime about their daughters, the bad nachos, their teams’ respective records, various league stats, the increasingly horrible nachos (the cheese tastes worse as it cools down), candidates for the league’s MVP, their attitudes about their coaches’ tactics, scheduling conflicts and the now almost inedible nachos.
“Well, it looks like we’ve done all the damage that we can do to these things,” Henry says, tapping his fingernail on a large, cheese-soggied chip. He examines it as a pawn shop owner might inspect a rhinestone wedding ring and then, abruptly, pops it into his mouth.
Arlen goes to throw the nachos away.
He lumbers over to the trash can as the girls take their positions on the field. A gust of wind kicks up more grass clippings and pollen, and he sniffles some more. Wiping his nose, he walks back to Henry, who’s now standing about five feet from the field.
“You’re right,” says Henry. “There’s no sense in sitting on the bleachers with all those screaming people. We get a better vantage point from here.”
“Damn straight.” Arlen goes back to his quiet watch of the game. Both he and Henry understand the importance of silence, and so say nothing amidst the parental din of crazy cheers and useless shouting. The two men are like air traffic controllers, who dart their eyes from one green blip to the next, but are ultimately powerless to affect the proceedings. Why bother broadcasting signals? Why bother shouting?
The shouting behind them becomes even more unintelligible and chaotic as the Sidekicks—blurs of white, with green lettering—make a fast break. Finally, something exciting is happening. A white streak passes to another white streak, who signals to a tan streak as she passes to her, who jets the ball to another blur of legs and pigtails. The Sidekicks run a crisscrossing pattern that looks, to Henry at least, pretty well-practiced. It’s somewhat different from the patterns that he’s seen the team running in practice, and he suspects that it’s the coach’s own design. Otherwise, he’d know the pattern backwards and forward.
The two men remain silent, except for Arlen’s occasional “Goddamn it’s cold! Shit!” Henry can tell that Arlen’s studying the Sidekicks’ progression down the field, but he’s not sure if he’s impressed.
“Hell of a run, isn’t it? Coach drills them like crazy, with these complex offensive patterns and routines, but he makes sure that the kids know the basics, too.”
“Interesting design. A bit unique,” says Arlen.
Actually, Arlen is now sure that Gabby’s seen it on the scouting videos that the coach makes the Hornets watch at home. The Dill video library contains tapes of every team in the league, including two of the Sidekicks. One’s a scrimmage, sure, but still useful to look at. The pattern’s lifted straight from another team—Arlen’s sure of it. So the Sidekicks do their homework, too.
Gabby watches the ball, a baby mouse scurrying from the shadow of a hawk. Arlen can see that she’s not fooled by the shenanigans, and he knows that Henry is watching her eyes. Those seaweed green eyes sparkle but stay still, eyes that are as green and as captivating as the Sargasso Sea—and that ball’s just a little ship.
Until it finds its way into Mary Alice’s flurrying legs. The ball becomes an extension of her body, and Gabby’s eyes twitch, acknowledging the potential danger. Mary Alice passes to a streak of white, and Gabby sees her chance. She sprints towards the ball, as the pigtailed blur tries a sideways pass to Mary Alice, who will then try a hard shot to the goal. Mary Alice predicts Gabby’s coming interception, and races toward the ball. Gabby’s gloved hands twitch for just a second, and then she dives. Her body glides over the grass, arms outstretched, legs perfectly straight. Mary Alice slides, right leg extended, rubber cleats poised for the kill.
Neither Arlen nor Henry is close enough to see the collision clearly, but everyone hears Gabby’s piercing scream. It’s one lonely cry and then nothing. Silence in the bleachers. Mary Alice lies on her back, slightly curled, clutching her shin and moaning. Gabby holds her ribcage, clenching her teeth, frozen. Arlen and Henry fly onto the field, as do the coaches, but Mary Alice is already standing, trying to walk.
“Baby, are you all right?” says Henry. “Lie down and let Daddy see your leg. Lie down, Mary Alice. Let Daddy look at your leg.”
“Gabby, can you move?” asks Arlen. She’s not moving. Tears slide down her cheeks. “Tell me where it hurts, Gabby.”
The referee nudges his way into the crowd of players and parents. A few parents are whispering, swapping versions of what they did or didn’t see. The players are silent. Occasionally, a Hornets parent glares at a Sidekick, or a Sidekick parents tries to stare down a Hornet, or a player scrapes her toes a little too hard into the grass.
“Okay, what’s her name?” says the referee.
“Gabby,” says Arlen. He sounds like he’s had the wind knocked out of him.
“Alright, Gabby,” says the ref, “can you move at all?”
Gabby nods. A couple of Green Hornets grin nervously.
“Can you feel this?”
Gabby winces. The grins slacken.
“Okay, good. Good.” The ref looks up to Arlen. “Well, I don’t feel anything broken. That’s a good sign. Gabby, can you try and stand up for me?”
Mary Alice hobbles over to Gabby, and extends a hand. Gabby clasps it.
“Gabby, what are you doing?” says Arlen. “This girl hurt you. Now look, ref, you saw that girl’s kick. She wasn’t going for the ball at all. She should be thrown out of the game for that. She could have broken something, or worse.”
Henry rises up, glaring at Arlen. “Arlen, what the hell are you talking about? It was a perfectly legal move.”
“The hell it was,” says Arlen. “It was dirty.”
“Fuck you, it was dirty. That was all ball.”
The referee waves his hands around, to no avail.
“Like hell,” says Arlen. “Gabby had already grabbed the ball. Your girl had no business doing any kind of slide tackle—”
“It wasn’t a slide tackle, goddamnit.”
“She went for my daughter, not the damn ball. I don’t care what you say.”
Henry cracks his knuckles. Arlen rises to his full height.
“Are you saying that my daughter’s a dirty player?” Henry says. “Is that what you’re implying?”
“Gentlemen,” says the referee gently, waving his hands. “Please watch your language around—”
“I’m just saying that the kid did a dirty move, that’s all.”
“That’s all, huh? My girl doesn’t play dirty, so you better watch your damn mouth. If your daughter hadn’t dived for the ball like that—”
“You team would’ve scored. She played fair.”
“Gentlemen.” The referee’s voice is stern this time, but crescent moons of sweat have formed under his armpits.
“Mary Alice is not a dirty player, and I resent you calling her that. I’m warning you. Don’t say it again.”
“She shouldn’t ‘a’ kicked like that, that’s all I’m saying.”
Arlen and Henry glare at the referee. The three men are standing close enough to smell each other’s jalapeño breath. The referee grips the two fathers by the shoulder, and pushes them apart, but he doesn’t let go of his grip.
“Gentlemen, if either of you says another word in front of the children, I’ll be forced to throw both of you out of the game. I will not tolerate a vulgar confrontation like this on my field, not in front of these girls. I will send both of you to your cars, if you can’t stop this right now. Is that understood?”
“The girl should at least be penalized, don’t you think, ref?” says Arlen.
“Is that understood?”
“You saw the kick—”
“Is that understood?”
Arlen and Henry nod. The referee lets go of the men.
“Sir, I didn’t see anything that constituted inappropriate play,” says the referee.
“Inappropriate play?! You didn’t see—”
“Alright, fine. But I’m filing a formal complaint with the league.”
Arlen’s face is bright red. As he turns away from Henry’s glare, he sees the crowd for the first time—a bunch of little girls with pigtails, in cheap nylon/cotton uniforms, looking at him and Henry. They look frightened. The crowd slowly begins to dissipate, and the girls get into position. Mary Alice, whose hand has been clasped by Gabby’s for the entire exchange, pulls Gabby to her feet. Gabby takes a few slow strides, and then begins to walk normally, and then to run. The girls applaud her for a moment, faces showing signs of relief, and then scramble back into position.
As Gabby grabs the ball, Mary Alice walks over and whispers something to her. Gabby nods. Henry is still standing on the edge of the field and, seeing this exchange, stomps across the field to his daughter. The referee glares at him and walks towards him, but Henry either doesn’t see him or doesn’t care.
“Mary Alice,” says Henry, “what did you just say to that girl?”
“I told her, ‘Good save.’”
“Because it was, Dad. I woulda—”
“—Would have scored if she hadn’t done what she did.”
“Don’t encourage that girl. Don’t compliment her.”
“Just don’t, Mary Alice.”
Mary Alice stares at her father, mouth agape, and shakes her hand. “You’re loony, Dad,” she says, and walks away.
She gets back into position as Henry walks off the field. He doesn’t look, not even glance, at Arlen as he climbs back onto the bleachers. Arlen stands at his same position, five feet from the playing field, staring ahead, looking dead ahead at Gabby’s seaweed green eyes. Gabby bobs side to side. Mary Alice stretches her legs. And neither daughter looks to her father.