Authors: Maria Padian
If the score is still even after everyone has kicked, you send out another five guys and do it again. If the score is
tied, you get another five kicks. At some point it becomes sudden death … which means the first team to score after someone misses has won.
It’s like sitting around a busy intersection waiting for a car crash.
Maquoit’s second man scored; our second, Ibrahim, scored.
Maquoit’s third man scored; our third man, Mike, kicked
it … wide. It missed the goalpost by a fraction of an inch. Mike dropped to his knees in despair as the black and red side of the crowd erupted with bloodthirsty yells. My throat clutched and I realized there was a very good possibility I would cry, in public, if this thing didn’t go our way.
Maquoit’s fourth man lined up. It was Sasquatch. I looked at Pete in goal: he’s a pretty tall guy himself, but he looked like a helpless child compared to Sasquatch. I stifled the urge to pray, because we all know God doesn’t take sides, at least not in the Penacook Valley Athletic Conference, and …
Sasquatch booted the ball over the goal. It disappeared into a clump of trees ten yards away. Now the blue side of the field lost it.
Our fourth man, Double M, scored. We were back to tied.
Maquoit’s fifth man stepped up. He booted it … straight down the middle. Like he was aiming for Pete’s gut. Pete couldn’t have missed if he’d tried. He doubled over and wrapped his arms around the ball.
Chamberlain fans went so completely berserk that a couple of cops in charge of crowd control started pushing them back, trying to contain them. They wanted to rush the field already. They felt it, they felt victory, so, so close.
But it’s not over till it’s over.
Saeed stepped up.
My man was drenched in sweat. His jersey hung limply off his bony shoulders. Slowly, carefully, he placed the soccer ball on the ground. He seemed oblivious to the pandemonium around him. He was in some quiet place of his own, lost in the moment. I saw his eyes close, briefly. Like maybe he was praying.
What? What would Saeed say, ask, right then?
Please let us
win. Please help me defeat my opponent. Please help me to do my best. Help me to not let my team down
Someone told me—Aunt Maddie? Myla? Mike Turcotte?—that the word
means “to submit.” Not a concept we’re used to in America, for sure. But it made me think maybe I do know what Saeed might say in his prayers. Especially since it’s also a line in the Lord’s Prayer.
Your will be done
The four of us left on the field had our arms around each other’s shoulders. I held my breath. Saeed liked to go high. That airborne, lofty shot that came out of nowhere and self-directed into the goal. Exactly what Luke Hanson was genetically suited to block. I realized, too late, that I should have thought of that, should have warned Saeed that Luke can’t go low … but it was too late. It was out of my hands.
You only get one shot
Saeed stepped back. He took one, two, three steps and … game over. Because it was in. Like a guided missile traveling mere inches above the grass, the ball flew low into the corner of the goal. Saeed stood still, staring at his own shot like he couldn’t believe it. Screaming, we swarmed him. We lifted him. Meanwhile, the rest of the team had hoisted Pete, and we looked like an insane tribe carrying off a couple of victims. Except this was a celebration.
The cops couldn’t hold the crowd back, and the sea of shrieking, blue-clad fans streamed across the field toward us. It was mad, intoxicating … a little scary, even. And somewhere in the melee I felt someone grab my arm.
There she was. I don’t know how she found me in that crowd, but I’m learning to not underestimate short people.
“You did it, Cap!” she screamed.
I picked her up and swung her around. She laughed, her legs swinging out and bashing into people around us, but no one cared. When I returned her to earth, she turned her face to mine and I was kissing, kissing her, like I’d never kissed anyone else before. Except I had. A few nights ago, kissing someone just this way, surrounded by softly lit pink flamingos.
And it felt, like it hadn’t felt in a long time, as if I was starting to get things right.
John LaVallee is one of those guys everyone thought was going somewhere. The trophy case in our school’s lobby is packed with hardware from the days when John played soccer, hockey, and baseball for Chamberlain, and guidance counselors still talk about the year he won the Maine state essay contest and got to have lunch with the governor at the Blaine House. Everybody figured John was going to end up as a network sports announcer or a reporter for the
Instead, he sat in a stuffy little conference room across a table from me, Saeed, and Coach Gerardi. The
is the weekly newspaper you’d most likely use to light your woodstove in the morning, so I hadn’t been expecting much. Even so, their setup seemed shabby. We’d walked up two flights of stairs to reach the
’s offices, which were located over a pawn shop on Main Street. Next door was a deli, and the staircase smelled like sauerkraut.
John and Coach go way back, which was why Coach agreed to bring us in that morning for an interview. John started all four
seasons he played soccer at Chamberlain, and the year he graduated, 1989, they’d made it to the semis before losing to Bangor. He and Coach spent some time reminiscing about the old days while Saeed and I waited for the questions to begin. It was Saturday morning, and I was only half-awake. It’d been a late night. Or, as Uncle Paul would say, an early morning.
It had started on the ride. Jake had an iHome in the bus, so he cranked his pump-up mix all the way back to the high school. We were practically screaming lyrics and the bus driver didn’t care. He didn’t say a damn thing the whole way; I actually saw him smile.
Which made me realize: the whole freakin’ town had wanted us to beat Maquoit.
The fan bus had left ahead of us, and when we pulled up to the school an impromptu party had taken shape in the gym. Somebody on the boosters must be pretty well connected, because three different pizza places, including Michelangelo’s, delivered boxes. One of the Somali moms showed up with a tray of
, which pretty much got eaten right away. Other parents brought big bottles of soda, the custodial staff set up tables, and you’d think we’d just won states, that’s how pumped everybody was.
After the food was gone and the thriving in the gym had spun itself out, Mike Turcotte invited the team back to his house. I had just gotten the car keys from my dad and was asking around to see who needed a ride when I felt a tug on my sleeve.
“Victory is sweet, Tom-boy.”
I hadn’t seen Donnie up until that point. Not at the game, not even during the postgame party in the gym. Then he just materialized, with that stupid, lopsided grin on his face.
“Man hug,” he said, then threw his arms around my shoulders.
“Where’ve you been?” I demanded. “Did you even go to the game?”
“Late, but then you guys helped me out by taking it to PKs, so I saw what counts. Even better: after the game I watched Alex Rhodes take major shit from somebody I think was his dad. You shoulda seen him. He was furious.”
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” I said.
“Yeah, sucks for him,” Donnie sighed. He glanced around at the thinning crowd. “Whaddaya say? A little celebration of the liquid kind?”
I shook my head.
“Team’s heading over to Turcotte’s,” I said.
“No friends of the team allowed?” he said. I tried not to notice the edge of disappointment in his voice.
“Nah, his parents want to keep it to just the team. Sorry.” I managed to
add that even if friends of the team were invited, Donnie Plourde wasn’t likely to be in Mike Turcotte’s guest book. Mike was still mad about the rock.
“That’s okay,” he said. “Probably not my kind of refreshments anyway. Call me later if you want to hang out.” He put his hands in his pockets and started walking backward away from me. “And Tom … great job today. Seriously. You’re the man.”
offices, John and Coach finally finished their hey-have-you-heard-from-so-and-so’s and turned their attention to me and Saeed. John looked like a softer, slightly rounder version of his jacked high school self. Less hair, bit of a spare tire hanging over his belt. There was a picture of him in the trophy case, accepting a
plaque from someone I didn’t know. Maybe a principal from three principals ago?
“So, great playing yesterday, boys,” he began jovially.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Thank you,” Saeed said.
“Nothing quite like beating Maquoit,” he continued. “Back in my day, that was as good as winning states.” We nodded as if we knew anything about “his day.” John directed his gaze at me.
“And I’ll bet that win was particularly gratifying for you, Tom. Don’t you have a personal grudge against Maquoit?”
I frowned. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Grudge? No, not particularly …”
“Didn’t you get into some trouble recently for defacing their school spirit rock?” John interrupted.
I looked at Coach. Color rose on his cheeks.
“That was a silly prank Tom got involved in, John,” Coach said evenly. “It had nothing to do with the team or the traditional athletic rivalry between the two schools.”
John nodded and smiled. Smirked, more like.
It occurred to me that I didn’t like John LaVallee.
“A bit one-sided to call it a rivalry, though, don’t you think?” he said. “C’mon. Don’t you just
those guys?” He looked at me like he was speaking in a code we both understood.
. It’s a strong word. A word I save for things like lima beans and getting stitches. And yeah, in the past, Maquoit. But our victory had somehow taken the edge off that and the question felt strange.
“I hate losing,” I told John, “so yesterday was great.” I glanced at Coach, who nodded ever so slightly at me.
John tried again.
“So, what was the difference yesterday?” he asked. “What’s been the difference this season, for that matter? Because you boys are having a great season.”
I pointed to Saeed.
“You’re lookin’ at the difference,” I said. “This guy’s amazing.”
Saeed startled. He looked genuinely shocked. He shook his head emphatically.
“No! Tom is … the man. He the man! Yes, I am … very fast. We all Somali peoples play very fast. But Tom, he the middle and he is …” Saeed struggled for the word. He placed his hand on his chest.
“Heart. Tom is heart of team.”
Never in my life had I felt more unworthy of praise. Especially coming from a guy like Saeed, with all he’d been through.
That’s when Coach stepped in.
“The combination of both these young men is the difference,” he said. “Listen, John, you know our program. We play fair, but we play physical. Thug soccer. That’s what people have always said about us. Now these Somali kids come in, and they play a different sort of game. We’ve become a lot better technically because of them. So opponents like Maquoit, who have had us for lunch as long as I can remember, not only have to deal with players willing to be physically aggressive, but players who can handle the ball skillfully and quickly.”
John scribbled all this down.
“So overall, you’d say the new Somali players have been good for the athletic program?”
“I can only speak for soccer, but yes. Absolutely.”
John looked up from his notepad.
“One bright spot in a sea of controversy and complaint,” he said, unsmiling. “A lot of people in town don’t share that opinion.”
Coach stared steadily back at him.
“You know me, John. I don’t worry much about winning popularity contests. Just games.”
John laughed pleasantly.
“That’s for sure. But, Coach, you can’t ignore what’s going on right now. I mean, it’s national news, what with this rally planned. It’s gotta have some effect on your job, the team, the—”
“No. No effect. The kids know better than to pay attention to a bunch of lunatics. The media would do well to follow their example.”
The expression on John’s face made me think he knew damn well Coach was including the
in “the media.” Even if they did have crap offices.
“So, you were born in Somalia?” John suddenly, unexpectedly, aimed his next question at Saeed. Who looked as if he’d been drifting off.
, I thought.
Here comes the not-so-straight narrative. With major gaps
. I looked at Coach, hoping he might jump in again.
The expression on his face surprised me. Frozen. Moose in the headlights. He saw something coming, and he didn’t much like it.
“Yes,” Saeed said. “But then we goes to Kenya. To Dadaab?”
John nodded like he actually knew what Dadaab was.
“And you played a lot of soccer there?” he continued.
Saeed nodded enthusiastically.
“Yes, in Kenya, we play every day. It always warm and we go outside. Even when it rains, the rain warm. So I play soccer all the times.”
John wrote this down. Then he looked up.
“And how old are you, Saeed?”
It came out of nowhere, that question. Well, nowhere to me. Coach sure as hell knew what was up, because he stood. Took his windbreaker off the back of his chair and slipped his arms through the sleeves, preparing to leave. I followed suit, and Saeed, hesitantly, because he wasn’t sure whether to walk out with us or answer the question, stood.
“I am eighteen,” he said quietly. John, who remained in his chair, didn’t remark on the fact that his “guests” were leaving. He didn’t seem at all surprised.
“How do you know you’re eighteen?” he asked.
“Boys, please wait for me outside,” Coach said sharply.
I took Saeed by the arm and half pulled, half led him out. I closed the door to the conference room behind us, but not before John fired a final question our way.