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Authors: Rafael Yglesias

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The Game Player

BOOK: The Game Player
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The Game Player

Rafael Yglesias

For my grandmother, Georgia Yglesias
And for my aunt and uncle, Dahlia and Jose Corro

Contents

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

A Biography of Rafael Yglesias

1

…
you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:

—William Shakespeare

I
N THE EARLY
nineteen sixties I joined one of the most gratuitous and contemptible migrations in history: the middle class deserting the cities for the suburbs. I was not a willing traveler. Indeed, I thought my life (the loyal and charming affections I had won from my twelve-year-old city friends) was forever lost. And the most bitter part of this destruction of my social life was that my parents explained it as being for my benefit.

I thought they were lying, but as I stood on our lawn in front of the cumbersome, dreary house my mother described as cute, and looked at the athletic types who had paused in their play to observe the movement of our furniture inside, I couldn't imagine what good this would do for them. Dad would have to commute to work and Mom was separated from her friends and her sister—with whom she was neurotically close. It's thirteen years since this brutal act of theirs, and despite the fact that I eventually loved my new home, I'm still furious about it.

I've remained angry because they casually accepted the acute terror I suffered for the first week. I stared at the kids who watched me coyly and thought of them as aliens. The girls, of whom I was generally frightened anyway, seemed more boyish than their city counterparts; there also seemed to be a higher percentage of blondes—and, because of movies, I thought of blondes as being wanton and critical. The boys were bigger, in love with their physiques; while I was short, uncoordinated, without even a sense of humor or reverse snobbishness about my lack of athletic talent. I was embarrassed by their appraising looks and I retreated into the house, but I found little comfort there because its bareness was relieved only by the bright yellow boxes packed with our astounding number of possessions.

As soon as they unloaded it, I plugged the television into the one outlet, soon to be wildly overused, in the room my folks had picked out for me. As I looked around, its noise soothed my oppressed feelings. The house was an A-frame and my room was on the top floor, a converted attic, so the ceiling slanted downward. Its shape seemed so unwieldy that I allowed my mother to decorate the room. She covered the only window with a delicate white lace curtain that I secretly loved but otherwise would have forbidden on a stand of masculinity. The bed had to go where the A reached its lowest point. For the next six years I banged my elbow or my head in various gestures of exuberance while getting in or out of bed. The desk, again too small and delicate for a young man's taste, went under the window. She found a lovely throw rug somewhere; a small, old rocking chair; and, the one piece of furniture I chose, the swivel chair my father got for ten dollars when his office was redone. My folks built bookcases around the walls of the room and, after a month, I was foolishly in love with the cozy old-fashioned bookishness of the cockeyed room.

It's lucky I learned to enjoy my room, because I was incapable of leaving it. I peered out my window at the lawns of other houses and tried to get used to these strange versions of children, but if my mother hadn't gotten one of our neighbors to bring her son over to meet me I might have spent all summer as a voyeur.

Mom told me, years later, that Mrs. Caro, whose son Frank was brought to befriend me, thought it was an odd request and she told the other mothers so, a fact that explains many of the looks the parents of my childhood friends gave me those first months. Frank was only an inch taller than I, an appealing quality, but he was fat, bumbling, and—I was sure—dumb. I greeted him cautiously but he was to the point: “There's a football game starting up the street. Wanna come?”

I followed him on the narrow sidewalk, up the hill split in two by a deeply impressed road; the houses, raised above, were surrounded by even lawns whose sudden cliff-like declines glowered angrily at the intrusive strips of cement on which we walked. Large trees had been planted every twenty feet or so on the edge of the lawns and viewing them from below made them seem even more enormous. They excited me. Their huge grandeur and stately isolation meant something to me.

I wanted to be one,
I suddenly realized, but it was not a thought to share with Frankie. He plodded on ahead, his shirt hanging out in back, appearing the way I imagined I looked at my worst.

He turned onto one of the steepest driveways and, as we walked past the house, I heard the voices of kids discussing rules. On the other side of the house, away from the road, was a stretch of cleared land bordered by trees and there a group of ten were arguing. Actually, only two of them were talking. One was a red-haired boy who, though not tall, was powerfully built; and the other boy was very tall, thin, dark, and apparently the master.

The red-haired boy, Danny, spoke rapidly, with an excited energy that had him spitting his words. He ignored our arrival but the tall dark boy turned his head and deliberately investigated me from head to toe.

Danny continued his rundown of the ground rules despite his tall friend's distraction, and Frankie also ignored Danny's chatter by saying, “Brian, this is the new kid—Howard.”

“Hello,” Brian said.

“Are you listening?” Danny demanded of him. “For Christ's sake!”

Brian's large, exotic, cold black eyes moved from my direction and glanced at Danny contemptuously. “Calm down, Dan. We all know about this shit.” His voice was a mix of boredom and anger. It was quiet, but compelling. “Everybody, this is Howard.”

I said hello to them and Frank told me their names but I couldn't retain them, especially since none of the remaining eight boys were as strong as Danny or as tall as Brian.

They told me the rules and I was worried by their unusual roughness. Touch football in the city was just that: a tackle of the ball carrier consisted of slapping both hands on the player, and no blocking or other physical contact was permitted. Tackling was the same but a “chuck” was allowed to replace the blocking of tackle football. A “chuck,” they explained, was a shove, hard and fast enough to bowl one over, delivered only with the hands. Just one per player was legal and body blocking or tripping was not. There were other details—such as how they measured the distance required for a first down—but only the last one, which team I would play on, interested me. Frank began the process by asking, “Which team do we play on?”

“You're on my team,” Dan said to me.

“That's unfair,” one of the boys on Brian's team said. “We should choose for Howard.”

I felt Frank's pain at this remark as if it were my own. “Shut up,” Brian said in his controlled voice. “Dan, you've got Howard. Let's play.”

It was exciting to trot in unison with my group to our end of the field. We lined up to receive the kickoff—another difference from city football, where it is thrown—since this was a real kick. The ball jumped off the kicker's foot with a loud, hollow thud and my glee evaporated at the sight of their team charging us while we waited nervously for Dan to catch it. Our team was not permitted to move until he did and the ball had been kicked so high that they were past us and surrounding Dan before it landed. Dan screamed, “Fair catch, fair catch,” and caught the ball with a loud smack in his folded arms, as if it were a baby, dropping to his knees and clutching it to his belly. An opponent put two hands on his back lightly, briefly, though it being a fair catch made that unnecessary.

“Great kick, baby,” someone on the opposition yelled, while my teammates crowed, “Beautiful catch.”
This was for real.
We huddled quickly, expectantly, and I found myself next to Danny. He put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Can you catch?” he asked.

“I don't know.”

My teammates made sounds of disapproval. “Well, you've played before, haven't you?” Dan released his grip on my shoulder and put out his hands in front of me, saying, “Watch the ball and guide it into here with
both
hands.” He put his hands, palms up, next to each other and drew them towards the crook of his armpit. “You have played before?” he insisted.

“Oh, yeah.”

“Okay. They won't expect this, see? You run about ten steps out—straight—and then turn to face me and go sideways to the trees. I'll hit you right there in the hands.” He looked at the others. “Jay, you go deep. Bill, turn out on the other side and, Jim, you go up the middle, short. Snap it on three.” He clapped his hands and we broke up the huddle, trotting to where our opponents had lined up.

Frank watched my movements and placed himself opposite me. “We rush on five Mississippi,” a foe said, and I heard Dan's voice yelling, “Hut-one, hut-two,
hut-three!”

As I began to run and saw Frankie's apprehensive eyes I realized how frightening my assignment was—he was definitely going to throw to me. I felt awkward and the particulars of Dan's instructions seemed unbearable. It was unnatural to count silently while trying to lose Frankie and I feared that when I reached the tenth step, he would still be in my way, blocking my move to the left. I heard the loud calling of the Mississippis and they became confused with my private numbers. So when I heard the yell of the pass rush I cut left immediately, turning my head and taking long floppy steps towards the trees. I saw Danny's intent, harassed face and then the professional, hard snap of his arm releasing the ball.

It was well thrown, rotating like a bullet, but that was what made it so difficult to catch. It tore through my hands and its point rammed into my chest, emptying my lungs of air. The ball bounced away and I fell to the ground.

I lay there feeling the novel sensation of a sharp pain in my breast bone, wondering if it could break, and listening to the voices of my teammates to gauge their disappointment. Frankie extended a hand to help me up and I took it gratefully. He asked if I was okay and I said, yes, bravely.

“Come on,” Dan yelled to me from the huddle my team had already formed. I ran to them and Dan said, “Just do the same thing.”

It's not gonna work, I thought, and wearily returned to the line of scrimmage. I assumed we would go on hut-three again, but instead everybody moved on two. Frankie rushed past me and I rejoiced at the thought that this would guarantee my catching the pass, until I heard yelling and movement to the right of me. Danny was running the ball around the other end and I was amazed by how brutal the chuck was in practice. Dan ran behind two blockers who knocked over the men immediately in front of them; but then I saw Brian rush between them, his long arms waving, so that he looked like a strange bird, and I held my breath when it seemed that he and Dan would collide. Suddenly Brian stepped to one side of Dan and slapped him hard on the back as he passed. The sound echoed in the trees and all movement seemed to stop instantly.

The play had achieved half of what we needed for a first down so Dan called it again, advising one boy he called Tom to get Brian. We went up to the line but our opponents were still talking in their huddle. I noticed that actually only Brian was speaking—in a low, intent whisper that one could hear but not distinguish.

We snapped the ball on three when they were ready and I decided to let Frankie go past me unmolested since that action took him out of the play. I watched Dan's Mockers move ahead to protect him, but our opponents, instead of rushing up to the blockers, just stayed in front of them. They didn't try to get past to reach Dan, they simply obstructed. Dan looked bewildered at the clogged mass facing him and then broke back toward the middle of the field and I watched in horror as I saw Frank, waddling violently, run up and tag him.

BOOK: The Game Player
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