Story No. 1: Tiny olympian
Before Jeremey? There were a crap ton of things that beat tooting around in a minivan every Tuesday and Thursday on drop off and pick up duty.
But dadhood was funny that way.
Your kid comes into the world and, bam, the smallest things become gigantic with purpose, even the tooting. Add to that the familia’s recent tendency of calling the minivan the “soccer taxi”, and the purposefulness was 10X’ed. By default that made him driver of the soccer taxi, which not only sounded cool but was basically akin to being Jason Statham from The Transporter or something, a ruggedly handsome operative who would stop at nothing to protect his cargo, even if it meant employing the use of aggressive speed and, God forbid, violence should the circumstances require it.
Right now, they did not.
He was going to pick Jer up.
And tonight’s sortie to the sports park was proceeding smooth as ever. His favorite parking spot was wide open, the one facing the field.
The kid was a freaking stud.
It seemed like every time he arrived Jer was out there mid incredible-feat-of-human-nature. Tonight he was doing this little shuffle thing through a maze of orange cones, feet ablur.
Proud was an understatement.
But so was confused.
How had he and Martha spawned this veritable gazelle of a child?
If the past was any indication of what he had to offer in the genetics department, his greatest triumph was making the lacrosse team during sophomore year of high school, a success immediately followed by a year’s long orgie of metal poles wacking his arms and rubber balls zinging off his head.
So, not promising.
Jeremey’s athleticism could have also come from Martha. She cut a fine figure walking the dogs around the block, especially in her yoga pants.
But then, that was walking the dogs.
But then, who cared?
Genetics could take hike.
The most important thing was somehow their kid had been blessed with health, athletic ability, and — also a confounder — strikingly good looks. That in itself was a blessing to thank God for — as was the fact that practice was finally over.
He started the engine. Jeremey was striding off the field like a tiny olympian. The scent of fresh cut grass drifted into the cockpit of the soccer taxi.
It was good being a dad.
But apparently Jer needed to stop and talk to Mr. Harding before coming to greet his very own father?
Like last practice?
And, heck, the one before that?
He gave the horn a beep beep.
Mr. Harding was just going to keep on talking as if he didn’t hear the beeps.
And Jeremey was just going to put up a pointer finger, like, Hold on, Dad, I’m getting valuable advice you could never offer with your nanoscopic knowledge of soccer.
Leave it to Mr. Harding.
The guy wasn’t even a coach.
A wannabe? That he was. But according to the official makeup of the the U-10 soccer team known as The Mandolorians, Mr. Harding was just another dad, albeit one with a decent amount of knowledge when it came to the sport (which he annoyingly called football, being, annoyingly, from England).
The strange thing?
Where in the heck was his own son, Ramsey, in this little shop talk?
That was where.
The kid was standing by trying to spin a soccer ball basketball-style while his father dazzled Jeremey with a felt-tip marker and a clipboard with a mini soccer field etched onto it.
You felt for the guy.
Sees talent in another man’s son, latches on, forgets his own.
But also, you felt for yourself and the terrible jealously mounting deep in your chest; for the paralyzing anxiety that came with watching your only son write you off for a different, potentially cooler dad, feelings that intensified by degrees every minute they ignored you and your quietly idling soccer taxi.
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Twelve years later, they came to the parking lot.
He pressed the button to activate the automatic sliding door, but it jammed halfway and just kind of stayed there, stuttering back and forth.
You’ve got quite the little footballer here, Mr. Harding said through the fritzy door.
Didn’t he know mercenary drivers hired for their magnificent skill behind the wheel had no time to chat with inconsequential randoms, especially those that endangered the timely delivery of their cargo?
Don’t we know it, he said. Ready to rock and roll, Jer?
Apologies, Mr. Harding said. I didn’t mean to hold you boys up. I was just giving Jer here a few pointers on making that killer cross even more deadly, wasn’t I bud?
Great. Fantastic. Awesome. Excellent, Mr. Harding. Whatever in the world would the Jawnson family do without your sage advice? Which was a much harsher and more sarcastic version of what he actually said.
Thanks, he said. I’m sure Jer appreciates it.
But the worst came last. Mr. Harding invited Jeremey to their lake house for a sleepover with Ramsey. Before he could craft a creative rejection, Jeremy screamed Please about two-hundred times from the back seat.
Sounds like fun, he said. But we’ll have to ask Martha first. You know how it is. We’ll let you know. Does that work?
That sent Mr. Harding packing. Little did the man know, there was no way Martha would be onboard with it, not after he told her about Mr. Harding’s hawkish way of capturing their son after every practice, ignoring his beeps, and generally being a jerk off, all of which had the subsequent effect of delaying his cherished father-son post-practice chat and dinnertime.
Not a chance.
Martha was totally on board with it. Apparently Jeremey hadn’t had a sleepover since, like, kindergarten, and now seemed as great an opportunity as any for him to spend a weekend with his friend and teammate Ramsey.
It would be good for him, she said.
He needs a break from soccer and school, she said.
He could even probably use a break from us, she said.
Which, too far.
Didn’t he have any other friends, preferably one with a widowed mother? he said. Isn’t there anyone other than Mr. Harding and company?
Martha was in front of the mirror fussing with a dangly earring. Tonight was The Mandolorian’s mid-season party, and leave it to her to be the most done up despite the event being held at Pizza Time Pizza. Martha, Martha, Martha. What a goofball. God, he loved her.
What, really, is your deal with Mr. Harding? she said. I mean, really?
God, he sometimes loved her.
But the question was fair enough.
Very possibly it was that Mr. Harding was just annoying as all heck.
But if he was being honest with himself?
It was the guy’s weird obsession apparent with his son. And it was his son’s obsession apparent with the guy.
So dad wasn’t a soccer know-it-all. Did that nullify his love, care, attention, and support? Or the fact that it was dad’s idea to sign Jeremey up for soccer in the first place? Or the other things father and son had in common, like building the Death Star out of legos? Teaming up to slay “Barracuda” on Guitar Hero? Learning how to craft sailboats out of construction paper from that book they got at the library, then taking their rigs down to the river for a race?
Was all of that moot?
Now that Jer had found a new love, one that his dad happened to be clueless about, did he have to bow to Mr. Harding the British Football Guru, handing him as tribute his beautiful boy?
But it didn’t help that Mr. Harding apparently had all a nine-year-old, soccer-loving kid could want.
A vacation house on — what appeared to be — three acres of lakefront property.
A son that was fun to hang with but easy to outmatch.
An interesting British accent?
And yes, he searched the internet that information. What else was the thing for if not researching threats to the family unit? And yet, none of his discoveries were encouraging in what was shaping up to be a battle betwixt dads.
But in response to Martha’s original question?
He’s just really annoying, was all he said.
Which wasn’t not true. Take the fact that when they arrived at the soccer party the Harding’s were already seated and had saved them a spot.
Apparently it was too much for Mr. Harding to intuit that father and son (and mother) might want to spend some quality time together given the coming weekend was forecasted to be sonless?
They sat down. Made small talk. Ordered Pizza. Martha told Mr. Harding Jeremey would be happy to spend the weekend with them. Mr. Harding said something British in an overly jovial tone.
That nearly caused him to flip.
The nearness of that flippage, though, made him realize.
This was not the time to lose his cool. Not in front of the familia.
This was the time to do just the opposite, in fact. To take initiative. To get his bearings. To stand up and stop being such a sorry, injured puppy excuse of a dad. The world may have seemed to be falling apart, but it wasn’t. A son was a son was a son. That was a blood tie. None could take that away. He was overreacting really, doubting himself, his son’s love, his capacities as a father, his coolness.
Confidence went a heck of a long way, hence how he landed Martha in the first place, by just sort of going for it despite his titanic fear, and it was that same confidence that would raise his son’s esteem to previous lego Death Star levels.
At least, hopefully.
How about some arcade games, Jer? Ramsey? he said.
They were in.
So was Mr. Harding.
First up was skee-ball. The boys went first. Jeremey, the little freaking champ, kicked butt. Then he and Mr. Harding’s stepped up. After a series of mishaps involving a troublesome wrist (possible carpal tunnel from too many years of operating a keyboard and mouse), he lost by quite a margin.
No biggie whatsoever.
Jeremey carried the Jawnson team. Plus, it was all in good fun. Actually, he felt better already — getting together, the boys, gaming, having a good time.
Then he lost again in the basketball free throw shootout. But honestly, congratulations to Mr. Harding on being a damn swoosh machine. All he could say was, good thing the arcade didn’t have a lacrosse shootout, because he would have left everyone dead in the water.
There was, however, a racing simulator, which according to the kiddos was the only half-decent game left to play.
Was he not the driver of the soccer taxi a.k.a. basically The Transporter a.k.a. a man with above average skills behind the wheel?
Mr. Harding sat in the cockpit beside him.
They selected their vehicles, approached the starting line, gassed it at the drop of the hot animated girl’s checkered flag.
And damn if he didn’t fall off the map after launching his ‘69 Camaro off a massive ramp.
The boys’ cheering turned into laughs.
Mr. Harding pulled ahead.
The Camaro wouldn’t respawn, and when it finally did, the gap was too huge to hope for a comeback. He didn’t even finish before time ran out, whereas Mr. Harding, the son of a gun, finished first, receiving not just honor in the eyes of the boys but a free race, too.
He stepped out of the cockpit. Jer was there, looking up at him.
Was it high-five time?
You suck, dad, Jeremey said.
Which just about wrecked him.
Of course, it didn’t.
Just about, it did.
But it didn’t, because probably he didn’t mean it. Not in a nasty way. Or at least, not in a way that sounded like it was a known fact? It was the way kids talked. They did stuff like that, said things like that without thinking about who their words might hurt or what they meant or that people might never ever forget them.
He walked over to the next cockpit to spectate Mr. Harding’s race with the boys. Mr. Harding was far in the lead and popping wheelies in a neon green Lamborghini Gallardo.
The boys loved that, the wheelies. But he’d had enough of arcade games.
He stopped paying attention, resting his eyes on the back of his son’s head, that little head of shining brown hair. He laid his hand on it and brushed the hair back, brushed the hair until Jeremey grabbed his hand and, without a word, pushed it off in a movement so natural it seemed almost reflexive. ♦
So right, reflexes, fathers and sons-you had me rolling around these true themes for days. Thanks
Thanks for the memories Matt of being a soccer mom with three boys going through the programs. Really loved how this story evolved.