He’s nearing the 30-yard line when Tommy turns to wave to his mother. Karen lifts her arm to wave back, only to realize that she’s gripping the face mask on his helmet. Her other hand encircles the latte she rushed to pick up on their way to practice. She shakes her head at this dilemma and shouts, “You forgot something, Tommy!”
The little boy—who appears so much bigger under shoulder pads and a bright red jersey but still, a little boy—jogs over to the sideline. Quick apology, stealthy peck on Mom’s cheek, and he’s back on the field, white helmet in hand. Small, red football stickers decorate the back of the helmet, one for each notable play so far this season: touchdown, tackle, interception, completed pass. Many of the boys have more than Tommy. Some have lots.
She calls after him, “Got to protect that head of yours, Tommy! You’re my retirement plan.”
Once she sees his jersey blend into the peppermint swirl huddle, she turns to the cluster of parents standing nearby and offers a dramatic sigh. They chuckle. After a moment’s hesitation, she joins the group.
Gina, almost certainly an accomplished athlete in her youth, wears a bright red team sweatshirt like so many in their sports-obsessed town. She grins and says, “I’m impressed that you can even joke about retirement, Karen. I’ve got three boys to put through college, and I swear I’ll be selling houses till I’m 80 just to pay for that. God forbid any of them—or, worse yet, all of them—go to grad school!”
Roger chimes in, “You’re not kidding, Gina. My oldest girl already told us that she wants to be a doctor. A pediatric cardiologist, actually. Can you imagine? I may be six feet under by the time she finishes, but hell, they can write on my tombstone: Beloved father of a pediatric cardiologist.”
Karen notices the Burberry jacket he is wearing, forest green and apparently new, and considers an addition to Roger’s grave marker: Fortunate husband of a very successful lawyer.
She swallows a smirk and chides herself not to cast stones. Dave’s steady income has carried their family since they agreed, after too many discussions, often too late into the night, that she would step away from the workforce until Liza was off to college.
Before then, she and Roger worked for the same pharmaceutical company, though they didn’t know each other at the time. She thinks he still has some mid-level management position there, but he doesn’t seem to be a mover or a shaker, at least not anymore. Again she reminds herself to keep those stones in hand. This far into what Dave has termed her “extended maternal sabbatical,” she might not recognize a corporate ladder if she walked under one on the street.
She used to tell herself that she’d go back to her old human resources job when the time was right. But according to her few remaining friends at the company, that job doesn’t exist anymore. Some of her responsibilities were outsourced, the rest deemed irrelevant.
Karen shivers and takes a sip of coffee. The Starbucks cup isn’t doing much to insulate her pricey drink against the autumn chill.
The boys start their usual drills, and the coach is shouting at a few who are goofing off. Roger’s son is one of them. Tommy never goofs off at practice or during games. He just doesn’t.
Roger looks like he’s about to start shouting too, but instead he clears his throat and fixes his eyes on Karen. “How’s your older girl doing? Didn’t you say that she was taking a gap year, or whatever they’re calling it?”
“Not exactly,” Karen responds, barely audible. She catches the weak tenor of her own voice, swallows hard and conjures a smile. “You know, Roger, the morning my darling daughter wakes up and decides that she wants to be a welder will be the best morning ever. I mean, seriously, pop some Champagne corks, and I don’t mean the cheap stuff.”
“Sounds like a mimosa in the making,” Gina says.
“Mimosa, Bellini, whatever—I’m buying.” Karen’s voice gets bigger, and the muscles in her neck start to relax. The words, practiced over and over like one of the defensive plays out of Coach’s notebook, come readily. “Welding is skilled work, and you know, it pays really well,” she says, rubbing her right thumb and forefinger together.
“Prosecco,” Roger interjects.
“Come again?” Roger has tripped her up, and it’s all Karen can do not to snap back.
“You make a Bellini with Prosecco, not Champagne.”
“Yes, my mistake there. How helpful to have a bartending expert among us, right?” She sends Roger a conciliatory grin, resets and pushes forward. “The thing is, you can’t just decide not to weld something that needs it. And you can’t relocate the work to India or China or another state where the pay is lower. When something breaks, you have to fix it, like auto repair or plumbing.”
She pauses, catches her breath, and tries to remember some of the other useful trades she circled in the voc-ed catalog on her nightstand.
Before Karen can add to the list, Dana—who consistently arrives late to practice with a full face of makeup and one or both of her twin toddlers in mid-meltdown—joins the exchange. “You’re not kidding. When we fixed my Lexus last month, it cost a fortune, but what could I do? It’s not like I can get under the hood with a wrench and do it myself. I’m not entirely sure that Gary owns a wrench.”
They all laugh. Karen takes a small step forward to tighten the circle.
“You remember Stormzilla last summer?” Roger asks and then tells them about the flooding and the roof leak and all of the damaged wiring at their beach house. “Imagine how much an electrician can charge, down the shore, in the middle of July, after a storm that actually has a nickname.”
More laughs, more nods. Karen now stands close to the middle of the chatty group, mindful that she will continue to see them at practices and games and PTO meetings for years to come. She listens and smiles, pleased with her contribution to the conversation. And it’s not meant to be too serious a topic, this welding thing. It’s just something to think about. Something she thinks about a lot since the summer.
The field lights blink on against the backdrop of the deepening blue sky. All eyes are drawn to the boys with their red jerseys and white helmets and grass-stained practice pants, and even Dana’s twins silence themselves for a short while. Karen finds Tommy back on the sideline, waiting for the second-string defensive line to get called in for a play.
Gina’s voice cuts through the dusk. “Lord, I wish I’d become a plumber or a welder or something like that. The housing market has been so weak the past couple of years. I’m showing places at night, checking email all day, every day, and, you tell me, for what?”
Gina doesn’t look to any of them for an answer. Her eldest son, only 12 years old, is already getting noticed by the high school coaches. She casually mentions private schools with nationally ranked programs and college scholarships down the road.
Karen stares ahead and sips her coffee. Good luck, Gina.
Coach sends the starters—Gina’s talented boy and Dana’s among them—to get water, giving those less-gifted or less-motivated a chance to take the field. Karen grimaces as Tommy drops into a three-point stance.
“Look up, Tommy. Look up and get a goddamn tackle tonight,” she mutters. For a moment, she wonders if the others can hear her mumbling under her breath. Blood rises to her cheeks. No one says anything, not right then anyhow. What they will say to each other later, or at the next game, or at some end-of-season pizza party, she can’t begin to guess.
Her gaze drifts past Tommy and his teammates to the turf field, where the older boys practice. It’s also where all of the town’s football teams hold their games, from the sweet first graders with colorful flags hanging from their waists to the eighth graders who sometimes surprise themselves with their size and speed.
Karen sits on those bleachers for Tommy’s home games, just as she sat on them—those cold, uncomfortable bleachers—to watch her daughter cheer, even before Liza was Tommy’s age.
She can see Liza there now, jumping up and down with her big, red and white pom-poms, turning cartwheels, and screaming for the boys to score a touchdown, oblivious to the fact that her team was on defense. She never understood the game back then, no matter how many times Dave tried to explain it. Still, she looked terribly cute, maybe cuter for being so clueless.
Oh, but when cluelessness stops being cute, what then?
Karen, careful to keep her words confined to her head this time, looks over at Roger and Dana. Both twins are sprawled out on a blanket, lost in some silly video on an iPad, while their mother stands a few feet away, leaning against the canvas folding chair Roger now occupies. Karen wonders, as she has at prior practices, if there isn’t something going on between them. She asks herself once again if he’d be dumb enough to cheat on his lawyer wife. Yes, she decides —and it’s always the same conclusion—he’d be just that dumb.
The whistle shrieks again, and Karen seeks out her son in the mass of red-jerseyed bodies near the end zone. Tommy is lifting himself off another boy who could be Roger’s son. Did he tackle the kid? Did I miss it?
She looks to either side, a jolt of anxiety in the pit of her belly, and there’s Roger, along with Gina and some other father whose name she never remembers.
“Nice play,” Roger nods in her direction.
She exhales and that anxiety turns into a little spark of joy. Maybe it was his son? Well, good for Tommy.
Karen beams at Roger. “Team’s really starting to come together.”
As if on cue, the dad who might be Johnny’s dad says, “Practice makes perfect, right?”
“Lots of practice. That’s what they say.” Karen stops herself from saying more.
Liza went to cheer practice five days a week during football season from the time she was six. She went to cheer camp with her cheer friends during the summer starting at nine. In high school, she cheered for the football players during the fall, the basketball players during the winter, and during the spring, took private gymnastics lessons three times a week at $40 a pop to nail her stunts. Karen and Dave (but usually Karen) drove her back and forth from every practice, every game, every lesson, every slumber party with the cheer girls, until Liza got her license during junior year and started driving herself.
Karen looks across the field to the hard, metal bleachers where she’d sat with Leah McKinney, the quarterback’s mom. They’d scream for young Ricky to throw another great pass and cheer whenever little Liza turned cartwheels and waved those ridiculous red and white pom-poms, Saturday after Saturday, year after year, as the late summer sunshine spent all its warmth and left them bundled up and praying that the cold rain and snow would hold off at least until half-time.
My beautiful girl, all hope and promise and love for us, what else could I have done?
Karen is sniffling a bit now and certain that it’s only going to get worse. She wishes she could call Leah, who always knows the right thing to say, but she can’t bear the thought of getting in touch with her old friend after months of avoiding her. Karen drops her chin to her chest and wonders if being a terrible parent is an acceptable excuse for being a terrible friend.
She looks up and feigns a smile for the dad who is probably Johnny’s dad and for Gina, who has rejoined her since Roger and Dana and her bratty twins wandered off again, away from the bright lights. She considers drifting into the darkness, too, where no one can see the crushing disappointment in her red-rimmed eyes. Because if they ask what’s wrong, and it’s likely that they will, she isn’t entirely sure what she’ll tell them.
Maybe she would say something like, “It started with a tattoo, a small one above her left ankle.”
Liza was a high-school senior, co-captain of the varsity cheerleading squad. The varsity football team had won the state championship, and the McKinneys decided to host a party for the kids at their weekend place in the Poconos.
Dave hadn’t wanted their daughter to go. “How many parents will be there to supervise?”
Liza rolled her eyes, and that made Dave more resolute: she would stay home.
Within minutes, Liza was weeping, mascara dripping down her smooth cheeks, as her uncaring parents denied her this very last opportunity to celebrate an amazing season with her very best friends in the whole wide world.
Tommy wandered into the kitchen where the drama was unfolding. So young, still so fond of his parents, as yet unable to imagine them causing Liza (or him) such pain. “Why is Liza so sad?” he wanted to know. Karen gave him an organic fig bar and sent him off to play with his Legos in the family room.
Karen offered to call Leah McKinney, just to make sure she and Bill had enough help with so many kids staying over.
Later that night, reading side by side in bed, Dave asked if she had indeed called. “I did and it’s fine. I told Leah that I could come out to lend a hand, but she said not to worry.”
What Leah had really said was that not even she and Bill planned to be there. Sure, there’d be some beer, maybe some hard alcohol, but she trusted Ricky and his friends, Liza among them. They’re all such good kids, she’d reminded Karen, as if she shouldn’t have to tell Karen such a thing, especially after all these years. And then Leah had let out one of her warm, wonderful laughs (just hearing it in her head made Karen smile) and added that they had no choice but to be good kids because they all had such fabulous parents.
All this Karen kept to herself.
Dave huffed and turned back to the Consumer Reports propped up on his belly.
When Liza returned from the Poconos, she had a new boyfriend and that little tattoo over her ankle. It was a red hawk, their team mascot.
“How can you be angry?” Liza screamed when they confronted her. “Everyone got one. The football players and the cheerleaders. It was a team thing.”
It wasn’t a team thing. A few of the senior boys—Ricky and the soon-to-be ex-boyfriend among them—had planned to go to the tattoo parlor before the party got under way. As they were getting ready to head over, Liza declared that tattoos weren’t just for boneheaded football players and dared her cheer friends to dare her to get one. This bit of news came to light during one of Dave’s skillful interrogations.
When she met Leah McKinney for coffee the following week, Karen also learned that the boys had permission from their parents. Leah had no idea that any girls had joined them. Karen said nothing about Liza.
“What’s the big deal?” Liza snarled when Karen recounted parts of that conversation for her daughter.
“The big deal is that you didn’t ask us. Ricky asked his parents. You just went ahead and did it. And then you lied to us about it. Dad and I are really upset.”
“If I had asked, what would you have said?”
“We’d have said no.”
Liza glared just long enough for the color to rise in Karen’s cheeks and then, cross-legged on her bed, went back to whatever she had been doing on her cell phone before her mother had barged in, uninvited as always.
Karen senses the weight of the cup in her hand and raises it to her lips without thinking. Her mouth contorts as soon as the lukewarm coffee settles on her tongue, but she resists the urge to spit it out.
She wonders how long she’s been zoning out, losing track of the action again. She looks to her wrist, but it’s too dark to see the hands on her watch.
She resorts to pulling out her phone, something she tries not to do at practice or a game and especially not during a meal, when she is supposed to be focused on the kids. More than half of the parents lining the field are fixed on glowing screens, and what message does that send?
She says beneath her breath, “As if it matters, when all is said and done.”
Dave tells her all the time now that there’s nothing they would have or could have done differently with Liza, but Karen can’t forgive herself, even for a misstep she hasn’t yet identified. Looking down at the phone in her limp hand, she scolds herself for this failing. For all of her failings.
She glances side to side, finds herself more or less alone, and lets the rest of the latte spill onto the grass next to her feet. She knows that the town spends a fortune, courtesy of their hard-earned tax dollars, to keep the playing fields in excellent shape, and this little violation warms her for a moment.
Everyone breaks the rules sometimes.
Those words echo in her head, and she tastes the bitter coffee in the back of her throat. The voice is Liza’s, and the words are Liza’s brief, pathetic explanation on that miserable afternoon back in April when the vice principal summoned her and Dave.
“Everyone may break the rules, but not everyone gets suspended,” Dave had replied. He said nothing more while Vice Principal Donovan explained what had transpired during Liza’s lunch period that day. How she’d come into the cafeteria, 10 minutes after the bell and obviously stoned. How she’d started berating the school aide who’d approached her about coming in late. How she’d called the woman a “low-rent loser” (Karen actually gasped at that point; she couldn’t imagine insulting someone like that). How their daughter had taken a bow in front of the table where her laughing friends sat.
“She’s also failing two of her classes, in case you didn’t know,” he added. “If this young lady doesn’t get her act together, she won’t be walking with her class at graduation.”
Karen recalls the entire meeting, from when they stepped through the high school doors, proud parents of the varsity cheerleading co-captain, to when they walked back out with their daughter, the liar. The bully. The stoner.
Karen wishes she had had something to say to Mr. Donovan, something to help him see that she and Dave had set Liza on a very different path back when she was still their sweet little girl. Sure, they might have looked the other way a few times when assignments didn’t get done or curfews were missed. But Liza always pulled her grades up, and she never got in quite enough trouble to jeopardize her place on the cheer squad, at least not as far as they knew.
Or maybe, she considers, after months of consideration, not as far as they wanted to know.
“I don’t think I can last another 20 minutes.”
Karen jumps at the sound of the voice coming toward her, and it takes her a moment to recognize Gina.
“These practices are absolutely endless,” Karen responds, because it’s how she always responds to that sort of comment. She exhales, comforted by how the right words fly out of her mouth like a perfect spiral from the quarterback’s hand.
“I was wondering if Liza might want to pick up some babysitting hours next weekend. Now, my three can be a handful, but I bet they’ll be on their best behavior for a pretty college student.”
Karen draws in her breath and smiles. “Future welder, remember? No college right now. But Liza does babysit, and kids are always crazy about her.”
Roger and Dana appear, seemingly from behind a dark curtain, and Dana laughs, “Welder? Are we still on that?”
“It’s a favorite topic these days, I guess,” Karen replies.
“Apparently so,” Roger says. The whole group has drifted down the sideline so that they are right beneath the glowing field light.
“In all seriousness, I don’t know if I could ever get my kids to think about that sort of career,” Gina says. (Subtext: I’m not sure I could ever think about that sort of career for my kids. It’s dirty work, isn’t it?)
Roger adds, “Every report I’ve read says that college grads do so much better in today’s market, especially coming from a top school. Our kids need every possible advantage, don’t you think?” (Subtext: Not sure what’s going on with your daughter, Karen, but the future’s looking bright for mine.)
Karen knows what to tell them. She rehearses the exact words when she walks the dog on the trail or waits in the car line for the last bell to ring at Tommy’s school. She will look each of them in the eye, and in a perfectly level voice, say, “Do you know what welders do? They fix the breaks and cracks that keep things—important things—from working. And that seam they create is even stronger, even better than what was there before. And then everything is as it should be again. It all works again. What could be more worthwhile than that?”
The words flutter in her throat, waiting to be released, but she can’t expect the other parents to understand. They don’t have breaks and cracks, at least not yet.
Right then, Coach blows his final whistle. The boys send up a cheer from the huddle and start toward their parents, weighed down with helmets, water bottles, duffel bags, and whatever else they are carrying home that evening.
The players and parents and siblings start the nightly trek to the parking lot, and Karen realizes that she never actually replied to Roger’s comments or Gina’s, not out loud anyway. For a moment, she wants to find them and finish the conversation, but looking around at the many silhouettes marching along in the dark, she knows there is no point. There will be another practice, another discussion, a different topic (or maybe the same), different parents in the group (or maybe the same), and she’ll get her chance (or not).
Back when Liza was Tommy’s age, Karen never felt compelled to navigate among the other parents. She had her great friend Leah McKinney, and both of their kids were superstars. Dave and Bill even got along, and come game day, the four of them, plus little Tommy in his toddler-sized red jersey, would stake out the perfect spot on those imperfect bleachers or along the fence at the 50-yard line, and scream and cheer and talk and laugh.
Of course, they’d joke about the wedding they’d someday plan for Ricky and Liza, although the two never dated. It was clearly destiny that the star quarterback and the beautiful cheerleader—and their loving parents, too—would live happily ever after. The image delighted them all.
Karen stops in her tracks, Tommy’s equipment bag heavy on her shoulder. She misses Leah. She misses the ease of their friendship, back when it was easy for her.
Her cheeks flush as she recalls seeing Leah, sitting in the café at Barnes & Noble a week or so after the April meeting with Mr. Donovan. Their brunch and yoga dates had petered out after the tattoo incident, though Leah always extended an invitation. Karen had hoped to slip out of the store unseen, her book on parenting rebellious teenagers left behind on a stack of new paperbacks. But Leah had spotted her and called her over.
“I’m so glad to see you,” Leah had gushed, her face glowing. “I have exciting news, and I was hoping to tell you in person.”
Karen nodded and waited for Leah to continue.
“Ricky got accepted to Boston College! Isn’t that great?”
Instinctively, Karen hugged her friend. “Congratulations! I’m so happy for all of you.”
And before Leah could ask if Liza still planned to study nursing, Karen explained that she was running late for a meeting at Tommy’s school but would definitely get in touch.
Karen never called. She didn’t text. When she saw Leah and Bill, stationed at their usual 50-yard spot before the graduation ceremony got underway, she directed Dave and Tommy and the two grandmothers to seats higher up. “Grandma Jean and Grandma Louise will be able to see better from there,” she’d told them. It was easier to nudge the old ladies up the stairs than risk a conversation with their old friends. What would the McKinneys say? Graduation, how exciting!
She and Dave had practically locked Liza in her room for two months to get her grades back to passing and to stay out of trouble at school. Liza brought the trouble home instead, fighting with them night after night. When that warm Thursday evening finally arrived, the sun still shining in the sky as the band started to play the traditional commencement music, it was more like: Graduation, what a goddamn relief!
Karen squeezes her eyes shut for a moment. She had been so angry every hour of every day, or so it seemed, for weeks and weeks. She doesn’t want to be angry or disappointed or embarrassed or upset anymore. She just wants to move forward.
I’ll get in touch with Leah, she tells herself, as she and Tommy near their SUV. And when she asks, I’ll just tell her that Liza isn’t sure about nursing and is exploring her options. She’s working at Shop-Rite for now, and she kind of likes it. She dates another cashier there, a nice enough guy, and she babysits for extra cash. Leah knows how kids always love Liza.
Karen tries to imagine, as she has before, what Leah will say. Something encouraging and kind, but it won’t be “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you.”
They stack Tommy’s gear in the back of the SUV, and he climbs into his usual seat, where Karen has left a package of Smartfood popcorn. He’s always hungry after practice.
As she drives out of the lot and toward home, Karen considers what else she might tell Leah. Well, sure, we’d had other plans for Liza, but she isn’t robbing banks. Or stripping. So, you know, there’s that.
Karen laughs to herself. Liza had made that same argument to her and Dave when she announced her decision, right before graduation, to take the summer off and spend it at the shore. “You can’t take off,“ Dave had said. “You were never really on.”
Liza stormed out the door, and Dave had turned to Karen with a sad grin. “We both know she’s too lazy to rob a bank. The stripping thing we might have to worry about.”
Karen stifles another laugh. She imagines what Roger and Gina and Dana might say the next time they ask about Liza and Karen tells them, “Well, she’s not going to school, but hey, she isn’t working the pole either!”
Congratulations, Karen, you must be so proud!
“Mom, you aren’t listening to me.”
Tommy’s insistent voice breaks into the story she’s crafting in her head. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. What is it?”
“Coach thinks I’m getting much better, especially after taking Corey down twice today.”
Karen brightens. Corey is Roger’s son.
“And he may play me first string on Saturday. I just have to keep practicing extra hard, he told me.”
The words spin out of Karen’s mouth, already perfectly formed: “I’m so proud of you, honey. I know you are going to be terrific. First string—that’s awesome!”
They drive a couple of miles in silence and then stop behind another SUV at a red light. A Boston College sticker adorns the back window, and she wonders how freshman year is going for Ricky.
She glances back and there is her Tommy, thoughtful and creative and smart, with white cheddar flakes dusting the front of his red jersey. He is staring out the window, perhaps considering a book he’s reading or some new video game, but probably not thinking about football.
Karen’s chest seizes up, and for a moment, it’s like someone has flipped on the field lights on a pitch-black night. Maybe joining the first string won’t be awesome for him. Maybe it would help to talk with Ricky? After all, he was like a big brother to Tommy.
Enough is enough, she decides, I’ll text Leah tonight and invite her for lunch. I’ll tell her how Dave and I insisted that Liza take two community college classes over the summer, and she failed them both. And I’ll tell her that if Liza doesn’t get a degree—and she might not—then we hope she’ll pick a useful trade, something that will pay her well and be steady and rewarding.
And with that, she pulls in as much air as her lungs can hold, then lets it out slowly, willing all the worry to go out with her breath. She tells herself, with all the confidence she can muster, that she doesn’t need to figure out what else she’ll say.
She glances back again at Tommy, who is a little blurry behind the tears in her eyes.
Suddenly, desperately even, she wants him to know that with a little less practice, it can all still work out.
michelle hollander writes from suburban New Jersey, where she has spent many years drafting non-fiction (and far too many PowerPoint presentations) in the corporate arena, and reading, discussing, and crafting fiction whenever possible. Her first short story, titled “The Mile,” was published in the Winter 2018 edition of Canyon Voices.