Continued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 10 — Evaluation
The afternoon clouds had burned off, leaving the soccer field glazed in pink light. Bender leaned against his Jeep and smoked a cigarette. The girls on the field darted back and forth, their blue tube socks and uniform shorts marking them against the woods that stretched beyond the field. He watched them through the chain link fence, squinting to locate Jesse. She probably didn’t even know that he would be the one coming to get her and he hoped she wouldn’t be pissed about it. Sadly, he remembered the days, not too long ago, when she had been daddy’s little girl, following him around the yard on weekends and begging to help him with chores. Her favorite activity had been going to the dump, and he’d often rewarded her ethic with a trip to the Softy Serve ice cream stand out near the end of the dump road. In the spring and fall he would kick around the soccer ball with her in the back yard and always cave in when she pleaded for “just two more minutes.” But that had all changed. She was now wrapped in her teen years, and it seemed like any effort to involve himself in her life was greeted with resistance. Instead of hanging out with him on the weekends, she now had her friends, and even seemed to choose her mother over his company. Jesse and her mother were always nose deep in fashion magazines, discussing new trends and feminine issues. He figured that she was striving to become a woman and that she saw little he could offer in that quest.
“Let’s go, Jess,” he shouted.
A few of the soccer moms who adorned the edge of the field in their lawn chairs looked his way. One of them had sunglasses perched on top of her head and a bottle of spring water clutched in her hand. He recognized her from the PTO meetings, her raised hand always sailing back and forth to command attention. She was one who thrived on trivial issues, pointing out that school assemblies needed to have assigned seating to better the supervision, or petitioning for teachers to send home daily progress reports. There were always a few of them cut from the same fabric—father’s who brought motions for new football helmets to replace the old ones that had a few scratches, arguing how it would help to “preserve the integrity of the program.” One particular fall night, there had been a PTO meeting where the mothers of a few cheerleaders propositioned the school committee to make cuts in the art program to provide separate transportation for cheerleaders to away games. “How can we expect our girls to focus when they have all of that testosterone distraction to contend with?” one of them wondered.
Bender realized long ago that most of them were loud-mouths and he accepted their presence at those meetings. He even grew to welcome it as a nice sabbatical from thinking. Just sit back, hands laced behind the head and think about that Sunday’s Patriots game or which movie he might want to catch that weekend. They were like mosquitoes at summer camp, ignored after awhile, but back with equal virility year after year. It wasn’t until the anti-smoking campaign that he actually wanted to swat a few of them.
He stubbed out the cigarette and began to walk over toward the field. When he rounded the fence, a sharp whistle blew and a commotion assembled near mid-field. One of the players was down on her back and many of the mothers craned in their chairs to get a good look at the casualty. Jesse was one of the ones looking on, hands on her hips. He was glad to see that she was one of the kids who was actually in the game, rather than one of the left-outs on the sidelines. Many of the high school kids he encountered in his office developed serious esteem problems as a result of being a part of a team without really feeling useful. It was a debilitative problem that was unfortunately built right into any kind of group activity and it was only worsened when kids were pressured into sports that they had no real passion for.
When the girl who’d been down rose to a knee, many of the mothers applauded briefly before resuming their conversations. He walked a bit closer and stood behind them, their voices pitched low to try to mask the gossip. Jesse still hadn’t spotted him, but that was okay. She’d probably be nicer to him on the way home if she didn’t have time to build up any angst.
“. . . and so then she came home to find the letter from his psychiatrist,” one of the mosquitoes was saying, “Can you believe it? Ten years old and he’s got a psychiatrist.”
“Good Lord. Thankfully, Bob spends so much time with Andrew that he will avoid developing those problems.”
“Oh, Sue. I hope you’re right. They’re such good people and now they have this to deal with. The Watson’s on the other hand are taking another trip to Maui. Saul thinks it’s great, but I have a sneaky feeling that David Watson has a gambling problem. Where else would he be getting all of this new wealth?”
Doesn’t sound like a problem to me, Bender thought. The guy’s going to be rubbing his toes into the beach in Maui and you’re in a lawn chair at the soccer field.
One of the women glared back at him, as if he’d actually voiced his thought, recognizing him as the helpless eavesdropper, and he shrugged his shoulders. He shook a cigarette from his breast pocket and lit it. It felt good to stand there in the crisp fall evening and have a smoke. There was a certain wing of liberation that lifted him above the senseless chatter on the sidelines, and for a moment he felt like he was doing something important. All of the headaches that he inherited from waking up each morning were put on hold, allowing more pleasant thoughts to ripple though his mind—football games and cold beer, for instance. He’d always enjoyed smoking in the fall time as a kid. It sounded trite but it had seemed like a wonderful thing. And the bounty of exciting memories that the habit carried chided him into becoming a “lifer” as his old man had called it. He hunted deer in eastern Maine with his dad while growing up and smoking became a mutual labor of theirs while trudging through the woods in the brittle November dawn. The combination of nature’s tranquility and nicotine’s massage seemed like an intercourse second only to afterlife and heaven. In high school, he felt so cool sitting in his idle T-Bird in front of the school and waiting for all the girls to walk by and see him there. Some had been impressed, and although cigarettes may not have been the attraction, they were part of his “package” by now; as much a piece of his personality as his trademark dirty jokes and hearty laugh.
He’d surely stop someday, hopefully before it killed him. He dreaded the prospect of the doc opening an inner office door where he waited shirtless on the examining table. “I’m sorry, Steve. We’ve got a bit of a problem detected.” Every smokers worst nightmare, but a fate that most of them would surely need to rise up and greet. The big “C”. Steve Bender just needed a reason to stop, and his nagging wife and bratty daughter weren’t strong candidates in the reason department. He’d almost welcome terminal illness as an alternate to terminal marriage.
“Sir, could you please go elsewhere if you are going to smoke?”
The lawn chair women were both glaring at him. Each of them had a sneer twisted onto her face and the one with glasses propped on her head cleared her throat as if she may repeat the request.
“As far as I can tell, this is the smoking section.”
He motioned around to the open space with both of his arms spread like a preacher. Distant trees swayed in the wind and a few other parents were scampering through the parking lot to catch the last moments of the scrimmage.
“It is offensive,” she finally blurted. “And there is plenty of room for you to go and contaminate the air elsewhere.”
“The way I see it, you two are the ones contaminating the air with your noise pollution. ‘Gossip on a beautiful day is like pouring vinegar on chocolate cake’. My mother used to say that. She’s dead now. Smoked too much. With that, ladies, I will do as you request and free your area of further contamination.”
He took a drag and exhaled. Then he farted loudly. One of the women balked in disgust, but he didn’t give her the pleasure of taking notice. He paced slowly up the sideline, locating Jesse with little effort. She was working hard, sweat glistening on her strained face, and pride surged through him. He knew that she was a good kid at heart, and he accepted some responsibility for the ethic she was showing out there. Just because she didn’t want to help him with the chores didn’t mean that she couldn’t retain some of that healthy determination.
“Come on, Kid. Keep your chin up.”
He didn’t know what else to say, but she looked his way and seemed almost glad to see him before her chin dropped. The seconds were ticking away from the oversized electronic clock that towered above the field. It had been a gift of “Wolf Den”, the association of jock parents who rubbed shoulders with one another at sporting events while waiting for their kids to outdo each other. They sent representatives to the school board meetings to bring up issues that usually tempted Bender to step outside for a cigarette. New bats for the baseball team. Extra water jugs for the football sideline. Improved lighting in the locker room showers. One concerned father had wondered aloud about why the school had “wasted” funds on music stands for the jazz band when there were only two volleyball nets in the gym. Several of them had hooted their approval when funds were earmarked for the new scoreboard at the field. It now showed that the scrimmage was only a minute from completion.