Chris held out an amber hand. Fine, powdery dirt sifted between his fingers.
“Rub this over it,” he whispered in my ear.
I fought to hold back my tears. Blood trickled down my shins and stained my white socks.
“Seriously,” Chris said. “It’ll patch your knees right up.”
I swatted his hand away.
Chris turned his hand over and dumped the dirt at my feet, his eyes trying to understand why I refused his help. “Gawd made dirt so dirt don’t hurt,” he said in his preacher voice.
Zach, Ben and the rest of their team lined behind the ball.
“He called time out!” Chris shouted.
“Hike,” Zach called out, pretending he didn’t hear.
“Only team captains can call time out,” Ben taunted as he zoomed by. He jumped and turned in time to catch Zach’s pass. I reached out with a bloody hand, but Ben was too quick. My scratched knees tightened with each step as I made my hopeless pursuit.
“Come-on. He was right there!” Kyle roared down the field and rolled his eyes. “Gawd. Last time I’m picking you.”
“You should’of called a time-out,” Chris said in my defense.
I collapsed in the make-shift end zone beside Zach’s orange Volunteers hat that served as one of our pylons. With tender fingers I picked a pebble from my knee, hissing between my teeth. The other boys caught up. Ben tossed the ball to Zach and their team lined up for the extra point. Zach flipped Kyle a bird, but before he called ‘hike’ the bell rang.
“You better not tell Mrs. Rodgers,” Zach said to me as he grabbed his hat. “It wasn’t a tackle- Gotcha with two hands.”
I lowered my head.
“He didn’t even have the ball,” Chris said. “Should’of been interference.”
“He never gets the ball,” Kyle said. He shook his head and spat. He looked just like his dad. Stood like him too, even spat the same. Bottom lip puckered out as if tobacco lined his gums.
Dried streaks of blood ran down my legs. I did my best to hide from Mrs. Rogers while my class made a line. Still, much to my embarrassment and to Zach’s frustration, she noticed. We never understood how she did it. Dad said it was her sixth sense, whatever that meant.
“You boys play too rough out there,” she pointed at my legs. “What happened?”
“He just fell,” Zach said.
At that moment I understood Mrs. Rodger’s sixth sense. Without looking I could feel Zach’s eyes bearing down on me. My head dropped even lower. Kyle and the other’s chuckled as they watched her brush the dirt and dust off my bottom.
“Wash up,” she told me. I couldn’t wait. No one could bother me in the restroom, no one was allowed to use it right after recess. After lunch was a different story. All the boys were in the restroom then, even the older ones. I cleaned the blood and dirt from my knees and legs. There was nothing I could do for my stained socks and the brown paper towels left me smelling like wet cardboard. Once I cleaned the blood I worked on my shoes. Mom would never buy me a new pair of shoes again if she saw them now. Mud from the ditch we crossed to reach the playground caked the treads and the baseball field’s amber dirt dusted the leather. They were worse off by the time I finished. The wet paper towels turned the dust to mud, staining the tops of my shoes.
Mom asked the dreaded question when she picked me up along with my sisters, Erin and Dorothy.
“How was your day?” She said as she looked for us in the rear view mirror.
I sunk deep into my seat, hoping she’d forget I was there. Erin, the oldest, jumped at the opportunity to share about her woes. Every day was the same story. As annoying as it was to listen, it still kept me from talking about the boys at recess. I once tried telling Mom about it, but she didn’t understand.
“Find someone else to hang out with,” she’d say or, “John, I love you and you’re special.” Special? I never felt special. Every boy out there could run faster, catch better, throw farther, push harder. None of them seemed to care about getting hurt, or getting a little dirt on their jeans and shoes.
“I’m gonna die an old maid.”
Erin was done sharing. She ended with the same line everyday. Mom was going to say Erin was special then she was going to ask me about my day, unless little sis spoke up. Thankfully we were already rolling down our gravel driveway. I was out of the car and ahead of mom before she could see my knees or shoes. Erin went straight to the bathroom, Dorothy to the kitchen; if I was quick I could make it to my room and shut the door before they asked me to play with them.
Play time with my sisters was fun, but I’d had my fill of dolls and plastic animals. I’d also had enough of sports and being outside. Video games were my escape. Here I could conquer my enemies, overcome challenges and explore the world, all without leaving my room and getting my shoes muddy.
My alternate reality lasted for about an hour. When I heard Dad’s jeep rumble down the gravel, kicking up a gray cloud, I knew it was time to save my game.
Dad’s voice carried through our house like a reveille, demanding our immediate attention.
I peeked from our upstairs railing and saw him standing at the front door, a fishing pole in each hand. He had no idea how important it was for me to finish saving the world from my bedroom. I had no idea how important it was for him to ‘wet a line.’
Dad built our home himself. He designed the home himself, and he chose the land himself. Six acres in the middle of Middle Tennessee… the middle of nowhere. I have no idea how many times I’ve heard him talk about digging the foundation out of Tennessee’s unforgiving red clay. Perhaps every time we went fishing, when we dug for worms.
I followed him to his garage, a two-story barn he built a few years after the house. This was his escape. Venturing in here was like exploring a foreign world. Rusty and rotting tools hung from every available inch of wall space. Most of the tools I couldn’t name, much less use, or even lift. The place even smelled like Dad; greasy, muddy and smoky, with a hint of his Grizzly fine cut, smokeless tobacco.
Dad was the fire chief. A job which piqued my interest as well as that of my friends. Perhaps my dad being the fire chief is why Kyle and the others let me play two-hand touch in the first place.
Some days Dad came home soaked, muddy, hot, sweaty, withered and reeking of smoke. Those afternoons Dad would lounge in the pool, or shower off and close the night watching TV with an air of satisfaction. Other days he came home with his hair neatly combed, mustache trimmed, collar starched and in a decorated suit with his big golden badge, usually frustrated with the city’s politics. It was on those days he wanted to fish.
We had our poles, all we needed was some bait. It was my job to carry the white, five-gallon bucket and shovel, which I held at the end as I dragged it behind. Dad never asked me if I wanted to go fishing, he simply handed me a pole. He knew I would decline. He also knew something happened once I took my first reluctant step out of the house. I would shed my concerns about getting dirt on my jeans and shoes. I’d remember I wasn’t outside to compete with others, or struggle to prove myself to anyone. The point wasn’t even to catch anything. It was simply to enjoy the middle of nowhere.
I’d remember that I loved squeezing the moist, rich Tennessee topsoil through my fingers as I dug for night crawlers. I was confident I’d find them. I knew how to search for them. Dad taught me not to dig too deep into the unforgiving red clay. Just like Dad, the worms have a hard time digging there too. They only wanted the dark, fine topsoil. Best of all, I could talk. I didn’t talk much, but I didn’t dread Dad’s questions at the time, and I had a few for him as well.
“Can you rub dirt on your cuts? My buddy Chris says you should, but that would hurt more, right?”
“Yeah,” Dad said. “Dirt stops the bleeding.”
“Zach pushed me too hard at recess.”
“Is that what happened to your knees?” Dad said, his eye watching my bobber more than his own.
I nodded, thankful Dad didn’t coddle me.
“Next time, rub some dirt on it. It’ll hurt a bit, but the bleeding will stop and you can keep playing.”
“If I want to keep playing.”
Dad nodded. He knew what I was saying. He understood what my dear mom couldn’t- Recess wasn’t just about having fun. It’s about proving you were something special. It wasn’t just about making friends, it was also standing your ground- believing you were someone and being a presence.
“You don’t have to play football with those boys,” Dad said. “But you won’t quit playing because of them either. Next time they push you down, all you have to do is get back up. Rub some dirt on it and keep playing. It’s fine if you decide you don’t like football, but don’t let those boys decide for you.”
Like most fishing trips Dad taught me more than how to dig up bait or unhook a fish. I never told him, but I didn’t really understand what he was telling me. I rarely understood his talks, yet I remember most of them. They were memories waiting to be unearthed as I grew; triggered by the sight of blood, the smell of tobacco or the feeling of dirt on my hands.
We watched our lines without saying much then watched the lightening bugs once the sun started to set. I can’t remember if we caught anything that evening. What I do remember is being surprised that dirt was safe to rub on cuts and scrapes. Though Dad’s talk wasn’t given another thought that evening, life didn’t wait to force me to remember it either. If it wasn’t the next day it was soon after. I remember because my knees were still scabbed. Blood ran from my cuts both old and new.
“You’re such a wuss,” Kyle said to me without offering a hand up.
“Bet’ya five bucks he tells Mrs. Rodgers.” Ben said.
“Time out,” I said to the team captain, Zach.
Zach waved me off. I wasn’t worth his time out. They were just as good without me. It was fourth down with perhaps twenty yards to go. Kyle had one last throw to reach the end zone. The boys lined up at the ball, ready for the last play of the game. They had all forgotten me, except for Chris.
“Here,” Chris held out his dirt.
I watched as the baseball field’s fine dust poured through his hands. My socks were bloodstained, my shoes dirty. A part of me wanted to go back inside, clean up and ask Mrs. Rodgers if I could play the Oregon Trail on the computer. The other part wanted to be a presence. I was tired of being the teammate no one believed could contribute.
With my hands cupped I caught Chris’s dirt then rubbed it on my knees. It stung, but it was the first time I felt a pain I enjoyed. I made a decision to get back in the game. The feeling was electrifying.
Kyle hiked the ball. The boys scattered and Chris left me to defend the corner. Everyone ran their patterns and Kyle pumped the football, believing he was Steve Young. What happened next is probably the most anti-climatic, underrated, least-celebrated play in Findlay Elementary School’s sports history. Forgotten, I simply walked to Kyle unabated and tagged him with both hands for the sack. Game over. Kyle never saw me coming.
There was a moment of contention between the boys. Kyle argued I was off sides. Zach countered with some petty defense I’m sure. I don’t know what was decided. I didn’t stick around to find out. The bell was about to ring and I wanted to be ahead of Mrs. Rodgers. Had she seen my knees she would have made me wash up in the restroom, but not that day. I wanted to come home like Dad after one of his days of fighting fires; hot, sweaty, a little bloody and covered in dirt.