“A Fan of the Team” by Eimile Denizer

29Mar11

Larry watches the girls warming up on the field: stretching, passing the ball, practicing their skills. They are hard to see from so far away, through the branches of the wooded area that borders the track. The bushes just over the fence that separates the parking lot from the field provides a much better view, but Larry got a voicemail from the coach after the last game: “I’d hate to do this to you, man, but if I see you in those bushes again, I’m gonna have’ta tell Barbara.”

That pissed Larry off. He thought Herb would be on his side, but apparently Barbara has gotten to him too.

Larry looks around; there aren’t any runners today—too hot. He moves to the edge of the woods, picks a spot in the shade of a tree, clears some brush with his foot, and sets up his folding chair at an angle he judges will make it difficult to spy him from the soccer field.

Once situated, he takes a pair of little binoculars from his pocket and points them at the girls, playing with the focus until he can make out their tanned teenage faces.

* * *

The binoculars were a gift from Barbara and the girls for Father’s Day years ago. They came with a little book on identifying bird species. Larry remembers taking the girls to the park that day, Erin on his shoulders pointing and shouting when she saw a bird—sometimes scaring it away before Cammy had a chance to look it up and jot it down in the little notebook her mother had given her. Larry let them each have turns looking through the binoculars, but Erin kept accidentally knocking them out of focus, and Cammy complained that they only saw five robins, three cardinals, and two blue-jays, which was pretty much what they saw in their backyard everyday, and they didn’t need a book to identify them.

For the rest of the summer the binoculars and the book sat on the kitchen table next to the picture window, in case they ever saw a bird whose species was not immediately identifiable. After a few months they were discarded in the junk drawer in the butler’s pantry to be forgotten by all until the divorce, when even the junk was divided.

* * *

Larry realizes that he is probably more comfortable in the shade of the woods than the spectators sitting on the exposed metal bleachers next to the field. The bushes are closer to the action, but all the crouching is torture on his knees. He’s able to fiddle a good focus out of the binoculars so he feels like he has a close-up of the action. “Best seat in the house.” Larry congratulates himself on his cleverness and smiles. He wishes there was someone to share in his joke.

He focuses the binoculars and scans the teams: the home team, The Clover Tigers in orange and white, and the visiting St. Bartholomew Bears in navy and gold. The Bears appear to have the advantage in height—a couple of the girls are over six-foot. One is lanky and fast; Larry watches her well-coordinated footwork as she practices some advanced ball handling skills. The other is maybe a couple inches shorter, but her broad shoulders and long arms will make her a formidable goalie.

“You’re gonna have ta be really smooth and determined to score off them Bears,” Larry says, though the girl, who appears to be only a few feet from him through the lens, wouldn’t hear his advice if he shouted. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair; he’s used to having more influence at the game, and he still finds his forced removal unsettling.

The binoculars are focused on the Tigers’ team captain and right forward, who is practicing with a sophomore defender. The captain is so quick that the underclassman has no chance of getting hold of the ball. Larry doesn’t know how many times he’s told her that her object as team captain is to help her teammates develop their skills, but he says it once again now, for good measure. “Damn it, don’t be such a show-off, Cammy!”

As always, Cammy ignores his advice, though when the defender trips on the older girl’s feet and falls backwards, the team captain helps her up and slows the drill.

“That’a girl.”

Larry is struck for a moment by how grown-up his oldest daughter appears. She will be graduating in a couple weeks, and in the fall she’ll go off to college in Chicago. It still makes Larry nervous to think of her all alone in the big city. He lobbied for her to attend a smaller school where she’d be able to play soccer, or at least one of the state schools, all of which are in nice little college towns that exude an air of knowledge and safety. But she scoffed at these ideas, and Barbara took her daughter’s side. Larry doesn’t think Barb is any more crazy about Cammy moving to Chicago than he is, she’s just determined to oppose him.

* * *

Herb calls the girls over for a huddle, and Larry pans back on the binoculars so he can take in the whole team. As always, Erin hangs back, as if she is loath to associate with the rest of the team. This, her olive green goalie shirt, and her boyish demeanor make it look like she has wandered in from another game. Larry remembers when they first started playing club soccer and the parents from the opposing teams would sometimes contest her gender. The argument wouldn’t last long now, despite her posture—when not in play she stands as though attempting to fold herself in half lengthways—a good tug at her shirt would reveal newly formed breasts and hips. In front of the goal, Larry knows she will straighten out. She is not nearly as tall as the Bears’ goalie, but she has good reflexes and will do almost anything to stop a ball. Once, when she was only ten, she took a ball to the face without even a flinch. It wasn’t until after the team won three to zero that Larry realized she had lost a tooth.

* * *

The game starts and Larry watches as the Tigers advance into Bear territory only to retreat a minute later as the lanky forward takes possession of the ball and breezes past a disgruntled Cammy.

“Stay calm now, girl! Don’t loose your cool,” Larry shouts.

He can see his daughter’s face contort with ill-concealed frustration. If she can keep possession of the ball in the beginning, the Tigers can’t be beat, but Cammy has a tendency to make mistakes once she’s lost control.

“Come on captain, stop crying and direct your team!” The binoculars fall to his side, and when the teams break for a time-out, Larry finds that he has wandered out of the woods, and is standing only about ten feet from the track. He checks if anyone has seen him, but there is no one on this side of the athletic field. Relieved, he quickly retreats to his folding chair.

Larry scans the bleachers next to the field. There is Barbara, her steely gray hair crowed with a tan visor, and all the other parents who come to clap politely and hurrah with muted voices. It is unfair that they are allowed to watch the game from wherever they like, while Larry, the Tigers’ biggest fan, is banished.

* * *

Of course, there is a reason for his banishment. It has something to do with an incident at the Tigers’ first game of the season, when he accidentally punched a referee. Not hard, though, not enough to leave a mark, and in the end the ref agreed not to press charges in exchange for Larry’s profuse apology. They may have forgiven that little indiscretion, but Larry knows the same parents who come to the games to clap and cheer without enthusiasm, got their panties in a snooty wad when he sat Erin on the team bench and held her there by the shoulders. There was no way the girl would listen to him if he didn’t exert some control.

Herb and Barbara didn’t see how he was trying to talk to Erin about the mistake she made that caused the team to loose the game two to one. Larry hadn’t meant to be mean; he was only trying to give the girl the coaching Herb would have given her if he wasn’t completely incompetent. If Erin hadn’t been such a brat, and listened to her father respectfully, as Larry had tried to bring her up to do, the referee wouldn’t have interfered, and Larry wouldn’t have accidentally punched him, there wouldn’t have been a meeting at the school, and Larry wouldn’t have a one year ban from attending all Clover sporting events.

Gosh, Barbara had been smug at that meeting, sitting there in her pastel sweater set and beige capris. She pursed her lips and exchanged meaningful glances with the principal, as if to say, “You see how he is”; “You see I was right to leave him”; “You see who the good parent is.” And she was always the good parent, the one to remember the parent-teacher conferences; the one who kept a schedule of everyone’s activities and made sure the girls ate something from each food group and finished their homework. But Larry contributed too. He made suggestions for how things could run smoother, made sure everyone was following the rules, helped coach them on new skills, and helped with the homework. Larry was always there for the team; he was a fan of the team.

He tried to explain this to the principal. “Look,” he said, “I know I got carried away and I shouldn’t have gotten so emotional that I lost track of my fist.”

“Lost track of your fist?” the principal asked.

“Yes, well like I said, my fist slipped. I never intended to hit the ref, I told you that.”

“So who exactly did you intend to hit, Mr. Moore?”

“I didn’t intend to hit anyone, I just told you that.”

“Then why did you make a fist, Larry?” Barbara just couldn’t help herself, she was always butting in.

“I made a fist, Barbara, because I was angry. Erin wouldn’t listen to me and I was angry.” This was another contentious point between Larry and Barbara; Larry was convinced that his ex-wife was encouraging his daughters to disregard his authority.

Larry explained the situation over and over again. He had thought Herb, his friend since they were both on the swim team at Clover High School, would be on his side, but Herb didn’t say a word except to recount the events of the game. An account that did not show Larry in a positive light, did not mention how Erin had walked away from him when he told her to stay and listen, how she had shaken him off when he grabbed hold of her arm.

* * *

At half time the teams are tied one to one. Lindsay, the senior midfielder, stole the ball soon after the time-out and made a spectacular pass to Cammy, who kicked it right past the Bears’ monstrous goalie. Instead of dispiriting them, the early goal seemed to awaken the sleeping Bears, and the rest of the first half was carried out in the Tigers’ infield. Erin blocked three goal shots before one finally slipped past her.

Larry’s voice is already hoarse from yelling, and his legs and arms are dotted with mosquito bites. He’s taken to writing notes for himself on a little pad of paper he keeps in his pocket, but when he reaches for it he realizes he has forgotten this too. He makes a mental note to bring insect repellant and bottled water to the next game. These were the things Barbara took care of, when they were married. Larry is discovering lots of things he never had to think about before.

Usually during half time, Larry would go have a chat with the team, give them some advice for the second half. Barbara would roll her eyes at him. “I don’t think Herb appreciates you coaching his team,” she would say. But Herb knows Larry respects his opinion, and besides, Herb could say something if he didn’t like it, Herb didn’t need Barbara to fight his battles for him.

Now Larry has to watch the team huddle without his advice, and he has such a unique perspective back here in the woods, he noticed all kinds of things that Herb probably missed. Larry should call Herb, just give him some notes for the next half, make sure he noticed that the Bears’ forward gets easily confused when someone comes at her from the side. Let him know that the forwards and the midfielders need to really push at the start to get the ball in the Bears’ infield—they have an intimidating goalie, but a weak defense. Larry has his phone out before he reconsiders. He hasn’t spoken to Herb since the meeting with the principal, and he can’t be sure that the coach will be on his side.

Before he can decide what to do, a large barking dog disrupts Larry’s thoughts.

“Whoa, easy Cupcake.” A man in his early twenties pulls the dog back a couple feet. “Down girl, down.”

“It’s okay,” Larry says. He comes out from behind the tree so the young man can see him.

“Oh, shit.” The man jumps back a foot and looses his grip so the dog rushes at Larry. “Cupcake, NO! Down! Down, Cupcake!” The dog jumps at Larry, but the man catches the edge of her leash with his foot, stopping the dog a foot from Larry’s face. She is just excited to see him, barking and wagging her tail.

“Sorry about that,” the man says after he has a hold of the dog’s collar. “Man, you scared me, I thought she was chasing a squirrel, then you step out of the woods. What are you doing back there, d’you loose something?”

Larry looks down at his hands; he dropped his cell phone when he heard the dog. “Yeah, I think I dropped my phone.”

“You brought a chair to look for your phone?” The man asks, now seeing Larry’s set up behind the tree.

“Well, I actually came for bird watching.”

“Bird watching?”

“Yep, that’s what I’m doing.” The second half of the soccer game has started, and the players are running about.

“Is this a good place for bird watching?”

“Oh yeah, a great place. You jus’ missed it, but there was a Goldfinch jus’ up in that tree, there.” Larry lets the man follow his finger to an empty tree branch before he continues. “You know what this isn’t a good place for, though?”

“What’s that?”

“Dogs. There’s no dogs ‘lowed on the track.”

The man steps back and grips the leash defensively. “Well, I’m sorry to bother you. I’ll let you get back to your bird watching.”

“I ‘preciate that.”

The man pulls Cupcake back to the track, and Larry sits down to watch the soccer game. The Tigers have pushed into the Bears’ outfield. Larry fixes the focus and scans the field until he finds Cammy’s sweaty determined face wide open in left field. “Come on, come on, she’s open!” Larry says. He tries to be quieter now, so the man with the dog won’t get suspicious. He and Cupcake have taken to running slow determined circles around the track, passing Larry every three minutes or so. Larry feels the dog glance at him as she passes, and sometimes the man jerks her leash as if he’s afraid she will come after Larry again.

The score is still one-one when the Bears take possession of the ball and run straight down the field. Erin snaps into action, but the Bears’ forward is good. She fakes a kick to the right, then catches the ball with the side of her right foot and sends it into the unprotected left corner of the goal. Erin tries to change directions at the last second, and ends up doing a sort of awkward flop to the left. It looks as though she hit the ground hard, but she brushes herself off, and the teams regroup at centerfield.

“Okay, two-one now, pick it up guys. Pick it up Tigers!” If Larry were seated in the bleachers, this would be the time when he would really start to cheer hard for the team. This is when the team needs his moral support, and he’s so agitated at having to contain himself, that he can’t even sit still.

* * *

There’s only two minutes left in the game, and it looks like the Bears will hold on to their two-one lead, when the star forward becomes a little cocky, and makes a some-what reckless shot at another goal. There was a teammate open who would have had a better shot, but the girl takes her chances. Marissa, the sophomore defender, takes possession by chest bumping the ball and passes it to the right midfielder, who makes a wild drive toward the Bears’ goal. The Bears’ midfielders are still in the Tigers’ outfield, and it takes the defenders a moment to realize the game play has moved down the field. There is no one else open, so the midfielder makes a long shot, and to Larry’s amazement, it flies right past the suddenly aware defender, and just over the goalie’s torso, as she lunges too early at the in-coming ball.

Larry goes crazy, jumping up and down. He abandons all pretenses of bird watching, and yells with all his might. He doesn’t care about the ban anymore; it’s worth celebrating such a terrific shot.

On the track, Cupcake notices Larry’s excitement. She catches her owner off guard, and he drops the leash when she yanks sideways, off the track, bounding toward Larry. She mimics Larry, leaping up and down and barking with excitement.

“What a shot! Did you see that? What a shot!” Larry feels like Cupcake is matching his intensity, and like Larry, she cannot help but express her joy.

“Cupcake, DOWN. Down girl.” The man grabs the dog from behind, and forces her to the ground. He looks from Larry to the soccer game across the field. “See some nice birds?”

“What? Oh, birds, yeah.” Larry ignores the sarcasm in the man’s voice. “Did you see that shot man? What a shot!”

“Funny I didn’t think birds played soccer.”

Larry feels like he is the one being subdued, forced down, instead of the dog. The man is draining all the enthusiasm from him, why can’t he just be happy for Larry, for the team. “Yeah, ok, whatever.” He mumbles as he heads back to the woods. From a distance, his set-up seems more pathetic than clever. A little blue sports chair sitting in the woods—abandoned, Larry thinks, it looks abandoned. When Larry sits down, he feels heavy, the fabric of the chair feels thinner. He looses his balance, and nearly topples the whole thing to the ground.

“I think you better go.” The man has followed him across the track and stands at the edge of the woods glaring at Larry. His gaze reminds Larry of Barbara at the principal’s office.

“What, no, man, I’m not hurt’in anybody.”

“Leave or I’ll call the police.” The man pulls a cell phone from his pocket and flips it open to show Larry how serious he is.

“What crime have I committed? I’m just watchin the game.”

“You were spying on teenage girls.” The man says, glancing at the binoculars in Larry’s hand.

“No, I’m a fan of the team, man. I’m a fan of the team.” But Larry’s voice is strained, tired, and Cupcake is lying obediently at her master’s feet.

The man keeps an eye on Larry as he starts to dial.

“Okay, man if that’s what you want, then I’m gone. Can’t have creepy old men spyin’ on the girls, I get it. I’m gone.” Larry gets up, folds up his chair, and carries it out past the track, behind the school, to the faculty lot in the back where he parked his car so it wouldn’t be seen. He doesn’t turn around when he hears the shouts from the soccer field; he doesn’t know Cammy made the winning goal for the Tigers. She calls to invite him for ice cream, but Larry has forgotten his phone; it lies abandoned in the woods.

Eimile Denizer became addicted to writing in high school, and has been in and out of writing workshops ever since. She earned a BA in English from The University of Iowa, and has continued honing her craft at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia. She is a founding editor of the online literary journal, The Quotable (www.thequotablelit.com), and her work has appeared in Ear Hustler Magazine, 5923 Quarterly, and is forthcoming in Independent Ink Magazine
To read Eimile Denizer’s comments on Brian Smith’s “The House,” click here.
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Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
What I like best here is the pace of this story. When we drop into the scene, it takes a moment to orient ourselves (What exactly is going on here? Is there something perverse in this guy’s motives?), and by the time we’ve finished the author has built a sad empathy for Larry that is actually quite touching. The voice used throughout does a nice job of capturing his obsession, and the abruptness of the ending mirrors his ultimate frustration at his impotence. All in all, this story had me putting myself in Larry’s place throughout. Nicely done.

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Comments on this story by Jared Yates Sexton, author of “The Right Men for the Job”  
I think what caught me the most about this story is the wonderfully sad portrait of Larry that, through the course of the narrative, drags us through the muck of his life and, ultimately, convinces us to care for a fictional person. Many times these types of pieces border on sentimentality and fall apart as we see the writer’s hand operating and manipulating, but this is such an organic experience that the validity never even comes into question. I see Barbara sitting at the meeting and in the stands, a mute and foreboding figure that seemingly haunts Larry. I feel myself banished to the edge of the woods right alongside him, and I can feel life closing in on me like a canopy. And that’s what we really need and ask of our stories—to make us feel.




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