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The Pine Barrens League

Editor’s note: For your offseason pleasure, PSP is happy to present the first episode of a multi-part fiction series entitled The Pine Barrens League. Look for each new installment on Monday mornings through the end of January.

It has happened bro, I’m in trouble again. I can’t help it. I feel like a fucking drug addict.

A few days ago, I was about to go outside to rake when I saw a huge cloud of leaves blowing into my yard. So I ran outside furious—you know me.

“Hey! What the hell!” I yelled. One of the men turned off his back pack leaf blower, and came to the edge of our fence-less yard. “Why are you blowing the leaves into my yard?” He looked at me, puzzled. I pointed at the leaves, then at the leaf blower. “You! Blow! Leaves! My! Yard!” He looked at the leaves then at his colleague, who seemed to be in some sort of leaf-blowing trance.

“Miguel!” he yelled. When he didn’t respond he whistled on his fingers and waved. The other guy looked up, smiled, turned off his blower, and came over. They had a quick conversation in Spanish then he turned to me.

“Sorry,” Miguel said, “we’ll take care of it.”

I took a deep breath to let the anger subside. “No problem,” I replied. I pointed at the soccer ball tattoo on his ankle. “You play?”

He looked at me, smiled. “Yes.” He looked at the scars on my knees. “You?”

“Yes,” I said, without expressing any emotion.

“You like pain?” Miguel asked deviously.

“Love it!” I said. Now I couldn’t help smiling.

“You want to play?”

“Of course!” I was singing with joy inside. You know Ann and I had agreed that I wasn’t supposed to even think about soccer—it almost killed our marriage. Between you and me, I suspect she applied for this job to get me away from the soccer field. I know, I know, she is right, our marriage, the girls—they’re doing fine by the way—are more important. So I might play one game or so.

Before blowing all the leaves out of my yard Miguel told me to come to a meeting that same night in a bar in the woods half way to the shore. I told Ann I was going out for a drink. Strangely, she doesn’t mind that.

It was a biker Tiki Bar. The meeting was outside, underneath fake palm trees. There were about forty guys and a couple of women, all players (you can tell by the way they space themselves; soccer players know how to fill a room).

Miguel was standing in the corner by himself, he nodded when he saw me coming in. I ordered a couple of beers at the bar and walked over to him. He took the beer, lifted the glass. We toasted without saying a word.

At that moment a short man wearing a disheveled suit and a sad face entered the room. He looked around, acknowledged Miguel. He was handed a glass of beer and found a spot underneath a fake banana tree. It was quiet.

He took a sip of his beer and lit a cigarette. He took everyone in, one by one. He looked at their bodies, observed how they responded to him, never showed any emotion whatsoever. I stared right back at him when he turned towards me. I thought I saw a glitter in his eyes for a moment. He then nodded at Miguel again, and finished his initial player scan. It was weird, a room full of adults too scared to speak, even to move. When he was done he took a deep breath.

“Don’t call me coach,” he said in an accent I couldn’t place. A grin appeared on his face. “Call me ‘Win-Me-My-Money’!” He spoke with the firm staccato of an experienced butcher.

He stared at a couple of heavy-set guys in the corner, who were laughing nervously.

“To play in my team, you have to be in shape. You are as fast as a Kenyan. As strong as an ultimate fighter.” He took a dramatic pause to deliver the final blow. “And as nimble as a ballerina.” The fat guys started cursing under their breath, turned, and left, shaking their heads.

Again, without any emotion, he continued. “Second. You have to be willing to give your life for this team.” He said it without any sense of irony. A chill went through the room. You could feel people thinking. He stared intensely at specific people. They all left, I think because they feared he wasn’t joking. I knew I could look him in the eye and say, “Yes. In the heat of the game, any game, I’d literally…” Well, you remember that one game, bro, right?

By this time there were about twenty of us. “Third. You have to commit to seven Saturdays starting this coming Saturday. If you don’t show up I will come get you—wherever you are—I have friends in high places and in low places. I am only allowed to put eleven players on the roster; when you are in you are in for the whole fucking run.”

I knew this was the moment I was supposed to step out, but I didn’t. I’m competitive. There was no way I would walk out like a loser. Two of the women left, leaving the short blonde one behind.

“OK, line up.” Miguel jumped up first. I took the spot next to him. The remaining woman stood next to me. Everybody else lined up next to her.

“Any goalies?” Three guys raised their hands. A stalky guy with beginning gray hair, a skinny twenty-something wearing a white warm up suit and baseball cap, and a black guy with shaved head in a lawyers’ suit. All three of them were about the same size and in good shape. He thought for a moment. “Show me your hands.” All three of them raised their hands in front of their chest, palms out, fingers up. He smiled, thought for a moment.

“1978 World Cup final. Who was…”

“Ubaldo Fillol, Sir!” the lawyer yelled like a Marine. He looked at the two other goalies, who clearly didn’t have a clue. They turned around, left.

I smiled. “What’s so funny?” Win asked.

“Fillol,” I said. “The only guy on that team I didn’t hate.”

He looked at me strangely. “You were not older than three or four at the time,” he said.

“Three and a half. I still remember.”

“So, you’re…” I nodded.

“I’m sorry.” I wanted to laugh but didn’t know if he was serious or not. I guessed the latter.

“Get down and gimme twenty!” Win suddenly yelled. I hesitated for a fraction of a second, Miguel didn’t move, nor did the woman next to me. Two guys went down and started doing push ups. It took them a while to realize they were the only ones.

Tisk-tisk, I saw him thinking. Both of them got up and left, confused.

And then there were 12. I felt confident he was going to pick me. I figured I would deal with the consequences later. He stepped up to a forty something guy with a grey goatee who was wearing a brand new Middle School Championship hoody—and matching training pants.

“True or false?” Win said, looking the man straight in the eyes. I could see his mind churning to find a way to get rid of him. “The oldest soccer ball in existence is almost five hundred years old.”

“False!” the douche answered without thinking. All the others were looking at their feet, shaking their heads. Without hesitating, goatee turned around, and left.

“We meet here. Seven o’clock next Saturday. First game,” Win said. “Do not exchange names. Don’t exchange phone numbers. Do not give your address, emails, to anyone. We don’t see each other socially. You will not stay after for a drink. I pay the team fees and provide you with your uniform. Bring shin guards and cleats. Any questions?

“What kind of league is it?” the goalie asked.

“Miguel?” he said.

Miguel finished his beer and looked all of us in the eye as if he wanted to be sure we had his full attention. “It’s a King of the Court league. Last year’s champs are playing and we are the challengers. If we win, we continue, they go home.” I sighed a breath of relief. This would mean that it is only a one week commitment, and it wouldn’t be a problem after all.

“We will kill them,” Win said. There was a brief moment of silence, like we were all praying the same prayer.

“Where do we play?” the woman asked.

“Undisclosed locations,” Miguel answered. “A windowless van will pick us up.”

I asked what we would call each other on the field.

“Give yourself a nickname. You already know mine is Win-Me-My-Money!” coach yelled enthusiastically.

“Call me Duke,” Miguel said.

“Call me Knees,” the blonde said.

“Knees?” the goalie asked.

She turned towards him, grabbed his upper arms and pretended to knee him.

“Okay, okay,” he said. “I get it. Call me Doc.”

“Labrador,” I said. Win looked at me, thought a second. “You’re a Schnauzer. Defender, right?”

“Center-mid,” Knees said quickly.

“Center-mid,” Duke added. They looked at each other for a moment, as if they were already figuring out coverage.

“Slim. Left wing,” a tall blonde man with rosy cheeks and deep blue eyes said.

“Sandler. Striker.” Nobody looked him in his eyes. He had a really awkward face with huge teeth, almost like a horse.

“Sandler?” Slim asked dryly.

“He’s my favorite actor.” He sounded like the brother in the Napoleon Dynamite movie.

“I’m Pope!” a short man with long flowing hair exclaimed in a self-congratulatory manner, like he had just made up the best nick name ever. He didn’t even have to tell us position, it was obvious he was the striker everybody loves to hate.

“Bunga-bunga,” a skinny South Philly-type said with a wide grin on his face. Everybody started laughing. There were three people left, a Mediterranean looking man with greasy hair, a pale skinned red-head with scruffy beard, and a rather square looking Asian guy with small glasses wrapped around his head.

“Call me, uhm… call me The Minotaur,” the guy with the greasy hair said softly. “Defense.” That’s the defender from hell, I thought.

“Jericho!” the Asian guy yelled enthusiastically. “Seven games right? Remember? In the Bible? O my Lord! Hebrews 11. After the Army marched around for seven days! Please Dear God! Let these walls come crumbling down! Oh, position, what’s left? Right wing?” I hope this guy is on some sort of medication.

Now everyone was looking at the last guy. “Call me Hung,” he mumbled dryly. “Defender.”

Apart from Duke, I wouldn’t like to be friends with any of these guys, and the coach is an idiot. You know what that means, right? It’s the perfect soccer team. Next Saturday is the first game. Have to talk to Ann now.

Love, your bro,”Schnauzer.”

One Comment

  1. Is the biker bar the Lower Bank?

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