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The Pine Barrens League, part 2: The first game

Editor’s note: For your offseason pleasure, PSP is happy to present a multi-part fiction series entitled The Pine Barrens League. In part two, will Schnauzer and his new team be able to come together as play their first game. Look for each new installment on Monday mornings through the end of January.

We didn’t get picked up by van, as promised, but by a U-Haul truck. We had to sit in the dark, on the floor, like animals. It took about half an hour or so get to the “field.”

“It’s a fucking cranberry bog!”

That was the first thing Sandler said when the doors opened. Imagine a slab of mud, approximately the size of a soccer field, surrounded by a dike. Instead of regular lights, enormous glowing orbs, similar to the lights pavement crews use at night, were hanging from a construction crane with its arm extended over the field.

“Your eyes will get used to it,” Win said when we jumped out of the truck.

It was cold, but not cold enough to actually freeze the soil.

“It’s like beach soccer,” Pope said cheerfully, “I like it!” He sounded like the yoga guy from Couples Retreat.

It took all of us a couple of minutes to let the whole scene sink in.

“What’s with the audience?” Bunga-bunga said pointing at a party tent across the field behind the dike. Behind it we saw a few limos and two or three luxury buses. The dark grey ones with silver trim.

“Them?” Win said innocently. “Oh, they’re some Russian AC folks.” Everyone was staring at the tent to see what was going on in there. “We’re their entertainment for tonight. Forget about them, let’s just play the game.”

“Guys,” Doc suddenly said before anyone of us could ask any more questions. “I think we should cease our inquiries.” He has an interesting dialect—it sounds like the Queen’s English, but not quite. “Their design should not ruin our objective; an evening of great soccer.”

Win nodded. “All right,” he said with a loud voice. “Let’s get dressed and start warming up.” He pointed at a box standing next to a large log. The box contained green and white uniforms with ads in Cyrillic letters. They clearly had been used before, but seemed clean.

“This is probably part of the entertainment,” Bunga-bunga mumbled.

Hung grabbed a handful of shirts and started passing them out according to size. Silently we undressed. Sandler was skinny. Pope seemed chubby with his clothes on, but he was pure muscle. Jericho was ripped, like a yogi. The Minotaur, my God, was a monster.

Knees was the only one who wasn’t wearing thermo underwear or gloves. When she took off her shirt she revealed a couple of badly stitched scars across her back. She felt my stare, turned around, quickly scanned my intentions, and turned her back to me to give me a better look. The whole team was eying her now.

“Night ambush, Kunar Province, after our chopper went down,” she said while bending forward a little. “We were surrounded. My skin was hanging off my back. My buddies Frank and Gino literally stitched me back together like a fucking rag doll. They saved my life.” She turned around and pulled down her sports top to reveal two tattoos across her chest. “And then this happened two weeks later.”

We weren’t staring at her breasts but at two eulogies.

“Thanks for sharing,” Hung said with disarming sincerity. He turned around to show a tattoo on his right shoulder. “My dad and my sister, car accident.” Duke pulled down his sock. Underneath the soccer ball tattoo on his ankle there was a name and year. “My dad,” he said. And then, after hesitating a moment he took off his under shirt. On his chest there was a tattoo of a big heart and a picture of a baby. “My son.” According to the dates underneath the kid had only lived 12 days.

When Knees put her jersey back on it seemed a jolt of pain went through her body. Win was observing the scene from a distance. Something had changed in him that moment. He suddenly seemed less stressed. He noticed me watching him, he nodded and grinned. He had faith in the team. He took a few steps towards me. I thought he was going to light up another cigarette, but instead he handed me the captain’s band. I just said, “Thank you.”

I like to be captain—I’m not going to lie, that stupid armband always gives me extra motivation. And between you and me, it always make me feel proud of myself and my team.

Duke stepped up to me and pointed at the band. “Be careful,” he said. “It’s a target.”

“Where are the nets?” Minotaur, the first one to be fully dressed, said over his shoulder, taking in the field. “And there are no lines either.”

Win looked at his watch. “Any minute,” he said.

At that exact moment a van appeared and parked right next to where we were dressing. The doors slid open to reveal a group of laughing and yelling men who seemed to tumble out of the van. They didn’t even look at us. “Suburban pussies,” one of them said. He was tall, had a face like a fruit bat. He was giggling while his team mates roared with laughter. I looked at Win, Hung, and then at Knees. They were showing wry but confident smiles—these were last year’s champs?

About ten minutes before the game was supposed to start a medium-size flat bed truck arrived carrying two goals. Eight guys jumped out. They immediately started chalking the lines, putting down corner flags, even a small score board. They carried the goals on to the field last. By that time our audience had gathered on the dike on the opposite side of the field. I couldn’t see them very well, but I did see many fur coats and high heels. Uniformed waiters placed small tables with little lights and folding chairs on the top of the dike. At midfield there was an empty platform.

The other team was also playing in Eastern European jerseys—the Chechnyan Team Terek Grozny?—but I wasn’t sure. They weren’t warming up as intensively as we were, they were just kicking the ball around.

After Win gave me a signal I called everybody together. On the other side of the field I saw a couple of refs talking to some guys dressed in black fatigues.

Win pointed at his coach’s board on which he had drawn what looked like 4–4–2 formation, or a 4–2–4. His finger moved along the side line as if he meant to say the two wingers needed to move constantly. “Sandler, Pope, forward. Talk to each other.” Both Pope and Sandler stared at the board as if there was actual information on it. “Knees, Duke, center mid. Jericho right wing, Slim left wing.” He pointed again at their oscillating positions.”Don’t burn yourself up, it’s a heavy field.” Both Slim and Jericho nodded. Duke was staring at the other team. “Defense. Schnauzer, you take left. Hung, Minotaur, keep center. Bunga Bunga, right. Keep the line.”

Win used a tissue to clean the board.

“These guys have only one game plan, but they do it very well.”

He drew lines from left midfield and right midfield towards the eighteen and across towards the corner flags. “They’re English, what can I tell you,” Win said apologetically.

He stared at the other team, who were standing in a circle as well. “See that guy with the knee braces?” We all looked. A short stalky guy with a square face, black eyes and a wavy Richard Nixon hairdo, he was talking like his life depended on it.

“Don’t be fooled by the braces, he is fast as hell,” Win said. “He is not strong in the air. He likes to get offside constantly.” He put down four “Xs” in a line and pointed at the area between them and the goal line. “That’s where he will be.”

“His name is Kel and he uses his knee-braces as bumpers,” Duke said. “Their defense is ruthless and tall, we don’t stand a change in the air,” he added.

Suddenly a whistle sounded. “OK. That’s it,” Win said. “One more thing. Don’t get hurt.”

Silently we walked to centerfield where the referee and two linesmen were waiting for us. The scoreboard was switched on.

“Good evening, gents,” the referee said with a booming voice. He took us all in like a priest standing in front of a congregation of non-believers. “This is my field, this is my game, and if you have a problem with that you may leave now. Do I make myself clear?” There was no response. “Do I make myself clear?” he repeated while putting his hand on hip. He was wearing a side arm. “Yes, Sir!” We all yelled in unison. I tried to find Win’s eyes but he was sitting at the side line, looking at his phone messages.

“He’s wearing a fucking pistol,” I hissed at Duke. “He only shoots at your legs,” he whispered.

“Heads or tails!” the ref yelled. “Heads,” I yelled back. He threw what looked like a silver dollar up in the air.

“Heads it is!” I never take ball as you know, but there wasn’t really an advantageous side so I pointed at the goal on the opposite end. Doc took a quick sprint while the others jogged into position.

The ref turned towards the crowd on the dike. A group of five men, dressed in heavy coats, stepped on to the platform holding drinks and cigars. One of them looked left and right. As soon as everybody was seated he raised his arms. A smiling woman in a tailored white coat and fur hat stepped up next to him.

“Let ze matsjh pekin!!” he yelled.

“Look, it’s Borat,” Hung dead-panned.

After the ref put down the ball we all took our positions. They were playing a 4–3–3 formation. A tall skinny guy with a small goatee surrounding a strange smile stepped up to the ball followed by an unassuming and slightly balding clerk-like type. One of those guys you’d expect  to wear a bowler to work. Kel was standing in the ready position on their right side. The referee blew his whistle, and before I could say “attaboy,” Kel was heading right for me. The ball went left to the tall guy who had made the pussy-remark earlier. After taking a few steps with the ball he, as predicted, chipped it over our heads right in front of Kel. He could have had the shot were it not for Doc reading the play perfectly. Before he recovered the ball he was already yelling, “Wake up guys! We’re here to play with the ball, not just look at it!” I was used to goalies yelling and cursing, but this cultivated hollering was much more enticing.

I thought we should wear these guys out a little before they got the ball back so I gestured, palms down and my fingers spread, to slow things down. Doc acknowledged the gesture and rolled the ball slowly underhand to Bunga Bunga, but he had a different idea. He crossed all the way to Slim who flew with the ball towards their 18. I yelled at Bung Bunga for making the pass. Our strikers couldn’t keep up with Slim who wasn’t able to keep the ball close to him. The bald right defender with a salt and pepper ring beard had no trouble getting the ball from him. “You see what happens!!” I yelled at Bunga Bunga. “Those passes are brilliant but keep them in your back pocket. Now they know you can shoot!”

Baldy passed it back to his goalie, who proceeded to dribble the ball some 30 yards up the pitch before putting it in front of the guy with the goatee. This time Jericho was there, right in front of him, reciting from the Bible. “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain!” He kept a little distance and was able to force Goatee to move. Kel was yelling at him because he thought he should have given him a pass. Intuitively I said, “How can he pass that ball to you?” Without thinking Kel turned around and punched me in my face—hard, just like that, like he was swatting down a fly.

“Ref!!” Hung yelled, but he didn’t get a response. “Don’t bloody talk to me again!” Kel yelled from a distance. Doc quickly stepped up to spray some ice cold water from his water bottle in my face. Win was staring at me from the sideline. When he saw I was OK, he simply lit another cigarette. The people in the stands were cheering and screaming, like someone had scored a goal. Almost everyone was holding what looked like cash in their hands.

Bro, you know I’m a little slow when it comes to these kind of things but slowly it was dawning on me that this was not an ordinary soccer game. It seems we were thrown before the lions, just like the Christians back in the Roman days, with only one difference—we had volunteered to be the entertainment.

A few moments later, Fruitbat received the ball from Bowler Hat, who had dropped back to midfield. With pulsating nostrils he ran the ball up a few yards. We quickly stepped up to get Kel offside by at least two yards. Fruitbat hit the ball as hard as he could. By now, Kel was clearly offside. He trapped the ball with his chest, ran with it, and scored. I couldn’t believe it. The linesman stood there with his flag up while Kel was waving his shirt with joy. The ref exchanged a quick look with Borat on the podium, and called off the goal. Kel and the ugly left winger exploded. Kel was yelling at the ref, his hands clenching into fists. The moment he raised his right fist two little red dots appeared on his shirt. Great, not only does the ref wear a side arm, there are snipers somewhere outside of the field! When Kel backed off from the ref another group in the audience cheered.

The ref called me over. “We have two snipers, for our protection and yours,” he said. “Any trap doors or fire pits?” I asked sarcastically. The referee laughed out loud. “Keep playing,” he said.

The game time was 02:52 when this happened, 87 more minutes to go. This was going to be a long night.

Win stood on the side line and gestured for me to come over. “Just play the game,” he said. “Play it.” He pointed to the stars. “We’re fine.”

I nodded, and pretended I understood what he meant.

I sprinted back to my position. Doc was ready to take the goal kick. “What did he say?” Hung asked.

“Just play,” I answered faithfully.

“Just play?” he repeated. “OK…”

Doc kicked it short towards Minotaur, who was waiting for Kel to run in. Bowler was covering me, while Goatee, with that creepy smile, was standing on the other side. I was wondering why they were pressuring so hard. Jericho stepped back. Minotaur saw his movement and placed the ball right into Jericho’s power circle.

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” he recited while bringing the ball up on a sideline run. He ran by Goatee who, to Kel’s dismay, apparently didn’t feel like playing defense. Their left-mid, a guy with a mullet, was out of position. Jericho ran the ball up to face a pole of a defender, at least 6’7″, who looked at him like he wanted to eat him. “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts…,” Jericho chanted while faking a pass. He tried to go around him on the right side but Pole had foreseen his intention and stepped in.

Now Jericho was stuck between the sideline and Pole. While Pope made a run toward the 18, Knees stepped up toward Jericho, and he quickly passed to ball to her and then started a run toward goal. Knees bounced the ball back right in front of him. Pole was a few yards behind him, and looked ready to shank him—my God, you should have seen the look on his face. Jericho had stopped reciting now, and was running at full speed. About 30 yards away from the goal he kicked the ball as hard a he could in a straight line to the goalie’s face, who raised his hands to catch the ball. Hung turned around in disgust but Pope was there like a jack-in-the-box. He jumped into the path of the ball and forced it with his chest into the goal.

1–0 and five minutes in.

Kel burst out in a fury, which he directed mainly at Mullet and Pole. Both of them submissively received his rage like a couple of altar boys who had drank all the wine before mass. The audience had turned very quiet. Apparently they hadn’t anticipated we would score this early in the game.

From that moment on we actually played a decent game of soccer. I mean, they tried, they kept shooting those stupid long balls, but we saw it coming—we just made sure we had two guys on Kel all the time. Bowler had a good shot in the 32nd minute. Doc was barely able to tap it over the goal post with his fingers. By the end of the first half the field had turned into a sandbox and I felt my calves tightening up.


Like a Zamboni in a hockey game, a drum roller appeared during half-time to flatten the field. One of the waiters arrived with a golf cart loaded with energy drinks and bananas. “Hey guys,” he said, “you’re doing great. I thought they were going to kill you.”

With a frozen grin on his face, Hung asked, “Do you have any ice?” The waiter opened another cooler which was filled with bags with ice. All of us grabbed a few bags and sat down on the log that was our bench.

Pointing at our audience on the dike, I asked no one in particular, “What are they doing over there?”

“Man, those people are fucking crazy,” the waiter replied. “They’re betting on everything. Passes, goals, who gets carried off first, corner kicks, you name it.”

“Who?” I should have kept my mouth shut.

He looked at me and smiled like a flight attendant dispensing peanuts. “You. You got on Kel’s nerves and he usually takes care of business in the first half.”

Bunga Bunga, pushing an ice-pack against his knee, looked frustrated. “What kind of fucking game is this!?”

The waiter answered, “You can win a lot of money!” Another golf cart had brought refreshments to our opponents.

“How much?” Hung asked.

“They didn’t tell you?”

“No, I just wanted to play soccer,” I answered sincerely.

“Win,” Hung asked with a tight voice, “how much money are we talking about?”

“We win. $1200 per game per team. We lose, we go home.”

“That’s what I thought,” Hung said disappointed. A hundred bucks each.

Win wasn’t finished. “We win we play again. Pot triples every game.”

You could see everybody doing the math in their heads.

“If we win the series, $72,900 each,” Win said while exhaling a lung full of smoke.

“It’s not a league then?” Knees inquired.

“Who gives a monkey’s ass,” Doc laughed. “Let’s just play, and finish off these morons.”

“I think we should get half of his money because he fucked us over,” Knees said angrily. Win quickly surveyed the spirit levels. We were staring at him like a band of angry mutineers.

“Yes, yes, yes!! Fine! Take it!,” he almost screamed.

It was like there were several different mind games going on at once, but this Gatorade induced whirlwind of a conversation got us exactly into the right calculating mind-set.

“They’re angry, and they are tired, let them run for a while,” Win said with renewed authority. “Avoid physical contact, they’re known to carry razor blades.” He said that last bit as nonchalantly as if he was describing the habits of some species of wildlife.

Shaking her head, Knees sighed. “This thing is getting better and better.”


To our surprise they started to play soccer the first ten minutes or so and dominated the beginning of the second half. They even took their time to build their attack from the back line instead of just mindlessly booting the ball to Kel. He actually looked a little sluggish, maybe he had used up too much juice, or maybe he was holding back on purpose. In the 57th minute they were able to get a corner kick. Fruitbat took the ball to the goal line and produced a superb pass to Mullet who headed on goal from about 10 yards out. Minotaur instinctively brought his head into the trajectory of the ball and headed it over the goal post. Corner kick.

Now we had to deal with the Pole, who came running through the middle and stopped at the 18. Nobody was tall enough to cover him and everybody expected Kel to get the ball to him, including Doc, who came out of his goal one step too far. Kel didn’t have to think twice and bent it right into the goal. 1–1.

Kel and his buddies weren’t cheering like they had when they score the off side goal. They just wanted the game to restart as quickly as possible. Now it was up to us to create something. Although the other team seemed in a hurry to get started they weren’t pressuring as much as in the beginning of the half. They were waiting for us to make a mistake. On this field, that was bound to happen, but fortunately most of us had experience playing on sand or dirt and we were able to keep possession and dominate the game for the next ten minutes or so.

Knees tried to cross to Slim in the 65th minute. Kel was able to intercept, but the ball rolled right onto my feet. I found a patch of solid ground and dribbled the ball up field. On the edge of their half I took on their center-mid, a bulky Caribbean guy who looked like Papa Doc Duvalier. I got him off balance by dropping my shoulder and flew right by him. I found a short stretch of open turnpike leading towards the half moon at the top of the box. About 35 yards out I saw defenders coming in on me from left and right. They were heading for the 18. Pole came in fast and I decided to use him as a screen. I aimed at his head as hard as I could and the ball was blocked from the goalie’s view for a fraction of a second. Because of his momentum Pole couldn’t stop or even move his head back.The ball had just enough spin to curve right into the upper 90. It was the best goal I have ever scored. And the people on the dike, they were going nuts. 2-1.

Kel didn’t scream and yell this time. He fumbled with his knee-braces. “There’s something with those things,” Hung said, when I returned to my position. He pointed at Kel’s braces.

“Hey Ref,” I yelled, “Check out his braces!” The Ref lifted his shoulders—he couldn’t care less.

In the 73rd minute Kel got me. Tiny blades attached to his knee braces cut the leather of my shoe—not all the way through, fortunately. In the 75th, he had it out for me, and me only. He attacked me from the back with his elbow. Hung and Minotaur tried to get his attention, but for some reason this idiot had set his mind on turning my legs into minced meat. Later I discovered many deep scratches but no cuts, all over my body, and my shirt was totaled.

At the end they were going all out, hitting and kicking everybody who came in sight, but weren’t able to get the ball into the goal. In the last minute, well, let me just tell you what happened, because I’m still at a loss.

Win was standing on the sideline and was yelling something I couldn’t make out. Kel had the ball. Minotaur was, by now, understandably reluctant to take him on, but was able to force a pass. Fruitbat received it and took the ball to the goal line to cross. Doc was yelling and pointing. I saw Pole coming in from the corner of my eye. Fruitbat saw him too, but he knew Kel wanted this goal and chose for him rather than for his team. He chipped the ball towards Kel and I. We were standing on the six, toward the near post. We both went up for a header, I jumped up about a foot higher. When we came down Kel must have landed in a rabbit hole because he sprawled out right underneath me and I landed on his back or on his head with my knees. I thought I heard a crack and he stayed down. I walked away and the Ref blew the whistle. We had won.

While we walked off the field, their coach—a crouched over, grey haired man with a dripping mustache—slowly walked across the field, and kneeled next to Kel. He seemed to be breathing, but I didn’t know if he was conscious.

The smiling lady in the white outfit was the only one on the platform who was still standing. People were yelling at her to get inside a stretched Navigator, which was parked behind the dike. She didn’t leave until she made eye contact with me. She gave me a quick thumbs up. Win just ordered us to get into the U-Haul truck as quickly as possible.

We were on a winning high, man, we were screaming and yelling all the way back to the restaurant. Haha, we beat the champions!

When Ann saw me in the shower later that night, there was a lot of  blood running into the drain. She thought I had been in an accident. “Nah.. it was just a soccer game,” I said smiling with pride. It was an awesome game, and I didn’t need stitches.


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