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The Pine Barrens League, part 9: The Final – Kicking their teeth out

Editor’s note: For your offseason pleasure, PSP is happy to present an multi-part fiction series entitled The Pine Barrens League. In the conclusion of the story, it is the second half of the final. Schnauzer and company have 45 minutes to score a goal to win the money.

We were exhausted when we got off the field at half time. I felt like the entire universe around us had disappeared and the only way to get it back was to score a goal. This is how heroin addicts must feel, I thought—they’d turn their bodies inside out as well, just to get high. The addictive agent for me? Play. Scoring is cathartic.

All of us were choking, literally, we were out of breath. I looked over to the other side, and was relieved to see they were suffering as well. Putin and two defenders were icing their knees. Yulia was sitting down, she looked pretty beat up. It looked like she had been hit, (it could have been me, I wasn’t sure) because the right side of her face was swelling up. Her goalie, who had barely touched the ball during the first half, gave her an ice pack. Instead of pushing it against her face she applied it to her ribs. I remember elbowing her a few times, but  as far as I could remember I hadn’t hit her very hard in her ribs. Deep inside I was hoping we’d be able to exchange glances like we used to, but her mind was focused on winning and nothing else. She didn’t seem to care about the health of her players either.

 —0—

Win was dispensing IcyHot, icepacks, helping stretching, massaging muscles, handing out gel packs and energy drinks. It looked like he was busy because he wasn’t sure yet what to do, and needed some time to think. Hell, I was out of ideas. The clock was ticking away in slow motion, by now it must have been close to 11. Our bodies weren’t accustomed to physical activity at this time of day.

“OK, everybody,” Win said suddenly. “Close you eyes.” I complied immediately. “Close your eyes and relax.” He had a warm soothing voice. “Now think of black,” he said it very slowly. “Darkness….Think of nothing.”

“Are you fucking nuts!?” Bunga Bunga yelled. “Do you want us to take a fucking nap?!”

“It helps sometimes,” he replied.

“Yeah, at the fucking office, not here!”

“Do you have a better idea?” Win asked. Bunga Bunga didn’t reply.

“Kick his fucking teeth out,” Sandler said with an unhealthy amount of cropped up anger.

“Exactly,” Bunga Bunga said. “Kick his fucking teeth out. Wait. What the fuck do you mean by that?”

“It’s like when you are in a fight. First hit, you break a tooth or two. We have to score a fucking goal in the first minute—whatever it takes!” Sandler replied. “No more pretty passing bullshit! Score an ugly goal! Toe shot! Whack the goalie! Whatever! In the first minute, all or nothing, I’m not kidding. The only way to break their spirit—kick their fucking teeth in!”

Win gave me quick look, I nodded. “All right,” Win said. Let’s kick their fucking teeth out, I mean, in!”

We went back onto the concrete pitch with renewed energy. Sandler’s little rant caused an adrenaline rush in all of us. Doc kept yelling, “We can do this! Kick their teeth in, yeah!!”

—0—

To my surprise Yulia maintained her defensive line up. The rules of this league were that the incumbent would lose when the game ties. The gamblers don’t like to extend their games with over time and endless penalty kicks. I refused to believe she was going for a tie.

The renewed spirit on our team came down on Pope like a cloud of cocaine. Furiously he catapulted himself to the ball as soon as the whistle sounded. Yulia had to quickly pass the ball back to Putin. By the time he received the ball Sandler was on Yulia, and Jericho and Slim covered the wingers. The quickness of the attack surprised them. Putin had to turn away with the ball, and dribble it back. He chipped the ball to their central defender Leonid (who looked like Leonid Brezhnev) who headed the ball into the goalie’s hands. Pope was there almost at the same time. He was literally trying to head the ball out of his hands. The ref let it go.

The goalie’s name was Kholya (unless it meant goalie in Russian). He knew, with the relatively short Yulia up top by herself, he shouldn’t boot the ball. At the same time his defenders were covered, and his midfielders didn’t have much free space either. The other woman on their team, Nikki, started to move diagonally towards center field. Kholya responded by throwing the ball in front of her. She trapped the ball on the bounce, rolled it forward with the bottom of her foot, gave it a quick touch, and took off like hare in a dog park. I’m not proud of what I did, but I literally walked her to the ground, she went down while kicking the ball. She was screaming, not from pain but from anger. The ball rolled out of bounds and she started to make a ruckus. I feigned my innocence, since she seemed all right, the ref gave met the benefit of the doubt.

I threw the ball to Duke, who moved it up as fast as a cold in kindergarten. We all came in, only Bunga Bunga lingered behind—he was faster than Yulia, and should be able to contain her. Duke was able to leave Putin behind him. Although the defenders came in like a couple of fully loaded Predators, he was able to carve out some space to take a hard shot towards the right post. Kholya dove, and tipped the ball out for a corner. That was the second minute of the second half, our first actual shot at goal.  Jericho went to the corner flag thinking about which Bible verse would be appropriate for  the moment. He looked up at the ceiling, shook his head, and recited Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens…” He ceremoniously put the ball down.  “… and the earth.”

The ball curved hard towards the second post. Being the tallest players on their team, Kholya was standing close to Minotaur and Sandler at the front post. Slim was able to get his head underneath but it bounced off towards Putin, who was standing close to me. He received but hesitated—apparently their defense didn’t know what to do against a full out assault. That second or so of delay was enough for me to get to him, shoulder him hard off the ball, and run with it. He uttered some ugly Russian words after he went down. It took me only a few steps to get to their right defender. He was covered so I dropped my right shoulder Sneijder-style, and moved left to the open space. Without looking I kicked it towards the goal. The goalie was able to fist the ball back into the 18 where Minotaur bounced it off his head against the post. There was a scramble that ended with Pope and Sandler lying in the net with three of their defenders, the goalie… and the ball. Yulia’s eyes were locked on the refs hands. He hesitated but could only do one thing, point at center field. 1-0.

To our surprise the audience exploded in cheer. I swear, I heard the “olé-olé” rolling through the halls. Pope and Sandler were screaming with joy. The Russians on the platform were raging at Yulia, who shrugged them off. At some point one of them must have yelled something insulting, because she suddenly turned towards them,  her body cringed with fury. I slowly walked back to our own half. When I crossed the ref’s path I avoided eye contact. “Be careful in your own 18,” he whispered.

Yulia was talking to her players. I called Hung, Minotaur and Bunga Bunga. “We have to play the off side trap,” I said. “The ref is not going to give away the game but he will call a penalty as soon as they are in the box, they have to win. We have to keep the ball out of the box.”

“They’re getting desperate,” Bunga Bunga said, while his eyes were fixed on the suitcase that was still standing on the touchline.

We were about to disperse when Hung stopped us. “The ref won’t call their off side,” he said.

“OK,” Minotaur said. “We step up when they are in possession, to force them to move instead of passing.”

With Yulia commanding her team to go back to their offensive formation, Minotaur had directed us perfectly. We would step back when they started pressuring, but as soon as they were about to pass we would step up a couple of yards. Yulia herself fell for it every time.

With our pressure, instinctively the ball would be played sideways instead of forward. Minotaur was a master at this game. He would fake a cover just to get a player to move across our defensive line. Our plan worked well because the foundation of their attack was the 20 yard pass.

After about ten minutes Yulia had to change her strategy. From now on they took on our line by dribbling the ball up, trying to pull a couple of players away and create a hole, and then heel it or touch it to an upcoming player. They were actually dazzling us for a couple of minutes there with a few nice combinations. However, instead of taking shots from distance they seemed adamant to enter the 18. Duke kept an eye on Putin while Knees was playing the line. Jericho and Slim were chasing tirelessly whenever they could and Pope and Sandler were able to keep four men back by threatening a counter. Yulia was in a bind—she couldn’t afford another goal, but she needed at least one extra pair of legs to match-up to our defense.

—0—

The Russians on the plarform kept screaming, while the rest of the audience went absolutely crazy. I didn’t know if it was the booze, the betting, or that they actually enjoyed the game, but they were rowdy as hell. The whole warehouse seemed to be shaking with the echoes of their voices.

All of us were in pain. We played on the concrete almost the same way we played on the turf, but every slide tackle caused a bleeding scratch, and every tumble a bruise. The adrenaline rush kept us in the game, though. Fortunately, both sides were beat up. Yulia was starting to look like she had just jumped out of a meat grinder. The blood on her knees and elbow had dried up, the side of her face was swollen, and she was having a hard time breathing.

During a moment when the ball was out of bounds around the 80th minute, I asked her if she was OK. She poked me in ribs a little bit too hard in reply, but when she looked me in the eyes I saw, to my surprise, the most beautiful and the most alive soul a person could have. There was no fear, no aggression, no pain, just joy.

“Best game ever,” she said. “The tempo, the rhythm, it’s creative…You made me really happy.” I thought for a minute she was going to give me a hug. “This is better than sex.”

“Now you just have to score,” I said.

“I will,” she replied.

—0—

For the last ten minutes they attacked in a high tempo, with impressive skill and tenacity. We worked our offside trap, we chased balls—we worked so hard, we even made single slice sandwiches.

The inevitable happened in the last minute.

Putin was able to find Yulia who was on the edge of the 18. She wanted to curl around Hung but he stepped in too hard. Before she hit the ground the whistle sounded and a chill went through entire ware house. This was it, this was the game. Her whole team stepped back as if to rescind their responsibility. It was Yulia who had to take the penalty kick herself. A player of her caliber shouldn’t have an issue with scoring under pressure. My guys looked beat, both literally and figuratively. Hung shook his head in disbelief and Jericho looked like he was wiping away tears.

Pope yelled at Doc, “You can do it man! You can do it!”

Stoically, Doc stepped onto the goal line, bent his knees and spread his arms. Win was standing on his bench, frozen.

The whole second half they worked just to get into the 18 and draw a penalty. It took them almost 45 minutes, but still, they were about to level the game and we could return home with nothing. At this point I didn’t care about the money. I just couldn’t stand losing to her. But I’m also a hopeless romantic. I was counting on her looking over to me before she took the shot, but she didn’t.

She took a few steps back, stepped into the ball, and kicked it hard and straight, against the post. The ball disappeared behind the goal. Then the whistle blew, and a second later mayhem broke out. Doors exploded, riot police came in from behind the audience. Bunga Bunga immediately grabbed the suitcase, while we sprinted to the van. The other team got away though the other side. The police were mainly focused on the gamblers and the Russians.

We jumped into the van. The driver knew an exit between the shipping containers outside and was able to miraculously return us to freedom. I didn’t ask Knees what her involvement was, I just wanted to go home.

 —0—

Later, at the bar where all of this began, the money was equally shared. Win got his full share. Then we all slipped into the night, still not knowing each others real names.

You won’t be surprised when I say my house was deserted. There was a note saying that she didn’t want to put up with me anymore. She wanted a divorce because she didn’t believe I was ever going to be able to make the ‘right’ choice.

She was right. As long as I can I will play this game.

One Comment

  1. Thanks, Schnauzer! You kept the best for last! Looking for part 2 during the next off-season.

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