The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.
I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer.
Usually, Clip and I spent our Friday nights drinking black-cherry soda and making prank phone calls. Sometimes my sister Lovely and her friends would be camped out in the basement and we would hover on the landing, hoping to hear something about sex. At the time, we were both desperate to get blowjobs, and while technically we knew what sexual act was being referred to, we were curious about the name. It was the word “blow” that was confusing us the most.
Roger finally convinced us to go to the playground by invoking that mysterious word: “Milk and Eric both got blowjobbed this weekend, and the girl wants to give more.” The word “give” was also strange to me. A person “had” sex, “made” love, but this was something that could only be given.
“Who is this girl?” Clip asked, as if it mattered. “Some pig?”
“No, no. She’s hot. Lives out of the parish. Just come.”
Clip and I talked it over on the walk home from school that Monday afternoon.
“I’ve got five bucks,” he said. “That’s five beers. Is that enough?”
“How much are you gonna bring?”
“I’ve got 10 bucks. I could get more if I tell Mom and Dad I’m doing something else.”
“Do we have to pay that girl? I don’t want to do that.”
“Doesn’t sound like it. She’s giving them away.”
We talked so ridiculously about sex back then. We thought about it all the time, privately, and with little insight. Catholic school, in its attempts to inspire abstinence, had filled us instead with a strange, superstitious horniness. The myth of the Catholic school girl was surely started by kids just like Clip and me.
Our ignorance about this subject was something we only spoke about late on weekend nights when Clip slept over and we clicked through cable to find some movie with sex in it. Clip had brought it up just a week before.
“Hey, so does the girl, like, actually blow on it?” he had said.
I was relieved because I thought I was the only one who didn’t know.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “What’s a ‘dildo’?”
“I know that one. It’s a plastic dick girls use,” he said. “What’s a ‘cervix’? My aunt had cancer there.”
“I don’t know, but I know it has a hood.”
Clip thought this was hysterical. “In case it rains?”
I laughed too. At times, it felt like I wanted to understand a woman’s body more than I wanted to touch one, more scared of the schoolyard quizzes and dares.
“It was in the book.” The same book he had at home. The same book the nuns gave the boys the day they gave the girls maxi pads.
“Weird.” Clip said.
So by the time we parted ways on Strahle Street that Monday afternoon—he, to cross Pine Road, and I, to go down the hill at Ryers—we agreed that we’d go on Friday night. I watched Clip from the top of the hill as he waited for the light to change and wanted to ask him if he had since found out any clue that he hadn’t shared, or if there were things we should do to prepare. I didn’t. Instead, I ran downhill the rest of the way home.
Back then, I was the fastest kid in Philadelphia. Not in a track-meet way—nothing was official—but I could chase down any kid given enough room to run. This mainly happened on the soccer field where I played sweeper, the last line of defense, and I was known—feared, I imagined—in all the other neighborhoods for catching every breakaway winger who crossed the 50-yard line.
No one ever expected it. I was bony, almost lost inside my huge red-and-black uniform, and had thick glasses strapped to my head. They never heard me coming, and were shocked to find me in front of them suddenly—between them and the goal—and taking the ball from them. Running was something almost spiritual for me then. I did it for fun, but it also seemed wholly serious. Once I found my rhythm, the rest of the world was beaten off as my heart and lungs and legs synched up into a state close to hypnosis. My eighth-grade mind cleared, pounding it out like that on the pavement or grass. It was joy.
And we were a good team. We won the city’s Department of Recreation championship the year before and had jackets made with our numbers and positions stitched on them. We strutted around school like a gang.
Roger was a small, stocky kid, but a fearless goalie. He was often out of position, but threw himself recklessly at the ball. He tangled himself in the net, slammed into the goal posts, but kept the ball out and could punt that thing well across midfield. He was a talker back there too, always yelling at the rest of us since he had the best view of the field. “Who’s got 14? Pick up 14!”
Clip was center halfback, the workhorse on the field. He ran the field between the 18-yard lines and was never more than 10 yards away from the ball. He threw up on the field from exhaustion a lot—water and orange rinds splashing in the grass.
But the game was changing.
At 13, I was still ignored by puberty while my teammates and opponents were growing legs like tree trunks, lifting weights, shaving. When we were younger, soccer was mainly a game of kick-and-chase, but that season it became more brutal. It was no longer about who was lucky enough to be near the goal as the ball pinballed around the field, but rather who could knock their opponents out of the play. There was a fight every other game, lots of penalty cards, and vicious cursing on the field. The parents, too, became more aggressive, feeding off the violence of their kids. Fathers fought in the parking lot after the game; mothers screeched from the sidelines. My own dad was thrown out of a game once for threatening the referee.
Given our success the season before, we moved to a different league and began playing the tougher neighborhoods in the city. I had never been to any of these strange places before, and even their names were frightening to me: Kensington, Port Richmond, Frankford. They sounded more like the names of World War II battles than playgrounds. Driving with my father to these games, I was always quiet and nervous, looking at the run-down neighborhoods, imagining monsters—not kids—raised in such blight: barred windows, packs of men wandering the streets yelling at cars, pigeons drinking brown rainwater off of the pavement. At games in these neighborhoods, I hoped not enough of my teammates would make it so the match would have to be called off.
On Wednesday night of the week Roger was killed, we had our first playoff in Fishtown. Night games in the bad neighborhoods were the worst. Most of the parents on the opposing team would be drunk, and many of the spectators were just bums from the block, stopping to watch and yell. Fishtown was north of where Mayor Rendell’s revitalization of downtown Philadelphia ended. Its streets were too narrow, and it seemed that even the Founding Fathers had avoided the place, since not a famous house could be found there. Instead they built a long off-ramp over it to I-95.
The field at Fishtown was made of gravel and speckled with glass. It sparkled under the lights like the surface of the moon. We had never seen anything like it. Many of the city fields were uneven and scrappy, or ran up and down hills, or even held pitcher’s mounds in their boundaries for the spring, but they were still grass. During warm-ups, some chatter started among us that we should refuse to play because of the conditions. But Coach reprimanded us, while scratching aggressively at his crotch, that that was exactly the reaction these thugs expected from us and we were tougher than that. None of us believed it. So we took the field reluctantly, feeling too fancy in our bright red uniforms and new cleats.
The Fishtown kids were ugly. They had their soccer numbers shaved into the backs of their heads. Their uniforms were a washed-out bluish-gray and it was clear they had been handed down. Two kids on the team wore the number 10—surely a Department of Recreation violation. We tried to bring this to the ref’s attention, with no luck. At this level, most refs were just local kids, and he assured us he knew the difference between the two number 10s. Before the game, the ref hung around on the Fishtown sidelines, shaking hands and kissing babies.
It was a rout. The Fishtown kids knew how to negotiate the cinder field while we fell and bled. The rocks were like quicksand trapping our expensive shoes and smothering our ideas about rules. I chased some kids down, but had my legs kicked out from under me whenever I did, no whistle. My knees were covered in glass by halftime, and Roger’s hands were bloody from diving into the gravel. When Coach tried to talk to the ref about the calls he was missing, the Fishtown parents started yelling curses across the field. Our sidelines were quiet.
Fed up, Roger started mouthing off between the goal posts. The Fishtown kids were shoving him out of position and kicking him after he had picked up the ball—fouls on any other field.
“Hey Number 8!” he was yelling. “Kick me again. See what happens!”
Number 8 was a snaggletoothed kid a head taller than Roger. Eight looked at me. He wore regular tube socks with strapless shin pads stuffed underneath that had slid around to the backs of his legs. Blood and something else black stained the front of his socks, maybe old blood.
“You guys want something?” he asked between gulps of air. If he had taken out a cigarette right there on the field, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
I stood between him and Roger with my hands on my hips and shook my head.
“I’ll kick what I want,” he told us.
We were inside the six-yard line waiting for a corner kick. No one else heard what was going on. The ref hadn’t blown the whistle yet.
Roger got furious. “Kick my ass then! I’ll knock you out on this piece-of-shit field!”
The ref finally came bounding in with his yellow card for Roger, but the fight had already broken out. Roger swung a short arm that only caught 8 in the side. Eight grabbed his arm, threw Roger onto the ground and dove down into his chest and stomach with punches. Roger’s mom was howling from the sidelines, and I couldn’t tell whether she was urging him on or screaming at him to stop. I went cold with fear, expecting to get hit any minute, but nothing happened.
The ref finally pulled 8 off of Roger, and the rest of the Fishtown kids were laughing. They had seen better fights, was what their smiles seemed to be saying.
Roger was crying as the ref walked him over to the sidelines. Our backup goalie, C.J.—who had been practicing headballs with someone’s little brother 20 yards off the field and who probably had no idea what had just happened or even that the field was not grass at all but rocks and glass—edged his way onto the field, not looking too happy. He strapped his expensive goalie gloves on, and stood in front of the net as if it were about to trap him.
For all intents and purposes, we stopped playing. We’d chase and poke at the ball, but avoided any contact. They fired shot after shot at poor C.J., and it seemed as if they had more players on the field than we did.
Finally, the ref blew the whistle to end the game. We lost 7-0 and our season was over.
On the long ride home, back through that awful neighborhood and up onto 95, I could tell Dad was mad. Usually, we talked about the game, the big plays, the big mistakes, and mainly my own performance. That night, Dad was quiet.
I wanted to tell him that I had wanted to fight, but he would have known that was a lie. Instead, he weaved through four lanes of traffic, and I wondered if I would ever learn to drive like this—to maneuver the car between gears using both feet, to know the best way to get to every neighborhood in the city the way he seemed to, to fly between tractor-trailers at 70 mph without crashing. But I was a coward. I gripped the door of the car as he changed lanes. I had hoped my own team wouldn’t show up to a playoff game. And I was even paralyzed by the thought of a girl giving blowjobs.
As we got off the expressway, Dad finally spoke.
“This guy in my unit at work dropped his pants in the lobby of our building this morning. I’m going to have to fire him.”
He barely ever talked to me about work. He worked for the city in the Department of Revenue, making sure people paid what they owed, occasionally making jokes at restaurants or departments stores, when my family didn’t get the service he expected, that he would audit them. So I wanted to say something, especially since it wasn’t about the game. And I was afraid I was being audited in his mind. I felt delinquent in something; a debt had been accrued that night I only partially understood.
“Is he crazy?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Crazy,” as if that was beside the point.
“Is he a good worker?” I wasn’t sure whether Dad was disappointed or entertained by this news about his employee.
“No, of course not. He wants to get fired.”
Hearing about adults acting this way always amazed me. It was both frightening and reassuring. I always assumed at some point I would know all the answers. A switch would be flipped and I’d be grown up. But every once in a while there was proof that no one had it figured out, that the bungling of childhood could persist and get further out of hand as the years went by.
“The thing is,” Dad continued, “this guy, Gorham, is not the worst of the bunch. When he’s not drinking and he takes his medicine, he’s OK. I mean, Walsh’s mom calls me once a week to say I’m being mean to her son at work. He’s 45. See what I mean?”
“What do you say when she calls?” I was thinking Mom had made plenty of calls for me.
“I tell her I’m busy. I tell her he’s an adult who can solve his own problems.” Dad sped through a yellow light and dropped the car down the hill through Pennypack Park. The trees covered us and he kept talking. “But it’s not true. He’s a 45-year-old kid. He asks his mom to call.”
At that moment, Dad seemed almost desperate enough to ask me for advice. But the question never came; he changed the subject.
“How about old C.J. tonight? He looked like he was at the wrong end of a firing squad.” He paused, but I knew what was next. “No thanks to you. You guys sure left Roger high and dry.”
Dad and I rolled through more familiar neighborhoods, getting closer to home. Somehow the buildings seemed friendlier; the harsh light of the lampposts took on a warm, orange glow. Here was Roosevelt Mall; here was the street you turned down to get to Roger’s house; and here was our playground, still lit up this late at night, its grass a bright, healthy green under gigantic floodlights. That awful field of rocks and glass, the screaming parents, the fight—all of that started to seem like a bad dream, something that would hopefully make no sense in the morning.
At home, Mom fussed over my cut-up knees. I tried to ignore them, but they did burn. The blood had blackened around bits of lodged green and brown glass into a strange sort of mosaic. She was horrified when I described the awful field, but Dad just shook his head.
“Well, how’d you do?” she asked, getting a wet washrag and the bottle of peroxide.
“We got killed,” I said.
Mom looked at Dad to hear his side.
“Yup,” he said. “Killed.”
Neither of us said anything about the fight. She pressed the rag to my knee and I winced at the sting,
“Well, that doesn’t seem fair, to have to play on a field like that,” Mom said.
I looked up at Dad.
“There’s nothing to do about it. It’s the playoffs.”
“It just doesn’t seem right. Someone is going to get hurt. If they get cut on that glass …”
I was nodding along with Mom, but said nothing. Dad shook his head again and walked into the bathroom where he tuned his old radio and began to shave. The hot water poured into the sink, and the steam crept through the cracks of the door toward me and Mom. The radio had been his father’s and had a leather strap attached to it as if you would carry it around, heavy as it was. I knew he was trying to find the Flyers’ game that had just started on the West Coast, but all he could pick up was music, tinny and simple, and screeching from those old, blown speakers.
—photo by cealwyn/flickr
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