OCTOBER 2010 (FALL)

In October 2009 on October 1, 2009 at 12:01 am

The Old Pigskin

By Liz Hum

Tom tossed the new football upwards and caught it, taking a gulp of crisp fall air. It was the kind of air that promises to purge every ill and uncertainty, the kind of air that promises a good day. He surveyed the neighborhood -how the blue sky draped over the houses and trees, keeping the lazy suburb in its safe sprawl and exhaled, feeling good about himself. The workweek was behind him . The house was clean. He and Sharon had even had sex that morning. Tom was finally in a good mood. And he was going to share it with his boy.

Tom tossed the football again. Before the ball completed its vertical arch, he had already envisioned the whole game. He would pass the football to Arnie and Arnie would run for the touchdown. Tom, of course, would let him have it and then he’d tackle the little guy, wrestling him into the fallen leaves neatly piled in the corner of the yard. The boy would squeal with delight while Tom mussed his hair. It was going to be a real father-son bonding moment. The day was ripe for such scenarios.

Within a few minutes, Arnie shuffled out the front door, piloting a toy rubber duck as if it was a crop duster, swooping it back and forth and making motor sounds. His eyes were fixed on the duck against the crystalline sky; his feet dragged along the concrete behind him like an afterthought. Tom approached him with the football.

“Are you ready, Arnie?” Tom jostled his son like a papa bear to his cub.

“Vrooooom.”

“That’s a duck, not a plane.”

“Brrreeeear.”

“Don’t you have an airplane?”

Arnie shrugged.

“Let’s put it down. We’re going to play football!” Tom confiscated the duck, tossed it into the grass next to the driveway and dragged his son out into the front lawn, placing the boy in the center. He jogged about twenty feet away from him and turned around.

“Are you ready?”

Arnie was looked up at the clouds.

“Are you ready, Arnie?” Tom called louder.

Arnie did not acknowledge Tom at all.

“Earth to Arnie! I’m going to throw the ball!”

Tom threw the ball and added, “Here it comes!”

The ball sailed across the lawn and nailed Arnie in the chest.

Tom ran to him and grieved, “You were supposed to catch it!” Arnie coughed meekly and started walking back toward his grounded rubber duck. Thwarting the budding pilot, Tom scooped Arnie back up, placed him into his original position and jogged about fifteen feet away.

“Okay, buddy, let’s try this again.”

Tom tossed the football to Arnie, but the boy just stood there, letting the ball deflect off of his torso.

“Come on Arnie, You could at least try.”

Tom arranged them once more.

“Now catch it this time!” He tossed the ball underhand to Arnie, who made a feeble attempt to catch it this time, but the ball didn’t stick. It bounced from his grip and onto the lawn.

“You almost had it!”

Tom was growing impatient. He had already begun to suspect that Arnie wasn’t going to be a jock earlier that summer when the boy refused t-ball so spectacularly that they had to pull him out. Sharon had taken him week after week and he wouldn’t even get out on the diamond. He stayed underneath the bleachers, pulling weeds. Tom wasn’t going to let him get away with that, so one Saturday morning, he took the boy to practice. What began as a battle of wills, became a physical battle as Tom pushed and Arnie dug his heels into the dirt and screamed. Tom knew his son was only four and a half, but that scream; It was the kind of screeching you would hear from a two year old. Then the boy flailed and crumpled into a ball, crying hysterically.

Within a week of that incident, Arnie and his six-year-old sister had watched a movie about dinosaurs. While Tom’s daughter was enthralled, Arnie was scared silly and it wasn’t because of any meteorite or T-Rex attack. He was afraid of the movie’s hero, a purple stegosaurus named “Chip” and the way he growled at a group of raptors who tried to steal his mom’s eggs.  Tom reassured Arnie that Chip was protecting his brothers and sisters and this was good, but Arnie didn’t care. He cried and cried until Sharon came in and turned it off.

“Are you trying to torture him?” She asked.

“It’s a purple cartoon dinosaur!” Tom cried out.

There was also the time he took the boy to the train museum. Boring, sure, but the boy didn’t even want to sit in one. He was too scared to get on a miniature train that chugged along a quarter-mile track and went choo-choo. The other fathers had no trouble getting their kids on, with exclamations like “Let’s go really fast!” and “I want to sit in front!”  But not Arnie. All he did was spin himself in little circles in the parking lot and throw a tantrum in the name of cotton candy.

Tom didn’t want to say it – the P-word. He would rather think that maybe the boy is mildly Autistic than that.  But the issue crept up again when Tom caught Arnie wearing his sister’s dress up clothes. The kids were laughing and posing together in front of the mirror and neither Sarah nor Sharon ever understood what Tom was so angry about. But they didn’t understand how close the boy was to ruin. If he liked sports or trucks, or at least tried to wield a light saber, Tom would have dismissed the whole incident, provided it was in fact ‘one’ incident. But he had to face the fact his son was growing into a pussy. He hoped that if he caught it early, found something tough that Arnie might like, perhaps he could spare his son, and himself, the inevitable humiliation.

Out on the lawn, Arnie began to sing. Tom had resumed his position, arm overhead and now his son was singing.

“Arnie!” He shouted.

Arnie stopped mid-song and stood as still and vacant as a zombie. Tom hoped for the best as he went through the motions. Arnie caught the ball for a split second before it dumped out of his arms and onto the grass.

“Dammit Arnie!” Tom hissed under his breath, “How could you let it go? You had it!” He bounded back towards Arnie and picked up the tired football. He massaged the skin between his eyes and bent down to his son, putting a hand on his shoulder. The boy is young, he thought. He just needs a pep talk.

“You just have to keep your eye on the ball. Clutch it like this and hold it tight. Don’t let it bounce out of your hands, okay buddy?” Tom smiled, pleased with himself.

“I don’t wanna do this!” Arnie protested.

“What do you mean you don’t wanna do this? It’s a beautiful day! Would you rather be cooped up inside, playing with your little rubber duckie?” The last words were spat with contempt.

“Yeah.”

“Well, you can’t!” Tom ran across the lawn, football in hand. “You’re going to stay out here and get some fresh air!” He shouted and threw the football. It bounced off Arnie’s hands and landed two feet away.

“You have to throw it back to me! I’m not coming over there this time.”

Arnie grudgingly got the ball and weakly flung it towards Tom. It landed right in between them. They stared at each other, then the ball, then each other again. The ball didn’t move.

“Get the ball, Arnie!”

“I don’t want to!”

Tom squinted at Arnie. He wanted to take the football and hit him over the head with it.

“Just get it, already!”

“No!”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Arnie!”

The second it flew from his lips, Tom was sorry. That was a horrible thing to say in front of your kid. For the first time that afternoon, Arnie’s eyes opened wide and fixed upon Tom’s next move. But that’s not how Tom wanted to get his attention. He marched over, scooped up the ball and knelt by his son.

“Hey, listen, I’m sorry about that.” Tom took in another gulp of the crisp air, inhaling its empty promises. “How about this? If you catch five passes, you can go inside and do whatever you want. It’ll be a game. How’s that?”

Arnie nodded stiffly.

“Okay then, five passes!”

Tom ran back to his throwing spot.

Arnie actually caught the first pass. Tom became prematurely ecstatic and began firing the ball at the boy as if he already had a year or two of pee-wee football behind him. Consequently Arnie missed the next six passes. Tom himself was ready to give up, but he had to follow through, otherwise, what would the boy learn?

“Eye on the ball, Arnie!”

The ball ricocheted off the little boys sunken chest.

Arnie caught two more passes. That was three altogether. He was almost there, when he simply stopped trying. Tom threw pass after pass and Arnie missed them all. He just stood there and let the ball pelt him over and over again.

“Why are you giving up now? You only have to catch two more!”

“I wanna go inside!” Arnie kicked the ball, launching it into the street, and Tom charged at him.

“Fine! I try to play ball with you and all you want to do is act like an ungrateful brat! Go inside!”

Arnie puffed up defensively.

“This game is stupid anyway!”

Arnie stomped up the lawn towards the house. Tom stomped down the lawn towards his football. He picked it up from the street, cradling his wounded pride and thumbing the balls thick white stitches. He looked at Arnie, who had resumed his flight. He was buzzing around with a rubber duck like some kind of goofball. Tom was afraid he’d be buzzing around like a goofball forever.

“I thought you were going inside!” Tom jeered.

Arnie responded with a furrowed brow.

“Go inside! A minute ago that’s all you wanted to do!” He goaded.

Arnie scrunched up his little face, mustering all the anger he could.

“I hate you!”

“You hate me?” Tom shrieked. “You hate me?”

“Yeah, I hate you!” Arnie challenged and immediately started for the protective cover of the house.

Tom snapped. Without realizing it, he had cocked his arm back and fired, hurtling the ball towards the boy. It hit Arnie in the back of the head, sending him face down and sprawled on the cement walkway. Like the profanity uttered earlier, Tom was sorry the moment the ball escaped his hand. But this was so much worse. His son lie there on the concrete in tears of shock and he was to blame. He had deliberately hurt his son. The sick wave of guilt and the realization of all of his despicable imperfections knocked the wind out of him and he scrambled breathlessly to Arnie, trying to help him up.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do that!”

Arnie brushed Tom off and stood up. His face was wet and scraped.

“I’m telling mom! I hate you!”

He ran into the house.

Tom watched impotently on his knees in the driveway. He wanted to hurl the football at himself. He wanted to smash his own face into the sidewalk for Arnie. As if the pain wasn’t bad enough, he knew his good day with Sharon was over. He had ruined his weekend. His only two days to be happy laid to waste because of this. He looked up at the perfect blue sky, and took in another full breath of the fall air, now suffocating him with all of its expectations. He knew what awaited him. Tom left the football on the lawn and went inside.

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