The afternoon is a slice of perfection. For late September at this latitude, sun and 63 degrees was the most they could ask for.
Jarvis strolls from his minivan behind his son, buoyed by a job interview slated for the following morning. Content and stories for a tech platform. The almighty clout and coin.
Following a game-assessment speech by Coach down in the sweet grass, the team breaks into two groups. Jarvis, as assistant, takes five boys to a tight circle of cones for keep-away, monkey in the middle. One kid, the skier with impeccable passing and control, has shoulder-length blond hair. Jarvis wonders if this boy's mom or dad is ever tempted to feel it, probably during dinner at home. Your twelve-year-old progeny's honey locks, soft as fur. An embarrassed "Mom!" to complement the braces and open pre-algebra book on the counter. All the boys, good looks and confidence. Who wouldn't be filled with pride over these young lions?
Too much laughter for monkey in the middle. The monkey isn't trying very hard, being swapped out on gifts--one-touch errant passes from another kid. Boys liberated from the fluorescent prison of school.
"Come on, boys. Crisp passes. Get serious," he admonishes.
Behind him his son, not in this group, is part of one-on-one drills with Coach. They're working hard--attack, fake the defender with a move, shoot.
Before him, the blond gets a bad ball. He deftly traps it and turns--the kind of skill Jarvis has never possessed. He scoots it on to a big-shoulders kid, smooth as a bowling ball on turf. Big Shoulders tries to one-touch it. The ball pops off his lead-foot toe and bounces uphill toward the busy playground.
Jarvis looks, his eyes drawn by a soft shape.
Edging its way toward the happy children is a dog, a golden retriever. Glorious fur, whiskers, normally jubilant behavior. Jarvis has never had a goldie, but he's been around enough of them. He would like to have owned one--a rambunctious, tuna-breath tail-wagger named Sam. Perfect.
This one--something's not right. Front legs okay. Back legs barely work. The dog is fighting for every step.
Probably arthritis, Jarvis thinks. The same hip problem Lady had.
Lady, his childhood German Shepherd, who had to be put down. Lady, whose entire breed is on borrowed time, the sagging hips standing out like a crack in the hull. Good family dogs, every time.
One of the boys has retrieved the soccer ball. Big Shoulders is in the middle. The game continues. Laughter. Another errant pass, the ball bouncing away.
"Boys," Jarvis says distractedly, his eyes uphill.
The goldie's attention is on the grass at its feet, as if wondering why this walking thing is so difficult.
"That dog's in trouble," Jarvis mutters to the blond boy, also watching.
Maybe dogs don't understand pain, Jarvis wonders. It's just confusion, not understanding change in ability. The reason behind the limits.
At some point, daughters and parents collect the dog with hugs and take it away.
He can't watch, to see if they are helping it.
Minutes fly by. Soon, a jubilant scrimmage, where Jarvis is the last defender. His mids have forgotten their role. Four attackers come out of the western sun. Moves, a perfect pass, a ripping goal. Nothing to feel bad about. Scrimmage over.
A wrap-up chant leads to a meeting with another coach about scrimmaging a fiery girls squad. Jarvis drives his son home and motors on to a curriculum night. Standing in the room with other seventh-grade parents, he feels mugged, exhausted. The premature arthritis stiffening his feet, his aching knees and quads. A headache. The science teacher cracks a joke and the whole room laughs. Sending their kids to this middle school was the correct choice. Parents should always know the right thing to do.
On the drive home through a quiet suburb, Jarvis nearly pulls over. At a lonely stoplight, with wet eyes, he's running his hands through the goldie's fur. Time for one last sweet nuzzle, one last goodbye hug. An outpouring of love, thanks, devotion.
He wonders about the parents he barely glimpsed. If they're strong enough to see the truth, to choose right.