From my deck I hear the sounds of a local high school football game, pep band drums pounding ominously, referees’ whistles like the shrieking of strange distant dinosaurs. My beagle follows a mysterious, zig-zagging trail through the yard while I open my second beer. My wife is at work still, and she may not be home until late. A couple friends invited me out for happy hour but I have no desire to leave the house, and I want to be here when my wife gets home.
There is a gentle applause in the distance like the sound of god’s hand rustling through his pockets for loose change. The PA announcer say something, muffled and meaningless to me, but vital to the boys on the field. One of them has just made an important catch, and as they announce his name and jersey number, he scans the crowd for the girl he invited. She is looking at her phone, she missed the whole play. She is only here because when you’re fifteen and live in the suburbs, there is nothing to do on Friday night but go where your friends are. She’s a year away from trying alcohol and two away from discovering recreational drugs. She’s unhappy—with the limitations of a normal life, with her teachers treating her like she’s stupid, with her middle-aged neighbor ogling her when she walks home from school.
When I was her age, I didn’t believe I belonged in the world. I didn’t believe I deserved anything good. If I could time travel to meet that teenaged version of myself I would tell him: Life is shitty right now. You have to live through it anyway. See you in a while.
My dog has spent several minutes staring into the arborvitae trees that line my yard and provide privacy from my neighbors. Maybe she is stalking a rabbit, but maybe nothing at all is happening in her head. She is a sweet dog, but not smart, and for minutes at a time she goes blank while her brain cools down and restarts. I call her name and she looks up at me, her tail spinning in wild circles, as if she’s just remembered I exist.
Two owls have taken up residence in the woods by my house. As the sun sets, they begin hooting, taking turns and communicating in some ancient language. When my wife gets home, I will pour her a glass of wine and we will drift content into the weekend. I often feel like an imposter who quantum leaped into someone else’s pretty good life, and one day I will be yanked away without warning. I’ve done nothing, really, to deserve the luxury of a night like this. I am living in the first chapter of a novel, just before the protagonist’s life falls apart.
A whistle blows and is followed by a silence that lasts several minutes. An injured boy is lying on the field. They haven’t announced his name, but his mother already knows it’s her son lying like a cadaver—not writhing like most of the injured boys do—and surrounded by medical personnel while teammates take a knee, heads bowed in prayer. Her ex-husband sits ten rows behind her, maintaining a respectful distance because they’re still learning how to be parents but not be together. He nods at her, a useless gesture but one he intends to suggest strength, to encourage the keeping up of chins. She hates football, hates the institution of violence, the humorless coach, the cheerleaders who are now trying to distract the fans. Her son is a nice boy, and even though he’s not an honors student, he’s smart enough to get into a decent college. He likes to draw and he wears his pants a size too big and his shirts a size too small. She takes hundreds of pictures of him and shares them all online because she can’t believe the miracle of her awkward, funny, gentle son.
An ambulance wails past my home and toward the field. A minute later, the crowd cheers as he is wheeled off the field, and then a whistle blows, and the boys begin slamming their bodies into one another again. My dog nuzzles my hand and reminds me it is long past time to feed her. She follows me inside, and when I slide the door shut behind me, all the cheering stops and the game disappears.
Tom McAllister’s first novel, THE YOUNG WIDOWER’S HANDBOOK, will be published by Algonquin in February 2017. He is the non-fiction editor at Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight podcast. His shorter work has appeared in numerous places, including The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Hobart, Black Warrior Review, Sundog Lit, and FiveChapters. Find him on twitter @t_mcallister