Joyland

New York |

The All-Mutant Soccer Team

by Meagan Cass

edited by Emily Schultz

The kids we play from downstate like to say it’s inbreeding, the reason our skin is neon green, our teeth blue, our hands like flippers growing from the sides of our bodies, no arms to speak of. 

“Have fun with your sisters tonight!” they’ll shout after a game in Chappaqua or Bedford, watching us pile onto our team bus. 

No one will play us at home. Who can blame them? Our field is next to the lake everyone in the tri-state area has heard about by now, the reason for all the birth defects and mutations and cancers like the kind that killed my mother last winter. Everyone knows about the accidental chemical relocation, the reason the water smelled vaguely of burnt plastic and car air freshener and stopped freezing in winter.

As compensation, the corporation pays half our medical bills. They say it’s too expensive to clean up the lake, so they put a barbed wire fence around the shoreline, hung all these signs about liability and risk, how no one will pay if you go beyond this point. The surface glows green all day and all night. When an errant soccer ball lands on the surface, it sizzles before it sinks, like raw chicken thrown into a hot pan.

*

Back when my father and mother moved to Dover, the lake wasn’t so bad. I’ve seen the pictures, my mother pregnant with me on the muddy beach, her striped bathing suit straining around her stomach, my father beside her in an ill-fitting Speed-o, behind them the water a crisp, travel brochure blue.    

My father had just gotten his job as the district art teacher. They’d moved from Queens, where the rents were too high anyway, bought a dilapidated Victorian right on the lake, peeling paint and a turret with an oval shaped window. It looks like a kids’ drawing of a haunted house, which my mother loved.     

She worked as a freelance graphic designer, had her own studio on the edge of the property, a small barn that still smells like hay and cows.  She was always trying to get me to draw in there while she sketched a new logo for a downstate ballet school or spa.

“Enough with the video games. Enough with the screens. Let’s see what’s in your head,” she’d say and open a thick sketchbook.

At the end her eyes were huge and her skin was pale green and her arms were like insect arms and my head was far away. I drew aliens in space ships and aliens on distant planets. While my father drank whiskey and painted abstract shapes in the basement, I drew the Milky Way and aliens on Mars, laser beams streaking from their fingers. I drew like I was still eight years old, in love with Star Trek and Star Wars.

“Interesting concepts,” my father said. “I like how you captured the surface of Mars.”

He hung the drawings in the basement where my mother could no longer go. That spring, after she died, he came up with the idea for the soccer team.  

“We both need to get healthy,” he said, a drill book from Wal-Mart in his shaking hands. “Nothing wrong with your legs. No reason you can’t excel. My great grandfather played back in Italy, you know. It’s in the blood.”

He was sober for the first time in weeks, his eyes rimmed red. “We’ll call it ‘the Dover Galaxy,’ like that team from Los Angeles. Dark blue and silver uniforms. You can draw the logo. Sounds cool, right?”

“Cool!” I said, lilting my voice up like a younger, happier kid. 

*

We’re an all-mutant team, the normal kids long immersed in football and basketball.  Guys came out of the woodwork, guys whose parents home schooled them because of the bullying and guys who’d been expelled years ago for fighting back too hard. They walked up to my father the first day of practice, new Wal-Mart soccer balls at their feet, their cleats the same neon green as our skin, their faces fixed in a hard expression like, “Try to fuck with me. Try it.”   

“Good to see you’re ready to work,” my father told them. 

They had no skill—none of us did—but they played with an explosive rage, running full throttle at loose balls in the August heat, using their hips to push you out of the way, scratching at your side with their fin-hands, which was more annoying than painful, like getting sawed with a butter knife. When they headed the ball, they’d torque their whole bodies and grunt like they’d been stabbed in the gut.

Jackson, a guy expelled for bringing his grandfather’s antique mace to school in the second grade, was my favorite. He’d show up to practice with an iPod and speakers, play death metal while we ran the ten laps my father required as a warm-up. I’d never heard music like this, bands with names like Cannibal Corpse or Skeleton Witch or GWAR, the singers growling through nettled hurricanes of sound. He sent me MP3s, which I played in my room with the door closed, the volume on my laptop turned as loud as I dared.

“I just wish I could understand them,” my father would say, opening the door, squinting in a way I’d learned to hate. “That’s what makes me nervous.”

“You’re not supposed to understand them. That’s the point,” I said and shut the door on him.

After practice, he’d take the whole team to the Pizza Hut in Carmel, put it on a credit card. We’d chow down, not caring how people stared at us while we ate, a loud process that involves leaning our heads close to the pizza and angling the slice toward our mouths, exposing our blue teeth.    

It felt like we were a team in an old movie. We were the rag tag misfits who would sock it to the nasty, beautiful kids from the wealthy town, to their stern, Russian-sounding coach. Our coach was the crotchety alcoholic who could get competitive but really only wanted us to have fun, to believe in ourselves. 

On Sunday nights, the one night we didn’t have practice, my father would drink his whiskey and we’d flip through the manual, studying how the blond, tan boys in the pictures trapped the ball with the insides of their feet on pristine green fields, used theirs heads to arc the ball into a blue sky.

Just before dark, my father would lead me outside to try some new move out. “Look at us, a couple of aficionados,” he would say, losing his balance now and then, the lake green and stinking behind us.

And for a whole hour we could forget that my mother was gone, that she wasn’t in her barn working the way she usually did after dinner, that she wouldn’t call us both to the television soon to watch something on the travel channel, that she wasn’t planning our next trip. 

*

Back before she got sick, my mother and I loved to play “Where will you live?”  We’d sit at the kitchen table, a yellowed atlas spread out before us. “It could be any city,” she’d say, the fifty states flying through her hands, her eyes closed. Wherever her index finger landed, that was where I’d live.

We’d imagine my life in Nashville, New Iberia, Scranton, Yellowstone, and Chicago. We’d go online and look up the best restaurants, the weird foods, the local attractions, the odd historical museums.

I loved Denver the most. We’d been once on a cross-country trip, when I was eight, and I remembered the snow-capped mountains, a silver skyline, a restaurant where they served rattlesnake. I’d live in what my mother called a loft space, a whole wall made of glass looking out on the downtown. Maybe I’d design video games. She’d said I could go to school for that. 

“You’ve got to make different kinds of games though,” she’d told me. “I’m sick of all the violence, all the women with their boobs out getting murdered. Promise me that?”

I’d blush and promise and hope I’d live long enough to do something like that. No one knows what our life span will be. We go for cancer screenings three times a year, take iron pills, get the occasional blood transfusion. Sepia toned pamphlets tell us to “make the most of every day.” Since we turned nine, we’ve been given a shifting cocktail of anti-depressants to prevent mass mutant suicide, which I guess is a thing where other accidental chemical relocations have occurred. 

“Travel produces endorphins,” my mother would say, convincing my father to put another set of hotel reservations on a credit card.

She loved to take trips, even if it was just down to Cold Spring to try a new restaurant. We were poor but we always had nice suitcases from the Macy’s in the Chappaqua Mall, gold-zippered Samsonites shaped like bullets that could be dropped from 1,000 feet and suffer no damage, they’d done tests.

If we were going away—to grandma’s apartment in Queens, to a ten-dollar-a-night camp ground in the Catskills, cross-country that one time after Grandma died and we got some extra money—she’d always want to leave before sunrise. She’d shake me and my father awake in the dark and we’d bitch how it was inhumane to be in the world so early.

“Fuck you, Mom,” I might shout, and then she’d pull me out of bed, hard, her nails digging into my skin.

Once we got in the car, though, everything in me would relax. We were leaving Dover, leaving our house and our routines and everything that had gone wrong with us. She would drive faster than my father ever did, her windows cracked open in summer and winter, the air rushing around us, washing the sleep from our skin.

And it is this, this feeling of motion, of travel that we love about soccer, through September and into October, through all the ass kickings, through the taunts that we are sister-fuckers and horror movie extras and sewage rats. We love boarding our team bus, a rusted school bus my father and I painted to look like deep space, the Milky Way sprawled across the hood, the Millennium Falcon flying across the side. We love getting on the highway, our shit town, the lake that warped us, our every day lives receding behind us, the hot air blowing through our windows, our water bottles still cool in our duffle bags. 

The games themselves, we could skip. The boys downstate have been trained at elite camps since they were six, can move the ball faster than we can think. Their skin is clear, their teeth white, their arms normal. They play in climate-controlled domes designed to protect their bodies from pollutants. We step onto the fancy turf, beneath the fluorescent lights, and our bodies buzz with anger and fear. Waiting for the start, we tie and untie our cleats. We give each other wedgies. We crack jokes about the other team, how they look like a robot army, like a bunch of metrosexuals with their jerseys perfectly tucked in and their hair salon cut. 

We’ve all had “the talk” with our parents by now, a stilted conversation on a couch with the TV turned off, about individuality and how it is good to be unique, how the world is lucky to have us, how grateful they are to have a mutant child, how they wouldn’t trade us for normal looking boys. We never felt so loved and so alien, so grateful and embarrassed and full of hate.  

We are relieved when the games are over, when we get to go to the Burger-hop in Scarsdale or Yorktown or Ardsley. It’s always fancier than our Burger-hop, with fifties era records on the walls and Elvis posters and waitresses in poodle skirts and no signs in the bathroom saying there is a hidden video camera and that drug users will be prosecuted.

We always order more than we can eat. We get back on the bus full and tired, wishing we could keep going and never look back. We talk about the future. Jackson wants to run a medieval weaponry shop in Texas, or start a band. Two of the homeschoolers want to move to Hawaii and learn how to surf.

“You all pick up your game, we’ll check out travel tournaments for this summer,” my father promises. “They have ones by the beach and ones by the mountains.”

*          

And in the movies about kids’ sports teams, this is when we get better. This is when we swallow our shame, our anger, our lethargy, our hate and pick up real skills. This is when we get a ringer—a Mexican kid, or a normal girl with a soft spot for mutants—then face off against the biggest shitheads in the league for the championship.

This is when we win and sneer in their faces. This is when the shithead Chappaqua coach breaks his clipboard over one knee and calls his own son, the star striker, an idiot. Or this is when we lose but it’s the joy of playing that sustains us. This when we shrug our shoulders and laugh and make vows about next season as we dump coolers of Gatorade over each other’s heads.

What happens instead is that one by one, the other teams cancel on us. Ardsley says they have no time in their schedule. Bedford says they have a competitive tournament coming up and can only play teams who’ve been in the league a minimum three years. Apparently it’s in the rules that they can do this. Teams with no United States Youth Soccer Federation ranking can be skipped at will.

Getting the ranking involves paying federation officials to come to your town to observe your practices, then paying the $10,000 ranking fee. In other words, we could never afford it.

On the days our games are cancelled, my father has us practice instead. We show up in the November heat—it won’t cool until December, when it will drop into the negatives over night—and he runs us through drills that get increasingly harsh.

“We’ve got to stay ready,” he says ominously, and assigns us a series of sprints instead of our usual laps, duck walks designed to rip the muscles in our legs so stronger ones can grow, heading drills that go on forever, ringing our skulls.

“Our chance will come. We don’t need any ranking,” my father says, as we struggle across our field, which is all dust and faded lines, drier than the surface of Mars.

“I think I need a break from soccer,” I tell him one night.

“You need to keep playing for your mood,” he says. “The experts agree. It’s as good as taking Zoloft.” 

He is quoting the Wal-Mart manual, which also says that sports make you shoot higher in life, that while we can’t all be Pele, we can’t all be Diego Maradona; we can experience our own small measure of glory. We can make our soccer dreams come true in our own small way.

“My mood is fine,” I say and disappear into my monstrous new music.

The day before Halloween, Chappaqua calls: their field is no longer equipped to deal with our special needs. They do not specify what our special needs are.

My father makes a series of phone calls, sets up a last-minute scrimmage against LaGrange. They are from a shit town up north like us, but they’ve been doing this longer, will nonetheless kick our asses.

“Can’t we just have a weekend off?” I ask. We are in the kitchen, a Rice-a-Roni dinner on the stove. “I want to draw, play some videogames. I have a life besides soccer.”

“If that’s what you want, be my guest,” my father says. “I’ll tell your teammates you had other plans.”

And I do think of Jackson, still running his heart out even when we’re down 7-0 against Bronxville, green sweat pouring down his face. “Fine,” I say, my face turning the color of bread mold, I can feel it.

And we get our asses kicked, our worse loss yet. The classy teams hold off at 9-0, pass to each other instead of scoring, but La Grange pushes into the double digits. Jackson and I get red cards for instigating a fight, for calling the La Grange boys red neck sheep fuckers and for trying to claw at their eyes with our fin-hands.

“I don’t know who that was out on the field today,” my father says to me on the bus, barely looking at me. “Next time just stay home.”

“Maybe I will,” I say, so tired and drained I can barely hold my head up.

Thanksgiving weekend and Edgemont cancels the night before. This is our furthest away game, two hours downstate. They have safety concerns. They want to wait until more studies have been done. They are looking out for our well being as well as their own. They don’t want anyone to get hurt. In the kitchen, I can hear the coach’s sympathetic voice as my father nods his head, the phone loose in his hand.

“Studies my ass. They’re not contagious,” he says at last. “We’re showing up Saturday. You better be there or you’ll have my lawyer to deal with.”

We both know, and the Edgemont coach knows, that no one in Dover could afford a lawyer. Still, my father tells everyone to plan to play, to be at the middle school parking lot at 6 am the next morning.

“No one’s going to be there,” I tell him. “They won’t play us.” 

My father sighs heavily. He’s standing at the counter, his coach’s bag packed with First Aid supplies and energy bars and extra waters and a flask of whiskey, his polo sagging on his thin shoulders

“We’ll deal with that possibility as it occurs,” he says. “I’m trying to teach you boys to follow through. I’m trying to teach you, you don’t just go home and sit in your room when things get difficult.  There’s a whole world out there.”

“Easy for you to say.” I am tired of playing the teachable and coachable open-hearted son. I want to stop taking all the pills they give us. I want to feel the full bitterness and rage and sadness of everything in my head.  

“Right. That’s a productive response. I’m going for a drive,” my father says.

As soon as he shuts the door, the house fills up with a murky dread and I wish he would come back. It is haunted in here, my mother at the kitchen table with her atlas, as if the whole thing is ours to traverse, my mother fighting with my father about whose turn it is to cook, my mother bald and with huge, alien eyes, drinking my father’s whisky alone at the counter. The sun is setting and the shadows are leaking from every doorway, every window. I head out into the back yard, juggle a ball up onto my thighs the way my father showed me. 

*

No one talks the whole way to Edgemont, even the home school kids who usually can’t shut up. We’re sleepy and demoralized, our arms crossed over our space-themed jerseys, our heads tucked into our chests. My father takes the curves too fast, our bodies swaying back and forth through the Hudson Valley hills. 

When we pull up to the dome, we know immediately something’s wrong. There are no cars in the lot and the lights inside are off.

“Hello? Hello?” my father says, banging on the door.

We stare through the bus windows. The light is thick and warm, shining on the dome, heating us up. We could fall back into a deep, dark sleep and never wake up. We could melt into the rubbery seats.

“Mother fucker,” Jackson says at last, and goes to join my father. We watch the two of them pull up the granite rocks that line the walkway, slam them through the glass door. Jackson reaches through the jagged hole and pulls the lock.

“What are you waiting for? Get your stuff,” my father shouts at us.

We walk uncertainly toward him, our bags heavy on our shoulders. Inside, the lights are off and the turf field is a dark, quiet stage, a flat lake. There is only the hum of the vending machines and the climate control system. A janitor approaches, a tired looking man around my father’s age, his shoulders hunched, a bandage around his head. His face is thin and pale green like my mother’s once was.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he says, looking from the door to my father, to us. “What happened to that door? Who are you people?”

“We’re looking for the Edgemont Hotspurs. We have an appointment,” my father says, like the Edgemont Hotspurs are a doctor who’s refused to treat us. 

“Oh, they’re out of town this weekend,” the janitor says, looking down at his boots. “Some tournament in Connecticut.”

“Must have been a miscommunication,” my father says. “We have an appointment.”

Jackson pushes past him, heads out onto the field to kick around. The other kids follow. I stand behind my father, my feet welded to the floor.

“I have it right here,” my father says. He reaches into his pocket for the creased schedule.

And all at once I can’t take it, how his hand will shake, how the schedule has every game time in bold, in Garamond font, my mother’s favorite, and our team logo at the top, a tiny solar system he had me draw back in August. I want to kick him in the side, hard, to shout in a guttural voice that I’ll never be happy and healthy the way he wants, that I’ll never be healed, that I’ll always be weird and shattered and poisoned. 

“Dad, just give it up already,” is what I say, and stalk back to the bus. 

In his duffle bag, the flask is tucked behind the First Aid kit. The whiskey goes down harsh and toxic. When my father emerges from the dome, his bald head bent, the other boys with him, I slide it back into the bag.

“Can we go to the Burger-hop?” one of the home schoolers asks.

“We’re going home,” my father says, so quietly I can barely hear him. “I’m sorry about this boys. Maybe it is time for a break. You all have done a great job this season.”

I put on my headphones, turn up Cannibal Corpse, the music filling my whole body, the alien ogre monster growling through my bones.  Back in Dover, my father doesn’t ask me about the missing whiskey, or why I’m stumbling when I get off the bus.

“Go take a rest,” he tells me, and lets me pass out for the rest of the day.

That night, after he goes to sleep, Jackson comes over. We sneak more whiskey and drink too fast out on the lawn, steal my father’s hedge trimmers, cut a hole in the barbed wire surrounding the lake and walk down to the beach. The toxic sand is still warm from the day’s heat, the water shrouded in a thick green fog.

“Paradise,” Jackson says and I laugh.

On other nights, we will disappear into that fog. We will forget our fathers and our mothers and our coaches and our teachers and anyone who has ever cared about us. We will play with our own deaths, terrified for weeks after, waiting for the pain in our guts, for the new dizziness that means cancer.  While we wait, we will write our own ugly, indecipherable songs.       

Tonight, though, we are more exhausted than anything else. We lie on our backs, our bodies thrumming with alcohol, the stars vague blurs. A plane flies over us, two red dots, and I imagine all the beautiful suitcases packed into the cargo hold, imagine myself stowed inside one them, my eyes closed against the cold. Eventually, the lid opens. The owner of the suitcase screams and I step out into a brand new world.