They called me the Fat Dyke Ref that summer. It didn’t hurt my feelings so much as it violated my sense of exactness. Fat? I’d always been cinder-block thick, and it was true that I’d put on some weight since the desert. Dyke? Yeah, I liked vaginas more than dicks, they had me there. But a ref, in kickball? ¶ “Bitches, I’m an umpire,” I’d say, because that’s what I was, and because it was fun to watch strangers’ faces when I called them bitches. “Get it right or get off my field.”
The kind of people who played Sunday kickball at McCarren Park weren’t used to being talked to that way, not by people like me. Some were staunch Brooklyn dwellers, freelancing hipster types welded into the rails of L-train culture. Others were wayfarers from across the bridge, ad execs, digital communication associates, office ilk with salaries and titles. Whichever borough they claimed, most were actually expats from Middle America, whiter-than-snow 20-somethings loaded up on brunch mimosas. Monday through Saturday they might’ve been able to handle a fag with a butch cut and a homegrown fuck-all attitude. We’d talk deli sandwiches, or weather, or maybe Obama. It was an election year. But Sunday, at the kickball fields? That was supposed to be theirs. My presence screwed with the equilibrium of it all.
And I got that. Ooh-rah to diversity, but sometimes we just need to be around our own kind. Wednesday nights, when I went to Mama’s Lounge to get faded and maybe laid, the last thing I wanted to see was a Hasid or a pack of finance bros. Same with Saturday evening mass at St. Francis’s—if you went there, you were either old, Italian or both. Those two parts of my existence, and the people in them, stayed separate. I was grateful for that. After coming home from Iraq, it took me a while to figure out that getting through life meant compartmentalizing it. New York was as tribal as the desert. It just had more compartments.
After a few weeks, the various kickball tribes got used to the Fat Dyke Ref. If I wasn’t quite welcome, I was at least tolerated, like a neighbor’s Christmas decorations in May. They’d taken to my cousin Squatch more easily—he’d become the Ref With the Burned Face—mostly because he’d just flex his biceps when they tried to argue a call. Six-foot-four and 280 pounds, Squatch was the Eurasia of big people—sprawling but shiftless. The kickballers didn’t know that, though. They just saw a mute giant with a face of brain. Not even the man-roosters wearing their high school baseball cleats messed with that.
Our downstairs neighbor Chad was the league commissioner, and how we’d gotten the jobs. Squatch already worked as a bouncer at the local bar Chad owned, Not Chad’s. Apparently muscle was needed at the kickball fields too. I got the league a tax credit; Chad had seen something on the news about hiring veterans being good business and texted me immediately. He wasn’t so bad, as far as grown men who wore backward caps to hide their baldness went, but him rolling around the park on a Segway drinking from a plastic chalice did little for Williamsburg’s reputation.
The gig proved simple enough—out, safe, fuck off, that sort of thing. Other than whining about calls, no one said much of anything to me, not directly. Then, three weeks in, one of the man-roosters noticed my tats.
The guys were beta males who looked like they subsisted on kale.
“Yut, yut,” he said as he walked up to kick, nodding to the black ‘Semper Fidelis’ ink slashing my forearms. He had a wood necklace on, common enough in north Brooklyn, except for what hung from the end of it—a hand-carved EGA. Unless something had changed in the four years I’d been out, the eagle, globe and anchor was still the official emblem of my beloved Corps.
“Kill,” I replied. Another marine, here? I couldn’t believe it. The only other vets I’d met in the hood had been a dipshit fobbit writing a screenplay and the old-timers at the VFW beer hall on Grand Street. The maybe-marine with the wood necklace was built like one of us, firm and knotty, but he had long drummer hair and skin bare as Saran wrap. The only marines I’d known without tattoos were officers. But this guy didn’t walk the way they did. He had swag, shoulders rolling forward like a proper grunt. He looked Asian, or maybe half Asian—he was pretty enough, under all the fuzz on his face.
Before I could sniff his war balls—where, when, what unit—he kicked a two-run double into a banking red sun. It won the game, and he didn’t bother to circle all the bases, disappearing between the dog-run and the big sycamore Girls filmed in front of one time. This vanishing act didn’t seem to trouble his team, though. They were already talking victory drinks. Later, during the evening games, I wondered if I’d imagined it all, the EGA necklace, the hair, the yuts. The new pills from the VA had been messing with my dreams; maybe they could mess with my not-dreams too. Or perhaps he’d been a goddamn ghost. Some leatherneck who hadn’t made it back from the desert.
Or he was just some idiot who’d played too much Call of Duty. That felt right.
I mentioned the hipster marine to Squatch that night as we walked back to our apartment. We lived in a sleepy trapezoid of east Williamsburg that was still more Italian than gentrified. Our grandma had bequeathed the place to the two of us in the hospital, after making us promise we’d sell only to fellow descendants of Lo Stivale.
“That’s how the Polacks kept Greenpoint,” she’d said. Her final words, actually.
“You sure he said yut?” Squatch had been umping another game, so he hadn’t seen the guy with long drummer hair. “That’s not really a word, Marti. He could’ve said cut. Or butt. Or he was burping.”
“There’s the way marines say yut, and there’s the way everyone else says it.” Squatch himself had said it like a slow kid trying out phonics. “This guy said it the way we do.”
Squatch shrugged. He was unconvinced, I could tell. He wanted me to go back to school, on the G.I. Bill, but I’d tried a couple times already and it hadn’t taken. He’d also suggested I find some vets group in the city, like a political thing or whatever. “Put that wrath to use,” he liked to say. I’d done some disaster relief in the Rockaways after Sandy, joining up with an organization made up of a lot of young vets and first responders. It’d been a good experience, and real work. Even made my heart glow for a couple days. Then I’d come home and looked up the org’s public financial records. I stopped volunteering after that.
The evening air was broth; New York Junes weren’t much for mercy. Other than some traffic din from the BQE, the only noise in the neighborhood came from a block over, where some kids had opened a hydrant. It sounded wet. To the west, distant and bound by broken clouds, the Freedom Tower jutted through the sky. A small beacon blinked at the top of it, a bright red light there to ward off planes. It sort of reminded me of the Eye of Sauron, but I pushed that thought away. If there was anywhere left in the world where we were still the good guys, it was there.
On Humboldt Street, someone had tagged the metal shutters of an auto-body shop closed for the weekend. A large orange bull’s head gleamed from the shutters’ center, horns filled in with a black burnish like midnight. Squatch cursed at it. Lately a lot of spray-painted bull’s heads had been appearing in the area.
We passed by Mr. Pisano, probing down the sidewalk with his cane, fitting and refitting his tweed hat. He’d lived in the walk-up across the street since the Depression and done a tour in the Coast Guard. We said hello, but he looked back blankly, his face a map of deep wrinkles. He smelled like Vaseline.
“He thinks we’re them,” Squatch said. He meant gentrifiers, or hipsters, or scenesters, or anything other than a native. “I’ve known that man since Little League.”
“Naw, dude. Ain’t that.” There’d been a distant look in Mr. Pisano’s face, more amnesia than anger. “Just old.”
Squatch held open the front door of our apartment building with a sarcastic “Yut.” I ignored him. Chad was in the hallway, folding up his Segway. He smiled wide at us, his backward cap angling out to the side.
“My people!” he said. “Another day of triumph and glory.”
“Ask Chad about the hipster marine,” Squatch said. “He probably knows who he is.”
“Whoa, don’t use that word.” Neither of us knew what Chad meant, so he continued. “The hipster is dead. We’re post-hipster now.”
I didn’t want to talk hipsters, and I definitely didn’t want to talk post-hipsters. “When we getting paid, Chad?” I asked. My monthly disability check covered most of the bills, a recurring gift from the hidden artillery shell that’d blown out my left eardrum. But a girl could always use some spending money. I had my eye on a new pair of wedges I’d seen at a store along Metropolitan. “This isn’t easy work.”
It was easy work. But after spending all day in the sun, my feet barking and a head like ash, it didn’t feel like it just then.
“End of the month, end of the month,” Chad said. “And I appreciate what you do, remember that! But, well. Marti. There’s been some—not complaints, really. More. Observations?”
“You want me to be nicer.”
“Fine.” I was surprised it’d taken this long; some raptor-faced skank had called me the meanest person she’d ever met the week before. “I’m working on my people skills.”
“That’s great, really great.” Chad was one of those earnest souls deaf to sarcasm, like it was a dog whistle beyond his range. “Gonna need my umps ready for next week! Balls and Dolls are playing the Swashbucklers in the night game. Have assigned you both to it. Last season the two teams—well. They got into a fight. And the cops came! Can’t have that happening again.”
I hadn’t umped the Swashbucklers yet, but Balls and Dolls were a team from Bushwick, a walking, talking testament to the new Brooklyn privilege. The guys were scraggly barista-poets, beta males who looked like they subsisted on nothing but kale and chai lattes. And the girls all seemed shaken out of an Urban Outfitters catalog. Their captain was an editor at Vice, an outlet I wanted to hate, except it’d done better work on the Libyan civil war than anyone. How that team had brawled was beyond me—most of them probably couldn’t make a proper fist. But damn if they weren’t good at kickball. Even the bitches knew when to tag up, how to bunt.
Chad and Squatch wanted to talk about the other team, though. The Swashbucklers.
“The ones with the pirate flag?” Squatch had a sloppy grin on his face, the kind boys got when they thought they were being clever. “The crazy blonde pitcher, right?”
“You didn’t,” Chad said, his own sloppy grin sliding across his face. “You did!”
“I’m gone,” I said. My cousin could poke holes in all the hood rats he wanted, but that didn’t mean I had to hear about it. “Hate to miss boys’ club shit, but I got a bottle of wine to pop.”
They just snickered as I climbed the stairs. Fucking Peter Pans, I thought. Must be nice.
Our apartment was dim and cool. Squatch had left the kitchen ceiling fan on again. It creaked with every rotation, like a tongue popping off the roof of a mouth. I grabbed a red from the wine rack and a half-eaten roast beef sandwich from the refrigerator. The fan kept creaking. Need to get that looked at, I thought. Before it flies off and slices my jugular.
My room smelled of hamper. Three weeks’ worth, I figured, the floor a Pompeii of sports bras and button-ups. I stepped through the rubble and opened a window. Eating my half sandwich on my bed, I streamed an episode of Broad City. Squatch didn’t like the show, said it used too much gross-out humor. I’d told him it was because he was sexist. We’d had to listen to generations of dick jokes, what was wrong with hearing about how the other half lived? He’d wanted no part of that discussion, for some reason.
Unlike the floor, the walls of my room were bare. Nail holes from my grandmother’s time could be found here and there, remnants that looked like dark scars but felt like nostalgia. When I couldn’t sleep I’d try to remember what went where, back when my bedroom had been her sitting room. The crucifixes, all four of them, had been easy enough to place. But what about that photo of Frank Sinatra? And the Virgin Mary? How about that other photo of Frank Sinatra? And the other Virgin Mary? What about the canvas of a Tuscan marketplace that our aunt had taken? I’d wanted the piece but hadn’t fought her on it. Seniority and all.
I had something of my own to put up on the wall, if I ever got around to it: a color photograph of Al Hillah. The ministry dominated the foreground of it, a sandstone fortress engulfed by dust. Behind it, the muddy Euphrates ambled by, rows of date trees posting guard on both banks. The sun was high, proud, all the bright of noon cast down upon the quiet Iraqi town. In a far corner of the photo, a keen eye could make out black, vertical slashes—the streets and alleys of the vegetable market. Beyond that, five miles or so to the north, were Nebuchadnezzar’s ruins—supposedly, at least. Eight months of war and occupation, and we never found the time to go see what remained of the ancient Hanging Gardens.
The photo’s likeness was buried somewhere in the trunk in my closet, under a pile of uniforms and boots and certificates of commendation. I’d taken the original on my alive day with a disposable Kodak, hours after we’d rolled over the artillery shell and stumbled into an ambush. Squatch had gotten the picture blown up and framed last Christmas, a gesture I appreciated but didn’t need. The sight had been carboned to my mind the instant I snapped it, as well as all the other things cameras can’t seize. The feel of sweat running down the nape of a neck. The sting in the back of one’s eyeballs from smoke billows. The smell of canal stink. The rush of having located the enemy, closed with the enemy and destroyed the enemy. Of having laid into the Golf from a Humvee turret and filled the day with brass and cordite and sour, supreme death. Of becoming a true marine.
I knew then what I had trouble remembering now. That I’d have given much more than an eardrum for that moment, for that feeling, perverse as it was. I’d proved myself worthy. Not bad for a female lance corporal banished to a cultural support team with the Army, all because she’d head butted an E-4 stateside who’d grabbed her ass. I’d gone to Al Hillah an exile, to feel up haj women, patting down burkas and abayas to make sure Grandma wasn’t packing heat or little Suzie Akbar wasn’t strapped down with a suicide vest.
I’d left there a magician. I’d turned alive men dead.
There was a quick knock at the door, then it swung halfway open. It was the man himself, his face carrying a pink shine from the day, as well as the beginnings of a sunglass tan. Moron, I thought. I’d told him to put on sunscreen. If anyone needed to be careful, it was him.
“Marti—got a minute?” Squatch asked. I nodded, and he sat down on the foot of my bed. He looked around my room, faux-admiringly. “Interior decorating. That’s what you should do.”
“What is it.”
“Where to begin.” He sighed, cleared his throat, then sighed again. He pointed to his face. “Remember this?”
“Yes.” We’d been 12, the summer between sixth and seventh grade, and the family had gone to the Poconos for a long weekend. To embrace the outdoors or something. As city folk, we’d neglected many of the essentials, like bug spray and ice, but by night two, everyone seemed to have adapted, maybe even relaxed. Then young Squatch, tasked with refueling the outdoor generator that powered the cabin, bumped the metal fuel spout against a starter cable hanging across the tank. After a long summer day under a big summer sun, the positive-to-negative charge contact ignited the fuel, then the fuel can, and then the boy holding the fuel can. It took two extinguishers to put him out, and his face had resembled beef stroganoff ever since.
“It’s not been easy. I used to be normal. You know?”
“The point, Squatch.” He wasn’t one to talk about this. I couldn’t recall if we ever had. It made me nervous.
“Fine.” He sighed one more time, short and sharp, like a dart of air. “Some people in the league heard there’s an ump who’s a vet. Those people assumed it was me. They asked about it. I didn’t correct them.”
Now that we’d crossed some sort of mental Rubicon, the words flowed. A group of kickballers were regulars at Not Chad’s. Squatch had stayed after his shift a few weeks back to drink with them. They’d assumed he was the vet they’d heard about. While he kept trying to correct them, they wouldn’t listen—thought he was trying to be humble. Then the thank-you-for-your-services started. Then the free beers began coming. Then the blonde pitcher from the Swashbucklers had sat on his lap, saying she felt like doing something patriotic. He never actually said he’d served, or been to Iraq, or been shot at, but he knew that was semantics and he was sorry, he was sorry about everything, but could I maybe not blow up his spot if it came up at the big kickball game next week?
I didn’t know what to say. I needed to be angry, righteous. Pretending to be a combat veteran wasn’t just an abuse of common decency, it was actually illegal. Stolen valor and shit. Every time I turned on the news, my generation of vets was being exploited by this politician, or that cause, or for whatever argument. We were ciphers to most of America, other people’s sons and daughters, and other people’s sons and daughters didn’t possess nuance or agency. And my cousin, my own blood, a guy who’d never been further from home than Daytona fucking Beach was freebasing all that for a few high-fives and a drunken blow job?
I couldn’t muster anything, though. Some of the biggest posers I’d known were vets. The pogue who never left Kuwait but needed to pretend he’d crossed the brink. The staff officer whose lone patrol off base became more dangerous with each of her retellings. Even the grunts, it was rare for them to stick to the truth, because the truth was never enough. War stories meant bullshit, that’s just how it was. Deep down, I knew I’d exaggerated what happened that day in Al Hillah to people, be they surly uncles I wanted to impress or lipstick dykes I wanted to screw. I wasn’t proud of it. But still. It’d happened, and it’d probably happen again.
Maybe we’d earned the right to bullshit, while Squatch hadn’t. That made sense. But he’d never wallowed in what’d happened to him. Maybe he’d earned a right to bullshit too.
“Fine,” I said. Surprise fell down his chewed-up face like rain. Something else was bothering me more than his lie. “Long as you promise to get that kitchen fan fixed. It’s driving me crazy.”
He agreed so readily I thought he was going to hug me. I scooched back, then made him watch a Broad City episode, the one about vaginas being nature’s pocket. Halfway through, during an ad, he asked if I missed it.
“Sometimes,” I said. “And sometimes I don’t. Had my reasons for getting out.”
“Sometimes I think I should’ve joined up,” he said.
“Now you’re pissing me off,” I said, because he was.
The week came. The week went. I went to mass. I went to the VA. I went to Mama’s. It remained Africa hot outside. On the subway I listened to a realtor explain the difference between east Williamsburg and East Williamsburg to a tech bro with a baby slung to his chest. I ate at something called Muffin Town, a new breakfast joint on Graham Avenue. It wasn’t bad. I searched the streets for the hipster marine, but the only person I recognized was tweed-hatted Mr. Pisano, rifling through recycle bins and smelling of Vaseline and wine.
“Hello, Mr. Pisano,” I said.
“Marduk,” he said, tipping his cap to me. I figured it was progress, him almost getting right my name.
“Marti,” I corrected. “Mar-ti.”
He shook his head and pointed to the side of a recycle bin. A small bull’s head had been spray-painted there, electric blue.
“Marduk,” he repeated.
Sunday landed like a groan. I’d been half-awake and hungover when Squatch knocked at my door, saying we needed to be at the kickball fields in an hour. One shower, two glasses of water and three Advil got me upright and moving, even if I wasn’t happy about it.
The day defied me, though. A valentine of a sun shined above, pallid clouds and a light breeze checking the heat. Some black kids walking from Bed-Stuy to the pool were blasting Biggie from a small boom box, snapping each other with towels. A couple guidos in muscle tees loitered in front of the corner deli, admiring a large setter on a leash. The bells of St. Francis clanged through the neighborhood, newly redeemed souls spilling onto the concrete with a verve the priest had to know wasn’t because of any homily.
At the fringe of McCarren, callow stoners filled the skate run, some with boards, most not. Sweet tangy herb tickled at my nostrils. I’d always wanted to like weed more than I did. Four stark bull’s heads marked the entrance to the run along a concrete slab, all different colors and sizes, like strange hieroglyphics of a mystical temple. Across the street, a group of lumbersexuals drank PBRs on a bar patio, all wearing cut-off flannels. “Urban rustic woodsman” was the look of the year; New York mag had told me so. I remembered the Rapture had played that bar a couple years prior. It’d been a good show. That’d been before the band sold out, and before that bar had become a place frequented by lumbersexuals.
As the world turns.
Cutting across the bottom of the park, I stopped to watch a game of Mexican volleyball. While their families grilled and gossiped, the young men hustled and set, hustled and set, over and over again, only pushing the ball over the net when they had to. They played the game so differently than the long Californians on television: more quickness than power, more care than craft. I found it transfixing, like looking into a kaleidoscope. When they breaked for cervezas, I continued on my way.
The kickball fields lay in a north-side hollow of the park, two perpendicular diamonds of silt and sand. During the rest of the week, and for most of the year, they were just fields—for softball, for Frisbee, a place where teenagers could grope and heroin junkies could drool. But on summer Sundays, thanks to a permit secured through the parks department, the fields belonged to us. Like a kickball Stalin, armed with a fat grin instead of a mustache, Chad had a series of five-year plans for the league: first Brooklyn, then the other boroughs, then the entire Eastern seaboard. It hardly mattered to him that those other places already had their own recreational pursuits meant to evoke the wonder of childhood; those games and organizations would be conquered, then appropriated, all in good time. Fate demanded it.
First hint of trouble, bounce ‘em. The league can’t allow a ruckus.
“We have something those places don’t,” Chad liked to say from his Segway throne. “Remember that.” Then he’d roll away, not having said what, sipping from his plastic chalice.
Both afternoon games passed without much incident. There was a 50-50 call when a sliding hipster’s foot met home plate the same moment the ball reached her skull. I called it safe, mostly because her glasses flew off from the impact. A man-rooster from the other team protested, red-faced and hysterical, something I entertained for a few seconds before snorting and crossing my arms.
“You done?” I asked. His eyes were all over the ‘Semper and Fidelis’ tattoos I’d brought to the conversation. They went from interest, to confusion, to fear. The sound of his voice was threatening to rouse my hangover, so I flexed my forearms to make sure.
“Yeah,” he said. “Guess I am.”
The evening game arrived a few hours later. As the teams got settled in their respective dugouts, Chad and Squatch waved me over to the first-base line. I took my time getting there. I wanted them to know I thought they were being dramatic.
“Be ready,” Chad said. “There’s already been a lot of smack on the online message board.”
“Oh,” I said. “Not that.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “One of the Swashbucklers posted that he’d—well. That he’d donkey-punch another player’s grandmother. Not even his mom. The grandmom.”
Chad had a point. Mom jokes were one thing, but grandma jokes were another. We briefed our roles. Chad would be behind home plate, calling fouls and strikes. I’d be in the shallow outfield, responsible for second base. And Squatch would be behind the pitcher’s mound, nominally responsible for calls at first and third, but also strategically placed in the center of the diamond.
“Same rules as Not Chad’s,” Chad said to him. “First hint of trouble, bounce ’em. I can’t have the league getting a reputation for allowing ruckus.”
I wanted to make fun of Chad for using the word ruckus, but the park lights turned on that moment, illuminating the fields in a murky glow. I took my position in the outfield center, facing home plate. To my right, the Swashbucklers had raised a black pirate flag above their dugout, held fast to a long radio antenna. Across from them, Balls and Dolls were jumping rope to warm up, wearing matching tie-dyed uniforms and a rainbow array of Chuck Taylors.
It was then that I promised myself to go back to college, for good this time, to get a real-person job, to live a real-person life. I wasn’t sure I could ever be more than a marine. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t be something other than one.
The game began normally enough. The Swashbucklers scored two runs in the first inning, which Balls and Dolls equaled in the second. Nearly everyone seemed well behaved, placid even. I couldn’t decide whether we were dealing with overhype or just yuppie blowhards. From the outfield, it was tough to tell.
The exception proved the Swashbucklers’ blonde pitcher. I kind of liked her, despite the holes Squatch had poked, despite the pit of whiskey she’d fallen into. She was alpha and suffered no fool. When her third baseman bobbled a bunt, his name became Swamp Donkey. When a kicker kept letting pitches roll past in the hope of a perfect ball, the blonde told her she’d “cunt punt” her if the next pitch wasn’t kicked. And when Chad called a ball fair that she’d believed foul, she went in on his baldness with a cold, dark rage.
“Can you believe she teaches sixth graders?” I overheard some of her teammates. “Pre-algebra.”
During the fourth inning, I looked up to find the moon punching through a dirty sky. Something about it reminded me of Al Hillah—the crescent silhouette, the flashlight authority, the way it stirred gooseflesh on my arms even though I’d put on a long sleeve to cover my tats, per Squatch’s request. If I’d been the kind of person who believed in signs, I’d have taken it as one. But I wasn’t, so I didn’t. I just checked my phone for text messages I knew weren’t there.
The whiskey was beginning to affect the blonde’s command. Most of the Balls and Dolls squad adjusted accordingly, but with the bases juiced and two outs, the Vice editor wasn’t having it. After the third straight ball, he called out to the mound, “Roll it to the middle one, Lady Lush!”
The blonde was halfway to the plate when her catcher, a man-rooster greasy enough to be from Jersey, cracked the Vice editor from behind with a right cross to the ear.
I learned a few things about myself in the melee that evening. For one, while it didn’t quite compete with combat, a stray elbow to the jaw got the blood howling too. For two, while I didn’t like barista-poets, or hipsters, or post-hipsters, or privilege, I disliked assholes more. That’s what the Swashbucklers were—nothing but a tribe of assholes. And for three, while carnage had its perks, it required more stamina than I’d recalled. If kickball ruckus was to become a recurring part of life, I’d need to hit the McCarren track more.
I also learned a few things about my cousin. Perhaps Squatch should’ve joined up after all. He was a goddamn hero that night in Williamsburg, tossing angry little people around like they were made of plush. Even Chad wasn’t spared; our chrome-domed, chalice-sipping leader got mistaken for a kickball insurgent and wheeled into the infield dirt. By the time some semblance of order was restored, the greasy catcher had a torn shirt and a busted eye socket, the Vice editor was staggering off a concussion, and Squatch had gotten hold of the blonde pitcher, picking her up from the ground like she was a fitting toddler.
“Chill, Amy,” Squatch said. She was kicking and trying to pry out of the grip he had around her waist. “It’s over, it’s all over. And it’s all good.”
“Fuck that!” She wasn’t having any talk of peace, let alone reconciliation. “And fuck you. Lemme go, you fucking ogre fuck.”
Squatch laughed her off, which only incited the whiskey fury. “You think that’s funny? At least I have a real face.”
Squatch tried to laugh that off too, less convincingly this time. I heard some snickering behind me. “Probably did something retarded to get like that,” a voice said. It was hushed, but not hushed enough. “Like tripped over a bomb.”
After a quick sweep of his knees, I had him on the ground.
I didn’t see what team the guy was on. It didn’t matter. After a quick sweep of his knees, I had him on the ground and prostrate. I dug a sneaker into the back of his head and yanked up on his left arm, securing a wristlock. I heard some what-the-fucks and Fat Dyke Refs from the group but knew I was good. The women weren’t man enough to come after me. Neither were the guys.
“Apologize,” I said, gritting my teeth out into a fake smile. “What you said wasn’t nice.”
The body beneath me objected, saying he didn’t know what I was talking about. I raised up on his wrist ever so slightly, yielding a sharp whimper. A few more degrees and I’d snap it clean.
“Let’s try again,” I said.
“Sorry!” the body said. “Just let me up.”
“Not good enough.” Something like wrath, or clarity, or maybe even duty coursed within. I thought about Al Hillah, and the marines and soldiers there. I thought about the Iraqis there, and still there. Then I thought about Squatch, stupid Squatch and his stupid face and his stupid, stupid lie. All of that was this motherfucker’s fault. He was everyone and no one all at once, which is not someone to be while snared in a wristlock.
“Repeat after me,” I said.
“Okay,” the body said.
“Marti,” Squatch said. “Stop.”
“I am a coward,” I said.
“I am a coward,” the body said.
“This isn’t necessary,” Squatch said.
“I don’t appreciate what you did for me,” I said.
“I don’t appreciate what you did for me,” the body said.
“Please stop,” Squatch said.
“I am an infantile piece of shit,” I said. “I play a child’s game once a week to escape the yuppie void of my life. When confronted by a real person of experience, I mock, because I know how meaningless I am in comparison. Things like ‘honor’ and ‘courage’ and ‘commitment’ are just words to me, not values. Not ways of being.”
“I can’t remember all that!” the body said. “But yes, yes to it all, just let me up!”
“Marti,” Squatch said. His hands were on my shoulders now. “Let go.”
We decided to call the game, something even the man-roosters didn’t protest. Squatch and I stood off to the side while Chad played negotiator and placated. Hands were shaken, backs were patted, half-assed apologies were half-assed. No one approached us, though, not even the blonde. She didn’t look so drunk anymore, and wouldn’t look Squatch’s way. Balls and Dolls collected their jump ropes while a Swashbuckler lowered the pirate flag slowly, like it wasn’t an act of acquiescence.
Though the police hadn’t come this time, Chad thought it best he file a report, just in case. He thanked us, meaning it too, and walked off to the local precinct. Squatch asked if I’d join him for a beer at Not Chad’s.
“We’ll sit on the deck,” he said. “Our people. Kickballers don’t go back there.”
I told him next time, not because I didn’t want a drink or to talk things out, but because I needed to find someone, or at least try to.
He exists, I thought. He always has.
I headed east, the direction he’d run the week before. East, away from the waterfront, away from the luxury condos and the vacant sugar refinery and the kickball fields in the hollow, away from fire-hydrant summers and spray-painted bull’s heads and Muffin Town, away from everything I’d once known and then returned to.
The moon had fallen behind an armada of gray clouds, leaving the Brooklyn streets fantastically dark. Behind me, across the river, the Freedom Tower burned bright. I didn’t turn around to find its red eye, though. I was walking east, east then east again, not slow, not fast either, thinking about what I’d do when I found the hipster marine.
“Yut, yut,” I’d say.
“Kill,” he’d say.