by Evan Balkan
I was home from work only long enough to plop on the loveseat and take off my heels. Done, I just sat there. Sat and stared.
Friday night and nothing to do. Scratch that; I had people I could call, things I could do. I just didn’t feel like it. I was tired. God, was this what being an adult felt like? Friday evening was still the culmination of the week, but instead of an opportunity to go crazy it was just a blessed chance to relax and unwind.
The neighbors’ music started up. Early this week. It vibrated through my walls, making my framed prints bounce against the thin drywall. The floating sounds of laughter and yelling coming from next door was like breaking glass, so I grabbed my purse and got out of there.
I didn’t really need anything, but the grocery store seemed a logical place to go. It was one of those hip places where dudes wore wool caps no matter if it was ninety-five degrees outside and where the employees wore shorts and Hawaiian shirts, even in the chill of winter. I guessed this was supposed to suggest a laissez faire attitude, that shopping at this place was as much about fun and proving you were hip than it was about groceries. After all, don’t Hawaiians live in a state of perpetual paradise? Wasn’t simply shopping here a protest against the cold and brittle outside air? Its very presence was one of the things that allowed local real estate agents to sell the rapidly gentrifying area to young people—presumed hipsters—like me.
I passed the orchids and cacti and made for the shopping carts. A twentysomething dude with a 19th century beard pushed a cart toward me. I said thanks. Knee deep in a phone conversation, he nodded his chin at me.
My cart began to fill. Items seemed to just appear, dropped there by hands that were mine but that felt oddly disconnected: sulphured dried mango slices, tiny red bananas, Fair Trade cold brew coffee in adorable, highly stylized cans. I reveled in the fact that I could afford this stuff, that I needed literally none of it and yet wanted it, wanted it in a way I wasn’t even aware of when I arrived.
But I abandoned it all when I saw Coach Burch.
There he was, manning a checkout line, making small talk while he rang up items and then bagging them in threadbare reusables that every customer but me appeared to bring with them. Coach Burch’s shirt had huge orchids on it, pointing their stamen like tongues. But his was tight on him and he wore it over another, solid colored shirt. None of the younger employees did this. It was as if he’d forgotten his and had to borrow one, or maybe he was making some point by keeping the other shirt visible. It peeped out at the collar, and the edges of the sleeves flared out from beneath the aloha.
We occasionally did this, too, back in the day, us girls arriving at a soccer game wearing our reds instead of whites, and Coach Burch would have to dig through his bag, rummaging through pinnies and first aid kits and his dry erase board until he found a spare uniform shirt, crumpled at the bottom, smelling awful. “That’s your punishment for bringing the wrong shirt,” he’d tease. “I will not wash that until the end of the season. Next time, you’ll remember to bring both.”
It was that way he had with us, that line between being authoritarian and yet always cheerful and non-threatening. So when he delivered a threat—we wouldn’t start the next game, we need to do more sprints—he could do so with a smile and we knew he’d make good on it and yet somehow it was never a punishment.
And now here he was, a cashier at a checkout line, and it seemed he had no authority whatsoever. His manager, who came over several times to open a drawer or enter a special code, was easily twenty years younger than he was.
So I left my cart and fled, terrified that he’d see me, embarrassed for the both of us. When I knew him, he’d been an architect. It was possible, I guess, that he’d made a ton of money and retired but still wanted to do something and so took the grocery gig. But his face was too pinched and his movements too strained. There was no joy or pleasure whatsoever anywhere in his body. On the field, joy and pleasure radiated from him. Back then, he had to restrain himself from playing in every scrimmage with us.
I drove across town to the old grocery store, a behemoth anchoring a largely empty strip mall where few people ventured late at night. I got my groceries—cereal, bread, milk, eggs, that sort of thing. Elderly people floated through the aisles with a slow, unhurried ease. Not one of them clutched a phone. Not one of them was tethered to earbuds. The music piping through the speakers was full of strings, unlike the upbeat neo-pop stuff in the other place.
God, how he must have hated it.
I ate dinner alone that night, on my couch, the sounds of a roaring party pounding through the walls. I thought of Coach Burch all night long.
I just couldn’t figure out if the tears I had to hold back were for him or for me.
“Lock your ankle, Suzanne. Lock your ankle.” This is what he used to say to me all the time. This is what ran through my head like a mantra all night and was still running through my head when I went back to the store the next day.
My passes often fishtailed, veering off well wide or short of where I intended them. I used to fail to lock my ankle and push through with my instep. Instead, I often used a toe (“Cut that out, Suzanne,” he’d say) or I would move the ball to my right and then lose it instead of shielding on the left (“God gave you two feet, Suzanne. Use them.”) But mostly I would let my ankle flop. So I’d get the same instruction, which he always delivered with the same frustrated grimace on his face: “Lock your ankle, child.”
In the parking lot, I waited. I was terribly nervous and yet I had no idea why really, nor did I really understand why I needed to see him. The easiest thing in the world would have been to simply forget about it. But I shopped there sometimes and eventually I’d see him again and he’d see me. May as well get it over with.
I took the key from the ignition and headed toward the door.
I didn’t get far. There he was, on his way out, slinging his arms into a jacket, the ridiculous Hawaiian print like some kind of absurd beacon. He was heading toward the far side of the lot, toward the street. It felt like I was losing him and before I even realized, I yelled out.
“Coach!” I called.
He didn’t turn. Not even a flinch, as if the moniker “coach” had never applied to him or that he’d been stripped of its honorific long ago and ordered not to use it anymore. I may as well have called him “General” or “Admiral” or, even, “Mr. President.”
“Coach Burch,” I yelled.
Now he turned.
He looked in my direction, scanning. Then right at me. Then right through me.
“It’s me. Suzanne.”
His face lost its tightness. His shoulders dropped and he took a few steps towards me.
“From soccer,” I added.
“Yes, yes, of course. Suzanne, how are you?”
“I’m good, I’m good.”
I took a step closer and we were within hugging range. But I held back. I recalled something from years earlier that I had never thought of before, how we used to practice trapping the ball with our chests. But when we started growing breasts, Coach Burch stopped those drills. Just never brought it up again. And I remembered how in the earliest days we would all hug him, especially if we won a tournament and he passed out trophies or medallions. But then we never hugged anymore. As we got older, he never put a hand on us, ever. I missed that; I liked his hugs.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Well, I work here.”
“Cool. Cool. Nice place.”
“There are worse, I suppose. And how about you?”
“Got a job at Himmelfarb. About six months ago. Tech fund manager. Well, I’m not a manager. That’s what the firm does. It’s what I went to school for. So I guess I’m really lucky.”
I surprised myself, saying that. I hadn’t said it out loud before, but the sentiment was obviously deep in there somewhere, part of that nagging unease that accompanied me into work every day. I had recently begun to have this sneaking suspicion that working there would age me prematurely, that in no time I’d be one of the middle aged people grumbling about their kids over endless mugs of pungent cheap coffee. “Yeah, I was just like you when I first started,” they’d tell me. “Seems like yesterday. And now . . .” sweeping crumbs off a tie or running a saliva-soaked finger over a spot on a blouse, and they would never finish their sentences, as if “And now” summed up everything there was that needed to be said. That saying nothing at all was saying everything. It gave me the creeps. Was that adulthood? Spending your time looking backward and pining over the days you couldn’t wait to escape when you were living through them?
Coach smiled, his old sort of half-smile, the one he’d wear when we’d lose a game, the one that said he was disappointed but wanted to remind us that it was just a game and that he appreciated our efforts and that he’d see us in a few days at practice where we would work to get better. “Go enjoy the rest of your day,” he’d say, “And walk out of here with your heads up.”
“You need a ride home?” I asked.
He hesitated. I don’t know why I said it. Just that I wasn’t ready to let him go yet, as if he was the very last living link to my faded childhood.
He looked toward the street. “I usually just take the bus,” he said, pointing at the stop.
“But the bus sucks, doesn’t it?”
I was immediately ashamed. Bus riders fell into distinct categories, and there was that class of them that given a choice would much rather have driven a car, a shorter route and one done on one’s own schedule.
“Sorry. All I mean is, well, if I drive you it’ll be much quicker, right?”
I pointed at my car, embarrassed by its newness. “I’m right over here.”
He followed me without speaking and I began to think that maybe I’d made a huge mistake. I didn’t really know this man. And he sure didn’t know me. Last he saw me, I was fifteen, some seven years earlier. I smiled awkwardly as he got in.
“You know Applewood Estates?” he asked.
I did. It was one of those places made up of Soviet-style apartment blocks, the name “Estates” attached presumably in all seriousness when they were built, sometime in the 70s, if I had to guess, but had become shorthand for a sick kind of joke. Applewood Estates sat deep within a pocket of town that was changing rapidly; it wasn’t too far from my own new apartment and it seemed to me on those rare occasions I drove past it that it was like a last holdout for people on the margins, clutching the rails as a tsunami of suburban renewal pressed down on them, threatening to sweep them away like so much detritus.
“Applewood Estates it is,” I said, way too cheerily, and drove off.
Immediately we hit a red light. It was excruciating, just idling there. So long as I was driving, my hands and feet and eyes busy, I could chip away at the pregnant air. But while we just sat there, the heavy air ballooned around us, almost to the bursting point.
“So, you graduated from college then?” he asked.
I nodded, relieved.
“Good. That’s good.”
“I almost didn’t though,” I laughed. “I had this book I’d checked out of the university library that I never returned. Weird thing was I had it for years, and never got any notification about it, not even when I went to register each semester. We had this transition to a new i.d. card system, so maybe it just got lost in the shuffle or something. But then they figured it out.” I said it all in one huge breath. I could hear my voice tightening and I had to suppress giggles.
Coach drummed his fingers on the armrest and nodded. I could feel a heat coming off of him, some kind of embarrassed energy that he didn’t know what to do with.
I cracked the window. The light turned and I took off.
“So, there I am all set to graduate and I get this note saying I can’t walk across the stage unless I return this book. By then, I’d already packed up everything. So I just paid the fine, which was the cost of replacing the book. They claimed it was like eighty dollars or something, which is absurd, of course. But you know what?”
He shook his head, eyes still straight ahead.
“I’m glad I have it. It has all these notes in the margins. In pencil. And there’s something about those notes. I don’t know. Some long ago, very serious student or a professor maybe, who wrote them in. Could be dead now for all I know. But something about them, about the seriousness of them.”
I was never sure what it was about those notes that intrigued me so much, but now, driving with Coach Burch and explaining the notes out loud, I realized that what fascinated me so much about them was precisely the same thing that made me used to stare at Coach’s dry erase board with its stubborn markings that never erased completely, the ghosts of names put into certain positions and then erased and written over, old lines still visible, ex-teammates’ names clinging on season after season no matter if they had already abandoned the sport for lacrosse or some other kind of life, some other kind of identity.
“Evidence of growth.”
“A person still learning, still growing, looking for answers, suggesting his own.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said.
I smiled. And, looking at me, he smiled back.
I was relieved. And the feeling that I was the adult between us, the grown up tasked with coaxing conversation out of a little kid, began to subside. Back when we’d first started playing, it was him who asked us endless questions. But the more he did, the more we clammed up, unsure how to handle so much adult excitement. We mostly stared at the ground and mumbled our answers and just waited for the green light to run and chase and kick balls. It was hard back then, when we were just little kids. I’m sure it was hard for him, too, for anyone trying to teach a complicated game to young children. We plucked blades of grass while he shifted plastic cones around to show us different formations. He must have gotten so frustrated at times. But I couldn’t recall one time he ever actually lost his temper, even as we did cartwheels during drills and had spontaneous contests to see who could walk the furthest on all fours, bent over backward like a frown while Coach Burch tried to teach us the fundamentals of a containment style of defense.
It got better as we aged, but then our side talk turned to complaints about teachers, and then interest in boys, and then, finally, in our last seasons, to the laser focus on the task before us, the soccer field being the last great refuge from the pressures and stresses of teenaged years and impending high school. Through it all, all those changes, Coach Burch was there.
But once high school began, that was the end of the team. Even those of us who attended the same school drifted apart, a few choosing not to go out for the school squad, others trying out but getting cut, and a select few graduating to the big time, with huge turf fields and college scouts. Coach Burch simply melded back into whatever life he had outside of our team, a thing few of us ever really gave much thought to before, as if his sole function on earth was to be present on grass fields in heat and rain and occasional darkness when practice bled into the shortening late fall days and the setting sun failed us.
We drove past an old repurposed strip mall that used to house a liquor store, a greasy diner, an outdated electronics place, and a by-the-hour motel. Now there was a pharmacy, an upscale furniture store, sporting goods, and a vegan café. The liquor store still stood, but now it specialized in an enormous selection of wines and craft brews. The motel was still hanging on, too, somehow, a lone holdout against gentrification and a place I figured simply couldn’t carry on much longer, not without all the new foot traffic so close by. But the entrance, best I could tell, was around the back, so it provided at least some level of privacy, I supposed.
“God, that place always skeezed me out. I never understood it when I was younger. I mean, who goes there, right?” I asked.
Coach didn’t say anything.
“But I was a kid then. I guess I understand things better now. I mean, everyone needs a place to go, right? I bet it’s not so bad in there, really.”
He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I knew that look. It was panic. It was the same one he’d get late in games if we were down a goal and he had to decide whether to throw an additional attacker forward to get the tying goal but which would also leave us vulnerable in the back.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
When I told him, he raised his eyebrows and nodded, impressed.
I wanted to show it to him, proof of my adulthood. But I couldn’t bring myself to suggest it. I suddenly had a flash of memory of a fantasy I’d had, way back then of me and him living together. I think I had a crush on him when I was, like, ten or eleven.
But crush isn’t really the right word, not at that age. It was more that maybe I wanted him to be my dad. I liked my own dad just fine. But with Coach Burch it was about fun. And praise. Even when we made mistakes, we got praised for our efforts. My real dad told me to make my bed and empty the dishwasher and he grimaced when I got less than A’s on my report card.
“You in a hurry?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Rarely in much of a hurry to get home.”
“Good,” I said.
I pulled into the strip mall and parked.
“I’ll be right back.”
I could see him watching me when I jogged back, probably wondering what was in the bag I was carrying. But he didn’t ask. He didn’t say anything. His face was red and I could see his jaw working up and down, his temples throbbing.
I drove toward the motel entrance and parked at the furthest edge of the lot. We sat in silence a long while. There, beyond a thin tree line was an open green space. Quiet, just the two of us, staring at the unlined field, the rusted remains of a goal pushed against a chain link fence on the far side of the grass.
I touched his arm. “Let’s do it,” I said.
I grabbed the new soccer ball from my bag and hopped out. He followed me.
Once we reached the grass, I ran ahead. I turned and sent him a long arcing pass that swiveled away from him toward the treeline.
He chased after it, stripping off his Hawaiian shirt as he ran. He yelled something to me, but the breeze took it away.
“What did you say?” I asked.
He stopped, cupped his hands around his mouth, and yelled again.
“Lock your ankle, Suzanne . . . Lock your ankle.”
Even from a distance, I could see that he was smiling.
Evan L. Balkan is the author of six published books of nonfiction, including The Wrath of God: Lope de Aguirre, Revolutionary of the Americas (University of New Mexico Press) as well as many essays and short stories in an array of publications. Balkan is also a co-writer for the television series, Wayward Girls. He holds degrees in the humanities from Towson, George Mason, and Johns Hopkins universities. The latter degree is in creative writing, with a fiction concentration.