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Sit Down and Shut Up Time
As far back as I can remember, people told me I was too quiet. It never helped me find words at the time, but now I see how silence has cobbled together my life, hard and hushed as stone. Coach Buddy's "Sit Down and Shut Up Time" first taught me that a quiet life would be, to say the least, a challenge.
I remember Coach Buddy in colors. His sparkling black cleats, the darkness shining so deep I thought I'd fall into his shoes if he stepped too close. His white arms, flashing wildly to demonstrate off-sides traps and free throws. His scorched kneecaps that blinked red, red, red. Wide swaths of his white skin were losing ground to freckles, all-consuming brown constellations that threatened to switch him from Scottish to Mexican like our halfback Jose. He had started lathering up his face with 40+ sun block, a problem for our under-7 soccer team because we could no longer catch the flushed tipping point of his anger. Ronald McDonald, who we visited for burgers and fries if we won games, was a kinder and gentler Coach Buddy. But of all those colors that flash in my memory, the one I remember best is sky-blue, the blue of the soccer ball Coach clutched in his hands, his weapon for maintaining "Sit Down and Shut Up Time."
Most of "practice" consisted of us Rockets swarming the ball as mindlessly as the locusts chattering in the surrounding scrub oaks. At the end of practice, Coach blew his whistle and pointed to the igloo cooler on the sidelines, where we fished out cold Dr. Peppers, the sole reason 90% of us played the game. He rounded us up at midfield, the setting sun still heating our polyester practice uniforms. His "Sit Down and Shut Up Time" consisted of ten torturous minutes when Coach shared the highlights of his short, semi-pro career. He would prowl the circle's center with his knobby, freckled hands engulfing the ball and speak of substitution techniques with such fervor half of us almost listened. Listening or not, wobble out of your assigned cross-legged position or whisper one word during Coach's lecture, and he would fire that ball so fast from his hands to your head it would leave the whole team seeing stars.
Coach nailed gabby seven-year old heads with both accuracy and power. He could ricochet the ball between skulls to break up a giggle, then toe-punch the rebound to pop a finger out of a picked nose. We grew more scared of the possibility of the shot than the shot itself, so he could double-pump fake one way to force silence, then no-look pop a smirk behind him. If he sensed we were too fidgety from the get-go, he'd place balls around the circle that we eyed like landmines. When we were really squirrely, he’d place those mines and carry three balls, one in each hand and an extra one wedged under his sweaty arm-pit, the "stinkbomb" that he detonated on the worst offenders. Sometimes, even before giving us a chance to settle, he'd launch into his lecture and pirouette around the circle, heeling, kicking and chucking balls, a spinning white tornado that leveled our giddy moods like so many panhandle trailer homes.
He had numerous memorable hits (popping out Howie's last baby-tooth from ten yards comes to mind), but the most devastating shot was on Jose Fernandez. Jose actually listened to Coach and incorporated some of Coach's tactics into his already flashy game. One day, leaning forward on his brown knees, maybe just trying to grasp the English, Jose turned to Howie and whispered "Que?" for clarification. He might as well have used a megaphone, and Coach spun and drilled a ball not at his head but at the cold Dr. Pepper in his hand. The can flew free and landed in a red ant pile six feet away. Jose kept a glum eye on his bleeding can while Coach discussed penalty kicks. When Coach blew his whistle to end the circle, we all ran to Jose's can and found a swarming mound of ants that had licked the container clean. Jose dared a grab but dropped it like it was on fire, and we patted him on the back as if he had lost a loved one. The team sat in stony silence in Coach's circles from then on.
"Sit Down and Shut Up Time" became the dreaded end of practice when my teammates would glumly drag their soccer cleats, squat Indian-style, and suffer the indignity of not being allowed to spaz out. I was different. I discovered I liked being quiet. I started to enjoy "Sit Down and Shut Up Time."
When I sat in Coach's circle, I noticed things I missed when I was busy talking. The way my nose breath tickled the sweat on my upper lip, or the sound of crickets singing on the edge of grass blades, or the lingering sugary bite of a Dr. Pepper. Coach made us circle alphabetically, so I always had the same view of Dandelion Lane, north across the field and through the netted goal box. 721 Dandelion would sit down to dinner at the beginning of Coach's talk, while the elderly resident of 723 sat down alone to TV. A lady in a red hat would often walk a Dalmatian who sported a matching red scarf. When Coach wound down his talk, the endless Texas sky shifted into a color between blue and black that I wished lasted all day long instead of an instant. I felt clarity and purpose in Coach's circle, real personal happiness, so the day he stopped and asked me to speak was not a good day for me.
"You heard me, Molanphy? What do you think?"
Sometimes Coach prompted opinions for an excuse to nail us, which Howie always fell for. Howie's big eyes were surpassed by a bigger mouth, an open hole that could spew words like a volcano. Coach duped Howie every other circle session with this routine:
"What do you think, Howie?"
"I think that's great Coach!"
"Right again, Coach!"
POP. POP. POP.
I thought Coach was giving me the Howie routine, so I kept quiet. But Coach leaned in so close that I could smell an awful mixture of coconut oil and sweat. Beach vacations still remind me of Coach Buddy.
"I'm not kidding, Molanphy, I want you to tell me what I was just talking about." His moustache was a monstrous, twitching red caterpillar.
I actually had been listening. I knew he had just described a corner-kick set-up, where our two star forwards, the Riley brothers, would sweep across the goal box and Jose would either chip a header for the front post or launch a feed to the far one. Few plays ever directly involved me since I was the goalkeeper - and not a good one, generally biding my time alone and waiting to get scored on. I knew the answer, but I didn't want to speak. We were in the circle of silence.
Coach began by using my broad forehead as a handball wall, popping me three times in the space of a breath.
"What do you say, Molanphy?"
I was a little dizzy but didn’t feel the need to share that. Since that's all I could think of, I stayed quiet.
Coach responded with three more pops, but that didn’t stimulate a conversation topic, either. I considered my teammates. Howie regarded me as a lunatic, passing up the golden opportunity to speak. Jose kissed the silver crucifix around his neck and watched me with sad eyes. The Riley brothers grabbed two of Coach's "landmines," maybe sensing this might become a free-for-all and a chance to rid their team of the "sucky" goalie that "blew" the shootout against the Hornets the week before.
Coach was smirking, his blows falling into an easy rhythm, his look saying, "I'll keep this up all night if I have to." Jose kept his sad eyes trained on me and leaned forward on his brown knees, the Latino captain of the team pleading with the renegade goalie who just didntt feel like talking. Howie saw all of Coach's attention was on me and even called out, "C'mon, Tommy, talk!"
The ball kept hitting my head, and I waited for it to dislodge something important. But nothing broke and fell from my mouth.
"What'll it be, Molanphy?" Coach asked, re-arming his stink bomb with some generous pit rubs.
His smirk was gone, and I could feel his rage, not just from the shots that whiplashed my head, but from his whole body. The entire team bore down on me like my words were something I owed them, regardless if I saw any value in what I had to say. The more they wanted me to talk, the less I wanted to, the beginning of that cobbling of hushed stone. Coach Buddy's head blows blasted my verbal expression to pieces, sentence by sentence, word by word, syllable by syllable, letter by letter. The pieces settled somewhere in me. It would take years to construct what, if anything, I had to say.
of A Quiet Life
of A Quiet Life
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