The slightly deflated football stuck out of the grassy soil as if the lower point had been glued into a carved-out gravesite. I don’t remember how many years it remained there on my front yard until the decaying leather released its last dying gasp of entrapped air. Throughout snowstorms and grass cuttings and for months after we lost Sammy, no one dared to touch or remove Sammy’s smashed up football as it lay embedded in the bitter earth.
Sammy was my best friend, and he liked me even though I was a girl. I could throw a football farther than he, but he ran faster than I did. All these years later, I remain grateful to Sammy for never making fun of me like the other kids — cause I was a girl playing boys’ games.
It was the summer of 1952. Sammy had just died from Scarlet Fever, and all the parents were beside themselves with worry. Sammy’s mom had taken to her bed. At any moment, she might appear at the open window to sneak an ambivalent peek at us kids shamefacedly playing in the middle of the street, the same games Sammy used to play with us: Stick-Ball, Baby in the Air, and of course, Touch Football.
We kids would never lay a hand on Sammy’s football again, so Bobby Gillespie volunteered his, the one he got last Christmas that his parents wouldn’t let him bring to our scrimmages because for sure, he was gonna lose it down the flood drain. They didn’t dare complain this time, not under these circumstances. Bobby rejoiced: This was his chance to gloat over the unblemished, shiny cowhide - even though he felt sheepish about it — since Sammy just died and all.
From her window, two doors from my house, Sammy’s mother’s swollen eyes flittered back and forth from the football on my lawn to Sammy’s boisterous pals in the street. Sometimes we would see Sammy’s dad cautiously approach his wife as she stood there like a sacred shrine. He would lean right up against Mrs. Gibson, his arm around her, coaxing her to withdraw to a more shielded part of the house. Apparently, Dr. Gibson’s words had little influence because many times, he forcefully grabbed her elbow and tugged her from the window.
One day, Tommy Cornwall, who had returned from overnight camp, yelled up to Mrs. Gibson before any of the kids could stop him. Sammy’s mother perked up when she saw Tommy and two other kids frantically waving at her:
“Hey, Mrs. Gibson, Sammy left his football on Rosalie’s lawn. Peter, Billy and I just got off the bus. We came straight here. Tell Sammy to meet us in front of Rosalie’s. We’ll bring his ball.”
Dr. Gibson shoved her away from the window. just as Mrs. Gibson’s shrieks wafted through the neighborhood. Those screams still echo in my mind as if they’re coming from deep inside my body, not hers. In contrast, sometimes, like when I’m doubting if I’ll ever cross the finish line in one of my marathon runs, I can’t decipher which sound is actually louder in my ears: Mrs. Gibson’s or Sammy’s encouragement: “You got this, Rosalie!”
I was going to marry Sammy. In all my pretend play-weddings with my girlfriends, I secretly imagined Sammy as my handsome groom. I hadn’t decided how to tell him yet. One thing for sure though, after I lost Sammy, I never engaged in bridal games again, even though my girlfriends picked on me for declining. Despite hearing my protestations, they called me a tomboy as if that’s why I wouldn’t play. The worst of it was that before he so abruptly deserted me and his football, I didn’t get to tell Sammy my plans for us.
After my girlfriends blew me off as a playmate, I began to wonder if I would or could marry anyone else. Later on, I did look for Sammy in every man I met — to no avail. I know it sounds silly that the loss of Sammy, my first love, is the reason I never married. I didn’t tell anyone that, not even my therapist. Silly girl. I was only twelve years old! Sammy is probably looking down on me and laughing his head off. But, I think, he knows how much he meant to me.
I’m sure he knows.
I wanted to tell Mrs. Gibson that I loved him. After a few weeks when she wasn’t at the window as much, I gingerly walked to her house. Maybe she was better now… Crazy. I wasn’t any better; how could she be? But I rang her doorbell and stood there stuttering. She stretched her arms out to me. We had been close when Sammy was alive. Now we both renewed our bond as if we had become mother and daughter.
Mrs. Gibson, smiled and told me how pretty I looked and that she was glad I came by and would I like some chocolate chip cookies, the ones Sammy and I used to dunk into our milk. Still fresh in my memory was the picture of my best buddy and me sitting with our chairs hugged up tight against the kitchen table on opposite sides, but both able to reach the treats on the lazy-suzan in the middle.
I marveled over the gigantic uneaten, still warm batch of cookies. Sammy and I were the only ones who ever partook. I wanted to but didn’t dare ask Mrs. Gibson who did you bake these for anyway?
As I slowly picked up one cookie at a time, Mrs. Gibson asked me if I had bought my supplies yet for school, which was due to start the next day. Maybe that’s why I chose this time to visit her. For sure, she would be grieving: Sammy’s mother would never go shopping with Sammy again.
Mrs. Gibson chatted on and on about Sammy’s older brother who had just started college the week before and how he wanted to become a doctor like his father. She told me all about Arthur, as a baby, as a high school football star, and on and on. It was as if Sammy and Arthur were all rolled into one…
I can’t pinpoint when the deadened football on my lawn eventually disintegrated just like the sound of Sammy’s obsolete whooping and hollering whenever our team scored. Long after Sammy’s football disappeared from my lawn, Mrs. Gibson and I stayed in touch. Neither of us ever mentioned how the ball, a marker of our mutual yearnings, had morphed into dust that vanished into the heavenly atmosphere. Most of the neighbors had gone into emotional hiding, with time having graciously provided them the comfort of forgetting. This seemed to be true for Mrs. Gibson, but certainly not for me. Our scant discussions about Sammy had essentially vaporized along with Sammy’s precious football, and now most of our talk had to do with Arthur.
So, later, after Arthur graduated from Dartmouth, and had returned home for the summer, Mrs. Gibson tried everything in her power to assure that Arthur and I would become good friends. I remember Mrs. Gibson’ face whenever she saw us together, especially, years later on my graduation day: After the ceremony, when the graduates informally gathered in the middle of the high school football field with our diplomas, she clutched onto my hands with both of hers and shook me so hard, I nearly dropped the bouquet my parents had given me. Then Arthur, now Dr. Arther Gibson, embraced me and said, “Great job, Rosalie!” Over Arthur’s shoulder, I noticed Sammy’s beaming, teary-eyed mother adoringly put her hand over her heart…
I did eventually fall in love with Arthur.
At least, I thought I did.
Well, my love affair with Arthur is a long story. Let’s just say it ended with a broken engagement, Arthur’s broken heart, and Mrs. Gibson’s broken memory. Shortly before the wedding day, I had kind of a breakdown and tried to take my own life. I was a college kid, so much younger than Arthur, and I couldn’t fathom how I had been thrust into a dream-like adult world. It felt to me like I was caught up in the ending to a preordained, hypnotic fantasy designed by someone else…
After I got out of the hospital, I wandered around from job to job and man to man but it was clear I was never going to settle down. Instead, I became a physical education teacher in a private girls’ school where I didn’t need a degree. In my spare time, I remained obsessed with running…
It’s now forty years since Sammy released the grip on his football, but not his grip on me. I want to ask him: Did you catch a final glimpse of your epitaph, with your gold initials, SG, having faded over time, while the remains of the ball submerged underground forever?
And while you’re at it, do you recall the day, which neither of us knew was to be our last? You could have photographed my nightmare as I paced back and forth until I nearly wore out my sneakers. With both hands, I parted the curtains as if the drama was about to begin. You probably sensed me there, the girl waving to you from my bedroom window, because you slowly turned around and feverishly grimaced in your feeble, desperate attempt to reciprocate. You tried to raise your weighty arm and gift me your smile, not your usual toothy grin but you made a compassionate effort nonetheless. Then, practically comatose, you about-faced and barely stumbled home to die.
Do you ever think back to our game plan? We fit together like two well-practiced ballet dancers: You turn around; your back to me; you bend and pitch the football from under your legs as our fingers brush lightly against each other. You run like a cheetah to the other end of the street where I spiral the ball to you. Remember? Can’t you just feel my body heat instantly absorbed into that ball? You catch it and tuck the ball into your chest, scoring yet another touchdown. Remember? What about the feel of my hands against your sweaty and roughened ones as we rush to each other for high-fives and fist bumps? Does your hooting over our grandiose victory still ring in your ears?
Or, just like your mom tried to do, Sammy, do you completely forget everything?
The Football on the Lawn is one story from an unpublished collection entitled, Wise Old Owls: Gray Matters.
Phyliss Merion Shanken is a retired psychologist and creative writing teacher, who has been published in psychological journals and in literary publications, and newspaper and magazine columns. In addition to her literary and poetry awards, she is author of Silhouettes of Women, Peanut Butter Sandwich: The Joys and Frustrations of Parenting, as well as a number of stage and screenplays. She has two novels, Eye of Irene, and The Heart of Boynton Beach Club. Her memoir, Conversations with Perfect Strangers is the culmination of her life’s work. She was recently published in Dreamers Creative Writing, May 16, 2019; The Write Launch, June 2019 & September 2019; and Abstract Contemporary Expressions, August, 2019, Beyond Words Literary Magazine, July 2020.