Paul Kingman's Goal-line Stand
When the sirens first sounded, most of us were already in bed. We were supposed to be asleep. Our parents didn't want us to hear the sirens getting closer, or the moment when they become so loud and close it's like they're inside your ears and you know they're not heading anywhere else but right toward you. We weren't supposed to see the flashing lights smeared on our window panes from the fire truck and the ambulance and the police cars.
Most of all, our parents didn't want us to see that something had happened at the Kingman's house. But we did, and we knew the same thing they did. It had to be about Paul.
As the emergency vehicles gathered around the Kingmans' front yard, located between the McCuskers and the Heelys, directly across the street from the Carters, some of our parents stepped outside to see the commotion. Maybe they wondered if the annual neighborhood cookout, just a few days away, would have to be cancelled. Maybe they gathered and talked about how that would be a shame instead of talking about all the stories we knew they had, stories we weren't supposed to know, ones they wouldn't be talking about down on the street, ones told in whispered half-sentences when our parents didn't think we were listening.
Dr. Heely, a dermatologist who gave Brian Carter the pills for his poison oak that made him pee orange, stood on his front lawn in flannel pajamas, his long thinning hair blowing away from his scalp like a flag in the wind. There used to be a Mrs. Heely, but she lives in another state now with a new last name. Mr. and Mrs. McCusker held hands at the end of their driveway, their free hands idly clutching empty wine glasses. Maybe they were thinking about when Mr. McCusker had that tumor on the side of his head and about the meshed mask they used to bolt him to the radiation machine. Nearby, Mr. Vaughn might have been thinking about his wife who died of mad-cow-of-all-things, which was what our parents called it, and Mrs. Green might have thought about her son who fought in Iraq and now he jumped out of planes to fight fires out in Arizona. Jan Freeney was probably remembering when the police cars were circled around her house, when her husband barricaded himself in the attic with a hunting rifle and threatened to shoot her until the cops talked him down and how now she visits him at some hospital for other people whose minds aren't right. Then there was whoever else was stirred from sleep or the Late Late Show and came out to see, standing hands on hips or hands buried deep in pockets, jaws shifted just to the left or the right, their own stories rolling through their heads. No one could see the Kingmans, but everyone knew they were there in the middle of whatever was happening on their front lawn as paramedics scrambled around and policemen secured perimeters and firemen realized there was no fire and did whatever else it is they do.
Most of us kids looked down from upstairs windows, high enough we could see those medics circling around someone on the front lawn. Not high enough, though, to see fully over the ambulance and the fire engine, not high enough to keep the flashing lights from getting in our eyes. Those lights kept us from seeing into second floor windows of the Kingmans' house to find out if Richie Kingman, Paul's younger brother who was our age, was looking out too. Richie had seen cops at his door before, for his other brother Greg, Paul's twin. But that was a few years before and Greg was gone, another piece of history people must have been mumbling about down on the street.
Whatever had happened to Paul ended eventually. By that time most of us had crawled back into bed and drifted into sleep deep enough to melt the edges of the night, to forget how it had all ended, except to remember that no one got any answers. If our parents knew anything, they didn't say over breakfast and, as it was summer, they sent us out to play as soon as they heard the clink of a spoon in an empty cereal bowl or the thud of an empty juice glass on the table top.
When we all gathered that morning in the Heelys' back yard—Scott Heely, Liz Rash from down the street, Brian Carter, Matt McCusker, Doug and Missy Gould from the next street over, Joe Ryan from the top of the street, and Garrett Bradley from the last house on the right—everyone asked Richie what happened.
"Nothing," he said. "Scott, go get the wiffle ball stuff. Let's play already."
"There wasn't a fire," Liz said. "We would have seen that."
"Nope," Richie replied.
"Maybe he doesn't want to talk about it," Matt said.
"But what's the big deal?" Doug asked, and Mark shrugged and repeated, "Yeah, what's the big deal?"
"Was it your parents or something?" Joe asked. "Or did someone crash a car?"
"I didn't see any car," Liz said. "Was it Paul? It was Paul, wasn't it?"
Richie shot her a look. "Shut it, Liz."
"What happened to him?" Brian asked.
"Nothing," he said again, and then, finally, "he hurt his back, that's all."
Richie looked off at the Heelys' shed until Scott told us all to drop it and got the bat and ball. The routine of summer, beautiful for its utter lack of routine, took over and we forgot all about Richie and Paul Kingman and the sirens and lights.
At home that night over dinner tables or with plates on our laps in front of the television, our parents had not forgotten. They too had learned that Paul had been hurt. But they knew more.
It wasn't the first time Paul's name buzzed around the neighborhood. When he was in high school, neighbors spoke of him all the time. Us kids had our own myths about him. Since he was nineteen he seemed both older than we'd ever be and timelessly young. He was also huge, built like one of our old action figures with a thick, clean-cut jawline and arms three-times wider than any of our scrawny legs.
Scott had an old wooden baseball bat in his shed with a bite-shaped semi-circle missing from the barrel of it. The story was that Paul had bit the hunk out on a dare. There's another story where Paul climbed up a ladder after a particularly bad snowstorm and built a huge snowman on his parents' roof only to shoot it down with a homemade potato gun. He broke two windows. Another had Paul and his twin brother Greg beating the crap out of the Dougherty twins from two streets over at some high school party—rumor was it was over a girl—and the Doughertys were so embarrassed they moved to a new town.
There were other stories about Paul and Greg. The twins were linebackers on the high school's football team, an unstoppable pair. Their junior year, Paul would have broken the single-season sack and tackles-for-loss records if Greg hadn't edged him out in both categories. The point of any story about them playing football was how good they were, how they were the best. But there was something that wasn't just a story. That was the night Paul and Greg had been drinking with friends down at the quarry, like they always did, and Paul dared his brother to dive thirty feet down into the water. The quarry was one of those places our parents warned us about because it was dangerous, because under the water were jagged rocks and shallow spots, places you could break a leg or your neck. When Greg leapt from the rock wall, he didn't get far enough out. His friends heard something under the splash when he hit whatever was in the water to hit. There were stories about how loud Paul screamed, about how he dove in after his brother, how his own broken collarbone healed in plenty of time for the next football season. There were babysitters hired all over the street when our parents went to Greg's wake.
So after the sirens and lights, our parents shook their heads or dropped them and mumbled over their dinner plates about poor Paul. Paul who, his senior year, had done so well. Paul who had that Thanksgiving game against Brocton. He had laid low in school, calmed his drinking, but on the field he was a machine. He set the single-season tackle record, but fell just short of the sack and tackles-for-loss marks. Some say his numbers were down late in the season to keep his brother's record intact. Then there was the big Thanksgiving game. Weymouth had never beat Brocton in our short lifetimes. In a defensive struggle, Brocton was down 6-3, but had the ball on the one-yard line, first and goal. Even we remember, since we were in the stands that morning with our parents, paying attention as much as eight- or nine-year-olds could to high school football, how three times Brocton's full back—Sam Rathbone, a name we all knew—tried to get through and Paul crushed him to the ground. Brocton went for it on fourth down and Rathbone, athletic for his size, tried to leap over the pile. Paul met him in midair and you could hear their helmets clash all the way in the bleachers. Their bodies landed and it was Paul standing up first, lip split and bleeding from the collision, celebrating with his team.
You couldn't talk about Paul without talking about the goal-line stand. And so it came up over dinner the night after the sirens, and we remembered, and the memories made us feel better. But then talk turned to Paul's life after graduation, to how he blew his ride at Plymouth State, got kicked off the team a month in for fighting, got booted from school for drinking too much and going to class too little. He'd been home since October, working the counter at Butts ’n Bets II in the town square. People knew he went down to the quarry still, that he went alone, that other teenagers saw him there but he wouldn't talk with them. That was how it had been since last October up through the start of summer.
And now, our parents said, this: the Kingmans' house, the sirens, the commotion. They said words like fell and in traction and his poor parents and since Greg, but before they said too much they sent us away from the table or upstairs to wash up or to play with our sister. What we also heard, among all that, was so much for the cookout.
As if we all silently knew we had been gathering information, everyone but Richie met up a few minutes earlier than we usually did the next morning.
"I guess he fell out of his window," Missy said. "I heard they found a bunch of beer cans in the bushes out front. On the roof too."
"Sounded like he was trying another stunt up there and fell," Doug said.
"Do you think they'll really cancel the cookout?" Scott asked. The McCuskers held the cookout every year. It was adults only, no kids, but we loved it because we all got together and played Kick The Can until dusk and then our parents called us in and we got to eat take-out pizza or Burger King and then we'd always sneak out and try to spy on our parents, see if we could overhear any dirty jokes or see anyone act like a fool. We wanted to see our parents when they weren't seeing us. The babysitters never minded as long as we came home soon enough, and in the end we always got found out anyway, sent home before we could learn anything.
"My folks didn't say anything about cancelling," Matt said. "And no one called to say they weren't coming."
"Maybe they should cancel," Liz said.
"Why?" Missy asked.
"Because I heard he jumped," she said. Somehow Liz always knew so we had to admit it was true. And something in the silence around what she said let us know that Richie had shown up and stood just a few feet away, that he heard what Liz had said.
"I'm not supposed to talk about it," he said before we could ask again. He turned and pointed to his house behind him, to a window on the second floor. "He's been in bed since it happened. There's a big plastic brace around his back. He hurt it pretty bad."
We all just kind of looked at him, not knowing what to say, until Scott finally said, "Should we start planning for tomorrow night? It'd be nice to not get caught spying for once." Scott got a stick and drew diagrams in the dirt of what we would do, as if any of it made any sense, as if any of us were really paying attention.
On the day before the big cookout, we planned but mostly we played wiffle ball or rundown and watched our parents criss-cross the street, delivering casseroles to the Kingmans. Mrs. Green brought tuna and noodles, while Mrs. Carter dropped off baked macaroni and cheese with the stewed tomatoes Brian always picked out. Panel vans showed up delivering flowers from people who only lived a few houses away. Inside our homes, our parents would grab us and hug us too long or say things like How are you doing? with some tense quiet in their voice, like the answer was important. They opened the newspaper in front of them at the table but their eyes didn't scan the page or they skipped the sports section. They spaced out in front of the television and didn't notice when we changed it away from the nightly news. Our parents called one another on the phone and talked quietly, too quiet to hear. And though we knew they were talking about Paul, we couldn't figure out what they were still talking about. If they knew, like we did, what happened, then what else was there to know? And yet they still talked, still worried, still wondered, still filled their hands with Pyrex dishes and mugs or the curve of the chair's arm or the soft cloth of our shirts around our small frames.
Despite all their quiet talk, the cookout happened like always. We played Kick The Can, the rattle of the aluminum an electric crackle rippling over the concrete every time it was struck, freeing the kids caught in jail, while inside parents got ready. When we were called in we watched our mothers search for the right earrings and our fathers catch the first few innings of the Red Sox game, and we watched them leave.
Since we couldn't meet at the Heelys, Richie said we should meet in his backyard. It was a big yard, a wide-open space where we threw Nerf footballs around in the fall and built snow forts in winter. His parents went to the party like everyone else's, and none of us asked how they were or how Richie was and if they were okay. Instead we launched right into our plan, which wasn't a plan so much as exactly what we'd done every year before. At the far edge of Richie's yard, as far from the house as we could get, we entered the woods. They ran between our street and the next one over and so they came right up behind the McCuskers. We walked quietly, slowly, trying to avoid the snap of a branch underfoot.
We always hid behind a stand of high bushes that ran between the woods and the McCuskers' yard. The gaps between the branches opened just wide enough that we could see what they were up to. Picnic tables lined one side of the yard across from the fenced-in pool, with a long table full of food and drinks on the end. Everyone had showed, but as we watched we noticed something different from past cookouts. It was quiet. Everyone was talking, but people had their shoulders hunched over like they were bracing for something about to happen. No music drifted from a boombox propped in one of the back windows of the house. We always felt a strange tension on these nights, the strain of trying not to get caught, but now it had bled into the party somehow. We heard one hearty laugh from Mr. Vaughn at something Mr. McCusker had said, but it rang out too loud in the soft hum of the party.
Then we heard Oh no, and for a second we thought it was someone at the party, that we were caught already. That was until we looked around and saw Richie's face inching closer to the bushes trying to see something. We followed his gaze to find his father sitting by the beer cooler taking a long drink from a bottle, not really talking to anyone. Two empty bottles lay on the ground at his feet.
"What?" Liz asked Richie, which Missy shushed.
"My dad shouldn't drink," he said. "He changes when he does."
As if his father had heard Richie, he walked up to the biggest group of people at the party. "Hey," he said to whoever would hear. "Thanks for all the casseroles and flowers and stuff. My wife and I, where's my wife?" He looked around and found Mrs. Kingman on the other side of the yard. Even in the fading light, you could see the red bloom on her face. "There she is, my beautiful wife. We want to thank you for all your well wishes. Paul's going to be just fine. Just an accident, nothing more. Nothing to be worried about."
There was a long silence before Mr. McCusker spoke up. "Great news, Don, great to hear. You think you could help me fire up the grill? If I don't get dogs and burgers going, we'll have a mutiny on our hands." The crowd offered a quiet laugh.
"Sure thing," Mr. Kingman said. He kept talking as he walked over, like he couldn't keep the words in. "You remember that Brocton game, Hank?"
"Who could forget?" Mr. McCusker said back. "Paul's great leap over the top."
We saw Mrs. McCusker shoot him a look. We all braced inside when he said leap. But Mr. Kingman didn't seem like he had noticed. When he reached Mr. McCusker at the grill, though, he just kept walking past, not even stopping to acknowledge Mr. McCusker at all. "I'm sorry, Don, I wasn't thinking," he said as Richie's dad passed, but Mr. Kingman paid him no attention. Instead, he headed toward the chain-link gate around the pool. He walked through it, and everyone turned to watch him. "What are you up to, Don?" Jan Freeney asked. Mrs. Kingman said, "Don, honey, why don't you come back into the yard."
"You know the funny thing, Hank?" Mr. Kingman said, like no one else was around. "I don't remember it. That game. Not even a little. I remember numbers. 13 tackles. 6 to 3. First win against Brocton in 10 years. But I can't remember the game." He gazed down at the water. "Funny, isn't it? For all the good memory does, it won't let you hold onto the stuff you really want to hold onto, the best stuff."
Maybe we would have watched those adults stand there, silent and motionless, all night. But instead we heard branches snap nearby and saw Richie walking away. "Richie," someone hissed and he stopped, turned around, and in a clear voice, said "I remember. Come on." We knew two things: that our parents had heard us, and that we would follow him anyway.
By the time we got out of the woods and back into Richie's yard he was already standing in the middle of it with the Nerf football in hand. There was a long line behind him scratched into the dirt. He put Scott and Liz and Brian and Joe on one side with him and Doug and Missy and Matt and Garrett on the other.
"You guys will be Brocton," he said and handed Doug the ball. Normally, the four would have been insulted, but not now. Not with the look on Richie's face and with the sound of our parents' footsteps on the driveway. They were coming to collect us. We knew what we had to do.
It was getting dark, but we could all see each other. Richie and his side lined up, the three in front of him, him the linebacker, and Doug lined up like he was Rathbone behind the players on his side. Doug looked at Richie, and Richie nodded and then turned to his house and offered a wave.
"Set! Hike!" Doug yelled and the two front lines pushed into each other and Doug ran around them into the arms of Richie, who charged at him and took him down hard enough that Doug grunted out a pocket of air.
"Sophomore year, Paul broke thirteen players' fingers in piles. He kept count," Richie said as he stood up.
"What?" Doug asked as he brushed himself off.
"Second down!" Richie yelled. Meanwhile, our parents and all the other adults from our street gathering on the edge of the yard just like the night with the lights and sirens, and in the growing dark we could not make out the expressions on their faces.
We lined up again. "Set!" Doug yelled. "Hike!" This time he went the other way, but Richie met him there like he was supposed to and took him down.
"He put one of those Doughertys in the hospital," he said. "There was no girl. He bet someone he could break the guy's jaw. He laughed when he showed me the money."
Third down came and Doug tried the middle where Richie was waiting to tackle him. As Richie stood up for fourth down, he punched himself in the mouth, trying to make it bleed without success.
"It wasn't Greg dying that made him jump," he said. "That's just a story. Paul's always been like this. He didn't jump to fall. He jumped to land. Because he thought he could."
"Then why are we here?" Liz asked.
Richie turned to face the silhouettes of our parents framing the edge of the yard, all of them waiting for what was next. "This is a better story," he said.
Doug walked up to him then and punched him in the mouth. "Yes, it is," he said, and now when Richie turned to the rest of us we could see the blood spreading through the seams between his teeth.
It was fourth down and we didn't say a word as we lined up. When Doug yelled "Hike!" Scott locked arms with Joe, Missy tackled Liz to the ground, and Brian and Garrett fell over each other while Doug and Richie jumped on top. When they met in the air, hugging as they fell to the ground, we all imagined the crack of helmets clashing. We imagined the glory of the win, of the best stuff remembered. "Weymouth wins!" we shouted. "Weymouth wins!" Richie stood up the way Paul had, but instead of waving at the crowd he waved at the house and to our parents standing twenty feet away.
None of the parents said anything, and since it was full night now we didn't know if all of them were there, if Richie's parents were watching, if any of them still remembered Paul this way. We laid there on the ground cheering, celebrating. The look on Richie's face was wild and bright, lost in the moment. We held onto the feeling we created. Then our parents began walking forward, not to join in on our cheers, but to gather us up and put us to bed. As they approached, their bodies were dark and unidentifiable. All you could hear was the sound of the things in their hands. The clinking of ice in a glass. The crumpling of a paper plate in a clenching fist. Nothing.