An excerpt from Worlds, a novel by John Kearns
Witt had the plastic pee-wee football. Yellow with fake red laces, the ball was just bigger than the sixth grader’s hand and bore the scuff marks and scratches of many landings and tumblings on asphalt. The assembled sixth graders fired the ball around their area as two captains chose sides.
A touch football game commenced. The two teams arrayed themselves on opposite sides of the portion of macadam that was their field. Chuckie hurled the plastic yellow missile. It sailed through the late-winter air and arced down toward the dense crowd of opponents, eager to find its strategic spot.
As when a herd of impalas, started by the appearance of cheetah, gallops across the plain with horned heads bobbing and hooves thundering, so the defending sixth graders, as soon as the ball left Chuckie’s hand, raced in a wide line downfield, their coatsleeves woosh-wooshing against their coats and their earth shoes thudding on the yellow-striped schoolyard. The pee-wee football skidded and somersaulted across the asphalt and Witt, of the long feet and big hands, stooped to pick it up. His teammates ran forward to form a bulwark against the rushing tide of opponents. Protected by the phalanx of his teammates, Witt charged forward and a great din mingled shouts of encouragement for him and for his pursuers. Dark battalions densely packed with players charged across the asphalt toward one another to join the dangerous struggle. Like wolves the two sides rushed at one another, the progress of the boy with the ball and its surcease their antithetical aims.
Flouting the recess regulations of Saint Colman’s School, which bound them to remain in their designated area, a pack of eighth graders came tramping around the basketball court and between the gyring jumpropes. The sixth graders did not expect them to come onto their field and so were taken by surprise. Just as a cat, seeing a small bird engrossed in its hunt for worms on a dewy front lawn creeps up on the bird, determined not to be noticed but intent on overcoming its prey, so the eighth graders came down upon the sixth graders who were focused on the first plays of their game.
As Witt got up to ten Mississippi, Mark heaved a spiral that climbed into the blue and descended toward the outstretched hands of Jimmy, who had gone long. It looked like a sure touchdown.
But Trelin, a small, wide eighth grader, stepped between Jimmy and the touchdown pass. He plucked his prize out of the air and, a cruel grin spreading across his face, ran with it outside of the yellow-painted boundaries of the younger boys’ game.
Unafraid, Paul Logan abandoned the crossing pattern he had been running and sprinted after the thief. With clouds of condensation streaming from his clenched teeth, galloping Logan tore across the schoolyard, his classmates joining in the chase.
The touch football game was no more. The boys were now engaged in a game of Keep Away.
The eighth graders formed a wall behind Trelin as he ran away from the younger boys. Secure in their size and in their advantage in age, the usurpers laughed like so many Goliaths in Catholic school shirts and ties.
As a snowplow pushes aside piles of snow left on a suburban street after a blizzard, so Paul Logan shouldered and shoved the bigger boys out of his way. In his zeal to reach Trelin, Paul hit a long-haired uncoordinated eighth grader. Surprised by the force of Paul’s blow, the gangly upperclassman lost his balance and, like a stately poplar that has grown up in a broad meadow beside a marsh, fell to the ground out of the younger boy’s path. Another eighth grader wrapped his arms around Paul’s shoulders but Paul shrugged him off. Just as he was about to reach Trelin, favored of Hermes, the eighth grader chucked the ball to someone else. But Paul could not stop himself; he crashed into Trelin, knocking him to the hard and gravelly asphalt. Without pausing to look down at his angry victim, Paul headed toward Trelin’s receiver, waving his arms like a basketball player frustrating a passer. But the boy got the ball off to a nearby classmate. Paul, still charging, lowered his shoulder and dropped the classmate on the asphalt, vinyl parka and corduroys hissing all around him, before the older boy fumbled the ball like the coward that he was.
Paul grabbed the pee wee football with both hands and ran out of the pack of boys scrambling for the loose ball.
“Logan! Logan!” a couple of nearby sixth graders shouted, running back toward their touch football “field” with their hands raised to signal for his pass.
Paul ran right while his attackers rushed left. His classmates tried to block for him but Trelin in his fury at being knocked down, started tackling sixth graders regardless of whether they had the ball or not. He shoved Witt, of the long feet and big hands, in the back knocking the boy to the macadam and tearing a hole in his trousers. And the dark blood flowed from the wound to his kneecap. The other eighth graders, seeing this, began to laugh and do the same.
Paul, spotting the green tunic and white sleeves of Mark’s jacket, lateraled the ball to his brother in bravery, over whose heart a blazoned white eagle spread its wings and bore in its talons a white football. The two jogged easily and had a casual catch. The sixth graders were regaining their breath as the eighth graders began to take a greater interest in inflicting pain than in getting the ball.
The Ερισ, or Strife, of the Keep Away game had been pee-wee-sized when the sixth graders’ ball had first been seized from them. The sixth graders had looked upon the theft lightly, as if it were little more than a break in their lunchtime routine. But, as the hits were exchanged and as many elbows and knees were scraped, Strife grew taller and taller until she outstood the steeple of Saint Colman’s Church, her ponytail sweeping the clouds and her saddle shoes skipping across the playground.
As Strife fed the flames of both sides’ rage, the Keep Away game seesawed back and forth.
Chuckie, bobbling the ball as he dodged through groups of uniformed girls practicing cheerleading and Chinese jumprope, fumbled it when he was hit. Szalla, of the denim jacket with faux wool overflowing from his collar and sleeves, recovered the ball. The eighth grader then made a sloppy pass, which was intercepted by Mark. Mark tore off with the ball until the swarming eighth graders nearly overwhelmed him. He flipped it over to Paul, who, harried by the blows of the frustrated trespassers, had made his way over to help his classmate. Trelin, the short one of the cruel smile, was hot on Paul’s heels but the stouthearted sixth grader sidearmed the ball to Witt as he got shouldered from the side. He stumbled but did not fall. Wary of his pursuers, Witt ran three steps this way and three steps that before dumping the ball off to Chuckie on his left. Szalla, the tallest of the eighth graders, hit Chuckie and the ball came loose. Mark recovered it and tried to escape from the harrowing grip of the attackers, but was grabbed and fell, his Eagles jacket and pants scraping along the asphalt. The ball skittered across the gravelly, yellow-striped lot.
Trelin of the cruel smile scooped it up at a full run. He scrambled toward the gym amidst jumpropes and tiny primary-grade pupils, giving them hardly a glance. Now a considerable distance from his pursuers, he began to taunt them. He pump-faked passes, thumping the yellow pee wee football against the palm of his left hand.
“Come and get it, faggots! It’s your ball — isn’t it?!”
Szalla took up a position parallel to Trelin and the two lobbed the ball back and forth. Paul Logan, of the great stamina, vainly followed the ball from one receiver to the other. The eighth graders let their lone pursuer come near, as was his wont, but each time they threw the ball high over his head before he could get to them. In a few moments, the number of defenders grew and as the ball sailed among them, Paul Logan continued his vain chase.
Just as a trout when it has taken a fly races this way and that fruitlessly trying to loose himself from the hook and line that is drawing him toward the fisherman’s creel, so Paul ran back and forth among the eighth graders to no avail. Every time Paul got close to the ball, the entire pack of the invaders moved away, guffawing, until they were in eighth grade territory, where piety would have kept them from the start. A small usurper, cocky in the midst of the large number of his fellows, laughed in Paul’s face. The broad-shouldered Logan swatted him away as if he were a low-hanging branch. He soon stood face-to-face with thieving Trelin. Paul lunged toward the shorter, wider boy. Trelin dodged him like bullfighter taunting a bull, leaving Paul with nothing but the late-winter air in his hands. He looked up to see that the eighth graders had formed a circle around him.
Mocking Paul’s plight, Szalla shouted, “Hey, Trelin, if he really wants it so bad, let’s give it to him!”
“Yeah! If Logan really wants it, he can have it!”
Trelin tossed the ball up and caught it as he marched at the center of an array of upperclassmen approaching Paul who stood firm, hands on his hips, clouds of steam puffing from his mouth, and a scowl upon his face. The eighth graders chanted.
“Logan! Logan! Logan! Logan!”
Themis putting his courage in place, Paul held his ground. He was not intimidated. He intended to show them this, and more.
Sneering, Trelin walked over toward Paul and extended the ball toward him.
Paul advanced toward him. The other eighth graders closed in.
“You want the ball back? Take it!”
Paul, cognizant that this was neither a gift nor a prize, lunged at the ball and ripped it from Trelin’s hand. He put his head down like a running back charging into a pile of defenders and punished many with the blows of his mighty shoulders. Some even fell to the ground. But Paul’s advantage was fleeting. In a moment, their superior numbers gave the eighth graders control.
Paul fell prostrate on the ground, with a trio of eighth graders on his back. Some of the thieves tried to reach between Paul’s chest and the ground to pull the ball away. But, Paul would not let it go. More older boys bounded on top of him. Yet Paul would not yield. Strong enemy arms tried to rob him of the miniature plastic football. Still, he held firm. Some of his teammates, faithful lads all, came to the fore. They fought the impious brutes who surrounded Paul and kicked at his prostrate body like a pride of lions around a fallen wildebeest.
Paul felt the blows of the eighth grade feet. His lungs and chest strained under the weight of the bigger older bodies. The muscles of his legs tightened as Trelin stepped and walked upon them. He couldn’t see his classmates but he could hear them and he sensed the struggle going on around and above him. He heard Mark’s voice call his name. Looking up with difficulty, he glimpsed Mark’s shoes, legs, and his outstretched hands. Paul squirmed to pull the ball from under him. He tried to hand the ball to his comrade but eighth grade hands prevented him.
Szalla yelled, “Yo, Leighton! Whaddaya think yore doin’?”
And tried to push him out of the way. But Mark shoved him back. Losing his balance, Szalla tripped over one of his own classmates in the pile-up, and fell in disgraceful defeat on his back, on the hard, cold ground.
With an opening now clear, Paul handed Mark the ball and the valiant sixth grader, broad-shouldered Paul’s brother in bravery, galloped away from the once haughty pack of barbarians who now seemed more like a scatter of carrion left after a battle by Ares, the bloody destroyer of cities, than like a pride of lions.
After a number of final kicks and several loud curses, the eighth graders abandoned the prone Paul Logan, favored of Themis, and gave chase to Mark and John who passed the ball back and forth, making sport of the angered, oldest boys in the school, the former cocks of the walk.
Strife spurred the upperclassmen on and presently they stood in the faces of Mark and John. Mark made a wobbly pass to big-footed Witt. The yellow pee wee football hit his long-fingered hands and fell rolling and bounding onto the asphalt. The ball was picked up easily by one of Trelin’s cronies and was underhanded to him of the cruel smile.
Trelin dropped back to pass like an NFL quarterback and provided his own play by play for his actions.
“Staubach from the shotgun … he sees Szalla downfield … and throws a ‘Hail Mary Pass’!”
Clear across the yard, over the heads of the little ones, Trelin threw a high, prideful pass.
“No one can intercept that!” he boasted.
From nowhere he came! From nowhere! The one from the bottom of the pileup who had been discounted came from nowhere! And he sped toward the pee wee football arcing through the crisp air.
As the yellow ball spiraled into the hands of Ostrachuck, Paul’s shoulder struck him a crushing blow and the tall boy fell like a tower. There seemed to be no time between Paul’s hit and the eighth grader’s landing on the ground.
With the pleasure of victory and the taste of just revenge on his lips, the sixth-grade Logan, favored of Eusebia, reached down and with his strong right arm and one hand, ripped the ball from the ignoble and defeated arms of the sacked older boy.
No celebration came from Paul Logan. His eyes were fierce with the lust of battle, with avenging wrongs but without undue malice toward his persecutors, and with the confidence in his strength and fidelity in the just outcome that the Son of Chronos was surely arranging for those unjust invaders.
Then as Paul loped back toward the sixth-grade area, Zeus saw fit that the lunch period time should run out, and bade Themis strike the bell to summon the children back into school.
His classmates slapped Paul on the back and gave him great praise. They looked upon him with amazement, and gratitude, and with admiration. For Paul Logan of the great stamina, though winded, scraped, and drenched in sweat, stood bloodied but unbowed, beaten and bruised but unvanquished.
From that day forward in the schoolyard not only the sixth graders but pupils from younger and older grades as well spoke of the day when Paul Logan was set upon by superior numbers of a superior grade, how he was kicked and pounced upon, how the backs of his legs were used as pedestrian ways, how broad-shouldered Paul never abandoned the field, and how in the end he held onto the ball. No matter how they pounced on him, Paul Logan held onto the ball. No matter how many attacked him, Paul Logan held onto the ball. Paul Logan held onto the ball.
John Kearns is the author of the short-story collection, Dreams and Dull Realities and the novel, The World. His novel-in-progress, Worlds, was a finalist in the 2002 New Century Writers’ Awards. John has had five full-length and five one-act plays produced in Manhattan, including In the Wilderness, Resignations, and In a Bucket of Blood. Moreover, his drama, Sons of Molly Maguire, produced at Dublin’s Liberty Hall in May 2017, told the tale of the Molly Maguires for the first time on an Irish stage. John’s fiction has appeared in The Medulla Review, Danse Macabre, and The Irish Echo and his poems the North American Review, Feile-Festa, and the Grey Sparrow Journal. John is the Treasurer and Salon Producer for Irish American Writers and Artists. He has Masters Degree in Irish Literature from the Catholic University of America.