This short story is inspired by the song “Elephant” by Jason Isbell. 

Emily’s long porcelain legs shivered in the drafty cold of the sleepy Tennessee bar room. Above her, two dusty speakers rang out Clay Pigeons. She sat stoically in a short dark blue dress that clung tightly to her body. One of her hands tickled the chicken skin forming along her thigh.

“Take my sweater, Em,” Andy said to her. 

“It’s Emily, Andy,” she replied with a smile. 

Andy shook his head. For six months, they’d met at the same bar every Thursday night to watch singers with beards and sweat-stained hats play songs for middle-aged couples and a few yuppies, like Andy, who lived in the neighborhood and were bored with other bars where college kids hung out. 

The first Thursday, Andy noticed Emily, blonde and skinny, sitting by herself. She had big blue eyes and her arms were pale and muscled. He approached and stood beside her to order a beer. She did not turn to face him, even when he spoke to her.

“I didn’t know anyone else under the age of 30 came here,” he said. 

“I don’t come for conversation,” Emily replied, her eyes never moving from the bar top.

Andy laughed it off. “So, is it for the music? I think my cat can hold a better melody.”

Emily smiled softly and finally looked up at him. “You’re a cat person?”

They spoke for four hours that first night. Andy told her about how he had moved to Nashville from Clarksville after college. He took a few classes at Belmont. He tried to make it as a folk singer, but stayed instead for a job in advertising. His boss is a fan and lets him take time off to play a few small shows on the road every summer.

It would be a few more weeks before Emily told Andy about her cancer. The doctors had found it in April. She told Andy about her timeline. How her family had moved from Oklahoma to Franklin to be close to her.

“They’re one of those big Baptist families,” she said. “They think they’ll pray my cancer away.”

Now, Emily and Andy sat at the same bar stools again talking. It was late November, as the fall crept to winter. They looked like old lovers half the time the way they sat close but rarely touching. They talked ceaselessly. At midnight, Andy closed their tabs.

“Do you still want to sleep with me, Andy?” Emily asked him, woozy from Jack Daniels.

Andy’s shoulders fell. 

“It’s alright, Andy. You can take me home,” she said.

He walked Emily two streets over to her apartment and helped her up the stairs, both of them sleepy and unsteady from the booze. She laid down in her bed and they spoke until she fell asleep. He felt her skinny body beside him. Soon he got up and washed the dishes in her sink, threw away the old mail on her desk, and swept the floor where strands of her hair had fallen. Then he left.

Andy and Emily spent the nights they could together under the dim light of a barroom or her bedroom. On her bed post, they kept a tally they scratched off after every time she was readmitted to the hospital. He met her family there on one of the hard days. She had been sick to her stomach the night before.

“It’s a blessing Emily’s found you,” her dad told him. He grabbed Andy’s forearm and gripped it, as he stared kindly at him.

Emily laughed. In his other hand, Andy held a cup of coffee he shared with her.

“Can I get you another cup?” her dad asked him. Andy politely nodded no. Emily’s parents left for a few hours to meet her cousins who were in town to spend the weekend.

“Seagrams?” she said when they were out of sight. “Really, Andy? You crack me up.”

In the hospital, Andy sat beside her bed. He brought his guitar some nights and played her old country songs. The blue veins in her skin were rivers throbbing under the harsh fluorescent lighting. High from the medicine, she sang shamelessly. 

“Play Hank Jr. next,” she said. “Family Tradition.”

It hurt to play the songs. It hurt to watch her die. But Andy stayed until the end. He loved her completely and irrationally in a way he never did the others who came before her.

Emily died on a Tuesday morning. Two days later, Andy returned to the bar two blocks from her apartment and sat at the stool where he first saw her. He listened to a guitar player on stage sing a love song that ended with a happy-ending line he hated deep inside himself. Then he ordered Jack Daniels until he was blazingly drunk.

The Penalty Kick

Jacob picked up the ball and walked it twelve paces to the spot in the dirt he had marked off with his foot. He dug the toe of his boot into the dirt and beat it down enough to fit the old ball so it wouldn’t move. He set it down and then lifted it a foot off the ground, spinning it carefully in his hands, before placing it firmly in the spot again. Jacob’s dad had taught him to always set the ball down this way: “Never let the referee do it for you. It’s your penalty kick—not theirs,” he had told him.

It was mid-July and the summer heat was stifling. For three weeks, Jacob had spent hours in the little park behind his parents’ house in New Jersey. During the day, he would take his old ball and hop the yellow brick wall at the end of their street, shortcutting his way to the soccer fields. He kicked the ball around until the floodlights came on. That was his sign for when the adults would come out to play and he knew he had to head home for dinner. After dinner, he’d sit on porch with his ball. He watched the older men walk down the dead-end street and hop the wall on their way to play soccer with their friends. They were mostly laborers from Mexico and Central America, and sometimes they wore jerseys familiar to Jacob from the television broadcasts of the professionals: the dark green of Mexico, luminescent yellow of Brazil, orange-red of Spain.

The sun was setting.

After Jacob set the ball down, he stood up and looked toward the old goal. The once-white net was a dusty gray and hung sadly, full of holes. He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, lifting his head to the sky. Jacob was in his imagination now.

“It all comes down to this,” he heard the voice of Ian Darke say. “Jacob Costa is going to be the last player to take it for Argentina.” (In his head, he always played for Argentina. It was the only team he’d ever watch with his dad).

Jacob stood to the left of the ball. He opened his eyes and took three steps back and one more step to the left. He was transported to the Maracanã Stadium in Rio. Jacob turned his back and stared into the distance, breathing in through his nose and exhaling deeply. He imagined there were 100,000 people in the stands like the day Uruguay beat Brazil in the 1950 World Cup Final. His grandfather had told him the story many times. The Brazilians supposedly threw themselves to their deaths after they lost the final.

“Costa has been Argentina’s most consistent penalty taker. He hasn’t missed from the spot all year. But, can he do it on the big stage here? Millions are watching all over the world as he steps up to take it. Will Jacob Costa be the hero for Argentina?”

Jacob turned back around and stared ferociously at the goal. He was staring at the biggest goalkeeper he could’ve imagined. He picked his corner, like his dad had always taught him. “This one’s going in the top right,” he muttered under his breath.

Jacob took another deep breath, stared at the ball, and stared again at the goalkeeper he imagined in his mind. The goalkeeper was jumping around, ready for the kick. Jacob smirked. He took two steps toward the old ball, planted his left foot beside it, and drove a shot that curved into the top right corner through a hole in the net.

Jacob Costa jumped into the air celebrating. He fell to the ground and grabbed his head with his hands. “He’s done it! Jacob Costa has done it! He’s won the World Cup for Argentina with the very last kick of the game!”

The floodlights came on as he kneeled in the dirt, imagining his teammates surrounding him. The ball was twenty yards away in a ditch beside the trees. It was time to go home.

This is a short story about a moment, as many of my stories and poems are because of their short nature. Moments are powerful. We can all connect to moments.

When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time in the park behind my parents’ house in Bayonne. It was in that park my dad taught me how to play soccer (it’s the same park from “My Dad and the Soccer Ball”). For years, starting in eighth grade, I’d head to that park alone or with my friends to play soccer. A lot of the time, it was alone. I wasn’t a very good soccer player, but I was obsessed with it. I would watch for hours on TV, and when me and my  grandpa drove in the car together he’d never let me listen to the radio so instead I just asked him about what was going on with Argentina’s national team. It was on one of those car rides to the pet cemetery in Old Bridge, where his dog had been buried, that he told me all about Riquelme and El Conejo Saviola.

I remember sitting in my parent’s old vacation home in the Pocono Mountains with my head in my hands as Holland eliminated Argentina from the 1998 World Cup. I remember exactly where I sat—five feet in front of the television, adjacent to the couch where my dad watched with his Portuguese friend—and how I felt: devastated. Even though I was born in the United States, I never watched U.S. soccer growing up. My dad, grandpa, uncles and everyone else in my family watched Argentina, so I did, too. My first hero was Gabriel Batistuta, who I wrote a report on for Ms. Squittieri’s class in eighth grade. The assignment was to write about one of our role models. Many of the other students thought it was Jesus when they saw the picture on the cover (to be fair, this is Batistuta).

I imagine there are millions of boys and girls around the world—maybe even every boy and girl who has ever touched a soccer ball—who imagine themselves as Messi, Cristiano, Zlatan, Mia, Marta, Alex Morgan when they’re playing with the ball. It is what drives us to keep playing. We want to be like the players we admire. We want to celebrate. We want to be loved and idolized. And, for many of us, it doesn’t start in some rigid club system on perfectly manicured turf. It starts in our backyard. It starts in a vacant lot across the street. It starts on a dusty soccer field where no one is watching. Or, maybe, everyone in the world is watching. It all depends on how you see it.