The Trash We Find in the Fields When We’re Young

Martha Shaffer

Ball pumps. Balls. Cleats. Gold shin guards from Todd & Moore, the kind Caroline wears, the kind we envy. They reflect an oppressive glare in direct sunlight, even through white knee socks, and distract the other team from scoring. She makes a lot of our goals this way, so we christen them our secret weapon. Band-aids tacked over our fake pearl earrings that always fall off halfway through the match. Slate pea gravel from the road where they found the girl. The patchy woods where the gunshots came from, where my brother once chases an out-of-bounds ball from our scrimmage and returns with a speckled blue glass bong, a ripped plastic bag wrapped around the base. Hair ties we use to quickly fix our pigtails in the backseat on the way to the game, and as we yank the tie against our skull so tightly it almost snaps, we look out the window and ride by the house where it happened.

Quaker Oats granola bar wrappers, cigarette butts, plastic water bottles, paper napkins, crushed Coors Lite cans, coffee cups, Dunkin Donuts munchkin boxes. No one at the park picks up after themselves and we adjust to a routine of retrieving litter from the field before practice. The park lies tucked on the edge of a middle-class neighborhood with pockets of quiet poverty and rare expanses of unused land. After Friday night football games around the block at Memorial Stadium, high schoolers use the empty fields to drink and smoke. The girl was drinking with the man inside his car right before he killed her, and their pack of Michelob Ultra remained unfinished at the end of the night, so he took it back to his apartment and loaded the bottles into the fridge for later. Using the labels, the police matched them to the same factory as the empty bottles by her body, that they were even made in the same fifteen-minute span: 2:15 to 2:30 p.m. on October 22, 1996. If our parents drive by the fields on the way back from dinner or a friend’s house late on Fridays, we can gawk at the clumps of gathering teenagers. Normally, one car has its headlights on to make it easier to move, easier to notice anyone coming. They’re packed so closely we can’t tell exactly what any of them are doing. We always think they’re dancing. Later in the week, we’ll fetch their cans from the fields and check the labels before we chuck them. This way, we’ll know they were made at the same time and belonged to the same pack, that the factory machinery crunched and twisted until the liquid poured delicately into the cans as they rushed down the line.

We sometimes pick up split shards of broken boards from the skatepark, wheels that fly off from hitting concrete at the wrong angle. Dog shit. The city government fumes over the humiliating condition of the fields. Parents find themselves just as incensed, even though they were equally culpable for the eyesore. At the start of fall season in fourth grade, Parks & Reaction disseminates a memo reminding parents of their responsibility to keep the fields immaculate for the next batch of children playing fifteen minutes after their own. The sheet ultimately proves to be yet another piece of trash left crumpled beside goalposts and sidelines, another ornament on our Elysian Fields.

           Dear Owens Field Soccer Familes,

           As part of a larger effort to clean up Owens Field Park, please remember to collect these items            before the leaving the park:

           a) snacks/food and any trash (bins are located between every field).

           b) water bottles/gatorade/coffee cups.

           c) cones, jerseys, soccer balls, fold-up chairs, pop-up tents, picnic blankets, etc.

           We seek to leave no trace and keep the soccer fields clean so all teams can enjoy them. No            smoking cigarettes or drinking alcoholic substances on the premises. Thank you for your            cooperation and for enjoying the City of Columbia’s parks!

Yelling between the players, yelling from the coach, yelling from overbearing parents who stand at attention right by the goal. Whispers. Gossip between our mothers as we play. Once the other murder hits the news, speculation occupies their conversations for weeks. Inside a modest house next to the back entrance of the park, a house we speed by each Saturday in our rush to make warm-ups, a middle-aged man killed his wife and then killed himself. Now, caution tape invades the place like kudzu. The brick bungalow’s dirty white peeling paint blends in with the rest of the unimposing neighborhood. It never interested us before, but now the boarded windows and two white plastic chairs on the undersized porch grip all of our imaginations. What did these people look like? Had we ever seen them? If we’d stared hard enough when we rode by, could we have noticed a clue? A tan Pontiac remains in the carport and the mothers wonder when someone will retrieve it, whether the family will sell the car or consider it a sentimental token of who they’ve lost.

Some say the city should look into constructing new fields on the other side of town since this area doesn’t seem safe. Some say that it simply isn’t right how their children are forced to confront murder, domestic violence, suicide, all in transit to their youth league soccer games. Some won’t stop talking about the girl who never finished the Mich Ultras, the girl who worked as an escort until she was robbed, shot, and dumped in the road. A man and his dog found her the next morning. They began their walk in darkness and by the end noticed the sky streaked with red. Her right shoe was missing, black stockings ripped, knees covered in cuts that dried and pooled down her calves onto her ankles. The fact that they never found the shoe disturbs us more than the murder. We wonder if her killer kept it as a souvenir, buried the black heel where the cops would never find it. We stop watching Cinderella. We keep athletic slides in our cars to strip the shin guards and grass-stained stocks and cleats off as soon as the game ends. We try to picture exactly where on the field it happened, and because we believe in ghosts, if our legs waver during a game and our kick is weak and the ball barely moves or the other girl’s legs barely flail, we wonder if we’re standing where it happened, if the spikes of our cleats are digging like teeth into the plot that absorbed the blood. One of our mothers wonders what the others expect from the city: can they go back in time and save the woman? Can they throw away the caution tape and act like nothing has happened, hire actors to sit in the plastic chairs and wave at the children in the backseat as they pass by?

           Dear Owens Field Soccer Familes,

           We are aware of the horrific crime committed last week on S. Ott Rd by the park’s back            entrance. This guide will help to address this with your child when you ride by the crime scene            and they see the caution tape and ask what happened. You have three options:

                       a) “I don’t know, champ. Are you excited for practice?”

                       b) “Someone must have broken the rules.”

                       c) “A man killed his wife in the house across from the soccer field where I take you                        twice a week to kick a ball around. That’s why there’s caution tape. Because police are                        investigating because he killed her there and then shot himself in the head and her                        sister found them a couple days later, dead on the kitchen floor.”

           If they ask a follow-up question, here’s how to respond:

                       a) “Caution tape means the police are having a party inside.”

                       b) “Sometimes, bad things happen. I can’t explain them. Stop asking me.”

                       c) “Yes, it’s happened here before. When I was five months pregnant with your brother,                        a woman’s body was found lying in the gravel we’re driving on right now. She’d been                        shot three times in the head. They found the killer because his spit collected on the rim                        of the crushed beer bottles beside her hands.”

           Once practice is over, the sun will have set and your Honda Pilot will permeate with the stench            of sweat and dead grass and ripe energy carelessly bundled into a tired body. As your child tells            you if she won her scrimmage and if the coach screamed and if Sydney fell and landed on her            bad leg again and had to be carried to the sidelines, you need to do this:

                       a) Leave through the front entrance instead of the back. You’ve learned your                        lesson. This will force you to ride by the playground, which you normally avoid                        because your child will ask to get out and play, but it’s better than the alternative,                        and so you’ll go that way and then you’ll get out at the playground and push her                        on the swing and listen to it creak each time she shifts her weight.

                       b) Ride by the playground but don’t get out because you don’t trust this neighborhood                        and you never did and now you certainly don’t.

                       c) Ride by the house and don’t even try to speed up, don’t try to ignore it, because it                        won’t work. Instead, listen to your child in the backseat as she mumbles, as she gets                        louder, as she tears up at how badly she feels for the woman, how badly she feels for the                        man too.

First aid kits. Band-aids. Coaches cursing because they forgot the first-aid kit. Goalie gloves, which only the overprotective parents buy. Goalie is a coveted position on our team. Only two girls are picked to play it each season. We attend special practices with the coach and train more since the position is so vastly different. Being picked means the coach believes you have talent. During one game, I kneel and catch the ball as it rolls toward the net. This should mean that I punt the ball back toward midfield and hopefully rest for a minute. But the other team still sprints toward me even though the ball’s already in my grasp, and they kick my hands and won’t stop until the referee steps in. I won’t let go. My hands bleed, scratches and cuts all over them where blood begins to trickle. The coach pulls me and I stay out for the rest of the game. The girls get yellow cards and stern words, but they keep playing. My coach wraps my hands in gauze from the kit. He wants me to go home, but since I carpooled with a teammate that morning, I sit cross-legged on a picnic blanket until the game ends and switch intermittently from staring at my hands to intently watching the field. I stare out at the road and try to imagine the girl. At home, my mother gently unwraps the gauze. My pale hands are stained red all over, even my fingernails. I concentrate on the drip of the faucet while they soak, the drain closed and the color of the water quickly turning.

Dirty socks. Orange peels. Minivans and hatchbacks we hop into after the coach’s monotonous speech about our work ethic finally ends. Lucy’s mother always tells her she has to walk home if she doesn’t score a goal. It’s supposedly a joke, but the routine hardens her, forces Lucy into ruthless competition with anyone standing aimlessly nearby. Thinly veiled insults. Truck beds that we pile into and we lean back on the air as we speed to the dairy bar, our flushed faces like hunting dogs. Lucy never actually walks home. She lives across town. Instead, with only a brisk nod of her mother’s head once the game is over, she knows she hasn’t performed well enough and walks alone through the fields to the back entrance, where her mother picks her up in the blue minivan. Especially after the murder-suicide, this treatment incites countless exchanges of gossip among the mothers. They would never do such a thing to their child. They would never make her stand in such close proximity to a crime scene. But as we leave, we ride by Lucy, trudging with her face pointed at the gravel, and all we do is wave and say we’ll see her soon.

Picnic blankets. Little airplanes flying over from the airport across the street, reserved for private planes and flying lessons. We lie out on the sidelines and stretch while our teammates play. Sometimes, we don’t even watch the game, only the sky’s mid-day movements, and listen vaguely to the referee’s whistle and shouts of distant screams. We trace the planes as they ascend and imagine the passengers, no doubt whisking off to save the world. We want to believe that they glance down at our landscape as they escape, noticing the outlines of our tiny bodies. We wonder how the caution tape and the Pontiac appear from so far up. We wonder if back then, a plane went over the one-shoed girl and they didn’t even care to look out the window to see her, or maybe they saw her and thought she was one of us. Maybe the planes can even catch the glow of Caroline’s shin guards and mistake it for an explosion of sparks on the field. They’ll tell everyone wherever they are headed about our eruption. They will never forget us.

Sedans parked side by side, then speeding off. Organic pickles and microgreens grown at the urban farm next to the airport. Tropical Skittles from the stadium concession stand. Bullet casings. Glass. Orange traffic cones. Baseballs. Weathered goal nets. And whether our mothers want it to be there or not, what belonged in the park that night in 1996 while my mother reclined in a heated, safe home across town, no worries about the curves the night could take: broken glass bottles surrounding the girl like seashells, a lone skateboard wheel spinning and spinning, empty Scooby-Doo gummy pack wrappers, plastic bags, ripped scrimmage jerseys, milk cartons. A bit further, maybe two hundred feet, and there stood a freshly painted white house with plastic chairs and a slanted green mailbox that made anyone who saw it wonder how it ever held anything.

And her little black suede purse, what spilled out of it: a pager, emptied wallet, maybe a family photo, an address or even a phone number scrawled on a sheet from her mother’s notepad, somewhere to call if she needed help.


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