My friend Matt and I were walking in the park when we saw the man and his son.
The son stood across the small creek, 40 yards from the father. The father, 28 or 30, held a football, preparing to punt. I’ll say now the boy seemed tense. He was only seven or eight years old.
The father punted and the ball arced over the creek. The boy took a few steps one way, then a few steps the other, watching the ball, arms held out. At the last moment he flinched, turning his head and closing his eyes. The ball hit his arms hard enough to knock them downward—he was only a little thing—and bounced away.
They weren’t far from where we were walking on this fine morning in early summer, the heat not yet hard; we heard, the father say, “I told you to stop closing your fucking eyes, goddammit.”
Matt and I slowed. We looked at each other. A woman—the mother, I presume—sat reading at a nearby picnic table. On top of the table was a car seat and in the car seat an infant, shaded from the morning sun. She did not look up from her book.
“You can’t catch the goddamn ball with your eyes closed,” the father said. “Jesus fucking Christ, Shawn.”
Shawn claimed the sun had gotten into his eyes. The father shook his head. It was the kind of head shake I had seen at Little League baseball games thirty years before from fathers who carried flasks filled with anger in their back pockets, and were trying to relive something through their sons, some vital part of youth that had gone missing.
Matt and I stood watching the father. I’m not ashamed now to say that we were hoping he would turn to us and ask what the fuck we were looking at. Shawn had chased down the football and, using both arms, hurled it across the creek. It landed short of his father, who told Shawn he threw like a fucking girl.
“I told you to use one arm,” the father said, “not throw it like a faggot.”
He took the ball and prepared to punt again. I told Matt I was about to throat-punch this asshole. Matt said he’d be happy to help. I suppose I should say something now about our tendency toward violence as men, but I was too mad then to think about anything other than stopping the father from cursing the son.
The father punted the ball again, and again Shawn closed his eyes, and again the ball went bouncing away.
Shawn’s father called to him. “I’m going to beat your ass if you close your eyes again, Shawn. That’s it.”
What can I say to get you to believe there was nothing else we could do? Without a word Matt and I continued on, hands curling into fists at the thought of the coming violence. But violence only begets violence, as the good books say—belying all the violence inside them—and you can’t beat up everyone in the world, no matter how badly they need it. It might have also occurred to us that we were about to cause young Shawn more harm than his angry father ever had, so Matt made a noise in the back of his throat, and when Shawn’s father turned his attention toward us we began to sing the theme song from Growing Pains.
“Show me that smile again,” Matt sang, and I echoed “Show me that smile.”
Shawn’s father stood looking at us. I’d like to believe now he knew how ridiculous we were. Shawn, separated from his father by the small stream that somewhere ran into a river, was watching as well. We were near enough we could see the smile on his small face. It came to me that we’d once been boys that age, scared of our own insides, in love with the men who threw a shadow over us. I hoped then, and still do, that he knew the next line, about not wasting another minute on your crying.
We heard Shawn’s father say something as we went on into the morning, but we were belting out the line that says the best is ready to begin, and when we finally turned back to see Shawn standing tall across the creek, his father was lining up another long punt.
“All right, boy,” he said, all the anger gone out of him. “Here you go. You can do this. Keep your eyes open, and try.”