To Arms

Dan hoped no one noticed he'd scratched the leg. Scratched it, like there'd been an itch. Scratched it, like there'd been something there in need of scratching. Nobody seemed to notice but they'd be friendly enough not to say anything if they had. Why had he scratched? What'd come over him?

Dan repositioned the leg on the bleacher chair - the pistons and tendons making a smooth swish. Nobody looked. Fortunate thing about having a prosthetic is that nobody looks - when you're looking back. Sometimes you can pretend it's the most normal thing.

“Your brother’s on the field,” said Dan, tapping his son on the shoulder. The boy looked briefly up from his book, the old romance A Farewell to Arms, before resuming his reading. On the field, Dan’s youngest was setting up at the line. Although the game was preseason, it still meant something for Dan to come and see his son play. There wouldn’t always be time for fathers and sons.

The morning was cool and murky like a water-downed wine. It was the kind of day that made you feel sleepy enough to watch a high school scrimmage. Surrounding Dan were listless parents spraying battery-powered mist fans and hiding closed eyes behind aviators. Occasionally a parent would sit up and shout, “go Valley!” or “go defense!” This wasn’t always when defense was on the field.

“C’mon, watch your brother,” said Dan. He tapped Caleb's shoulder again. The boy looked at his Dad smartly - smart enough not to say anything.

“You can read anytime but these are the only two hours you get to watch your brother,” said Dan. "And the game's almost over. Look. A minute on the clock."

Caleb put his book down. He looked everywhere but at the game. His resistance didn’t have a place to manifest. 
Protesting sports at a high school football game in Texas was like protesting religion at the black stone of Mecca.

It was difficult for Dan to explain why a dozen snaps in white plains were important. The game had saved Dan’s life when he was a young man suffering a broken home. Then it’d saved him again when he was rehabilitating after the war, when they’d played a milder game with staff. Dan had never thought he’d see his own kids play. That he’d see his own kids. But here they were, and all Dan could feel was his unworthiness, his raw continuity.

Caleb had asked him once which war he’d been in. All of them. Every war. There were the guys who knew they were going to die but didn’t; the guys who never had any idea; the guys who cried for things other than mama and God. Every war. And each war had taken something. Not just legs but eyes and hearts and minds.

What was war like? It was like waiting in line at the edge of a cliff.

Now the country was in three wars and private engagements you never heard about on the news. Before that had been the financial crisis, and before that a moral one - a generation of amputees coddling a generation unprepared for the world that was.

Dan repositioned. It was a little heavier this time, less cooperative. A red light was blinking on the ankle. Low battery. The prosthetic wasn’t one of those pogo sticks they gave civil workers. It ran for a long time, but when it died, it was like pulling a stalled car behind you.

He didn’t want a dead leg on him, not here in the stadium, not when he was surrounded by parents and sons.

Dan searched through his backpack but couldn’t find the spare. He should have charged the battery in the car, or at work, or overnight. Sometimes the leg would run for days and Dan would forget to charge the battery. Sometimes the leg worked like it didn't need batteries.

"Battery's out," said Dan, lowly, to his son. Caleb didn't respond. The players were making two lines and smacking hands. Parents were stretching and packing and migrating away.

"Gonna need a hand," he said. Caleb still didn't respond. Dan pressed the tip of a black rubber grip and a steel cane extended. He tried to stand, and then sat back down. He hadn't shifted his weight properly.


Caleb slid the book into the net pocket on the side of the icebox, then shrugged the box strap over his shoulder. The young man stood, looking everywhere but at his Dad and the people around him. Dan propped a hand on his son's back and pushed himself up. It was a struggle, but then it worked, and they were down the bleacher seats with Dan's hand fixed on his son's back, walking onto the grass toward where the team had taken a knee. The coach, a throwback from the 70s, was waving his hands like a preacher.

"Thanks," said Dan.

"It's okay," said Caleb.
* * *

Sometimes Dan was afraid of the grass. Sometimes he could feel the miles and miles of Earth beneath. It was like floating over an ocean that you knew went down to incredible depths. He was afraid of being pulled in, of his body being lost in the loam and clay. Dan preferred cement, the tarred road, tile.

Was it healthy for a grown man to feel this way? He didn’t know. War made a lot of changes in a man. In his thoughts. In the way he ate, the way he saw things and felt things, the way he walked. He marveled at these players. They were more worried about the guy over the line than the earth into which they dug fingers.

Dan slowly unclenched his fists. He was ruminating again.

Football makes a poor symbol for war, thought Dan, though it won't stop soldiers from trying.