The Season of Tiny Yellow Leaves
“Hey ref,” the man bellowed at him, “get your head out of your ass.”
Marshall Magruder turned around to see his accuser, an abrasive boat salesman with a cell phone glued to his ear. “Just looking for you, Norm,” he yelled back, clowning with his arms a bit to lighten the moment. Youth Football. He had to watch the parents as closely as the game — a rumble could erupt and they’d all be on the Today show the next morning.
Some romping dogs caught his eye and Marshall scanned the clump of damp spectators on the sidelines for his wife before he remembered she was out of town. Pauline sometimes stopped to watch games if she was driving past a field and had a few free minutes between appointments. She liked football; that was how they had met in college. She played in the annual Homecoming Powder Puff game when they were seniors. He smiled at the memory of her covered in mud, baggy sweats and war paint. She was so tough — and unbearably hot. She still looked the same, though her tomboy figure was a bit curvier, and she needed to have her blond hair “brightened” every six weeks or so. He didn’t look too different himself: still average height, average build, average brown hair. It still surprised him he had hooked a babe like Pauline.
The November drizzle turned into a biting spit. Marshall wanted to kick himself for being there. Monday was usually his day off with Pauline; they should be cuddled up on the couch, taking a nap. On the occasional Mondays when she drove the 50 miles up to Portland for the day, he liked to sleep late, work hard in the yard, then kick back, have a few cold ones and watch the game on TV. He had been right in the middle of burying some garlic bulbs when his best friend Larry called from some meeting that wouldn’t end, begging him to officiate the 3:30 match. Marshall had agreed. With Pauline in the city, he couldn’t think of an excuse not to help out. But he was hating it at the moment. And he greatly preferred soccer moms over football dads any day of the week.
The boys bobbed in their padding like buoys down on the river. They were eleven, that agonizing tween age when everything is so important and nothing really matters. Two players from opposing teams squabbled after the ball was dead. He knew them both–they were good kids from decent families. All puffed up in their pads. “Retard,” one said.
“Faggot,” the other replied.
Marshall stepped over and broke it up. “Hey guys,” he said, “no name calling.” The boys stared up at him. “You knuckleheads,” he added, smiling.
The two players’ anger seemed to evaporate into the thickening fog. One rapped the other’s helmet, “Knucklehead,” he crowed. They both busted up and took turns knocking on each other’s headgear before splitting to go to their respective huddles. It was much easier to defuse the boys’ bickering than to step between their dads. There’s nothing more disheartening than watching an irate dentist and Wal-Mart manager argue about their children in front of their children.
The parents were the worst part of his job, but he loved the kids. They were so happy and unspoiled. Since Woodhill was a relatively small town, he had the opportunity to watch them grow and leave and return. He had worked for Woodhill Parks & Recreation for 18 years, which seemed unbelievable when he thought about it. Some of the kids he had met when he started now had children of their own in the program. Marshall still felt like a kid himself–even at 40–like he was never going to grow up. That’s why he and Pauline were such a good match. She was adult enough for the both of them.
The players lingered in their huddles, stomping their feet and blowing on their fingers. Marshall was about to hurry them along when he heard someone call his name. He turned around to see a Gortex-clad figure frantically waving both hands at him. It was Trevor Applewood, the Special Olympics kid he’d coached for the past four years. Marshall waved back. Trevor always lifted his mood. Every time he watched him running his heart out around the track, Marshall experienced a sense of pureness that never failed to move him.
The teams finally lined up for another play. It was nearly dark, but before the ball snapped, he saw a defensive player move in. He blew his whistle and threw up a flag, signaling offsides. Boos and cheers. Cheers and boos. He didn’t care; he was a good referee. Confidence, that’s all it took. He made calls from his gut — he just knew. And when he didn’t, he called in favor of the team he didn’t favor the last time he wasn’t sure. Confidence. Officiating was one of the few areas where he had it over Pauline.
She was well known for being right. She got phone calls constantly; of course he only heard her end: “Oh please, he is such a loser. There are plenty of other fish to fry.” Or, “Wear that tight black skirt with a thong. Did you hear me? Panty lines are death.” She was Woodhill’s go-to gal.
He liked having a competent wife, yet he also liked having his own realm at work where he was the expert. He was organized, able to register 857 kids for fall sports singlehandedly while dealing with the control-freak parents who were way too concerned about to which teams their kids were assigned–how horrible this coach was, how wimpy that one was. Over the years, he was increasingly cooped up in the office on the phone, so on that particular night it should have felt good for him to get out in the field, so to speak. But he was relieved when the timekeeper gave the two-minute warning. He couldn’t wait to get back home.
Marshall and Pauline had lived on Lukiamute Road for over ten years. It was not the type of house Marshall had ever imagined living in. He had grown up downtown in a crumbling bungalow with a deep porch and worn fir floors. After months of looking, Pauline had found a new contemporary on the outskirts of town with vaulted ceilings and miles of ecru carpeting. He had balked at first; it was simply too sterile, too white. A McMansion, super-sized. But in the end, he deferred to her expertise as a real estate broker. It turned out she was right. The location was ideal: on a dead end street next to the county park. The house was warm and snug in the winter; in summer, a breeze blew over the back deck where they watched the sunset. He hoped they’d fill it up with kids someday. And there was a lot to be said for a shiny new place with no costly repairs to worry about.
But it was the yard that finally won Marshall over. It was private and well-established by the couple who had lived half-a-century in the old farmhouse that had stood there before. His first year there was a treat, not knowing what would come up next. He now had his own yearly calendar based on what was flourishing out back: first the bright pink camellias in February, daffodils in March, then the glorious flowering plum tree and bluebells in April, the array of roses coming out in May and June, huge hydrangeas all summer long. The purple fall crocus came up about Labor Day, a bittersweet reminder that winter would soon be upon them. And when the rain started in October, that weird birch tree by the side door shed tiny yellow leaves that wouldn’t come off the bottom of their shoes–they tracked them all over the house. The house was Pauline’s domain, and the yard was where he truly felt at home.
The football game ended, mercifully, and the two teams lined up to shake hands. Marshall pulled off his soggy black-and-white striped pinny as he watched the ritual. “Good game, good game, good game,” the boys chanted to each other as the lines snaked across the field. They took sportsmanship so seriously at that age. It broke his heart. He noticed Larry’s black F-350 pull into the parking lot. Maybe the two of them could get a burger at Mack’s and watch Monday Night Football.
Just then, the dogs he had seen earlier, two rugged rottweilers–one brown and one brindled–raced onto the muddy field, chasing and nipping at each other. One bounded into the crowd and he heard a small child scream. A young, fleece-wearing preppy couple strolled up past Marshall and the guy whistled at the dogs, which completely ignored him.
“Those your dogs?” Marshall called.
They turned around. “Yeah, they’re mine,” the man said. The woman smiled like the animals were too precious for words.
Marshall had never seen the guy before–maybe he worked up at the college–but he certainly knew the type: perfectly tousled hair, impeccably casual sportswear, a look of well-rehearsed disdain on his face. Pauline could have dressed him. He looked like one of those Polo models, except his nose was pinched with annoyance, like he’d just stepped into a steaming pile of polo pony shit.
“I guess you didn’t know there’s a leash law in this park.”
The guy rolled his eyes. “C’mon, man, there’s plenty of room here.” He looked Marshall up and down. “Who are you anyway, the leash law patrol?” He smirked at Marshall before turning away.
“Excuse me?” Marshall called after him, even though he knew he should walk away. The couple stopped and turned around.
“What’s the big deal if I let my dogs run?” The guy stepped forward slightly with his girlfriend still clinging to his arm. “They need exercise.”
“So you think it’s funny that they’re scaring little kids?” Marshall asked. “You can’t even control them. This is a neighborhood park.”
“Oh yeah? Well, I’m here every fricking day.”
Marshall shook his head. “So that gives you the right to break the law?”
“It’s a stupid law.”
What a prick, Marshall thought as he leaned forward and pointed his finger at him. “You know what? It’s because of people like you that I see little toddlers on the playground get terrified when a huge mutt runs up and knocks them over: ‘Oh, he’s friendly,'” he added in a goofy tone. As he filled with uncharacteristic rage, he could clearly tell he was losing control. It was like he was listening to someone else rant. But he hated those people. He wanted to knock their pretty little heads together. He wanted to kill them. “I’m so glad you raise dogs because you’d be terrible parents,” he shouted. “I hope you’re both sterile.”
The couple’s reactions were nearly identical: stunned, as if Marshall had just slapped them both across the face. Or actually knocked their heads together. Marshall was shocked as well. He had crossed the line of civil disagreement between strangers. He wanted to rush away, to get far from the hideous scene as quickly as possible. The dogs went flying past and the couple turned their heads. Marshall took the opportunity to hurry off, but remembered his position with the parks department. He called back to them: “Have a nice day.”
Then he walked right into Larry’s massive chest. “Whoa, bro.” Larry grabbed his arms. “What was that?”
Marshall looked back at the retreating couple. “I don’t know,” he said, feeling a little sick to his stomach.
“I’ve never seen you yell at anyone like that.” Larry grinned. He wore a large black cowboy hat over his bushy auburn hair. “That guy must have really pissed you off.”
“It was stupid,” Marshall said, his hands shaking a little. “A stupid dog thing.” They walked back over to the parking lot.
“What did he say to you?” Larry tugged on his full beard like he was making sure it was still there–a nervous habit he’d had since he’d grown the thing 20 years prior.
Marshall didn’t answer. He and Larry had been friends since the first grade and played golf every week, rain or shine. Yet he was terribly embarrassed that Larry had seen him lose it like that. Plus, his throat had tightened too much to talk. Larry didn’t ask again and they crossed the field in silence. The wet grass smelled moldy in the darkness. Finally, Marshall spoke. “So,” he said, “can you go to Mack’s?”
“She’s spending the night with her sister in Portland.” They reached Larry’s rig and paused by the driver’s side door.
“Getting her hair brightened again?”
Marshall snorted. “Something like that.”
“How’s she feeling? Still throwing up?”
“Oh.” Marshall twisted the wadded up pinny in his hands. “It didn’t work out after all.” He stared at the wet asphalt.
Larry put his thick arm around Marshall’s shoulders. “Oh, man, I’m sorry.”
Marshall nodded, feeling comforted and utterly alone at the same time.
“The same thing happened to Nadine,” Larry said, “in between Jack and Minna.”
Marshall nodded again. “Yeah. I guess it happens all the time.”
They nodded at each other, nodded, nodded, nodded, until Marshall broke the silence. “Look, I think I’m just going to go home.”
Larry clapped him on the back. “You want to come over for dinner? I’m sure Nadine’s defrosting something tasty.”
“Naw, I’m just going to order in a pizza.” He gave Larry a half-hearted wave. “See ya in the morning.”
“Thanks for covering,” Larry answered.
Marshall walked down to his station wagon, another Pauline decision. He had wanted a pickup truck his entire life. But when he finally had an opportunity to buy his first new vehicle, she had quickly pointed out how impractical a truck would be. “How are you going to haul stuff in it?” she had asked. “It’ll get all wet. Are you going to put a camper shell on it or something? And gas isn’t getting any cheaper.” She was right. He had settled for a silver Ford Focus wagon; it turned out that he liked it just fine.
On the drive home, with the windshield wipers and heat cranked, Marshall tried to shake off the bad feeling from his encounter with the dog people. He never ever lost his temper like that; people called him Mellow Marshall or, predictably, Marshmellow. But he was even more disappointed by his inability to confide in Larry about Pauline. He needed to talk to someone about it — someone other than her. Maybe tomorrow on the golf course.
They had put off having kids until the last minute. Pauline had to get working out of her system; she said she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom without worrying about money. But she became more and more successful at selling real estate, making incredible commissions; one was even more than Marshall’s annual salary. She stashed much of it away, but they also had an obscene amount of stuff and took several trips a year to exotic places: Italian ski resorts, golf courses in Scotland, diving at the Great Barrier Reef. “We need to travel while we have the chance,” she had explained. Marshall was certainly down with all that.
When Pauline turned 39, they finally quit using birth control. She was convinced she would have no problem getting pregnant, and of course she was right. Just three months later. But she insisted they keep it to themselves until after the amnio results came back. The ultrasound was amazing. Marshall smiled when he recalled watching the monitor in the darkened room, seeing his son make weird jerky motions, his tiny hands flailing about. The next day, he had told Larry that Pauline was pregnant; he couldn’t help himself.
The highway was crowded with commuters. Rain pelted Marshall’s car and a gust of wind shook it. The oncoming headlights glared against his wet windshield. Marshall realized he was gripping the steering wheel so hard his fingers hurt. Lukiamute Road finally appeared. When he turned off the highway, he pulled over and sat for a few minutes, listening to the storm howl and trying to calm down.
At home, he wiped his feet and looked down to make sure he wasn’t tracking in the tiny yellow leaves. Then he remembered the tree wasn’t even there any more. Pauline had it “removed” the previous summer when he was on a fishing trip to the Deschutes. He hadn’t even bothered to confront her, though the raw stump, bleeding sap, had almost made him cry. The house was so still, he regretted not going home with Larry. The great room was where he spent most of his time, but on that evening, the big black leather couch looked like a cold dead animal. He pawed through the basket of remote controls until he found the one for the television. He switched on the game and stood watching it for a second. The Steelers vs. the Jets. Who the hell cared? His lower back ached from the damp cold.
He wandered into the kitchen. Pauline had recently bought a stainless steel Subzero refrigerator that chilled him just to look at. He opened it, rummaged past the bottles of microbrew and grabbed a can of Bud. Then he noticed she had made a pan of chicken enchiladas for him. His favorite. He stared at the plastic-covered dish before slamming the refrigerator door. He wasn’t hungry after all.
Marshall walked back to the game, pausing before the fireplace to switch on the gas flames. He gazed at the photo gallery on the oak mantelpiece, stopping at the silver frame that held their college graduation picture from 18 years before. They looked so young with their big eighties hair: Pauline fair and cool, Marshall hale and hearty–with a mustache and mullet. He rubbed his hair, lately cut very short to hide the looming baldness. They had been so happy that day, newly in love and about to embark on adulthood. Pauline was actually pregnant in that picture, though they didn’t know it at the time. She had had an abortion a few weeks later, which was absolutely the right thing to do, they had both agreed.
But this time. The genetic counselor had seemed so overtrained to him. She simply laid it out there, literally, pointing to the extra chromosome on the test result card. Marshall and Pauline had stared at it as they listened to the woman talk about statistics and studies, options and odds. Then Marshall looked up, right into her eyes, mentally beseeching her to tell them what to do. Counsel them, for cripes sake. But she simply provided them with the information and told them to take it home and talk. As they walked out of the hospital, he had wondered what made people become genetic counselors anyway. He was a recreation supervisor because he liked sports. Pauline was a real estate broker because she liked money. Does a genetic counselor like telling prospective parents their fetus is fucked up?
Pauline knew what to do instantly, it seemed. “I can’t,” she had said in the car on the way home. Marshall looked at her face, strained, her expensive custom-blended make-up filling in the fine cracks at the corners of her eyes and mouth. At first, he thought she meant she couldn’t terminate the pregnancy. “We can try again,” she continued. He then realized that she didn’t want to have a child with Down’s Syndrome.
They sat silently for several minutes, Marshall working hard to fight the panic rising within him. He didn’t want her to rush into anything; when she made up her mind, there was no changing it. The fall colors hurtled past them as they drove through the perfect autumn sunshine. Finally, he reached over and took her hand. “It’s a boy,” he said, “Just consider Trevor for a minute.”
She squeezed his fingers. “That’s who I was thinking of,” she had murmured.
Well, he had always admired her honesty. He looked over at her again. Tears streaked her cheeks and she turned away to look out the window. At the time, Marshall had thought she was crying for their baby. But standing alone that night in his empty house, he realized she was crying for herself.