Jesse placed third in the mile. He received a third place ribbon. He should have been proud. He should have felt like he achieved something, but he didn’t.
After the meet, he showed his father the ribbon.
His father didn’t seem impressed.
Walking to their car, Jesse asked, “What? I only came in third?”
“No,” his father said.
“Nothing,” his father moped.
“Here,” Jesse said. “It’s yours. Again.”
The young athlete handed his father the ribbon.
His father gleamed.
“But it doesn’t seem fair,” Jesse said. “It’s my ribbon. I won it.”
“But nobody wanted you to win it more than me,” his father said. “Nobody’s out here rooting for your win like I am. Nobody cares about your win more than me.”
“You’re right,” Jessie said. “Mom and grandpa and grandma never come.”
“Thank you for the ribbon,” his father said.
“You gonna take it work and pin it on the wall?” Jesse asked.
“Yup,” his proud father said. “With all your other stuff. To show everybody how good you are at track and football.”
“Couldn’t I keep one to put up in my room? Or take one to school? Put it in my locker or something?”
“You understand that nobody else at my job brings any of their kids’ trophies or ribbons to work? Nobody else is that proud of their kid.”
“Okay,” Jesse said. “But I’m thinking next meet maybe you ought to stay at home.”
Shell shocked, his father stalled dead in his tracks. He asked, “Why?”
“I want to feel what it’s like winning something alone.”
“But I want to be here, supporting you, Son. Who else will be here to support you if I don’t come? Who else will be here to share in your triumph?”
“I can support myself, I think. And I can celebrate with my team and coach.”
His father huffed and continued walking.
“All the hours I’ve spent coaching and encouraging you in all your sports? This is how you repay me? By shutting me out?”
Jesse understood how his father was a bully and a tyrant. He understood how most other parents didn’t belittle and humiliate and degrade the children they love for the sake of ribbons and trophies. Jesse had come to understood that his dignity was worth far more than the value of being able to throw and catch a ball or run fast.
“It’s what I want,” Jesse said.
“You sure?” his father asked. “This might really change things.”
“I appreciate it, Dad. But, please, let me try this other thing just once.”
They got in the car. They drove a few blocks in silence with Jessie thinking how, in the past months, it had begun to feel like there might be more to him than sports. But he couldn’t put it all together. He couldn’t quite make sense of it, and there was really nobody around he could trust to consult.
Jesse was confused in coming to understand there was more to him than what he currently was. Unfortunately, Jesse was still too young and naïve to understand that for his father, there was nothing more to him than his son’s sports. And it was a shame Jesse was still too young and naïve to understand – and there wasn’t anybody else around to tell him – he was already more of a man than his father. Unfortunately, he was too young and naïve to understand that all those things were the causes of all that confusion and consternation.
Glaring out the side window, Jesse asked his father why he hadn’t gotten the cassettes he wanted for his birthday.
“You needed new running shoes,” his father said. “You’d already outgrown the old ones.”
“But I didn’t ask for shoes,” Jessie said. “I asked for cassettes.”
“I’d have had to run into the city for those cassettes,” his father said. “I got the shoes in Connersville.”
“I told you there’s a record store in Oxford. Oxford’s no further or bigger than Connersville. I told you about the record store in Oxford. You remember?”
“No,” his father lied. “Besides, I got you something you need. You should be grateful.”
“I was really looking forward to those cassettes,” Jesse said.
“You think I’m made of money? And you know how I don’t like driving to the city.”
“Plenty of people don’t like driving in the city,” Jesse said. “But they do anyway. Especially for their kid’s birthday.”
“I’m still not made of money,” his father said.
“Mark and his sister both have braces,” Jesse said. “He said they cost his folks thousands of dollars. And he still gets the shoes he needs when he needs them and the games he wants for his birthday.”
“Mark’s parents don’t come to all his meets. You know that? And you think you deserve everything you want?”
“I think I’m a decent kid. I think I ought to be treated like one. Nothing special, just more like all the other decent kids.”
“I never said you weren’t decent,” his father said.
“But you never tell me I’m decedent. And you don’t treat me like I am.”
“Nobody at my job tells me I’m decent either,” his father said. “It’s the way of the world. I’d get used to it.”
Jesse wanted to cry. He’d just come in third place in the mile and even won a ribbon, but he still wanted to cry, knowing the only person that even pretended to care would rather yank his chain and continue pretending than ever take a step or two toward truly caring.
“Maybe if you had more than me and a job there’d be more people around to tell you you’re decent,” Jesse said.
Jesse’s heart raced. It was the smallest act of bravery that, in his lifetime, only he would ever understand.
And he wanted to say too, “That is, if you are decent.” But he decided not to further tease the rage in his father that he already knew too well. But it was all the absolute truth he needed to get out, though it came at the cost of tampering with a creature so easily riled and primed to rampage.
They pulled into the drive.
His father pouted. Jesse felt relief, understanding his father was going to play the victim instead of being the raging psychopath.
“Okay. I’ll stay home next time,” his father said.
“Thanks,” Jessie said, relieved that the risk in taking his stand might lead to feeling a little bit better.
“Okay,” his father said, nodding and grimacing and pretending to be sad rather than admit how he secretly and shamefully hoped his son would come in at least forth or worse in his next race.