It was cold, and the cold always made it hard to catch a shotgun pass. Ronnie's fingers were already so rigid from the wind they were a light blue. Not alarming, but enough to make him distracted at all the wrong times.
"Watch the spiral," his father said.
Through the wind and dull light of early evening, the words sounded muffled to Ronnie, but he held his hands up anyway, figuring correctly it was some sort of instruction about the next pass.
Place your middle and next finger on the second and third thread of the football. Wrap your thumb around the back and give it a good squeeze. Fire, fire, fire.
The football made a small sound moving through the air and landed against Ronnie's outstretched hand with a blast of power. He forced his teeth together, at once aware of the chilled air sailing over his nose hairs and into his lungs. He let the ball drop on the pavement. His fingers, all of them, had made popping sounds when the ball hit. Now his knuckles felt ready to tear away from the joints.
"Don't worry about the catching. We'll work on that later. Now grab that thing up and put your fingers were I said. Watch it spiral. Right now, straight at my chest."
Fire, fire, fire.
Ronnie shook his hands and pulled them to his lips. He bent, grabbed the football. He put it under his arm and then cupped his hands together, pushing warm breath between them. The warm air coated his bent and swelled fingers. When he tried to take the football in his hands, he couldn't. His fingers wouldn't close. He didn't say anything, though, he kept trying and dropped it once, twice, three times onto the pavement. A light snow started to fall.
"Just kick it back up here, Ronnie," his father said. He planted his hands on his knees and dangled his head toward the frozen ground.
Ronnie did as he was told and tapped the ball with the front of his shoe. It lopped and rolled off into the grass near the road about a foot from his father. His father shook his head and snorted through his nose. "Now get ready for this one." He pulled the ball back and smacked it twice to get a good grip.
The football moved in a perfect spiral through the air, splitting the small flakes of snow on its way to Ronnie. Mesmerizing, hypnotic, slightly beautiful. He didn't feel any pain when the ball hit him in the nose. Things went numb and then his face was full of heat and his neck was tingling and warm. Sticky wetness spread across his chest.
Ronnie looked at his father stretched out a hundred miles away. He was a spot of dark against dark in the fading light, arms to his side and his head cocked to the left. Ronnie searched for the football as best as he could with the blinding skim of tears draining from his eyes. The tears and the snowflakes mixed with small splatter spots of blood across the pavement. When he did manage to find the football, there were small drops of blood across the letters and standing out brighter against the off-white threading.
Ronnie's hands, his fingers, weren't cold now. Nothing about him was cold. It was all red fury and blood moving quickly through his arms and legs. He thought he might toss the football aside and charge his father, all might and will and weak ambition and rage. He picked the football up and ran toward his father with the ball cocked back over his shoulder. He thought of just running into him full-blown and tiny. His anger would have made up for all that. Instead, he let the ball go when he was halfway to his father.
It was no perfect spiral like the one that had flattened his nose and busted veins the doctor would later say looked like wild lightning racing toward his forehead. It was crazy and tilting and pushed through the cold air in clumsy chunks of twisting brown, lame and flat and slow. His father only leaned out a couple inches and caught the ball in one large palm. He didn't bother closing his fingers, never bothered to take his eyes off Ronnie, who was now doubled up in the road with blood running from his broken nose and onto his shoes.
"Gone on ahead and catch this one," his father said, and underhanded the ball at Ronnie.
It was a light toss but it hit Ronnie on the side of the head and random spears of pain ran from his temples and into his face. He touched his nose with his useless fingers. It was swelled and stretched against his cheekbones.
"Pick it up. Sometimes there's pain. Can't just fold, Ronnie. Can't just give up." He walked across the pavement, closed the distance between them, and Ronnie thought he might lean over and check his injury. Instead, he gripped the ball and brought it to Ronnie's chest. "Can't just give up, Ronnie. That's just what he wants. Can't let them win, little man."
Ronnie heard the words but was lost. The only things he was sure of was that he was not going to the hospital right then and he was going to continue passing football with his father.
He picked the football up out of the building layer of snow that covered the ground. He tucked it to his side and watched his father swagger back to his spot. He walked back to his spot and searched for the threads on the football.
It felt like loading the gun for his execution.