“Mom, please, coach really wants me. He saw me run during Phys. Ed. Class and says I’m fast.”
“No, Dante,” the diminutive woman in the patched peasant dress and straight brown hair showing the slightest touch of grey, shook her head, hair momentarily covering her eyes, “you know how we feel about sports. Joining track and field is out. Why not spend more time with the chess club? They have competitions, too.”
“But mom, I don’t like chess anymore. Anyway, I can beat everyone at school including Mr. Bonini and he played on the competitive chess team at university.”
A thin, bearded man wearing a paisley shirt and frayed bellbottoms stepped into the room.
“Here’s your father, Dante. He’ll tell you the same thing.”
“Dad, Coach Jacks saw me run. He wants me to join the school track team for the district tournament.”
“Son, you heard your mother. Sports are far too dangerous. Hey Sally, do you remember that guy from the commune, Don Etherly, if I recall his name correctly. Remember, he had been a runner at university.”
“Oh yes, he used to tell us about the time he had that terrible accident at the International Colleges’ Meet. Poor fellow needed to use two canes to help him get around, his leg was so twisted.
“Crippled for life because of a silly running contest. We will not see that happen to you, son.”
“Sports are just too dangerous, Dante. You tell the coach you’re sorry, but you can’t join.”
Dante’s parents failed to mention the terrible accident crippling Don Etherly did not occur while he was running but resulted from being hit by a car after the post-race celebration at a local bar. In a similar way, while not always clear on the details, they seemed to know someone in every popular sport who was seriously injured, in an often near fatal accident because of their participation in the sport.
In the short time Dante took part in gym classes before his parents were able to have him excluded, he showed natural athletic skill. Through elementary school and well into secondary, coaches, on seeing him perform, usually only once, were frothing at the mouth to add him to their particular team. Dante would have loved to take part in any sport. He never did, and by about the third year of secondary school, the coaches had given up and so had Dante.
By the time he finished college and went off to work at a large insurance firm, no coach would even take notice of the slightly pudgy, poorly conditioned man he had become. It had reached the point when asked in passing if he cared to participate in the fun team building sports activities, Slo Pitch, Broom Ball or other sporty activity his fellow workers enjoyed, he would always decline. Not that he was unsociable. He often attended the events as a spectator and joined his fellows at a local watering hole for a post-game drink.
Dante was not a total failure. He was more than competent at his job, friendly and always good with friends and fellow workers. As section manager, he was a favorite with everyone in his department. He was a popular and likeable boss, a rarity even among the other managers and superintendents in a company reputed for its amiability and a great place to work.
He was equally popular with the women on staff who found him shy and reserved and likely a good catch for the right one. His parents had warned him many times of the risk of jumping at the first skirt that showed an interest in him, encouraging his already extreme shyness. “Be careful, Dante, there are women out there who will take advantage of you. They’ll take your money and leave you.”
The attitude of Dante’s parents was odd for a couple who had met at a hippie style commune. They had come together among the smoke of firepits and the fog of recreational drugs. Dante had been born there, but his parents had left the commune shortly afterward. What never went beyond the two of them was a dream they both shared in which they each heard a voice, its message prompting them to leave the commune forever. The voice they heard gave them a pointed three-word command, “Protect the child.”
That was all it said, but they had taken it to heart and left the commune to find a more protective life. They had named their son Dante, but it wasn’t because they were lovers of literature or poetry, in fact, they had never heard of Dante’s Inferno. His parents named him after the drummer in a psychedelic band they liked. It seemed like a good name, if perhaps a little different.
Despite everything, Dante’s dad got an excellent job. It seemed miraculous, but neither Dante’s dad nor his mom questioned it. Soon they were well-housed, if somewhat oddly dressed, suburbanites. Their ultimate mission was to safeguard their son. Since they didn’t have any idea what they were to protect him from, they sheltered him from everything. Much to Dante’s chagrin, either mom or dad would drive him to school and then pick him up after to bring him home. There was no afternoon play time outside the house or with those dangerous young people who, with great reluctance, they let him spend the school day.
Although his parent’s goal in obedience to the dream message was to protect him, Dante couldn’t understand why he was prevented from ever participating in any sport. He was sure if he did too well in Chess, they’d be pulling him out of it with stories of how someone at the commune, in a moment of concentration over a chessboard, inhaled a pawn and could have choked to death.
Despite Dante’s lack of tone and fitness, his parents succeeded in their style of keeping him protected. He had never been subject to a case of the mumps or the flu and neither chicken pox nor measles or, for that matter, any other traditional childhood illness. He had not even experienced a bad sprain or needed stitches. His physical examinations all concluded that he was very healthy and his immune system sound.
Despite his being timid and his lack of participation in office sports activities, he was well-liked by his coworkers. He was always ready to join the guys and girls at the local watering hole. Many of those women secretly eyed him and hoped he would show some genuine interest. They all enjoyed being around him. He was interesting and funny and knew enough to carry on a conversation on the many topics that might come up after a few drinks at a social event.
Dante had no plans for a relationship with any of the young women he encountered at work or in his social life. He was, however, developing a friendship with a lovely young lady at work, Merilee Draeger. The administration had recently made Merilee Dante’s supervisory assistant. He soon learned Merilee was pleasant and personable as well as efficient and industrious in the workplace, and that appealed to Dante. What’s more, she was also both smart and fun at social events.
For the time being, it satisfied her to befriend Dante and keep their relationship distant and platonic. She was well aware of the others who showed an interest in Dante, a well-placed and eligible bachelor. While she knew Dante was not ready to even think about getting too close, she was OK with this. At the time, she was not prepared to commit either. As Dante’s assistant, however, she was solicitous and ever supportive, insinuating herself into his workaday life, perhaps hoping something might develop down the road. In the meantime, she was a pleasant and fun companion, a diligent co-worker and loyal friend. Dante did, in fact, enjoyed working with her. With no deeper expectations, it was the perfect relationship. Dante discovered he looked forward to those times she came around.