cStories offers individual short stories ready for readers on-the-go. A joint initiative between Thomas Allen Publishers and Cormorant Books, cStories will make a significant number of outstanding Canadian-authored short stories available exclusively through the websites of independent booksellers.
To celebrate the launch of cStories, WordFest is showcasing installments of “A Nation Plays Chopsticks” by Mark Anthony Jarman from My White Planet (Thomas Allen Publishers). You can purchase this ebook story and many others at cstories.ca.
“A Nation Plays Chopsticks” by Mark Anthony Jarman
Drive the night, driving out to old-timer hockey in January in New Brunswick, new fallen snow and a full moon on Acadian and Loyalist fields, fields beautiful and ice-smooth and curved like old bathtubs. In this blue light Baptist churches and ordinary farms become cathode, hallucinatory. Old Indian islands in the wide river and trees up like fingers and the strange shape of the snowbanks.
It’s not my country, but it is my country now, I’m a traveller in a foreign land and I relish that. The universe above my head may boast vast dragon-red galaxies and shimmering ribbons of green, and the merciless sun may be shining this moment somewhere in Asia, but tonight along the frozen moonlit Saint John River the country is a lunatic lunar blue and the arena air smells like fried onions and chicken. We park by the door, play two twenty-five-minute periods, shake hands, pay the refs, knock back a few in dressing room No. 5, and drift back from hockey pleasantly tired, silent as integers. And I am along for the ride.
Why do I enjoy the games so, enjoy the primal shoving and slashing and swearing and serious laughing at it all afterward? In these games I have taken a concussion, taken a skate blade like an axe between my eyes and I jammed brown paper towels on the cut to staunch the blood. Stitches, black eyes, and my nose is still broken from a puck running up my stick on its mission. Might get my nose fixed one of these days. One opposing player, when younger and wilder, is reported to have bitten another in the meat of the eye!
Today the inside of my thigh is a Jackson Pollock splatter painting: yellow green purple nebulas under the skin, flesh bruised from pucks hitting exactly where there is no padding (the puck has eyes). At night my right foot pulses and aches where I stopped two slap-shots on the same spot years ago. My elbows are sore and they click when I move my arms. My joints are stiff when I climb the pine stairs, especially now, since yesterday I took the boys skiing and then I played hockey at night. Rub on extra horse liniment. My neck won’t move freely and a check wrecked my shoulder last April and for weeks I had to sleep on my back or the pain awoke me. Never got the shoulder looked at. I pay money for these injuries, these insults to my spirit.
So why pay, why play the game? As the Who sing, “I Can’t Explain.” Hockey is my slight, perverse addiction. Certainly I crave the physical side, especially versus working at the desk on 300 e-mails or doodling in a dull meeting. I enjoy the contrast, the animal aspects. I crave a skate, a fast turn on the blades.
And I play because I am a snoop. I learn things I would never otherwise know about New Brunswick, receiving a kind of translation, a geography lesson mile by mile, a roadmap, gossip, secrets, an unofficial oral history of this place’s lore and natives. My team translates and I am along for the ride, a spy in Night-town.
We ride the highway down from Nackawic where we always lose to the Axemen or the Bald Eagles, millworkers on both teams up there. I’m deep in the back seat of Al’s 4 by 4, but I spy a deer waiting by the shoulder like a mailbox. I point it out to Al at the wheel. The deer is hunched, nose out, poised to run across the busy lanes, its dark eyes inches from my face as our metal box blows past its snout and ears and private insects.
“I seem to hit one of those every two years,” Al says. “Wrecked more damn vehicles.” Al, as did his father, works fitting people with artificial limbs. The passengers in our 4 by 4 all hold bags of gas station chips and open beer—what we call travellers. I take up their habits.
Powder the goalie says, “I hit a deer last year and it was stuck across the windshield, this stupid face staring in at me in the damn side window. Damn deer’s fault, up in grass above, everything hunky-dory, and doesn’t it decide to cross right when I’m there. I must have drove 200 feet before the deer finally dropped off.”
“You keep it?”
“Didn’t want to get busted. Three a.m. and I was drinking.”
“That’s when you keep them. Toss it in your freezer.”
“Ain’t got no freezer. Had to stop later at the gas station, headlights all pointed every which way.”
People are killed every year hitting moose on the road to Saint John. Off the highway there’s a moose burial ground where they drag the carcasses and scavengers have their way with the organs and bones. First they offer the dead moose to the Cherry Bank Zoo for its lions or tigers, I forget which. The moose the lions don’t eat end up in the pile off the highway.
Dave the RCMP says, “Man, when I was in Saskatchewan I was driving to Yorkton and came across this guy who had hit one cow square on, killed it, and he clipped another and it flew down in the ditch. It was still alive and I had to dispatch it. I come back up and this guy is crying about his van, some red Coca-Cola van, vintage I guess, front all pushed in, big V pushed in, crushed the grill, and this guy is just fucking crying about it and I said, Mister, I’m here to tell you you’re lucky to be alive. But my van! Just fucking crying about his little red Coca-Cola van.”
Powder the goalie is in possession of beer stolen from the truckload of Spanish Moosehead ale. I’d like to have one can as an illicit souvenir.
“I’ll bring you some,” he says to me one game.
We do not let Dave the RCMP know this. Dave, also known as Harry and the Hendersons for his furry back, also known as Velcro for the same reason, gets a hat trick one night, four goals the next game. Velcro works hard. “Come hard or don’t come at all,” he says. Bad games he smashes his stick out of frustration, famous for ruining expensive sticks. Powder’s goalie gear is chewed up by his dog, same dog that ate his rug and his plants and his pet iguana.
After the game in the locker room no lockers, but a cooler full of bottles and ice or if there is no ice then snow from the Zamboni. My team stocks Propeller Bitter just for me.
“Any pussy drinks there left?” Thirsty the defenceman asks. “Pass me over a wildberry.” Six or seven empty bottles by him. He’ll drink anything. Takes a traveller with him for the drive. He’s not at the wheel; someone else is driving.
Thirsty was at the wheel on the road to Campbellton when his truck nearly went off the highway in a snowstorm, truck going sideways, going in circles on ice, his hands in deft circles on the wheel. They laugh about it now.
Big Billy says, “Thirsty’s arms were going like crazy, he looked like a cat digging in the litter box.” Both are good rushing defencemen, often way ahead of the forwards. Coach yells at them to stay back and play D. Thirsty complains of a lack of fellatio at home, complains that he’s living in what he calls a no hummer zone. Or was that Big Billy the travelling salesman? They sit side by side and joke and laugh and drink.
“Getting no leather,” they complain, “getting no skin. Boys I tells yas, a woman gets married and she stops giving hummers.”
My wife says she likes the way I smell after hockey. Get home late and buzzing and I can’t sleep, try to watch TV: Ringo says to an overturned rowing scull: “Come in No. 7, your time is up.” I am fifty; how long can I keep skating? An eighty-year-old still skates for the Stinkhorns team. I am still waiting for the Oilers to call, say they need a stay-at-home D man.
Funny that I didn’t really start playing hockey until I was about thirty, playing with jazz musicians on Sunday nights in Calgary. No helmets, few pads. I was a pylon. My nickname was Snepts. Then I played nooners with the Duffer Kings at Oak Bay Rec in Victoria for a dozen years. More and more pads, a helmet, then a visor. My nickname was The Professor. Same name here in New Brunswick. Maybe I should take up a pipe.
Some games are lighthearted, a lark, others are gruelling, violent.
Across the river in Nashwaaksis I chase a loose puck behind our goal. No. 16 shoves me from behind, shoves me face first into the boards, exactly what players are told over and over not to do. Neck or back injuries, paralysis, broken teeth, concussions, low self-esteem, etc. I get up yelling and pointing at No. 16 for a penalty, but it doesn’t matter as our team calmly gathers the puck, takes it down the other way and scores a goal. The ref points into the net.
In Burtts Corner two of us race to a puck rolling in our end. Different angles. If he gets the puck he’s in on net. I get close, swing my lumber and knock the puck away from their player, No. 10. He knocks my stick right out of my hands, yells, accuses me of hacking him. I played the puck, I know I made a good play. He’s just pissed off I caught up. When we’re all shaking hands after the game their goalie tells me, “No. 10 has gout. He was owly before the game even started.” Maybe he thought I was whacking his gouty ankles. What is gout? Some games I don’t shake hands.
“What are you doing to them back there?” a forward asks. “Someone is always after you.”
Ted says, “He gives as good as he gets.”
They all join in. “Oh he’s hacking and whacking, he’s clutching and grabbing like an octopus back there. He looks like he’s frisking them at the airport.”
I am innocent of all charges.
“That’s okay, boys,” says Ted, “that’s how we win games.”
Am I not a gentle soul? Am I not always on the side of angels? As Melville says in The Confidence Man, Many Men Have Many Minds.