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 mining town. Some regulars are missing from our team: a wonky knee or sun-tanning in Florida. We look at the subs and judge our chances. If we can just keep it close, respectable.
Clean ice and we skate in circles warming up, loosen our legs and bad backs and eyeball the team at the other end as they eyeball us. Their goalie: is he good with his glove. Go low? Go high? Jesus didja see the size of his pads? I try to find reasons to dislike the other team. They ran up the score last game, made us look bad, they’re chippy, they probably like Bush, they probably kick orphans, their jerseys are too nice. The ref blows the whistle and we line up, see what the first shift reveals to us, the mystery of the first two minutes.
The last two minutes tick so slowly when you’re hanging on to a lead; the last two minutes slip past too fast when you’re trying to scrabble for that one goal, to change that arrangement of bulbs glowing inside a scoreboard.
We get mad when Barker’s Point runs up the score on us. A week later we run up the score on Munn’s Trucking and they get mad at us. Some nights we’re piss-poor, but some nights our A-team shows up and we’re smooth, raised on a diet of ball bearings and motor oil.
Drive the night, drive the hills and hollows and bridges. Ancient apple trees descend hills to the river in troop formation; arthritic looking, hunched over and no apples anymore. As in New England to the south, many pioneer farms are grown over or subdivided into Meadow Lanes and Exit Realty signs, which my bad eyes translate as Exit Reality.
Drive the daylight to a hockey tournament and huge potato barns rise out of the earth, doors into cavernous earth, part of the hill. JESUS HAS RISEN. Spavined barns sulk, sun and snow destroying each fissured shake and shingle and hinge, molecule by cedar molecule.
The boys like the tournaments up in Campbellton, the North Shore of New Brunswick. There they can cross a foggy bridge to take in the peeler shows on the other side of the water, watch what they term the Quebec ballet. More strippers and neon signs than in bible-belt New Brunswick. Last year Thirsty the accountant had a few and climbed up on a table and shimmied his own stripper dance, was disturbingly convincing. He likes a dark dancer, stares and ruminates. “Brown shutters on a pink cottage,” he says tenderly of her labial vicinities. “Man she’ll get you going, get you up so a dog can’t bite it and a cat can’t climb it.”
Balmoral, Matapedia: Scottish names and Acadian names on the highway signs and Franglais spoken in the bars.
A business-minded player on another team queries a woman as to how much money she makes in the Quebec ballet.
“A hundred twenty-five a night, and ten of each dance is mine. I have a pager and a cell and hook for 150 an hour. I clear 140,000 tax-free in a year.”
One of the strippers writhing at the pole tosses off her leopard-skin g-string and Thirsty at ringside grabs her garment and hides it under his ball cap. Later she searches the stage for her undies. Where oh where is my g-string? He saves this item as a souvenir. Such behaviour is frowned upon in my other worlds, and this may be why I get a kick out of time lost in this world.
The ice is Olympic-sized, hard on the D-men with all that room to roam. But we don’t want to win too many games, we don’t want to get into the tourney’s final game because we’ll crawl home too late Sunday night. It’s a long drive from the North Shore. Ted misses an open net.
“Bet you boys were relieved,” he says. Ted is a tall drink of water, long reach, can corral the wildest passes. In the city he runs an old family car dealership. We lose 2–1 and are happy.
A crowded motel room, bodies stretched everywhere, hockey equipment everywhere, hockey on TV. Thirsty places a ketchup pack at the base of the closed bathroom door and stomps hard on the ketchup pack, trying to spray Big Billy inside the bathroom. The ketchup sprays all over Thirsty and in a fan up the beige door and wall.
My bottles of Propeller Bitter are gone down my throat. I steal the last Heinekin from Thirsty. He sits on a bottle: “Try and get this one,” he says. The second day we have a very early game at the tournament: some of the guys are already drinking at 7 a.m., bottles beside them as they don gear. Too early for me. We stink in that early game, but are giant killers in the afternoon game, knocking out a very good team that planned to roll right over us. There is no predicting.
Sugarloaf Mountain looms over the town. The Restigouche River, the Bay of Chaleur, ice-fishing shacks lined up like a little village. Snowmobiles worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are parked nose to nose outside our motel rooms; an intergalactic gathering, wild plastic colours and sleek nosecones and fins, looking like they’d rocket through space rather than over the old railroad routes that cover the snowy province. Someone is killed that weekend on a Polaris going ninety miles per.
The lazy joys of beer after we win. Griping and grousing and the lazy joys of beer after we lose. I see an eagle on the way home, arcs right over my windshield.
Limekiln, English Settlement Road, Crow Hill, Chipman, Minto, Millville. Narrow logging streams, dead mill towns. Elms fit the world, the winding country roads to country arenas, our headlights on the underside of sagging power lines, wires painted by our light.
Coach’s car slides a bit on black ice by the Clark hatcheries where the wind and snow scour the low road. Coach often gives me and Dave the RCMP a ride to the arena. Coach is a burly retiree in a ballcap and windbreaker, a former goalie and back catcher, ferociously competitive when he played and he cannot understand those who aren’t the same.
“Jesus I’m sick of it, they show up and don’t have a stick, they don’t have skates. Before I went out the door I’d make sure I had everything.” His relatives are buried around here, a graveyard in a cliff. He is interested in graves and country cemeteries, collects local genealogy. Coach is a good winter driver.
“Been on these roads since I was a young fellow. Ice in the same places every year. Water runs off Currie Mountain and then freezes up.” Coach keeps a supply of mints in his glovebox. I sit in the back.
We skate our warm-up, Dave the D gazing up into York Arena’s old rafters, soon to be demolished. Dave is my new partner on D, works for Purolator, not to be confused with Dave the RCMP. Dave the D seems mild enough, is not imposing, but he is famous to older players as a former berserker. They talk about how he used to get right out of control fighting in the industrial league. Played in this arena for years. Now he skates around and looks about in a contemplative manner.
“Lot of memories?” I ask at the bench.
“A lot of punches to the head,” he says in a quiet voice.
Dave the D gets flattened late in the game. When he picks himself up I can tell he is calmly considering how to take it, what to do.
“Pick your spot,” I say.
“No, too old. I’ll get hurt and I’ll hurt someone else.” He sounds plaintive but smart.
After the game he dresses and leaves. We think he’s gone home. He flies back in the door later with a bottle of pop, surprising us, allows he was out in the parking lot.
“Thought I left that foolishness behind. Guess I didn’t.”
We look at his knuckles; is he kidding? Did he tune the guy?
“We wrestled a bit,” he says lightly.
I still don’t know what happened in the parking lot. In the summer Dave the D tossed his hockey equipment into a dumpster downtown; he decided it was time to stop. His body was telling him to stop, but he worried he’d keep playing just one more winter, then just one more, unless he physically got rid of his gear.
Next installment June 15