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.
Rough hockey at Burtts Corner two weeks ago. A series of chippy games really, and I like them, I play better when there’s some turbulence, some contact. A forward tries to push past me on the boards and I put my shoulder into him and stop him cold. He wraps his arm around my neck and twists off my helmet. “Having fun?!” he shouts. Another guy is yelling at me too. This is okay by me, I am having fun.
Matt says, “You’re flying out there. What you been eating? Pussy?”
I don’t want to glorify being moronic, but it’s an adrenalin charge, a cheap thrill that makes me interested in what’s underneath the mask, the visor, underneath the charges and swearing and grand gestures. Is this a meaningless masculine pose; are we wanna-bes? Or is it what Ken Dryden calls learned rage, what is taught and approved? Or is it what waits in all of us just below the civilized veneer? I find it so easy to summon. It’s masochistic and childish, but I have to admit the threat of imminent violence is alluring (it’s fun until someone gets hurt, some childhood guardian intones inside my head). Maybe it just beats paperwork.
“You don’t belong in old-timers,” Coach shouts at the player who hacked me.
After the game we tease him. “Coach, you going out to the parking lot after that guy?”
“I could handle it. Growing up in Zealand no one’s a pansy, it was a tough life.”
He continues on the drive home.
“I have a cousin three miles up the road, he’s got to be over seventy now, but talk about tough, big big hands and long arms. Five years ago, so he’d be about sixty-five then, five years back two young guys from Kingsley were after him in Bird’s General Store, he was at a table, they knew his rep, he kept warning them and they kept after him and finally he gets up and BAM BAM, flattens both of them. He used to fight every Saturday night at the dance on Stone Ridge.”
Coach stares ahead and talks as he drives and hands out mints. The white river to our right, stars undulating above, and clusters of mercury vapour lights like coals spread to cool on a snowy hillside. In the back seat I clear a tiny porthole in the frosted window and feel like a child listening to stories.
Coach says, “When I was a kid my parents would go to the Stone Ridge dance. We had an old International half-ton and I spent a lot of time in that, sleep on the seat or get up and wander around, maybe the crowd would wake me up rushing out of the dance. They’d go this way and that way following the fight. I guess word got around and guys used to come up from Fredericton to fight him.”
It’s hard to imagine Coach as a little kid sleeping in the International at the Stone Ridge dance. Navigator has known Coach a long time, Navvy has played with some of our players since they were in grade school. He has horses, sulkies, and he has a bad back and hip socket making him miss most games this year. He works in a halfway house. Man coming back in the evening sets off a metal detector. Navigator navigates him to the doctor who will examine him. The doctor says there is a snub-nose pistol up his rectum. The doctor says to Navigator, “Want me to pull the trigger and save us all a lot of trouble?”
Navigator tells lurid prison stories, women ripping their clothes off to torture him. He says, “Fifty percent of women in jail are lesbians, 50 percent are dykes, and the rest are just wild!”
Powder the Goalie says a woman who lives down the road calls him up, bit of a burning smell in her trailer, she says. Powder goes over to see. The panel is hot, smoking, what to do? Goalie turns off the breaker, but the lights stay on.
“Oh, oh,” says Mike the insurance agent.
“Don’t call me, call 911. Three fire-trucks come out, and two hydro trucks.”
“She was a looker in high school,” says Danny.
“Field dressed she’d be about 350 pounds. Knees like this.” Powder holds out his hands as if around a fire hydrant.
Mike winces, shakes his head. “Field dressed.” Mike’s been on the team from way back, a slick skater. Mike and Ted play well together on a line. Big Billy calls them the Golden Girls. “Coach, who’s playing with the Golden Girls tonight?”
Our goalie puts the puck in our own net; he has done so several times. Bad game. Mike gives the goalie a dirty look. Ref skates over, plucks the puck from back of the net for the seventh time, says to our goalie, “Well the beer will still be cold.”
“You sir are correct.” Laughs.
Coach is not laughing, wants a new goalie. “He doesn’t have his head in it!” He’s going to watch other teams, look for a new recruit.
Coach is tossed out of the game in Oromocto. He stepped on the ice to yell “Fucking homer” at the ref. A bad ref. You can swear at the refs, but you can’t step on the ice. Automatic suspension. He walks off the ice in his city shoes: “Fucking homer! Fucking homer!”
The other team is puzzled; most old-timer teams don’t have a coach. “Who was that?”
Ted says, “You don’t know Scotty Bowman?”
Wheel! Wheel! Man on you!
Slow it down. Make a play.
That guy couldn’t put a puck in the ocean.
Up the boards, up the boards, the glass is your friend.
Don’t put it up the boards; make a play.
Got time! Got time!
Short passes, guys.
No centre line—hit the long pass.
Sixteen slashed me, I’m going to kill him.
This goalie goes down right away; hang onto it and shoot high.
Shoot low boys, right on the ice.
I have to skate, love to skate, the action, the speed, feel physically uneasy if I don’t get a skate in. Navigator has to quit his hip is so bad. Billy loses several feet of intestine and fifty pounds—gone for the year. Pinky quits, Jerry quits, Mike quits, all the originals hanging up the skates. So much more natural talent than me. I think of the Exit Realty signs, Loyalists lying in the coach’s country graveyards. When will I exit, where will I stop skating—that moment with your gear poised at the lip of the dumpster.
They don’t know your life, but they know whether you back-check, whether you try, whether you can pass on the tape (Who’s that grizzled bastard going to give it to now?), whether you paid your beer bill, who is the weak link, who to give the puck to, who has the touch, who is cool under pressure (not me), who has a cannon (not me also), whether you can be relied on.
Some on the team can be callous, sexist, racist, homophobic, insensitive, but I don’t feel motivated to correct anyone. The range of our conversation, what is safe, is incredibly narrow and repetitive, e.g., Don’t bend over in the shower. We don’t discuss the new CD by Band of Horses, we don’t dissect books or Hamlet’s worries, we don’t display our worries. There is a kind of censorship, but that is also true of my other worlds. On the team some may dislike me, but we are intimate, tied up in a camaraderie that is worth something, to shoot the breeze, use stupid nicknames, tell bad jokes, drink cold beer together in boxers, laugh loudly at stupid stories, and delay going back to dress shoes and the quiet house. Laughter is good, the doctors tell us. And win or lose, I laugh more with these guys, strangers really, than anyone else I know. When I moved to New Brunswick I wondered if it was a mistake, but I get home from hockey still laughing at some goofy story and think, This is a life, this is doable.
Gord Downie, the singer for The Tragically Hip, is hanging in Fredericton, auditioning for a hockey movie re-enacting the 1972 Canada-Russia series. He wants to play Ken Dryden or else Eddie Johnston, the backup goalie. If I met Einstein at the Taproom we’d have nothing to chat about. But Gord and I could talk hockey; hell, we could even play hockey. The crews film at the arena and it will stand in for Moscow. Clyde and Terry have bit parts.
“They still need Yvan Cournoyer for the movie. Anyone look like the Roadrunner? Know any French?”
The NHL, Vancouver in the playoffs. “Naslund is open. The offside forward has to collapse and help out.”
I can collapse. No problem. I can try to help out. But this is not our language. Coach just yells “C’mon boys!” over and over in a disgusted voice, an exasperated voice. This is the extent of our playbook.
“It’s such a simple game,” he moans. Coach gets mad almost every night, folds his arms over his chest and turns his big back on our wonky play, refuses to run the door. It’s a simple game and a complex game.
Our cars cruise the Loyalist countryside, Acadian land, Maliseet land, prehistoric land; our cars drive up the river and turn into snowy corvid valleys, over covered bridges, past dark mills and swaybacked railroad stations where no tracks run, the rocky country the Thirteen Colonies dismissed as the tail and hooves of the ox. Over and over we line up at the circle. We pay 200 in November, we pay 200 more in January. We are driven. It’s like a devotion to winless horses.
Lace them up in an unheated pig barn. There is no crowd noise, no music. We play the game in silence except the players yapping at each other or at the refs. There are no cameras, but we play our parts, hit the marks. No one watches us, there is no first place, no last place, it all means little, really, but we keep playing. Our skates glide in silence and noise, we step lightly, fleetly, fall into each other’s airspace until the rink melts into grass. We don’t watch, we drive to the net. We drive and we play.
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