Feb 21, 11
Friday night, and Rick Potts couldn’t afford to buy dinner at the Thirsty Moose before the Pioneers’ game. Donnie expected dinner out tonight, though, so Rick had to think of something. There was always his mother’s, if he felt like a lecture, but he didn’t. That left the weekly All-Welcome Dinner at the Birchfield Congregational Church.
“We don’t even like go to church,” Donnie said as he climbed into the truck. He was a doughy kid, fourteen, in layers of sweatshirts and a knit cap with a visor. He wore the visor turned slightly to the side, but instead of punkish the result was slightly comical.
“It’s not a church thing,” Rick said, though he wasn’t certain of that. Before putting the truck in gear he tried once more the lever that moved the plow, but nothing happened. Not that he expected miracles anymore. “No singing, no prayers. I promise.”
“They say those dinners are really a soup kitchen.” Donnie’s voice nearly disappeared beneath the truck’s grumbling diesel. Rick knew he meant the kids at school, whose judgments were as brutal now as they’d been two decades ago when he went there.
“It’s just this once.”
“Well, it’s bullshit,” Donnie said. “We always go to the Thirsty Moose.”
“I know,” Rick admitted. “I’m a lousy father. That’s twice in one day.”
The boy’s disappointment was worse than hostility. Donnie always got a Moose Breath Burger—two patties with bacon, Stilton, and barbeque sauce. Rick was not the reflective type, but he did know that up here in the winter, a person needed something like weekly Moose Breath Burgers to give life shape and definition. Otherwise you might as well wander into the frozen woods and never come back. Work and school were not rituals; they were duties. Television wasn’t, either. A sustaining ritual involved the body, the senses. Weekend hockey games were a ritual; or nights in their trailer on Jingleville Road, playing Risk and listening to country radio; or Saturday morning breakfast: Rick was okay if there was sausage, and silver-dollar pancakes, and maple syrup from the trees he tapped every March on his mother’s property, another ritual. This was not sentimentality, he knew. It was survival.
So when he pulled into the church parking lot, snow flurries whirling in the headlights, Rick kept Donnie in the cab and told him exactly what had happened with Albert at the Mohawk Casino. He owed that to Donnie, who listened impassively. The loss of nearly four hundred dollars in that huge noisy room, lit up like a bad part of town, and the uncertainty it meant, bothered Rick less than becoming another North Country bozo who’d found a way to hurt himself and his kid. It was only January, though, and if the snows came hard and he plowed constantly—once he got the plow fixed—he might recover. That was life up here in the forgotten counties of New York: one long battle with the climate and the bank, whether you harvested potatoes or snow or oil changes. If you couldn’t hack it, you went to jail—like a friend who, in a fit of desperation, had actually held up the Birchfield Credit Union with his hunting rifle. Or you left chasing the sun, like Cheryl.
More than Cheryl’s body beside him, or even above him, Rick missed her paycheck. She’d done data entry for a State Social Services division, long, spirit-killing days that surely contributed to their end as a couple, but it paid okay and provided good benefits. They’d never had much to begin with, so when she left, Rick thought he could cover the costs alone. He’d managed to put on a respectable show until now, his client list as long as ever. He’d die before he asked Cheryl for help. Outside of some land, his mother didn’t have much to give him.
Otherwise they were fine. Rick liked answering only to Donnie, who eagerly did things Cheryl had punished him for, like rising early to hunt deer in Fred Tuttle’s woods, and watching football for ten hours on Sunday, and going to the dirt track races in Evans Mills. When Donnie slept at a friend’s house, Rick could lay out a good bender. There were even joyful discoveries. Cheryl had done all the cooking, badly, griping about it. Rick quickly discovered a knack for the kitchen, and when he had the money, he and Donnie ate well. He’d never before known a pleasure like putting together a stew before dawn, leaving it in the crockpot while he mowed lawns, and coming home to smell the meat and parsley and potatoes. In the summer Donnie went to Vero Beach where Cheryl lived with her IT guy, and there were women at Leo’s II, or out-of-towners at the hotel bar if he felt like trawling. And about the time Donnie came back, tan, his hair a shade lighter, Rick was growing tired of the women anyway, and he let them go gladly. Loving had a season too, it turned out, just like ice hockey and lawn mowing and the sap runs in the maples on his mother’s property.
An elderly woman welcomed them to the church fellowship hall, which was in the basement and half-full of people seated at folding tables. Rick felt them staring as they walked in. He recognized more than a few by sight. Someone had taped Christmas lights to the ceiling to lend a cheerier atmosphere, and the air smelled of overcooked pasta. Donnie, knowing the drill from school, grabbed a tray and walked into the kitchen for a helping of spaghetti, sauce, salad, and dessert. Rick followed, pausing at the donation box to drop some pocket change.
“Look,” Donnie said when they were seated. “A band.”
In the far corner, a man, woman, and girl played what might have been Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line.” The old man strummed on a guitar while the woman, probably his daughter, mumbled into a dead microphone, her own guitar evidently just a prop. The girl, who was Donnie’s age, absently clacked two spoons together. They looked as if they were sleepwalkers who had just wandered in and set up without waking. One of them had spelled the name of their ensemble in those adhesive letters for mailboxes on a guitar case: BARNEY’S GANG.
Rick leaned in to Donnie and whispered, “You know her? The girl on the spoons?”
Donnie looked up, squinted. Beads of water shined in the knit of his hat. He said through a mouthful of pasta, “Oh yeah, Dad, she’s my freakin’ girlfriend.”
“Got the ‘freak’ part right,” Rick said.
Donnie laughed, surprised and pleased, and Rick tried to suppress his own laughter until tears came, making Donnie laugh even harder. The day had been humiliating from the moment Rick yanked Donnie from school—the other instance of bad parenting—to search out driveways to shovel by hand after he discovered the broken plow. Only silent, frozen houses and streets awaited them, the snow long since pushed into neat furrows by someone else. Rick had thought he owned those driveways until he stood in the middle of the glaring street, numbly accepting the news that, in fact, he owned nothing. But now things seemed brighter.
“This is awful,” Rick said, poking at his mushy spaghetti.
“Tastes like ass,” Donnie agreed, but he was eating it. He was just hitting his growth spurt and could put away a box of Apple Jacks in ten hours.
“Finish up and let’s get the hell out of here.” Rick eyed the collection of free milk gallons near the door, donated by the local dairy store because they’d reached their expiry dates. He’d grab one on the way out, if the vultures left any.
Birchfield’s team was Pioneers, a squad of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds playing in a Junior A league based in Ontario. The hockey was decent, though Cheryl had always thought the boys were too young to receive so much attention and pressure for sports instead of schoolwork—“It’s wrong to bear so many peoples’ hopes,” her exact words, which Rick remembered whenever he saw the kids with their heads in their gloves after a tough loss. Birchfield was a working-class town, though, and few of these kids actually planned on college. If they wanted to play hockey, Rick didn’t see a reason to stop them. They knew the odds, and the adults were all implicated: the town survived winter on these games, living off the lighted arena and the goal siren and the little personal routines around each game, a weekly analgesic for the meager sunlight and freezing madness. Some families went to food pantries and thrift shops so they could afford the fees and gear. No different from kids in the city with their hoop and gridiron dreams, Rick thought. He often wondered how many people lived in towns spread across the north like this one, hoping to skate to glory. A few former Pioneers had floated around the pros, and one, Brooks Bigwarfe, played briefly in the NHL. He died some years back while staring down the CSX freight train. Had more money than almost anyone, but was miserable just the same, Rick realized when the story appeared on the news. It was a funny life.
The woman selling tickets at the arena box office claimed nine of Rick’s last ten dollars, but once he smelled the ice and the roasted almonds from the cart in the hallway, and heard Springsteen coming distorted through the speakers over the playing surface, something deep within him sighed. The burdens back on Jingleville Road, and in the offices in town, and attached to his truck, all left him. For reasons he never completely understood or could explain, he felt safer at the rink than anywhere else in the world.
Donnie found some friends from school on the other side of the rink and Rick settled for Marty Beesaw, who was already seated on the long wooden bleachers. Beesaw, tall and overweight, was a case of a sharp mind wasted. All his brains went to cruelty. It was Marty who had given the organist, a Native American guy named Joe who butchered rink favorites, a name that had stuck like tar: Chief Broken Fingers. College was out of the question for Beesaw, and although he’d once been a fantastic hockey player, no coach wanted him. His need to have the final say every time had cost him friends, a marriage, and thirty days for assault after he broke the ACE Hardware store manager’s orbital bone at a pickup game. Like all of the bad ones, though, Beesaw could be fun in small doses.
“Talked to Steve Sanderson?” he greeted Rick. “He’s been wondering where the fuck you are. He had me dig him out, Potts. Twice.”
“Plow’s busted.” Rick could already see that Beesaw might ruin this game for him, but he didn’t want to move. This stretch of bench afforded the best view and had been his for as long as he could remember.
“Rick, you must be the only independent contractor in this whole miserable county who doesn’t know how to fix your own shit.”
“Good to see you, too, Beesaw. And I know how to fix it. I just don’t have a garage or the right tools. It’s been too goddamned cold.”
“That’s the truth,” Beesaw conceded. “Ten days straight below zero. Not supposed to get better, either.”
They watched warm-ups, comparing notes about the Stratford goaltender, and then while the Zamboni hummed across the ice, Rick told Marty how he’d driven to Albert Finnegan’s place this afternoon to use his garage and tools to check out the plow. Albert’s house was a dump, the south-facing end missing siding, the clapboard exposed and shreds of tarpaper waving in the January breeze. The front door looked expensive with its frosted-glass insert, but there was no porch, or even a stoop. Albert claimed this kept his tax assessment down, but all of his money seemed to go to an ever-expanding fleet of ATVs and snowmobiles. Rick thought his obsession with these machines was stupid and unhealthy, even for a guy who drove around in a school bus all day. If Rick had a house, he’d keep it up. His dream was to own a little land like his mother’s, plant some orchards, and sell the fruit at the farmers’ market, and sugar maple sap on the side.
After a few minutes in Albert’s heated garage, Rick was finally able to remove some casings from the plow and get a good look: cracked housing, bent metal, spilled hydraulic fluid, big bucks. He was so disappointed he didn’t bother putting the thing back together.
“Bring it over tomorrow and Stan’ll look at it,” Marty said. His father owned Beesaw Motors, and Marty managed it. Rick waited for an offer to do the work for free, which was the only way it would happen, but instead Beesaw stood up and flagged down Terrie Byrne, who was selling fifty-fifty raffle tickets to benefit the girls’ hockey league. She was a thin woman with a fake tan and deep-set eyes. She wore a carpenter’s apron full of ticket stubs and dollars tied around her waist.
“We’ll take the lengths of our dicks,” Beesaw announced, and Terrie, not missing a beat, pulled off one ticket and handed it to Marty, who said, “Funny,” then spread his arms for her to measure.
Rick found his last crumpled-up dollar bill and held it out. “One will do,” he said.
“Like I said,” Beesaw began, then trailed off, his laugh breaking into coughs. But Terrie grinned; she and Rick had had a week or so together in August after tying one on at Leo’s II. She patted his shoulder before moving on, leaving Rick to wonder if that meant they were due.
The other thing that had happened out at Albert’s house—which Rick wasn’t going to tell Beesaw about—was that he had asked Albert to lend him some money. It was the first time Rick had ever asked anyone for money, and it seemed Albert should help him out; he had suggested the trip to the Mohawk Casino in the first place, and he had left a few hundred up. But Albert said he didn’t have any money to lend; Lisa was about to enroll at the community college, and they’d just bought another Polaris.
“Can’t get blood from a stone, Rick,” Albert said, shrugging his stooped shoulders, and Rick said, “Don’t I know it.” Then he climbed into his truck and gunned the engine out of the garage, running over Albert’s tools.
The game started hopefully, as they all did, but the air in the arena somehow felt off tonight. At first Rick thought it was Marty’s presence, or the residue of the day, or the whole week, but he soon figured it out: the usual public-address announcer was not in the scorekeeper’s box. It was a younger guy whose voice reminded Rick of Dustin Hoffman playing Raymond Babbitt in Rainman. He mispronounced the players’ names as he read the lineups, over-emphasizing certain syllables strangely. Then, when everyone rose for the national anthems, a barbershop quartet from Milton performed instead of Melissa O’Leary, the usual girl from the high school. The quartet sang well enough, but the Canadian anthem especially failed to stir Rick’s heart. Sometimes, listening to Melissa’s silvery soprano on “O! Canada!” Rick dreamed that he was Canadian and of all the ways his life would be better.
Once the game started, the players hissed up and down the ice, sticks clacking, for only three minutes before the referee called a penalty on the Pioneers. Neither Rick nor Marty had seen an infraction, and the sharpness of the official’s motions made Rick nervous. That was all it took for the Pioneers to lose their tempo—they chased the puck like boys on a frozen pond instead of displaying the confidence and skill that Rick enjoyed watching so much. When the Stratford team quickly scored, the arena sighed in unison.
“Gonna be a long night,” Marty said. “Can just feel it coming, can’t you?”
In the next few minutes, the referee called more Birchfield penalties, and the visitors scored again, and again. Rick sat with his chin on his fists, his anger at a low boil. He’d seen games like this before, when the officials seemed predetermined to punish not only one of the teams but also their coaches and fans. Perhaps the referee had gotten a speeding ticket on the way into town or his hotel room was a mess. Either way, instead of seeing the flow and skill and creativity that soothed Rick, busying his eyes while deeper down his mind wandered among the small victories and defeats and hurts of the week, sorting and healing, the game descended into pettiness. Bad will spread across the bleachers like the fast-moving shadow of an approaching storm cloud. People booed and swore, sometimes throwing trash onto the ice, as if the injustice in the game were a continuation of those injustices in their work and home lives. Rick always found himself caught up in the mayhem, swearing and shaking his fist with them. Afterward, reliving such evenings in his bed, he marveled at how easily the mob mentality consumed him. He blamed the cold, striated skies, the snow, the dozens of cars with dead batteries and iced-over locks and useless plows.
“We’re all nuts,” he said to Beesaw when only a few seconds remained in the period. He thumped his fist on his breastbone and burped. The tomato sauce, or something else from the church dinner, insisted on coming back up.
“A shame,” Marty said. “That guy”—he pointed to the referee, whose last name, Anderson, was printed on the back of his striped jersey—“better get the hell out of town quick once this is done.”
By the end of the first period, with the Pioneers down 4-0, the only suspense seemed to be the fifty-fifty draw, which was won, inexplicably, by Albert Finnegan. He was sitting only five rows away; Rick hadn’t noticed him until Albert jumped up and high-fived his daughter, Kacee, who was in Donnie’s class and was apparently a tomboy and a snob. The folks sitting around them cheered and shared congratulations.
“Four hundred bucks falling from the sky,” Marty sighed as they watched the Zamboni come out of the end-zone door again. “Imagine.”
“You know he won a thousand at the casino last week?”
Rick knew he was talking recklessly, the disappointing game affecting him like too many beers, but the increased amount felt right somehow. He had the pleasure of seeing Beesaw’s face cloud over. “Then, when I was over there this afternoon, I asked him to pay me back some money he owes me, and he refused.”
Beesaw watched Rick with interest. “How much?”
They were silent a while. The players returned to the ice, bringing the smell of moldy equipment and circling the rink morosely, like carp in a tank. It was clear the intermission had done little to help them recover. One boy skated past the boards, his stunned eyes visible through the mesh cage protecting his face. He seemed to be wondering why he’d bothered coming back from the dressing room.
Beesaw said, “Bastard’s owed me a hundred for over a month now. We were down at Cabela’s getting gear, but their credit machines were down.”
“So you gave him cash.”
“I admit it, Potts, I’m a fat idiot.” He looked down at Albert, his eyes hardening. “We should catch him after the game. He’ll have the cash in his hands. Won’t be able to say no.”
Rick nodded, though he hadn’t foreseen this plan. “Easy-come, easy-go, right?”
During the last intermission, Rick stood to make his usual trip to the concession stand for a coffee, realized he didn’t have any money, and sat back down. A minute later, the PA announcer called his ticket. He hadn’t won the fifty-fifty raffle, but he had, apparently, won a chance at the Shirt Grab. Marty whaled his shoulder in mock congratulations.
For years contestants had shot a puck at a plywood clown’s mouth for a shirt, but that game got old, so now they blindfolded the lucky contestant, put him at the center face-off dot on his hands and knees, and tossed a puck into the circle which if found would be redeemed for a Birchfield Pioneer’s tee shirt. The contestant had thirty seconds to find it, guided only by the cheers of the crowd. Rick wasn’t up for this, but he stood in the tunnel anyway as an arena worker tied a black cloth over his eyes and said, “It’s harder than it looks.” The blindfold, a cheap ladies scarf, smelled of musky perfume. “What can you see?”
“Not a goddamn thing,” Rick replied.
The crowd cheered as he was escorted out and eased down onto his hands and knees. He started crawling across the ice, which was colder and harder than he’d expected, pawing at skate ruts and puddles, dragging his dampening knees. At first he felt buoyed by the noise, but it seemed to dissipate into exasperated sighs no matter which direction he turned. He could clearly hear two individuals: a man with a deep bass—“Left, left!”—and a woman with a cry as shrill as bending steel—“Behind! Beeeehind yooooouuu!” They contradicted each other, so Rick turned right, cutting his hand, he was certain, on a sharp ridge of frost. After a few seconds he stopped hearing the voices and forgot that he was even searching for something, distracted by an image of how he must look to Donnie: his old man groping for a booby prize that might rest fifteen inches or fifteen feet away, but which would inevitably elude him. For Donnie’s sake, Rick needed to thrust his arm victoriously into the air. The crowd counted down from ten in one unified, obnoxious voice, and at five seconds he flopped on his back and did a snow angel. He was still supine when the arena worker knelt to remove the blindfold. Rick stared up at the metal girders as a line from an old gym teacher came back to him—Next thing you know, buddy, you’re counting lights—an expression that even in eighth grade Rick understood to mean that the game, your opponent, life, something had you by your nuts.
“Told ya it’s hard,” he said, hauling Rick to his feet. Rick wanted to punch the man.
“How close was I?”
The arena guy looked thoughtfully back out of the tunnel at the ice. “’Bout as close as we are to Miami.”
Beesaw wanted to leave with a minute remaining, another oddity—Rick always saw every game, win or loss, through to the end. By then the Pioneers were down 6-1, the crowd had thinned out, and the night felt thoroughly ruined. He didn’t bother telling Donnie; their errand would take only a few minutes, and Donnie would wait. Beesaw seemed to have clicked into a grim and businesslike mode, and as they stepped into the piercing cold, Rick felt lifted by a thrill for the first time that night. It was as if he were riding shotgun with the mob. They found Albert’s truck easily, parallel parked on the driveway, out of the streetlights. They leaned against the tailgate and killed the time by silently smoking, eyes on the distant front door where people glumly exited the arena now, pulling their coats tighter and exclaiming at the shock of the cold.
“He’s not alone,” Rick said, suddenly remembering Kacee.
Beesaw shrugged. “Then he’ll be all the more compliant.”
They waited for ten minutes. The hairs in Rick’s nostrils froze every time he inhaled; his breath formed ice beads on his beard. The strobe lights of an airliner caught his eye, and he traced it across the starry background to the horizon, where it vanished in a southerly direction.
“He ain’t coming,” Beesaw said. “And my nuts are frozen.”
“He has to. What’s he gonna do, walk home?” But Rick suddenly knew what Albert had done. “I’ll bet when he went to cash in his winning ticket at the VFW booth, someone there offered to drive him up to the Post to celebrate. They’re salvaging the night by drinking away his winnings.”
“In one hand, out the other,” Beesaw concurred. Eager to get warm, feeling cheated, they crunched back to the front of the arena and their trucks.
They were cutting behind the arena when the back door opened and a man stepped out into the pool of bone-white light—not Albert, but someone who looked vaguely familiar. Then Rick recognized the hooked nose and the body, compact as an oil drum, from the ice: Anderson, the referee. Out of his striped uniform, he looked strangely vulnerable. Beesaw had realized who it was a second sooner—a target of opportunity—and was already on his way over to the man. “Anderson! Hey, Anderson! Just a minute!”
The referee turned sharply at his name, then quickened his pace toward a cluster of cars parked near a chain-link fence. As if compelled by some invisible force, Rick followed Beesaw, who was following Anderson, each of their steps quicker than the last.
“Hey Andy!” Beesaw almost sang the words. “You fucked up that game, amigo. You ruined our night.”
Beesaw was fat but quick, and he caught up with Anderson, grabbed him by the collar, and shoved him against the side of a parked sedan. Rick hovered a few feet away like a lackey, unsure what to do. The referee and Beesaw were backlit by a streetlamp; two clouds of steam puffed from their heaving lungs, mingled between them. For a moment Rick saw the whites of Anderson’s eyes, and then they squinted closed as Beesaw punched him in the sternum. Rick, too shocked to say or do anything, could only watch as Anderson slid down ass-first and against the car’s tire, sucking at the thin air. Beesaw reached down, picked him back up by the collar.
Something told Rick that his role here was to keep an eye out, and when he pivoted on his heel, he found that someone was observing—Donnie, his sweatshirt hood pulled over his head, obscuring his face. Through the darkness their eyes met—Rick felt it—and then Donnie turned and started toward the truck. Rick followed, silently falling into step beside him. He glanced quickly over his shoulder just once and saw that thirty yards back, now, Beesaw still had Anderson. He was saying something Rick couldn’t make out in the cold.
Then they were driving through the flatly glowing darkness, and as the cab warmed and Rick calmed down, he mulled a truth that was difficult to grasp: he had watched someone get beaten, or start to get beaten, had just stood there while it happened, largely because of the desperation he carried in his own heart. He looked over at Donnie, who was blowing into his hands. Rick had thought the boy was upset, but now he looked composed.
“What do you think happened to that guy?” Donnie asked after a while. He pulled a leftover brownie from his pocket and nibbled at it distractedly, like a squirrel.
“I don’t know. You shouldn’t eat so many of those things.” Donnie looked at Rick as if to say it was a little too late to start acting like a father. A moment later, Rick said, “He’s not why Marty and I were out there, though. We were waiting for Albert.”
Donnie shrugged, as if this made no difference, which it didn’t. He seemed to not want to talk about it. Rick didn’t, either, but he wanted to say something about how he had been feeling lately, which was like when he had the plow down and was making a good fast run and then he hit a patch of ice and went sliding out of control. Only he kept waiting for the equivalent of that soft puff that came from stopping safely, undamaged, in a powdery snow bank, but it hadn’t come yet. He just kept sliding and sliding. For the rest of the short ride, he expected to see a blur of emergency lights flying by, but the night remained empty, inscrutable.
They might have been away from the trailer for not hours but days. For a moment Rick couldn’t remember what they normally did on a Friday night after a game, and then Donnie disappeared into his room to listen to music through his headphones. Rick still felt electric from the encounter with the referee. He sat at the kitchen table smoking and watching the frozen milk jug from the church dinner thaw. Sometime past midnight he heard noises, little whimpers, coming from Donnie’s room. The boy was having nightmares. Rick wanted to blame whatever lyrics Donnie had been piping into his head, but he knew the fault was likely his own. He sat down on the corner of the bed and rubbed Donnie’s back, his hand making circles until the boy quieted.
In the quiet, he looked around the shadows in Donnie’s room. There was his son’s backpack and schoolbooks, the Pioneers’ schedule taped to the closet door, the dresser spilling the sweatshirt sleeves and pant cuffs. The signs of a small, insignificant life. But all of this had to be watched, guarded. All the time. Why he’d been allowed to get this far without understanding such things, Rick couldn’t say. He wanted to stay on the corner of Donnie’s bed, awake, all night. After a few minutes, he started thinking about the morning with anticipation. He pictured the sun breaking over the miles and miles of cold, shining, maddening country, the snowdrifts and frozen maples. He closed his eyes, and tried to summon the smell of breakfast cooking.
This story first appeared in MAKE #10, “At Play.”
Paul Graham completed his MFA at the University of Michigan and his BA at St. Lawrence University. He writes fiction, literary nonfiction, and essays on literary craft. His collection of short stories, Crazy Season, was published in 2012 by Kitsune Books. His work has been published in many literary journals, has been included in Best Food Writing 2012 and 2013, and has received the 2005 Dana Literary Award for the Novel.
Dean Rank is an illustrator and filmmaker in Oakland, CA. But, you know him from Chicago.