by JP Kemmick
Most of his son's team is staying at a chain motel on the outskirts of town, but Manny has opted for a little hotel closer to the rink, a cheap, drafty place with a stained toilet and non-matching bed sheets. Abstract paintings of red smeared paint above each bed try to give the place some class, but they look too much like splashes of blood, like the hotel has only framed a murder scene. Manny's son, Danny, is clearly upset. He had begged his dad to let them stay in the pricier motel, but Manny had assured him that the hotel would be cool—he had actually used the word “retro”—that its downtrodden good cheer would be ample replacement for the swimming pool and arcade of the motel.
“Plus, you'll get to sleep in an extra fifteen minutes because we're so close to the rink,” he'd said on the ride up, but Danny had just fidgeted in his seat and stared out the window at the passing mounds of snow, rolling hills somewhere underneath. When they'd passed into Canada and Manny had started to sing an off-key, fragmented version of O Canada, Danny had not joined in.
Now Danny is calling from the bathroom.
“Dad, it smells really bad in here.”
Manny sets down his son's hockey bag and joins him in the bathroom. A strong, acrid smell of bleach greets him.
“That's just the smell of clean, son. It means they've cleaned it for us.”
Danny looks at his father, dubious, his little mouth flatlining, his thumbs sliding in and out of his empty belt loops. He keeps looking at his father until finally he says, “I have to pee.”
Manny backs out of the bathroom and sits down on one of the beds. He unzips his son's overstuffed suitcase and starts unpacking it. Danny's mother, Elise, packed it and it has roughly double the necessary items. As Manny sifts through it, he remembers how she had packed for their honeymoon in Hawaii, how she had brought two skirts for every day they'd be there.
“You want to be seen around town with the tramp with only one skirt?” she'd asked. She was funny then, could poke fun at herself.
They'd divorced three years later, two years after Danny was born, and when Manny was digging through the closet he'd found a box of those skirts, untouched since Danny's birth. They were too cute, too fun for the harried, professional woman Elise had become. At the bottom of Danny's suitcase Manny finds a Calvin and Hobbes collection. He opens it to see that Elise has written a little note in her neat cursive:
Thought you might need some Calvin and Hobbes to keep you company. Play well. Be nice to your father.
The insinuations are clear: that Danny will be bored, that he finds it difficult to be cordial to his father. Danny comes out of the bathroom and Manny throws the book on his bed.
“Your mom sent that for you.”
“Oh, awesome,” Danny says, smiling for the first time the whole trip.
They pass the rest of the night with Manny watching grainy sitcom reruns on the old wood-paneled TV and Danny reading Calvin and Hobbes, occasionally snorting with laughter. Eventually, when it has been some time since the last giggle, Manny looks over and sees that Danny has fallen asleep on top of the covers, his shoes and jacket still on. He turns off the TV and wrests Danny's shoes off his feet, unzips his jacket and worms each of his arms out, Danny stirring a little, his eyelids fluttering. Elise packed a pair of jammy pants, but Manny leaves them folded in the bottom of the bag and slides the covers over his son, still in his jeans and t-shirt.
He sits on the edge of the bed for a minute watching his son sleep. Danny has always had a pinched look when sleeping, as if he is considering complex matters in his dreams. But who's to say he's not. He is certainly smarter than Manny was at his age, although sometimes Manny thinks maybe he is mistaking his son's brooding demeanor for a grumpy precociousness. He worries sometimes that he imagines too much of his son, that his idea of who Danny is is rooted not in fact but in his overdone attempts at understanding.
Manny knows that he himself was a late bloomer, that he conceded to adulthood's consistent urgings a little late in the game; but even now he is still picking and choosing what to accept, what to hold at arm's length. His attitude used to be that he had not asked for adulthood, that it had foisted itself on him and why should he concede defeat, why not battle it off a little. Now he feels more like he is finding ways to live with the enemy.
Manny has always felt a little combative in this way. He thinks maybe it is a result of growing up an only child with no siblings to fight, no early outlet for his contrarian feelings. His parents had substituted siblings with dogs and he had grown up surrounded by rescue shelter mutts, but dogs like to wrestle, will never beg to stop, will never run off crying to mom. But like siblings, Manny found himself returning to dogs in times of need. He had dropped out of college after his first year and started working as a receptionist at a veterinary clinic. He had met Elise there when she brought in her lab/collie mutt with a ruptured disk. After surgery there was a long rehab period for the dog and eventually Manny was taking it for walks with Elise late at night, the animal supported with a sling around its back legs, looking back at them impatiently when they would stop to kiss and the sling would go limp. Manny had eventually gone back to school and gotten his degree in veterinary medicine. A year after marrying Elise Manny had opened up his own clinic, state of the art place, all the amenities rich people could want for their ailing animals. He had been trying to keep up with Elise, who went from the freewheeling girl he had married to a young professional overnight. He had thought they had some time still, a few years to mess around, be stupid young people in love.
If he had bothered to look around at the changing demographics of the city, he would have noticed that the last rich people, the kind that have thousands to spend on momentarily prolonging an animal's life, were just leaving, heading to the other side of town or farther, to the suburbs. He would probably have done better opening up a small, shoddy shop in a strip mall, dog bones strewn around the dirty linoleum waiting room floor. Maybe if he'd had a loyal customer base, some reliable clients up for the drive across town, he could have survived. But as it was, the place went belly up, right around the time Danny was born. Elise divorced him six months into his humiliating year long stint as a manager at a mildewy pet shop in the mall. She found out that he had been sleeping with one of the cashiers, a nineteen year old girl who during sex would make noises disturbingly similar to the parakeets caged throughout the shop. The fact that he has rebounded a little, working now as a vet at one of the new clinics that helped put him out of business, has done little to help Elise change her view of him. Danny has absorbed more than a little of her sentiment.
When he is sure the kid is soundly asleep, Manny puts on his jacket and shoes and slips out the door, locking it behind him. He turns to see a woman down the outside walkway, fumbling with her keys, listing from side to side in high heels. She is wearing a pair of khaki business pants and a loose fitting maroon dress shirt. He walks down the hall and as he gets nearer she drops the keys and bends unsteadily to retrieve them.
“Need some help there?” Manny asks her.
“I think I can manage,” the woman says and she picks up the keys and jabs them at the door until they slide into the lock. She turns toward Manny, bumping the door open with her shoulder. “Thanks though,” she says, smiling with her whole mouth, her tongue pressed up against her bottom teeth, and then she tips herself into her room and shuts the door behind her. Manny forms his hands into pointer-finger guns and fires at the door. Slaying 'em, he thinks, Just slaying 'em. He walks toward the stairs, blowing the smoke from his five-fingered six-shooters, watching his frozen breath drift into the night.
He walks down the icy stairs, strewn with rock salt, to the parking lot. Walking over to his car, he opens the trunk and grabs a small, mostly empty backpack from the corner. Slinging it over his shoulder, he closes the trunk and starts walking down the street. He passes a little strip mall, half of the stores empty with realtor's signs in the windows, big banks of dirty, plowed snow taking up parking spaces in two corners. One of the stores is a tanning salon, the image of a sun superimposed over the Canadian flag, which makes Manny laugh. He's not sure exactly where he is going, but he'll know it when he sees it. The sky is a murky haze, the moon smudged behind the grey clouds. There, he sees it. An alley with big brick walls on each side.
When Manny was fourteen he had found a book on New York City subway art and had immediately abandoned pyromaniac ambitions—mainly melting plastic spoons in the downstairs bathroom—and decided to embark on a journey as a street artist. Lacking much in the way of artistic talent, he had managed to fashion only a sloppy tag, an abbreviation of his name, MAN. For a few weeks he had gone around his neighborhood and his middle school with a black Sharpie, throwing MAN onto street signs and desks as if he were living in some big city, as if you didn't still have to stop for cattle crossings right on the edge of town. He had eventually given up when the thrill wore off, when no other tags appeared over the top of his, the fleeting idea of a turf war extinguished.
It has only been a few weeks since he rediscovered his street art past, a junior high notebook he had used to perfect his tag, covered in varying scripts and unearthed in his parent's basement after Thanksgiving dinner. He had bought the Sharpie as an inside joke between his adolescent and his adult selves. The first few tags, on stop signs, streetlight poles and the boarded up window of an abandoned house, had been a continuation of the joke, the whole thing absurd, just some reminiscing in real-time was all. But he hadn't stopped and now he is not sure if it is a joke or not. He thinks it might be a touch of unlikely relief delivered by a time traveling version of his young self, bummed out to see the kind of depressed adult he had grown into.
Standing in front of the brick wall, his breath curling up, he slips the backpack off and takes out the can of spray paint. People find their true calling late in life all the time, he tells himself. They get movies made about them: the accountant who one days realizes he is supposed to be a hot air ballon pilot; the handyman who spills some paint at the job site and ends up at MOMA. But he's not trying to fool himself; all he is trying to do is to try some new things, some out-of-the-ordinary possibilities. Maybe something will click. Or maybe he is supposed to be a mildly depressed veterinarian. There's only one way to know for sure.
He shakes the can and it rattles. He sprays a little puff of red out into the night which dissipates like a vampire's misty breath. He looks up and down the alley, pokes his head back out into the street. No one. He laughs, his breath escaping in puffs. He has decided on Canada for his first big tag for reasons that seemed to make more sense when he was buying the paint. Maybe his fourteen year old self is still longing for that turf war, like some Canadian tagger is going to take offense at the affront, come to the States, to Manny's neighborhood to show him what's up. Manny also has an idea—supported by what he's not sure—of Canada as a more benevolent country. In the off chance he should be caught, at least he will not be waterboarded, right? Walking up to the wall he sprays a little dot. He puts his fingers up against the brick and they come back faintly red. Then a few feet over, he sprays another dot and then another. The idea comes to him of his tag as an acronym: M.A.N. It seems like that might be deep, the idea of man, of humanity, as something needing to be unpackaged, explained. Yeah, he likes that. He scrawls MAN in between the dots. And then, just to increase the ridiculousness of this territorial tagging, he adds USA RULZ below in a smaller, jagged, angular font.
He takes a step back to admire his work. He's an amateur and doesn't know how to hold the can, how to control the flow, so streaks of paint drip down the wall giving the graffiti a horror movie vibe, scrawled by an advancing zombie horde marking out their territory. But he is goofily proud of it all the same. Popping the collar on his jacket, he turns around in a slow circle, bobbing his head, feeling, even though he knows it is illusory and fleeting, a little young, a touch of rebellion in the crisp night air. He thinks of the pet shop parakeet girl and is embarrassed to be doing so, to still be thinking of her at all.
He walks around for another fifteen minutes, still holding the can, stopping at one other wall, but he decides that once is enough for his first big night and also, his toes are getting cold, so he heads back to the hotel. Danny is still asleep and the heater has given up its clunking and mellowed out. Manny shoves the backpack under the bed and then crawls under the covers and stares at the ceiling until his eyes close and he falls asleep.
In the morning, while they eat in the hotel's attached diner, Danny says, “I woke up last night and you weren't there.”
Manny, a piece of pancake in his mouth, says, “Yeah, I went for a walk.”
“You shouldn't leave me though.”
Manny looks at his son, at his pale face, a dab of syrup on the tip of his nose. He sounds like his mother sometimes, like they have some kind of mind-link that allows her to occasionally inhabit Danny in order to scold Manny for his shortcomings. He wants to tell him that he is not a baby, that he is almost a teenager, but he holds off.
“Come on, eat your breakfast, we gotta get to the rink, kid.”
Danny stabs at a sausage link, which squirts off the plate onto the table, where he leaves it, opting instead for a bite of pancake.
The rink is old and and rickety, but it has a sheet of ice surrounded by boards and that's all the local Canadian team needs to give them a resounding defeat. Danny's team manages a single point, the puck slipping in after an ugly scrum in front of the net. The other team figured out pretty quickly that Danny's team's goalie couldn't stop anything raised off the ice, so they threw one puck after another sailing into the net. At one point a kid form Danny's team managed to get his stick stuck in a gap in the boards, necessitating a stop in play so the referee could pull it out.
Manny sat in the bleachers watching. A single large heater hung from the ceiling, blasting a few overheated spectators and leaving everyone else out in the cold.
“Hey, Manny,” a man says to him halfway through the first period, when the game still looks possibly manageable. “Craig, Josh's dad,” the man says, extending a hand, which Manny shakes. “Missed you at the motel last night. You guys get in late?”
“No, we're staying at a little hotel closer to the rink. Save a few bucks,” he adds and instantly wishes he hadn't, hearing how cheap it sounds. Really, he was mostly trying to avoid this, this forced parental bonding. Bad enough to be stuck in the bleachers with the parents all week, he doesn't need to be stuck poolside too, roaming the halls with ice buckets, dodging kids playing hall hockey with rubber balls.
“Well hey, the kids are all going swimming tonight, some of us are ordering pizzas. Danny's invited, if you want to come hang out. Free of charge.”
“Yeah, great, thanks,” he says and turns his attention back to the game to see the Canadian's score their third goal, the Canadian kid down on one knee, raising a gloved fist in the air. Manny boos quietly under his breath.
The second game of the day is against a visiting Canadian team from a small town up north and while less of a wholesale slaughter, it is by no means even a semblance of a victory for Danny's team. Manny tries to keep an eye on Danny, to comment on his performance after the game, but it's hard, all the kids out there chasing the puck in identical outfits. When he does pick him out, he thinks how eager he seems to be out there, how hard he chases after the puck, even as his team sinks farther behind. Some of the kids start half-assing it, but Danny keeps after it, chasing the pucks into the corner, swinging wholeheartedly on the rare occasions when they get near the other team's net.
Manny hopes Danny's performance bodes well for other aspects of his life, that he keeps this kind of against-the-odds energy up. On his good days, Manny likes to think he is still fighting, but sometimes he feels that when the going gets tough, he gets tired.
After the game, out in the parking lot, Danny asks if they can go to the motel tonight. “Everyone's going to be at the pool and they're getting pizza and stuff.”
“Yeah, maybe. We'll see. Let's get back to the hotel and get you showered first, alright? You stink, kid.”
On the ride home, Danny tells him about how all the Canadian's cheat and play dirty which is why they win so much. Manny wants to tell him that they also live and breathe the sport, but he is almost heartened by the kid's inability to see the game for what it is. Maybe he takes after his old man a little after all.
At the hotel, Manny cranks up the heat while Danny gets in the shower. A clanking rumble comes from the vent and the room momentarily smells like burning. He turns on the TV and dozes off. Danny wakes him up a few minutes later, dressed and with a clump of intrepid soap suds still clinging behind one ear.
“Daaaad, wake up. Can we go to the motel now?”
Manny blinks away the grogginess and says, “I'll order us a pizza here, how does that sound?”
“Dad,” Danny whines. “Come on, the whole team is there.”
Manny considers giving in. The kid's face is pitiable, so disappointed, his lips puffed out in a frown, but then he thinks that if he gives in now, he'll always give in, become that pushover dad who caves at the hint of a teary eye. He doesn't want to be one of those parents promising the dying dog will be just fine. No, better to be straight with the kids, tell it like it is.
“Sorry, buddy, I'm exhausted. Hard work watching you skate all day.” That was supposed to be a joke, but it falls dead before Danny, who flops down on the bed, arms splayed out, ready for the cross, to be a martyr for children robbed of pool party fun everywhere.
“Oh, come on, we'll get some pizza, watch some TV, it'll be fun.”
Danny shakes his head back and forth on the blanket, leaving a wet streak from his still damp hair.
With the empty pizza box folded in half in the trash and Danny asleep with the Calvin and Hobbes book splayed open next to him, Manny suddenly feels monumentally bored. This has been happening frequently lately. He'll come home from work and five minutes later will feel restless, wanting something vague, something he can't quite identify. Sure: fun, sex, a beer, all of those ordinary things, but also, maybe a pleasantly jolting surprise. But there is the problem, that word: surprise. It nullifies him, makes him inert with impatient waiting. Maybe it is time he surprised himself more often. Last night's minor vandalism was a good start. He wonders if his scrawled national pride is still on the wall or if a proud Canadian shop owner has already power-washed it away or painted over it. He thinks that maybe if it is still there it could use some touching up. It's all a little stupid, he knows this, but he also has the words “humble beginnings” stuck in his head, as if maybe this is just the start of something bigger. He has done a number of unintentionally dumb things over the past decade, but he misses the implausibility of youthful, stubbornly stupid arrogance. All day long at work, notwithstanding the occasional idiotic dog talk, he has to be so serious.
So he fishes the backpack out from under the bed, puts on his jacket, casts one more look back at Danny, and then quietly lets himself out of the room.
The wall is as he left it, the dripping red USA looking like the bloodthirsty country much of the world believes it to be. He traces his hand along the letters as if the paint might still be somehow wet. He takes the can out of the backpack and shakes it. A car drives by in the street and Manny looks down, hides the can against his other leg. Thinking back on the trouncing Danny's team received that day, he starts writing HOCKEY squeezed in between USA and RULZ; if his son's team can't actually rule, he can at least give them this. Maybe he will tell Danny about this years from now, his father's daring weekend graffiti career, his attempt at retribution for the drubbing given by the Canadians.
He's on the C when suddenly the wall is lit up with the glare of car headlights. Before he can even think what to do, the door is slamming and a man is walking toward him, saying something, but his words get caught in the light and thrown against the wall, shattering into the cold, hard air.
Manny is remembering now that part of being young and reckless is getting busted. He and Elise, both of them twenty-eight and married just three months, had been caught smoking a joint in an alleyway once after a movie. They had run, Elise still clasping the joint in her fingers, and the cop had not given chase, had let the newlyweds enjoy their few months before it all started to go wrong. Maybe the cop knew, maybe he sensed that their time was already short.
Now the man's words are intelligible, have braced themselves against the night. “Hey, asshole, that's my wall you're defacing,” the man says. He's a big guy, backlit with the headlights, his upturned palms out at each side.
Then Manny is running. Or at least he is slipping at a high velocity down the alleyway, the hard packed snow and ice pockets making him stumble. Then, only a few yards from where he started his escape, he falls, and the man's knee is instantly against Manny's spine, his hand on the crown of his head. Manny's chin makes a small dent in the snow. He cannot believe this is actually happening. Of all the dumb-ass things he has done, this is a new low. He has a vision of Elise driving up to take Danny home, of the court date to make sure he doesn't get to see his kid anymore. Then he is flipping over off his stomach, the can of spray paint still in his hand, his finger on the trigger, and he lets a stream of paint fly into the man's face, across his beard, slashing like a wound along his neck and down his jacket. The man reals back, letting go, and Manny flees, runs like a man with everything to lose.
As Manny climbs the steps back at the hotel, two at a time, he feels invigorated, the adrenaline still pumping, his hands shaky against the stair railing. He had run faster than he knew he could, down side streets and through alleys, hopping a tall metal fence through a yard stacked full of rusting barrels. At one point he had heard a siren somewhere in the distance, imagined the police lights spilling over him at any minute. He had tossed the backpack and spray paint in a dumpster, disposed of the evidence. He feels as though he was being tested, as if something wanted to see how much life he still had in him. Some, he wants to say. Definitely some.
Then there in front of him, coming up the other staircase, is the woman from the night before. She is in her business attire again, a sharp red blazer and billowy khaki pants, teetering unsteadily on black heels. She gets to her door just as Manny is walking up.
“You again,” she says, her mouth gaping open like she can't believe it. “You stalking me?”
“I'd ask you the same thing.”
She turns her attention to the door and to her key. She jabs at the door with the key as if fending off an intruder and then looks helplessly at Manny.
“Keys and alcohol and me don't get along.”
“Please, allow me,” Manny says. He steps forward and after a moment's hesitation, she hands him the key. He opens her door, the shaking in his hands beginning to subside. The woman steps into the room and turns to Manny.
“Thanks,” she says, taking the key from the door. Then she shuts the door, the room still dark. Manny cocks his head, shrugs, and then turns to walk to his room. Then the door pops back open a crack and the woman's face appears. “A nightcap?” she asks.
Digging two little bottles of alcohol from her purse, she pours each into the thin plastic cups provided by the hotel. She adds a splash of water to each from the bathroom faucet and comes back out and hands a cup to Manny. He is fairly sure that the top button of her blazer has been undone, a sloping V of pale skin evident in the dim light from the bedside lamp. She sits on the twin bed opposite him and sips slowly from her drink, her bottom teeth rubbing against the plastic. She has shoulder length brown hair, a sharp nose and big, partially hooded eyes which stand out as the only possibly bashful thing about her.
“So what brings you to the world class Budget Inn?” Manny asks, trying to break the silence.
“Business,” the woman says. “A business conference. A business conference run by a bunch of old alcoholics.” She smiles at this and sways forward. “And you?”
They both take another sip of their drinks. Out in the parking lot someone starts shouting at someone else. Manny notices the red light on the bedside phone is blinking to indicate she has a message.
“You have a message,” he says, nodding toward the phone.
“Been blinking since I got here,” she says and then she places her drink next to the phone, leans into Manny and kisses him, lazily, like she has nothing better to do. She runs her tongue along his top teeth.
“Right?” she says and Manny slides a hand behind her, under her shirt and onto the bare skin of her back. She arches at his cold hand, her nose mashing against his. And then they are lying down; she is on top of Manny, biting his lip. She unzips his jacket and unbuttons his shirt, pawing at his chest hair.
Her ass beneath the khakis is soft. Elise had a thing about keeping her ass toned and Manny had always felt anchorless when he was on the bottom, nothing to dig into. He works his way up her back to her bra strap and works to unfasten it. He realizes the last time he likely did so was in the break room of the pet shop, the muffled sounds of barking dogs and mimicking birds on the other side of the door, the easily excitable girl pressed up against the employee lockers, the rich smell of Hot Pockets and kitty litter thick in the air.
The woman has a hand on his belt buckle and her mouth around one of his nipples when suddenly from the hallway there is a terrible sound, the sound of a young boy screaming. Manny frees his hands from under the woman's shirt and pushes himself half upright so she slides down a little, landing between his legs.
“Daaaaaaaaad,” the boy is screaming, and it is his son. “Daaaaaaaaad, where are you?” he is shrieking and Manny can clearly see his son's face, the red of the back of his wide open mouth, the spreading blush of his forehead as he expels all his oxygen.
Manny looks up at the woman and she tilts her head and opens her mouth but doesn't say anything. He scoots out from under her and jumps off the bed to the door, flings it open and runs down the hall toward his screaming child, his loose belt flapping, a sheen of saliva around his left nipple. A few other doors are open, a head or two poking out into the hallway.
“Danny, Danny, Danny, I'm right here, buddy.”
The boy shuts up right away and Manny scoops him up against his bare chest, even though he is too old to be carried, and walks back through their still open door. He deposits Danny on the bed and then closes the door.
“What was that all—”
“You can't leave me alone like that.” The boy spits when he says it, so angry.
“Danny, I was just next door.”
“I had a bad dream.”
“Come on, Danny, you're eleven years old.” He almost wishes Elise would find a man, get a male presence in the house to toughen up Danny a little. Manny hates to see him turning into a momma's boy like this.
“So? You can't leave me.”
“Dude, I'm not leaving you, ever, okay?” Manny is trying to figure out what this is, if this is some kind of abandonment issue, if his son thinks he might actually walk out on him for good some day. He is almost touched; honestly, he wouldn't have thought the kid cared that much.
“Where were you?”
“I was saying hi to a friend,” Manny says and then before Danny has time to probe further, to ask why his shirt is unbuttoned to the Canadian cold, he says, “Come on, we've got another big day tomorrow. Let's get back to sleep, okay?”
Danny eyes him warily as if he might split again at any moment, but then he crawls back into bed and turns over, away from his father. Manny sits there for a minute more, looking at the huddled form of Danny under the blankets, thinking what a wild night, that if he keeps this up he'll be in jail with limited child visitation in no time. He licks his chapped lips and can still taste the woman, her drunk tongue. He gets up and pulls the corner of the curtain from the window, peering out onto the walkway. That would have been nice. It's been awhile. On the other side of the window is only the cold night, the sheen of ice under the streetlights. His knuckles leave four small holes in the frost on the glass.
He sits back down on the bed. Bending over to take off his shoes he notices a thin red slash on his opened jacket, a battle wound of paint as evidence of the crazy night, already seeming like it must belong to some other man. Well, if nothing else, he is certainly not bored.
The next day's games go much like the first. This Canadian team isn't even as good as the ones the day before, but still they throw the puck into the back of the net with regularity. Manny wonders why they couldn't have gotten some other teams from the States up here. Get some North Dakota kids to play maybe. Manny sits up high in a corner of the bleachers and none of the other parents try to talk to him. He has succeeded in creating a barrier, in making it known that he is not one of them, even though he too has spent his weekend watching his kid skate back to center ice, over and over. The Canadian team is starting to look a little bored.
Manny considers the long drive back home tonight, getting in late, Danny knocked out in the passenger's seat or maybe lying stretched out in the backseat, a sliver of drool lit up by passing headlights.
During the second and final game, a new set of parents comes to occupy the bleachers. Manny watches them sit and huddle in little groups, parental cliques, keeping each other warm, styrofoam cup coffee steaming in their hands. Manny starts feeling antsy and contemplates moving a couple rows down, saying hi to one of Danny's teammates' parents, maybe that guy Craig, but then he thinks better of it. He's not ready to make that move yet, down a few rows and into another world. Maybe he should try faking it sometime though, as a test, see how well he can pull off a facsimile of chummy parenthood. Might make things easier.
Manny watches as one more parent climbs into the stands, sitting alone under the heater. The man turns and Manny sees that there is something wrong with his face, some accident or birthmark, a faint, scrubbed, red gash streaked across one of his cheeks and his beard, trailing down his neck and disappearing down his shirt. Then he realizes that it is paint, spray paint, and then he looks down at his jacket, at the matching slash of red as if his body picked up the wound where the other man's body left off.
The man turns back around and Manny quickly takes off his jacket, reverses it, and slides it back on. Then he walks down the bleachers, keeping his head low and slightly turned away, quickly exiting when he reaches the door.
He wanders around the parking lot, wondering if he can go back inside and then deciding he can't. He stands there for a minute watching his breath, blowing out steadily until he feels lightheaded. So he sits in the car with the heater on, listening to the radio, which is all classic rock and country up here, little flurries of static punctuating the music. He considers the likelihood of that man being a parent of one of the kids and realizes in a small town like this it is actually very probable, almost assured. Manny thinks he should have picked a bigger city in which to start his new illicit life.
He dozes off for awhile and wakes up to the twanging guitar of an old country song, something about a guy's mother and freight trains. He checks the clock and realizes that the game is likely just about over, the clock ticking off the final few minutes. He decides to venture a risk back into enemy territory and walks across the parking lot and into the arena.
He keeps his distance from the bleachers and squints to make out the scoreboard at the other end. When the red bulbed numbers come into focus, he sees that Danny's team is still losing, but that the score is 6-3, that they have tripled their previous best of one goal. Then he wonders who scored, if maybe Danny managed one. Danny will never forgive him for missing it if he did. He should ask one of the parents, just to be safe. He cautiously walks back toward the bleachers, keeping an eye out for his newfound adversary, but he doesn't see him.
Manny sits down next to Craig and says, “Hey, there. I had to step outside to take a phone call and looks like I missed all the action. Who put the goals in for our boys?”
Craig looks at him a little sadly; yesterday he was willing to help him integrate, but already today he is just feeling sorry for Manny, for his lackluster parental performance. But he throws him a bone anyway.
“Danny got one. Puck squirted past the defense and Danny just burst right past them, skated it all the way down and deeked out the goalie. Pretty sweet.”
“Oh, that's great, great.” Then Manny looks up just in time to see the slash of paint on the man's neck as he sits down next to them, two coffees in his hand.
“Hey, Manny, this is Josiah. He's got a kid on the local team.”
The man hands off one of the coffees to Craig and then extends his hand to Manny. Manny shakes it and tries not to tremble as he does so.
“Glad we could give your kids a few points before the weekend's over,” Josiah says.
“Yeah, thanks,” Manny says. “Helps the kids feel good you know, a few points in the last game.” Manny feels some perverse urge to ask Josiah about the red smear on his face, to hear the story from his point of view, to listen for embellishment. But he bites his tongue, watches as Danny's line jumps on the ice, Danny seeming newly energized, skating hard, digging a puck out of the corner and throwing it into the center of the ice where one of his teammates attempts a one-timer but fans on it. Manny fingers the seams in his inside-out jacket and pulls the zipper up tight against his chin. Then the buzzer mercifully sounds and Manny jumps up, clapping.
“Hey, alright,” he says. Then, looking down at the two men, he nods and says, “Good game, good game,” and then hurries off in the direction of the locker room, to urge Danny, who is still shaking hands with the other team on the ice, to quickly take off all his gear, to help them get out of here as soon as possible.
Danny is wearing his medal around his neck. They took last place by a wide margin, but every team got a medal of some sort and Danny is holding it up in front of his face as they walk through the parking lot, looking at it, pleased well enough, his breath blanketing it in white puffs. Manny has his son's bag slung over his shoulder, the reek of two days worth of skating escaping through it into the cold air.
Then from the opposite end of the parking lot he sees Josiah exit the arena, his son in tow, carrying his own bag. They both walk toward the center of the lot, toward their respective cars. Manny tries to think of a scenario to stall their meeting, considers faking like he left something inside, but nothing really comes to mind, the chill air somehow making the collision seem inevitable, freezing them on their current trajectory.
Their cars are actually next to each other, but each of them had come at the two spots from different directions so the driver's side doors are on the same side.
“Headed back home?” Josiah asks, the cold rosing his cheeks the color of the faded red streak in his beard. His son throws his bag in the backseat and then gets in the passenger side. Manny sets Danny's bag on the ground and fumbles with the keys in his cold fingers, trying to open the trunk.
“Yep, long drive, late night.”
“Well I'm glad the team could make it.” Manny manages to get the key in the lock and opens it, throwing Danny's bag in. “You're not ever up here for business or anything are you? I feel like we've met before.” Manny opens the car door, a hint of heat still trapped in the car from his first escape. He hits the button to unlock the passenger door and Danny opens it and gets in the car.
“Nope, nope,” Manny tells Josiah. “First time up.” He sets one foot in the car and reaches over to turn the key in the ignition.
“Huh,” says Josiah. I don't know then.” Danny cranes his neck across the seat dividers and looks up at the two men.
“Dad, why is your jacket on inside-out?” Danny says.
“Holy shit,” Josiah says. “No goddamn way.” Manny ducks into the car and tries to slam the door, but Josiah ducks his shoulder against the inside of the door, his elbow against the window. “Get the hell out of the car, man. You owe me some—”
Manny quits pulling and kicks the car door open all the way, knocking Josiah off balance into his own car. Then Manny hurtles out of his car, ramming his head into Josiah's gut, feeling the air leave Josiah in one large forced exhalation. Manny stands up quick, just as Josiah is lowering his head, and clips him on the chin with the back of his head. He can hear Josiah's teeth clatter together, brittle from all those Canadian winters.
Then Manny is in his car again, the door slamming, somewhere Danny's presence like a faint recollection. His hands are shaking and he grips the steering wheel to make them stop. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” he mutters. The frozen gravel spits into the air as Manny peels out of the parking lot, zipping past a few other clusters of parents and their boys, loading up their gear, headed home to warm showers, hot dinners, layers of blankets. His breath is fogging the window and as he leaves the parking lot he reaches up with his jacket sleeve to wipe away a space to see through. Then, reasserting his presence, Danny raises his arm too and wipes another viewing hole into the passenger side of the windshield.
Manny looks over at him, at his son with his hand balled up in the sleeve, wiping in an increasingly larger circle. Reaching over, his eyes still on the road, Manny puts a hand on his son's shoulder.
“Okay?” His son sits back in his seat, his sleeve damp from the window. Manny glances at him, taking a corner too fast, and Danny nods. “Alright, between you and me, right? Just you and me?” And again Danny nods, a single faint dip and rise of his chin. Manny wants to see something reassuring in his son's face, some twitch in his lips that could be a hidden smile, wide eyes to say he knows this is an adventure, that life is full of adventure, but Danny offers nothing other than a straightforward stare, looking out the hole he has carved for himself in the windshield.
Looking back toward the road, Manny says “USA hockey rules!” and then holds up his hand for his son to slap.
All rights reserved.
Some remembered snippets of long ago hockey trips to Canada inspired this piece.