the last dance

The room smelled old, powdered with the nausea ammonia smell that flavors sweat drenched clothing. Hard, pressurized water made hissing sounds in the adjacent room. Naked bodies entered, slowly. Not many were exiting. The carpeted red floor was adorned with wet items in disheveled clumps. Jerseys, pants, stockings, long underwear (arms and legs cut off,) shoulder pads, shin pads – socks, cups…. Most were in one or two piles.

He sat there, still undressed, arms resting on his thighs, hands unclasped. His head was bowed slightly. His eyes were fixated, but sightless. His mind had disengaged from them. The only connection between the two had brought misting. Now the “distance” had dried them. He was “alone.”

The recollections began in slow motion with no real semblance of order. They plugged themselves into his consciousness randomly. He had no control nor desired any. They filled as if an epiphytic kaleidoscope. He was softly falling back in time. The one constant was his non-existence in the room, his team’s room; the team which had just finished its last game of the season and for him the last game of his career. The “music” had stopped.

He had become a piece of a team when he was in sixth grade. It was the first year where the score mattered. Dad was sitting on the edge of the bed. He laid on his back, hands folded behind his head. He was supposed to be resting, but his mind rattled with random waves of queries. He was the goalie and the team was playing for first place against St. Marys, the parochial school which constituted the majority of the town’s better players. They lost 2-0. One of the goals allowed bounced off the wood post of the net. The goal judge stood on the bracing at the back of the net. He called it good as it hit the inside of the post. No one but him protested. No one listened. Tears formed behind his cage mask. He never played goalie again.

The Refs had taken a dislike to their team’s style of play. He was a senior, and they were pre season favorites not only to win the league but to perhaps make a run at the State Championship. Infighting with younger players had suffocated the oxygen from the team and they were stumbling to a third place tie. Frustration had perspired from the group and the play followed. The penalties began adding up. Already known for toughness, cheapness squeaked in and the finesse began to fizzle. The semi-final loss in the Regionals to the team they had conquered twice was a proper ending, but felt crappy. He had made a rush with time winding down but was denied at the crease. He was unaware of the Refs whistles as he hacked at the glove smothering the puck. He spent the last ten minutes of the game in the penalty box for misconduct.

The magic began just after the new year, his junior year in college. They were a mixed bag of thoroughbreds who were being harnessed to a style of play that was better managed to pull a wagon than thunder the Track. In January they began to spill out individually into their youthful ways where they had learned to play on the frozen lakes, with no rules or boards. As one took off another followed and the surge could not be suppressed. An idiot would have wanted to. They blew away the competition as they pushed hard to shake mediocrity and become not just good but great. His role was to make sure the racers did not succumb to any thuggery along the way. The end was a game where dominance of play did not coincide with a win. No blame was attached, just a sucking feeling. The bus ride home was quiet. He left school a week later.

Undrafted, he sought a tryout with the Oakland Seals of the United States Hockey League. It was the ugly cousin of the NHL trying to win the prom queen, the fan base. He was quarantined to Hershey. Oakland had dismissed him outright and as he sought playing time somewhere, the Hershey Bears needed some knuckle power and asked him to come on board. The year was a blur of bus rides, beer, girls, blood and laughs. He began to soak his hands in ice after games when the pain was piercing. Then a teammate suggested soaking them in ice before the games to harden the skin. So the practise of icing before and after became natural. His knuckles could cut skin like a hot knife on butter, even flattened as they were.

As often as he was jettisoned from teams, he found footing in another city. He would become a crowd pleaser as the Colosseum always loved blood. And he brought blood, either his own, another’s, or both. Yet the act would begin to suffocate the life from his soul and he would try to escape to his roots, out there on the pond. Where he could skate, free. It was not what was wanted. He would be packing his bags by the end of a season.

He sat there with these and other random thoughts slamming about. There were those crazy times remembering his father telling he and his brother about sitting on the bumper of his grandfather’s Ford hunting pheasants. They would drive around the dirt roads adjacent to fields. The birds were as numerous as carrier pigeon in prime time. Limits were as many as you killed!

His brother brought a case of Schmidt’s and they tried their own version of that old fashion hunting. They “exchanged” the Ford for a Chevy truck and the tailgate for the bumpers. They took turns driving the gravel and shot at anything that moved, in the air or otherwise. They were lucky. No broken bones and the shot did not carry far enough to bring collateral damage, at least they did not think it had. One rabbit was their tally, but so many laughs.

He slowly reclined to rest his back in the locker. Not a piece of equipment sans helmet and gloves had been removed. He did not remember removing the helmet and the gloves had slid off his hands as he sat down. His jersey stiffened as it dried, unmolested as one memory benched another. A body approached and sat down next to him. A can of beer was set by his left thigh.

“Tommy, bottoms,” and the new neighbor took a long pull on his own beer.

“Thanks Larkie.” It was a sport that endeared itself to intimacy by equating a “y” at the end of a name. like the Goodfellas and their “forget about it.” A staple of vocabulary that functioned to establish membership. Dougie, Tommie, Bobbie, Frankie, Tootsie…. When you wanted to intimate, you placed the “e” sound on the end.

“Canfield?”

“Yeah?”

You thinking?

He smiled. Only Larkin, a Harvard man, would say that. And bring a beer to him.

“Yeah, caught me I guess.”

Larkin drank again. “Let me guess, not about the game or the show you put on.”

“Right, just stuff.” Only Larkin would have said this.

“Larkie, this is it.”

Larkin knew what was going on. He had known Tommie for just about two years, when Canfield had first come to the team, mid-year two seasons ago. Larkin had winced when he first heard the news. Now, he was fond of him. He did not really have a friend on the team, many teammates, but not a real friend. Tommie intrigued him.

‘You want to talk?”

Tom Canfield sat quietly. He turned his head slightly to see Larkin, the first time he had focused on anything. “Lark, you good?”

“Yeah, I am. Me and Plato got it covered.”

“None of the classic crap.”

“No, just covering is all.”

“What?”

“I’m saying bottoms to you Tommy. Its good. Its fine. You did good, real good, real fine. I think,” he paused and took a long pull of his beer, tilted his head down and belched. “I believe you are a good person and a good hockey player.”

Tommy looked in Larkin’s eyes. They were sincere.

“Thanks.”

“Tom, you have played the game, and the game within the game, for, what, eight years at this level? And you have never shoved it back on anyone. You packed up when they said to, you moved in where you could, took the ice when and where you were asked and gave what you could and what they wanted. But you need to know that you are a good player, beyond being a good teammate. Beyond ‘the game.'”

“You Ivies talk too much!”

“Yeah, well that is what we are supposed to do.”

“Talk?”

Larkin let out a light laugh. ‘Pretend, and own the world someday!”

Tommie smiled. He had not touched the beer yet.

“You going to drink that beer?”

“Can’t, my hands hurt Larkie.”

“Here, tilt your head back.” Larkin placed a hand gently under Tommie’s chin and poured the top swill into the open mouth, careful not to overflow. Tom swallowed. The coldness felt good. It reminded him of the ice bucket. Where was the ice bucket? He should be soaking his hands now.

“Damn, could you get me a bucket of ice Lark?”

“Sure, be right back.” Larkin leaned and stood, walking barefoot toward the training room in his nature suit. He too had not showered as the rest of the team had commenced dressing. He came back with two. “Here, put one in each.”

“Thanks.” He had grown accustomed to the cold jolting sensation. The numbness, when it came, was a shrill but welcoming sensation every time.

“You ever been content Lark?”

“Content…content…content…is this an essay question, multiple choice or true or false?!”

“You Sophist, just asking….”

“Why Canfield, such a big word! Tommie, you are a good guy…a friend. No, I have not found contentment, as you have.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, because I am selfish. That is something you lack, or have very little of.”

“What?”

“Have you ever had much Tommie?”

“Never thought about it. I guess I have had enough, more than most I think.”

“That is part of what I am saying. You live now. You take what the Sun brings each day and start there. You don’t shove your responsibilities on others and you shoulder your burdens. How old were you when your dad passed?”

“Fourteen. Why?”

“Just curious.” You’re a good man Tom Canfield. You are going to do o.k. I hope the best for you.”

“Did you know before you sat down here?”

“Yes, I thought it was the last Depot.”

“But that crap about taking the day…I just finished flashing through tons of past things!”

“When one gets off the train, they usually don’t look back. It’s when they are boarding that they glance over their shoulder.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean you Ivie hooligan??!”

“Either getting on or getting off, you don’t look over your shoulder. And if you did, it would be opposite of what most do. Your rules go against 95% of what most people adhere to. You see, Tommie, there are basically three traits of the human condition. Selfishness, which most people have; say 90%. Compassion, another, oh, 7%, and then malice, which seems to secure those desiring gratification in politics or the industrial military complex. Now, I am not saying you don’t possess selfishness, but your compassion trumps it dramatically. And as for the those with malicious undertones or squirrel brains, I think you have dispatched your share.”

He looked at Larkin again as the beer was brought to his lips. He closed his eyes and allowed himself three solid swallows. When he tilted his head back, Larkin had placed the can beside him and was walking away. Larkie always amazed him. When Canfield had joined the team, in practise once he challenged Larkin in a blue line to blue line race as they were warming up circling the rink. Tommy was exuberant when he tied Larkin, only to have Larkie smile and look down at his skates. Tommy followed the gaze and saw that Larkin had not even tied his skates yet! He could only shake his head. What the hell was a guy of his caliber doing playing in this league?? The only clue he ever secured was when Larkin, over many beers, had told him of the class he had taken at Harvard as a filler; pass/fail. The professor was a tweed, with the Harvard scarf secured about him as a flag of symptomatic designation. Larkin had failed, flunked. A pass/fail class in sociology on “The Family!!” He had written on the final exam, “you don’t know shit, F_ _ _ Y_ _!!
Tommy never pressed him about the story. He just accepted it.

Tommies “Harvard education” came during his freshman year of high school. He had failed two classes and his father pulled him out of school and made him cut, split and haul wood for a winter. He went back in the Spring and grades were never a problem again.

Someone had turned the locker room stereo off. Most were gone. He heard one shower start up. He pulled his hands out of the buckets. Maybe he was thirteen when his dad died. He had forgotten.

His hands were numb.

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