Yesterday I began a story called "Loading the Shaft." I set it aside and attempted to deal with bigots who own my life, my soul, my future. Bigots and incompetents. And plenty who are both. I then composed two stories in full: "Hoag Head" and "Illumine, Serpent," while simultaneously trying to deal with the B's and the I's (and the boths). Today I arose and worked some more on "Loading the Shaft." Here is an excerpt from a story that will be completely unpublishable because at the top of the story will be the name Colin Fleming. Somebody is writing this, work at this level of power, beauty, entertainment, and art, and an entire industry does not want anyone in the world to know it. I will not be on Downtown later today, as there is no Downtown today. A bunch of things just came out. I don't have the energy or desire to put them up right now. I thought long and hard yesterday about killing myself tomorrow. There will be a piece in The American Interest today or tomorrow. They cut my rate from $700 to $250. Again, what you write, how well you write it, if it is exponentially better than anything else, infinitely better than anything else, is irrelevant, save how it can hurt you. I don't know what to do anymore. I am writing, it seems, simply not to give in to death. For the somehow-chance that someday, I look at myself in a mirror, or say to myself in my head, "Aren't you glad you didn't?" Can you imagine what it is like to be able to do this--to be able to do all of this--and be in this situation?
A therapist told me we all need a technique for sleep. I think he liked the rhyme. One of those remarks that makes you wonder how many times it’s been aired previously. Thousands, I expected.
“They can be mundane,” he said. “They might feature the proverbial sheep.” There are sheep in Proverbs. They tend to meet dire ends. “They might be sexual,” he finished with a half-wink, as though there were a flake of ash in his eye and he hadn’t committed to fingers yet. “Be that with yourself or others.” The pluralization, like I might run a train of men off the side of my bed at seventeen.
My technique of imagination utilizes a hockey goal. I see the goal in front of me, fifteen feet away. I have all of the pucks I require. They’re not obtrusive, neither disorderly in a semi-line, nor gluttonous in a rubber-scuffed white bag. They merely appear when I need another.
I stickhandle slowly, the motile version of a lullaby; rock left, right, left, right. My wrists move imperceptibly; their locked position scarcely breaks as I send the latest vulcanized nomad along the ice towards the left goal post. He—or she; it changes—barely reaches, but there is enough energy to touch the post, kiss it, pick up a revolution or two of reverse spin, and break the plane of the goal line.
I do the right post on the bottom, the joint at the top of the net on the left where post and crossbar fuse, red elbow of metallic macaroni. I don’t fire what some like to term the biscuit; I flutter it, deploy a higher follow-through. The puck tumbles down from the joint, landing flat just over the goal line, the sound of a bowl placed upon a marble counter, and I finish with the right side, top.
My fellow parents in the stands, at a rink more like a barn with frozen ground water than a state-of-the-art sports facility, would not think this could be my sleep strategy. They do not associate me with the game, though I am the one who takes our son Mitchell to his hockey games. My husband, Gavin, gets the gymnastic chores with our daughter, Hanley. To these parents, I am the closer of holes. She who renders the walls of wounds less far apart. A doctor who happens to be on the premises of hinterland rinks, in the earliest hours of the morning, when the sun has yet to show and the salient disc is the obsidian spheroid chased by young boys on skates, with the inevitable minor injuries they sustain.
I don’t disabuse the notions. It is not like anyone is stumping for the left wing lock or a 1-2-2 forecheck. Most just want to see their kid score. I like hockey because it is phasic. It is literally periodic. The course of a game can be rerouted in its gaps, the shift from ends to starts, just as there are line shifts throughout the periods. The shifts shift. The next unit comes over the boards. It’s the life sport.
We were told, as a team, that it was our job to make sure that Chana Brixley left. “What matters is this girl not being here next year,” our coach said, pointing at Chana in the locker room. Her equipment always smelled as if it had been lightly burned. “You open, I close,” she liked to say to me. I passed the puck, she potted the goals.
Prevailing consensus was she was the top winger in the state, one of the top players in the country, written-up in amateur hockey magazines, stack of DI offers in a bureau drawer on top of the vibrator we dared each other to get at Spencer Gifts and some pot in a Totes Toasties Garfield sock she never wore.
With a strong push in our sophomore year, she could join the Under-18 national team for its tour across the country the following season. Do that, you were positioned for an Olympic camp invite. Wingers tally goals. Centers help set them up. I was Chana’s center. I couldn’t keep up with her in a foot race. Nobody could.Even as her linemate I was a challenge not to get distracted watching her skate. The edgework—she balanced at angles that seemed to refute every last apple that ever had the balls to fall from a tree. Speed is the great separator at that age. Someone might literally be twice as fast as someone else. At the highest levels, the fastest is 2% faster than the slowest. You didn’t think a mere 2% could ever be the margin between her and anyone else you ever watched play hockey. Chana was also my best friend. Family. Which is also phasic. My father was my stepfather. I always called him dad. My stepbrother Harry was fourteen at the time. My mother was not with us. If we were in the first period, you might say she was in the second.
You are told early when you play hockey, and learn the rudiments of the positions, that a center is a playmaker.
She has the most responsibilities in both the offensive and defensive zones. In the latter she helps out defenseman in the corners, while also being tasked with covering players in the slot. She must be judicious in her decisions to remain in front of her net, or attend to matters behind it. In the attacking end, the center creates space for the wingers to position themselves, to receive her passes. She creates space, she creates time. She may score herself, but that is not her focus. She’s the conductor of the line, the stick but a baton. At your best, you are as much Wilhelm Furtwangler as Wayne Gretzky.
Chana was a right-handed shot. We’d stay after practice and she would position herself on the left wing offensive face-off dot, and I would dish her passes from the opposite wing.
She was a kind of goddess of the one-timer. That’s when you open your hips—for there is a seductive element of vulnerability to one-timer positioning—and make the front of your person available to the teammate passing you the puck, your stick cocked in the air at waist-level, so that you can drive the blade through the puck without stopping it.
There will be a whip in the core of the stick when it rakes across the ice. It’ll bend like a noodle. In that bend is more energy than the stick possesses at any other time. Energy needing release. What I suppose would be energy’s form of deliverance. Climax for an athletic appurtenance. This is called loading the shaft. My passes always hit the tape of Chana’s stick, then the puck always hit the top corner of the far side of the net, as if laser-guided. She absolutely pasted them there. She saw something I didn’t see, because sometimes, bangs in her eyes, the sweat not even bothering her, she’d take off her helmet after we were done and say, “Better.” I took her word for it.
My mother did not need to tell me that she would be leaving us. I needed to tell myself that it would be temporary. So I did. I did not believe my future was hockey. I read up on ganglions far more than goals against averages. When I volunteered it was at hospitals, even if I was merely selling baked goods to the elderly, putting on an elf’s costume for kids who could not be home at Christmas. I was comfortable because I did not view the sick as sick. Which is perhaps an unlikely distinction.
Then again, that was the hockey player in me. One comes over the boards a different amount of times in a given game. Sometimes not at all. But the skates remained, the shin pads fastened tight, the impetus to play, the will and the drive. Sickness wasn’t much different. Bobby—my stepfather-cum-father—had been married before, though he was only in his late thirties. I didn’t meet his ex-wife. She walked out on him and Harry. They didn’t even know where she had gone. Lawyers couldn’t find her. Foul play was suspected, because even her immediate family said they didn’t know anything, which will usually mean you have been killed, because no one can cut all ties, it’s just not how human DNA works.
There were days where it seemed that if I touched my mother, I would be ending her life. She feels too much, is what one doctor said. The way he said it made me think he was an agent of the arcane. I felt a lot. Bobby had put my bed up on cinder blocks so I could keep my lidded-storage boxes—they were nice, and classy, from Bed, Bath, and Beyond, which sounds like the start of a nice-smelling adventure novel—filled with my medical books and the journals I wrote in, some place safe, intimate. But I cleared a space under there for me, when I would wrap myself in a ball, the coverlet hanging down so nobody could see me, and cry if I had not played as I wished to play. Or pertaining to other things. Then another doctor voiced the diagnosis. Emotional overload. A third said fried circuits, another busted circuits. Talk of human circuitry is rarely the kind of talk you wish to be hearing.
Seeing us off to school was like prepping for our funerals. When my mother hugged me, she did so with the ardor of a person who knows they method they will use to exit this world, and today is the day their courage will not falter. I guess it depends how you define courage, too.
I’d sit in Harry’s room later, hoping for comfort, even though I was the big sister. I guess I felt like if my mother went away, I’d be outnumbered in the house. The blood ratio wouldn’t be equal. They wouldn’t even have to keep me if she was gone for a while. I wasn’t a real daughter, a real sister.
Sometimes I would hear these accounts of a single parent, and the single parent was the step-parent, which I never understood. My mom and Bobby were not technically married, on account that no one found his first wife, then he just was too broken over all of it to do whatever he had to do legally. There must be some clause of abandonment in the divorce laws, but he let it go, left a full-on end as inchoate, in one sense, anyway.
Harry and I would sit with our backs pressed together on the floor of his room, looking at graphic novels, listening to Smiths songs on the stereo not because we were a couple of mopey shits, but because we liked how Johnny Marr played guitar and we talked about that kind of thing, and I was scared and Harry was scared, and common ground—common musical ground—can help you become less scared.
But we all have different ways of coping, or running. Maybe I should say skating away from. Hockey is phasic, it is periodic, knowledge is gleaned in the contrast between one stretch and another. Virginia Woolf would call it what happens between the acts. Harry made jokes because my mom was his mom as well. Not because it was decreed in that way that families force themselves to become families. I always thought the Brady Bunch fit that bill, but when you are a network TV series, you must hop to it. Hop to integration. “So your mom feels too much and can’t function, eh? I guess that makes her like the top of my dick after I jerk off,” he said an afternoon after school when we were listening to The Queen is Dead, which may have been better than Strangeways, Here We Come. Like I said, we all cope differently.
We are told to keep ourselves busy after we have experienced a trauma. Not to forget. Not to bury ourselves in something else. But we ought not to remain indoors, remain in bed, take up a post under a better, in a ball, covered by a coverlet.
When I was young, I watched a video of Clint Malarchuk. Anybody who has ever seen a Clint Malarchuk video has only seen this one. He was a goaltender for the Washington Capitals, and an opposing player was sliding towards him on the ice. The player’s skate came up, as Malarchuk crouched low to cover the puck.
There is a fractional second of impact between the skate and Malarchuk’s neck. Nothing, immediately, happens. All is well. Doctors know the moment. Someone can be shot, they may be dead in half a minute, but for a bit? After they have been pierced? If you were talking to them about what muffin you were each going to order that day at the Dunkin’ Donuts, they could say “corn,” easily enough, and even add, “Wait, no, blueberry. Low-fat.” Then they will die.
The skin within a skate blade groove then separates on Malarchuk’s neck, creating a slit which nonetheless is invisible. Blood pours from Malarchuk, covers him, the ice, the sliding player, everything.
That, to me, was trauma. Not a farewell hug in a driveway which felt like it could break your back. “This is temporary,” Bobby told me the night before my mother went to where she went to. “We are going to visit all of the time, we’re going to get this right, and nothing is going to change.” It was just he and I, at the table, picking at tacos. He scooched his chair around my side. My dad was a scoocher. When in doubt, scooch on over. It’s how he made people feel welcome. One simple word that was not really a word. I knew him well enough that when he did it, I could tell he was thinking he had, indeed, scooched, but he would probably not have to say as much to me.
My mother was asleep in their room. I had put out a candle on the table for us to eat, like the normal light would have been invasive, hurtful. He flipped the switch. Harry was with his friend Nathan. I tutored Nathan in English, nominally because he needed the help, but also so Harry wouldn’t pull away. I thought we could be a domestic trio. A trio around the house. Not a trio out in our respective social worlds.
You cry into taco meat and it looks like a kind of dipping sauce before the tears dissolve into the browns. “Jos,” Bobby said, as he rubbed my back. The plaudits to which I was accustomed featured my full name. When I won a State academic achievement award. My byline for the op-ed I managed to publish with the Dallas Morning News, all of those States away, a half a country away. “Goal scored by #19, Chana Brixley, assisted by #10, Joslyn Madrigal,” the tinny, microphoned voice of the volunteer PA person at a high school hockey rink.
Doctors later said that there was one reason and one reason only Clink Malarchuk did not die the evening he bent down to cover up a loose puck that had squirted in the direction of his net and his exposed throat met with the skate blade of a player who himself had been felled, and as a doctor I can concur with what these other doctors said, not that they would need me to.
Clint Malarchuk did not die because in that moment before the blood commenced to waterfall from his throat, coating the ice, he began to move, to skate under his own power, toward staff, toward help. Somehow, Clint Malarchuk knew.
I hoped my mother was peaceful that night as we ate. That her process of getting well and coming back to us was occurring, was underway, before she had left. I also knew that what Bobby, my stepfather, my father, said to me was his way of giving me something to shoot for. Pass for, if you like, and prefer to focus on the playmaker aspect that defines the center position in hockey.
“Jos,” he repeated. “I think you can be better than this girl,” he said to me. “I think, if you want it, you can show everyone you are the better player.”
Then we ate in silence.