BY Terry Doyle
Jason swings his Jeep between two mounds of dirty ice that flank the end of Christine’s driveway, and takes a deep breath before going to the door. He’d waited in the car last time, and that hadn’t gone over well. Before he reaches the top step the door swings open.
“Come in, Jason. He’s almost ready.” Brad, Christine’s new fella, says, then pads back up the carpeted steps in his grey joggers. From the porch Jason can hear the squeak as Brad plops back into his recliner.
“Hi, Dad!” Brayden’s voice snakes down the hallway followed by the sound of his hockey gear being dragged behind him. Brayden rolls the bag to the top of the carpeted steps, then lets it tumble down.
“Whoa,” Jason says. “Your skates in there?”
“Well you’ll beat them up like that. This is a big tryout, you don’t want to be out there on dull skates.”
“Where’s your stick?”
Brayden scurries back down the hall. Christine appears holding the overnight bag she’s packed for Brayden. She tucks her hair behind one ear and hands the bag to Jason without eye contact.
“His skates are sharpened. I brought them to Sport Shack today,” she says.
Jason grunts his approval, then watches the way her bum moves in her pajamas as she goes back up the carpeted steps. He tries not to think about her and Brad, that smug fuck.
Brayden returns with his stick. Jason takes the stick, the hockey bag, and the overnight bag, and passes Brayden his sneakers. Before Brayden gets one on Jason loses patience, drops the gear in a huff and ties his son’s laces for him.
“All right, lets go.”
Driving to the rink Jason talks into the rearview.
“You guess? You should be excited. This is a big tryout. Making this team’ll be a big step to making provincials.”
“Mom says it’s just another practice.”
“Your mother doesn’t know what she’s talking about. As usual,” he says. “It’s not just another practice. There’s only one tryout this year and it’s today.” He adjusts the mirror. “Are you ready for it?”
Jason can’t figure why his son isn’t more jacked. He wishes he could go back and try out for the travel team again. With all he knows now? He’d be unstoppable.
“Are you hungry?” he says. “Did your mother feed you?”
“I’m not hungry,” Brayden says, staring out the window.
Jason changes tactics.
“You watch the game last night?”
“Yes,” Brayden says, finally finding his dad’s eyes in the mirror. “You were really good.”
“Brad thought so too.”
Jason’s nose makes a sound like he’s blowing out a match. They drive the rest of the way in silence.
Inside the rink a couple of Brayden’s teammates chase each other up and down the bleachers; they’re already dressed in their gear, save for their skates, helmets and gloves. Half a dozen parents stand against the glass watching a group of beer-leaguers move the puck around the ice. The parents bounce from toes to heel in an attempt to fight the chill. They shamelessly wear gloves and touques.
Jason turns to his son. “You good?”
Brayden nods, accepts the hockey bag from his dad, and bears it to the locker room.
He’s nine; it’s time he started to do things for himself. His mother coddles him, Jason thinks. The kid doesn’t need someone to go in there and tie his skates for him. Besides, Jason doesn’t like to be in that locker room with the other parents. There’s no escaping their talk in there. And he’d rather just not.
Walking along the bleachers to center ice, Jason goes to the top row and stands in the middle, with his back to the wall. From here he can survey the whole rink and, conveniently, look plausibly in whatever direction allows him to avoid the eyes of the other parents. Well, most of the other parents. Dave is best kind. Paul and Len are all right. Those three get it, at least. It’s too bad Len’s boy can’t skate.
He watches the beer-leaguers slowly work the puck up and down the ice in stuttering advances. It looks more like a rugby game than ice hockey; there are very few clean, crisp passes or odd-man rushes. Then one of the beer-leaguers takes a puck off his foot and goes down in a heap. His buddies stand over him with sticks across their knees. They’re all gassed. The goaltender at the far end takes his water bottle from the back of the net and skates toward the crowd. That’s it. Game over. They trudge off the ice, the shot blocker stands and leaves too. He seems fine.
Jason zones out staring at the Zamboni’s wheels. Thinking about Christine. About her bum. He tries to remember the last time she looked him in the eye without also yelling. Then he remembers he told Jennifer he would call her today.
A few of the kids make their way onto the ice and slither around the big, open surface. Jason waits, wondering where Brayden is. You don’t always get extra time to warm up; when you do you have to take advantage of it.
“Hey, Jason, how’s it going?”
Len sits on the row below Jason, shoves hands into coat pockets. He looks up, over his shoulder at Jason. “Saw the game last night.”
“Cormier sure gave that other fella a shit-knockin’ didn’t he?”
“The other fella.”
“What was that?”
Paul and Dave make their way up along the boards together, Paul eating a basket of soon-to-be-cold french fries.
Jason’s eyes are fixed on the locker room door, waiting for Brayden. When the kid finally emerges Jason exhales. Brayden is talking with Paul’s son, Ben, talking and moving his hands, gesturing, expressing. When they step onto the ice together the first thing Jason sees is Brayden’s socks. Two odd colours, one white and one blue. Jason gives his head a shake and breathes deep. Christine is the one putting him in odd socks, anytime Jason is too busy to take him. According to Brayden, Christine said it’ll make him stand out. Why couldn’t the two of them figure out that it’s best to stand out for your play or your effort, not for your goddamn socks.
The coaches skate onto the ice finally. Whistles are blown and the kids begin running drills. Skating drills at first, no pucks involved. Then they start breakout relays where each kid finishes the drill with a shot on the goalie.
On Brayden’s second turn to shoot, as he receives a pass at the blue line the goalie and the previous shooter collide. Brayden carries the puck toward the net with his head down, unaware that the two are still untangling themselves in the crease. His shot hits the still-prone goalie in the mask and Brayden’s coach blows the whistle, hard.
Jason can’t hear but he can tell by the body language, by the coaches emphatic pointing and by Brayden’s slack shoulders that his son is being admonished. Then Brayden’s two gloved hands rise slightly and punch back downward. The coach blows his whistle again and makes the unmistakable You’re outta here motion. Brayden skates off the ice, slamming his stick on the boards as he leaves.
The other parents’ heads turn to Jason. He steels his expression and strides to the locker room.
“What the fuck was that?”
Brayden is sitting in the far corner, his helmet and gloves already off and his head hanging.
“Well? What happened?”
“Coach Carl chewed me out for shooting at the goalie,” he says. “I didn’t know he wasn’t ready.”
“Because you had your head down. How many times have I told you to get your head up? Then what happened?”
Brayden blinks at this dad.
“I called him a smug fuck.”
Jason turns and leaves the locker room.
Brayden tugs at his skate laces but Coach Carl tied them super tight and he can’t get them undone. He can hear his dad banging on the glass, can hear him yelling. Brayden stands to go see what’s happening. When he opens the locker room door his dad and Coach Carl are face to face. Coach Carl has skates on and looks a lot taller than Brayden’s dad.
“Listen, pal, it doesn’t matter how good he is or isn’t, no kid gets on like that and plays on my team.”
Brayden sees his dad’s hands clench into fists.
“Do you know who I am?” he says.
There is a moment of crackling tension where it seems like the whole rink quiets. The pucks, sticks, and skates all stop. The kids stare, the other parents hush.
Jason takes a step forward. He says, “I’m Buddy the fucking Puffin.”