By Edwin Gibson,2014-07-09 11:39
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    Rudy Thauberger

    No one understands. They believe he’s invulnerable, the fans, his teammates. They stare at him blankly while he lies on the ice, white-blind, paralyzed, as his knee or his toe or his hand or his chest or his throat burns.

     Nothing pleases him. Win or lose, he comes home angry, dragging his equipment bag up the driveway, sullen eyes staring down, seeing nothing, refusing to see. He throws the bag against the door. You hear him, fumbling with his keys, his hands sore, swollen and cold. He drops the key. He kicks the door. You open it and he enters, glaring, not at you, not at the keys, but at everything, the bag, the walls, the house, the air, the sky.

     His clothes are heavy with sweat. There are spots of blood on his jersey and on his pads. He moves past you. Wordless, pulling his equipment inside, into the laundry room and then into the garage. You listen to him tearing the equipment from the bag, throwing it. You hear the thump of the heavy leather, the clatter of plastic, the heavy whisper of damp cloth. He leaves and you enter. The equipment is everywhere, scattered, draped over chairs, hung on hooks, thrown on the floor.

     You imagine him on the ice: compact, alert, impossibly agile and quick. Then you stare at the equipment: helmet and throat protector, hockey pants, jersey, chest and arm protectors, athletic supporter, knee pads and leg pads, blocker, catching glove and skates. In the centre of the floor are three sticks, scattered, their broad blades chipped and worn. The clutter is deliberate, perhaps even necessary. His room is the same, pure chaos, clothes and magazines everywhere, spilling out of dresser drawers, into the closet. He says he knows where everything is. You imagine him on the ice, focused, intense, single-minded. You understand the need for clutter.

     When he isn’t playing, he hates the equipment. It’s heavy and awkward and bulky. It smells. He avoids it, scorns it. It disgusts him. Before a game, he gathers it together on the floor and stares at it. He lays each piece out carefully, obsessively, growling and snarling at anyone who comes too close. His mother calls him a gladiator, a bullfighter. But you now the truth, that gathering the equipment is a ritual of hatred, that every piece represents, to him, a particular variety of pain.

     There are black marks scattered on the white plastic of his skates. He treats them like scars, reminders of pain. His glove hand is always swollen. His chest, his knees, and his biceps are always bruised. After a hard game, he can barely move. “Do you enjoy the game at least? Do you like playing?” He shrugs. “I love it,” he says.

     Without the game, he is miserable. He spends the summers relentless and morose, skating every morning, lifting weights at night. He juggles absent-mindedly; tennis balls,

    coins and apples, tossing them behind his back and under his leg, see-sawing two in one hand as he talks on the phone, bouncing them off walls and knees and feet. He plays golf and tennis with great fervour, but you suspect, underneath, he is indifferent to these games.

     As fall approaches, you begin to find him in the basement, cleaning his skates, oiling his glove, taping his sticks. His hands move with precision and care. You sit with him and talk. He tells you stories. This save. That goal. Funny stories. He laughs. The funniest stories are about failure: the goal scored through a shattered stick. There is always a moral, the same moral every time. “You try your best and you lose.”

     He starts wearing the leg pads in September. Every evening, he wanders the house in them, wearing them with shorts and a T-shirt. He hops in them, does leg lifts and jumping jacks. He takes them of and sits on them, folding them into a squat pile to limber them up. He starts to shoot a tennis ball against the fence with his stick.

     As practices begin, he comes home overwhelmed by despair. His skill is an illusion, a lie, a magic trick. Nothing you say reassures him. You’re his father. Your praise is empty, invalid.

     The injuries begin. Bruises. Sprains. His body betrays him. Too slow. Too clumsy. His ankles are weak, buckling under him. His muscles cramp. His nose bleeds. A nerve in his chest begins to knot and fray. No one understands. They believe he’s

    invulnerable, the fans, his teammates. They stare at him while he lies on the ice, white-blind, paralyzed, as his knee or his toe or his hand or his chest or his throat burns.

     To be a goalie, you realize, is to be an adult too soon, to have too soon an intimate understanding of the inevitability of pain and failure. In the backyard, next to the garage, is an old garbage can filled with broken hockey sticks. The blades have shattered. The shafts are cracked. He keeps them all, adding a new one every two weeks. You imagine him, at the end of the season, burning them, purging his failure with a bonfire. But that doesn’t happen. At the end of the season, he forgets them and you throw them away.

     You watch him play. You sit in the stands with his mother, freezing, in an arena filled with echoes. He comes out without his helmet and stick, skating slowly around the rink. Others move around him deftly. He stares past them, disconnected, barely awake. They talk to him, call his name, hit his pads lightly with their sticks. He nods, smiles. You know he’s had at least four cups of coffee. You’ve seen him, drinking, prowling the house frantically.

     As the warm-up drills begin, he gets into the goal casually. Pucks fly over the ice, crashing into the boards, cluttering the net. He skates into the goal, pulling on his glove and blocker. He raps the post with his stick. No one seems to notice, even when he starts deflecting shots. They come around him slowly, firing easy shots at his pads. He scoops the pucks out of the net with his stick. He seems bored.

     You shiver as you sit, watching him, You hardly speak. He ignores you. You think the cost of his equipment. Sticks, forty dollars. Glove, one hundred and twenty. Leg pads, thirteen hundred dollars. The pads have patches. The glove is soft, the leather eaten away by his sweat.

     The game begins, casually without ceremony. The scoreboard lights up. The ice is cleared of pucks. Whistles blow. After the stillness of the face-off, you hardly notice the change, until you see him in the goal, crouched over, staring.

     You remember him in the backyard, six years old, standing in a ragged net, wearing a parka and a baseball glove, holding an ordinary hockey stick, sawed off at the top. The puck is a tennis ball. The ice is cement. He falls down every time you shoot, ignoring the ball, trying to look like other goalies on TV. You score. Even when you don’t want to. He’s too busy play-acting. He smiles, laughs, shouts.

     You buy him as mask. He paints it. Yellow and black. Blue and White. Red and blue. It changes every month, as his heroes change. You make him a blocker out of cardboard and leg pads out of foam rubber. His mother makes him a chest protector. You play in the backyard, every evening taking shot after shot, all winter.

     It’s hard to recall when you realize he’s good. You come to a point where he starts to surprise you snatching the ball out of the air with his glove, kicking it away with his shoe. You watch him one Saturday, playing with his friends. He humiliates them, stopping everything. They shout and curse. He comes in frozen, tired, and spellbound. “Did you see?” he says.

     He learns to skate, moving off of the street and onto the ice. The pain begins. A shot to the shoulder paralyzes his arm for ten minutes. You buy him pads, protectors, thinking it will stop the pain. He begins to lose. Game after game. Fast reflexes are no longer enough. He is suddenly alone, separate from you, miserable. Nothing you say helps him. Keep trying. Stop. Concentrate. Hold your stick blade flat on the ice.

     He begins to practice. He begins to realize that he is alone. You can’t help him. His mother can’t help him. That part of his life detaches from you, becoming

    independent, free. You fool yourself, going to his games, cheering, being supportive, refusing to understand that here, in the rink, your irrelevant. When you’re happy for him, he’s angry. When you’re sad for him, he’s indifferent. He begins to collect trophies.

     You watch the game fascinated. You try to see it through his eyes. You watch him. His head moves rhythmically. His stick sweeps the ice and chops at it. When the shots come, he stands frozen in a crouch. Position is everything, he tells you. He moves, the movement so swift it seems to strike you physically. How does he do it? How? You don’t see the puck, only his movement. Save or goal, it’s all the same.

     You try to see the game through his eyes, aware of everything, constantly alert. It’s not enough to follow the puck. The position of the puck is old news. The game.

    You try to understand the game. You fail.

     He seems unearthly, moving to cut down the angle, chopping the puck with his stick. Nothing is wasted. You can almost feel his mind at work, watching, calculating. Where does it come from, you wonder, this strange mind? You try to move with him, watching his eyes through his cage, and his hands. You remember the way he watches games on television, cross-legged, hand fluttering, eyes seeing everything.

     Suddenly you succeed, or you think you do. Suddenly, you see the game, not as a series of events, but as a state, with every moment in time potentially a goal. Potentially. Probability. These are words you think of afterwards. As you watch, there is only the game, pressing against you, soft now, then sharp, then rough, biting, shocking, burning, dull, cold, the echo, all joined. A shot crashes into his helmet. He falls to his knees. You cry out.

     He stands slowly, shaking his head, hacking at the ice furiously with his stick.

     They scored. You never noticed. Seeing the game is not enough. Feeling is not enough. He wants more, to understand completely, to control. You look out at the ice. The game is chaos again.

     He comes home, angry, limping up the driveway, victorious. You watch him, dragging his bag, sticks in his hand, leg pads over his shoulder. You wonder when it happened, when he became this sullen, driven young man. You hear whispers about scouts, rumors. Everyone adores him, adores his skill. But when you see his stiff swollen hands, when he walks slowly into the kitchen in the mornings, every movement agony, you want to ask him why. Why does he do it? Why does he go on?

     But you don’t ask. Because you think you know the answer. You imagine him looking at you and saying quietly, “What choice do I have? What else have I ever wanted to do?



1. In one complete sentence, identify the narrator of the story.

    2. Who is the main character in the story? Explain in one complete sentence.

    3. What is the goal of the main character in the short story. Explain in one complete


    4. In one complete sentence, state one theme (how the main idea in the story relates

    to life in general) of the short story.

    5. You were so impressed with the short story that you want a permanent reminder

    of it tattled on your arm! Design a tattoo that would represent, in a stylized

    fashion, the story. Do not use words as part of the tattoo. Below the tattoo,

    explain in one complete sentence what the tattoo represents.

    6. Imagine that you have been hired to write a sequel to the short story. What will

    happen to the main character as a result of the choice that he/she has made.

    Explain in two complete sentences.

    7. Is it reasonable to expect young people to practice for hours on a daily sport or

    performance skills? Some people feel that it is unreasonable to pressure children

    and teenagers to perform at Olympic or professional levels. Others feel that

    young people who are not challenged enough will not succeed at anything. How

    do you feel about this issue? Answer in three complete sentences which state

    your view and which provide two reasons that support it.

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