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Exile

First-place Winner – 2019 Fiction Contest

Practice is over. You’ve planted your butt firmly upon the wooden bench of the warming hut, where your stiff fingers unlace hockey skates covered in fresh ice shavings. Around you, other boys revel in the glory and agony of tonight’s scrimmage, still breathing hard. Your side lost, and it’s very possible it was your fault. But then again, it’s always your fault. 

What did you do this time? With less than a minute to play, and the score knotted at two, you carried the puck over the other side’s blue line into the attacking zone, skillfully drawing both defenders to you inside the left face-off circle. It was a perfect move. The thuggish defenders closed upon you eagerly, leaving Eddie Farrar wide open in the slot mere yards in front of the opposing side’s net, ready to score the game-winning goal. He rapped the ice with his stick. Your eyes met. And, in a forever instant of that eternal moment, you decided against it. Called the whole thing off. The pass to Eddie Farrar that everyone saw coming. His shot tearing into the mesh at the back of the net.

You’d already done the hard part by sucking both defenders away from the center iceman, Eddie. All you had to do was pass the puck to him. And the enormous and skilled Eddie Farrar, who sports a blinding wrist shot and who never misses, would have scored, and your side would have emerged the victors. Eddie was wide open and yet you, normally the team player, chose not to pass the puck to him. End of story. 

Almost. You know better. You still have another skate to pull off and a duffel to pack and you have no idea if your dad’s going to show up on time to pick you up on this frigid night. Plus you will very soon have substantial flak to deflect from Eddie and his a-hole sidekicks before your punctualphobic father finally arrives.

So, yeah. Eddie would have scored. He was wide open. And you can’t believe Diekert hasn’t reamed you for it yet.

Actually, you can. That’s because Coach Diekert, right on schedule, is still outside pulling on his post-practice smoke and brandy-filled flask with one of the other coaches. They don’t think you guys know.

Your hands and feet ache from the cold. You press your fingertips together and ball your hands into tight fists and open them slowly above an old electric heater, coated in a leprosy of rust, rattling away in the corner. You’re surprised it still works. Local lore has it that generations of boys have survived dares to piss on the thing in order to prove or (hopefully) disprove the theory that you can electrocute yourself, brutally, in the dick by way of a stream of urine. So far as you can tell, though, the stories of the random sap jolted backwards onto his ass, rendered unconscious and partially naked may be just that—stories. Yet there’s no denying what this source of heat smells like.

Your name is Arthur Penske and you are ten-and-a-half years old and you like words— a lot. Like the shape, sound, meaning, and power of words. How they feel when you roll them around in your mouth, curl them with your tongue, when they part your teeth and lips. Already your dictionary at home is all marked up— endless pages of words starred and underlined and highlighted. When you look up a word definition you spend several minutes more reading about words above and below the one you were looking up in the first place. It’s only a matter of time until you stumble upon, with tremendous satisfaction, serendipity

This word-fetish trait of yours makes the other boys on your team want to check you into the boards even harder. You don’t know why. But you’ve mastered the Reverse Harpoon. It’s a deft method of your own invention for defending yourself against the guys you’re not fast enough to skate away from. At the very last possible second, you slide your top hand down your hockey stick ever so slightly when they try to board you from behind. When they hit you— and, there is no “if” in this scenario … they will hit you, hard—from behind, they jam the butt of your stick, the blade of which you have pressed firmly into the base of the boards, deep into the guts of their solar plexus. And, once harpooned, always shy. Well, shy at least until the pain wears off and their feeble little goldfish brains forget, and they come at you again five or so minutes later.

But they’re a-holes anyway, and you’ve learned this much about them: they are forever doomed to be just that. Except for Eddie Farrar, unfortunately. His parents are really nice, so your mom and dad logically conclude there may one day be hope for him, too. But not you. You have absolutely no trouble envisioning Eddie’s now super-nice father as a once-eleven-year-old dickhead. This is because you’re still dealing with a fresh, steaming serving of present-day Eddie, who remains an a-hole and continues to behave exactly like one during this current version of your present. And you’d like to treat him like the giant a-hole he is, too. But he’s too big. So you need to resort to petty behavior in order to get back at him. Antics like not passing him the puck when he’s standing wide open in front of the net on a minus-twelve-degree night with the outcome of the game dangling in the balance.

You hear a tittering at the mention of an object that measures eleven and a half inches in length. You haven’t started to mature yet, you’re reminded yet again, though some of these boys. … But then you hear they’re talking about Mr. Davidson—Phil’s dad—who ran off to the clinic last Fourth of July with what he thought had been an embedded deer tick below his earlobe that turned out instead to be a massive ingrown hair. The doctor pulled the coiled mass slowly with a pair of tweezers, revealing inch by inch an ever-lengthening black thread of horror and pus.

But back to Eddie Farrar, known a-hole. Until that day his grand enlightenment arrives, he is, and will continue to reign, in all his a-holiness, Leader Supreme of Planet of the A-holes. 

“Hey, Pensk,” a friendly voice says. A thrill surges through you as you realize the voice comes from one of the cooler kids on the team. The next-best player on the team, in fact, who now calls out your name how you’d like the guys to call you: Pensk. 

“S’up, Hutch?” you ask, looking up from your skate, acting as though Brent Hutchinson is always asking you stuff, wondering what you think of this or that, or always just B.S.ing with you about anything, just because. You smile nonchalantly, and give a stock shrug, wiping down the blade of a skate with a cloth. Normal stuff for you and Hutch, this.

“Dickish move out there,” he sneers, and nods in Eddie’s direction. “Shoulda passed the g-”, he says, and your ears go blind as he takes the Lord’s name in vain so as to condemn to eternal flames a small, black, rubberized object: A hockey puck.

“And be a f-”—Chris Willems, one of Eddie’s lackeys blurts, inserting the f-word descriptor, adding the ‘-ing’ adjectival ending— “team player!” He folds his arms and sneers, as if he’d been waiting all night to say: “Ain’t no ‘I’ in team, Pinky!” He grins at Eddie and Hutch obediently. 

Your ears are still ringing yet you can hear them titter. But only for another moment as they abruptly fall silent, snapping their heads around, wary and ever vigilant for Coach Diekert. They never speak like this, never repeat the language Diekert berates you guys with, when Diekert himself is around. But he’s likely still outside pulling on his flask or second smoke or both. Your coach, who finds himself ever so clever, pumping his throat muscles on the other end of a shiny flask he slips into a breast pocket while you guys buzz around that rink, a jar full of hollering yellow jackets.

You don’t know what to say. What can you say? You should have passed the puck. Everyone in the entire county knows this. And if they don’t, well, it’ll be all over school tomorrow: Instead of trying to stick-handle your way through two defenders and get the puck stolen for a critical turnover that led to a two-on-one breakaway and the decisive goal for the other team with mere seconds remaining to play—it doesn’t matter if your goalie is a total sieve and should have stopped that lame back-handed deke in the first place—you should have passed the puck to Eddie when you so artfully drew both defenders to you, leaving Eddie with his powerful wrist shot completely alone in front of the net.

But Eddie is an a-hole. A big enough a-hole to compel you to risk the outcome of the game. Anything, really, to deny Eddie yet more certain glory you’d never, ever, hear the end of. You shove your other skate and helmet into your not-gay!-brother’s duffel and stand up to leave. You don’t need a reason. He’s an a-hole. That’s your story and you’re sticking to it.

 Outside, the boys await parents, stamping feet. Moms and dads roll into the parking lot near the rink, rounding the high school building in their large new cars, always shiny no matter the season—early winter, mid-winter, late-winter, or next winter—marching forward, dutifully in procession, a tight stream of carpenter ants on parade, to gather their children, one gleaming new vehicle at a time.

Hardening molasses minutes pass. Dad doesn’t come. It’s just you and Devon now. Devon is mostly your physical and social equal, and for a moment you allow your guard to slip. But tonight even Devon can’t resist the contagion of Eddie’s a-holiness. He starts in on you, Pinky. Pinky the wall crawler, the boy who wishes himself into invisibility each time he steps into the school building. The one who packs slices of dread into his cold lunch every morning. The kid who brings upon himself an isolation of despair.

You’re good at ignoring your near-equal peers, though, and your eyes slide away from him and lock onto the spot where your dad’s car should be rounding the corner of the building. And just as you start to drift away from Devon, his mom suddenly barrels around the corner in her black Volvo sedan, the exaggerated speed an apology for her tardiness. Always flustered, Devon’s very pretty mother normally says something, breathless, about being so terribly, terribly busy. There’s a roar and a bounce of headlights off Devon’s eyes. He flashes you a threatening glance, shakes his head, and climbs into the back seat of his mom’s car, fully domesticated and reduced to a sweet little boy, again. Just another tough guy whose turn it probably is to do the dishes.

Your dad is still nowhere in sight. You’re relieved. Freezing, but relieved. Relieved because you don’t want your teammates, mostly all front-seat riders by now, to see you hoist yourself into a child safety seat in the back of Dad’s van. Technically, you are old enough to ride up front, but physically you are still not big enough. Plus, Dad’s van is all rickety and rusted and seems to move down the road all horked. You don’t want anyone to see that, either, thinking less of you than they already do. Hockey is an expensive sport, and your dad isn’t exactly rich. Not poor, but not rich. You know that Dad tries hard, does his best. And you love how he pulls those black leather gloves onto his hands. He clenches each fist methodically, patiently, then tugs down that boiled wool cap and adjusts it, just above those impenetrable black eyes. Like a hitman. That’s how you like to think of your dad: feared and revered. A total badass. 

But you actually pity him now, forced to endure a son like you not wanting to be seen getting picked up in his car. You realize that this would make him sad: You, so worried about looking poor, knowing how you feel about how you look wearing the constant hand me downs. About how the other boys, always with all their new stuff, their nicer things, think you’re white trash. 

More minutes pass and you’ve become bored watching your breath rings crystalize and suspend before you, each drifting away and dissipating magically. Like a wraith. Another new word you found by accident. You’re still not sure you’re saying it right, especially in the plural. 

You need to keep moving to stay warm. The heat from the bungled scrimmage and warming house, now padlocked shut, has long left you. Your sweat-heavy clothing freezes stiff with hard crusted edges around your neck, arms, and chest. So you decide to walk out of the high school parking lot and start down the broken sidewalk on Ninth under the phone lines at Pine, still with a pair of sneakers draped over from Cernie’s lucky toss last summer. Ahead lies the corner you know Dad will turn at. Head him off where Ninth crosses Cedar, that’s your intent. Get into his crappy but very warm car faster. Any minute now.

It’s darker out here. You’ve stepped from the reach of the scope of school lot lights into immediate blackness. The shift is like a fall from a sunny cliff. But it’s been a mere step forward down Ninth Street, with just the one dim but familiar street lamp a half block away on the other side.

A block away from the rink, you wonder about your teammates and your not-gay!-brother, nearly sixteen. About how much time and energy he and his buddies dedicate to proving to one another and anyone else within earshot they’re not gay. And about teammanship and if teammanship is even a word. Something about the boys on your team that eludes you, something so ineffable about those boys and their brains. The way they think. And why they hate you so. Something irritating, confusing, distant, and itchy hangs in the air every time you are with the boys on the hockey team. Like you’re some kind of exile. That’s another word you recently discovered. Means to live away from one’s native land, either by choice or by compulsion.

“Exile,” you hear someone say. You look up and take one more step. A mass of snow and ice ruptures beneath your boot, a detonation scattering high-octave shards tinkling across the sidewalk ice. Normally you would snatch up one of these shards to peer at the moon through it, making the world disappear, even if only for a moment, through a kaleidoscope to another life. But not tonight because there is no moon. Just a river of bulging beads and trembling pearls about to drip from a sprawling black ocean above. 

Instead your eyes stop on a man leaning against a nearby telephone pole. You can smell him. Alcohol gasoline urine sweetness. Even in the dark of the new moon you can see he’s soiled. Frozen grease splotches like oil or blood spills on his jacket and dingy pants. 

And you know. Or, you think you know. Your dad has told you about people like this, mostly men. But you wonder. Wonder how he got this way, homeless. You’re not even sure what homelessness is or what it truly means. People are meant to live in homes, right? So what happened to his? Where did it go? How can he not have a place to live? And why doesn’t he just get a hotel room or stay with a friend if his home is somewhere else far away like Milwaukee or Chicago?

The man wears only one boot, untied, his other foot wrapped in rags with a large wool (you think) sock pulled over, frayed pant cuff tucked in. One hand is plunged into a jacket pocket, the other clutches a brown paper bag he now raises to his lips. This makes you think of Diekert, pacing around at the end of that rink, just getting through practice, swig by swig. You can’t quite make out his face in the wedges of light offered by the lone street lamp down the block, he’s dark from the beard up. But you can tell he’s looking right at you.

“Exile,” you hear him say again. “Some things are just kinda hard to describe, aren’t they?” he rasps. “But that’s what I am. An exile.”

This makes you forget the cold. You squint at him, this man with only one boot and precise speech. But there are no eyes there. Just blackness. You don’t know what to say. You’re a nice boy from Wisconsin and you have been trained to respond to similar situations by simply allowing your good manners to take over. You swing your hockey bag from one shoulder to the other and address the man.

“Hello,” you say, moving one step closer. 

With a visible effort, the man shifts his weight. And you can tell he thinks you’re rich. Of course he does. You have money for things like hockey sticks and rolls of tape, your hockey duffel now an absurd sack of luxury slung over your shoulder. But you’re not rich. No one in your town, in fact, is rich. At least, you don’t think so. Your hockey association can’t even afford an indoor rink. You practice and play games out in the wind and cold and snow within a misshapen oval of broken boards the parents have the nerve to call a rink.

“How are you tonight,” you ask.

“I’m homeless and alone,” he says sharply, “And leaning up against a post on a freezing cold night. How the f-” and he uses the f-word, in a colorful display of sarcastic inquiry to wonder just how it is, you believe, he is in fact, doing.

The f-word makes you recoil. It’s different coming from him, not the same as when Eddie and his a-hole minions say it. They’re still practicing compared to this guy. This man says the word like he owns it, with what actually could be hate, and you can smell it. Smell the hate coming from whatever it is inside that bag he keeps raising to a black void in the middle of his head just below his nose holes. It’s his mouth, you realize, though it’s unsettling the way his hairy skin collapses around the neck of the bottle. Like when you went to Florida with your parents and you saw an eagle ray consume a small squid near a tide pool. Peristalsis and osmosis via one mysterious orifice at the center of the ray’s fluid fleshiness, a hairy vortex here right in front of you that pulls in hate from a bottle. Hate. That’s what your dad calls it. Hate from a bottle.

You don’t know how, but you are standing even closer to him now. Something draws you to him. Something against your will. It’s not the cold. He holds a certain power over you because … 

Exile. How does he know? How does he know what you were just now thinking? Is it that obvious? Mrs. Aspenes, your fourth grade teacher, says you wear your heart on your sleeve. But you always thought that was just an expression. An idiomatic expression, in fact. That you blurt things out or maybe take everything too seriously. And it shows, Mrs. Aspenes says.

Exile. It’s not him. It’s you.

He’s laughing. The man drinking fatigue from a bottle is laughing. Laughing a cold laugh that’s one of world-weariness the guys only a few years older than you are trying so desperately to imitate or claim. You realize what you said was stupid and you decide to shut your big mouth for once and just keep quiet.

After a while, he still hasn’t said another word. Neither have you. 

The stillness of the clear night has crept into you now, and your father still hasn’t come. The road he should be driving down remains wide, cold, dark, and empty. The last echoes of the last car to rumble past now long died away. Days ago, it seems.

The man raises the bottle to you. He gives it a twitch with a flick of his wrist. He’s offering you a drink, you finally understand. You’ve had wine at Christmas a couple of times and it felt okay. It burned a little, but it wasn’t so bad. Then you recall your cousin’s wedding last summer. You threw up on the waiter after drinking two full glasses of champagne on your not-gay!-brother’s dare. You want to back away from this man with one boot but can’t. His arm is now fully extended, a brown paper clump in his hand twitching impatiently, urging you to accept. 

You are a polite boy from Wisconsin. You should excuse yourself, now. And bid unto the man with one boot a pleasant evening. But you can’t move.

An awareness engulfs you. This small act of walking down the street has unfolded into a huge decision that you will look back upon as a big moment in your life. Bigger than not passing the puck to Eddie Farrar, bigger than not kissing Monica Ritzing that one day after school when she wanted you to and no one was looking. (Your only chance!)

Monica wouldn’t do this. Neither would Eddie. And you know you shouldn’t, either. 

You pull the bottle away from your chapped lips and hand it back. Strangely, the contents of this bottle of hate don’t taste like hate. So, for now, you disagree with your father. It’s sorta sweet, actually. And kinda angry. Like toothpaste. Hate tastes like angry liquid toothpaste, you almost say aloud. You catch yourself as a smile is about to part your face, wondering what you were worried about, what Eddie would have been so scared of. Then that laugh of his, now like he’s expecting you to leap into a fit of coughter. But you don’t. You bite your lip and he laughs again. Then, in response to the smile that started to split your face, your stomach revolts and catches fire. You hope you don’t lose it again, now, on the ride home in the back seat of your dad’s van. Like that strawberry milkshake from McDonald’s a couple of years ago on that one 106-degree day. Remember that? It got down behind your legs and into the folds of your car seat, and … God, Dad was pissed. 

“Your ride,” the man says, the blackness above his neck, his head, motioning to a void behind your shoulder, “has arrived.”

And it occurs to you that somehow this man can move the dark. Like pushing a coin with only your thoughts, he can grasp darkness between his fingertips. Or perhaps he’s clutching on to it with the hand that’s remained inside his coat pocket this entire time. Either way, you’re convinced he got here by opening a crack in the blackness and stepping out to join you in your mutual exile. Greet you and share a drink. And that soon he’ll disappear back inside. You know it.

The coughter finally comes, and you realize you are looking at the ground, eyes filling, when you notice your dad’s van round the corner and bank down the street toward you. You, with nothing to hide, really, apart from one selfish play at the end of scrimmage. Nothing to hide at all. 

Except your breath.

Your father’s van eases to a stop next to you. He doesn’t roll down the window, just beckons from inside with a few pumps of a gloved hand. It’s dark and all you can see is the deeper darkness of the man with one boot reflected off the windows of your dad’s van, but you know that’s what your dad’s doing inside. Beckoning. With a slightly pained expression. It’s the face he can always be counted on to make. A face you’re glad no one can see.

Now you nod, thinking quickly that you should breathe, like your not-gay! brother once advised you, through your nose only. Like after you sneak sips of brandy from Dad’s liquor cabinet. Behind you, the man slips from his post. You don’t hear him leave. He parts a seam in the dark and steps through the barrier into a beyond some where and possibly some time else, you think. Peristalsmosis, perhaps. All you hear is the popping crunch of sub-zero snow beneath the tires of your father’s van, then complete silence and the return of stillness. You sense Dad beckoning again. 

Your dad asks how practice went but you are still staring into the darkness, tracing with your eyes a path the man with only one boot may have taken. But this new moon is very dark. Dark where he walked, dark where he drank, dark inside the belly of wherever it is he just went, dark out on the ice where you should have passed the puck tonight, and dark in the bedroom where Monica Ritzing, fragrant and warm beneath her cozy quilts, will soon ease to sleep.

Your stomach plummets miserably as Dad’s van jerks forward. He speaks again and your ear blindness is back. And from here it’s clear that your darkness may as well be eternal, that it will remain dark everywhere you happen to step, everywhere you happen to look, and everywhere you happen to think.

 

 
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Steve Fox’s writing has appeared in or has been recognized by Creative WisconsinThe Iowa ReviewThe Midwest ReviewMidwestern GothicThe Masters Review, and the Wisconsin Writers Association.

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