By: Brian Michael Barberton
He was almost six feet tall and didn’t know what to do with his height or anything much at all for that matter. It was early in September, and we had not played our first game. How he made it to AAA was beyond me. I guess they needed someone at the last minute and he fit the bill size wise. In practice, we had to run laps outside before skating, and do something called ‘dry land training’ afterwards, plus more laps. I noticed that he struggled, became pale, and kept doubling over to try and get air into his lungs. Sometimes I asked him if he was alright, while the others just kept on running past.
“Hey,” I’d call out, “don’t die or anything. Do you need some water or something?”
But he didn’t answer. He could hardly speak, so just waved me on and on I went. There was one time he did speak though, and it was on the way out to the ice.
“Thanks for that the other day,” Marcus said. “I have trouble with the running but not the skating.”
“That’s because you can glide to catch your breath out here, a small way of cheating. That’s the first reason. The second is because you are using a different muscle group. The last reason is that your heart is not in the running. If you are like me anyway, I hate the fucking running. I am a hockey player not a marathon runner. If I wanted to be a runner, I would do that instead.”
“Well thanks. I have an inhaler now.”
And he did. Every time he took it out I cringed inside, because I saw the looks he got. Can rolling the eyes be a form of bullying? Can excluding someone from conversations? Yes. These are the things it is difficult to call someone out on. Yet, these and many more are trademarks of the haughty. Cowardice hides in pretention. Superiority complexes love to shout and portray loud silences. He was not esteemed, so he was judged for every little thing. It was simple. The ones that were respected could do anything- bring an oxygen tank to the bench, to the dressing room- if need be. All would be overlooked. But if you were a third or even forth line player like Marcus was, there was not much of a chance.
On the ice I noticed that Marcus got roughed up a lot. He tried to defend himself, but he lacked the mean streak that not only lived but flourished in most of the others. As the season went along, I found it curious that he didn’t seem to mind. I didn’t know where his distance came from and whether his placidness was due to ignorance, wisdom, or something else. A few times we were asked to drive Marcus home, as the coach co-ordinated rides for the players that needed them. It turned out that he lived across a creek, on a series of streets not five minutes from my own house.
On the rides I noticed that Marcus had a different way of talking. I didn’t say anything about it, but my father did. “You guys gotta be more aggressive,” the old man would call out from the driver’s seat, “when two guys go in the corner for the puck, it’s not who is better that matters but who wants it more. Simple! Who are you playing Saturday?”
“I believe we are playing the The Marlies,” answered Marcus. It was Marcus’ tendency to almost always say ‘believe,’ that called him out as different.
“Well,” said the old man, “They are good, sure, but you guys are good. You guys are not pussies. Hit them back for once. They are used to you guys not hitting them. You think if you hit them they can’t fall down? They fall down just like anyone else. Come Saturday night, you gotta hit them.”
“I believe we can win against them if the forwards start scoring some goals.”
“Marcus, why do you always say ‘believe?’ Is there something wrong with you? I never talk like that with this ‘believe.’ I don’t believe anything. If I believe anything, it’s that the Marlies are going to kill you guys if you don’t try and kill them first. You have to have the eye of the tiger. Do you know what the eye of the tiger is? Marcus, do you believe in the eye of the tiger? It means you have to want it more than the other guy. If you guys all start to care more, you can go out there and kill the Marlies. The Marlies are the same as you, only you think they are different. They aren’t different, except maybe they want it more. Don’t you guys want to win? Don’t you guys want to kill the Marlies for once? Don’t you think it would feel nice to leave the rink Saturday night knowing you beat the shit out of them? Even if they win. Look, sometimes, not always, but sometimes you can outplay another team and they still win because they got a few lucky goals. Let’s say they win 2-1. Who cares? Who cares if you beat them out there to the puck and played harder and played the body? You guys gotta play the body. They hit. You guys pansy around. Don’t act like that. They don’t own anything. You have to show them you are there, and not just going through the motions! Do you understand? Why not wake up Saturday morning and say to yourselves, ‘Hey, self, tonight I am going to get psyched up and kick the shit out of the Marlies. They kick the shit out of us, so I am going to go and kick the shit out of them for once.’ Do you understand? If I was you. If I had your chance, when I went in the corner, I would come out with the puck. Every time. And if the other guy beat me, it would only happen once. The next time I would work twice as hard. Do you understand what I am trying to say?
“Then you guys will do fine.”
One time Marcus asked if I wanted to play basketball. It was Friday night after a practice and he meant for the Saturday morning. “Sure,” I said, “Who else is gonna play? Can we get a game going?”
“I am going to ask some of the guys that I know if they are interested.”
“Kay. I’ll come over around eleven.”
When I went over, though I remained hopeful, I saw that there were no other players around. “I couldn’t get anyone to play,” explained Marcus, “but…
“No problem,” I said, “We’ll just shoot some hoops.” I didn’t want him to have to make up some excuse. I could tell somehow that he had no friends, and that was fine with me. We shot some hoops at the school courts. I wasn’t so great, but managed. Marcus fashioned himself a basketball player, and kept talking about statistics and names of pro players. He was as almost as inept at basketball as he was at hockey. The best I could figure, then or now, was that because he had height, he kept getting pushed into sports.
The afternoon was wearing on, and often time just gives a sort of click and the spirit of something is gone. That is what happened on the court, and I thanked Marcus for shooting some hoops but told him it was for me to go home. He said something about the movies, and seeing if some of the guys he knew wanted also to ‘catch a show,’ but I wasn’t up for it. I was quite solitary, and happy. Marcus was a solitary person who did not want to be a solitary person. But what could really be done? Though only a small ravine and a couple hills separated us, there were more in between things, unseen, that separated us. We were not destined to become close friends, and a couple hours on the courts does not a connection make.
During one of the last games, the Marlines were having their way with us. Almost everyone was suffering, and Marcus was doing poorly. Sometimes, for short whiles anyhow, because of his sheer height, he could hold his own, but inevitably something would go very wrong. It was the third period and the puck was in our end. Marcus was in the corner with one of their players when a second one of them came flying into the corner also. Marcus had become pinned against the boards. That was fair enough. First man takes the man, second man in takes the puck. But instead of taking the puck, the second player crosschecked Marcus across the ribs. I saw him double over and then fall down in one motion. The ref did not call anything.
In I went to the cross checker. I spun him around with one arm, and hit him in the head as hard as I could. It felt good and right, that moment of violence. Next there were people on top of me. Soon after I was up, and on my way to the penalty box. The guy I hit managed to skate up beside me to inform me of the score of the game. “Look at the scoreboard faggot, its right up there.” A directive to look at the scoreboard was often given to us because we lost so often.
“I don’t care about the scoreboard genius. I only care that I just knocked you out.”
And that was about it. We never made the playoffs. I lost touch with Marcus and he never showed up to spring tryouts. He and his asthma and his lanky ways all disappeared. When I remembered him, it was a bit like recalling a ghost, or, in the colloquial sense, a lost soul of sorts. Marcus was not cut out for AAA. Hell, I don’t think Marcus was really even cut out for hockey. But he had always showed up, taken his knocks, and never complained.
Nobody really cares about the substitutes or the third line players. But I believe they ought to. And I believe Marcus was a good egg.
Brian Michael Barberton is a novelist, essayist, short story writer, and poet. A resident of Ontario Canada, he is a Pushcart Nominee for the story The Motel by the Stereo Sea (Mungbeing Magazine, 2012), and for the story The One Single Note, (Lunatics Folly Magazine, 2011). Some venues where his work appear include NFTU Notes from the Underground, Whisperings Magazine from Mountain Tales Press, and Kurungabaa: A Journal of Literature, History, and Ideas from the Sea. His most recent work, Chalk Lines, a book of short fiction and poems, is published by Fowlpox Press in 2013. He has writing forthcoming at Birkensnake Magazine and is at work on the novel Pockets Full of Memory.