The boy gets drafted in June. Fifth round to Philly, fuckin’ Philly, boys, you believe that? He’ll be a saviour to that city. Old men at the Corral shout to each other even when the bar is half empty; they know he will be gone soon, gone for good. Old means stuck, trapped, settled. This boy though, he is something else. An old-school son, a throwback to a meaner era, all shoulders and elbows in the corners. Taking no shit behind the net. Just brutal power out there on the ice. He is a bird broke free.
There is no OHL this far north, but the boy didn’t need that league down south for long. He put in his time down there. He’ll be bouncing around on an AHL team in Leigh Valley for a season or two before heading to Philly, cutting his teeth as they say, but the boy is big. Not really a boy, looked like a man since he was fourteen. Fourteen is when the fast, little guys start failing and flailing, start to see their dreams shrink while the scale stays the same whenever they step on it. You gotta get big, get bigger, get huge. One open ice hit and you learn how small you are; just how little you matter. One bounce of your skull against the ice and you forget everything for a moment. Two bounces, you forget a little less. Three, and that’s when you start missing a few games.
Some of the kids he used to play with still call him the GOAT. Greatest of All Time. It’s what Pudding used to say, the coach screaming from the bench. Maybe true here, maybe for a year or two on the travelling team, spinning through defenders, crushing big soft boys up against the boards, throwing a fist when necessary. Hats raining on the ice. But other people catch up, get bigger, get trainers, get gym memberships, get a set of weights for Christmas. The old coach finds someone new, someone younger and faster. The kid moves on from Junior A to something bigger.
The GOAT is still good, but the GOAT begins to drift, begins to drink, begins to scrap, begins to piss off his roommates down south in Leigh Valley, coming home in the middle of the night with a girl, or the boys, or the cops. But he can still skate, and he can still hit, and so he stays down there. When he calls back home to ask Pudding for advice, the coach tells him things have changed. There will be no more drunken nights, no more motels, no more bingeing with the boys. He has to focus on the current team. He has to do what he can for the boys. There are always new dreams to foster, new kids to induct through 5 AM wind sprints and puke. You must understand, he says, smiling down the line. Nothing stays the same. And so the GOAT drifts down and down through the season in purgatory. The GOAT is still great, but he has learned a lesson of scale. The pond is always bigger than you imagined.
You can’t see the bottom until you hit it.
Did you miss me? his mom says from the kitchen. The GOAT is back for Christmas. Mom isn’t cooking, that’s just where she smokes by the window, puffing clouds out into the darkness. She can cook but chooses not to when he’s back. She wants to make a point. She raised him with no daddy, and he had to learn to take care of himself. She won’t get soft all of a sudden. She doesn’t want to see him slip into old habits passed down genetically, that’s what she says. Your daddy always was a piece of shit, and who is the GOAT to disagree? He wants to avoid the same tendency inside him, a lingering desire for retreat, to cut and run and run as far as his thick legs will take him. Every day is leg day. Every day he’s running.
There is a spot on his chin where seventeen stitches keep his face tight together, seventeen stitches from an errant stick jammed right up into his jaw, all from a kid out of Peterborough with too much to prove, with fear so bright in his eyes the GOAT saw it flash through all the blood. The fear that this is his last season, that the Show is too distant, too far for him to reach and so he is making an impression while he can. You never expect that much blood. No one realizes how much of a man is fluid.
The GOAT rubs the rough spot under his chin while his mother runs down what’s happened to his friends, or the people she remembers as his friends, the way parents do, the rough idea of what his life was like before he left. She can recall the names she finds memorable, the kids who gave the best gifts or no gifts at all for birthdays. There are parents who judged her for being a single mother, parents who let him sleepover for entire weekends, parents with chest freezers full of birthday cakes, parents who snubbed her at his high school graduation. All kinds of parents.
She loathes them all.
You know, Melissa got her kids taken out with a C-section? his mom says. Robert still is seeing that Lakefield girl, and I never liked her at all, always seems to have a lot to say, but nothing of any value you know? She’s like three TV channels at once.
I got the internet, Mom, the GOAT says. I know what they’re up to. I see all of it.
You seen Dickey get arrested?
I seen his dad post about it, yeah.
You seen Alexis’ baby girl? One with the full head of hair when she came out?
Yeah, she’s posted like a thousand photos already, I think I blocked her.
Well don’t you just know everything?
No one ever really leaves town anymore. It comes with you. It follows you. The GOAT rubs his chin, fingers what he thinks might be a stitch trapped under the skin. All stitches are supposed to dissolve these days, but some still stick around. Online, sometimes kids show up in the comments, asking why he slipped so far in the draft. There are rumours about coaches and agents, but no one has the full story. No one wants to probe too deep. Those boys can get up to all kinds of shit when they are on the bus, someone says. No supervision out there.
I’m going to head out, the GOAT says. His mom just waves him off with her free hand.
The Corral is one of three bars staggered around what the polite call downtown. Almost empty during the day, so he orders two pounds of wings and a pound of carrots with that blue cheese dressing. He wants to make sure he is still getting his vegetables, still watching his weight. He went for a run in the morning and he can still feel it ringing through his shins, old injuries reawakened by the cold up here.
I know you, a voice behind him says.
I bet you do.
You don’t remember, the voice says and then there is a hand on his shoulder. He recognizes the hand and then the voice reveals itself inside his brain. Three years younger, always sitting on the back of the bus.
Millsy takes the seat beside him, stretches out his arms and belches. He is a few beers deep.
You know they won’t let me drive the plow no more?
I kept falling asleep. I thought that shit was just in movies but apparently, it’s the real deal. I’m off for awhile, got some sort of disability shit going but I ain’t got any idea how long that’s gonna last.
Rough shit, Millsy.
Rough enough, but how’s the Show treating you, GOAT?
No Show yet, bud. Just got invited to the dance.
Millsy orders another beer and the two men sit at the bar for awhile watching famous faces and a few less famous faces yell at each other about trades and arbitration. A highlight reel follows.
You talk to Pudding yet?
Millsy wasn’t on the GOAT’s squad, but a few years behind. Quit after they went down to Sudbury to play for one long weekend, never came back to skate.
Not yet. Just got back yesterday.
You should, Millsy says, leaving a twenty on the bar and walking out.
The GOAT sits still for a while, finishing his carrots. They snap between his teeth. When he leaves the bar, he finds Millsy outside slumped on the hood of his car. He keeps walking past the body. It is still sunny out. Someone will find him.
There are times in other cities where he goes home with a girl, a girl who smiles real big for him when he takes his pants off, who keeps smiling when he can’t get hard, who says he drank a lot, and he shouldn’t be so upset. It happens to everyone, she says. There are many of her, and they all say it. Happens all the time, happens everywhere. But he is the GOAT, he wants to say, and for the first time, understands the name might be a joke. Not a mean joke, not quite, but a joke with a faint glimmer of truth to it, a joke that will get funnier with time, get crueler with each year that passes when he is eking out a career with shifts on the fourth line for a non-playoff team that is just trying to snag a better draft position for next season.
The GOAT can see a long future stretched out before him, each year a rebuke of the one before it, each year an attempt to outdo what’s already been done. He is skating toward the boards and refusing to stop short. He will last five years at most before washing out. He is a limited time offer.
There are times when he lies awake next to these girls in other places, in larger, warmer cities, when he traces their backs with his fingers after they’ve fallen asleep, when he feels himself growing hard, when he doesn’t have to see their expectant faces looking up at his through the dark or in the dim light of a screen. There are times when he takes himself in his hand and finishes right there in the bed while she’s asleep or passed out or drunk, and then wipes it on the wall above the bed.
I was here, the GOAT says. You will remember me.
And they do, because in the morning, he is ready for them. In the morning, he is sober.
He asks them to call him the GOAT, and most of them do.
A few of them laugh when they say it, and he can’t really blame them.
He focuses on a space right above their heads and tries not to remember any names. He focuses on a future just ahead of him, on a blank space, on an altar. He sleeps with the lights on.
He says no photos, please.
After the bar, he is back in the house. A sad bungalow, blue and white and now smeared gray.
Do you want to invite anyone over for dinner? his mom asks because that is when she will cook, because she can if she really wants too, she actually has a few recipes she’s been waiting to try. It’s the principle of the thing though—why put in all that effort without guests? Cooking for yourself is a lonely task. There’s no magic to it. There’s no astonishing reveal. No grand seduction. You know exactly what you’ve done, and you’re left to judge yourself alone.
There are people he could invite, but they always return to the same stories. They circle each other and try to remember tales that might not seem so ragged, so rundown with repetition. You know a friendship is over when all you can talk about is the past. It’s when you recognize there is no future. There will be no dinner. The GOAT slips out the side door into the carport. He adjusts his mirrors until he can see everything behind him.
They called the coach Pudding ’cause that’s what he ate during practices, those small plastic containers of chocolate pudding you could get at the supermarket. He would go through a six pack over the course of two hours, small dribbles of it landing on his shirt while he berated or praised them. He doesn’t coach as much these days, says he’s getting too old, says kids have got too soft, way too soft. They don’t bounce back like they used to, he says. They got parents holding them back, holding them down, telling them they’re special. They all want to be the greatest, Pudding says. They all want to be the hero. But it’s a team sport, everyone knows that. You still gets points for assists.
They call him Pudding because it was a joke, because that was one big son of a bitch, all muscle and track jackets and an Oilers hat because the 80s never fucking died, you kids know that?
He asks the GOAT if he really thinks he’ll play in Philly. The GOAT walks around Pudding’s kitchen, admiring the renovation. All the appliances are bright chrome. A spaceship. The man makes his money from his dead daddy’s car dealership, a stack of trucks you can see from the highway, a promise of power that men fall over themselves to pay off on a monthly basis with financing.
I don’t know, I mean, it’s just the draft.
Important to remember that, Pudding says. He has a pile of rice in front of him on the table. You still bulking up?
Never stopped, the GOAT says.
Too many guys think they gotta be fast, Pudding says. Until they get knocked out. Then they decide to get big. Can’t be too big though. You still gotta stop on a dime.
The GOAT nods his head. There are photos of Pudding’s teams and trophies all over the kitchen, filling up each nook and cranny. His shoulders slump from year to year, but his wide chest still stays the same, full of pride. The boys change too, they all look smug and satisfied. Almost all, almost. There is always one or maybe two near the centre of the frame, a hand on their shoulder, a rage in their eyes, fear bubbling along their skin. You only see that if you look close though.
The GOAT looks close because those are the boys who look like him.
New kids any good? the GOAT asks, but he isn’t listening to Pudding as the older man runs down his defense, who will make it to the Show, who will be left behind, who is only on the team because his dad buys a new truck every other summer. Buys, not leases. Now that’s a customer.
Sometimes there is more than one kid in the picture who looks like the GOAT. Sometimes there are two at a time, two in a motel room far away from their home town. The GOAT is just grateful you couldn’t take a picture or a video with your phone back then, you had to have a camera.
Pudding had a digital one that made a sound when it went off. The flash was very bright, blinding even. It exposed everything in the room. It left nothing to doubt.
The GOAT walks out of the kitchen down into the basement. He isn’t here to cause any physical damage. He does not need an assault charge on his record. He still has to cross the border, still needs to make a living down in America, making those American dollars. The exchange rate will murder you if you aren’t careful. He can hear Pudding calling his name upstairs. The GOAT doesn’t bother to check the computers. The walls down here are moist. He yanks the desktop tower free from its snug perch in the corner, trailing cords across the room. He snags a laptop too in this room filled with fake gold and panelled wood and a hundred nights no one wants to speak about on the record.
The GOAT heads back up the stairs with both computers. Pudding stands at the top of the stairs, his head tilted in mock confusion.
Where do you think you’re going, boy?
He isn’t a boy, but the GOAT knows better than to say that. He keeps climbing the stairs.
Now I think you’ve made a big mistake, Pudding says and then the GOAT’s forehead strikes his forehead and there is a brief squeal from the bigger man. The GOAT keeps moving, leaves Pudding on the floor splayed out behind him. He does not shut the front door behind him. Wind blows through it, carrying fresh snow. It piles up on the floor and then begins to melt.
The GOAT’s car is still warm. He turns the radio on, trying to find a voices, any voice, but they are still talking about the season, talking about what’s to come, talking about deals and trades and the salary cap. No one is talking about Pudding yet, of course not yet. The GOAT is patient. It’s like practice.
The roads are quiet. The roads are empty. Snow is falling and it’s dangerous to be out so late, even with winter tires. He keeps driving in circles, waiting for someone to pull him over, someone to ask him what’s wrong. It may take a day or two, but the pieces are already in motion. They can’t be unplayed.
The GOAT sits idling at a red light. There are no other cars. He waits.