Joyland

Toronto |

Our Children Would Not Kill Us

by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

I don’t want to give the impression that I was special; yet this was an extraordinary time in my life; I was a wreck, a rusted-out old piece of shite on a desolate road that no one would notice for some time, but there I was just the same. I had finished a manuscript and was in that limbo known to writers as waiting. It is a kind of literary purgatory completely separate from the work, but strangely all tied up in it. I was trying all sorts of things to lower my tension. To this end, I had taken a keen interest in little league hockey, claiming it was the only thing that took my mind off itself, and besides that, I was obsessively reading Gustave Flaubert. Well, one particular Flaubert story actually, and not the obvious one, as you might imagine; I was reading, compulsively, “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator,” and had even gone so far as to locate a Catholic trinket store off Dundas to purchase a medallion of Julian, patron saint of clowns and murderers, of the carnival, which I wore around my neck regardless of the green stain it left on my skin. My youngest child had tried out for, and won, a place on a GTHL minor Atom “A” team. He wasn’t the best player — he’d only been playing for a year at this point — but he wasn’t the worst either, and what he lacked in innate, and learned skills, he made up for in passion. He played defense, and he played strategically, a be-bladed, nine-year-old gladiator; he was everywhere he needed to be. I went reluctantly to the games in the beginning, having no stomach, I told myself, for the brutality, and the parental machismo, and the sweat associated with the game, or my perception of the game — however these half-truths work. But at the time of this story, the hockey had already won me over, and I would stand on the highest bench in the stands, fingering my medallion, and yelling — though it was clear the children could in no way hear me — that the skaters should go, and cut ’em off, and fight for the puck. I learned the terminology, and suppressed — at least outwardly — the notion that the vocabulary was a strange mix of the erotic (hook, slash, score) and the religious (host team, cross-check). That the coaches regularly anointed the players with water squeezed from drinking bottles so that the water splashed over their small upturned faces in a modern baptism, that the team knelt for a coachly benediction between periods, and the fact that many of the crucial games landed on Sunday morning, gave the whole affair a kind of sacred binding, a compact. The stands were a place of adrenal yearning — yearning to win, which quickly translated into simple yearning. The fathers flirted with the mothers and the mothers flirted with the fathers, and more than once I thought: Perhaps there is no separation between the sacred and the profane; maybe they are one. I was struggling, as I mentioned, with my own impatience, my own incapacity to acquiesce control; I was waiting, waiting for rejection or waiting for acceptance, it amounted to the same thing. The fact was that no matter how alone a person might feel, she was constantly surrounded by other people. Other people are ubiquitous. And so, alone and miserable, I often found myself amongst people who had no idea what I might be going through. The Sunday games were set at 10:05, and I had arrived early so that my son could gear up, and so I could get away from my home, and all the details of my home that recalled to me the angst of waiting, the lack of answer, the space of failure, and my own ineptitude at keeping grounded in light of all this. I would bring Christian to the change room, leave him there, and wander up to take my place in the stands. Here I sat until the game, leafing through the Flaubert and, as if it was some sort of literary I Ching, meditating on whatever my eyes fell upon: One day, during Mass, he looked up and noticed a little white mouse coming out of a hole in the wall. It trotted along the first of the altar steps, and after turning right and left two or three times, ran back the way it had come. The following Sunday he was disturbed by the thought that he might see it again. It did come back, and every Sunday he watched for it with growing irritation, until at last he was seized with hatred for the creature and decided to get rid of it. This is the exact turning point in the psychological makeup of the boy Julian, born into nobility and destined for spiritual benediction. He kills the mouse, naturally, and from then on, and for years and years, finds himself on a rampage; blood and death are his signature. I told myself that the story of Julian was legendary, that it never happened, but that did not seem to interfere with its authenticity. Of course, I had my own small irritating mouse, my own growing creature to despair about; the world was not my oyster, and truly I had already had news that two major publishing houses had passed on my manuscript: not our thing, too well-written, self-indulgent, at least that is what I read into the passes. Obviously, there was a mouse I would like to see splattered in death, would have loved to see the little body lie there without moving. Someone sat down beside me, eventually, and I looked to my side while tucking the book into a hidden pocket of my coat. It was Ralph, the father of one of the forwards, who always asked after my husband in a way that suggested my husband ought to be there, and not me, that this was a male domain. He said nothing this time though, only stared ahead at the Zamboni making its inexorable turns, ironing the white crisscrossed ice, melting my heart with it. “I love Zambonis,” I said, and I felt Ralph’s body against mine, nodding. His whole tense self agreed with me. I could feel it riveting me there in the arena. Still not looking at him, I said, “I’ve always wanted to drive one.” “Me, too.” It was the way the machine transformed the ice, its alchemical transference — ice-water-ice — which always spoke to my inner state of cold/briefly warm/cold, and how this broke me wide open. I do not know how it was for Ralph. Perhaps he wished for a simpler life, one not encumbered with GICs, and RRSPs, and matching ties. I think he was an architect of some sort — large structures, no doubt, condominiums with reasonable fees. I looked for the first time then, at the driver of the Zamboni and realized it was the rink janitor, a thirtysomething man, whose face was pocked from an unruly adolescence, I supposed, or inferior genetic makeup. He regularly came into the change rooms after the games with a broom and a long-handled dustbin; he had a good humour, as if this workstation was the logical outcome of everything he’d always aspired to, something that, incidentally, I respected. I think his name may have been Vincent. The team was pushing onto the ice now, Vincent and the Zamboni exiting. The parents — as one body — rose and whistled and chanted like an oracle that can only fathom good news. The players skated onto the ice and were crossing over in circles, backwards and forwards, around the goalie, taking shots. There is an oracle in the Flaubert story. It is a living dream that comes in different forms to both Julian’s parents. Upon his birth, Julian’s young mother is visited by a holy man who prophesies Julian’s sainthood before disappearing into the mist; his father meets a beggar. Ah! Ah! Your son! Much bloodshed! Much glory! Always fortunate! An emperor’s family! the beggar yells before he too is whisked away into the ether. And so Julian’s outcome is always known, yet his struggles never dwelled upon; such is the life of any saint, is it not, one of suffering and misunderstanding, one of depletion and misdemeanour, always leading to redemption? No wonder I could only obsessively relate. “Heaters are off again.” Evan, the father of one of the more skilled players was sidestepping over and over the seats. Ralph had turned away toward the scoreboard. Evan said, “The hockey gods are not smiling upon us.” “I have a confession,” I said. “I’m sure you have more than one.” Evan placed his hands deep into his jean pockets, then pulled his shoulders up, made himself look bigger, and smiled at me. “Not really,” I said, smiling back. “I’m pretty chaste.” Evan cuddled in next to me, and Ralph lifted away, moved up to stand behind us. Evan watched him for a short time, a moment, then his gaze shifted back to the play, and together we watched my son skate up the ice, overtake an opponent, and ream him into the boards. We moaned, and leaned forward to locate the puck, followed its shifting motion from player to player as our team regained control. “Your kid,” he said, and slapped his open palm down on my thigh, a gesture that could be taken any number of ways, which Evan clearly felt was in his favour. “I prayed to the gods of hockey,” I said. “Oh?” “That’s my confession. Yes.” “Your confession. I see.” Evan smiled broadly at me again, and said, “Really,” as if he believed me and then yelled, “Bring it up, keep it, pass to the points, oooh!” and I saw the team was having difficulty keeping the play inside the blue line, were truly in danger of an offside, and then, in no time, had lost the puck, and were racing down the ice trying to regain. Their passion was exhilarating. The hot outline of Evan’s palm lingered even though he had retrieved his hand almost as soon as he placed it there on my leg; I brushed some lint down the length of my corduroys, and Evan glanced and glanced and glanced in between crucial moments on the ice. Then he said, “You should have prayed to the gods of janitors that they’d put the heaters on. It’s Christly cold in here.”
An ice hockey rink is a place of expectation. One expects the pong of sweat and polyester mixed, one expects an arthritis-inducing chill, one knows the routine. The heaters will be off until a parent petitions the janitorial staff who will begrudge, who will cite cutbacks, who will claim breakdown or, in lucky circumstances, will flick a switch, smile, and flick it off within the half hour knowing no one will complain once the game is in play. “I’ll go,” I said. I felt Three Tales, the collection in which Saint Julian resides, pressing against my breast, and smiled, and stepping down through the bleachers, minding my head and shoulders did not interfere with the parents’ sightlines, I turned away from the rink just as the referee blew his whistle and the children found their positions, on the ice, sticks down, on the bench, peering over the boards. The janitorial cubicle — a closet really — was beside the Zamboni room through a door one could access from the rink corridor. I was in the visiting team’s end now, and I took a quick look at the players — saw they were defending up at the other end — before I pushed through the heavy door. That whiff of mildew, cigarette smoke, man, chemical cleaner, and pink dispensable soap, a stack of buckets, mops, shelves of toilet paper, recycled paper towels, and garbage bags, and there in the middle of this, one torn-up upholstered chair in which sat Vincent. He had strong legs, I saw. He wore blue industrial work pants and a matching shirt with the rink logo, a hawk, embroidered above the heart. His skin was raw down his neck, his teeth appeared to be diseased, and yet he grinned. “She’s a cold one,” he said. “Yes.” “Can’t do nothing about that.” He leaned forward and placed his head into his hands, like he might pray or cry. He had thinning blond hair, and must once have been attractive to certain girls. “It’s just a switch. Just fifteen minutes,” I said. “Just to warm up a bit.” He was shaking his head form side to side inside his open hands. “Vincent,” I said, and here he looked up, surprised that I knew his name, I supposed, or that he didn’t know mine, or possibly I had the name wrong and I had confused him. “Witch’s tit cold,” he muttered. “Vincent? But he just repeated himself. “Can’t do nothing,” and stared at me. Only not at me, through me. His eyes were as such non-seeing, vacant. To risk a cliché, they were bottomless black holes of unseeing. And if I had felt cold before, walking back out to cheers, half the crowd rising — our half, thankfully — as the puck tipped into the net behind the goalie, rolling then falling along the crease, I was now thoroughly chilled. “They won’t do anything about it.” I whispered this to Evan as I passed him in the stands. “I can’t sit; I’ve got to stand at the back or I’ll freeze. I can’t manage this without moving.” “I’ll come,” he said, and we stood together, beside Ralph and beside Dennie, who was tall, who yelled, “Way to go, goalie,” in a bass-line cartoon character way — Elmer Fudd, if he loved hockey. There wasn’t much room in the back row, and so we were pressed against one another, moving with the play here and there, a simple choreography. “What did the janitor say?” “He said he couldn’t do anything about it. I think he might be depressed.” And then calling everything I had just said into question, the heater above us buzzed and twanged; there was an electric impulse, a dull hope, and the filaments turned pink then orange. A fan wafted the warmth down, and we raised our palms open to receive it. “Ah, Christ. Finally some heat from these things.” “I know.” Dennie’s wife, an ex-gymnast, mother of the left-winger to Christian’s right, leaned out and turned toward me. “You must have said the right thing to Vincent, after all,” she said. I was chilled to the very soul.
It was Flaubert’s carnival — carné, the meat — that I loved in that story. The way Julian wantonly kills everything he sees. He’s a bloodthirsty wretch out, not for revenge, but for some clear sign of his prowess. He once finds himself on a hill overlooking a valley in which hundreds of stags are standing. For a few minutes the prospect of such carnage as this left him breathless with delight. Then he dismounted, rolled up his sleeves, and began shooting. Julian kills every single stag including one who, with his last breath, speaks to the lad: Accursed, accursed, accursed! One day, cruel heart, you will kill your father and mother! Julian drops to his knees and holds his weeping, ashamed face in his hands. He will run away and become a mercenary, hiring himself and his raggle-taggle army out to any cause he feels is just. There is a swathe of death behind him, and fate in front. Who is Julian, who Vincent, sitting despondent in the boiler room? We are all flesh, that’s what I thought just then, as the puck sprung out of a tangle of little boys and flew on the bias past the other team’s defense. We skated, we skated! Evan leaned in toward me, whispered, “Look at them. Oh, look at them go. Just—” And I could feel his love for the game shudder through my body. My boy stopped short at the blue line, huddled low, ready, and Evan’s son was as the wind, moving so fast up the ice, the other team appeared slow-motion. Evan’s arm rose and his finger followed his son’s movement, directing the boy, an unfathomable puppeteering father, deking out this defenseman, that desperate centre wildly out of position, and beckoning the boy to look up — yes, his boy looks up to see, to see; what? — to see the tiny puck-sized hole in the goaltender’s stance and to lightly shove the little mass of black rubber in that direction. The crowd swooned with pride, with joy, with communal familial love. Our children would not kill us, our children would make us better than we ever hoped possible. In the moment of this second goal, end of the first period, only this mattered to me: my boy, and their boys, hunkered down in position, holding their places and mine, in the poetry of the game. The score was 3 to 2 when the heaters kicked out, a whine of death, the orange glow turning red and then black, and the cold ambient air of the rink slapped me across the face, down my neck. The rink was punishing us for our love.
Between periods now, cold, I thought how boring my manuscript was, how insipid, how derivative; this was self-defeating in a sense, but it also gave a focus for an accumulation of bitterness over other petty, and not-so-petty, failures in my life. No one gets past forty unscathed, and unbruised. Dennie’s wife put her hands up plaintively to the heater, feigned tears, said, “Wouldn’t you try again?” “No,” I said, thinking she was reading my mind, thinking she meant would I write again, would I bare my soul, would I bother, would I live again, for writing was as breath to me, I swear. “No, no more trying,” and then I realized she meant with Vincent, and I shifted down through the bleachers once more, and went in search of him. I could feel Evan and Ralph watching, could feel Dennie and Dennie’s wife smiling at my back. “I’m so cold,” Dennie’s wife groaned. “You go, girl.” They had hope, and this, in turn, gave me some, too.
My manuscript was an endless, fiercely written, faux epic pitting brother against brother in a thinly veiled parody of recent world events. Even I had begun to yawn thinking about it. I found Vincent in the corridor standing in front of the vending machine, sliding quarters into the slot; his hands were surprisingly elegant, with long sinuous fingers, and tidy fingernails. He pushed for Doritos and watched the mini chip bag curl away from its spiral holder and drop down the front of the display window. “Vincent.” He moved sideways one step, then two, to stand in front of another vending machine, fumbled in his trousers and came up with coin. He drew it up and thumbed it into the slot, here pressed for a Pepsi and waited, with his hand poised at the Plexiglas door, for the bottle to crash down to him. He turned the cap off with his teeth, and spat it out into the garbage pail beside the kiosk. “Vincent?” “It’s like a tiny miracle,” he said to the machine. He mumbled this. He did not turn. “Yes?” he said, then, again to the machine. “The heaters.” He noticed me then, motioned for me to follow him, and I did. He pulled the seam of the chip bag open with his teeth; the smell of chemical cheese and MSG made me salivate unwittingly. I could hear the chips breaking between his teeth, but I watched his boots as they trod a determined path toward the storage room. We passed by the Zamboni. I ran the length of its boxy side with my hand; I could climb it, turn the key, and it could be mine. I followed after Vincent, and when he stopped short, I fell — tripping over my own feet in an attempt to stop — and pressed into him against the door. He was strong, and kept upright in all of this, but the Pepsi jerked, and the brown liquid arced, then spiraled from the mouthpiece, and wicked, sticky and cold, into the fabric of his blue workman shirt and down the crotch of his pants. “Aw, fuck,” he said, holding the door of the janitorial closet open for me with one shoulder. Inside, I apologized and averted gaze as Vincent set the remaining beverage and the mini chip bag down on his desk, and skinned his clothing off. “Fuck this,” he said. I looked at the scars running down Vincent’s torso. There were welts, and small sores and what is more, he shivered with cold, he shivered. He looked at me, said, “The heating breaker is broken; I can’t fix it. Hold me. I’m so fucking cold.”
Once Julian has fulfilled his destiny, slaughtering both his mother and his father, their reddened, bludgeoned, mercilessly dismembered bodies left in his own marital bed for the maids to clean up, he runs headlong for God, and who wouldn’t? He runs and runs, gives up all worldly possessions, his wife, his castle, his fame, his glory, his very self, and mucks about in a potato sack, unfashionably, pathetically lost to God. He becomes a ferryman in the hope of providing some service to others. And it is here on the banks of a little French stream that a leprous man calls to him for help. I am hungry, the man says, and Julian feeds him; I am thirsty, the man says, and Julian gives him drink, I am cold, the man says. Nothing happens without a reason, so I have been told. I could hear the raucous applause outside the door and wondered which team had scored. Hockey people are superstitious. They wear little talismans to ward off loss; they know an omen when they see one. “Hold me,” Vincent said. Flaubert’s Julian embraces the strange diseased man, and the man asks him to lie down with him. “Take off your clothes so that I may feel the warmth of your body,” he says. “Come closer and warm me! No, not with your hands, with your whole body!” “Ah, I am dying!” “My bones are like ice. Come here beside me!” Vincent’s eyes were closed as I lay on top of him, mouth to mouth, breast to breast. He clasped me in his arms, and we entwined. And all at once his eyes took on the brightness of stars. A superhuman joy swept like a flood into my soul! I could feel my warmth leaving me and entering him, and his new warmth returning to me, the briefest chill between us, that alchemy, that magical transference, art manifested. The face of God is everywhere, they say.
We had won the game, of course, though I missed the entire last period. We had won. I waited for Christian to change. I stood alone peering through the glass at the scratched rink surface; what message did these hieroglyphics spell? I watched the big machine melt the ice, watched it freeze behind, watched Vincent slowly turn the wheel of the Zamboni, oblivious to my watching. No one else was there to see his nakedness, his ass, his cock, his hard shoulders, standing against this vast machine, in this artificial coliseum. No one saw his godly humanity, the glow of his skin, as if it was now impervious to the arena chill, and I imagined myself turning the ice — to water and back again to ice — up there with him, for I was there, I was there!