Crossing the Line
By David Sherman
The truth would be revealed in the toilet bowl. He stood over it, waiting, the happy bedlam of the locker room caroming off the red and white ceramics.
The bowl turned from clear to pink to red, a few shades lighter than his new sweater. He’d seen worse. Probably busted blood vessels. He finished and took the towel off his shoulder and wrapped it around his waist.
Pissing blood from a battered kidney definitely preferable to shattering your jaw and dining on slush for a month or two.
He was in a fog. But, for once, it wasn’t from a shot in the head. It was more, “what the hell am I doing here?”
Lot of screaming and shouting going on back there. Guys were happy, coaches seemed happy. He didn’t know any of them. But he knew the sound of men winning, living in the moment.
Tonight, they had won. He had scored. The pandemonium in the rink was overwhelming, his face projected on the ice and around the rink under the cheap seats. The Canadiens knew how to put on a show. The ticket holders on their feet, the team slapping his gloved hand, patting his butt with sticks – red car- pet hockey style.
On the ice had been fun. But, like most games, it had also been a bitch. Ankle and left shin hurt like hell. TV wags who liked to talk about the courage of “sacrificing the body” rarely threw themselves in front of slap shots.
His ribs ached from being cross-checked in the first; wrench- ed neck from Danault trying to put his head through the glass in the second, but it gave them a power play and a goal. His wrist throbbed from a Moses two-hander in the third.
Welcome to Montréal.
Crossing the Line
Blake played about 24 minutes. He had a pain for every one of them.
Exercise bike, shower, hot tub, massage, stretch, meal, a few painkillers and anti-inflammatories, meet his uncle, walk to his temporary apartment, watch film of the game.
With the exception of meeting Elliot and not having to climb on a bus to get to the airport and climb on a plane, it was a post- game night like all the others. As long as the ribs weren’t cracked. If he stopped pissing blood in a few days, all would be well. Toilet a great diagnostic tool.
And, he was back home.
Blake didn’t know the drill here on meds. He’d been chewing them after most games for years. Brought a stash with him. In Dallas, they could’ve added them to the post-game table: grilled chicken, pizza, wings, pasta, Oxycodone, Empracet and Indocin. Who didn’t hurt after a game?
The locker room was in celebration mode. The sounds were familiar and foreign – towel slapping and screaming; tales of ad- ventures with the ladies, computer games, iPads and replays, electropop shaking the room, happy men, this night invincible, strutting, crowing like roosters. But Blake was a passive observer. He wasn’t a locker-room guy. He embraced the tranquility of the hot tub or training table, his own bubble in which he could go through the game, calibrate his mistakes. There were always so many.
Gilles wrapped his rib cage, made it easier to breathe. He’d be fine for Boston. And gave him a vial with meds.
“Call me if the pain gets worse.”
Blake nodded. Gilles moved down the line, poking, prodding, inspecting and dispensing. Blake hopped on a bike and Charles, the team’s head of PR, appeared, all smiles, perfectly tailored burgundy suit with pinstripe squares.
“Blake, can you meet the Fourth Estate in a few minutes for fifteen? They want to hear, you know, how much you love
coming back to Montréal, what a thrill it is to wear the big CH, you know?”
Blake had a love/hate thing for flaks. In Dallas, they needed to sell the game to the football-mad. Here, he knew, the city de- manded a winner. They didn’t need 30-second sound bites of bullshit. And all Blake needed was to get out and walk around his old hometown.
The Canadiens would sell out without him telling the world how happy he was to be back home. Especially since he wasn’t sure he was. Wasn’t sure he was happy, wasn’t sure he was back. Might be packing again in a few months. Or ... he didn’t know what.
“Charles, I’m taking therapy. How ’bout I’ll talk to them next game or on the plane to Boston, that work?”
“Blake, it’s in your contract, you know? The media is part of the game. They sell tickets. They’re making you a star.”
“Did they score tonight?” he said. “I’ve been here less than 24 hours. Tomorrow, on the plane, I’ll say all the ... You can even write me a script.”
“Okay, Blake. Tomorrow. You need to build a relationship with the media here. In both languages. Can you speak French?” “I even speak a little Spanish,” Blake said, wondering if this suit was going to be a pain all the time.“I don’t get my therapy
in, I’ll be playing in Laval.”
He climbed off the bike and headed to the showers, Charles
thinking all these superstars were a bunch of overpaid assholes who looked delicious without clothes.
Blake felt the meds light up his brain and the pain drift away.
“There’s a guy named Danny Wright at the door, says he’s an old friend of yours, wants to say hello,” Charles said. “You know him?”
“Danny? Sure. We played together when we were kids, haven’t seen him ... Where is he?”
He was at the players’ entrance door with the fan boys and girls and the autograph hounds and gawkers who liked to ex- amine the goods, see the players up close. Some guys loved the fans. Others dismissed them as “jock sniffers.”
Danny looked older than he was but was coiffed and tailored and clean shaven. He was tall and thin and gave Blake a smile. They hugged briefly.
“Man, I just had to say, ‘Hi,’” Danny said. “What’s it been, fif- teen years, give or take? And man, you made it, you done good, just like you said you would. A fucking superstar.”
He slapped Blake on the shoulder and pumped his hand, sending a few jolts up his arm and beamed at him.
“I just wanted to, like, welcome you and say, whatever you need, man, I’m your man.” He lowered his voice. “I do PR work for a few clubs, happening, hot places. Pros like you come in, you know, stars, hang out, good for business. Guys come to rub shoulders and chicks come to hook up with the hunks and you make friends, you know. I’ll introduce you to good people.”
Danny looked around. People were squeezing by. A few players nodded on their way out the door, a couple gave Blake fist bumps.
“And, like, anything you need man,” Danny said, slipping a card into his hand. He looked around, dropped his voice to a whisper.“Call anytime. You need a lady, young or whatever, need a little weed or ... A few guys, they call me, girls, a little whatever, some Viagra, man, as long as you’re not playing the next day, of course. Have to let off some steam, right?”
“Danny, man, what’re you doing?” Blake said. He pulled Danny aside and pushed him lightly against the wall. Danny was still smiling. “You dealing, hustling women? Really?”
“I’m trying to make a living, man. I can’t skate for shit.” “You’re going to end up in jail, Danny.”
“Don’t get all righteous, Blake. I’m just helping people have
a good time. This is Montréal, party town. When you need to unwind, get down, I’m your man.”
“Sure, Danny. I gotta go.”
“You’ll come by the club, yeah? Studio Twenty Twenty. I’ll buy you a drink. Just show my card it to the doorman.”
“Sure,” Blake said. “Take care.”
“I’ll see you, right? You’ll come by, bring some of the guys?” Blake nodded.
“I knew you wouldn’t forget your friends.”
Danny shook his hand and slipped through the fans at the door.
“We were neighbours,” Blake told himself. “We were never friends
Elliot could see the future. Empty seats, too much scotch, a three-week run – then post-partum depression. He had seen the future many times.
“It sucks,” he said, but Brigitte was stacking chairs. She was al- ways moving, and if she heard him, she was pretending not to.
“The play sucks,” he said, this time louder. He grabbed a chair and dragged it to the storage room. It was painted flat white. Like the hall, flat white, grey doors, low ceilings. Not a place to shoot hoops.
She lifted his chair and stacked it on top of the others. There were two hundred chairs in the room, all grey seats and black legs.
“It doesn’t suck,” she said. “It’s not Broadway and Tonys, but it doesn’t suck.”
“It’s not even Lasalle Blvd and Rotten Tomatoes,” Elliot said.
The rest of the cast and crew were making their way through the back door to the parking lot. It was early March. It had come in like a lion and the lamb was nowhere to be seen. Ski hills were rockin’ and rollin,’ the lights that lined the trails for night skiers lit up the clouds. Après-ski life in town – pitchers of beer, shooters, walls of TVs and music at retina-detaching volume – was going full-tilt boogie.
The parking lot was corrugated ice topped with pickup trucks and Japanese SUVs stamped from the same mould. Elliot had a 50-minute drive back to town but was in no rush.
“Every play we do, you complain,” Brigitte said. She was smiling. Elliot annoyed her but he made her laugh and he could act. And he was right. The play sucked.
“’Cause every play sucks. It’s not the script, it’s Carey and
Isabelle and Brian. They read every line like they’re reading a wine list. No, wine list would be more interesting. More like the phone book. If we still had phone books.”
Brigitte locked the door to the storage room and went to collect the various bags and cases that were her burden from the centre of the now empty hall.
“Elliot, Elliot, we’re all humble amateurs and you’ll have to put up with us,” she said.“Or not. Go home to Brenda, enjoy the drive, watch a movie, have a drink. We do it again tomorrow, same time and place.”
“Okay, maybe if I’m lucky I’ll fall on my head in the parking lot –Think they could put down some salt or sand? – And break a leg and I’ll miss the show.”
“You can play Jake in a wheelchair, might add to the charac-ter,” she said. “Wanna come over for a drink before you hit the road?”
“Thanks,” Elliot said. “No. I’m going to do exactly as you pre- scribed, Doc.” He wanted to stay, have a drink or two, lie to his wife. He had no idea if Brigitte was interested, he had never known when women were interested. But now, with his beard growing in white and his hair grey, it all seemed too complicated for a libido that seemed to enjoy sleep more than indulgence.
“I’ll watch a movie and have a drink. Or skip the former and go right to the latter. Either way, it’ll be a thrilling evening.”
Seeing the woman he married was never a sure thing.
Despite the snow, the drive to town on the autoroute under the orange sodium lamps, was soothing. The car knew the way. The four-wheel drive ploughed through the slush, letting his mind wander to the play, his addiction to the theatre and its questionable rewards. And why he had chosen to volunteer for a pretty good amateur theatre company in the mountains rather than banging his head against the walls of the city’s always fraught English professional theatre
The only answer he had was some things just are.
He hit town, home a straight shot south on Parc, an illegal left on St. Viateur and then circle the block a few times to find a spot to wedge his car. Even that he could do without thinking. What was there left to think about?
Brenda gave him a perfunctory hello, stirring a pot of sauce, his entrance her cue to drop a fist full of linguine into boiling water.
Elliot followed his routine. Poured some Irish, took his iPad off the sofa, punched in his password, checked the numbers, checked the designs, sent off email, sipped the Bushmills.
“It was a good day, made some money,” he said, coming into the kitchen.
“What is it this week?” Brenda asked.
“‘World is upside down’ on the front. Back is ‘Especially if you stand on your head.’ Did eight colours. Used the peach you like.” “How droll,” she said, draining pasta, making no attempt to
disguise her disdain. “Spiritually uplifting.”
“It’s financially uplifting,” Elliot said, put some plates out for
salad and pasta, grabbed wine glasses, napkins, spread them out as she fried the pasta in the sauce. “It’s supposed to be ironic.”
To Elliot, fried, unfried, her pasta had too much meat. Too much heat. Too much salt. Lately, it cultivated heartburn. To say anything would invite a tempest in a Dutch oven that he had no appetite for.
She was transfixed by cooking shows on Netflix, searching for the Holy Grail. For Brenda, each meal, slammed together when she came home, was an Olympic challenge, though the medal podium continued to elude her. She attacked dinner with clenched jaw, but Elliot admired her tenacity.
He hated cooking, shopping, cleaning. Brenda embraced it, wrestled with it. She could bake, filled her little café with cup- cakes and muffins and scones that were gobbling his profits from selling Tees. But she couldn’t conquer cooking, and eating meals he fought to finish was punishment for being too lazy to
do it himself and lying to her about her kitchen prowess for 22 years. Lying about a lot of things.
He smiled at her as she took two forks and shoveled a mound of her fettuccine Bolognese onto his plate. There were worse things, he thought.
“What colour type on the peach?” she said.
“I just put black on all of them, except the black. Eight hun- dred in three days. It’s moving.”
“I’m going to watch Traveling Gulliver. Last two shows of sea- son three,” she said and, plate in one hand, wine glass in the other, fork in one breast pocket, pepper mill in another, she headed down the hallway toward the TV room.
Elliot was accustomed to reciting the relentless indignities of the day, culled from an incalculable number of online sources and his own excursions into life. He was an addicted doom scroller. His outrage had no dimmer switch, almost as if he be- lieved the armies of malevolence would be knocking on the door at any moment. Perhaps that’s why Brenda gravitated to the company of the TV during dinner, preferring TV writers’ First World concerns.
Reality outside the bake shop wasn’t Brenda’s plate of pasta, save for an occasional dip of a toe into CNN. Elliot’s vituperative recitation of events was exhausting. She had her own worries.
Elliot knew it but couldn’t do much about it. Since Trump and Covid and the incessant pounding of war drums, the world was not dark yet but certainly getting there.
Some theatres had stayed dark, film producers gave up their offices, worked with a cell phone from their basements. Condos sprouted like mushrooms where performance spaces had been pounded to dust by wrecking balls.
Elliot’s world had shrunk to amateur theatre, once-in-a-while playing a cartoon character for a computer-game company and selling schmatas online.
His wife avoided him and he returned the favour. It was an effort to fill his day, waking in the morning in an empty bed, looking forward to his afternoon nap, perchance to dream. Maybe he should learn to play the saxophone?
Waiting for the plate to cool, he debated tossing it into the garbage and sneaking away for a burger and a beer. Brenda wouldn’t know he was gone.
He lit the iPad again, scanned the news like one might scan the supermarket meat section, looking for something suitable for the day’s appetite.
Blake was traded to Montréal. He read the head three times. Blake was coming back. It was the story in the local news. A couple of sidebars went with it.
Holy shit! Blake, the prodigal son that wasn’t, was coming home.
Blake was coming home. The kid must’ve been too busy to call. He loved that boy. And missed him. This was the best news he had had in ... shit when was the last time he had good news? Blake coming back. The Canadiens had “rented him” in hockey parlance. He was a free agent at the end of this season. Dallas, rather than watch him skate away, traded the last few months on his contract to Montréal for their playoff run, and to dump his salary and pick up a draft pick and two guys mired in Junior.
Maybe he should build Blake a new rink. He laughed.
Wasn’t that long ago. The annual rituals of new stick and skate buying. The smiles. The new uniforms and new teams and dressing rooms that took them around the city. He was even happy when the kid knew more than him about what he needed and wanted. The student had become the teacher.
Blake was all hockey. Happy and nervous and full of life and determination. It wasn’t if, it was only when. Blake the kid was all promise and dreams fulfilled, a survivor, didn’t let tragedy flatten him. Maybe Elliot could learn from the kid, now a man.
Those had been good years. Maybe he’d bring them back. His phone dinged, a text had landed.
“Hey Unc, arrived alive. Tickets for tomorrow night?”
Elliot was near as giddy as he got.
He typed back: “Just one. Bren will be sleeping. Looking forward to seeing you, Nephew. You need place to sleep?”
“All good. Meet tomorrow after game???”
“Ritz bar. Love you,” Elliot tapped, slid the phone aside. Life had donned a bright new coat.
He should tell Brenda. She’d be happy. Later. He missed Blake the last time he’d come through town. He thought of calling but the kid was probably too busy. He turned to the Times online as the pasta cooled but decided there was no point in ruining the moment and tossed the iPad aside. His boy was coming home.