The Unquestionable Sincerity of Fire Alarms


Sam

But, all of it, ruined. By Corey Little. Who is little. Whose eyes look permanently blackened, like a raccoon’s, and whose skin is so pale his veins show through purple. Who’d spent the whole drive sitting there without a Discman or Game Gear or anything. Just staring out the window. Ruining everything.

Sure enough, when Sam’s mom finally wrangles the key card away from her husband and grants them entrance into room 212 of the Wausau AmericInn two queen-size beds grin up at the husband and wife and the two thirteen-year-old boys who aren’t related and don’t much like each other. Sam Hackbarth wondering how he can shame Corey into saying he wants to sleep on that chair in the corner.

“Which bed do you guys want?”

Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, he directs at his mom—not because the situation is really her fault, but because of how she’s trying to shrug it off as no big deal. An attempt to save money, his dad had claimed. But there was a tender threat in his voice not to ask more.

Guys used to have to sleep together all the time, Sam tries to tell himself, conjuring up a frontier scenario where a family of twelve shared a one-room cabin. But he can’t reassure-away the idea that, for the rest of his life, any time he sees Little, there will be an unspoken bond between them: me and you, that one weekend. The worst player on the team.

Sam grabs his skateboard and leaves the room. Part of him enjoys the idea of abandoning Corey to his parents so they can work out the sordid details of their unnatural cohabitation without him. Maybe he’ll come back and the two beds will be pushed together. He imagines the three of them sitting there in bathrobes, eating peanut butter crackers.



Liam

Liam Ihrke collects followers as he walks down a hallway lit sluttily by faux-gold sconces. Outside it’s dreary and overcast, but still bright by comparison—and warm, the kind of weather that gets you expecting spring even though it’s February. The air smells salty, as if they’re near a coast instead of in the flat middle of a large continent. The asphalt is new, dark and puddled with snowmelt. They skate their way around the AmericInn, the parked cars thinning out as they approach the ass end of the building. A field hatched by snowmobile tracks, the highway off-ramp. A few of them try and mostly fail to do tricks, then have to catch up with the group.

Behind a dumpster bounded by a plastic picket fence, they come across a group of teammates dripping Visine in their eyes.

“You just missed it,” Nick Spezak, the goalie, throws a lazy punch at Liam’s gut. “Got our fog on.”

It’s a sort of joke. Liam had made an honest effort to like weed for a while.

“King, Cootchie,” Nick nods at two of the new arrivals, both of whom have unfortunate nicknames. He throws a V over his nipple for Alan Roo, who’d once famously thought cootchies meant boobs (which made the phrase “cootchie cutters” somewhat of a mystery). And poor Austin Gimberlin—you’d think a guy wouldn’t mind the nickname King Cock, the Burger King crown and coronation ceremony the parents had watched with confusion. But it isn’t his cock. Soon after a few brave pioneers had started showering after practices, he’d commented that Grant Lodermeier had the biggest one on the team. It was supposed to sound offhanded.

“Party in my room tonight.”

“When?”

“Quarter after my mom’s second Zima.”

“Will there be booze?”

“However much my dad can lose track of.”

“Girls?”

“Desk clerk told me there’s a volleyball team staying here,” Nick looks back at the AmericInn. “Alan, maybe you can get them to help you out. Free cootchie informational meeting, room 219.”

“Cootchies: identification and classification.”

“Cootchie Q&A.”

“Cootchie cutters: unknown risks.”

“Caring for your cootchies.”

Eventually it stops.

“Did you see the other teams?” Austin speaks up, choosing his words with painful care. “Sun Prairie’s on the first floor. They’re all wearing these CCM tracksuits.”

“How were their cocks?” Nick asks. “Did they let you measure them?”

Liam notices: Austin’s not the only one blushing. Nick’s blushing too. He’s jealous. Liam laughs and everyone joins in because they think he’s laughing at King. Add some woundedness to Austin’s humiliation, since Liam’s usually the one sticking up for the losers.

Some of the guys take to the lot to work on their kickflips and ollies. Liam leans against the dumpster’s fence and just watches. He’s the only one on the team who’s actually good at skateboarding, but he’s been doing it less and less. Even though his nonparticipation is building his mystique as a distanced judge of everyone else’s bumbling, the real reason is because he’s on his way out. In a year’s time he’ll be wearing clothes that fit and getting good grades. The Freshjive shirt he’d saved up to buy at the Station, his baggy brown cargo pants, his black Sal 23 Etnies—it feels more and more like just another type of uniform. He can’t watch his friends bust their asses without hearing circus music.

He knows the same thing might happen with hockey some day.



Jay

“Go Sam!”

“That’s not Sam,” Jay tells his wife.

She squints and leans forward three inches to better identify the swarming blue jerseys on the ice below.

“It’s Corey Little.” Jay glances at Sam’s parents, but he’s not sure if they heard. Nobody wants their son confused with Corey Little. “The kid whose mom . . .”

“Oh. I can’t keep half these kids straight.”

“You don’t need to. Neither can their parents.”

Sometimes he thinks it’s wrong, how charmed he is by his wife’s general sense of bewilderment. A belittlement, he worries, the part of you that lunges out at such moments. According to all metrics that might be used to measure intelligence—education level, occupation, Trivial Pursuit—she’s smarter than him. But that doesn’t keep her from looking mystified when he reminds her that banks are closed on Sundays, or that it’s not “all intensive purposes.” These moments reveal a lack of complete accessibility that, in his experience, is more exciting than any nirvanic merging of identities. Off in her own world, leaving something still to pursue after seventeen years of marriage.

“That one’s ours,” Jay points as Austin picks up the puck and stickhandles out of the zone.

“I know that.”

See? Every other woman on earth would have just scowled or swatted him. For Gwen, there had still been just a flicker of doubt.

Would she even remember Rice Lake last year, when they’d rented an unnecessary hotel room just to escape from the boy for an hour? They hadn’t bothered to ask the other parents at the pool to keep an eye on him.

One way or another, he’s made sure there’s vacancies this weekend at the AmericInn. It’s been a while since their last time together.

Because of their last time together.

In his pocket, his hand finds a tiny piece of paper, rolls and unrolls it like a scroll. Between games, the kids had decided on a strip-mall Chinese buffet despite Coach K’s warning that all-you-can-eat MSG is not the best pregame fuel. They’d won the first game against Onalaska, giving the meal a festive air. But something was bothering Jay. Something about the disparity between Wausau and China, soft serve and General Tso, hockey hats and silk screens of waterfalls and dragons. Why are all the kids calling his son King, and why does his son hate it?

Two waitresses hovered around the tables, ready to whisk away plates if left unattended for half a second. The boys made a competition of eating as much as they could before their fullness announced itself, and Jay imagined the total consumption of the hockey team mounded like the piles of gray snow in the parking lot. Prone to a miserliness that’s unsafe in buffet situations, Jay would normally have joined them—but the nerves in his stomach wouldn’t allow it. As if he was the jittery athlete, back in his state championship days when any deviation from his routine would presage doom.

Their fullness, the sense that they’d made a mistake, hit the whole team all at once. They held their bellies and groaned, expressed total disinterest in the orange slices and fortune cookies that were to be the cadence of their dining experience.

Jay broke open a cookie, popped one of its folds into his mouth, planned on paying its message no more attention than usual.

The fuck—?

His wife stands as the entire rink gets its wind knocked out. All the parents are standing now, their faces aghast. Jay stands, looks down at the ice.

There, sprawled and motionless by the corner boards: that one’s ours.



Corey Little

“Remember his number,” Coach K tells the bench after Austin’s helped off and the refs chewed out. Not you, Little, might as well’ve added.

But Corey thinks: me. Because it never would be. Eyes find Fifteen, imagine his skating body laid out on the ice. Enough size difference to require surprise.

A way back in, prove yourself to the team.

Windows where the far wall meets the ceiling, sun in your eyes if you catch the angle. Parallelogram of shiny wet where it turns the ice gold. Fifteen breaks out of the zone with the puck.

For a second: that minute begging Austin’s legs to move. Imagine Fifteen motionless, head immobilized on a stretcher.

The sooner you pity, the sooner you’re pitied.

Think of how shocked they’ll be. Corey LITTLE?

He takes off, enough strides for charging, for a game misconduct—

Shit—crashes into the boards a stride behind Fifteen. Timed it wrong or chickened out or pitied. Injured? ref’s eyes ask as well, whistle hand hesitating. No idea what to call since Corey didn’t actually make contact.

He reassembles himself, limp-skates toward the bench. It’s the same as a penalty kill till he can make the change. Hears cheering, cowbells, sees teammates hanging their heads—and Little doesn’t need to look.

Sooner you pity

Like Mom still thinks she gets to give advice.



The Parents

Oh no. Last night we owned the pool.

Why does it have to be Sun Prairie? The parents have commandeered the hot tub, all the tables, and in the deep end our sons’ enemies are playing some variation on water polo that involves hitting each other with pool noodles. The boys must be mortified. Some open chairs on the periphery of the Sun Prairie zone, but the last thing I want to do is ask anything of them. Imagine the indignity. Yeah, Tony, thank you. I’ll sit on the cooler. But get a beer first. There you go.

Are you kidding me? Did you really bring your goddam cowbells into the pool area? Even worse than pennies-in-a-milk-jug Onalaska. Every goal, every penalty, every hit. Nothing’s worse than losing to a cowbell team.

Ah, our counterparts in red and white: the messy alcoholics, the rich stiffs, the religious stiffs, the white trash, the white-collar criminals, the grandparent. Our token Asians are Sun Prairie’s token blacks.

The next time he listens to that song, I’m turning it off. Does he know what that phrase means? Is it better if he does or if he doesn’t? But then he’ll no doubt pursue that type of thing more aggressively because Mom went out of her way to forbid it.

The fat one in the red Hockey Mom sweatshirt has to be number fifteen’s mom. How can she wear that thing in the pool’s hot chlorinated breath?

Sam isn’t with the pool crowd. Probably out in the parking lot breaking his leg on that skateboard. Just get in the pool, boys. Your waffling isn’t making it any better. Don’t look to your parents for a reminder of how one enters into the act of having fun.

Same cowbells we heard when number fifteen checked Austin from behind into the boards. Not even my son, but he was wearing blue and white, so for a half minute I tasted chaos. I’d have used my teeth to rend and tear. Austin’s mom still in that feral state, upending a Seagram’s without taking her eyes off Hockey Mom for a second.

When did it become every night? It’s been . . . last Christmas, visiting my parents. The night we arrived, not a drop of alcohol anywhere in the house, and I thought: Show yourself you can do it. Exhausted from travel but mind racing, no fuzz to lull it sleepward, suddenly cognizant of the animal beside me snoring.

There you go. Jumping would have been better, but at least you’ve achieved wetness. Don’t just stand there. Hurt one another.

Sam is furious about Corey staying with us, but what else could we have done? Tony’s attitude isn’t helping, using the situation to teach some hazy lesson about forbearance.

Filling out paperwork at the doctor, my mind rejected the most basic math, that drinking every night of the week doesn’t mean seven drinks a week. There was that article, the oldest woman in the world attributing her longevity to Kentucky bourbon—but surely it will have repercussions. Poisoning myself a little every night.

Those murals are hideous, children and palm trees and jungle animals mutated by nuclear fallout. Kids every shade of skin color, pushing into green and pink.

Worst of all, the refs missed it. But at least the Sun Prairie fans gave Austin the cowbell treatment as he skated back to the bench—though it’s tough to gauge the sincerity of a cowbell.

Sensitive bladder or not, did he have to use the bathroom while Corey was taking a shower? I’ve gotta go. We’re both men. Not really. It’s the first time I can recall not daring to make eye contact with my own son.

That’s not the scary part, though. It’s what the booze keeps me from thinking about.

A scream, some kid whose balls haven’t dropped. Just Alan Roo—his teammates have given him the terrible nickname Cootchie—and the big disaster getting tagged in Marco Polo.



King Cock

“I found them,” Austin tells Nick through the crack of space the chain allows the door to open.

Nick closes the door and opens it wide a second later.

“You should see their tracksuits,” Austin grins.

“What is it with you and tracksuits?”

“It’s halfway to pajamas.”

For having such a crappy everything else, the AmericInn features a surprisingly spacious and well-equipped exercise room. And when Austin and Nick peer through the room’s windows, it’s full of tracksuits the color of sea foam.

“Those are nice,” Nick admits.

“Told you.”

“They’ve got their names sewn on them and everything. That lets us simultaneously check out their boobs while learning their names.”

“Ladies, get ready for a real workout.” Austin feels like a lion coiled to spring through the savannah grass.

“Easy there, King Cock. Stick to the plan.”

Some of the Waunakee Lady Warriors are frozen into trembling yoga positions before a wall of mirrors, but most are draped over couches flipping through magazines and combing one another’s hair. An impossible mirage, an island of mermaids offering succor to cabin boys lost at sea.

“I call the blonde, the one eating rice cakes. You get Celery Sticks.”

“Why? Their friend’s the hot one.” Not that there’s anything wrong with Celery Sticks.

“Exactly.”

“If I give you the blonde, you have to promise to stop calling me King.”

Nick turns to him with a look of sympathy. “You know I can’t do that, buddy.”



Sam

For a while, Sam had fun playing a new game they invented called Room Service. The rules: two players with hockey sticks slinging a tennis ball the length of a hallway, back and forth. Like Operation, you couldn’t hit the edges. The chance that any door could open at any moment and admit a hapless intermediary added an element of suspense. Eventually they set up a triangular formation that covered two intersecting hallways. Then—when there were more people who wanted to participate than there were hallways—they designed a William Tell variation that involved humans as eyes-closed, crotch-covering obstacles. New bruises soon licked their bodies.

Finally, enough strangers interrupted the game that hotel staff was notified, and the boys scrambled up and down stairwells to avoid the night manager.

They reassembled back in the safety of Liam Ihrke’s room, where commercials interrupted a mangled-for-TV Under Siege with greater and greater frequency as the action struggled to rise. When someone made the dozenth joke about King Cock, Liam said he’d told his brother the story—his brother, who plays for St. Lawrence—and his brother’d said, Who cares? That’s how guys talk in locker rooms. Your teammates are being little bitches. That shut everyone up pretty quick. A game of Uno became one of those endless chores where everyone has thirty cards in their hands. When Sam folded everyone protested but was glad.

It isn’t until he steps into room 212 and starts to reach for the light switch that he realizes his sleeping situation had become even gayer than he’d feared. He’d never thought to subtract his parents from the equation.

In what parking-lot light filters in through the curtains, he trips his way over the hockey equipment that litters the carpet. Earlier, they’d dried everything with a hair dryer, filling the room with the odor of burnt Doritos.

It’s like he’s bypassing the totally empty bed and choosing to sleep with Corey. So fucking gay. There’s something almost domestic about it, like they’d been sleeping together for years. He remembers Liam’s brother and wonders, just for a moment, if instead of being gay he’s been a little bitch all along.

He usually sleeps in just boxers, but tonight all he takes off are his shoes. Corey has every available blanket and cover pulled over him, and Sam inserts his body under just the top comforter. Frontier scenario, he reminds himself. A dozen burly dudes in one cabin. He tries to recall how dead tired he’d been during Uno, how he’d drawn card after card that were of no use to him. But all he can think of is the hockey equipment smell and how it’s the smell of their mingled sweat. And how the mattress seems bowed toward the middle, a part of the conspiracy.



The Parents

It’s back on my hands. There on the inside of the fourth finger where I first noticed it blooming a few summers ago. At the base of my right thumb. Don’t let them see you contorting your nails to squeeze the blisters. But this one’s ready to pop. They’re almost invisible if you don’t mess with them.

Do the other boys know yet? They wouldn’t be playing with him in the pool like that. Or maybe they would—kids are more open-minded these days, even boys. But will they let him dress in the same locker room after they find out?

“Maybe I could get your advice on this. I’ve been thinking of putting together a shop in my basement, kind of like the one you have.”

“Mine’s not in my basement.”

“You know what I mean. What are the essentials?”

“A mini fridge.”

“Alan would probably get in there, make off with the booze.” No he wouldn’t.

“That’s the whole idea. Make sure the kids see what dudes do.”

Why’d she go and do it? The only mom on the team with a daughter Iris’s age, the only one who knows how we leave them behind, to their own devices, to learn from other figures of authority. Social authority. The only one I’d be friends with if I didn’t have to.

Why am I the one with the ambition? The only one who sees how good he could be. He’s not big, but that’ll come. Sometimes it’s magic how that puck is just attached to his stick, one of those paddles with the rubber balls, a yo-yo. He doesn’t work hard, but maybe he’ll wake up, figure out this is the only time in his life he can do these things, that so few kids get an opportunity like this.

“What brand do you go to? Bosch?”

“Shit, if you want to spend the most money, yeah. It’s like I told Nick when he said he wanted to play in net. I said fine, but I’m not paying two grand so you look pretty. Get whatever’s available, Frankenstein style. Don’t get too concerned that all your shit’s the same color.” He spits into a Gatorade bottle.

“He played great today, by the way. Nick. He could have used a . . . Little help on that last goal.”

“Why they put him out there with two minutes left I got no fuckin’ idea.”

“But I guess we have to be nice to Corey for a while. It’s gotta be tough on him.”

That’s very good, how the wind sweeps through the room and through the town square, how the foreground and background are bound together by one larger force. She’s not squeezing your hand out of affection, you dummy, she just wants her hand back. That’s one thing books can’t do—I’ve never thought about it before—more than one thing happening at the same time. All this amorous talk blown together with manure and domestic service. Girl, run.

Why are you trying to impress that drunk piece of shit? Trying and failing to have those skills is worse than knowing you’ll never need them. Go ahead and bite a chaw of tobaccy while you’re at it, why don’t you? Parade your kid reeking of pot and abuse.

I hate to leave her behind here at the end. Probably dropping those little unpinchable turds all over the house. That’s okay, sweetie, you go wherever you want. God, I’d be okay if I came home and she was dead. I’d just cry for a few minutes. But the idea of . . .

I know what you want, and I’m fine with it happening. But how can you think about sex after what happened today, what those pieces of shit across the room cheered with their goddam cowbells? That’s right, Hockey Mom, lean back and cackle. Give your cowbell the tiniest of tinkles.

“At first I thought, shit, goalie? Isn’t that the most expensive position? Then I thought, at least it’ll give me something to blame the bruises on.” He laughs—whether because he’s kidding or because he’s not is impossible to tell.

“What’s he up to tonight?”

“Has some fireworks we bought when we crossed the border. Just let me know when you smell smoke.”

“I worry having the other teams staying in the same hotel with us. I hope they don’t go headhunting.”

“Boys will be shitheads.”

Unlike fat finger. Dangling from my arm, the bloated hoof of a pig. Will it ever go back to how it was? I’ve never not healed before.

Maybe to pay for all this, equipment you can’t patch fast enough, gas to get to games, the weekly tape tithe. Clear tape, cloth tape, friction tape. Where’s her son, poor kid? Probably already asleep.

Alan cocked his head when I referred to us as the oldest parents on the team. They assume we’re all in the same grade as well. Still getting used to socializing with couples twenty years younger than us. Does he ever think of how old we’ll be when he graduates high school, college, when he starts a family? Does he ever think the phrase premenopause surprise? I guess his siblings can be the grandparent figures.

If it wasn’t for Grant, he would be. Maybe Liam, too, but you can tell it’s not going to last for him. That big nose and big forehead will turn troglodytic soon enough. It’s the ones with those thin ankles you can tell are going to keep their beauty. Patrick got the best parts of both of us, for now.

Because he’s a good man, he sat Darren down, told him that he loves hockey, but is it for sure an extracurricular he wants to take on? It wouldn’t disappoint him. Because he’s not a perfect man—because he’s a man—he failed to ask if I was on board.

“I figure a miter saw is a good place to start.”

“If you don’t mind buying kraut, you’ve gotta go with the Bosch B3195. Chop and slide action like a hot knife through butter. Solid detents. Cam-action clamp and extension table come standard. Adjustable kerf plates to reduce tearout.”

The Sun Prairie parents send up another swell of cowbells, as if they too are fans of the Bosch B3—whatever. For all I know I’m being fucked with.

“Or I got an old DeWalt I can sell you, eats into its own goddam frame when you use it compound.”

This, I can tell, is an undesirable feature in a miter saw.

Are his eyes moving over their bodies right now, lingering on any one of his teammates? No, stop it. Part of being the confidante is not subjecting him to further suspicion. I wish he would go ahead and tell Andre. Andre won’t care. What I have to keep telling myself.

What do animals in the wild do, just suffer on and on and on? What did humans do—for all but the sliver of history since the invention of painkillers, hospital wings they secretly call elephant graveyards. Would be a good name for a bar league team, Elephant Graveyard.

And this woman is the opposite of Emma Bovary, a happy breeder, auctioned off with the cattle. Faster and faster the oscillations, until Catherine Leroux halts it with her tar pit of a paragraph, her stupid . . . oh, what’s the word? There it is! Placidity. What’s it called when the one thing stands for the whole?

Is it how they show it on television? Those drab clothes with cheap elastic, soap that doesn’t foam, gangs you have to pledge like some horror sorority? Ramen from the commissary a treat. Or is that just men’s prisons? Maybe it’s more like a retirement home you can’t leave. What does she do all day? Am I horrible for thinking it sounds okay, not needing to take care of other people for a while, to focus just on keeping yourself alive.

Fine, it’s fine, but don’t ask me to shift one primal response into another. I’m still in the mood to kill. You shouldn’t want to be around. Imagine the sweatshirted cowbelle painted on the wall, an amorphous caricature, shoveling terrified children into her guffawing maw.

“Are the Screwheads putting together a summer team this year?”

“We always say we’re gonna take a summer off, but we always cave right before the deadline.”

“Yeah, I don’t think the Glue Crew is gonna have enough guys to fill.”

“You guys are in . . . what, the Never-Ever League?”

“No, we’re in the C League.”

“I wish I could say we have spot for you—”

“I understand. You guys always have a full bench.”

“What I mean is that we’re trying to get some younger blood on the team. Seems like just a season or two ago we were the young guys.”

If it wasn’t for me talking to Coach K, he’d still be out there on Little’s line. The whole team is Littles, though. I need to get him to the Capitols, or Petit Selects. Remember what Coach Sabel said: Call me as soon as he’s five-ten, if that’s before high school. And laughed. One day the camera will find me in the crowd, pretending to pray, and it’ll say Liam Ihrke’s mom, and everyone watching will know the real reason he made it to the big show.

And this whole infrastructure of girls’ sports just so these men can pretend it’s fair. And boys. When’s the last time Kurt went to one of Iris’s games? Does he even know what sport she shrugged off this year? I guess it’s good exercise either way.

It could be worse. You could be married to anyone else in this room.

There’s no such thing as juniority, honey.

When’s the last time I went swimming?

One more time. Ring those cowbells one more time.

“For sure.”

What if this whole book is just about money?

I wonder if any of them have had sex yet. It’s unimaginable.

If it moves into the other hand, Clark will have to learn culinary skills beyond just the grill.

Will I know when it’s time?



King Cock

Austin doesn’t know how Nick had obtained the key card to this first-floor room that’s nowhere near Waukesha’s AmericInn territory. He and Celery Sticks, whose name is Amber, are standing guard—or sitting guard, rather, their backs against opposite walls, their legs forming an M shape across the hallway.

“What do you think they’re doing in there?” A stupid question, even as it’s leaving his mouth.

“Probably nothing,” Amber says. “Tina has a serious boyfriend back home. Plus, she’s religious.”

“Yeah, so is Nick.”

Amber looks bored, and Austin knows he’s letting an opportunity slip away. He hears giggling from around the corner and pulls his legs toward his chest. “Drawbridge,” he smiles at Amber, who pulls her legs back too.

Two parents appear, Mr. and Mrs. Lodermeier, leaning on each other. But they stiffen and silence themselves as they see Austin and this girl they don’t know. Grant’s dad narrows his eyes at Austin, but it’s more annoyance than suspicion.

They disappear around the next corner, whispering to themselves. Austin thinks about how Grant always puts his socks and T-shirt on before his boxers—and he makes a decision. He extends his legs again, squeezing Amber’s Asics between his Shawn Kemps.

“So what position do you play?” she asks.

“Forward. Winger—” Austin feels like he’s chewing on a banana peel. “Right wing. What position do you play in volleyball?”

“Volleyball’s not like that. We play every position.”

A few seconds go by, and Austin doesn’t know if they’d for sure transitioned into talking about sex. “What I really want to play is goalie.”

“That’s what you really want?” she bites her lip. “Isn’t it fun scoring?”

The opening rhythm of “Enter Sandman” is the signal. Nick opens the door almost immediately. He’s fully clothed and the room smells very dank.

“Hey Austin,” his smile dopey.

“Amber!” Rice Cakes calls from the bed. Her eyes are red, but she doesn’t look sad. Mary Hart is on TV.

Amber mouths something to Tina, then turns to Austin. “Maybe, the bathroom?”

Amber closes the door behind them.

Confused about logistics, Austin lifts her up and sits her on the sink. It isn’t his first kiss, but it might as well be. Celery doesn’t taste like pepper but it makes soups taste peppery. His brother had told him that you’re supposed to kiss a girl for a while before you go for more. Just as he’s wondering how long is long enough, Amber puts her hand up his shirt, her palm on his heart.

When he tilts his head for a new angle, one eye can see around her—to the mirror, to itself, to his hand disappearing into her dark hair.



Jay

Jay Gimberlin opens another Seagram’s for his wife despite the swallow still in her current bottle. She takes it from him and goes through the act of twisting off the top without seeming to notice he’d beaten her to it.

“I’ll ring their goddam bells.”

“Just ignore them.” Gone is his wife’s charming bewilderment.

“I wonder which one’s Fifteen’s mom.”

“Who can say?”

“The penalty should be castration. The ref should lead them to the penalty box, yank down their pants, and just get it over with. Look at them. Little volcanoes of testosterone. Little cavemen.”

He takes the fraying coil of paper out of his pocket. It’s memorized by now, forever, but he wants his eyes to verify its existence, the strangest indictment he’d ever received from a cookie:

YOU WERE BRAVER YESTERDAY

THAN YOU ARE TODAY.

Back at the restaurant he’d tried to let nothing show on his face, but still people needed to know.

Today’s trials are tomorrow’s victories, he’d improvised. His fake fortune, no doubt prophesying a Waukesha tourney win, received a rousing cheer.

“My testosterone levels are a little high tonight.” He plays with the loose skin at her elbow. “I checked with the front desk, and there are vacancies. Just like Rice Lake—”

“What do they need a hotel for?” his wife is unfazed. “Most of them drove their houses here.”

“What I mean is that I’m feeling a little frisky.”

White trash!

It’s difficult to tell whether or not the Sun Prairie parents noticed, but they choose this moment to ring their cowbells. The fat woman who seems to be the focal point of his wife’s ire leans her head back and screeches.

Gwen rummages in her purse and extracts her keychain. Its blaze-orange emergency whistle.

“Honey,” Jay grabs her whole elbow.

But she turns to him, and he immediately wants her anger directed elsewhere.

“Our son could have been paralyzed. He could have died.”

She stands and puts the whistle to her lips.



Sam

Sam’s thoughts had just drifted into the first nonsensical terrain of the night—how an NHL stadium is never as big as when you step through the tunnel for the first time. It’s the tunnel to sleep or maybe the same thing as sleep, until he’s blared out of it by a Roenick blast—

No, a fire alarm.

He’s fully clothed, socks too. All sweaty. He doesn’t know this room. He senses a presence next to him and remembers everything except the fire alarm. The air’s full of the smell of burning, but it’s just their equipment. Jumping out of bed, he kicks the bars of a hockey mask on his way to the light switch.

Corey a circular mound beneath the covers—he’d have to be deaf to sleep through this noise. Sam yanks off the covers. Corey is curled into a fetal position, hugging his knees to his chest. After the Sun Prairie game, in an argument over whether or not Corey had any shampoo for Nick to borrow, Nick had told Corey not to cry. Maybe when your mom gets out of jail, you’ll have double the moms.



AmericInn

In the parking lot, the hockey players and the volleyball players scout around for their respective teams. “It wasn’t me,” Nick tells his dad. “I know,” his dad says, lighting a cigarette. Some of the boys—the rule followers, the fire drill all-stars—are wearing little more than they had on in the pool, and Bennet Roo is fashioning makeshift robes for his shivering son from an armful of towels. Mr. and Mrs. Hackbarth are having a discussion with their son away from the rest of the crowd.

Grant Lodermeier stands looking at the hotel with his parents.

Darren Lin stands looking at the hotel with his parents.

The Waunakee Lady Warriors cluster together with their coaches and chaperones.

The Sun Prairie parents have left their cowbells behind, are keeping what distance the parking lot permits from those Waukesha goons.

Austin finds his dad over by the other parents, but his mom isn’t there. Had his dad even gone searching for him? He doesn’t seem all that relieved. More like confused. Or, oh God . . . it’s more like disappointment.

“Where’s Mom?”

“Your mother pulled the fire alarm.”

It just isn’t possible. How could she have known?

“I’m sorry, Dad.” It’s never going to happen.

“She’ll be okay.” What if last time was the last time? “She was just looking for a bigger bell.”

Wally Rufenacht stands looking at the hotel with his parents.

Patrick Dove stands looking at the hotel with his parents.

Corey Little stands looking at the hotel.

Confused seagulls circle the lot, and there’s that ocean smell again, the hint of vast open space nearby. But it’s been an icy winter, so maybe it’s just the salt they use on highways.

Liam Ihrke sidles over to Corey and drapes his coat over his shoulders.

“Marco.”

Corey sighs. “Polo.”

Everyone’s turned to the hotel as if hoping to warm themselves in the fire, but the only glow comes from each room’s rectangle of electric light. The alarm sounds tinny and forlorn out here. And for a second it seems like the alarm and the approaching sirens are speaking the same language, are calling out to each other through the night.  

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