"'Ey, Roberts! Where you at? You're missing the game, man!"
"Not exactly. Got the first period on the radio. But change of plans, gotta run down to the states this week instead. Grabbing supplies. You know how it is."
"Yeah, Long Island. Meeting up with a contact. Taking care of a little something, no big deal, be back in time for game 2."
"Huh, okay then. Need any backup? Any trees chopped down at exactly the precise moment?"
"Should be fine. Might wire you for money at some point if things get too weird."
Yes, indeed: Peter Roberts, first of his new name, fourth of the old one, is on some kind of mission. Passes through the box stores looking for electronic doodads he doesn't have but neither do they, so he settles for chips and breakfast bars and changing CDs on the fly at 120 clicks without drifting up against the retaining wall on the unoccupied non-construction side of the highway. He almost forgot his armpit soap when the cashier so kindly bagged it separately from the snacks. Now he's falling asleep, or he would be if one of these teams would hurry up and score a goal. Okay, now he's falling asleep. Good job Chicago! You have managed to wrest at least one victory from this round thanks to a series of wild, unorthodox redirections. The boys downstairs don't much care for it: they wanted one of those precision attacks, a laser shot from around the point or something, not pop-bumper deflections. The Madman suggests other ways that hockey can be less like pinball ("stop pretending that the late 1980s were the only era to produce high-distortion rock music") and Tim excuses himself to sit out in the backyard with an astrolab, plotting the course of a star shining high above the cooling coals of the aging-aesthetic grill.
Two hours through the road, Pete thinks he's got it made. Sunrise reflecting off the water, canoes moored by little cottage getaways on the Thousand Islands, a perfect day coming right up. And then it starts to rain. The pourdown refuses to stop anywhere from New York to Pennsylvania or even into New Jersey. He wonders if he could've avoided it by going the other way around, but the Roberts clan is easily confused and likes to stay on the interstate system instead of taking chances with the "back road" highways. (He can't know that the first thing his cousin Seth did upon moving to California was buy a fucking GPS.) Plow through the rains, both hands on the wheel, eyes bulging out of his head as he leans forward trying to keep track of the taillights in front of him. A window to the left is open -- someone's really smoking in these conditions? Can't fight the beats inside us, he supposes. It costs twenty bucks just to drive over a couple of bridges, but gods forbid anyone should raise taxes to pay a man with a shovel full of hot asphalt to fill in the potholes.
The contact meets him in the lobby and passes him a bag. Inside are some video games and a copy of David Ives' "All In The Timing". There's a name for what's been happening to him, to everyone in this hotel, but it escapes from him. The pool is closed as an Asian (Chinese? Japanese? Pete can't help but feel uncultured and terrible even though it's really none of his business) construction company is repainting the covering wall that keeps the auto exhaust out of the parking lot from drifting into the shallow end. That's the kind of quality improvement which brings people back to visit again. Next time there might actually be water! Who knows! The job is down on the beach, so they pick up peanut-butta-pie ice cream from a drive-thru convenience store whose part-time proprietor claims that "ba-nay-nays" is the new way to say something is totally crazy and wander along the boulevard, buying cheap paper fans and rubber snakes and a souvenir magnet for the fridge back home, and waiting until the sand clears of security guards on ATVs and workers in pickup trucks whose jobs seem to consist entirely of putting up and laying down lifeguard station chairs. Pete throws a rock into the Atlantic ocean and nearly beans a practising surfer, learning to ride before going all the way out to the other side of the country to try their luck on the big breakers. The distraction breaks up the ritual. They spend the rest of the day arguing about whose fault it was. "Wait a second," he says just as the contact is about to launch into the anti-Canadian diatribe which has characterized the majority of the debate, turning on his heel to enter a pharmacy. Success: they have that good spring water, bottled in Norway. (The stuff that says it's from Poland is actually upstate Connecticut.) He takes it and a pack of Big League Chew and the helpful realization that the contact left a discarded sweater back on the boardwalk and they get there and as it turns out the world hasn't quite ended yet, so they pour out a sacrificial libation to the Grand Serpent, and hey, the job got done after all.
Down on the street again, there's a big ol' tribute to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Pete reads it in his best "Joe Quimby" voice. There's no filling in the fountain, either. It feels curious and yet perfectly alright that the only water to be found around here that isn't either bottled, or occasionally frozen for a stray hockey team which has yet to rediscover its magic and thinks running away from its personal island is somehow the answer to that problem, is only available on the coastline, dipping and bobbing under a hazy cloud, supporting strange metal containers on the horizon, out and away from the strip of sand and threatened bird sanctuaries that narrowly separate the glorified fitness enthusiasts and elderly women on sidewalk-cruising bicycles from an unseen and unending reality-endangering disaster.
Act II: Chicago, Illinois
Well, that went off without a hitch. The gods were right: Peter's temporary offering of his body, although somewhat taxing physically, had done nothing negative to his internal humour -- indeed, he actually feels a little bit better, even though he's got some serious driving ahead of him to get back home. They told him he'd be okay, that he might even find some sort of heightened purpose out of it. Well he doesn't know about that exactly but it's plausible. Gods see things a little behind the rest of us sometimes, but their advantage is that it balances out with what they can see ahead of us too.
What they hadn't told him was how much change he'd need to get back.
"Okay, here's six, and... um, this is embarrassing. Do you take Canadian change? No, of course not. No, that's okay, I've got -- well, no, that's another beaver nickel. Man, I knew I shouldn't have bought that cola at the rest stop. What's that? Oh, you will? Okay, thank you. I'm really sorry about this. I wouldn't want to make you break up this fifty, anyway."
"Look at this asshole" is one of her favourite phrases. She means it the same way you or I might say "this guy" or "that girl" or "the dog over there" but in this case Pete shushes her as the asshole in question gets closer to them on the sidewalk. What's the deal, she wants to know.
"Two reasons." Peter hands back the peanutbutterpie ice cream container. "First of all, you don't know for sure that guy's an asshole. He had a clean shirt, a nice girlfriend, hair styled in the popular fashion. I would wager he's relatively successful and not deserving of the label, even if you don't mean it perjoratively."
"And the second?"
"Secondly, did you see his arm muscles? They were the size of my face. I'm allergic to punching."
People are funny. They take things the wrong way sometimes.
"How much? A dollar? Just one? Do you take... no, you wouldn't. Okay, here's the thing. I just gave all my small bills to the last tollbooth, so all I have left is a fifty. I'm serious! I wasn't expecting you to be so inexpensive. You can break it? Oh, it's the start of your shift. Whew. Man, I'm sorry to start off your day like this. Have a good one."
Glow In The Dark Snakes. One dollar twenty-nine cents plus whatever the tax is. She forces him to buy a New York fridge magnet so he won't forget where he's been. He buys her a fan, which she holds over her eyes to shade them from the unrelenting sun, and then he gets annoyed for no good reason because it looks weird and awkward to him, and he makes her wear his hat for the next little while. His car sucks at air conditioning, which makes it unsuitable for jumping in and out on hot days like these. Fortunately, it starts to rain.
"Let's go look around the game store and then not buy anything." All of the employees are gathered around the counter, and all of them turn their heads when a girl walks in, and all of them turn back when they see a guy was holding the door for her. Okay, so you can place little platforms using this fake tablet controller thingy, and if you jump on enough of them in a row you get a magic star which gives you a few more coins. Who cares? What possible help is that? Maybe when the levels get harder, I guess. Can't wait for the game with the cat suits. It makes no sense to force the player to control their on-court avatar and the coach via the touchscreen at the same time. What, I gotta look down to make sure I'm setting the screen play properly? It'd be more fun if one player was the coach and the other was the team, like a hockey game with a bench boss, making sure to get the right lines out at the right time to score the goals, avoiding getting caught out in the traps. Breakaways streaking past flat-footed defenders. Too many men at the principle moment. Tricking the refs right before icing gets called. Everything goes according to plan and they get out without spending a single red cent, although he's tempted by the version of DJ Hero he doesn't already own.
Pepperoni and green pepper pizza and a quiet spot in a parking lot behind a high school football field, and fireworks start to shoot up over the far treeline for flag day, maybe. Closing music from video games plays. Talking about how awful that movie was, how they could've made better car chases, how this and how that and who wants to ever go home again anyway?
"Hi there. Gimme a sec, I think my ticket fell on the floor. It's around here somewhere... nope, not here, not over there either, I have no idea. How much is a lost ticket? That much? Wow, now I really wanna find it. Oh, you'll fill out the thing... right, I just mail this back in then. Okay, thanks very much. You've been very helpful. Sorry about this."
Of course, he finds the ticket lodged under the back of his seat as soon as he hits the next rest stop. How it got back there, he has no idea. Best guess: the air conditioning picked it up and blew it over the roof of the car. At least he didn't have the window open.
"Hey there. One, two, three dollars -- whoops! Aw geez. Hang on, I'll just get out... shoot, I can't find the other one. Oh well, free dollar for somebody who needs it. Here ya go. Hey, would you believe this is still the least eventful tollbooth I've passed through today?"
Even after he's back over the border, Pete still can't find the hockey game on the radio dial. It isn't until he's nearly home that he finally manages to get the feed, all fuzzy and faded through the memories of AM rock. For a country supposedly so mad for this ice-begotten sport, they sure make it hard to actually pick up the play-by-play when you're not right next to a television screen. Aren't we supposed to care? Shouldn't there be a national outcry for our teams, pushed around and knocked out so casually, or for our players, hunters with maple hearts, roaming the southern land in search of silver-cup dreams? But there was nothing of the sort. Just a series of human beings on outpost assignments, taking cash and making change.
Act III: Boston, Massachusetts
(You don't have to specify that someone muses "to themselves." If they're saying it out loud, you probably aren't using "muses" anyway, and if they're thinking it then there can be no other logical listener, unless of course there's someone else living inside of their head.)
It's strange, Peter muses, but the older I get, the more I seem to enjoy the game of baseball.
The original plan was to listen to the Jays lose to the Rockies for an hour or so, then head inside and watch hockey. But through the series of miscalculations and failed communications which these particular friends have become known for and even accustomed to, they didn't get the meat on the grill until almost quarter to eight, and by then Pete was resolved to sit it out in the oncoming twilight and enjoy the rest of his cigar. By then it was becoming clear that Josh Johnson was pitching his way out of jams with a newfound stubborn grit, and by then it was certain that Jorge De La Rosa would match him inning-for-inning. Baserunners were left on, walks died on groundouts into double plays, foul balls were found down the wells. Hockey? Ice hockey, the kind they play in January on frozen ponds and the foreheads of old men who never understood why we let the game outside of our own borders? You gotta be kidding me. This is June, when the doldrums of spring training are far enough behind and yet the inevitability of the ever-expanding playoffs are invisible for their distance -- prime time to sit back in these plastic-striped lawn chairs we got when the Madman's late grandma left her up-province cottage-bungalow-whatever, to enjoy the slow sketches of the network man describing game-altering events roughly once every four minutes. Like, when you were a kid, you maybe went to the gallery sometimes? The art gallery. Right downtown. Next to the bridge, yes, that gallery, with the big spider out front. You went there as a kid, I mean the hypothetical "you", the "royal you", and you looked at paintings. But you never really saw them. Running from room to room, parents always dragging along behind you, left to your own devices you came up with strange imagination stories to fill the gaps in your overclocked mind. And now if you go, you actually bother to look at the damn things. See the techniques, the little details, the elements which escaped your interest because you honestly weren't interested then. That's baseball, man. A series of pictures lined up, room to room, framed and frozen for your perusal. Listen to this guy when Rajai Davis pops out.
But then Rajai Davis hit a single, which blew out the point Pete was going to make about the pause in the announcer's voice between the ball flying into the air off the bat, "and it's up high over center field", and the eventual capture, "caught by Fowler, one out." If you could encased the Skydome in a glacier at that precise moment, you'd crystallize that pause forever. A photograph, sure. A single frame on film. And all the other ways that Peter can't describe so artfully now, because Davis is standing proud on first base, and Colby Rasmus is letting ball after ball sail past him outside the strike zone. Rajai steals seconds, sort of pointlessly since Colby gets walked on four straight pitches, here comes J.P. Arencibia. Somewhere in the future, JP is railing against the "Baseball Central" analysts, guys who should understand that this game is really really hard because they've played it before too, but right now all anyone is thinking about are all those throws that went wild down the third-base line, back before this little win-streak got going. He does alright here: pulls back a bunt, ends up hitting an infield grounder that acts like a bunt, gets tossed out at first but advances the runners. Now here's Maicer Izturis, all the way at the back of the lineup, hitting where the pitchers do in the National League, and he puts a little juice on it, sends it to the gap in left, two score on a base-clearing single. It feels alright, don't it? A tight shutout like this, bottom of the eighth, you just know the game's already over even with five (or maybe eight) outs to go. Melky Cabrera obliges by grounding into yet another double play. Casey Janssen comes in to close it out: one strikeout, one walk, one more obligatory double play. Someone yells from inside the house: another goal scored in a city where the weather is too warm for the ice to stay solid without sophisticated cooling mechanisms.
Pete goes in to share the happy news with everyone. "Let me know when they're back over five hundred," the Madman says, eyes fixed to the screen.
As it was, the Jays would get there, beating their divisional rivals the Baltimore Orioles 7-6 on the twenty-first. Two days later they were even two games above the line, just three more back of the wild-card ranks, before the streak would end against Tampa Bay. Hovering around, hoping to make that last big push and give themselves something to play for by the all-star break. Buzzing like dread flies in the outfield. The fan favourites and returnees from the injured reserve, up and down from the minors, all the fun of a slow trickle through the solitary crack in an otherwise trustworthy dam. What happens when that river breaks on through? Do we pay attention then, when after a hundred and sixty-something games, we're finally in a noteworthy place? Seems a waste, like ignoring a whole curling brier and only watching the final, or only caring about the best team in the west after they've proven their little 24-game point streak wasn't a fluke. Or hosting your own impromptu press conference to angrily reject everything that your counterpoint just said about getting a deal done. Or, I don't know, writing about a road trip without mentioning the actual driving. They weren't there any more by the end of the year, but they did finish 74-88, one win better than the previous season. And they got to give the Rays a hard time, allowing Cleveland to move up into the first wildcard spot and forcing a game 163 between Tampa and Texas, so that was something. Take all the little things, all the infield singles and wild pitches and long throws from third base, and squash them together, and call it Life, because that's what it is.
Act IV: Boston, Massachusetts
There are three Dead Coyotes, but the leader isn't included as part of the three. An ordinary-looking couple walks into the supermarket about half an hour before closing time, heading towards the paper-products aisle. An unassuming dark-haired man of maybe thirty-five years is taking six-packs of generic store brand tissue paper boxes out of a cardboard case and pushing them onto the shelf, aligning them with the rear wall and turning the ones at the front to face the labels out properly. The woman speaks first: "hello, Coyote."
The stocker doesn't flinch. The woman's companion shuffles uncomfortably in his suit (clearly overdressed for a supermarket, even at this late hour) and clears his throat. That gets the stocker's attention. "Can I help you?"
The woman's hand comes out of her coat pocket, fiddles slightly with one of the large beige buttons. She's overdressed too, but the way her hair seems to curl back so perfectly draws the eye away from the anomaly. "Your name is Coyote, isn't it?"
"Hmm, nope, can't say anyone's ever called me that before." He taps his nametag. "Devon."
"Devon. Of course." Big fake smile from the woman, a neutral expression from her tan friend. (Bodyguard? Maybe, doesn't feel it, though. More like a... business partner.) "Well then, Devon, the name Damien Collaxxor won't mean anything to you."
But of course it means something to Devon, or the woman wouldn't have said it. His face darkens slightly, even as he pushes the empty case aside and starts tearing open the next full one. "Damien Collaxxor is dead," he says. The suited man starts to disagree, but Devon interrupts him. "Damien Collaxxor is dead. His wife is dead. His only son is comatose in a hospital in upstate Pennsylvania. Any possible relation he could utilize is either imprisoned, being watched, or otherwise unsuitable to his particular advantages. I should know." He emphasizes his finality by moving a bag of misplaced paper towels onto his pushcart.
"Assume for one second that you're wrong," suit man says. (You're not, but let's hear this anyway. Should be good.) "Wouldn't it behoove you to know where he is? Maybe go out and stop him, maybe for everyone's mutual benefit? Maybe even get something for your trouble."
"Well, two things. First off, my trouble is mine, otherwise it wouldn't be my trouble." Needlessly philosophical but in Devon's defense he's kind of busy here. "And second, I can't get in trouble any more. You don't think I'd be working here if I could do something more worthwhile?"
The woman agrees. "It is a little... low. For someone of your obvious standards." She appraises the aisle: stacks of paper on one side, varying heights of stacked pet food tins on the other. Bits of grey cat litter waiting to be swept up sometime in the night. "So maybe you can just tell us how to get in touch with one of your colleagues and we'll leave you to it. Hm? I'm sure White or Franz would do this for us."
"White's dead. So's Franz." Devon lets that hang in the air while he gets the last of the paper towels to stay on the shelf without falling over.
"White's dead?" suit man finally asks.
"Yep. Bit it on a raid into Sundusk country. Red dot, apricot. Never saw it coming, never had a chance."
"Huh. And Franz?"
"Don't know about Franz. Just know he's long gone. My guess..." Devon pauses, bending over to scoop up that one goddamn roll that always manages to hit the ground when the rest are lined up perfectly. "He got into his usual favourite type of brawl, well outnumbered, and didn't realize he was in too deep. Always figured he was the type to get pummeled to death, so."
The couple glance at each other. "If he's not lying, then he's useless to us," suit man says.
The woman gives him a warning. "Don't try it." But it's like telling the wind not to blow. The man's suit dissoves around him, rushing forward and around Devon's unruly features, blowing the company-issued polyester uniform against his waist. "Esshanin!" the woman exclaims.
It should only take a second, but somehow it stretches out over what feels like a week. "Thank you," Devon says, "for telling me his real name." As Esshanin begins to reconstitute in front of him, arm outstretched with the handgun pointed into his chest, he reaches forward, twisting the aerialien's newly solidified wrist to force the weapon out, then swinging around and smashing his elbow upside what would be an ordinary human's earlobe. As it is, the aerialien simply dissolves back into gaseous particles and blows away into the air vents. Devon flips the handgun over, unloads it. "Nitronic bullets." He drops them into his pocket. "You guys did your homework."
Another big fake smile. "I knew it was still you, Coyote." The woman steps closer, opening her coat, revealing the metal engine structures under her transparent skin-covering. Devon raises an eyebrow. (This is interesting, isn't it? Aerialiens and Steelhearts working together? What does that tell you?)
"I knew Damien was beyond gone." Another towel roll falls down, but he barely notices. "It was a pretext, right? To get me out in the open. Maybe get rid of me, the way I got rid of him."
She closes her coat and turns to walk away. "You've made a lot of enemies, Coyote. And the balance of power is skewed too far now. You shouldn't be surprised that everyone is coming for you."
"I'm not." He smiles. "Thanks for shopping with us tonight."
(She's out of the store,) the Signal Service Connector tells Devon. (Would you like to take care of this yourself?)
By now Devon is two aisles over, looking through overstocked barbecue sauces. "I've got work to do. Let the others deal with it. They know how to deal."
(Of course. You've gotten better at lying, don't you know.)
"Yeah, well. Comes with the territory."
White would hardly describe herself as impeccable, but she's precise enough to put the knives where she thinks the sublimated monsters are going to be, rather than where they definitely aren't, and that's enough to kill off about half of them without much trouble. As for Franz, he lives for this kind of thing. Ain't no buffed-out cyborg even got half the punching power he can throw down. Between the two of them, the wire feeds in the fourth dimension should be lit up like firecrackers tomorrow morning. Send the message: don't fuck with the coyotes. Of course, this puts out a second, more unfortunate message, which is that the Dead Coyotes are not as dead-dead as anyone might've thought they were, all thanks to that overconfident Aerialien agent with the itchy trigger finger. (But there'll be time to sort that out, too.)
Esshanin reconstitutes out of the pipes in the back room, hoping to catch Devon alone. He does, over by the compactors. Gets a glimpse into the machine before the safety guard closes shut and thinks he sees something shiny, something familiar? No, no, concentrate. He's got to do this guy in. Might be his only chance. "Where's the Steelheart?"
"The thing with nitronics," Devon says to him, "is it's all too easy to get in and recalibrate them. Makes 'em less deadly to me and more to other non-human species."
The Aerialien looks at him, then at the closed compactor as it whines against the pressurized garbage in its bowels. "You work here..."
"For disposal, sure." A thoughtful look crosses Devon's face. "Well, not exactly. First rule of the compactor is 'no body parts in the compactor.' But a Steelheart isn't really a body, at least not according to company policy. Just a bunch of bits and pieces pretending to be sentient. Besides, there's more than one way to throw out the trash."
The distraction is exactly long enough for SSC to sink down through the ceiling, pull a static-free bag over Esshanin's body, and suffocate him.
Act V: Chicago, Illinois
"And that's why they're called the Dead Coyotes?"
"Well, something like that. Maybe. Not exactly. You know how hard it is, getting straight answers out of Tim."
"She says she thinks it's the death grip choke hold kill clutch technique that's screwing everything up."
"Man, that isn't even that big a deal. How long was she gone? A couple..."
"Two months, yeah."
"So how do you even revert in that short a timespace? Like, a few years, that I can understand, but."
"I just don't remember where I was. What I was doing. I'm frankly glad it's over."
"But it's not over."
"No, not yet. Here, now, it isn't. Later it will be."
"You're doing that thing you pretended you didn't steal from Slaughterhouse Five, you mean."
"What can I say? Steal from the best."
"The first batch came out gnarly. Almost undrinkable. But it's a learning curve."
"Frankly I'm surprised you only had to screw up one. When I started brewing I must've gone through a half-dozen experiments before I finally got it right."
"Well, you were starting before there was a big online presence. It's easier now that you can just punch 'why does my beer taste like shit' into a search engine and get it right in one go."
"'A search engine.' C'mon man, you can just say Google."
"Who uses Yelp? Why would you even begin to speculate that anyone would use Yelp for any reason. Yelp isn't a verb."
"Yes it is."
"Okay, it is a verb, but it was a verb before, if you follow me. People aren't going to start saying 'I yelped it.' You google it. Things get googled."
"Before Google, things got yahooed."
"And before that they were dogpiled."
"No -- askjeeved."
Toss. Clunk. "Ohhhh!"
Toss. Clank. "Aaahh!"
Toss. Thunk. "Awwww."
They've once again circumnavigated the traditional rules of karaoke, subverting the hapless host's inability to curtail their enthusiasm (as opposed to curbing it, which just makes you sound like you're boring and neurotic.) All three of these guys have been up in the last hour and now here they are again. Nobody sees a problem with that, do they? If you're a regular, maybe -- but if you're a regular at karaoke, the way we were a hell of a time ago, you're already one foot in the clown car. It's not enough to get drunk and watch sports for you? Gotta get up in front of the lights and act like you're the next big frontman. And then, if you're really serious, or seriously deluded, it's on to the open mic nights. One wonders how many musicians out there are just people who are so thoroughly fooled with delusions of their own talent that they've fooled everyone else around them.
Next is a good long walk, pissing in the bushes, stopping to admire the grand piano at the chats-laurzie, eventually sort-of somehow maybe ending up at a diner. Meats and starches all around, and plenty of black coffee please. Peter notes the eerieness of the surrounding walls of mirrors. The Madman points out the parallel structures of Elvis posters, young and old on opposing walls. Tim sees nothing and hears nothing, his mind already humming away from this continuity into one that's been far more fleshed out over the last couple of years. Maybe someday it'll get written down. Why him? Even he couldn't answer that. So he stays silent. Nobody knows the score.
"And then whatever happened to"
"she was alright"
"constantly harping about"
"couldn't keep a straight face"
"issues, the kind of"
"no but it was alright because"
Earlier that day they'd killed a chicken and then eaten it. For real! Traditional manly behaviour! And earlier still they'd climbed a mountain, well more of just a hill really, but close enough as to sap the breath from their lungs and then back down a different slope to avoid the steep grade with the rope, it's getting slick out here boys, rain's coming down, don't know if we're going for a swim later after all. And then they went swimming, right across the lake no less, except for Peter who stayed back at the floating platform and let the drops hit his soaking face and imagined a world where he was still the single most relevant character and not just an increasingly anachronistic surrogate for a future from a past that couldn't have seen it. My self-styled autobiography was ever so much bullshit, he thinks. I was never really all that interesting a character, not compared to these guys. Starts making a little mental list of his friends in order of how intriguing they are. Captivating Friends Power Rankings! Tim first, obviously. Then maybe Jericho, only because he's always in trouble though. Maybe Ringo? When he's not godawful hungover, like he was that weekend with the robot, but then again who wasn't burnt to ash in those days? But if we're going by those days then maybe me and Mads get a pass, after all. Or what about the doc, and his kid of course, and possibly we could put Mike on the list somewhere but only because he used to room with Tim so again it's all displacement, and gotta figure out where to find Dub and Murphy and Danny and Dawn...
Hmm. He pauses. One particularly huge droplet hammers itself right into his eye and he doesn't even notice, although the stinging forces a teardrop out down his nose. Dawn. And Marina, and Page, and those girls who used to hang around and get high and pretend they were ninjas, and that one woman who tends to keep to herself and nobody minds, but for some reason they're always last in his mind. And it takes so much effort to think what makes them interesting, and they hardly even seem realistic. I live in a fictional world, Peter decides. I know this because only half the people in it are qualifiably interesting, and in a real world everyone's interesting for some reason or other. Or they would be, he thinks. A real creator wouldn't make a world full of paper people, whose primary characteristics are that they're amalgamations of everyone else.
Tim pulls himself up out of the water, onto the dock. He closes his eyes and doesn't open them again until he's exchanged his goggles for his shades again. A fox spirit on the shoreline yelps at him and runs off.
Act VI: Boston, Massachusetts
To be honest, I didn't catch much of the finals this year. In fact I missed the championship-winning game completely, working my shift, working on the assumption that Boston would inevitably strike back and tie everything up, forcing a decisive game 7 in Chicago, on a night I had free to round up my friends and strike out to the next whiskey bar as it were. Not four days earlier, this plan had played to perfection with the NBA final, as we gathered at Maclaren's to see Lebron lead the Heat to a consecutive title while getting a complete lack of service for most of the second half. It felt right; it felt like it was destined to happen. I figured it would happen again. Had the phonecalls and emails and gathering places all set up in my head. Didn't even bother to set the VCR. We all knew it was a must-win game for the Bruins, and nobody ever loses those.
It wasn't surprising, of course. The real surprise was that the Blackhawks took as long as they did to finish it off, having started the shortened season with one of the best point streaks in NHL history. They kept it going to nearly the halfway mark, which would've been even more impressive in a year that didn't start with the bickering and entrenchment which has come to characterize the CBA years for fans everywhere. I remember the exact moment I stopped caring. Donald Fehr, he of the great anti-Canadian baseball stoppage in '94, came up on stage with his player-professional-solidarity-soldiers flanking him, as always, and started talking a big game about how there'd been a breakthrough, things were really looking up, some offer or another was almost ready to print up and ink down. The way he was going, you'd think they were just a handshake away from getting it done. Then his phone beeped. It must've sounded like the alarm on a tractor-trailer about to reverse into him. A short while later, Bettman (or "buttman" as I routinely style it in conversation) strode to his own podium, trusted flunky Bill by his side, and tapped into the rage which was killing hockey for all of us to decry everything from the union to the offer to how absurdly tight his pants were. Maybe not that last one, I don't really remember, because I was too busy yelling back at the television. Gary spent all of his anger and I responded with all of mine. I unfollowed the official NHL twitter account and vowed not to spend any money on any league products that year, although I still accepted gifts emblazoned with the local centurion mascot from my brother-in-law. That was that. I was done with all the he-says-we-says bullshit. I went into a holding pattern of waiting for Sunday to watch the Bears. I found a new job and started to clean up my accumulated debt from my aborted year of reevaluting my relationship with formal education. (I discovered that we still don't really get along that well. Now if only I could convince my father of that.) Unlike the 2005 lockout, which seemed to stay intriguing even though the entire season was eventually lost, the lustre came off 2012's labour dispute that December evening, and didn't really come back even with the eventual return to the ice.
We floated along together, hockey and I, watching the games because I guess I'm a fan no matter what, and we did put together a quality season, and we did knock off the Habs in a first round which turned from conciliatory to vicious in the space of a single ill-advised headshot. (Another sticking point for me: watching Brendan explain that Gryba hadn't intentionally targeted the head and was a first-time offender, yet was being suspended for two games. Nobody knows what the playoff-to-regular ratio for suspensions is any more. "Didn't it used to be one to five? Was that hit worth ten regular-season games?") Then the Penguins made us look like idiots, and then the Bruins made them look like even bigger idiots, and meanwhile on the other side of the country Vancouver was trying to blame the refs for their own collapse against San Jose, and Chicago was destroying everything in their path because of course, and it seemed for just a moment in that month that we were going to finally get back on track, the demons cleansed out of the system. Back to the good ol' hockey game.
And then life happened. I missed the finals because of work, because of travel, because of friends. Seems funny to say it that way: I missed what is essentially a distraction from the rigors of modern life because of other, more pressing distractions. But I was tired. Despite being shorter, the season somehow sapped through the middle of June, the lessened length becoming more like the intensified pressure from a smaller point of contact. It ended almost as it began, with my conscious decision not to watch, because I thought it would get better on its own. I was all set to treat the offseason the same way. I wasn't ready for the last hit into the boards after the whistle.
On Wednesday, discussions with Daniel Alfredsson were progressing nicely. By Friday he was a Detroit Red Wing.
Just like that, what was left of what I still thought I knew about hockey was gone. Destroyed completely. My core is shattered and my prospects are lacking. I am in total rebuild mode. The facts began to drip out, funneled through an interview here, a press conference there. He wanted to win the Cup and thought Detroit was a better option; management took him for granted, assuming he would line up to sign for his retirement tour and never even consider another option; he thought they had a gentleman's agreement that he took a hometown discount on his last contract to manage the salary cap, and wanted more back; the owner was instituting an internal cap because the city wouldn't let him build a casino; the team didn't really care any more, because they knew the Alfie era was ending one way or another and they were trading for Bobby Ryan anyway. On Wednesday, Alfredsson was a hero, a leader, one of the all-time greats, loyal to a fault. By Friday he was just another hockey player.
There's no such thing as karma in sports. Oh, we want to see it there. They beat us last time, so we'll beat them this time. Our team has changed for the better since last year. We won't get as many injuries and our "puck luck" will regress upward to the norm. It's a tremendous fantasy. There is no control to the outcome, there's nothing special about one team over another, the level of talent between players is so thin sometimes as to be negligible. There's no single factor, no "key to the game," which explains it completely. I was going on break when I tuned the store radio to the sports network and discovered the Chicago Blackhawks had won the Stanley Cup. It was no moment for me, even if I crystallize it into one or three or five memorable touchstones to use as signposts for the path of the plot. They were all part of the slow, sliding realization that the overarching forces which I thought were controlling my life are actually impartial, uncaring, and arbitrary.