|Publisher:||Schaffner Press, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
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There is a man in the stands who is cheering for no one.
Colton fumbles the puck as he tries to hand it to the ref.
The ref does his rendition of the SportsCenter theme as he picks the puck up off the ice. "Better wash my hands — you pulled that one outta your ass."
The man in the stands is interested in the game, but not in the score. Cheering for no one, but focused.
Alone, his seeming lack of affiliation wouldn't be enough. But the man, he's holding a clipboard.
Even the most stat-obsessed parents don't bring clipboards to games. Especially not to the Metro Northwest summer hockey league, championship game or not. The league doesn't even bother putting the stats online in the summer.
A couple teammates tap him on the pads with their sticks. "Nice save, Crouton." "Quit showing off, Vogler." Chatter he ignores so as not to get distracted.
The man with the clipboard who is cheering for no one is sitting apart from the Rockford fans, the Fremd fans. There's a little landing wedged into one corner of the Bensenville Edge Ice Arena that the upstairs viewing area opens onto. He's this perch's only occupant — above and to Colton's left, a perfect view of that glove save. Colton tries to remember if, when teams switched sides the second period, this man followed him from one side of the rink to the other. Like goalie dads do.
Focus. It's obvious from the way Fremd's center is positioned that he'll try to shoot it off the draw.
But Colton knows that telling yourself to focus is proof that you aren't. When a goalie is focused, the last thing on his mind is focusing. For example thirty seconds ago, back when the stands might as well have been totally empty.
Spezak keeps the center from putting a shot on net, but the puck gets kicked back to the blue line where the D's stick is already raised. Crouching to peer through a tangle of shin guards, Colton hears but doesn't see the slapper that glances off the center and sails an inch high.
"Careful, that one almost hit me," he says to Lalande as Krpata picks it up and clears the zone.
Who uses clipboards?
Other than his jackass friend Rudy when he wants to make restaurant employees think he's there for a surprise health inspection.
Scouts. Scouts use clipboards.
Or he's just some emotionless parent who appreciates having a flat, hard surface to write on.
But there's a third thing. He's wearing a track jacket, and that track jacket is not Rockford Glaciers blue and green, nor Fremd green and gold. The guy's track jacket is maroon and white.
Golden Gophers? Boston? Denver? Duluth?
Four teams that won't be interested in you if you don't get your head back in the game stat — because dude has a breakaway and you might as well impress everyone no matter who's watching.
Colton c-cuts to the hashmarks, beckons with his glove, and starts back when the forward hits the blue line. DeStefanis giving chase but not gonna catch him. This is the guy with the ripped pants who blocker-side deked Colton last season then tried to tuck it in behind him glove side.
Colton leans left, shows him daylight right.
Guy fakes glove side this time then goes blocker, takes the bait.
Colton knows it's a save before he's made it, but pop goes his leg as he extends nearly into the splits, skate blade clanking the goal post.
DeStefanis is all over the rebound.
The pain in Colton's crotch transforms the fans' cheering into screams of agony. He gasps as he pulls himself back to standing position, trying to hide what happened from the man with the clipboard.
He spots his friends through the glass — Rudy, Nate, Paige. Paige is waving her sign, having outdone herself in a one- sided joke to embarrass her boyfriend as much as possible. COLTON SAVES MY HEART FROM LONELINESS.
There's a whistle — somewhere, for something — and teammates again skate by to pay him homage. But Colton's head is dizzy with vague calculus. The Glaciers are up two to zero with eleven minutes left in the third. Scant breathing room. It's the most important game of a very unimportant summer league, the trophy a t-shirt. His backup Routhier is capable but cold from two plus periods with his ass parked.
Colton should give himself the hook. Not worth worsening a fresh injury of unclear severity.
But he won't.
Not because he cares about the team or the t-shirt or his groin.
But because a stranger in a maroon track jacket with a clipboard, now making a phone call, has driven a long way to see him play.CHAPTER 2
Colton's a little disappointed it's not a junior or college team, but with the school's reputation, he'll hear what the man across the table has to say.
Embroidered on the breast of his jacket: Coach Riessen. Don, he'd introduced himself in the lobby as Colton ignored the cheers of Rudy and Nate and Paige.
Driftless. No nickname, the Eagles or Tigers or whatever. No mascot, other than the team they're trouncing at the time. Maroon and white. No third color, other than their opponents' blood. A school across the border northwest of Madison, Colton thinks. They win states most every year.
"I already spoke a bit with your parents in the lobby."
This rink room had hosted a birthday party not many minutes ago. A cake box is smushed into a garbage can smaller than the cake. Pizza boxes continue to waft their cheesy reek. Colton can still hear an untuned children's choir torturing the birthday song to death. Though he's starting to feel dangerously celebratory, the confetti and orphaned balloons are at odds with the gravity of the conference.
It's life decision time.
"I didn't give them any information, just asked if they'd let me speak with you for a few minutes. I'm sorry to pull you away from a well-deserved party."
Colton shrugs. "It's summer league." Was that too cavalier, like he doesn't take some games seriously? He just meant no problem.
"You're big, but you play even bigger. How tall are you?"
"The highlight reel saves were fine, but what got my attention were the ones you made look routine, the pucks that hit you square in the chest. You're always in the right position."
Anything he'd reply would sound cocky, so he averts his eyes, gives a faint nod. Whatever's transpiring seems more fragile than it probably is.
"I find myself down a goalie for next year," Coach Riessen outs-with-it. "I don't need you to give me a decision tonight, but the reality of the situation is that it's August and I need to find a keeper ASAP."
Until they moved into the MB Arena downtown last year, the Bensenville Edge was the Blackhawks' practice rink. Once, Colton was lugging his bag to the locker room and Corey Crawford clomped right by in full gear.
"Would I–" Colton starts. "When are tryouts?"
Coach Riessen pretends to consult his watch. "About forty-five minutes ago."
"And I'd have to go to school in Driftless?" Of course you would, shitbrains. "Would there be, like–"
"You'd be staying with a host family. Flynn Rentschler and his wife, Alma."
"You mean ... it's not ... the Flynn Rentschler?" NHL enforcer and journeyman, played for six or seven different teams between 2000 and 2010.
"The same. One of our many proud alums now dedicated to helping continue a mining town's tradition."
An image flashes through Colton's mind of Flynn Rentschler kicking the shit out of him for violating curfew.
Coach Riessen smiles. "Actually, he's a nice guy."
"I'd resigned myself to finishing out my high school career in Rockford."
"Resigned — there's an appropriate word. Colton, I get it. You're a hometown guy. You've got friends here, a girlfriend too, if I read the signs right."
Oh God ...
"Rockford's done well for itself in recent years, and I know you're keen on that fourth state championship ring. But you know and I know there's a big difference between a high school state championship, and a combined high school state championship. In Wisconsin we call it the Independent League, as if it's liberating — not having enough studs at one school to fill a bench. Let me know if I'm pressing too hard. Every Driftless varsity player with hockey dreams will end up at a Division Three college, at least. A lot of them go D One, and I could start listing the guys who've gone pro. What's the farthest any player from Rockford has gone?"
"D Three, maybe."
"D Three JV. And Tyler Bianchi was for sure good enough to play varsity. But he never got a shot. Problem was, he came from a town with no connections. You know what scouts hear when you say Rockford?"
"You said it, brother. Moving at a glacial pace. What NCAA colors do you dream of wearing?"
"Red and white."
"Wisconsin's head scout is Will Tremblay. He comes up twice a year to play poker and see what we've got. Great eye for talent, terrible poker face."
Colton shifts in his seat, and his groin sings out furthercomplications. He wonders if his friends are getting impatient, if his parents will let him ride home in Nate's Jeep.
Coach Riessen misreads his grimace. "We have a rink on campus, a personal trainer, a full gym. We'll get you suited up with new gear. Full set, customized."
"What's your goalie situation at Driftless?"
"There we go. If you talked like you play goalie, those are the kinds of questions you'd ask. I don't make promises I can't keep, and I don't want you getting complacent over what little's left of the offseason, but I'm scouting for the number one. We've got a great sophomore goalie, Max, but he doesn't have the mental toughness for state playoffs yet."
"What happened to your starting goalie?"
For the first time during their talk, Coach Riessen is taken aback. Like Colton had asked a little too good of a question.
He leans back in his chair, looks older. "Bad story. Wrapped his car around a tree. No parties that night, but he was pretty drunk. He'd signed a letter of intent to Merrimack."
The drywall swallows the last echo of "Happy Birthday." "What was his name?"
"He survived, or his brain did at least. Name's still Shane."CHAPTER 3
Another table, this one with food. The festive air plus the smell of the birthday pizza plus the couple thousand calories he'd burned during the game had given Colton a bottomless hunger.
The weed, no doubt, had been a contributing factor.
In addition to a whole pot of coffee, he'd polished off something called the Big Biscuit Breakfast: two fried chicken filet sandwiches smothered in gravy and cheese, plus hash browns, scrambled eggs, and bacon. Now he's eying the dessert menu for anything with cake frosting.
Probably good, soak up the bourbon they'd slugged in the parking lot.
"I don't see it on the menu," Rudy is saying to the waitress, and Colton's been on enough late-night Perkins runs with this friend to know what's coming next, "but do you have the lemon cream pie by chance?"
"We have lemon meringue."
Rudy leans back, a cat distancing itself from an evil smell.
"They never have lemon cream pie," Paige says. "They phased it out like five years ago."
"They had it one time when I asked."
"When none of us were there to witness the event."
"It has this little gummy lemon wedge on top," he informs the waitress, who is trying her best to care at one a.m. "Alright, I'll have boring ol' peanut butter silk."
"Make that two."
"Three," Paige says. "Nate, should we get a whole pie?"
"Nothing for me, thanks." Nate flicks a sugar packet over his coffee like he thinks it's holding out on him.
"Nate!" Colton collapses on the table. "Cavort with us! It's on me." Colton is high.
"I'm fine," Nate snaps.
"Three slices," Paige tells the escaping waitress.
"No food, no booze, no–" Colton holds two fingers up to his lips. "What's up, Terminater?"
"Why do I only get nicknames when you're high?"
Colton has foggy recollections of the bygone era an hour ago when he too had been thinking very seriously about forgoing all the joys in life. "Nicknates." The idea of Driftless, of Badger scouts' poker faces, had messed with his head enough that he'd considered a different type of celebration: starting this new life by regimenting his diet pronto. "The Nate Natsby." What if, instead of eating a piece of pie that contained an entire stick of butter, he drank three glasses of water and went jogging through the night streets like a maniac? "Late Night with Seth Meyers."
"You forgot to change that one. I think you meant Nate Light."
"Boylan's gonna suck without you next year," Rudy says.
Colton feels a flash of paranoia that, in his highness, he'd spoken aloud the words that were running through his head — but, no, Rudy is talking to Nate, who's a year ahead of them at Boylan.
"You guys'll have to get another fool to find you booze."
Colton spots a fugitive fry trying to make its escape. In sixth grade he'd started to get chunky, and he'd responded by going borderline eating disorder, counting every calorie and charting his weight and exercises. Once a growth spurt stretched him out and he discovered fun in high school, he relaxed. Now he hits the weight room once in a while to pretend he has a future in athletics that requires a hard body, but he knows that a lot of his success in hockey has been coasting off that early drive.
An hour ago, as Colton pondered going to bed with a very empty stomach, that junior high taskmaster version of himself said hello, whispered I never left. And, though his appetites won the night, Colton felt again the grim satisfaction of treating his body like a precision instrument.
The pie arrives.
Fuck it. He might have to reevaluate shit now that NHL dreams are a reality again after years of slow, steady evaporation — but tonight is for reveling.
"How can we outdo your senior prank without you here to help us?"
One spring morning, soon after news of Vice Principal Klonski's DUI appeared in the Rockford Register Star, Nate had removed choice letters of Boylan Central Catholic above the student entrance so that it read
Boylan al caholic
"I'll stay on as a consultant" — Nate's hands are trembling from the coffee — "for a small fee."
More difficult to banish is the image of the Driftless goalie — Colton has forgotten his name — pulled from a mess of metal that no longer resembles an automobile. It's a daunting enough cautionary tale that he'd thought about volunteering to sober cab Nate's Jeep home from the rink. But abstinence has been Nate's moody m.o. the whole night.
Nate, who's the wildest of them all! Nate, anti-everything except drugs, booze, and screwing. The Dark Nate Rises. The Nateful Neight. Nick at Nate. The Hunchback of Dotre Nate.
"You'll have to grow out that hair," Nate tells Rudy. "Give Klonski a new adversary to chase around with his clippers."
"Do your imitation of the Klown when you got your letter from Columbia."
Despite horrendous grades, Nate received scholarships to several top schools based on his ACT scores and his writing samples alone.
"Well, young man" — Nate hunches one shoulder and reels around — "I knew we'd make something of you. I always had faith. Never doubted it."
The pie is so rich it seltzers Colton's nervy stomach, and he has to set down his fork and Zen himself away from the brink of puking. His new groin injury is stiff from the ride back from Bensenville. Paige is threading one prong of her fork through the curlicue chocolate shaving atop her slice of pie, and she gives him this little mischievous smile, and he's not sure he can do it. Senior year is the best social year of your entire life. Nonstop parties. Teachers don't give a shit — if Nate is a reliable source. He can always take a year off if he wants, go play juniors before heading to college if there's still any fire inside him. Wisconsin? You sure about that?
"I can't imagine you in a dorm. Colt, can you imagine rooming with this hooligan?"
Colton disguises nausea as laughter.
"Guys, I'm not going to Columbia," Nate tells his coffee mug.
Everyone stops eating their pie. Everyone in the restaurant, it seems.
"What? Where else–"
"You know that girl I've been hanging out with?"
"Really can't call her a girl, buddy. You should have brought her — we'd get the senior discount–"
"Rudy," Paige says. "Shut up."
"She's pregnant." Nate's eyes are red for a different reason than his friends'. "I'm going to hang around and see if I can get a job. If not, at least I can help out with her other kid while she's at work."
They're all afraid to talk.
"Have you ..." Rudy stops himself.
"It wasn't that much of an accident. I'm going to marry her, I think."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Driftless Quintet"
Copyright © 2019 Joe Sacksteder.
Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
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