Illustration by Pedro Gomes

When his sister called from Boston to say their mother was dead, Oak was in an ice bath halfway through a twelve-pack of beer in the middle of the Texas afternoon trying to concentrate on how he was going to knock Pat McDonald’s head in. Outside his apartment, the El Paso sun blazed. Inside, he had the apartment lights off, as he kept them, against the wavering sickness in his head. He hadn’t slept again. He hasn’t slept much since the headaches that crept in over the summer, his hip and lumbar throbbing in their marrow. His ma wasn’t supposed to be dead. When Oak talked to her in July, three months ago, four, she said she was better, that her cancer was on the run.

Out the team bus window, a cattle truck rattles his head. The El Paso Storm bus rolls north through the Chihuahuan desert on the way to the Albuquerque, New Mexico rink, at the far northern edge of the West Texas Hockey League. Oak sits alone in a seat at the back of the bus with the other veteran players. The boys are playing cards, they’re on their phones. The bus smells of sweat, Icy Hot, booze breath, and beer farts. Oak takes a drink from the roadie he’s got between his knees. He’s got a seat reserved on a four am Greyhound back from Albuquerque to El Paso and a ticket for a flight from El Paso to Logan for tomorrow afternoon. For after he knocks Pat “Sandman” McDonald’s head off.

Oak examines his right fist. He locates the first knuckle of his right index finger down near the middle of his palm. He works the knuckle back toward the base of his finger, sets it more or less into place. He’s got nothing against Pat McDonald. The Albuquerque defenseman is twenty-two, is making a name for himself. Oak understands this. But he’s going to do it, he has to do it, even though McDonald tomahawked Ken Grimes’s neck with his stick last spring when Oak wasn’t even skating, when Oak was collapsed-out in his shitty El Paso apartment with his spinning head and his stitched-up post-surgery lumbar spine. 

He kept meaning to get back to Boston. From Texas. From Florida where he was before Texas. He hasn’t seen his daughter. He’s ashamed that it will take his own mother’s funeral for him to see her, to see Kate for the first time in four years. Kate was ten and now she is fourteen. Oak was ten. And now he is thirty-two. Oak looks back out the bus window at Texas. The sunlight slashes through the gap between his sunglasses and his face. He squeezes his eyes shut again. He hears the blood ringing in his brain. He just needs ice time. To get out of Texas and back up a league. And then up another league to where he belongs.

Oak gets the plastic pill canister from the pocket of his sweats. He needs six 40s a day to get the job done, with Dexy or Adderall. The team doctor cycles him through Vicodin and Tramadol, with Ativan and Ambien. Oak pays for the Oxy and Dexedrine. 

He’s always had headaches but last February they had started to mess-up his brain. The pills help. He remembers the game when he first really zeroed out. Two years ago in Florida. Nothing really bad had happened. He hadn’t even fought. He took a blindside hit from some goon and then it was an hour later and the game was over. Oak was dressing at his locker when he came to. He’s had his bell rung too many times to remember, drifted ten minutes here and there on the bench but he always came to. Drank some water. Head-butted the boards to wake himself back up. But that time, in the Florida locker room, when he woke to see his teammates doing their usual shit, laughing so he knew they must have won the game, he remembers the smell of rotting fruit. And then he fell against the dressing room bench and puked on the carpet, the boys giving him shit like he was hungover. He shoved a smile on his face, getting to the toilet stall where he sat for he can’t remember how long, steadying his brain in his busted-up hands.

He spaces the Oxy out, eats them in bursts before games. His soft head led to his busted back. His busted back led to more pills. He knows it. He’s read about it. He’s not going down that path, over the Mexican border with a Pringles can of pills. But the team doctor and dentist are scaling him back. So he’s paying premium. He no longer gives a shit what he looks like in practices—he knows he just needs to get his body back in order, his head straightened out. He doesn’t even want to take the shit anymore, but if he doesn’t then he can’t sleep, can’t think, can’t skate. 

He tries to remember to park his truck at the back right corner of parking lots. He writes down what he’s eaten, that he’s eaten. He puts his keys and his phone on a table that he moved next to his apartment door so he can always remember to take them.

A semi bursts past the bus window. Oak washes the Oxy down with the beer. “We’re showmen, Oak,” their coach Tom Bowie said to him three weeks ago on opening day when Oak fought his first fight since February, his first of six in this season’s first ten games, not counting the punch-up last week in the team bar parking lot that their mouthy Long Island-born winger started and Oak had to finish. “No one wants to see Tim O’Connor finessing a wrist shot.” 

Maybe it’s true, he thinks. On opening day there were posters for him, flashing phones. The El Paso Storm crowd chanted his name. He’s baaaack, the rink PA said, Oak watching himself overhead on the Jumbotron delivering hit after hit, punch after punch: for Texas, before that for Florida, for North Carolina, the crowd and him rising together. He’s fifteen and scoring, he’s twenty and skating, he’s twenty-five and falling, from the AHL to the ECHL, he’s thirty-two and closing his eyes behind his shades on a West Texas League bus to Albuquerque.

He turns toward the bus window again, twists an Adderall 20 capsule and sucks the Addy up his nose. In his head, he sees pictures: his dead ma smoking at his games when he was a kid; his sister step-dancing on a St. Paddy’s float; his father in a black donkey coat standing by the MBTA trains. And there’s Shannon and their baby, Kate, napping in his Providence College hockey house bed. His sister said Shannon and Kate will be at the funeral on Monday. Kate will be there when they lower his ma into the ground.  

* * *

The Albuquerque rink is old, steaming with bad air and wet ice. Banners for an MMA fight and a monster truck show hang from the rafters. Oak and his teammates skate on into a fog of boos. The Albuquerque fans pound the glass. They know what’s coming. They want it. They’ve paid for it. Oak skates to the visitor’s bench. He shouts over the boards to his coach Tom Bowie, Major Tom. “You gonna let me skate today, Major?”

Major Tom scratches his mustache, spits into the corner of the bench. His coach, his friend. They fished together. They used their sticks on the back nine in the Franklin Mountains, slapping golf balls out toward Juarez. “Just skate your game, Oak,” Major yells back, not meeting Oak in the eyes. 

The rink lights snap off. Oak steadies himself against the spots that swirl the ice. He swallows hard, jams his teeth together. He’s sweating good now, with what’s in him, with what he is going to do to Pat McDonald. The spots spin across the ice, the PA growling, “Don’t Poke the Bull if You Don’t Want the Horns!” as a snorting, flag-waving bull mascot leads the Albuquerque team onto the ice, steam blasting from the mascot’s plastic nose, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” shaking the arena’s air.

Oak looks for Pat McDonald. The Jumbotron flashes a montage of the Bulls scoring, hitting, and fighting. Oak opens and closes his gloved fists, shifts his weight from one skate to the other. Up above him, McDonald delivers a massive uppercut to some bender’s strapless chin, a halo of sweat exploding from the poor guy’s hair. The image freezes. The crowd chants “Sandman” as the rink lights burn back on. A coke sails down from the stands, hits Oak, ice and coke running down his back. The Albuquerque crowd bunches near Pat McDonald, waving Sandman posters, snapping photos of McDonald with their phones. In person, Oak realizes, McDonald is even bigger and dumber than he looks online. His head is like a cement block.

Oak sucks in, blows out, pushes off from the boards. He loops behind their net and smacks his forehead against the corner glass. The fans think he’s showboating. He does it again. Grinding his mouthpiece, he skates hard small circles in the visitor’s end. Later, he tells his body. He punches the boards to wake-up his bleeding fists. He drives his knees into the air. I’m still the boss of you, he’s telling his body, he’s telling his head, he’s telling his sick, throbbing blood.

He roars into speed. His teammates grin, stick-slap him as he goes by, Grimesy nodding, Oak squeezing life from every cell he’s got. He skates the center line. One of the Albuquerque guys says something to him, about how he’s done, about how he should go fuck his Texas boyfriend. Oak loops harder around their end, he’s flying now, and he cuts over the center line just as McDonald loops by. Oak grabs the kid and spins him. He’s not waiting on the National Anthem, he’s not waiting on the puck. He’s peaking, in half an hour his body will start its grinding collapse.

“Let’s go,” Oak says.

“Later, Pops,” McDonald says. One of McDonald’s front teeth is gone. Up close, Oak can see the baby fat on the kid’s face. 

“Now.” Oak drops his gloves, hurls his helmet so that it smacks against the boards. For a split second, waiting on McDonald to drop, an unfamiliar thought flashes in the rising white roar inside Oak—that he doesn’t have to fight. That he’s a dog in a pit. In that flash Oak lets McDonald’s ham fist shoot past his right ear, and Oak straightens the kid with three quick blows—chin, nose, temple. McDonald shove-hooks the side of Oak’s head, Oak flashing into starburst. The blow is like a thrown brick. The crowd roar white-tunnels into nothing, time slowing, as McDonald tries to hook again, the silence spinning as the benches clear around them. Oak ducks, comes back up. McDonald clenches. Oak’s been waiting on this. He studied McDonald’s clench online. The kid always leaves a gap. Oak shoots a tight uppercut with his right fist into this gap between their two chests. McDonald’s head snaps backward as Oak knew it would. McDonald’s head floats there in front of Oak, a fat, dumb balloon. Oak draws the punch from his legs to his waist to his shoulder to his fist and smashes it. McDonald falls silently into the whiteness, the guy’s head bouncing off the ice.

Oak times the bounce as the noise and color rush back in. He hurls a roundhouse to the side of McDonald’s face, the force of his own punch bringing Oak to his knees. McDonald’s head bursts into blood spray. The roundhouse sends McDonald sliding, his bleeding face smearing the ice. McDonald balls up. The fights around them freeze. The ref gets in front of Oak and suddenly the ref starts screaming for the rink doctor. Oak hears his own heart and breath. Cups rain from the stands. 

“Oak—”

Major Tom runs across the glove-littered rink. 

Oak—”

Oak sees his mother dead on her white-tiled bathroom floor. He sees his daughter Kate skating in white snow.

Oak—” 

There’s a doctor in red sweats running behind Major Tom. Oak watches them, the doctor slipping on the ice, racing toward McDonald. McDonald lays motionless. Getting closer, Oak sees McDonald’s bloodied face. And then he has to look again against what he thinks he is seeing and it’s there: McDonald’s right eyeball is hanging wet and red from his shattered eye socket to the blood pool on the ice. The quiet explodes. Two Bulls jump Oak from behind, the blows on him like blocks thrown into black water.

* * *

Later, in the parking lot, with the delayed game starting, Oak looks up at the black Albuquerque sky. An ambulance took McDonald away. Oak knew better than to try to see him. Oak just walked up the ramp, and even the fans were quiet, he walked through that quiet and got his skates off and his pads and he showered off the fight, his whole body shaking so that he had to sit down in the stall. He is still shaking in the parking lot, standing there shaking, when three guys come over, having left the game.

“There’s kids in there,” one guy says.

“You sick bastard.”

“You may have killed the guy.”

When the biggest guy throws a punch, Oak takes it, to the side of his face, and falling as he takes another punch, he lets the guys take their shots, their punches dissolving in the adrenaline that burns cold inside him. Looking up at the night sky from the Albuquerque parking lot, Oak can feel what they’ve done to his face and ribs, he can see it in the face of the smallest guy as they run—and he is lying on his back on Castle Island in Southie with his girlfriend Shannon, looking at the Boston stars, Kate still in that place for souls before they get ripped into life.

* * *

The Mighty Oak (Blackstone Publishing) © Jeff W. Bens

Jeff Bens

Jeff W. Bens is the author of the novels Albert, Himself and The Mighty Oak (Blackstone Publishing) and director of the award-winning documentary film Fatman's. His short fiction and essays are published widely. Bens was a founding faculty member of the School of Filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and has served on film festival juries around the world. He directs the Manhattanville College’s undergraduate creative writing program and teaches both undergraduate and graduate workshops in creative writing.

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