Tuesday, January 20, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (Fiction -- part iii)

Before I go any further, I feel that I must bring to your attention a certain incident from our past, one of those dazzling childhood afternoons that one tends to forget for what seems like decades, until the moment suddenly emerges, intact and pristine. Only a few months ago did I suddenly understand how it must have impacted my life. Absurd! To think that momentous occasions can recede like the tide, but I suppose that's what life's steady accumulations tend to quietly erode, all those fragile incidents smothered by the years steady push.  Getting older simply means that some things have go. Yet they often straggle back, as this memory did.

We were playing hockey one particularly brittle February morning on the frozen pond that abutted our school. It must have been a weekend, because in my recollection we had skated all day, loopy with the kind of winter exhausition which comes from hours of stop-and-start skating, and I'm quite sure that we would have continued well into dusk had not the subsequent 'incident' occurred precisely as it did.

Probably seven or eight of us, three or four to a team, plus goalies in their nets. I can't recall all of the boys who were with us, but there was myself, Henry (of course), Thomas Malton (who occupies centre ice of this story, even though he was a goaltender in real life), the Kepowski twins, Wallace and Wendell, and a few of our other casual friends from grade school who had joined us for the day of good sport. (This is a convenient way for me to acknowledge that their names no longer ring any bells in the chapel of my head. They remain faceless, although I can remember the faded red and green knitted toques that they wore, along with certain whistles and laughs that wheedled out from their mouths. Time, you sly bastard!)

The important point, what I need you to know, is that Henry stood up for a boy. I wish I could recollect his name. I can't believe I've forgotten it, but there it is. A nameless boy, given dignity, is what I am left with, and what I'm passing on to you.

There was some kind of a skirmish -- two boys fighting over the puck, a quick fall to the ice, a knee banged-up and bloodied. (Or so I assumed) I watched it all from behind the (imaginary) blue line of my own defensive zone; my role was to stay back and protect. Leave it to Henry, the goalie, the ultimate stopper of force, to one-up my own part.

I recall hearing his akward skates glide from behind as they cut through the ice. (In those days, all our skates were little more than hardened felt fastened to dull sticks of steel, but Henry's were especially crude, little more than lengthened rocks bound together.) He might have said something to me. I can't be sure. Yet as he breezed by me, the freezing afternoon wind seemed to sway just a tad -- as if it, like me, paused in its lazy arc of motion to allow the silence its space. In that audible gap, he might have even said what he planned to say to the boy. Nothing filled, it though, and the silence kept its own swell.

The boy was bent over at centre ice (or as rougly 'centre' as one can get in the uneven breadth of a pond). His tormentor, or bully, or perhaps equal adversary was skating back to the other end, welcomed by chuckling comrades. I slowly made my way up to where Henry was kneeling beside the stomach-clutching kid. In the fastly-spreading dusk, it was hard to make out just what the fuss was about, but I figured he had been probably sucker-punched, and was clutching his gut in a vain effort to gather his wind.

I could have skated closer. I might have clearly heard what Henry was saying. I should have been a bit brave, or at least more of a snoop. I realized that my assumption was wrong, that the boy had not been brutalized, that the source of such mockery was the black stain that rapidly spread across the base of his crotch. His blue jeans, a luxury in those days, almost an anomaly in that part of Ontario, were wetly ebony at their vee.

Is there any shame so intense as that possessed by a child who has pissed his pants before others? The whole moment lastled less than a minute. In retrospect (do we have anything else in life but retrospect?) it was, to be sure, one boy helping another to feel like less of a chump. Something far down inside me, however, underwent a small shift of upheaval. The first few stars were peeking through the soot-grey blanket of sky, and the soon-to-be-night seemed to ink its way into the air, and I could smell the sickeningly sweet stink of his urine, lifted then settled, as scents often do. I looked at them both, Henry and the boy, for a short snatch of time, but I felt them become older, and myself gain a foothold on what came to be known as the ladder of 'adolescence'. The moment seemed to expand, contract. Everything before felt like 'childhood', and everything after 'adult-like'. The way a cola can will explode when shaken for too long and too hard -- that was now my own sense of what humans might be. It was as if the notion of compassion extended its grace, allowed itself to be seen.

And then it was over, and the game resumed, and the image of the boy -- his face, his build, the shade of his skaes -- faded even before the night had come to a close. Decades later, all that's left is the smell of his urine, so horrific in its purity, its exposed humiliation. Being truthful, I can't even be sure which image is real from that day, and which one is a sketch, but the stink of his piss, I can tell you that was there. I'd forgotten about this day for years ever after, but now I can remember Charlie skating back to his net, giving me one of his winks with that one good eye of his, the other blind one even then clothed in a black matted square. I don't know if the urine-smattered boy left the ice right away, or after some time. I do know that something brave had been done, miniature yet mature. The night got colder, and darker, practically inviting even more accidents and misfortune, but we kept playing hockey until we couldn't see where the hands on our sticks matched up with the wood.