Butterflies and Dinosaurs
The first time Chip Kristoffer smelled her perfume was from the penalty box after a scrap with Troy Neilson of the Abbotsford Heat. Chip's right eye had swelled shut and the arena had filled with boos at the announcement of his name. He stepped in, and even before he'd turned to sit down to start in on the two minutes he'd earned, he smelled her, then glanced up and saw her.
The woman sat three rows behind the penalty box. She smelled like spring breeze in the southern Canadian prairie, where he grew up near the Red Deer River. She was red faced and fragile and wore navy blue jeans and a silky red shirt under her black pea coat. She sat cross-legged with her hands in her lap.
The pain in his face seemed to disappear when he breathed in the smell of that perfume. He turned then, sat down. Once the penalty was over, he fastened his chinstrap and grabbed his stick and the penalty box official opened the door to let him on the ice, he turned to look at her once more. She was turned, watching what was happening on the ice. She didn't even see him.
Coach had told him at practice earlier in the week that he'd have to fight Neilson, who'd taken a cheap shot on one of their guys in last year's playoffs and put him out for the rest of the season. Coach wanted revenge.
Chip had protested, "Coach, I'm not a fighter."
Coach was a short Swedish man with thinning brown hair and a fading tattoo on his right wrist. Except for game days, he wore a black-hooded sweatshirt and always carried a cup of coffee he either drank out of or spit tobacco into.
Coach said, "I say what you are."
"I think I can better help the team by being in a position to score."
"You don't want to play?" He sipped his coffee.
"Of course I do. I just want—"
"I tell you what you want. If I'm told to make you tough I make you tough. They say you play soft, like a little butterfly. So I want to make you into dinosaur, not a butterfly. If I tell you to fight you fight." He put the coffee to his lips, then seemed to think better of taking a sip, brought it back down, his eyes the whole time on Chip. "If I tell you to beat this piss out of the seven-year-old girl in the fifth row," he went on, "then you beat the piss out of the seven-year-old girl in the fifth row. Not the eight-year-old boy in the third row or the eighty-year-old woman in the thirtieth row. The seven-year-old girl in the fifth row. And you beat the living piss out of her or you go home." He took a sip of his coffee, then flipped the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and walked off.
Troy Neilson was six-foot five and nothing but steel and concrete and barbed wire. He was swollen lips and broken nose and railroad track scars. Once the game started, Coach waited until the second period to send Chip out against Neilson. When they lined up together for the face-off Chip noticed the bronze tone of his skin and felt the heat radiating from his body. They tied up with sticks across each other and, as if Neilson knew all along, he pushed himself away from Chip, dropped his stick and both gloves to the ice, pushed back the sleeves to his jersey, and squared up to Chip with two fists in the air. The other players on the ice backed away to their benches and the crowd stood up with a roll of excitement, leaving the two players circling one another, each attempting to latch onto the other's throwing arm with one hand and throw punches with the other.
Neilson had struck first with such quickness that Chip couldn't respond before the second and third punches were thrown. Chip could only tuck his head and hold on to Neilson's arms in an attempt to stall his flurry of jabs. Neilson's whirlwind connected with bone and skin and hair and soon Chip lost his balance and fell to the ice as the linesmen extended their striped arms to end the fight and unfasten Neilson's grip on Chip, then lead them both to their penalty boxes.
Chip's youth coach once told him he had two options when attacking the offensive zone. The first is called funneling, where the puck is either shot or passed toward the front of the net, allowing the other two attacking forwards to clean up the garbage. The second is called a backside pass, and happens when you move from the outside into the middle of the ice once crossing the blueline. This forces the two defensemen to shift their assignments.
Then, and this was the tricky part, you pass the puck back to the area you just left, the soft spot inside the zone. In order to complete the pass you must slightly turn your shoulders so that you lose vision in front of your body. Once you make that pass the referee will count to himself, "One, two, three," and in that three-second window the defenseman, if he anticipates enough, can step up, drop his shoulder, and end your life. Any longer than three seconds and it's a penalty. It's within those three seconds that many hockey players' careers come to an end. When you cut to the inside and look back for a split second to make that soft spot pass, you leave yourself vulnerable to forces beyond your control.
After the game, Chip showered and dressed quickly, then pressed a bag of ice the trainer had given him to his jaw and forehead. His lip was cut and swollen and he knew he wouldn't be chewing any food tonight without sending a sharp pain up the side of his face, the inside of his skull pounding.
He checked himself in the mirror—most all the players were gone by now—and ran his hand through his hair. He wore black dress pants with a white dress shirt and blue tie, seemed to look okay for what he'd been through this night, and then he stepped out into the dark concrete hallway outside the locker room, where he hoped he might find the woman with the perfume with the group of fans and family and girlfriends that congregated near the door to the player parking lot.
Some would ask for autographs and pictures, he knew, while others were there just to flirt. But here was the woman, just as he'd wanted, leaned against a back wall looking at her fingernails, her legs crossed and her hip jutting out carelessly as the women around her chatted and laughed together.
Two young girls in the team's jerseys asked Chip for autographs on their hats. They said he shouldn't have fought Neilson, that he was the best fighter in the league, that when he makes it to the NHL he'll be the best fighter there too. Chip said that Neilson would have to make it first and the one girl said, "Oh, he'll make it," and seemed serious.
Chip asked, "What about me? Do you think I'll make it?" She said maybe and thanked him for the autograph. When Chip looked up, the woman with the perfume was talking to Erik Slaughter, the team captain. He was a redheaded defenseman with a scar that stretched down his forehead, through his left eyebrow, to the top of his nose. She uncrossed her legs and stood up straight and looked behind Slaughter at Chip. Then the two of them turned and left the stadium together.
He couldn't rid himself of the smell of her perfume. It followed him through the night, all the way to his empty apartment and the dark of his bedroom, where he could see himself standing in the flat prairie land where he'd grown up, surrounded by the harvested two-toned fields, his parents' house in the distance. Somehow that smell brought him to think on his father, and his brown leather boots sitting on the front porch and him telling Chip to take off his shoes on account of his mother. Even after she'd left, his father kept those boots on the front porch before going inside. Chip always made sure he did the same. She left for Vancouver only a year before Chip took off himself at fifteen to play juniors in the states. He'd seen her from time to time over the years when he was in town for games. During that time he'd only seen his father once, and that was the last time. After she left, his Dad started chewing in the house. Tabac sans fumée, he called it. He'd spit in empty beer cans he left around the house, Chip the one to throw them away. He'd tried a pinch from his father's Copenhagen can once. His father found him lying on his bedroom floor and asked if he was dizzy. Chip said he didn't feel good and his father made him stand up and walk outside. He wouldn't let Chip put on his shoes and the mud filled in between his toes and made a slip-slop sound as his father lead him to a fence post and opened his tin and said they couldn't go inside until Chip swallowed the whole thing.
Chip, bent over, looked up into his father's face. When Chip didn't move toward the tin sitting on top of the fence post his father grabbed it and forced Chip's fingers to take a pinch. Then he pressed his hand around Chip's chin and tilted his head back so he could drop in the pinch. Chip sucked on it at first and coughed and his father said, "Swallow it." After the third pinch he started throwing up. He purposely threw up on his father's boots, but his father didn't move his feet at all, just stood there making him drop pinches into his mouth until the tin was empty and his boots and Chip's bare feet were covered in mud and du tabac. Chip was too sick to go to practice the next morning, but his father dragged him by his shirt collar into the truck and drove him to the rink. Chip threw up on the ice that practice as well, but it was just water and stomach acid. The ice was white and cold, and he hadn't had his father's boots in front of him.
Chip's mother was a quiet woman who had met his father when she was still in high school, then had run off with him the day after she graduated. They'd eventually settled down in the house surrounded by wheat fields, and Chip could remember when he was a boy how his mother would shiver with each creak of the house when it came time for his father to return from work. She'd tell Chip to wash his hands for supper and if he hadn't arrived after a few minutes she'd tell him to wash them again. His father's footsteps were the wind or the television or a car driving down the gravel road past the house. She always heard wrong, and Chip began just running the water in the sink and then returning to whatever preoccupied him. From what he could tell by the way his father treated her, his mother was a disappointment, a woman who moped and did very little. When Chip was fourteen she left and his father didn't seem sad at all. Every morning his father dropped him off at the ice rink in town for practice on his way to work. The morning she left he loaded her suitcases into the back of the truck and she sat between them in the cab for the drive into town. He dropped them off at the ice rink and she waited with her suitcases until Chip's practice was over. She kissed him on the forehead in the rink parking lot.
She said, "You work hard now and I'll see you soon." She turned down the road to the bus station, a suitcase in each hand. Chip watched her go. He had a feeling of some kind, but didn't know what it was or where it came from or what to do about it.
The house appeared smaller once she left, as if her presence had expanded its walls and pushed out its boundaries. It came alive to him and he noticed for the first time its dirt and dust and slow decay. He was embarrassed when the hockey scout from the states came for a visit and sat down with his father on the couch and talked about his future career and how they wanted to draft him. Chip made coffee before he arrived and vacuumed the living room. He wished he'd also washed the coffee table where the scout's mug sat.
He asked, "When are tryouts?"
The scout folded his hands and leaned forward on the couch. He was a short man with black hair combed back. He said, "In August. But you have to understand that it might be another year before you make the team. We draft players at fourteen and the ones who make the team usually do it when they're sixteen. Most likely you'll play another year here at home and then try out again as a sixteen-year-old with a better chance of making it. Your size and speed won't be a problem. But you'll be playing against much smarter players with one or two or even three years more experience at this level. Some of them coming back from NHL camps." He picked up his coffee and leaned back in the couch.
Chip said, "I'll make it." And he no longer felt embarrassed about the couch or the coffee table or the stained carpet or the nervous way his father wrung his hands together waiting for the scout to leave so he could open a can of beer from the fridge.
After juniors, Chip signed a minor league contract at twenty-one and was assigned to the Bend Breakers, one level below the NHL. The team released its first player only a few weeks into the season. His name was Stormy Brooks and they released him after an evening practice the first day it started to snow. Stormy stood in front of the arena with his gear bag and stick. He didn't have a car and refused any rides the players offered. The trainer said he stood out there all night. In the morning Stormy was gone, but his gear bag and stick still sat there, covered in a layer of ice and snow and stayed that way in front of the arena all week. The ice and snow accumulated until one day Chip couldn't see the bag and then the shaft sticking up, leaving a small pile of snow and ice. When the team heard rumors of a trade or release around the locker room they always said that a Storm was coming.
What Chip couldn't understand was that Stormy wasn't a bad player. Somewhere, however, he messed up. But nobody knew how or why. He wasn't lazy, didn't complain or cause problems. He was there one day and gone the next. The soft carpet in the locker room felt more like hot coals: one misstep and it could be a long car ride home. The arena, the ice, the locker room, these were the only home Chip knew. The last thing he could afford to do was screw that up. About a week after Stormy had left, Chip asked around trying to figure out why he'd been released. Erik Slaughter told him he needed to stop asking altogether. They were in the showers after practice and Slaughter put his finger into Chip's chest. "It's a business. Leave it alone."
Slaughter had been drafted out of Harvard his junior year. He called Chip GED because he'd never graduated from high school. Chip went to school in juniors his last two years, but needed one class that he never took in order to graduate. He hadn't thought about it much, never measured it along with his self-worth, but was forced to when Slaughter started mouthing off and calling him that name. The team had a few other college boys, but they didn't talk about it the way he did with his fire hair and scarred face. He wore fancier suits than everyone with bright colored pocket squares and shoes he'd tell people the price of and the country where they were handmade.
He'd say, "You want some change for a soda, GED? Take four of these big coins and push them into the machine. One—two—three—four." He held up his fingers.
Slaughter's short stint in the NHL and his long-term furlough in this league made him an icon in the city and among the management. As the team's leader his word was as good as the coaches. If Slaughter told you to wear ballet slippers and dance around the locker room in a pink tutu, you danced your fucking heart out.
Chip sat out the next game as a healthy scratch and watched from the stands. And there she was, a few rows below him: the woman with the perfume.
He could smell it faintly and watched the back of her blonde hair the entire first period until she rose from her seat at the intermission and walked up the stairs toward the concourse. She smiled as she walked past. After a few minutes Chip headed toward the concourse. He managed his way through the crowd to the far side of the wall. Where he stood beneath a large poster of Erik Slaughter. He smelled that southern prairie perfume as a rush of blonde hair brushed past him. She leaned against the wall beside him.
"It's the tough guy." She smiled. Her skin more perfect and delicate than viewed from across the ice.
"I'm more of a lover than a fighter."
"That's what they all say." She winked. "The truth is you love the violence and we love you for it. It's a vicious cycle."
"I've never seen it as violent."
She moved off the wall and faced him straight on. The crowd pushed its way around her. "What is it then?"
"Work. A job. Some guys put on their hard hats and others sit at a desk. Sometimes I fight, sometimes I score, sometimes I have to sit out and watch."
She grimaced. "You're pathetic. You don't get it, do you? This isn't a stroll through the garden. You don't just show up and punch a time card." She pointed at his head. "Who are you willing to kill?"
Chip didn't say anything.
"When you really want it, you'll be willing to kill someone to get it. And everyone will know. They'll call you a mad man. They'll call you crazy. When you understand that maybe you'll get somewhere. Maybe. If not, then you'll go home. Wherever that is."
Chip shook his head and looked out over the crowd. "You don't know."
Her eyebrows rose. "I don't know anything? You have it all figured out here in the stands with your grandpa's tie." She smiled again, then turned and walked away. The crowd in the concourse thinned as the second period started, but Chip stayed there in the hallway, standing square under Slaughter's poster.
When Chip's team won the championship back in juniors, the trophy was a silver bowl on a wooden stand. His father drove all day from the prairie to make the championship game in Spokane. It was the first time he'd seen him since he'd left home two years prior. His father and mother sat together in the stands, their bodies turned toward each other, talking. Chip would look up at them throughout the game, just to see if they were still there. His teammates also had families at the game, so afterward, all the dads came into the locker room as they celebrated and opened champagne bottles. Everyone had a bottle and shook it and sprayed everyone else. The trainers, the coaches and the team's owner in their suits and ties; the fathers hugging their sons and shaking the coaches' hands and hugging the other fathers. Chip's father had a bushy black beard and champagne dripped from it. When his father filled the trophy bowl with champagne he made everyone take a drink. Excited as Chip was, he didn't want his father in the locker room for the celebration. It wasn't as if he'd ruin the moment by telling him to leave. But his father still had cow shit on his brown boots and mud on his jeans. Chip was embarrassed by his presence.
By the time they left the stadium and he'd kissed his mother on the cheek and boarded the team bus back to Portland, his father was in his truck driving back to the prairie, smelling, Chip knew, like cheap champagne and cow shit, his beard sticky, his face smiling.
Chip returned to the stands, the second period underway. But the woman with the perfume was sitting in his seat with her legs up on the empty seat in front of her. He sat down next to her and asked her name.
"Ali. Ali Slaughter."
The crowd clapped in unison with the music. Slaughter picked up the puck behind the net and passed it to a cutting forward before taking a hit. Slaughter dropped his shoulder and the opposing player bounced off him, then sprawled back trying to keep his balance. The sounds of the crowd rose as the opposing player teetered and then erupted when he finally toppled to the ice. Ali watched but didn't react.
"That hit right there," Ali said leaning against Chip's shoulder, "was like a minor car crash. Erik's brain suffers two or three of those every game. Add that up over an entire season and then multiply that by his entire career. If he gets called up, then those crashes become more than minor and they happen more often. Four years ago he woke up and couldn't remember how to tie his shoes." She leaned back off his shoulder and looked at him. "The other day he was staring at me. Just staring, like he was trying to think of something to say. And then he said my name. He couldn't even remember my name. The idiot went to Harvard and he can't remember how to put together the three letters of my name."
Slaughter went to the bench for a line change. When he sat down he sprayed his face with water and then put his head down. The assistant coach said something to him in his ear but Slaughter didn't move or respond.
A shouting vendor walked down the steps and Ali asked for a box of Cracker Jacks. She opened the box and pulled out the prize inside. She gave the box to Chip who took a handful. The prize was a small slip of paper she peeled and revealed a temporary tattoo with a green design.
Ali said, "These are so silly. It's funny how these cheap things get me so excited. It's the surprise, you know? Everyone loves surprises. Here." She took his hand and pressed the tattoo against it then pressed her tongue to the tattoo and held it there before peeling back the top part of the slip unveiling the green design on his hand.
She leaned in close to his ear and whispered, "I've always wanted to have sex in the penalty box." She raised her eyebrows and sat back in her seat. "Of course it'd have to be late at night, after everyone has left."
Her southern prairie perfume rose up inside him.
The next day Chip arrived early before practice to workout in the gym and see the trainer. He warmed up on a stationary bike and then went back to the locker room to grab a towel. The lights were off.
Behind him, in the dark, someone said, "Sometimes the light hurts my eyes." Chip turned and saw the white of Slaughter's legs sitting at his locker. He was naked.
Chip said, "It's alright. I'm just grabbing a towel." Chip started to walk out of the locker room when Slaughter stood up.
He said, "I'll join you."
Chip started with shoulders using dumbbells and then worked on his back between sets, moving from one muscle group to the next. Mirrors surrounded the locker room and Chip noticed Slaughter walk in wearing a pair of team shorts and shirt. He was taller than Chip and broader. He moved with an unflinching demeanor, as if anything in his path would voluntarily move out of his way.
Slaughter waved at Chip, "Come on over, GED. Let's have some fun." He stood next to a bench press bench. Slaughter added forty-five pounds to each side. "Let's warm up. You go first." Chip lay down and found his grip on the bar and pushed out ten reps. Slaughter followed and then added another forty-five pounds to each side. When Chip lay down and grasped the bar, Slaughter set up behind him to spot, keeping his finger a few inches under the bar. When Slaughter went, Chip did the same. Slaughter continued to add weight to the bar. Chip stopped counting when it got into the four hundreds.
"How many you going to do, GED?"
"I don't know. Four."
"Alright pussy. Four it is. My little sister could do four."
Chip took a deep breath as he set his hands. He could hear something rattling in the weight room as a few players showed up. He took one more deep breath, pushed out the air, lifted the bar and inhaled quickly as he brought the bar down to his chest. He could feel the bar bending at the ends from the weight. As soon as it touched his chest he pushed up and exhaled with a low grunt, the muscles in his hands and arms and chest and shoulders bursting with a hot rush of lactic acid. He reached the top and then brought the bar down again. Above him Slaughter held out his hands underneath the bar.
"Come on, GED," he said. "Push it up. You got it."
After the second rep Chip pushed the bar back against the handles and sat up catching his breath. His arms felt dead. Someone turned music on from the stereo and the weight room erupted into a clash of screaming metal. Chip went to the back of the bench and Slaughter said something to him he couldn't hear before adding more weight to the bar. Slaughter sat down at the bench, took a breath, and then lay down. He spent a few moments adjusting his hands, trying to get the right grip, then before Chip knew it he dropped the bar to his chest and pushed it up again for the first rep. Slaughter moved the weight in a smooth motion, fluid and in full control. Two reps, three, four. By his fifth he slowed down, took a second's rest at the top, then started again. Seven, eight, nine. He grunted hard now, and Chip saw the redness in his face and the way his lips strained. Chip placed his hands under the bar just in case. On the eleventh rep Slaughter stalled on his way up, as if pushing against a cement wall. He stayed there in that position, caught between the gravity of the weight. Chip looked around the room. No one was with them. He looked down at Slaughter's red face, everything in him pushing against that weight but gaining nothing.
Chip acted as if his fingers were raising the bar, but he thought he heard Slaughter say no. That's what he thought, Slaughter was waving him off, saying he could do it on his own. If the bar dropped it would fall into his neck and crush him.
Chip looked up again and didn't see anyone. The music clamored so loud he couldn't hear himself when he said, "Come on pussy." The bar seemed to slowly drop down toward Slaughter. His hands quivered.
Chip stepped away from the bar.
The next night they played San Antonio at home again. Before the game, Chip told Coach he was going to take care of Bigsby. Coach brought his cup of coffee up to his mouth, then smiled and nodded. In the second period, when Bigsby was on the ice, Coach told Chip to go.
"You've got one job to do, Kristoffer."
Chip waited for a line change, then jumped over the boards. Bigsby skated up the far-side boards as San Antonio broke out of their zone. Chip skated in front of Bigsby and turned backwards. Skating with him, he slashed Bigsby across the top of his feet and said, "Let's go you ugly prick."
Bigsby said, "Don't waste my time," and skated away.
Chip hacked him with his stick across the back of the legs. He dropped his gloves, grabbed Bigsby's shoulder, and spun him around. Chip punched him in the face. Bigsby absorbed the blow and pulled back to dodge his next jabs. Bigsby grabbed onto the side of Chip's jersey at the shoulder. Chip did the same, and they circled each other, holding on, but keeping the other at arm's length. Bigsby and Chip started throwing punches at the same time.
In a fight, Chip knew, everything moved in opposite directions. The blades of their skates balanced on thin edges as their bodies jostled and Bigsby's balled fist struck like a coiled snake. Chip couldn't think, couldn't process the pain or panic. Every bit of information coming to him he dismissed. He had one purpose: to punch and not stop.
His arms swung in a white blur. Bigsby's fist pounded Chip's mouth and jaw and nose and cheeks and forehead. But the pain slipped away with the flurry. Bigsby stumbled and the striped arms of the linesmen separated them. As he was led to the box to serve his penalty, Chip looked for Bigsby. He was leaning against his teammate, who led him off the ice to the locker room. The trainer was pressing a towel against his face.
When he sat down in the penalty box his chest pounded so hard he couldn't breathe. He could smell the southern prairie perfume of Ali behind him, but he didn't look back.
After that, each time Chip stepped onto the ice that night, he felt the cool air against his swollen cheek. He could hear each long extension of his legs as the blades from his skates cut into the ice with a whip-crack, like the sound of a frozen pond the first week of winter when the black ice fractured into jagged splinters and the entire world could rise up and disappear in a freezing rush. That night Chip skated to not fall through. As if everything surrounding him were prepared to swallow him whole.
On the bench, Coach said something to him, but his voice seemed a blur behind the fire that pulsated through each vein and bone and muscle and sinew of his body.
He stayed late after the game so the trainer could look at his face and swollen hand. He didn't tell him he'd had a headache since the fight. The trainer said he might want to take x-rays on his hand. He asked Chip if he wanted to do it tonight. The team would practice the following day, then leave for a weeklong road trip. Chip said he'd wait until the morning before practice.
He sat at his locker a long time still in his gear even after other guys had showered and taken off. The noise had died down and the coach's office was empty, the lights turned off. He showered and dressed.
Then he smelled her perfume and heard her footsteps outside the locker room click down the hallway. She passed before him headed toward the arena, into the darkness on the ice. He followed her out the tunnel to the bench, then, carefully, across the slippery ice. She didn't hesitate in her heels, didn't slip or falter. Once inside the penalty box he shut the door behind them and she kissed him. Every little sound echoed. Everything moved in opposite directions. The tips of her fingers, the sound of her voice, the weight of her body pressing into his.
The next afternoon at practice Chip went on the ice early, skipping the x-ray. He shot pucks around and stretched out. His hand throbbed but he worked through the pain. Coach ran them through some shooting drills and then worked on special teams. At the end of practice they played a small game of three-on-three. Chip went into the corner to retrieve the puck and felt the shaft of a stick in his lower back. He went head first into the boards, shook himself clear, and jumped to his feet.
He pushed Chip back into the boards, but didn't say anything. The game stopped and everyone turned to watch. Before Chip could move, Slaughter dropped his gloves and punched him across the face. Chip fell and the white ice went dark.
They told Chip later that Slaughter hadn't stopped punching him even after he was down. That it took the coaches to finally move in and pull Slaughter off. They ended practice there, with Chip knocked out cold as his blood drained into a red pool.
Chip didn't go on the road trip with the team. He had the x-ray done on his hand and stitches put in above his eye. When the team returned home ten days later, the coach called him into his office and said they released him. Chip asked why.
Coach paused, looked away from Chip, and said, "Because you're a butterfly."