SHORT STORY: A Trip Back Down – Mark Thorson

Mark Thorson is the author of several screenplays, including the award-winning American Passage and most recently, of the collection of short stories, Final Delivery. Mark is also an alumnus of the prestigious American Film Institute. 


Winter 1986

The end of Lewy Olson’s career arrived on a Sunday morning. It came during his eleventh season, shortly after he paid an unwelcome visit to a local sportswriter’s house which resulted in criminal charges filed against him for breaking and entering, and for attempted murder. Although the charges were later reduced to assault and battery, the ruling from the NHL was permanent expulsion, which forever banished Olson from the League.

At thirty-two, he was out of a job. He had nowhere to go, so he set out on a three week bender, spent mostly in the downtown district, which was interrupted only by a couple of court appearances and the morning meetings with his attorney. At the end of the third week Olson listed his townhouse in Highland Park with Steel City Reality, then packed up eleven years’ worth of belongings and headed home for the remotes of northern Minnesota, where he went to work in the stick factory and began a new effort of trying to adjust.

Unlike Pittsburgh, Olson’s hometown was small. It was a border town, without stoplights or convenience stores. It had no fast food stores, or any buildings over two stories. Along the westerly edge of the community stood the only new building in the area, which was a modern one level structure made of white and blue poly-buffed steel. Displayed across the front of the building were the five multi-colored Olympic hoops and big red letters which said:

HARTJI BROS. HOCKEYSTICKS

LUFTEN MN

HOCKEYTOWN USA

Olson was assigned to an inspection station near the center of the plant. It was a mid-level position  given to him because of who he was, and because of the years he’d worked in the old plant as a kid. The plant had now become a large myriad of clinically clean machines, presses and conveyors that throbbed, banged and pulsated, producing sticks quickly. They processed bare cut lumber into a color-coordinated, eye-catching product, with HARTJI USA printed across the stick shafts – HARTJI in bold red print, and USA in blue.

Following his shift each day, Olson walked the snow-banked streets of Luften, walked past the lumberyard and the cafe then stopped for drinks at Bernie Fisherman’s Bar. Fisherman’s was an old, hole-in-the-wall tavern, located next door to the city arena. It was a small, dark, smokey little place, named after and owned by the famous half-breed Indian who had played for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Inside Fisherman’s, the clientele was not pretty. It was a rough looking bunch that ranged in age from early twenties to late fifties. They loitered about in a haze, surrounded by bottles, cigarettes and mixed drinks, their faces silent, scarred and unshaven, their eyes bloodshot, empty and lost. Some of the eyes occasionally sparked into animation fueled by liquor and the retelling of old stories, while others yielded quietly to the inevitable state of defeat.

These were the forgotten ones. Yesterday’s heroes, society’s castaways. All around them on the walls hung their jerseys, mostly red, white and blue USA jerseys, some professional. Large blow-up pictures hung like Grand Prix action photos; shots of high-speed body checks, great plays, victories, and moments of glory. Dozens of game sticks also lined the walls, victory sticks, magic-markered across the shafts with dates, cities and scores that spanned decades and cities around the world – Stockholm – Sapporo -Vienna – Lake Placid – Moscow – Helsinki – Bucharest.

Upon Olson’s arrival, he had initially been popular at Fisherman’s. His Pittsburgh jersey was pinned prominently to the wall and the celebration had been extensive. But after a few days the novelty wore off, and then gradually, without warning or fanfare, he slowly became a regular. Olson began spending his afternoons at the bar, mostly talking to Bernie himself. Bernie usually leaned onto his elbows from the other side, a patch over one eye, his long black hair resting onto his shoulders. Fisherman’s career had ended several years back, after a high stick on the ice in St. Louis, which resulted in the loss of that left eye. Above Bernie, over the mirrors and bottles, hung a large poster-size picture of him in his legendary NHL uniform. The Great Bernie Fisherman, in the famous red, black and gold of the Chicago Blackhawks, clean-cut, young and dazzling.

Bernie talked mostly about making a come-back, or joining the local semi-pro team, the Luften Lakers. As the afternoons wore on, he often became drunker and louder, and then began to repeat himself, after which, Olson usually left. From Fisherman’s, Olson often headed towards the park, strolling out onto the narrow peninsula that projected itself out onto the bay of Lake Of The Woods.

He meandered through the stark white snow and dormant grey elms, wandering methodically and routinely towards the outdoor rink. As he did, he thought about who he had been for the last thirty-two years; who he had been for the last eleven years; who he had been only a few months back.

A sportswriter had once described him as a cross between Leif Ericson and a Hells Angel. But he had been more commonly known in and around the NHL as a fighter, a goon, the bad man from Pitt. He was called the Big Nordic Outlaw, the one who had led the League in fights, fines and penalties and who had garnered enough lawsuits against himself and against the Pittsburgh Penguins to demand that the team not only re-fortify its insurance policies, but triple its legal staff. It had been said by some that Olson’s career had been one of the most notorious in NHL history, that he had brought a level of violence to Pittsburgh and into the League that was unparalleled anywhere in the game. But the fact was, he had brought color to Pittsburgh. He had brought victory, entertainment and excitement. He had helped to bring a struggling young team out of the cellar and into Stanley Cup contention — not to mention a twenty percent increase in gate attendance, and a significant rise to the team’s television ratings.

Olson stopped alongside the outdoor rink to watch a group of young boys playing on the ice. They wore big snow pants and stocking caps, and imitated moves that were well above their level. The boys were around eleven or twelve, their voices young and eager, echoing through the park as they called out for passes. Olson sized up the rink itself, which was the same now as it had always been — tired, old and aging. The boards were grey-weathered planks, set vertically all the way around then boarded over the top and along the back with heavy support lumber. The planks were warped and blistered with wide gaps and rotted knots, filled in with tight-packed snow that was banked-up from behind. Early in the season, when the snow was still light, the pucks made sharp echoes through the park when fired against the planks; but then, as the season lingered on and the snow piled deeper from endless shovelings, the sounds of the shots gradually lowered, eventually becoming dull thuds against the thick, dense weight behind.

As Olson eyed the rink, he recalled specific boards and knots from his childhood; targets he had spent endless hours shooting at, trying to hone his accuracy. Looking back on it now, it had been a long, hard, difficult road, from shooting pucks at those knots and dreaming of being a pro, to making it even as far as the high school team, the Luften Nordics. It had been a long ways again from the Luften Nordics to Team USA and from there to the majors.

He had gone from the cold, lonely silence of this little rink, to the packed roaring crowds of Pittsburgh Civic where he would throw a sudden hip check, decking an oncoming attacker — and draw a spontaneous, thunderous roar from 16,000 people, and an imagined one from the thousands watching on television. It had been a long, hard, endless struggle to finally get to the top — to finally get to that place of childhood dreams. The trip back down was also hard. And there were times like these, standing unnoticed in the snow and watching the young aspiring stars of tomorrow, that it felt even harder.

The morning shift at the stick factory was processing one of the last batches of the Haasen Autogragh model that would ever be produced. The sticks passing Olson’s eye were freshly cut, without fiberglass, print or trim on yet — just the bare, rough stick, evenly spaced along a slow conveyor belt. As Olson scrutinized the sticks for warps and fractures, he thought about the player whom the stick had been named after: the greatest player ever to put on a pair of skates, Tommy Haasen.

Haasen had been the brilliant young sensation who was destined to shatter every record and revolutionize the game. He was the young athletic genius who had possessed the magical, musical play, who had been titled by the media and hailed by the public as,”The American Magician.” He was the superstar: the one who had caught the eyes and captured the hearts of people all around the world, and, in almost the next moment, was gone.

Haasen had gotten off the road early, while there was still plenty of it in front of him. He had made his exit nearly three years back, on a snowy night in Minneapolis with a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson. Olson had entertained similar thoughts himself, but so far he had lacked the courage, which struck him as pathetic because courage was not something he was supposed to be short of. Tommy Haasen, on the other hand, had not seemed the type.

Like Olson, he had been a hometown boy, he had started in the toddler league, had played Peewees, had been a star on the high school team: the Luften Nordics. But unlike Olson, Haasen had been perfect, special — a one and only. He was a small, twinkly-eyed kid who had gone through life surrounded by a glow, a light. He had become a starter for Team USA and it was around that time that the phenomena hit and the media attention boomed. Then the magazine covers started, and the million dollar offers began. Then the signing with Detroit.

Olson glanced behind him to the bare cut lumber funneling into the prep area, then ahead of him towards the bundles of finished product, all stacked and bound and ready for crating. The Haasen Autograph was by far the flashiest stick Hartji’s had ever put out. The model was detailed in red, white and blue — the top third in dark blue with white clustered stars, and the lower section in red, with white elongated letters running down, reading USA. These letters were artistically distorted, emanating the effect of red and white stripes wavering in the wind.

It was the first and only autographed stick Hartji’s had ever produced and it was that signature signed along the shaft of stars and stripes in thin black cursive that had caused the craze. In its prime, the stick had sold in unprecedented numbers all across Canada, the northern States and Europe. It sold in masses, not so much to upper-level players in high school, college or professional ranks, but to anxious young boys whose eyes were seduced by the flashy colors, and who aspired to one day be as great as their idol who used the stick: the greatest player ever to live: The American Magician.

Olson contemplated the colorful bundled squares of Haasen Autographs across the plant, looking like rows of coffins with wrinkled American flags draped over, ready and waiting to be shipped. The sales boom had come to a close. The awestruck eyes of young boys had dimmed and were now gazing up at other heroes. The attraction was gone; the markets were lost. And the stick that had been autographed by the greatest player of all time, the stick that had been the largest selling hockey stick in the entire world, had now hit the end of its line, which would now be discontinued and eventually forgotten.

Olson got drunk at Fisherman’s again. He drank a toast to Tommy Haasen, and said goodbye to his stick, the Haasen Autograph. By the time he left the bar, darkness had fallen, so he wandered the snow-banked walks of Luften under the blue-tinted glow of humming streetlights. He eventually ended up at the park again, where he stood alone in the snow alongside the old rink. The rink laid vacant in a white-dusted gloss. The goals sat slightly askew, rusted, and bent, just recently abandoned. It was getting late. Saturday night. The last had left until morning.

Olson watched his breath rise slowly in the rink light. He heard voices. Teenage voices. He glanced towards the warming house, which sat off to one end of the rink, down a short, snow-shoveled path. It was a one-room shack with lazy smoke drifting from a kiltered stack. Still the same. The lights over the rink were the same too — an old array of green chinaman hat lamps that arced out over the ice on skinny rusted poles. Olson focused on the pole nearest the warming house, on the switch rigged to the side. The first person in the morning used to switch them on, and the last to leave at night would flip them out.

Years ago — before the Pittsburgh Penguins, before Team USA, and before the Luften Nordics — a small boy would switch those lights on each morning, and more often than not, he would be the one to flip them out again at night. The boy would walk down to the rink every morning in the early darkness, open the warming house and build a fire in the stove, then put on his skates, turn on the lights and start to skate. He was always at the rink long before the other boys; the others usually skated for an hour before school and then a couple at night, but he always skated two before school and several at night. He skated twice as long as the other boys and twice as hard, because his heart was set on being the best — the very best — on being the greatest of them all.

Many mornings the boy had to shovel snow in order to clear enough space to stickhandle and shoot, and sometimes it was so cold that he was the only one there. The others usually came until the temperatures dropped to fifteen or twenty below zero, but after that they wouldn’t show. But the boy whose heart was set on greatness was always there. Thirty-eight below zero and he was there building a fire in the stove and lacing up his skates, bundled in snowpants, stocking cap and mittens, then skating under the lights alone and surrounded by the silent darkness.

He’d skate up and down the glossy little rink at a hard, relentless pace, stickhandling the puck out front, prancing side to side in crossover steps, deking and maneuvering, firing the puck at targeted knots in the boards, then picking it up as it careered off around, throwing some head and shoulder dekes, just like the big guys, then cutting back around again.

He worked feverishly hard, up and down, up and down, non-stop — until he was grunting and sniffling and his legs were lagging like lead and his head was drooping and the sub-zero frost was biting at his feet and the pain was telling him to quit. But then somewhere inside of him, somewhere deep down within, he would find the spirit and the strength to struggle on — a whole packed arena surrounding him, cheering him on — his steamy breath pumping out of him, freezing in a white frost along the wool of his hat, coughing and whimpering from exhaustion, but struggling on.

Often, on those cold mornings, the boy ended up on the floor of the warming house holding his frozen stockinged feet near the warmth of the stove, nursing them with his small hands. He’d bite down hard against the thawing pain, his eyes clenched tightly against seeping tears, his skates, boots and mittens lying around him. Afterwards, he’d sling his skates and stick up over his shoulder and follow the shoveled path to the end light pole, where his mitten would reach up to flip out the switch, leaving the dull, hazy light of morning all around him.

Sometimes he’d remain there for an extra moment to look through the park trees, across the big frozen lake to the cold orange glow dawning in the east. It was the beginning of another day and he was one step closer to becoming one of the greats. And the next day would be the same, and he would be another step closer. And the day after that would be the same again. He would continue to work and dream and struggle and follow the path, stepping closer and closer, until one day he would be there.

The great players of the game were the most cherished, most loved people in the world. Nobody received more adoration than the great ones and the thought of all that love gave the boy strength. He too would become one of the greats, and one day, he too would have all that love.

The boy was determined, his heart was set. His name was Lewy Olson, and he was going to be the greatest of them all.

*

Olson heard the voices again. He glanced again at the warming shack where a single light bulb glowed from the lone framed window and smoke drifted upward from the kiltered stack. Olson opened the door of the warming house and stepped inside, and as he did, a teenage boy sitting on a bench quick-stuffed his hand behind his back.

“Hey, Lewy,” said the boy, and he flashed a quick smile. There were three of them — two boys and a girl. All three looked at Olson, eyes alert. Olson stood in the doorway, sensing the air, the smoke.

“What the hell you guys doin’ in here?”

“Huh?” said the boy.

“Nothin’,” said the second boy. “It’s the stove, it leaks.”

Olson didn’t look at the stove, he looked at the three teenage kids. They all sat on the same bench, their backs against the wall. The two boys wore skates and big Air Force flight pants with high suspenders strapped over their parkas. Their hair was wedged and sweaty, their sticks laying on the bench alongside them. One of the boys wore a fur fox hat, propped high on his flushed head, his arm around the girl who sat in between them. The girl wore a red, white and blue Luften Nordics letter jacket, with crossed hockey sticks on the upper sleeve. Olson closed the door behind him and walked in across the scuffed wooden floor. He sat down on the adjacent bench.

“You guys aren’t doin’ so good this year.”

The boys didn’t respond. Then one of them said, “No,” in a downcast tone.

“We ain’t got no seniors,” said the other boy.  That’s no excuse, Olson wanted to say, but didn’t. The boy without the hat shifted himself on the bench and cleared his throat. “Hey, did ya hear that Nute got a letter from the Pros?”

Olson looked at Nute, the boy with the fox hat. “New York Rangers!” said the first boy proudly. “Tell ’em, Nute.”

“Ah, it’s nothin’,” said Nute. He shrugged shyly and adjusted his fox hat, the girl under his arm smiled proudly.

“He’s invited to their training camp,” said the first boy. “Soon as he graduates.”

Olson nodded to himself, and looked down at the flickering glow at the base of the stove. It was just a light crackling of the fire. Nute took his arm out from behind the girl and leaned forward onto his knees. He looked at Olson, about to speak, but searched the floor with his eyes instead. He readjusted his fox hat once more, then looked at Olson again.

“What’s it like in the big leagues, Lewy? I mean, the pros?” Nute cleared his throat and swallowed. “I mean, um . . . you think I can make it?”

Olson looked at the boy, then back at the stove again. “I don’t know,” he said. The stove was still the same. So was the pile of wood in the corner. The same boarded floor, scuffed to a fuzz from the countless years of endless skate traffic. The same light bulb at the center of the ceiling with the same string hanging down. The same smell of burning birch and wet snow. It was all the same. All except him. He’d come out the other side.

“I used to skate down here every night just like you guys,” Olson said, “ever since I was a little kid. Every night I’d come down here, and every morning too, before school, and I’d turn on the lights and I’d start skating and I’d dream about the big leagues. I’d dream of being a pro. That’s all I ever thought about. It’s all I ever wanted.”

Olson stared for a moment into the amber glow flickering along the floor. “But I just didn’t have it.” Olson took a big breath and released it: “I had to fight and play cheap to make it. I never really had it. I never had it like you’ve got it, Nute. You’re gifted. I’ve seen you skate. I’ve seen you move the puck. But I don’t know.”

Olson ran his big hands up over his face and then looked at the boy again.  “All I know is this: there’s at least a hundred other guys out there right now that got invites just like you. And they’re just as fast as you and just as quick — they’re just as good, and they’re hungry, and they want it as bad as you, and some even worse. And when you leave here you’re gonna meet those guys, and when you do, you’re gonna find that the line between the ones who make it and the ones that don’t, is very, very thin.”

“And if you don’t make it, then all the time you spent down here — all the mornings, all the nights, all the twenty below zero, all the practices and games in the arena, all the pucks you’ve shot over the summers, all the sweat and pain you’ve given the game — won’t matter anymore, ’cause it’ll all be over. And then you can come back here and you can sit in this little place and you can smoke that shit you’re smokin’ all you want. You can smoke it and smoke it ’til you can’t tell up from down. ‘Cause nothing will matter anymore, and nobody will care.”

Nute swallowed a lump in his throat. All three teenagers sat motionless, eyes to the floor. Olson got up and ambled back towards the door. He stopped and took another breath, then looked back again before going out.

“And that’s what it’s like, Nute.”

 

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