I remember the day I became a goalie.
I was playing pond hockey with the twins, Paul and Andre LeBlanc, on a little thumb-shaped cove on what we called the Skating Pond in Lewiston, Maine. The LeBlancs and I were second-graders at St. Ursula’s, “the Sisters’ School” we called it. We were playing against a couple of other second-graders from the public school and Russell White, a third-grader from a private school. Russell was the only kid on the pond wearing a complete hockey uniform and a knit hat that said Parkhurst Country Day. Russell White was a preppy twit but he was also the best skater in our game. We were playing five goals wins, and Russell and his friends had beaten us three or four straight. Not that Russell needed teammates, seeing as how he passed the puck about as often as I passed arithmetic.
“Next goal wins!” yelled Russell, who somehow got to decide everything.
“Your turn in goal, Jean Pierre,” Paul LeBlanc said to me. I knew it was Paul’s turn not mine and I was only being put in goal because I didn’t skate or play as well as the other kids. My mother bought my skates at a secondhand sporting-goods store called On the Rebound. She deliberately bought them one size too large so I could “grow into them” and they’d last two years. But even my thick woolen socks didn’t make the skates fit, and instead of gliding across the ice I clip-clopped along with a stride that more closely resembled running than skating.
I took my place between the two boots that marked our goal. I held my hockey stick in my right hand, tapped it against my shin pads, which were really Andre LeBlanc’s old pads tied to my legs with frayed skate laces. I put my stick on the ice and bent into a deep crouch as I’d seen goalies do on TV. Off to my left on the best ice in the middle of the pond there was a bigger game played by high school kids. Their skates tore the ice with a scrunch . . . scrunch . . . scrunch . . . as they crosscut on turns, their bodies extended at what looked like impossible angles, their heads up and the puck seemingly stuck to their stick blades. God I wished I could skate like that. On the edge of that game three girls wearing white figure skates glided backward in unison. “What are they doing?” I asked Andre LeBlanc.
“They call it sympathized skating,” Andre said. Andre knew everything.
It was our turn to bring the puck up ice. Paul LeBlanc started up the right side, drew Russell White toward him, then passed left to Andre. But the pass was in Andre’s skates, giving Russell time to recover. Andre shot just as Russell hooked him. The puck bounced off the boot marking the left goal post and skittered back toward White, who corralled it with his stick, whirled, and started up ice, leaving his teammates and the LeBlancs behind. Russell had scored a bunch of goals on me that day and always by doing the same thing—faking to his forehand, then drawing the puck to his backhand and tapping it into the goal, after which he lifted his stick in the air like he’d just won the Stanley Cup. This time, instead of waiting in my goal for trouble to arrive, I moved out toward the streaking White. When White dropped his head to see where the puck was I hit the ice and slid directly at him, my body in the shape of a V, a box canyon from which Russell White had no escape.
“Ah, shit!” he yelled as he crashed into my shin pads and flew—headfirst and puckless—toward our goal.
I hopped to my feet and passed the puck up to Paul, who passed to Andre, who scored with a long shot that slid between the boots and into the frozen marsh grass beyond. Paul and Andre, their sticks in the air, skated back toward me, where we pounded one another and fell to the ice in a pig pile, our gray hooded sweatshirts reeking of sweat and melted pond water. At least we’d won one game.
“That was trippin’,” Russell White said as he hauled himself to his feet, his game shirt covered with ice chips, his knit hat askew.
Andre looked up from the pig pile. “Hey, Russell, quit whinin’ like a bitch,” he said. I didn’t know exactly what that meant but it sounded funny so I laughed. The LeBlancs and I skated over to a fallen tree we used as a bench to take off our skates. Russell White picked up his boots and headed for the far side of the pond, where his father had just arrived and was flashing the lights on his Jeep.
“Great save, JP,” Andre said to me. “I’m gonna use that move tomorrow.”
“That’s right. It’s your turn to play goal,” Paul said.
“Shit. I hate playing goal,” Andre said.
“Don’t you guys have a goalie?” I asked.
“Had one but he quit. Now the coaches make us take turns. Sucks,” Andre said.
“I’d play if I had the pads and stuff,” I said, still flushed with the feeling of having stopped Russell White.
“The coach gives you all the stuff. You wanna play?” Andre said.
“I’ll ask my mother,” I said.
We ran the shafts of our hockey sticks between the boots and blades of our skates, put the sticks over our shoulders, and headed through the trees toward the streetlights, which had just blinked on. When we got to the street the LeBlancs turned right toward their house and I continued across the street and down a side street toward my grandmother’s house, which is where my mother and I had lived in the two years since my father did his Barry Bonds and took a walk.
I was cold, wet, tired, and content. I liked playing hockey. It made me feel like I belonged. And I had liked playing goal. It made me feel important.
I climbed the stairs to my grandmother’s house. It was Saturday night and I could smell the homemade baked beans we’d be having with franks and brown bread. As I opened the door I glanced back up the street and saw one of the older boys from the game in the middle of the pond. He was walking with one of the figure skaters. He carried her white skates on his hockey stick. I wondered why any boy would walk with a sympathized skater. Or a girl. But this was a long time ago and there were a lot of things I had to learn.
Copyright © 2007 by Jack Falla. All rights reserved.