I have wanted to get this story out for some time. It has been gestating inside me for quite a while. Life has kept me pretty busy, so it never got a chance to see light. But now it has clawed its way out like some subterranean creature struggling to free itself from the bounds of the earth. This thing has fought for life like any seed that feels the green power inside it does. And the best plants do so organically (despite what Monsanto might have you believe). Here then is the….
The Amazing and Incredibly True Story of the Disappearing Goalie
How many stories have you read that begin with a description of the setting? This is a perfectly legitimate way in which to introduce a story. One of the essential elements of any tale, the setting is crucial to the narrative, even if it only serves as a dull gray background against which the other starker or more vibrantly colored elements contrast for the reader’s pleasure and/or edification. Our setting in this macabre tale is important, but it is key to the story to realize that our fantastical account could and probably does take place everywhere in all cities in every corner of the world.
Harbin is a dull dirty city in China. It is very dull, being so far away from one of the nation’s well-known cultural hearts like Beijing or Xi’an, and very dirty because it has to burn so much coal to keep its denizens warm during the long bitter winter. Though very dull and very dirty, it is big. It is in fact the largest major metropolitan area in the Northeast. It boasts more than five million in its center and over nine million with all of its districts combined. Being so far north, it is also as I implied a very cold city, hence its moniker, the Ice City. But, if Harbin were a queen, then she would be an old queen, whose youth had perhaps been somewhat glamorous, surrounded by marginally diverse courtiers from the West and having been birthed in an exotic Eastern culture with longstanding historical and cultural roots, but whose present times are decidedly and depressingly drab. One is given the distinct impression of a local circus whose heyday has long since past, whose placards promising thrills and wonderment are now faded and peeling under a hazy white sun, barely visible over the horizon, a sun cold and distant.
She once boasted of Russian and European-influenced architecture, and in truth the picturesque carmine onion domes are ubiquitous, and equally ubiquitous are the large imposing government buildings fronted with tall French-style fluted columns, but those buildings—many vacant—are rotting before everyone’s eyes and covered in filthy soot two inches thick. Though her streets and avenues are wide, they are often equally impassable with frozen mud and slippery black ice. Where once her streets were filled with ornate horse carriages, now her broad boulevards are plugged up with cheap, carbon monoxide-belching SUVs, a plodding honking irritation that feels more like plaque rather than blood cells coursing along her cold cracked black arteries. Thus, her majesty’s court is greatly diminished.
Her human population has skyrocketed, stressing the natural resources that she once boasted were the prize jewels in her crown around which the other treasures in the province shown more gloriously because of their borrowed light. Today however, the air chokes and assaults one’s senses. Everyone has a cough and many wear masks all year long to protect from the tiny particulates that invade the microscopic fingers in the lungs, corrupting the tissues, turning them black, and eventually destroying them. The once powerful Song Hua River is today a tiny trickle of sludge, whose noxious stench in summer threatens to down the strongest man, Occidental and Oriental alike.
Modernity has not been kind to the Ice Queen, no, not at all. Though renowned still for her sub-zero temperatures against which her citizens must sheathe their bodies with layers of sweaters and long thick underwear—and even that is mitigated by the unassailable phenomena of global warming—the truth is that Harbin is like most metropolitan areas all over the world: crowded, filthy, littered, water-stressed and whose airs are fetid when not downright lethal for living creatures. To be a stray dog or an alley cat in such a city is certainly to lead a pitiful miserable existence. Luckily our protagonist is neither.
And here we come to the next crucial element in story: character. Occasionally, the setting is the character and perhaps I have misled you somewhat into believing that this story would be about a dirty megalopolis, but as the title indicates, it is about a disappearing goalie—the reader would do well to always attend to the title of a story. It inevitably offers a brief summary of what is contained within or at least some tangential pithy comment on the themes or crucial matter written upon at greater length in the body. In our dull dirty and cold Ice City we have a man. Strangely enough, he too is also usually dull dirty and cold! In fact, almost all the citizens are exactly that: dull dirty and cold. It’s enough to make you wonder why anyone would write a story about such awful banal persons set in such a foul and cheerless locale.
Well, something wondrous happened in this dingy squalid city.
No, that’s not exactly right, although perhaps technically this is correct. It was an event that filled one with wonder—not necessarily the positive kind, and in fact I can promise you there is little to none of those positive feelings that one often attributes to short stories told to children. I aver in no uncertain terms that this should be a story told to children, but sadly children often have their heads filled up with rot: true love and princesses and heroic noble men on shining steeds performing selfless deeds in order to help the poor…. No, nowadays the “noblemen” of modern times only work to heroically crush the poor. And our media “princesses” use their vast accumulated wealth to gyrate their hips lasciviously online in order to shock and titillate the uneducated and increasingly brutal masses…but I digress. Forgive me reader.
As I was saying before I interrupted my narrative with a lot of cynical claptrap, this is a story about a man, a goalie, and he…disappeared. Now people disappear all the time and some of them children, which is truly a heinous crime that everyone should and in fact must thwart. As I was saying, people do disappear all the time and most are never heard from again. They disappear or are disappeared (as is increasingly the case in our cities) and nothing is ever known about them again, much to the angst and pain of the vanished person’s loved ones. But what is truly remarkable, what is truly amazing about our man, our goalie, is the way in which he disappeared!
The manner of his vanishment was unique and queer, almost spooky. (And no, there is no such word as vanishment, so don’t bother looking it up, but even if it is not a word, it most certainly should be: the sound is mellifluous and its meaning lucid.) Here is what happened….
Our goalie…do you know what a goalie is? Well, let me illuminate you! After all, one of the undeniable functions of literature (if I may be so bold as to classify this story as such) is pedagogical. Many people (writers, although most writers are not people in the normal sense) try to deny this, but it is a truism that the written word has a perhaps unfortunate side effect of transmitting heretofore unknown or unplumbed facts and opinions. This fact which I am about to share with you is certainly not that amazing nor so esoteric, but many do not know of it and even less of the details behind it. So our man whom we have not yet named, but who will most certainly have a name, is a goalie. That is, he plays on a sports team and the main sport in this Ice City is ice hockey, or at least it was until ESPN gained a toehold in China and exported basketball into everyone’s living room via the idiot box. Moreover, the Cultural Revolution cast a pall over…but I digress. Our goalie was an ice hockey goalie. An unglamorous position for an unglamorous man.
His job was to stand in front of a six by four net and prevent the other players from smashing a little hard rubber disc about the size of grandma’s cornbread biscuits that she used to make from scratch for Sunday breakfast until of course General Foods came out with the microwave version that has since come into vogue (sadly filled with all kinds of genetic-manipulated ingredients that will wreak unforeseen havoc on our children’s children’s chemistry years from now, but that…is another story). The biscuit-sized and shaped disc is called a “puck” (like the infamous Shakespearean character) or “shaiba” in Russian or just plain “bing-choh” (literally ice ball) in Mandarin. Our goalie’s thankless and undesirable mission was to stop this “ice ball” from crossing the pale red goal line painted under the ice and entering the red-painted steel tube frame of the net. When it did (as it inevitably did because our goalie was not a very good goalie) the burly opponents cheered and gloated over the fallen goalie while his teammates tried their best to conceal their contempt or worse, their pity. To be a goalie was not an enviable job.
Our goalie’s name was the name given to those goalies who approach greatness but unfortunately for one reason or another fall short of glory: his name was Eddie. Eddie the Goalie was even less suited to his job than other Eddies. He was short. In fact, he was so short everyone thought he was a child, which elicited vicious and cruel barbs from the opposing squad whenever they played the Warriors, the name of his hapless team. Being so small, he had great trouble covering the surface area of the goal. To make matters worse, he was not terribly athletic, which is not to say that he was not athletic at all, just not terribly so. And goalies must be athletic, terribly so: agile as cats, sharp-eyed like eagles, quick as cobras, and limber like twelve-year ballerinas. A goalie had to follow the lightning movements of the puck whipping around the rounded corners of the ice rink, whizzing at the net like a bullet, and react with more than human quickness to catch, block, or kick the ice-ball from entering the recesses of his little domain. But that damn puck, like its unrelated namesake, was fickle and mischievous, and played all sorts of tricks on Eddie, pursuing all sorts of ways to find itself behind the red line and sitting disingenuously in the back of the net as if to say, “What? Me? How did I get here?”
Eddie hated that shaiba with all of his being. His body throbbed with furious anger whenever that small black hard thick rubber disc slipped under him or over him and into the net. Oh how he hated it! He was in fact fairly certain that the puck was imbued with an evil impish spirit that loved to thwart and frustrate him. This may have been fanciful and coincidental anthropomorphism on the part of Eddie the uneducated goalie or more likely a vestigial trace of religiosity, the roots of the feelings of an oceanic nature passed down to him from his ancestors, that led him to attribute preposterous spiritual qualities to inanimate objects. Still, Eddie the uneducated and not particularly religious nor spiritual goalie was sure down to his bones that the damn puck, singularly and categorically, was possessed by some ancient primordial devil that reveled in the misfortune of goalies. For reasons unknown. Well, many things that are evil in the world happen for unknown reasons and seemingly randomly, so this was no different.
When the large powerful men slapped at the rubber biscuit, it seemed to fly off their curved wooden polyurethane sticks with preternatural speed. The ice-ball seemed to hit his body with greater than normal force. Despite the heavy cumbersome protective equipment with which Eddie the goalie draped his aging, rickety, inflexible body, still he was often injured and went home with horrific bruises and welts from the flying shaiba. Eddie was sure it was some kind of cosmic conspiracy. If he were a Hindu, he would surely have prostrated himself daily in the neighborhood ashram to beg forgiveness and attempt to mitigate the sins of his past life that were indubitably coming home to roost in this present miserable one.
But Eddie was not a Hindu. He was a Catholic, which meant he was only sometimes spiritual and almost never religious and only then when his little wife dragged him to Church on Easter and sometimes Christmas Day. The Chinese for various political and social reasons are not overtly religious and church-going people, and you will be grateful that I will refrain from attempting a brief historical exegesis on the origins of aforementioned phenomena. No, Eddie the uneducated and superstitious goalie did not have recourse to spiritual mysteries by which he might have mitigated his desperate situation. He had only his dull gray mind with which to attempt to solve the riddle of the puck and an infirm inflexible body with which to stop it. The only thing Eddie the uneducated and not overly spiritual nor especially gifted goalie had was heart.
Eddie the goalie had a lot of heart.
Everyone liked Eddie the goalie because of his heart. And even when sometimes he erupted in impotent displays of angry frustration because the puck (yet again) managed to find (yet another) chink in his armor, still everyone admired even if begrudgingly that the little man had heart. He never quit. He came early and forced his stiff tendons and knees to stretch beyond their limit. He stayed late even though exhausted and dehydrated to practice his poor skating skills. In the games, he never ever quit. Even when he was pulled out of position by the dazzling passing of the opposing forwards, still at the last moment he sprawled his body across the goal mouth, thrusting his legs into the splits, joints and hamstrings screeching in protest, trying to stop the shaiba from crossing that two inch red goal line. Almost always it was all for naught. The other team scored or even if Eddie managed to stop the shot, the jackals around the net would scoop up the rebound and stuff it into the net with deadly accuracy. It was always lose-lose for Eddie and it is absolutely fair for the reader to ask: why in the name of the sweet heavenly Virgin did this man keep playing such a difficult and punishing sport when he was almost assuredly destined to play some other sport or perhaps not any sport at all?
Eddie the goalie loved the game. He loved the game the way bankers love their money, the way politicians enjoy hoodwinking the masses, the way little children love puppies, the way a few men love their wives, the way most men love watching sports games on the weekend…. You understand. Eddie loved ice hockey. In fact, he played goalie because he hadn’t the strength or speed to play another position. He played goalie on pure guts alone. It was a painful choice. And it would incur a heavy price.
Nonetheless, his hatred of the possessed rubber biscuit notwithstanding, Eddie loved the sport with a profound and abiding passion. And his temperament was not that of a spectator. His was the soul of a doer, a creator, a maker. He had to do something. He was not content as many were to merely watch the spectacle of the heroic men flying over the beautiful smooth ice surface and crushing each other against the steel boards with titanic body checks and adroitly handling the puck as it were a raw egg and flipping it so deftly to each other before slapping it with hammer force at the net where he, Eddie the goalie, crouched like a tiger…well perhaps more like a tiger cub, waiting to snare the hard rubber blur.
The feel of it, the feel of stopping that little rubber comet, the feeling of saving his team from a goal, of preventing the other team from inflicting damage to his team…it was almost certain that Eddie in a past life was a policeman who walked a night beat looking for rapists and murderers or a soldier who stood at the wall watching for the invading Mongol army or at least a village priest who put himself between his congregation and the awful demonic hordes that threatened to consume their souls. Eddie the uneducated goalie did not, in fact, could not articulate such imaginative creative analogies, but the feeling was there. He was a protector. His job was to protect the goal. Save his team. He did not care about scoring goals. That was a job for the glamorous supermen on his team. The flamboyant and intrepid smiling forwards who wheeled around the rink with consummate skill. Those men oozed confidence whereas Eddie just oozed.
Eddie was not oblivious to his lack of skill. He did have a Zen-like clarity when it came to his numerous shortcomings (no pun intended…well perhaps intended somewhat). He spent as much time lambasting his deficiencies as an athlete as he did cursing the quantum diabolical nature of the puck, if not more. That is to say, he was not a lazy man, if he was somewhat decidedly un-gifted. He expended tremendous energies trying to make up for his lack of skill and spent hours training alone to strengthen, quicken, and elasticize his graying, wrinkling, softening body. “Eddie, you’re not getting any younger,” his little wife would remind him. “In fact, Old Man, you’re just about an old man,” she exclaimed, delightedly because her pun tickled her sense of humor, and in consternation because she often had to tend to his various wounds after his twice or thrice weekly battles with the demonic shaiba.
Then, it happened. She saw it in the pinched look in his face. He was hurt bad. She helped him into their dusty cramped apartment, wrestled off his imitation fur-lined boots.
“Tell me. What happened?”
Eddie held up his hand.
The little wife gasped in shock. “Where’s your little finger?”
“Ow! Be careful! Damn it, woman! It hurts like the devil!”
“Sorry, sorry! But where is it? What happened?”
“I don’t know. I was trying to stop a break away. You know that short forward, the bald guy who’s really fast and really mean? Well, he came screaming down on a break away. He faked and went to my right. I stretched out in a split, trying to block that devious bastard and all I felt was pain in my hand. He must have backhanded the puck and it hit me under my glove. If I were less of an idiot I would have held my blocker out straight. Instead I got hit where there’s no protection and it must have fallen off.”
The little wife yelled, “And you didn’t notice! Are you stupid!”
“Shut up! I’m not stupid!”
“We have to go back there! We have look for it.”
“Forget it. We did look. It’s not there. It’s not anywhere. It’s just…gone.”
“Well, we have to go to hospital.”
“What for? It’s not bleeding. It just…look…purple and swollen. There’s a little pus coming out.”
“You have to let a doctor look at it.”
“What for? What for? What can they do? Nothing. Charge money that we don’t have. I ain’t going. Forget about it.”
“You have to stop playing.”
“Forget that. I will never stop playing!”
The bitter old argument resurfaced and precipitated an old bitter fight. Neither would budge. She went next-door and cried to her parents that her fool of a husband would not give up this brutal debilitating sport. The parents of the little wife were both former athletes and although in their seventies still performed vigorous daily exercise, so they were in theory supportive of Eddie’s ice hockey, but it was indeed hard to justify a sport that resulted in the loss of body parts. Still, Eddie would not give up. It was not too much longer before another incident occurred.
“What happened? Don’t try to hide it! I can see it in your face? You lost something else, didn’t you? Where? Oh my God! Your ear! Where is your ear?”
The loss of an ear is indeed horrific, but it ended up that his hearing was only slightly impaired and that the damage was mostly cosmetic. Eddie the goalie did his best to conceal the red mangled hole that was left. Nonetheless, a gruesome pattern was established. This time he was forced to go to the doctor.
“It is my recommendation that you give up this sport and take up something less…uh…less….”
“Demanding. Less demanding on your body. Mister Eddie, you are not a young man any more. What have you got to prove?”
On the way got back from the Number One Chinese Medical Hospital, the little wife had to listen to Eddie the goalie’s vitriolic complaints against the medical establishment. “Those idiots! What for do they get trained for so many years for! They take your money and what do they give you? A monkey’s advice! They are nothing but monkeys in lab coats!”
“Just shut your piehole already!”
“Never!” Eddie shut himself in the spare bedroom to review old hockey film footage to glean some tips from the former greats.
Before long, Eddie lost the rest of his right hand and this time the little wife was sure that her thickheaded jackass of a husband would listen to reason. But she was wrong. They say that necessity is the mother of invention and so it is. Eddie needed a way to hold his stick without the use of his right hand, and he burned the midnight oil wracking his brain to come up with a solution. He created a mechanical device that didn’t weigh too much and was easy to slip on over his deformed right stump. He used a lightweight plastic pulley system that enabled him to clutch the goalie stick and move his blocker properly. The grooves in his stump activated the gears. It worked. Such ingenuity was going to be quite handy in the coming months (again, I apologize for the vicious pun).
Eddie lost his right knee next. And this time they had to stop the game—at least momentarily—Eddie refused to come out and played the remainder of the game on one leg. It was not a pretty sight. The blood turned the crease in front of the net into a carmine marsh. The other players had to use their sticks to sweep the little red pools into the corner.
One player skated by and said, “Eddie, do you think you should….”
They couldn’t reattach the lower leg, so there was nothing left to do but burn it. The little funeral service they gave his lower right leg was as pathetic as it was macabre. It would not be the last time they would see the ugly little hunchbacked man who operated the ovens in the crematorium. Eddie the goalie took offense at the condescending derisive smirk on the man’s face, but in truth the odd little imp was not smiling. He face was frozen in a rictus of pain that only looked like a supercilious grin. Eddie’s little wife telling him that did not alleviate the rancor he felt in his heart.
Eddie knew he would have to find a suitable prosthetic that would enable him to keep playing. He eventually did, but it did not have the stability he needed on the ice. He went to the Harbin Institute of Technology to get some insight. The bright young bespectacled engineers at HIT were not a little shocked when Eddie limped into their office. They took pity on him and bent their prodigious minds to provide him with the perfect prosthetic. In fact, the model was so successful, it attracted the attention of the medical community and Eddie was briefly in the limelight as one of the few handicapped athletes. The local newspapers did a story on him and there was even a two-minute segment on the evening news channel.
But Eddie wasn’t interested in fame. He was only interested in playing ice hockey and it would cost him dearly. He lost his right eye next. When the little wife saw him after that game she nearly fainted from the ghastly injury. Where his eye should have been gaped a horrific hole. Part of his temple and cheekbone were missing as well, as if the parts of his face had been cored out like an apple. It was as if a malevolent god had snatched Eddie up and was slowly whittling away the right side of his body with a carving knife.
At this point the men on the team became alarmed. Their feelings had gone the spectrum of emotions. They were at first shocked and saddened by the freak occurrence. And then they made jokes about it to hide their discomfort. Some of the other players, the more compassionate ones, even tried to shoot less and more accurately to avoid hitting Eddie. None of it mattered. Eddie threw himself in front of the shaiba with reckless abandon. The players tried to have an intervention. They knew and commiserated with the plight of the little wife who was losing her stubborn husband by shades and degrees.
It did no good. Eddie was not unprepared for such a move from his friends and his wife. He asked them, “Am I playing worse? Am I a liability to the team? Tell me?” They could not say that. In point of fact, Eddie had improved. He was actually becoming more proficient, quite proficient. His goals against average went down and his save percentage went up. He never recorded a shut out, that was true, but the Warriors began to win games instead of always losing. The other teams no longer felt pity for the little goalie. They had to bring their “A” game against him every time and Eddie responded in kind. He did not disappoint. His passion and persistence paid off with victory. Even when the Warriors lost a game, the other team knew they had been in a battle. It’s hard to argue with success. So Eddie’s teammates slowly became inured to his injuries.
But the harrowing process continued.
The little wife was not content to pay these wages in flesh and bone and blood. She was losing her husband week by week! “And for what!” she yelled at him.
“You knew that when I married you that I was a goalie that! I will always be a goalie! So if I were you, I’d shut it up about it and get used to it.”
“You love hockey more than me!” She burst into tears.
Eddie gnashed his teeth. His love of the game was taking a devastating toll on his home life. He yelled at her, angry that she would not support him in his unreasonable obsession, but more angry because he knew in his heart, in his great big heart, that he was making her suffer. Later, at night, when she finally stopped sobbing, he would cuddle up to her and tell her how sorry he was.
“What for? You won’t stop.”
“I…I can’t. I just can’t. I have to play hockey.”
“You will die and leave me alone and you promised me that you would never leave me alone.”
“Men never keep their promises.”
“I will. I won’t.”
“You promised to always hold me and now you don’t even have two arms to hold me with!”
Eddie the quadriplegic goalie wriggled closer to her like a one-eyed caterpillar and kissed her ear. “I love you little wife.”
“Stop it. You barely have anything left to love me with.”
“That’s true, but that won’t stop me.”
But even if Eddie refused to see it, and maybe he could not see it, so often do our tragic protagonists exhibit the classical tragical flaw that it seems fair to accuse writers of laziness, yet in this case, it was pitiful fact: Eddie did not see where this was inevitably leading to, but the little wife did. Eddie was relying on her more and more. The more pieces of his body that he lost, the more she would have to help him to get by. Eddie the goalie was an independent man, but he could not claim to be so any longer. Without his faithful wife he could not dress for games. He could not slide on his pants, or tie his skates, or strap on the prosthetics and equipment that enabled him to keep playing. She, before anyone else, saw what would happen, what would be the eventual outcome. She voiced her opinion, but it was as if her prophetic words could not penetrate his heart. They certainly could not penetrate his ears.
The night they shot his mouth off almost changed his mind. But, no, as atrocious as that injury was, Eddie deep down realized another truth. He had come too far to give up now. The little wife knew it. Her husband had become a freak and she could no longer bear the awful things said about him in their apartment complex. No one felt pity or compassion. On the contrary. They were the butt of jokes and the objects of ridicule. After he had gone off to play, she would cry and cry and cry, her eyes swelling up red and the anguish cramping her stomach with iron merciless fingers. Still, she was a true and faithful wife. She fed him, carefully mashing up his food, and slipping it gently into the little orifice that was left in his exposed throat. She kept him alive and he knew this. His one eye glazed over with a tear and a small terrible sound escaped from his voice box.
“Shush. I know. I know. You don’t have to say anything.” Nor could he.
Despite how brave she was during the day, at night after he dropped off to sleep she would clutch onto him and cry herself to sleep.
Then the game came when he lost his head. The players had to bring him home in an old smelly hockey equipment bag, which was not so terrible for Eddie, not possessed of a nose, but his little wife felt it was very undignified and she let them have it.
“We meant no disrespect, but we weren’t sure how to…to transport him home. Mrs. Eddie, we think maybe Eddie should take a….”
Eddie the disappearing goalie rocked violently back and forth.
“Hush Eddie, hush. Thank you for bringing him home. I’ll talk to him. You better go. You have your own families to go home to.”
Pathetically, Eddie tried to play one more game and this time they didn’t even need a hockey bag. They put what remained in a used pink shopping bag from the Song Lei grocery store.
“Those stupid hockey players,” the little wife said out loud, “They’re too stupid to know what an insult this is.”
All that was left finally was Eddie’s heart, that brave steadfast ever-burning heart. That night, she cradled it and hugged it to her bosom, wishing that life had been at least a little bit different. She didn’t wish that they had been born rich or beautiful. She only wished that life had been filled with fewer struggles and less poverty, fewer arguments, more time spent on hugging and kissing. For after all, in the final analysis, what is left to those who have not power nor influence nor money nor looks?
Ach! Such a hard life.
She wished that Eddie the goalie had been more of Eddie the husband. She could no longer look into his brown eyes. They were gone. She would never again feel the comfort of his strong arms around her. They were gone. Almost all of Eddie the goalie was gone. All she had left to her in her old age was his undaunted heart, still beating, still throbbing.
The little wife caressed Eddie’s heart—and really it was Eddie because although this was all that was left of him, this was the most essential part of Eddie. The true core of him. She could feel him, she could feel his thoughts pulsing in the veins and arteries still drumming with life. She could feel his deep, paralyzing regret. She felt his sorrow.
“Eddie, you’re always saying sorry. For what? You don’t change. You never change.” She shushed him. It was too late for regrets. They lay together in their old rickety bed, coal dust powdering their old rickety furniture, bric-a-brac accumulated over their lifetime together. The stupid mock-wedding photos they took every year and which became a macabre photo diary of her and her disappearing goalie of a husband. She felt her heart begin to beat in time with Eddie’s. Their hearts began to beat together in one unhurried rhythm. The muscles were tired, the muscles were old. Their hearts slowed and