Ball Hockey and Other Blood Sports

 

A short story

Ball Hockey and Other Blood Sports

 
By Mel Massey
 
It is a bitter afternoon in Montreal in late November, in the early sixties and colder now than it will be when winter brings down a cover of snow. Gusts of wind numb our cheeks and thighs. We usually play until the light fades behind the old buildings. 

There are a bunch of us, third to seventh grade boys, stripped to our shirts and sweaters, running up and down the unpaved lane behind the row of duplexes, playing ball hockey on the frozen ground.The garage doors with peeling paint and dirt encrusted windows under the back of the buildings are one boundary of our game. 

The city hasn’t maintained the lanes since they stopped using them to pick up garbage and piles of debris and hulks of discarded furniture lie along the falling down board fence, the other limit of play. Our coats are an untidy mound behind the goals, where we flung them as we heated up. 

I am so hot the freezing wind feels like a cooling breeze on my incandescent face and sweat spreads on my forehead. The goal posts are tin garbage cans guarded by small children with old baseball gloves. We surge back and forth and side to side, a rag-tag assortment in old clothes and scuffed shoes whirling through the late afternoon shadows. We shout and grunt as our feet scuff the ground and chipped hockey sticks rasp on the frozen gravel.

“Over here”, my brother Dave shouts as I sweep down the wing. I try a backhand pass but the ball catches a clump of gravel and jumps over his stick. Josh, my cousin, corrals the bouncing ball and shouts to his brother on the other side of the net before slipping the ball inside the post, while the little goalie sprawls out of position. I bend over sucking air into my burning lungs.

“See that move!” Josh shouts, “four to three.”

We line up across from each other and wait for little third grade Denis to throw the ball into the face-off. He has it in his mitten and swings his arm back and forth to create suspense. Our breath rushes into the deep-freeze in clouds mingling and swirling away. 

“All you get out! Stop play now!” A rough foreign shout comes from above.

We look up.

Olga Kowalski, wife of the landlord is halfway down the paint-peeling grey wooden steps from the second floor. She’s as tall as she is wide and has a turnip face, slit eyes and a slash of gray mouth. Her nostrils are dark holes and a kerchief the colour of old cabbage is wrapped around her head hiding her hair. The rest of the squat body is covered by a hanging grey coat. Earlier that fall she shouted at us from the upstairs balcony but never from the stairs. She looks like a misshapen tree trunk or a child’s old potato doll with stuck-on limbs.

“You go way!” she shouts, waving clenched mitten fists. “I tear you leg off.”

Our father has been lying in bed marking university essays after his late lunch; he is a congenital insomniac. Our shouting brings him to the breakfast nook where I see him at the window which overlooks the lane. Our mother has probably escaped to window shopping or the beauty parlour.

The kitchen door slams open against the wall and he appears on our back porch, wearing loose pajamas under his tartan dressing gown.

“You can keep on playing,” he says to us and looks up the stairs at Olga. “That’s part of our driveway in the lease. Just leave them alone!”

The fringe of black hair on his head is standing on end and he hunches forward thrusting his head out like a turtle, staring through thick-rimmed glasses. I can barely stand the sight of him even though he’s on our side.

Play resumes. We ignore the shouting because we’re running too hard to pay attention to anything beyond the darting sticks and bouncing ball. The Polish landlords are on the second floor directly above my family, the Jews. Hostility has blossomed like a vile flower between the floors, taking root scarcely a month after we moved in a year earlier. Heating and noise are the usual flash points, noise in the summers and heat (or lack of warmth) the rest of the year. The landlords stamp on the floors overhead or clang metal on the radiator pipes if our radio is on after nine at night. Sometimes the banging wakes our father in the morning, a few hours after he has fallen asleep.

We shiver downstairs half the year because the furnace is controlled from the second floor and the landlords minimize the heating bill from the furnace which heats both floors. Attuned to our parents’ anger, my brother and I feel any hostile action against the second floor, short of outright destruction, is justified. When Dave and I shovel snow from our walk, it mounds onto the landlords’ side provoking doorbell ringing and angry faces thrust into our foyer. Sometimes the radio is left on loud when we go out. That was last winter.

The Kowalskis live with their sons, Jerzy and Stephan. The parents usually leave tenant management to Jerzy, the tough one. We see him from time to time, poking around the shared front yard or lounging on their balcony above the street, looking down at the uniformed schoolgirls coming home from school. He says he is a “bidnessman” and wears tight shark-skin pants and checked jackets, but doesn’t go out much. He greases his hair and walks around with a cigarette burning in his mouth barely acknowledging us or our parents, even when we come face to face. I saw him slam the heel of his boot into the side of our old Chevy when he thought no one was looking. I told my father but he didn’t seem to hear me. Theodore is only the titular head of the household, a shadowy figure behind his massive wife. We never see Stephan but hear his footsteps plod down the internal staircase at sunrise and creak up after dark.

My father is a tall, prematurely balding academic with a tweedy look when he’s out of his pajamas. That year he is desperate to have his contract renewed, as Senior Lecturer in Geography at Sir George Williams University. He has had our mother sew leather patches over the fraying elbows of his good jackets and iron his pants weekly, in an effort to impress the university’s Hiring Board.

My academic parent has a fierce temper, nothing like that of my Russian-bred grandfather who, rumour had it, used to beat my uncle with his belt, but grim enough to silence supper conversation when he gets home after late classes. He’s usually in a bad mood after his days at the university. Then, it’s best to stay away from the kitchen and my brother and I sidle off to our room. But there’s not much space in the two bedroom duplex.

My parents’ sour marriage and my father’s thwarted ambition make home life an ordeal. I feel as if I’m in a bull ring, my father looking for targets for his rage – until he turns on me with red face and curled lips. He’s free with slaps and shoves which are my due as the older son.

Something splashes my back and runs down my legs and I turn around. Olga has come down and turned the garden hose on us. She shoots a thick arc of water onto the boys in front of her. It clanks on the sides of the dented garbage cans and bounces off the frozen ground. She could even be having fun, grunting “Huh, huh, huh! Bastids. Sum bitch. Go way!”

With a sort of mindless fervour she swings the jet of water back and forth through the freezing dusk, spraying the running boys like watering a lawn.

Then my father is on the scene, wrestling the hose away from Olga.

“You can’t do that, dirty old guttersnipe” he shouts, walks over to the tap, twists it off and unscrews the hose. He drags it up the stairs flapping behind him onto our porch. I see he’s wearing his old leather slippers and his ankles stick out white under the ends of the loose pajama pants. I see Olga’s huge rear end retreat up the stairs and vanish through the second story door.

Ball hockey continues. The cold water drenching hasn’t quenched the fire and I start a run from our goal line. It starts to snow and nearly invisible crystals of ice come swirling on the wind coating our sticks which slip in our hands. The looming buildings become indistinct.

There are shouts from above and I look up. Jerzy is on our landing facing my father. He is holding a tire iron in both hands and ramming it against father’s arms and chest. My father is taller but thinner and his balding head sticks up in contrast to the Kowalski’s greased black eggplant dome.

Jerzy has a cigarette in his mouth and he seems to be saying “Fuckin’ bastard” around the stub. He’s the younger guy and Dad doesn’t seem to have much chance against the relentless bar. He’s trying to protect his chest with his forearms which are catching Jerzy’s blows. No one expects what happens next.

My father’s mouth opens and he emits an inarticulate roar, lifts one arm and hammers the bottom of his fist onto Jerzy’s cheek sending the cigarette flying. When the younger man lifts his hand to his face my father grabs the bar and they wrestle, twisting and pushing the iron

Again, my father’s fist reaches over onto Kowalski’s face. From below we can hear the wet thud. Now fluid, black in the half light, is dripping from Jerzy’s nose onto his chin. His oily hair flops over his eyes and he cringes, releases the bar and backs up the stairs holding his face in his hands. We hear his exclamations, “Owe, owe, owe.”

He gains confidence when he’s half-way to the second floor and shouts down, “Dirty Jew bastard.”

My father starts up the steps waving the iron bar over his head like a tennis racquet. Jerzy turns and runs up the stairs and the door slams shut on the second floor.

“Cowards,” the young professor shouts. “Come here and I’ll teach you criminals a lesson you won’t forget.” He walks down the steps and opens the kitchen door and disappears with a final shouted “Nazis”.

Jerzy’s cigarette burning itself out on the frozen gravel is the only sign of the confrontation.

Later, I see the bruises on my father’s arms when my mother is washing them off in a basin. She dabs peroxide gingerly onto the scratches. Afterwards, they show in full sickly splendour, a rainbow of blotchy colours all over his forearms and upper arms. 

That night, through the slightly opened door I hear my father’s voice on the single phone down the hall. He is speaking to his brother, but the words aren’t those of a Senior Lecturer or even someone with much education. “I sure clipped that little prick,” he says.

For weeks Jerzy’s face looks like it has been kicked by a horse, swollen into a lopsided melon. He doesn’t come down much but we see him skulking upstairs behind the windows. We get a letter from them, hand written on a Woolworth pad and there is talk of police and lawyers, but no one takes action. Maybe the explosion on the steps has released enough hatred to make the winter tolerable, or the landlords are frightened.

Snow falls and lasts until spring and we play ball hockey in the lane between snowdrifts which rise over our heads. The heat stays on and my family moves in the spring. 

End

Comments

Glad I got  to read your story. Is this the one that won the award?

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