Percy Cutter’s head smashed against the Plexiglas, scrambling his brains into an egg salad. His vision went blurry and black rings began to close in. His body was lifted off the ice as if he had skated over a landmine that blew him toward the stands. Then, as surely as the body check came, he crumpled to the cold surface like an accordion. He didn’t brace himself for the impact. Like a dropped sack of potatoes, or a glass of milk teetering on the edge of the counter, he simply let gravity take over and fell. He smashed into little pieces: face against the ice, head heavy with a concussion. His eyes slowly pushed up the dark curtains to the face of the man who delivered such a punishing blow. Legwand the Finn. He smirked at Percy and skated away.
The smirk said everything by saying nothing at all. Don’t get up, because next time I’ll make you sure you don’t! A smile for intimidation. One goon to another. There will be a fight for this, that’s just how hockey goes.
Percy stood up against gravity on ragtime piano legs: the heavy swollen brain, the heavy dosage of pain meds and alcohol he was addicted to, and the heavy photo of Jessica Lemieux tucked inside the flap of his helmet. He skated toward his bench wearing a fake mask that said he was all right. Of course he was all right. He was the team enforcer. The guy who fought and protected the goal scores and playmakers, the snipers and power forwards. The guy who bare-knuckle boxed and for his reward got a nice pair of Irish sunglasses and a broken nose.
Not to mention the concussions. When the brain goes hit enough times the wires started to cross, and then the machine malfunctioned. Depression, anxiety, that sort of thing came with the territory of a hockey enforcer.
“Jesus, man,” the voice entered Percy’s ear like it was compacted into a ship’s hull. It bounced off the catacombs of his mind for a moment, separating itself out before being drowned out by the droning muck of the game’s action and the crowd’s banter.
“Percy?” The voice is stronger this time. A gloved hand comes out and grabs his shoulder.
“Man, you got messed up on that hit,” Marty Turgeon, a second line playmaker said. “You okay? You look like shit.”
“I’m fine, Marty. I’ll get that son of a bitch back.”
Percy looked up toward the stands and saw a woman wearing a familiar blue cardigan over a snowy pullover with the frilly ruffles along the collar. The same outfit, the same haircut she wore in the photo. She stood out among the others cloaked in team jersey’s and body paint. On the streets she looked normal, but in there she was the elephant in the room.
“Percy, what are you staring at?” Marty’s voice grew like a fig of concern.
“Jess. She finally came to a game?”
“What?” Marty’s head spun like a carousel. “I don’t see anything, Percy. You need a doctor.”
“No, I’m fine.”
* * *Percival Cutter had carried a photo of Jessica Lemieux in his wallet for the almost two years since he signed a minor league contract for the American Hockey League, and left college. She was a girlfriend who wrote him letters about life at Trenton Trinity College. She wrote of mid-term exams, her role as student body vice-president, and would sometimes send him poems she was trying to publish. Percy, as most people called him, along with “Bone-Cutter”, would take the picture of Jessica, wearing a dark blue cardigan sweater (his favorite color) with her hair down to her shoulders, and tuck it just above the bridge of his brow in his hockey helmet.
During college games Percy never fought since it was barred. He had a large frame for a stringy kid, and when he skated his coach would call him giraffe. But Percy always found a way to screen the opposition’s goaltender and cash in on a few garbage rebounds. He was a scorer throughout his life and never thought he would have to don the mask of an ice batman.
One day a scout wearing a checkered sports jacket came by his practice. Percy remembered the jacket because it hurt his eyes to look at it. The man was older, around the age of Percy’s father, and had a thin crooked mustache drawn above his lip. The man’s green eyes might as well have been yellow like a snake’s. When he laughed he chortled, somehow pompous as if he ruled over Percy. Short bloated fingers, smooth hands showed the only work he did in his life was signing away young men’s lives. He seemed more a sinister looking shark instead of a talent scout. When he smelled Percy’s blood his eyes rolled back like a doll’s and he flashed forward to get his kill. He wooed Percy and asked him if he wanted to play in the NHL someday, and what would he do to help his team win.
Yes and Anything was what Percy said as those shark teeth pulled him in.
He was signed right away. He knew Jess was not as thrilled, after mistaking the story of the man in the checkered suit as an army recruiter; she was floored when Percy said he was joining a team hours and miles away. She slipped into congratulatory silence and retired to her dorm room where–in Percy’s mind–she stared at the things she owned. He liked to imagine what she thought at the time. Did she wonder what she should give him? Her panties? A bra? No, they dated but nothing serious. If anything Percy was a filling in her cavity tooth of life.
He could imagine those hazel eyes falling upon her poems, and the picture of her in the blue cardigan with her hair down. She hated the picture because the sun was in her eyes, and, like most girls, believed she was imperfect in the eyes of man (or pretended to). Perhaps she gave it to him because he loved any picture of her.
Percy knew she wondered if he should give her anything. At first both didn’t know, but when Percy wrote and signed the letters and told her to come, they both knew he was giving her his heart. But Jess didn’t want his heart.
Percy felt the sinking sensation he’d read about in books. Men at war wrote home to the last girl they kissed or talked to. But in each letter he told, no begged, her to come to a game close by, and if she wrote back she said she would try.
They never called or met after he left. Letters were a way of separating voice and emotion in little words and stories scribbled on a piece of white paper between them. Letters could be left to the imagination. Percy could imagine Jess loved him, while Jess could imagine he did not.
But even through the sleepless nights, Percy still kept the photo of Jess (now worn and stained from his sweat and blood) in the flap of his helmet, just above the shore of his brow where the waves of his brown hair splashed down.
* * *Intermission came and the players trudged back to their locker-rooms for a ten minute siesta. Percy sank into his locker and removed his helmet and wrapped his fingers around the edges of the photo. It’d been so long since he last saw her that he was scared she may have changed in the past eight months. The woman in the stands. The woman with the same outfit, the same hair. Percy cross-checked the image in his head with the photo like a detective. They matched.
His stomach boiled with happy bubbles that climbed up his spine to his icy heart. He felt like a kid again and then he felt embarrassed. She must have seen the hit he took and how he struggled to stand up and skate.
She might know he had a concussion too. It was a woman’s intuition to know what’s wrong with a man and then pinpoint it with fine accuracy. That bubbly feeling for Percy would be a dagger to the stomach for Jess. Maybe she was in his head right now, trying to repair all the wires knocked loose and put large slabs of ice on his beaten brain.
His scars and bruises danced through his mind. Would she even recognize him? The crushed nose, the battered eye, the missing teeth. And if she did, would she grab his hand and cry into it, only to find his hands were broken slabs of meat? The knuckles appeared run against a grindstone and rubbed away. His fingers pulsated and his right hand was swollen, no doubt broken from a fight he had a week ago.
“You okay?” Marty slapped Percy’s knee, his voice still lost in a cave somewhere in Percy’s mind.
“Yeah, just got the wind knocked out of me.”
“Like hell you did,” Marty scorned him. “Tell the coach or trainer, man. The last thing we need is you getting in a scrap when your brain is–”
Percy stopped listening and Marty stopped talking. His friend took a breath and pushed the photo backward with his pointer finger.
“Ah, she’s a looker.” He grinned. “You squishing pissers with that, Percy?”
Percy smiled. “I’ve been writing her and begging her to come to one of these games, and you know what, she finally did.”
“She ever see you fight, before?” Marty asked.
Jessica never saw him fight. She never saw him play. She barely knew he played hockey (as most girls uninterested in sports tended to do). When Percy finally told her he was leaving Trenton Trinity for the AHL she thought he’d joined the army. Percy laughed. Jess did not. An awkward void opened between them, a separating divide that would push them apart eventually. Jess always signed “Love” at the end of her letters, but Percy knew that “love” was a way to end a letter, and it didn’t necessarily mean a thing. But Percy pretended, as most foolish young boys do, and kept every letter of hers in a small shoebox nestled in the back corner of his home footlocker.
“She ever see you fight, before?”
“No, but I feel like she has.”
Percy reached into his footlocker and found a bottle of aspirin and his painkillers. He popped some in his mouth and soaked them with his water bottle. A volt of electricity ran through his brain. He dropped his forehead into the palm of his hand.
He thought he’d had worse. For the most part he was right. He won many fights and lost
a few. The ones he lost hurt the most simply because of the physical and emotional toll they took. Not only did his face end up broken, but so did his spirit when he couldn’t knock the other player down or score more shots. Watching eyes mocked and judged him from a heavy little cloud that dropped on his shoulders and started to suffocate him. Then came the sudden sour taste, like lemonade, that poured in and told him to go out and redeem himself.
Now he was getting that same old feeling but he didn’t know who it came from. The photo, his teammates, the crowd, or maybe Legwand the Finn.
* * *No one came to see Percy Cutter fight or play hockey.
Percy’s parents never came to a game. His brothers and sister stayed away too. When he told them he left Trenton Trinity for the AHL they hung up the phone and didn’t talk to him for over a week. His father, a steelworker who toiled under burning hot flashes of steel, believed Percy should be the first in the family not to strain his body the way he had. His mother never approved of Percy. Their phone call, his talk of playing in the AHL, the phone’s static and the reception service, all spoke of a bad omen. His father never yelled or shouted, but when he handed the phone to his wife she grew hot like a tea-kettle and shouted plumes of steam through the receiver, hoping to burn the ear off her ignorant son. Then she said he was, and always would be, the let-down of the family. He had the brains to go out and do something good in society, but he traded them for the bloodlust brawn of hockey. She had often reminded him, during family dinners and family nights out, that he was smart enough to be a renowned surgeon or engineer. If she had enough sauce in her (usually a Long Island Ice Tea or many Tom Collins) she would utter the word she knew would hurt Percy the most: Disappointment.
Thinking of his parents and the word followed Percy to every game, making him second guess his decisions. The word made him write another SOS signal to Jess, wrapped in cute phrases and “I miss you”s, a few days before. He beckoned for her to come to another game. Always, she would write back and ask for a schedule, and even though Percy always mailed a list of games, Jess never came. And even though she never came, Percy still sent her the schedules written from hand on a team program or ad from a vendor.
While drunk two nights before, he called her. No answer. Just the voicemail. He straightened himself up; he even fixed his collar, and tried his best not to slur. He told Jess to come, almost to the point of demanding her appearance, and that if she needed gas money or a hotel room he would cover it out of his pocket. He ended the voicemail the same way Jess would end her letters, but Percy’s “love” was not transparent and simply said for assurance. Jess didn’t call back.
Inside, the struggling hockey enforcer knew Jessica Lemieux would never come to a game. He knew she had all the excuses to stay home and write her poems and letters. “Too far away, too expensive, and hockey’s just not exciting for her.” If she didn’t return his call, she wouldn’t return at all, she would stay at Trenton Trinity until summer and then head home to her parents’ farm and write poems about horses and the long stonewall running around an old pasture.
The fighting, the AHL, and hockey in general were Percy’s road to anywhere. But turning back would not take him through the same towns he knew and loved. The towns changed; the towns would make him an outcast.
So Percival Cutter fought. He earned the nickname “Bone-Cutter” when he caved a Swede’s face in with his hand. Sometimes when he swung he thought of Jess writing her poetry or wearing that blue sweater, and sometimes he thought of her with another man just out of the camera’s focus. He thought of the mid-terms and student body, the nights he would try and kiss or hold Jess’ hand, how she would shoot him down. He thought of his family. He thought of that one word.
* * *Bone-Cutter’s fragile mind skated around the ice during his shift. While he skated he thought of Jess finally coming to a game. He straightened himself out and ignored the pain inside his head like a good soldier.
He kept scanning the rows of seats and the crowd of drunks for that blue sweater. When play stopped that’s where his eyes went. And when he came off the ice to rest, he looked back to the same section.
Sometimes he would see her, and sometimes she’d be gone. Sometimes Percy would shake his head and then he’d see her again. But in a few seconds Jess would blur away and vanish. She’s there, she must be! He thought she was telling him a number of things. She was telling him to stop it and come home to Trenton Trinity. Beg your parents for money! Come home and be safe and get help for your brain!
And all this appealed to Percy. If Jess was there and stayed, then maybe he would call it quits and hang up the skates. He would travel back to college and finish his social science degree. He would teach high school civics and history and maybe coach a hockey team on the side. He would do all this if someone he loved would just level with him.
During his next shift he spotted Legwand skating across center ice. As he climbed over the boards he didn’t see Jess, even when he shook his head to try and bring her back. She wasn’t there. He went towards the Finn and tapped him on the calf with his stick. Legwand stopped and turned around, expecting this moment.
“Let’s go,” Percy said.
Legwand said nothing. The stick went down to the ice the same way Percy fell. A flick of the wrists and the gloves spiraled off. Percy tossed his stick to the side and flung off his gloves. They rolled their sleeves up, shook their elbow pads loose. The official’s whistle blew and the arena exploded.
Percy could only see a small part of Legwand. The darkness crept in and created a tunnel leading to the Finnish freight train on the other side. The crowd roared louder than they had all night, but to Percy it was drowned out in the bunker of his brain.
They reached for their arms and jersey’s, both men slapping the other’s hand until Percy got the first grip just above Legwand’s armpit. Percy fed him spoonfuls of fist, free of charge. Legwand ducked low and gripped Percy around the collar.
Percy reached over, grabbed the back of Legwand’s helmet and ripped it off. He hit his shoulders and grazed the side of his head. His heart beat, head pounded. He connected with a solid shot above Legwand’s eyebrow that opened him up like piñata. Red liquid candy dripped to the ice. He hit him in the same spot again and felt it in his entire body.
Legwand threw a couple shots back, trying to duck Percy’s large right. He hit Percy in the shoulder, and missed his chin by an inch. He was in trouble and at Percy’s mercy.
The crowd pulsed, they cheered and screamed. Bone-Cutter smashes another one! The local Twitter and Facebook pages would explode with the news of this bout.
Another right and another. Percy was crushing the Finn and he hated himself while he did it. He hated what he left behind and what he’d become, a gun for hire. A bodyguard. A circus sideshow freak. Every kid who played hockey dreamt of being the next legend, not the next goon.
Legwand stiffened his grip arm and the two men started circling on the ice. Percy saw his other arm cocked way back. He knew what the Finn would try to do: a roundhouse, where the fighter rears back and come around with all his force.
Dodge it and finish him, Percy thought. Finish the Finn!
But Percy looked past the top of Legwand’s head. Past all the lights and jerseys, past the screaming drunks, he saw the blue sweater. The same outfit, the same hair. Jess was smiling at him and she slowly raised her hand as if to say goodbye. Percy raised his hand to say the same. Bye to her? No, bye to this.
Percy’s world went black.
***The newspapers wrote that light that blinded Percy Cutter that night. That something in the arena malfunctioned and distracted the big man from finishing off his counterpart. The fans in the nosebleeds said he just stopped, and he was tired out. The ones closer to the ice said he just gave up. His teammates and coaches blamed the referees, because they thought the fight was over and Percy was waiting for them to step in.
Trainers said Legwand the Finn had hit Percy so hard it cracked his helmet in two. Doctors said if Percy hadn’t worn a helmet, then Legwand would’ve knocked his head completely off.
Reporters compared it to Ali and Frazier, said Bone-Cutter simply dropped like an anvil on Wild E. Coyote. When he hit the ice blood drooled from his ears and his nose. His helmet bounced and did a front flip like a child on a trampoline. It somersaulted and came to rest next to Percy’s drained face.
The picture still faced him: Jess with that same blue cardigan and the shoulder length hair.