Dad gets the call on Christmas afternoon. We have been to Mass and opened our presents, and now Mom is in the kitchen hacking at a butternut squash.
“Joanne,” Dad says after he hangs up, “they want me to work the game tonight.”
Mom stares at him. She lets go of the knife, which is impaled in the squash, but her other hand still holds the rolling pin she has been using like a hammer on the long blade. “What?” she says, as if he has just told her that martians have landed in the backyard.
“I’m sorry,” Dad says, but then his lips get all tight, which makes it clear that he is only halfway sorry. “They’re shorthanded. What can I do?”
“You can say no,” she almost yells. Her eyes are blazing, but I can’t tell if she is just mad or if she might cry again. She has been crying a lot lately, ever since Puppa died two weeks ago.
“I already said yes,” Dad tells her.
Mom slams the rolling pin on the counter. “For God’s sake,” she shouts, “can’t we have one Christmas without hockey?” She rips off her apron and stomps into the living room, where she plops onto the couch and sniffles.
Dad is still next to the phone, looking at the place where Mom was just standing. Normally he would follow her into the other room and say something like, “Now wait just a goddamn minute,” but nothing has been normal lately. Instead he turns to me—I have been setting the table with the good silver and linen—and raises his eyebrows. I almost feel sorry for him. In the last couple of weeks, he has been nicer to Mom than I ever knew he could be. He sits with her in the living room every night instead of watching TV in the family room and listens as she cries about how much she misses Puppa.
Dad sighs now and reaches into his shirt pocket for his Pall Malls. He seems about to say something to me, but then he lights a cigarette and walks into the living room. I start humming “O Holy Night” so I won’t have to listen to Mom’s voice when he tells her there is no way he can get out of working the game.
This is okay with me. I know it means that Kevin, Anne, and I will go to Baltimore with Mom and Dad tonight, just as we have on the last two Christmas nights, and watch the Clippers game that Dad will help officiate. Hockey is more important to him than anything else, except maybe his job, and he misses it. When he was growing up near Boston, he and his two brothers spent every winter slapping pucks across neighborhood ponds. They played hockey in high school and college, and Dad’s oldest brother made the 1948 Olympic team. Later they all worked part-time as refs for semipro teams, supposedly to bring in extra money, but in Dad’s case I think that was just a bonus. We moved to Rochester when I was six, and one of the first things Dad did was to get hired as an official for the AHL team they had there. This ate up almost all his spare time and meant Mom was left alone with us kids every Saturday night during the winter. She thought Dad’s hockey days were over two years ago when we moved here to Rockville, Maryland, since this is practically the South, but Baltimore has the Clippers, which of course Dad couldn’t pass up. Now whenever he has a chance to work one of those games, he jumps at it, even if it takes place on the biggest holiday of the year. And even if Mom’s father has just died.
The voices in the living room never rise above a mumble, so I stop humming. Mom has given up so easily that I know she won’t care now how dinner turns out. I can picture what will happen when we sit down to eat—Dad won’t actually say that the turkey is dry or that the mashed potatoes have lumps, but the criticisms will be all over his face.
I finish setting the table and go down the half flight of stairs to the family room, where Kevin and Anne are watching TV. “Come help me with the dinner,” I say. Kevin puts on his big-brother face and says, “Shut up, twerp,” but he has heard Mom’s outburst and follows me up to the kitchen. Anne trails behind us, prancing her Barbie up the steps and then laying her on the table like a centerpiece.
Kevin puts some frozen beans in a pan while Anne climbs on a chair to get the champagne glasses. We use these exactly twice a year, on Thanksgiving and Christmas, for our first course of cranberry juice with lemon sherbet. They are real crystal, the prettiest things we own. “Be careful,” I tell her. Her eyes shoot daggers, and she almost yells at me, but we all know this would be a mistake right now, so she sticks out her tongue instead.
I pick up where Mom left off with the squash, or try to, but it is so hard to cut that I get Kevin to do it. He makes such a racket that Mom rushes in to the kitchen. She is about to ask what in the hell is going on, but when she realizes what we are doing, her shoulders loosen, and her eyes fill up. “Oh kids,” she says. Her eyes skip back and forth across our faces; she seems as sad as on the day Puppa died. “Thank you.”
On the hour-long drive to Baltimore, Mom stares through the windshield and says nothing. An invisible rubber band is wrapped around her and Dad, stretched so tight it might snap any second. We kids know better than to make any commotion in the backseat, but I am sitting in the middle to keep Kevin and Anne from fighting, and they are fidgeting and touching me. I push them away, but they push me back, and pretty soon we are shoving each other so hard that the whole car starts to bounce. Dad frowns at us in the rearview mirror. “Knock it off back there,” he growls. I start to say it wasn’t my fault, but Mom is holding her head now as if she were sick, so all I can do is look at Kevin and mouth, “I hate you.”
When we finally arrive at the Baltimore Civic Center, Dad grabs his suitcase full of gear and heads for the locker room without a word. It is so early that hardly anyone is here, and our footsteps echo around the concession area. We are wearing our Sunday clothes—hockey games are special occasions—and my good shoes feel slippery on the concrete floor. I try gliding a little, pretend skating. I have never learned how to do the real thing, even though I am almost twelve, because I don’t have good balance and falling scares me. Dad tried to teach me once last winter, when a big pool in Rock Creek froze over, and he took us kids down there with our skates. He laced me up and then tore off across the frozen creek, waiting for me to follow him, but I couldn’t move. A moment later he came back and tried to tell me what to do, even bending over and straightening my ankles. My feet were numb, my legs like logs. Finally he pulled me halfway across the ice, where, as soon as he let go, I fell. When he helped me up, his hands were impatient, so I asked him to take me back to the creek bank, where it was easiest to stop trying and just watch him skate. Even though I was frozen and wanted to go home, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was somebody else out there, somebody fast and graceful. I would never catch him.
Mom buys us each a box of popcorn and a Coke, rare treats that remind us it is Christmas. We find our seats a few rows behind the Clippers bench and demolish the popcorn as we wait. It is still so early that only a few people have trickled in. I hate this part, the waiting; it is even worse when the game is over, and Dad spends a whole hour showering and changing. At home he is always ready in about ten minutes and bugs the rest of us to hurry up. Being late is like a sin.
The fans start pouring in, way more than you would expect on Christmas. By the time the organ plays “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the Civic Center is almost full. We listen to a few more carols, and then at seven thirty on the nose, the organ stops, and the Clippers skate onto the ice. People all around us jump up from their seats and cheer. Then the opponents appear—the Rochester Americans, Dad’s old team—and the cheers turn to boos. The boos continue as the three officials enter the rink, Dad being the last one. He is also the smallest and, except for his bald head, looks like a boy next to the big players with all their padding. Mom always worries that he will get beat up, especially since the fans hate the refs and egg the players on whenever they fight so that Dad has to pull them apart. He has a lot of hockey scars, the deepest one on his face, where a puck once tore a hole in his cheek big enough to stick his tongue through. His nose has been broken so many times that it is misshapen and kind of smashed at the bottom. Mom says she skips most of the Clippers games because she has had her fill of hockey, but I think there is more to it than that. If Dad’s teeth were knocked out or he lost an eye, she wouldn’t be able to pretend anymore that the two of them aren’t really different, that she cares about people and music and dancing, and he loves this rough sport.
The game moves so fast that I don’t even try to follow it. I catch a glimpse of the puck now and then, but mostly I watch Dad as he skates backward, or sprays frost when he stops, or runs on his toe picks. Sometimes he has to grab the chainlink fencing above the boards and lift his feet so he doesn’t get run over. Even though I have seen him do all this before, I can’t believe it is Dad. At home he moves at the same steady pace whether he is mowing the lawn or carrying his drink down the stairs.
We are close enough to the rink that we can hear all the game’s sounds above the crowd noise—skates scraping the ice, sticks slapping the puck, the refs’ whistles screeching. Dad wears his whistle on his finger, like a ring. From here you can barely see it on his hand, but it is big and heavy, nothing like the whistles teachers wear around their necks during recess. It is just about my favorite thing that Dad owns, even though I hardly ever see it because all his hockey gear stays packed away in his closet. But sometimes when he opens the suitcase to get ready for a game, I grab the whistle and twirl it around my finger until Dad needs it back. Mom won’t let me blow it in the house because it is so loud, but I can breathe just enough air into it to make the little ball inside knock against the metal. It makes me think of a tiny trapped animal.
When the first period ends, a lot of the fans go looking for more beer, but we stay put and watch the Zamboni make new ice. All the scratches and little piles of frost disappear as the big machine lays down what looks like glass. It is beautiful but doesn’t last long; when the second period starts, the ice gets torn up in the first five minutes. This is like footprints in new snow and makes me sad. I spend the whole period half waiting for the twenty minutes to pass so the Zamboni will come back and smooth everything over.
The game is tied, two to two, and by the third period, the fans are yelling their heads off. Things get pretty rough on the ice, with the players checking each other extra hard and slamming into the boards. At one point this happens right in front of us, when a Clipper has the puck, and two Americans pin him to the boards. The fans don’t like this. A guy in our row leaps out of his seat and screams, “Get off him, you assholes!” Then other players from both teams zip over, and suddenly there is a huge clot of black and blue uniforms right there in front of us. The players drop their sticks and pull off their gloves and start swinging. The fans all around us are on their feet, leaning forward and shouting, “Bastards!” and “Kill the sons a bitches!” We have to stand up too just to see what is going on; I search for Dad but only see the other two zebra shirts as those refs try to pull the players apart. Then I spot Dad, right in the middle of the fight, a midget compared to everyone else. He is frowning hard and yelling things I can’t hear, his small hands pulling on the huge shoulders. Everyone ignores him. I look over at Mom to see if I should be worried; she is standing now, too, but her hands are covering her face.
Now I don’t know where to look, so I gaze at my feet, which are freezing inside my thin Sunday shoes. On one side of me, Kevin is craning his neck, and on the other, Anne is hopping up and down as she tries to see over all the heads. I know they are watching to see if Dad will get hurt, since the fans are shouting things at the refs now, too. The three of us have learned from past games that officials are so unpopular, we shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves, much as we are tempted to shout, “Shut up, that’s my father down there” and “Let’s see you ref this game.” It is strange for us to be hockey insiders when everyone here would avoid us if they knew who our father was. So really, we are outsiders. I would feel less like one if Mom actually wanted to be here. She is sitting down now, staring at the floor.
Finally the officials break up the fight. I look for blood, but don’t see any. When the game starts up again, both teams try so hard to score that they start slashing and tripping each other with their sticks. Whenever Dad or another ref sends one of the Clippers to the penalty box, the crowd boos so loudly it sounds like a train passing through the building. Nobody bothers to sit down anymore. Even Mom stands up again, but her arms are crossed, and her eyes seem far away. Just looking at her reminds me that since Puppa died, she has become someone I don’t know. She doesn’t play the piano anymore, or talk to the neighbors, or even smile much. Maybe she is having a nervous breakdown. I don’t really know what that is, but last summer I heard her whispering with a couple of neighbors about a woman who cried all the time and wouldn’t get out of bed and ended up in the hospital.
The minutes tick by, but there are no more goals or fights. When the buzzer sounds, the fans groan at the tied final score. Some of them are still swearing at the refs, including a guy right in front of us who keeps yelling, “You’re all a bunch of jerks!” He turns around and looks at Mom and says, “They’re all a bunch of jerks.”
She stares at him, and I half expect her to say, “You’re right.” Instead she says, “Yes, and one of them is my husband.”
The man turns away, his face all red. This is something the old Mom would say, and I am suddenly hopeful that she is not having a nervous breakdown after all. I am even willing to forgive her for telling that guy who we are.
A moment later she says we should all go to the bathroom. She and Anne and I step on popcorn kernels and spilled beer as we make our way to the ladies’ room, where a long line of women snakes out the door. When we get inside, everyone is looking at the tall woman standing by the sinks, her face on the verge of either a smile or tears; it is hard to tell which. Chunks of vomit are stuck all over her beehive hair, some of it on the shoulders of her navy blue suit. Another woman is dabbing at the mess with wet paper towels.
“My God,” Mom says.
The woman looks over at us, trying to smile. “I guess I should have stayed home.”
Mom nods and says, “You poor thing.” But then she stops nodding and shakes her head instead. Under her breath she mutters, “Merry damned Christmas.”
To pass the time while we wait for Dad, Kevin, Anne, and I walk through the empty rows of seats and step on paper cups. We have done this enough times that it has become a ritual. First we wait until just about everyone is gone, and then we split up, each of us taking a different part of the arena. The rows halfway up are best because you get the biggest echoes from there, so we stick to those sections. We weave through the rows, looking past the half-filled cups of beer and other trash that people have left on the floor as we search for the empties. When we find one, we turn it upside down, lift a foot into just the right position, and step down on the cup as hard as we can. The sound—foop—rises to the rafters and bounces all around the Civic Center. It is one of the best things I have ever heard.
There are more cups than usual tonight, and the foops make a kind of music. This is kind of hard because the foot has to be brought down with the right amount of force, but the three of us are experts now. With each cup I smash, the sound travels up through my body and makes me feel stronger. I move quickly and am finally warm. I glance ahead to the next cup and the next, already stepping on them in my mind. Each explosion under my foot frees something in me. It is like screaming or crying and makes up for how weak I feel all the time. I race through the rows, practically running now, unable to stop. Up and down the stairs, section after section, however many cups I find, they aren’t enough.
I stop to catch my breath and take a look around. The Civic Center is completely empty, except for Kevin on the opposite side, Anne by the far goal, and Mom still down there in her seat near the Clippers bench. Our coats are piled all around her. Her arms are crossed, and her head is tipped to one side, like Saturn. I can’t tell what she is looking at, but it isn’t me.
I take my eyes off Mom and gaze instead at the ice. The Zamboni has made it smooth again, the red and blue lines showing clearly through it. I still don’t understand what those lines mean, but the big circles at each end suddenly look like giant ornaments. I have completely forgotten that today is Christmas. And now it is almost over.
My chest is tight, but my feet want to move, and I start searching again for empty cups. Out of the corner of my eye, I see movement and glance down toward the rink. Dad is coming out of the locker room. He walks slowly with his suitcase, a hat on his head now, looking small and far away. Mom doesn’t know he is there.
Cynthia Dockrell has been an editor at various publications over the years, though she now wrestles mostly with her own prose. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Rambler, and the San Francisco Chronicle. When not consumed by words, she dabbles in photography, often during her frequent trips to Maine. She lives near Boston with her husband.