Monday, September 19, 2016

Chapter 1: SAWCHUK

Writing update: After finishing up "Summer, Trader's Fall's," I transitioned back to work on the novel by making major edits to Parts I and II. Post edits, it stands at a little over 60,000 words; I figure I need to write another 30,000. I hope to finish the last couple chapters in Part II this Fall and write Part III (the ending) this Winter while holed up in the Marquette snow. As part of the editing process, I made the executive decision to make this chapter the new and current first chapter of the novel. It was previously posted as "Goose Loonies," but I think it conveys the tone and theme of the novel particularly well:

SAWCHUK


1

March 24, 1988 – Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Michigan.
Hartford Whalers 3, Detroit Red Wings 2.


My old man used to say that it was the only game he missed as a season ticket holder during the 1987-88 Red Wings season. “It was the best game of the season, though, because it was the night you were born,” he used to tell me on game nights after a couple Labatt's. It was always through sports that he told me he loved me.

On the surface, it was an unremarkable regular season loss, the box score and newspaper collections in the National Hockey League archives indicating only that Hartford defeated the Red Wings 3-2 at Joe Louis Arena that night in a late season throwaway game, Detroit having already clinched the Norris Division. Russian defector and rookie phenom Petr Klima scored a goal for the Wings, bad boy Bob Probert notched an assist, and the ever-scrappy Joey Kocur amassed a whopping seventeen penalty minutes with his fists alone.

What that box score couldn’t suggest, however, was that underneath the surface, the gears of fate were turning deep within the Motor City hockey machine.

A few weeks later, before I had even left the hospital – an incision stitched halfway across my belly, I was a hospital baby in my first couple months in this world – rumors of a scandal scorched the hockey world. A couple mornings after the Red Wings had been eliminated from the 1988 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Edmonton Oilers, the sports world read the details of what would come to be known infamously in Detroit as “The Goose Loonies Incident” in the morning papers, the press hot with the details of a late night drinking incident involving six Red Wings players. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t have merited news, but the six perpetrators happened to pull this stunt on the eve of the biggest Red Wings game of the season and perhaps even their biggest game of the nineteen eighties to date – an elimination game in the conference finals against the juggernaut Edmonton Oilers.

Three of the ringleaders turned out to be none other than Petr Klima, Joe Kocur, and Bob Probert – a was recovering alcoholic. The newspaper columnists accused the three of them of organizing an all-night drinking party at a downtown Edmonton bar called “Goose Loonies.” The Red Wings fan base, starving for a winning team, took the Goose Loonies incident personally, feeling a few bad apples had jeopardized the franchise’s best shot at a Stanley Cup in years. It was a big story in the newspapers in Stanley Cup-deprived Detroit that summer, and Goose Loonies became a household name in my neighborhood in the following days, weeks, and months. Even now, twenty-seven years later, I still come across references to the infamous Goose Loonies Incident in the sports section of the Detroit newspapers every now and then.

The oft-troubled Probert must have lost control at some point that night; I of all people should be sympathetic of an alcoholic relapse. No stranger to trouble with the law, Detroit’s notorious tough guy had famously cleaned up his act the previous offseason, and it seemed he had managed to pin down his demons for most of that 1987-88 regular season – 87-88 was Probert’s lone all star game appearance – but even one drink can be the unraveling of a recovering alcoholic. A Red Wings assistant coach found the hotel rooms of Klima, Kocur, and Probert incredulously empty at curfew check, put on his jacket, and went looking for the six missing players in the city lights of downtown Edmonton.

Meanwhile Probert and gang were still sucking down Molson’s in the whiskey hours of the Alberta night, undoubtedly under the hazy spell of Jack Daniels and Canadian women. What a buzzkill it must have been for the six of them, when, to their great infamy, the assistant coach showed up at Goose Loonies, an incredulous look on his face as he imagined what head coach Jacques DeMers would have to say about his discovery. Six Red Wings caught red-handed.

A surely hungover Probert dressed in the following evening’s Game 5 against Edmonton anyways – the Wings couldn’t afford to sit him. He accumulated a tell-tale minus three rating in a lopsided 8-4 loss to that loaded Edmonton team. Wayne Gretzky, Canada’s soon to be departed hero, scored a goal and added two assists for the hometown Oilers. Had it been a victory for Detroit, the details of the previous night might have fallen away into the great chasm of forgettable sports losses. But it was a loss, and a big one at that, so the Goose Loonies Incident would haunt the Red Wings for some time.

Like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Chicago’s “Black Sox,” the six perpetrators came to be condemned as the infamous “six” that summer, the numeral six stitched permanently onto their jerseys like damning scarlet letters. The proverbial last straw broken, the Red Wings then-coach Jacques DeMers stood shame-facedly at a podium in front of news cameras back at the Joe and issued a heartfelt public apology to Detroit fans, calling the incident a “blemish on the entire organization” and “a black cloud on the season”. Fighting back tears, DeMers apologized profusely, looking like a broken man.

DeMers’ public apology, while dramatic, masked much more volatile currents running through Detroit’s front offices. There, hot-blooded internal discussions raged behind closed curtains, Detroit’s management team discussing rehab facilities for Probert and debating the termination of some of the other perpetrators’ contracts. The fault lines beneath Hockeytown were shifting, and some of its big names from the eighties would crumble in the aftermath. The turn of the decade fast-approaching, Detroit’s brain trust wanted to put an end to the “Dead Wings” era, for good.




Years later, while vacationing Up North in Ontario with some of the guys I grew up with, I would read Probert’s own version of the Goose Loonies incident in his autobiography, Tough Guy: My Life on the Edge, over a 24 ounce breakfast beer. It was springtime, the year 2012, and the corn stalks planted in rows behind the schoolhouse we were staying at had barely peaked out of the dormant earth.

Hungover and jittery – unable to sleep – I retrieved my copy of Probert’s book from my duffel bag and tried not to wake my buddies as I snuck a handful of beer bottles out of the refrigerator. Although I drank in the morning all the time with my college buddies back in Ann Arbor, these were the guys I grew up with, and they were much less further gone than I was at the time. As the eldest of our friend group, a role model to those guys, I didn’t want them to catch me drinking so early in the morning.

The previous summer Bob Probert had suffered a massive sudden heart attack and died on his boat on Lake St. Clair in the waters between Michigan and Ontario. The lake where he died was only a few dozen miles of waterway south by Lake Huron from that Canadian schoolhouse where I read his book. The loss of one of the great tough guys of all time devastated the hockey community, if it didn’t surprise them. Probert died just a couple chapters shy of finishing his autobiography, and a local columnist ironically had to ghost write the final pages of Probert’s autobiography. Only a year had passed since his death, and the wound of his passing was reopened as I voraciously consumed his roller coaster of a life story.

As I discovered in the pages of that book, the Goose Loonies incident was only the beginning of a long battle with alcohol and drugs for both Probert and Klima. Probert was shipped off on a flight to the Betty Ford Center in Minnesota for substance abuse treatment following the end of the ‘88 season, but he was unable to maintain any long term sobriety throughout the remainder of his playing career; the Goose Loonies incident must have seemed like small potatoes to him the very next season, when United States customs officials found a hefty bag of cocaine in Probert’s SUV at the Windsor border. To his credit, Probert served his time in federal prison and would go on to find a successful career with the Chicago Black Hawks, but his personal demons would forever be linked to his name, fairly or unfairly. Probert had been sober for some time at the time of his death, but it was hard not to speculate that his early demise was somehow loosely connected to that fateful night at Goose Loonies in 1988.

As for Petr Klima, Detroit police found him slouched over the wheel of his Chevy Corvette not long after the end of the ‘88 season, drunk at the scene of a single car automobile wreck; between Detroit, the minors, and several other NHL franchises, Klima would bounce around from team to team throughout the remainder of his career, even winning a Stanley Cup in 1993 with the Edmonton Oilers – perhaps fitting that he won back in Edmonton – but he never quite lived up to the hype he generated during his rookie year with the Red Wings.

I looked up from the pages of my book and gazed out at the cornfield stretched out below the schoolhouse deck, feeling the strange buzz of a liquid breakfast. Stretched out across the shell-pink horizon was Canadian farmland as far as the eye could see, the fields glowing golden under the early morning sun. Probert’s struggles with cocaine and booze captivated me. I was reading a lot of books about the dark side of alcohol at the time, memoirs of battles with the bottle, probably on some subconscious level knowing that my own toe to toe battle with the bottle was looming right around the bend.


But all that was still in the stars.

Friday, September 16, 2016

MQT

On the eve of game day volume III, I think about Kordell Stewart's Hail Mary in 1994 to beat the Wolverines in the Big House, maybe my very first Michigan Football memory, preceding only the Dreisbach to Mercury Hayes miracle on my first trip to the Big House in August '95. I put my head phones on, and I go to battle in my head, getting lost in other worlds. And I try and find comfort in the darkness, knowing I'll see things you'll never see. Outside the window, storm clouds from Superior cast a strange darkness in the early evening. I love it when it rains on the eve of a game day.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Colorado



Mother
Tell your children not to walk my way
Tell your children not to hear my words
What they mean
What they say
Mother

Mother
Can you keep them in the dark for life?
Can you hide them from the waiting world?
Oh mother

Father
Gonna take your daughter out tonight
Gonna show her my world
Oh father

Not about to see your light
And if you want to find hell with me
I can show you what it is

Mother
Tell your children not to hold my hand
Tell your children not to understand
Oh mother

Not about to see your light
And if you want to find hell with me
I can show you what it is
Til' you're bleeding

- Danzig, "Mother"

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Central Florida

Night falls and I'm alone
Skin yeah chilled me to the bone
You turned and you ran
Oh yeah oh slipped, right from my hand

Hey, blue on black, tears on a river
Push on a shove it don't mean much
Joker on Jack, match on a fire
Cold on ice a dead man's touch
Whisper on a scream doesn't change a thing
Don't bring you back
Blue on black

Blind oh, now I see
Truth, lies and in between
Wrong, can't be undone
Oh slipped, from the tip of your tongue

Hey, blue on black, tears on a river
Push on a shove it don't mean much
Joker on Jack, match on a fire
Cold on ice as a dead man's touch
Whisper on a scream doesn't change a thing
Doesn't bring you back, yeah
Blue on black
Oh blue on black

Kenny Wayne Shepherd, "Blue on Black"

Friday, September 2, 2016

Summer, Trader's Falls X



NEW OAKLAND PSYCHIATRIC UNIT

It was a Tuesday, no Wednesday, Thursday? Jackson sat against the brick wall of the New Oakland Psychiatric building, smoking a cigarette while the rest of his group ate their lunches inside. He had made a habit of coming outside to this spot every day at lunchtime, as it was the only alone time he got during the day session. Soon the rest of his group would trickle outside to chain smoke cigarettes and chat through the rest of lunch break, at which point he was under an obligation to try and socialize by therapist's orders. 

Do you know what it feels like to have a bad morning in psych group? Bobby, the resident psych ward veteran in group who does not stop talking, even when the therapist is walking out the door, admitted to the group that he had swallowed a bottle of benzos two nights prior in an attempt to kill himself, then disappeared out the back door mid-session. Rob, the guy who hasn't said a word since Jackson was admitted to group, except to emphasize that he loves the Philadelphia Eagles, stood up and took off his shirt towards the end of the morning session, displaying for group the bullet wound and surgery scars from where he shot himself through the chest in a suicide attempt two weeks ago. It was an improbably powerful moment for Jack, but it also triggered old secrets that Jackson should not have been thinking about. 

It was a beautiful day outside, at least. with great white cotton candy clouds floating across a sky of robin's egg blue. The dog days of summer had set in early in Metro Detroit, and the ninety-five degree heat beat down on Jackson as he wrote in his journal on the blacktop outside the building. He could hear the traffic rushing by from I-96 through the alley. Across from the building there was a two story house with grape vines on the side and a garage out back, where there were always four to five cars parked; the rumor going around group was that the residents were somehow involved with the Mafia. Jackson put his headphones on, and played the same song he played everyday at this time  -- Stand of Oaks, "Heal". 

He picked up a white rock from the concrete and began clawing away at the redbrick wall of the psychiatric building, writing the lyrics to the song. He had already covered the brick wall in several of these chalk-like phrases with lyrics and thoughts during his time in group: "The voices say RUN"; "Hello darkness my old friend"; "I was born in the middle, maybe too late, everything good had been made, so I just get loaded, and never leave my house" (this one had taken him two lunch periods to complete); "the idiotic chattering laugh of a girl unstrung with hideous fear". He had found that last one written upon his arrival, and Jackson loved it. 

He scratched away at the redbrick wall with the white rock, the rock crumbling as he wrote, like a pencil growing dull against paper:

"And we're painted like the Warriors
You gotta Heal"

[the end]

Hawaii

I keep swinging my hand through a swarm of bees cause I
I want honey on my table
But I never get it right
No I never get it right

I keep swinging my hand through a swarm of bees
I can't understand why they're stinging me
But I'll do what I want, I'll do what I please
I'll do it again til' I've got what I need

I'll rip and smash through the hornet's nest
Don't you understand I deserve the best?
'Til you do what I want
I'll do what I please
I'll do it again til' I've got what I need

I try to stick this pin through a butterfly cause I
I like all the pretty colors
It just fell apart, so I flung it in the fire
To burn with all the others

So I'm cutting that branch off the cherry tree
Singing "This will be my victory,"
Then I, 
See them coming after me

But I'll do what I want
I'll do what I please
I'll do it again til' I got what I need cause I
I want honey on my table

Thrice, "Black Honey"

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Summer, Trader's Falls V



SPLIT ROCK LIGHTHOUSE

From the very beginning Jack had planned a detour up Highway 61. He wanted to experience the highway Bob Dylan had famously written of, take it up to Hibbing and see the childhood home Dylan had grown up in there. He thought he might find some of Dylan’s muse up there on the Minnesota coast. But not even during his wildest office fantasies had he pictured it this breathtaking; if ever there was a place to go looking for Dylan’s muse, this was it.

He sat Indian style on a flat boulder on the cliff at his campsite, looking out at Split Rock Lighthouse looming in the distance over Lake Superior, its revolving beacon flashing over great crags of rock that made Superior’s coastline crooked here, over a small island of orangish gray rock which was coated in towering green pines, over the eternal horizon of Superior’s waters. He looked with a sense of wonder that he thought he had lost along with his childhood a long time ago. The scene reminded him of the Oregon coast in The Goonies – when One-Eyed Willie’s eighteenth century pirate ship emerges from the cliffs out onto the Pacific, majestically emancipated from its dark cave. From his spot up on the cliff, he could hear children from campsites below playing Ghosts in the Graveyard, chanting “Dead man! Dead man! Come a-LIVE!” Oh, the sweet memories of childhood. 

He had arrived at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park in Minnesota just before eight o’clock central time, with little time to spare in pitching his tent before dark. It had been a long and beautiful travel day. The four mile hike from Lake Superior Cabin to his car seemed much easier than the hike in, as many portions of the trail had dried up in the sweltering heat of the last couple days. His bags were also considerably lighter on the hike out, on account that he no longer had the weight of his food sagging him down. Many more snake sightings kept him guarded during the hike out, but he had seen so many during his trip that he was mostly shrugging them off by then. When he finally arrived at the trail head, sweaty and physically exhausted, he never thought he had been so happy to see his car.

In an impromptu picnic he immediately scarfed down two pop tarts and a hot water bottle he found sitting in the back seat, which gave him just enough energy to resolve to see the Lake of the Clouds after all. He blasted the air conditioning and drove through the forested road out of the park to Ontanagon, where he picked up a cold bottle of Mountain Dew, a king sized Snickers bar, and a long-awaited fresh tin of Grizzly Wintergreen. Feeling a new man, he made the drive back into the Porcupine Mountains, determined to make one last hike to see the famed Lake of the Clouds, which did not disappoint.

There were long stretches of the drive through the Western Upper Peninsula and Northern Wisconsin during which he saw no other cars for miles and miles, and on several of these occasions Jack caught himself wondering if he had ascended to another world. For the first time in several weeks he found himself feeling as if life were more than a chore.

Along the drive he spotted several deer along the roadside, but other than that he saw no wildlife – nothing but North Woods forest, rolling hills, rivers and creeks, and small rinky-dink towns that weren’t even on the map. He made a brief pit stop at a scenic rest stop on the Superior coast of Northern Wisconsin, where he admired the girls laying out on the beach and walked out on the dock to view the enormous lumber mills on the lakeside, imagining himself a die-hard Packers fan who had worked these mills half his life; he could live here, he thought – he could fight in a place like this. He made a second pit stop at an outpost in Minnesota just outside of Duluth, where he ate one of the best pulled pork sandwiches of his life for dinner. From there, he crossed the Duluth Bridge and veered North up Highway 61.

When he had envisioned the trip, Jack had pictured some pivotal epiphany or some other grand metaphorical event occurring on Bob Dylan’s famed Highway 61. Dylan had been his very first inspiration for writing, back in high school, and Highway 61 had always symbolized some metaphorical escape from everything he hated about his hometown back then. He had even went digging through his old high school cd collection, picked out “Highway 61 Revisited” for this portion of the journey, hoping it might set in motion some life-altering realization:

Well, Georgia Sam, he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department, they wouldn’t give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard, “Where can I go?”
Howard said, “There’s only one place I know”
And Sam said, “Tell me quick, man, I got to run”

Oh, Howard just pointed with his gun
And said, “That way, down on Highway 61”

So it was disappointing to find the entire drive up Highway 61 to Two Harbors clogged by orange traffic barrels and men in neon green vests.

Still,” he reminded himself, “hard to feel down considering all the sights and scenery we saw today”. From the hike back up to the Little Carp River Gorge, to the Lake of the Clouds, the Northern Wisconsin coast, the Aerial Lift Bridge over the water in Duluth, and the massive cliffs of the Minnesota coast, it was hard to complain about that kind of day, especially considering that a mere five weeks ago he had been pent up in a cubicle staring out the window, longing for this exact place. And still the best was yet to come; when he arrived at his campsite in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park at sundown, the view was unlike anything he had ever seen before.

He parked his car at the designated lot and made the short hike to his campsite on the cliff. The fire ring and tent site lay on level grass on a ledge of the cliff, and a narrow trail led upwards to the crest of the cliff. He climbed up to find the view of a lifetime laid out before him – a three hundred foot drop to the crags of Lake Superior below, cliffs that wound their way around a small cove that was protected by a small island, towering pines jutting out at odd angles from all over the cliffs and island. Above it all stood the majestic Split Rock Lighthouse, its beacon revolving across Lake Superior’s vast, deep blue enormity. He stood atop the cliff for a long time, breathing in the lake air, reflecting, pondering life and the awe-inspiring view before him. The lighthouse fit so naturally into the scene that it looked like it could not have possibly been man made. Jack thought it must have stood there on the cliff for all of time – before man ever stepped foot in this country.

When darkness fell he gathered his radio, journal, and notebooks and hunkered down in the tent. He adjusted the radio dial for several minutes, searching for a decent station, letting his mind get lost in each station he vetted before panning the dial to the next – classical music (some Mozart composition or another), Albanian talk show, “KQ Classic Rock Duluth” (the same station he got at the cabin in the Porcupine Mountains, which he was frankly sick of), Trump worship and Obama bashing on several stations, religious babble, sports radio! Finally. There seemed to be two sports stations mashed together by a miniscule turn of the radio dial, both stations talking NBA Draft Night. 

Oh, for Chrissakes,” he said out loud in the tent, as if asking the gods for mercy, "is the Chicago station really coming in clearer than the Minnesota station?" 

[It was].

Fuck Chicago,” he thought bitterly, all of the memories of her apartment in Wrigleyville swirling up in him like vengeant demons, “Chicago is dead to me.”

After scanning through the entire spectrum of the AM and FM radio dials again, though, he accepted defeat and resolved to give the Chicago sports station a shot. It was sports radio, at least, he figured. 

 “It’s just a radio station,” he thought, attempting yet again to suppress memories of the past two years in Chicago with her.

Fucking sick of these Chicago stations,” a darker voice whispered, “how is it possible that Chicago stations come in across all the Great Lakes?”

Jackson was testing his limits. He opened the tent flap and smoked a cigarette while looking at the stars. He decided he would try and read some Harry Potter, try and get lost in another world for a while -- any world but his -- a plan which went smoothly enough until the big news came that “with the fourteenth overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls select Denzel Valentine, shooting guard from Michigan State University”.

Denzel fucking Valentine,” he reflected, no longer angry but just plain sad, “her alma mater”. At that, he lost it.

All of the memories came rushing back to him. So many nights spent with her at his house in Garden City, in her apartment in Chicago, at some Buffalo Wild Wings location (“our favorite restaurant”), watching Denzel Valentine lead her Spartans to some epic comeback win or another the past two years. He hated Michigan State, but he was happy in those moments – happy because it made her happy. It was a new low. Nostalgic over Michigan State sports memories. 

So many nights spent with her in that Chicago apartment that had become a second home to him, getting ready to go out, staying in to order take out and watch cheesy movies, cuddling in bed on Sunday mornings, both of them dreading the prospect of having to leave – an apartment that he would never see again, so many shirts and various items left there that he would never see again. So many date nights in the Windy City – to the Natural History Museum, walking through Millennium Park and around Soldier Field, to Michigan bars for his football games, to State bars for hers, the Ferris Wheel on Navy Pier, the art institute for her law school formal, long walks to their favorite zoo. Sitting in his tent that night on the cliffs of Lake Superior, those memories made him feel very dead inside.

Chicago is dead to me!” he shouted in the tent, as if reiterating that phrase once more might change the events of his life. He turned the radio off and flung it at the side of the tent. He was silent for a long time thereafter.

By the time he calmed himself down, it was near midnight. He had wrote out enough curses and mad thoughts in his journal for one night. He unzipped the flap of the tent and climbed out to retrieve some cookies he had accidentally left on the picnic table. The stars were bright in a clear midnight blue sky. He spotted the Big Dipper hanging above Lake Superior, glowing magically over the cliffs. He crawled back into his tent, his flashlight lantern lighting the interior, and readjusted the radio dial. KQ Classic Rock it was. 

When was the last time you were in a tent?” he asked, as if he were changing the conversation with someone.

The last time he was in a tent was with Al and Jamie back in the summer of 2011, the worst summer of his life to date, hitting the slopes and guzzling beers on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan in some feeble attempt to forget the fact that the girl he had just transferred schools for had left him mere weeks before they were scheduled to move in to their apartment together, when he was a shell of a human being. The last time before that was sophomore year in his college house, when he and Andy lived in individual tents in the unfinished basement for a semester after they had been kicked out of their fraternity house, when he was a loose cannon.

He listened to the sounds of night audible over the soft songs of the radio. He could hear the big semi trucks rolling down Highway 61. “Bob Dylan’s sacred Highway 61,” he reflected; he was here at last.

Jack wondered what those truck drivers were feeling and thinking as they rumbled through the lonely night – heartsick for a girl halfway across the country? Homesick for a house where children slept peacefully in their beds? Angry or content with the hand they had been dealt in life? – wondered if they could see Dylan’s ghosts out on Highway 61.