“Penalty Kill” (June 2014)

“SHOOT IT YOU MISERABLE…”

The television blared the proof of Edward’s failure at top volume, the slow disintegration of his principles, of everything he knew, as Team Captain Dwight Ratchet’s final attempt to score a goal for his team, the Austen Fighters, against their sworn enemy, the Sacramento Terror, ended in ignominious and incontrovertible defeat.

Edward raised his fist; his four buddies from work, Randall, Patrick, Steven, and Vernon, all watched it happen, their eyes widening like eggs cracked into a frying pan, before Edward brought the fist down onto the coffee table. Beer cans and styrofoam containers leapt at least a hand’s length under the impact, some falling to the floor. A plate of cheese fries landed on Steven’s shoe, but his outburst was outmatched by Edward’s string of unedited cursewords.

“FUCKING SON OF A FUCK HACK RATCHET, YOU PIECE OF SHIT!”

The American flag on the far side of the room, behind the TV, shuddered under the impact. It fell from one corner, then the next, then the next, until it draped down onto the carpet just beside Edward’s dirty boots and Vernon’s toolbox.

“I just can’t believe that, I just can’t believe it. Just one thing, that’s all I ask for, just for the Fighters to win, just for Ratchet to win it for us, but he didn’t. He didn’t win. He blew it.” Edward put his face in his hands and dug his thumbs into his eye sockets.

“Um, Eddie?” Randall put hand on Edward’s shoulder. “You okay man?”

“It’s just been so long, is all,” Edward said, shutting the TV off as the theme music led into the post-game analysis. Silence came like an unwanted exit, a freedom towards a thing unknown. “I’m just so tired of coming in last.”

“But we made it to the playoffs this year,” Steven said, scraping the last of the cheese-like sauce from his leather shoe with a paper napkin. He flicked the napkin onto the table; little JoJo, the dog, wandered over and lopped the napkin into his dripping mouth.

“Goddammit JoJo,” Edward said, reaching over and yanking the flavorful wad from JoJo’s growling maw. “I know,” he said to Steven. “It’s just been such a hard year, every win has been a struggle, but we made it. But we couldn’t make it the one night it counted, the one night it mattered the most. The Terror were always going to win, the Fighters were always going to be losers. Losers. ‘Fighters’ for what? For losing.” He thumped his forehead with his closed fist and stared at the litter on the table.

A few of them cleared their throats.

“Well, I guess I’ll get going,” Patrick said, standing up and running his hand through his hair. “Got work tomorrow.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Vernon. He stood up as well, and Steven followed suit. Soon the three of them were gone. Only Randall stayed behind.

“You know what I’m going to say,” he told Edward.

“What?”

“It’s only…”

“Don’t say it.”

“…a game.”

“Get out of my face with that.”

“This has nothing to do with everything else you got going on in your life.”

“Like what?”

“The job, your back aches, Margaret leaving, you know, the whole deal.”

“Sure it doesn’t. Nothing has anything to do with anything else. In this life, nothing is connected, nothing means jack shit.”

“That’s the spirit,” Randall muttered. “Well, I’m going to get going myself. Got work tomorrow morning, got problems and pains in the ass, just like everybody else.” He stood and waited for a moment, but Edward didn’t budge. “See ya.”

Randall left. Edward only struggled to his feet to lock the door. Then he went to bed.

But he couldn’t sleep. He felt hot. He gripped his fist tight, and the pace towards sleep seemed forever slow. Incredulous images gripped his mind: after all these fifty-four years of his life, what it would have felt like if the Fighters had won. His team, his heart, his identity. If Ratchet had angled his shot on goal just a little differently, with just a little more strength behind it. Or if Philippe LeBreton hadn’t thrown away those two perfectly good breakaways on pointless showboating.

In a way, it was a blessing that Edward himself hadn’t made it to the pros after college. Watching at home, he always knew what the team could be doing better. He had the kind of perspective that the team and its coach lacked: that of the spectator. If there could be a team that had both, that team would be unbeatable.

“You need me,” he said, speaking to the wall, to the crisp, cold air in the bedroom, to the cluttered nightstand and frayed rug. “It’s obvious. We would have won.”

He heard a rattle at the front door of his small house. Any pittance of relaxation that had calmed his heart was replaced by an earnest pounding. He reached for the gun in the drawer of the nightstand–a Glock M19, named Drusilla–and calmly waited for the intruder to enter his bedroom.

It wasn’t long before he heard another rattle, this time at his own door. Edward leaped up in bed and pointed the loaded gun in the direction of the noise. His lower back screamed in pain; he chewed through the anguish, speaking through clenched teeth.

“Who the fuck is there.”

There was no reply. He turned, getting out of bed, gripping his dresser for a moment to soothe the pain, the gun kept trained on the door. Another rattle, and a whine. Edward inhaled, and crouched, approaching the door on his knees, his free hand reaching for the doorknob. His heart beat into his ears, but Drusilla was steady and strong, ready to right this most recent wrong.

He turned the knob and bashed the door open with a shoulder roll, shrieking like a cheap exhaust pipe, landing in a crouch and pointing the gun upward where he thought he saw the figure.

JoJo leapt back what seemed a hundred feet, his wagging tail knocking cans and bottles from the coffee table. He scrambled over to Edward and began to lick his face.

For a moment, it was hilarious. Inside, Edward burst out laughing. But the ache to his back proved a stronger influence than the situation that had just transpired. Tears rose to his eyes; one hand pushed JoJo away, the other gripped his lumbar spine as though to rip it out. But again, he fought through the pain, and got to his feet.

“FUCKING DOG,” he yelled, kicking the coffee table with a bare, twisted foot. It flipped like a cop car in a chase scene, its contents scattering as far away as the TV on the other side of the room. A half-eaten bag of ketchup-flavored potato chips, having not lived up to their promise, opened up across the couch in a shower of crispy red wafers. Edward patted JoJo’s eager face and squeezed Drusilla brutally, firing three shots into the mess of chips and cushions, sending bits of potato and couch cushion flying. Three bright flashes tore through the dark room.

The dog ran for cover behind the heavy curtain. White smoke made Edward cough slightly. He smiled and found the pack of Denizen Ultra Lights next to the floor lamp. Dropping the gun onto the couch, he sat down on the rug and lit a cigarette with the silver flintwheel lighter he kept on the end-table. The flame lit up his aged face; he closed the lighter and rubbed the metal against his undershirt to polish it.

Relighting, Edward looked at himself in the reflection. Wind-battered skin, under a thick but uncultivated beard, the kind that men wear when they have given up on life. His small eyes glistened in the yellow light; he smiled but could not see his teeth.

He stood soon up again, slowly, laboriously. The room was still dark, but a strip of light now appeared through the vertical blinds. Edward found the gun on the ventilated couch cushion. Holding it up, he looked at himself in the mirror over the mantel, standing in that strip of light. For the umpeenth time, he pointed the gun at the mirror and spoke to himself.

“Come on, you motherfuckers. Come get me.”

In his mind, Edward floated back in time to several years earlier, when, soon after the motorcycle accident that altered his back, he found himself cornered on crutches by a group of gangmembers in Fort Worth. Four of them–three with knives, one with a gun–approached him with no expectation of resistance. Under the harsh streetlight on the dead-end street, Edward sharply exhaled the smell of rain from his nose, raising the crutches like swords in the direction of his opponents, and barking the same seven words he’d just repeated into the mirror.

“Come on, you motherfuckers. Come get me.”

They had beaten him mercilessly.

His white knuckles gripped the gun; he saw his eyes bulging in the reflection. His free hand rose and brought the gun down as though to disarm himself. His teeth chattered in the cold room.

JoJo wandered over from behind the curtain, tail wagging, tongue lolling, the horror of the three gunshots already a distant memory.

“Come on,” Edward said again, “come on, JoJo, let’s go to bed.” He patted the dog’s head. Excited, it made its way to the bedroom. Edward held Drusilla close to his face and found the safety catch. Engaging it, he went inside the bedroom and closed the door behind him.

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