“Peanuts,” I say. “That’s all I want you to think about.” My new friend keeps trying to talk about serious things, like science, like how the number of genes that can shape a person’s face are limited enough statistically that we all have multiple twins on Earth. I just hope to once again feel what it’s like to really want something. I grab the plastic bottle from him and swallow a finger or two of vodka.
“Peanuts, like the show?” he says, popping a nut into his mouth, shell and all. He chews it and spits out some gristle, but a little works its way onto his lower lip and stays there. “With the trumpets?”
He means Charlie Brown. “No. And it was a flügelhorn, not a trumpet.”
“A flügelhorn is a trumpet.”
“And salt is pepper,” I say.
“You need to meet Pepper.” He holds out both fists and makes a humping motion.
“You need to think about peanuts,” I say again.
“I’ve already thought about them.”
“They give me heartburn.” He pops another into his mouth, chews, spits, and takes a long drink of vodka. Once he’s done, the bit of shell on his lower lip is gone.
“Pepper gives me heartburn,” I say.
“She gives me heartburn, too.” He laughs and does the phantom hump again.
I can’t see Staples Center yet, but I can see its glow. People are starting to file toward the hockey game. Cars slouch by. I wish I had tickets. I want to see a Dustin Brown slap shot.
“I’m going to ask him,” says my new friend, pointing to a guy in a vintage Oilers jersey jogging alone across the street. He’s really tall and I recognize his face. Is he famous? He’s something. I can’t place him. “Hey, mister.”
The tall man nods and slows down. He’s not famous; he’s familiar. I wonder if we went to high school together. Maybe he was an officer. I picture him in fatigues, but nothing’s certain.
“Question for you,” my new friend says to the man.
He waves him off. “I don’t have any change.”
“No, no, no,” my new friend says. “We need to know a question—we need to ask you a question.”
The guy checks his watch and says, “Okay, shoot.” His nose has a notch in the middle. Maybe that’s why he’s familiar.
“Is a flügelhorn a trumpet or something else?” my new friend asks.
“I’d guess it’s a trumpet.”
Before we can respond he jogs off toward the arena.
My new friend grins. “See? One in the same. One in the same!” He grabs the bottle back and takes a swig.
“He said he only guessed.”
“But look at him. He would be a guy who knows. Did you see his hair? That’s hair that’s been to the symphony.”
“He said he guessed,” I say, but whatever. I grab the bottle back. The vodka doesn’t tickle my throat this time.
“He was an okay dude. He was okay.”
I realize we’ve stopped walking when a family with a mother and daughter holding hands walks past us, using the edge of the sidewalk and a bit of the street to give us a wide berth. I deserve the space, more than they know, more than my new friend knows. “Let’s keep moving.”
“How long have I known you, Dennis?” he asks as we walk.
I still can’t remember his name. I look down at my watch. I don’t have a watch. “I don’t know, forty-five minutes?”
“It feels like forty-six.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“We’re like old pals,” he says. “Sheesh. It’s a compliment.”
“I thought you were saying you were tired of me,” I say, which feels truer than anything I’ve said in a long time.
My new friend stops and puts his hand on my shoulder, gets his face right up into mine. He breathes through his nose. I can smell peanuts and rot. “People who get tired of people are just tired, man. Not tired of you. Just tired.”
I nod and back away. I don’t think he’s right, but I’d rather pretend so he’ll give me some space. The sadness feels sweet. I take another swig of vodka and close my eyes so I can concentrate.
The arena is just up the street on the left. I can see the glitter, the flash. They even have one of those big, rotating searchlights like the ones we had on base. “Let’s hang out for a bit,” I say. It will be nice to be in a crowd. We can watch everyone and have something to talk about.
“I have a philosophical question for you,” says my new friend. He begins snapping his fingers along to some beat in his head. “Why aren’t we in the National Hockey League?”
A dozen people surge past us on their way to the game. We’re now just outside, on the veranda. Or the patio. Whatever; it’s nice. I see a Phoenix Coyotes uniform, and another. I’d forgotten they had a team. Phoenix doesn’t have any water, much less ice.
“There are a thousand reasons,” I say.
“There’s only one,” he says.
“We suck at skating,” I say.
“What does that have to do with it? Goalies don’t have to skate.”
This isn’t true. But I want to be done. “Just tell me.”
“We’ll get there,” he says.
“I don’t want to guess,” I say. This isn’t philosophy. I’d rather just watch people than be led down some line of questions that ends with a trick. “I’m too tired.”
“It’s not skating,” he says, and rubs his chin, and watches the searchlight sway.
“Fine. The reason we’re not in the NHL isn’t skating,” I say. I don’t mention that in my childhood in Minnesota I was a fine skater. In fact, for a little bit I was a junior prospect at left wing in high school. Scouts showed up to games. But I wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t for lack of hard work—I knew I had to make the most of what talent I had. It just wasn’t in the cards. But I still wanted to be something. Something more than what my shitty grades and small-time connections would make me. So I chased it and enlisted.
“Okay. Time’s up,” says my friend. “Do you want to know why?”
“We’re not Canadian. To be in the NHL, you must be Canadian. That’s the ticket. You can do and be everything else but you must have Mountie blood.”
This is tiring. I no longer feel close to my new friend. I can’t tell how old he is. He might be sixty but he might be forty. “What’s your point?”
“We’re American. That’s why we could never be in the NHL.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“You must have been around some geniuses.” He takes a drink from the bottle. I can tell I’ve hurt his feelings. That’s another thing that always happens.
“How long have I known you now, Dennis?” he asks me.
I peel up my sleeve and show him my empty wrist. “I don’t know. An hour.”
My new friend removes his cap and sets it on the ground in front of him, open for business. “It still feels like forty-six minutes.” He toasts me with the vodka and takes a swig.
I’m about to apologize when he interrupts me.
“Relax man,” he says. “Have a peanut.”
I don’t respond because a face distracts me, another I recognize, another I can’t place, this time a guy who’s with a woman. They are taking pictures of each other with the arena in the background. He turns this way and that, and I still know his face.
“It’s better to be American in some ways,” my new friend says. He’s been talking this entire time and I haven’t been listening. The couple has already taken pictures with the statues of Oscar de la Hoya and Wayne Gretzky. “Just in case anyone tries to invade, you know.”
Now the couple is walking toward us. They stop at the statue of Magic Johnson.
“Trust me,” my new friend says. “And what are you, anyway?”
“What do you mean?” I say, still looking at the couple.
“No you’re not. You’re American. You were born here, right? And anyways, if you’re white, people assume you’re American. But if you’re Korean, even if you’re born here, you’re still Korean. Even if you served. Trust me.”
“I thought you were Chinese,” I say.
“Exactly. Tarzana, born and raised, but somehow not American. Still, I’d rather be Canadian than…”
I stop listening because the guy I can’t place is finished posing for his picture with Magic and now he’s looking at me again. We make eye contact. It’s unsettling. He nudges his girlfriend. Now she’s looking at me, too.
“I know this guy,” I say.
My new friend turns around and looks and sees the couple near the Magic Johnson bronze, looking at me.
“Those two?” he says. “See, he’s American. Not Icelandic or whatever.”
“I know him,” I say. But from where I can’t for the life of me remember. I take a drink of vodka and blink to bring his face in and out of focus. But it’s no use.
People around us are talking. It has become crowded. Fans hurry by. The game must be starting soon.
“Hey!” says my new friend, waving to the blonds. “My friend says he knows you. My friend Dennis says.” He turns and points to me.
“I wondered if that was you,” says the guy. He comes closer and I recognize him and I also recognize his voice but it’s still unclear from where.
“Me, too,” I say.
He looks at the bottle of vodka in my hand. He looks at it for longer than just a glance so I hold it up to him. “Want some?”
He shakes his head in disgust. “Don’t do that, Dennis. This isn’t you.”
I have heard him say something like this before and then I realize that this man was my sponsor when I tried to get sober a while back. I stopped returning his calls once I decided I wasn’t going to return his calls. I wanted to quit, but there are things you want to do and there are things you’re going to do. My tongue feels big. “I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you until now.”
“Come back to the meetings,” he says. “This isn’t a coincidence. Tomorrow at six we’ll be at the Y.”
His girlfriend looks bewildered.
“Holy shit!” says my new friend. “Is this guy your sponsor or something?” Then my new friend is cracking up. People make room around us. I feel out of breath.
“You’re welcome to come, too,” says my old sponsor to my friend.
I wish my old sponsor would leave. I can tell his girlfriend wishes the same.
“Nah,” says my new friend. “I’ve already been through all the steps.” He grabs the vodka bottle from me. “This step is called love.”
We’re down the street from Staples Center, panhandling next to a strip club lit by a neon silhouette of a woman with cats twining around her high heels. Clubs are some of the best places to fundraise; a lot of the people leaving are looking for a way to feel better about themselves.
“That guy thought he knew you,” says my new friend, still fired up about my old sponsor. “I hate it when people think they know you.”
“He didn’t know me,” I say, thinking neither do you.
“I didn’t think so,” says my new friend. He pulls up the arm of his T-shirt and shows me a tattoo of the war eagle. “Do you see this?”
“Yeah, I see it.”
“People shouldn’t talk like they know,” he says.
That tat doesn’t mean you know me, either, I think. A group of men in suits walks out of the club, laughing. I don’t recognize them, but the whole deal with the sponsor has made me a little shy, so I pull down my stocking cap and hold out a keg cup.
“We are two vets, full of love and in desperate need of affection,” says my friend. His name has now emerged from the mess in my head. It’s Jack. Of course it’s Jack. “Sponsor us toward a lap dance.”
The men pretend we aren’t there. I drink a finger while Jack continues to shit on my old sponsor, who was really an okay guy, just doing what he thought was right, like most of us. But the thing about this world? It seems like the more certain you are that you’re right, the more damage you’re likely to do.
There are a few Kings fans scurrying past us, late to the game, dressed in black and silver. They are fuzzy around the edges and remind me of winter in Minnesota. I couldn’t live in Minnesota, not anymore, it’s not where I belong, and there aren’t enough distractions. And it’s too cold. When I was a kid, I would ride my bike around with the windchill at forty-five below. I’d get so cold I couldn’t feel my lips, my cheeks. I remember once my bike got a flat and I had to walk home from hockey and all the sweat on my feet froze. When I got home it was all right, but the next day my toes puffed up with blisters that looked like deer droppings. After that I had trouble feeling the cold. The itchiness and pain was no longer there to warn me, so when I was serving, I’d sometimes take off my boots and find a bloody mess.
I realize this is important, deep, and I’m about to tell Jack when I realize he’s close to me again, hands on my shoulders, breath swampy. I can see the individual wisps of hair that together make his mustache and goatee. He snorts like a bull. He’s angry and serious. Some people get this way when they’re drunk: They thrust all the sympathy they wish they had for themselves onto you.
“Don’t listen to people like that,” he says. “People like that don’t understand why they aren’t in the NHL.”
I laugh hard enough that I have to sit down right there on the sidewalk outside the club, with the lights and people whirring all around me. It takes some time to calm down and catch my breath.
Jack grabs me by my wrist and pulls me to my feet. I feel closer to him now than I’ve felt to anyone in a long time.
“I love Wayne Gretzky,” I say to him, and I fucking mean it just like I fucking meant to quit drinking. I’m glad I’m someplace crowded, someplace where people are having fun, where people are on their way to cheer for something as meaningless as hockey. It makes me happy to know that inside Staples Center men will make millions of dollars skating around on an ice rink, trying to sling a puck into a net, huge crowds cheering them on. There’s no guilt in what they do. No questions. Their heroism is so simple.
“Gretzky!” Jack yells, spinning around, looking for him. He pulls a few bucks from his cup and nods back toward Staples. “Let’s go back and see how the Great One is doing.”
I look up. It feels like the sexy neon sign is buzzing just for me. “No. He’s busy. Let’s go inside and see how long it takes them to realize we’re broke.”
“Stash it,” he says, and I wrap the brown paper bag around the bottle and tuck it into the garbage can outside so we can pick it up later.
“Tonight we are kings,” Jack says.
I wake up and we’re under the Santa Monica Pier. It feels like we’re in some Gothic church from a world I’ve only seen in pictures, but the pillars are bare wood and smell of salt and tar. I close my eyes and can hear the waves crashing. By counting the period of time between each of their roars, I can tell they’re from thousands of miles away, probably what’s left of a huge storm way out in the North Pacific.
Jack is next to me, also lying on the sand. “What time is it?” I ask.
“We have too many memorials of the dead,” he says.
I open my eyes again and look around. It’s night. I can see the moon but no stars. Lights from the pier and the city erased them. A few folks are still sitting on towels on the beach. Others are walking along the boardwalk. It must still be early.
“Gretzky is alive,” says Jack. “He’s probably back in Staples Center as we speak. We celebrate him while his blood is still warm.”
“I want to see the stars,” I tell him. Above us are dead trees. It occurs to me how lucky we are to even have trees left to kill. But I stop myself, because that’s philosophy, and no philosophy ever made anyone smile. “Five bucks I know more constellations.”
“You don’t have five bucks,” says Jack. He’s still lying in the sand and he’s right. But I do know my constellations: Orion, the hunter; Cassiopeia, the queen; Perseus, the hero. I learned them all overseas, watched them burn at night. They made me feel small. A lot of people stateside talk fondly of humbling experiences, which tells me they’ve never really been humbled.
“Sex begins with the continents,” says Jack.
I realize that Jack’s probably been following me because I don’t say much and in that way resemble an audience. But now I’m more than willing to give him what he wants. “Explain.”
“Think about South America and Africa. They fit like a lock and key.” He puts his arm around my shoulder. He smells terrible, but so do I.
“But then they broke apart,” I say.
Jack points up at an airplane banking around the bay, en route to LAX. “And now we have airplanes.”
The bus brings us back to Staples Center. The game is over now and all the fans are walking from the arena. There is relief in the air, none of the pregame tension. It’s Friday night and the Kings have won. Meanwhile, we’ve cruised the city and killed a bottle. I feel good, but my lips are dry, so we’re back to fundraising on the patio.
“We are the champions, my friends,” Jack hollers, holding out his Dodgers hat.
The lights around us sway. A mother and small boy walk by. The little boy has his T-shirt tucked into his jeans and his hands tucked into his pockets. He stares at me in that way children do before they understand it’s impolite. I remember a time when I was a kid, riding the escalator up to the second floor of a shopping center near downtown Minneapolis with my father. At the top of the escalator stood a bum with layers of clothing and piles of hair, looking disoriented and grim. My father muttered down to me not to look at him. I obeyed, and we walked past, and nothing happened. Later I asked him why he said not to look at the man. My father replied that if you lock eyes with a guy like him, he’d follow you. Or chase you.
“You look tired,” says Jack’s voice. “No one is tired of you. I told you that.”
I push him and he stumbles backward. He keeps making us go backward in time. I point at his face. “Why do you have to do that?”
“Relax, man. I’m just saying.”
“Leave me alone.”
There are heads swerving around, in and out of focus. I stumble over and sit down beneath the statue of Wayne Gretzky. My sponsor is probably out there in the crowd, watching, knowing. He’s the type of guy who looks in the mirror and knows exactly what to make of what he sees.
I lie back on the patio and rest my heels up against the base of the statue and look. I know that above us burn the stars, but they’ve been washed out by the arena lights. If I could sit down with Wayne, I’d ask him what it’s like for him being a hero, with medals, statues, photographs. Whether getting everything he wanted cost as much for him as it did for me.
Jack starts tying my shoe as it rests up against the statue. “I know this place down by the airport. There’s a guy who’s usually there.” He pulls tight the final loop. “You remind me of him. I mean, he reminds me of you.”
“What’s his name?”
“We’re old pals.” He pats me on the shoe and nods that we should go.
I take a deep breath and one last look. The statue of the Great One presides over us. I wonder how he’s doing, whether he’s still got anything hot and burning in his gut. Here he looks calm and content, arm raised, saluting the crowd, but anyone can do that convincingly if they really need to. It’s kind of crazy that another five guys who look just like him are walking the Earth this very moment. Maybe some of them are heroes, too.