Nate felt a small piece of gravel fall from his bloody knee, down his leg, and onto the floor. As
he heard the small stone skip away, he knew it would not be noticed. The kitchen was spackled with old breakfasts and past dinners. The linoleum curled like a ragged hang nail where the wall met the floor. He sat down on the wooden chair with a backing that gave out if he leaned too hard against it. His mother told him it was the kind of chair that made you lean forward, good for hot coffee and gossip. Nate rubbed denim into the tattered scrape that still stung with sore spirits, the only evidence from a lost ball hockey game.
The game took place at the outdoor rink down the road from his grandparent’s house, behind
the old school gym. The rink was once pristine with concrete poured carefully to ensure a flat, crisp surface for ice for hockey in the winter. A community member secured funding from the band council to build this outdoor rink on the southwest corner of the reserve. Nate’s uncle told him that kids were still being sent to residential school when the rink was built but it gave the community a place to gather in the summer. Decades beat away at the wooden panels that surrounded the rink, patch-worked with replacement boards that were scavenged from old ranch houses. They were the kind of boards where a shoulder check could give you splinters, a place where kids from the town team would never bother playing. It was graffitied and carved into like an elementary school desk — initials, curse words, and crudely drawn faces covered the arena in an adolescent reminder of, “I was here.”
Seasons determined the kind of hockey Nate played, but it didn’t really matter whether it was
spring or winter, because each match felt like a blur - the drop of the ball spurred the beating of soles worn thin against pavement and the drop of the puck sparked the bright carving of blades on ice. The game erupted a willful competitiveness in Nate, his mom told him it was like watching pure spirit. But even over a nothing-game, he couldn’t help but see failure replaying in his head only occasionally redeemed by clipped memories featuring a quick wrist shot or a spin where he cradled the ball to safety. He tried to remember the moments that made him feel like he was floating in the space between everyone else, that perfect space where he could find a breakaway. He lived to find that space.
“Nate. What you doing. Crying away up there.”
He turned quickly and felt the wooden backing on the chair give out.
“Huh, huh, huh, huh. Didn’t know you were out here today. Stopped by from town, eh?”
Nate’s grandfather had passed when he was ten years old and his grandmother lived with his
aunt in town. His uncle was the sole resident of the house and family members were welcome to come out and visit, even if his uncle wasn’t home.
“Ball hockey game. Shawn needed even numbers to make it work.”
“Get your ass out here and practice more then.”
His uncle smelled like stale beer and tanned leather, an unintended afterglow from last night.
“Hey uncle, I heard you were in town last night, didn’t know you came back here.”
“Huh, yeah. Got in late. Gerald drove that damned civic into Rhoda’s fence.”
Nate glanced up at the kitchen clock with the broken minute hand that stuttered without
moving forward, the hour hand glared definitively at 1 pm. His uncle grabbed the coffee pot and ran it under the faucet to rinse away the bronze sheen that coated the inside of the glass. Coffee grounds poured into the filter like loose sand and within a moment, his uncle sat down at the table. The rectangular kitchen table looked slender as his uncle’s broad frame leaned over it, he swept sugar cubes aside and lifted dishes to eventually find a ragged matchbook. Nate watched his uncle’s chest grow wider as it drew in the smoke — Must be all that work on the rigs, Nate thought, not like his dad who worked behind a computer screen. Nate couldn’t help but think about how his dad’s shoulders seemed to cave forward, his back arched high over a sinking chest. Nate straightened out his back, sitting taller in his chair.
When his uncle was younger, Nate heard that he ran faster than any boy on the rez — including
the boys who were nearly 4 years older than him. This was put to the test every summer, at the
gatherings that happened several hours away from the reserve. Most of the nation, plus some families from the surrounding tribes, camped out there. Everyone cooked pancakes or salmon in a fry pan over the fire, the make-shift outhouses reeked like hell, and there were bingo games from 5pm onward. And then, there were the bush races. His uncle won first place at the long-distance race that sent runners all the way up Beacon’s Point and then to the far end of Foxtail Lake. His uncle won from the age of 11 until he turned 16.
His uncle flicked at his knee.
“You need to clean that out.”
His uncle tapped his cigarette on the edge of a nearby side plate and then stood up to squeeze
dish soap onto a tea cloth before tossing it at his lap.
“Clean it out. Or, it’ll get infected...”
Nate folded the cloth into a square and pressed down onto his knee which erupted a sharp
Nate knew it wasn’t really a question. It was more like a taunt, a challenge, an expectation that
he would eat. But it was a bad idea for anyone to have high expectations of the fridge, he had learned this back when he used to stay over at the old house regularly and searched the cupboards for anything other than a box of stuffing, leftover from christmas dinner, or a clump of withered vegetables voluntarily composting in the crisper.
“Uncle, you ever been afraid of losing?”
“Afraid of losing what.”
His uncle sauntered between the stove and the cutting board, filling a pot with water, grabbing
boxes from cupboards, and pulling vegetables from the fridge. His uncle cooked three different
meals: Standard fried breakfast - fried eggs, bacon, pancakes with old-fashioned syrup; salmon and potatoes tossed in the same frying pan; and his infamous hot dog soup.
“Who beat you when you were 16?”
“What the hell are you talking about.”
“Bush races, everyone says you won until you were 16.”
“Oh. Fuck those. Dumb shit tradition. Those races, what do those races prove? That you can
run fast for nothing?”
Macaroni pasta fell generously from a tilted box that his uncle held above the pot of boiling
water which was then followed by the soft chop of carrots, celery and wieners.
“You know what I say, Nate? Run fast when you need to. Hold your ground when you got to.
No reason to run for nothing.”
His uncle peeled open a small square of chicken bouillon from foil, crumbling it against itself,
before plunking it into the water.
“I never won when I was 16 because I stopped running.”
Nate lifted the dish cloth from his knee and saw watery blood soaked into the fabric. He folded
the cloth against the blood stain and pressed it back down against his knee. He looked up at his uncle who was turned towards the stove.
“I want to get better at hockey this year.”
The pot of water bubbled and steam rose from the broth, the kitchen window became foggy at
the edges. His uncle stirred the soup while tapping the ash of his cigarette into the sink, Nate watched how he kept tapping it even when there was no ash left to shed.
“I’m going to start running so I can get faster out there on the ice. Gonna play forward this
season, maybe even centre.”
His uncle flipped his hair from his forehead and he grinned as he stood up, “Huh.”
He ladled soup into a couple of bowls and pushed one towards Nate. The soup was exactly
what Nate needed. It smelled like his grandparents’ old house, it smelled like his childhood. He watched his uncle pour a dollop of ketchup into his own soup bowl, a finishing touch that most
family members did without.
“Well, that’s something then.”
Nate leaned forward over the table and looked at his uncle who gazed vacantly at each
spoonful. Past his uncle’s head, Nate stared out the kitchen window. He looked at the trees in the backfield that traced up the mountainside. If he squinted, he could see the cattle trail that zigzagged on the northeast side. Near the west corner, there was dust rising from the dirt road that snaked around the old house and led to the highway back to town, evidence of someone coming or going. He imagined himself running up the mountain. Steam rose from his soup and made his cheeks glow. He wondered about spending more nights out at the old house on the rez so he could start training early in the morning before the valley got hot, Nate smiled at this thought. The tick of the clock stuttered persistently on the wall before he finally heard the click of the hour hand moving forward.