“GO AHEAD.” Aaron sighed.
Aaron was listening to the news, but Dexter made a face as soon as he got in the car, the kind of face Aaron’s mom would make when his hockey equipment had been laying around too long. He lets Dexter fiddle with the radio, cringing through the static while the kid tries to find something he likes. The drive to the club isn’t long from Dexter’s new apartment downtown. But the kid has to have his music. He has to have music before every game and most every practice too. He wears headphones like earmuffs, meditating in the locker room with Jay-Z or Puff Daddy, God only knows. Aaron certainly doesn’t.
“There,” Aaron says when he catches a guitar riff that sounds like Tom Petty. “Leave it there.”
“What the heck is this?” Dexter asks, leaning back into his seat. He’s young, and he causes Aaron to worry about him too much when the team is on the road, but at least his proper Chinese mother taught him not to swear.
“It’s Tom Petty. Listen and learn.” Aaron turns the volume up.
His favorite music was already forgotten by the time Aaron was a star in the NHL, but now he feels ancient. He turned thirty-six last month and told no one because no one asked. LA isn’t like New Jersey. Two years on this team, and nothing feels right.
“Where is this place?” Dexter asks. He’s typing on his phone. Aaron hopes he’s not telling the world where they’re going.
“We’re almost there.” Coach told him to be nice to the kid, show him around, give him a good time. Somewhere along the line, Aaron’s job became less about scoring goals and more about making himself useful. It’s the only way he’s going to stay on the team.
Aaron turns in to an already crowded parking lot. The neon sign makes everything glow pink. He doesn’t see any press waiting. They’re lucky.
Inside, the guys have claimed a table up front. For all the years Aaron has played hockey, he’s been recognized maybe half a dozen times. Most of those times were when he played for New Jersey, but then, four days ago, a man in the line at the grocery store tapped him on the shoulder and told him it was time to turn in his skates.
Aaron hasn’t scored a goal since last season. He’s a defenseman, and because of his size, the media call him a bruiser. Goals aren’t why a team wants him. But it’s been a long few months.
Dexter walks ahead into the club, and a cheer goes up from their teammates already there. Already drinking.
“Buck!” Emile holds up a beer. “Over here, Buck.” Aaron thumps Dexter on the back as they split up at the tables. “Have fun,” he says. He just barely keeps himself from saying, “Behave.”
“Have you seen these girls?” Emile says. He winks, comically big. “Buck, these girls are nice.” Emile thinks any girl who smiles at him is nice.
The chair next to him is empty, saved with a leather jacket hanging off the back. Emile clears it away, but before Aaron sits, he stops a waitress and asks for a round of beer for the table. “My tab,” he says, passing her his credit card.
“You’re on rook duty tonight?” Emile asks. He grins over his glass and licks the foam off his upper lip.
“Coach told me to show him a good time. Even spotted me the first lap dance.”
“C’est chouette!” Emile slams his glass to the table. His eyes trawl the room until he spots one of the dancers making her way through the crowd. “That one,” he says, not pointing, but Aaron spots her too. A curvy woman with short curls tight to her head and skin like milky tea. “Rook!” He shouts to get Dexter’s attention. “Which girl do you like?”
Aaron watches him make the same turn of the room and stop on the same woman. It’s like a superpower. Emile knows who you want and who wants you. It’s how he met his wife. Walked straight up to her at the deli counter, ordered half a pound of Montreal smoked meat, and asked her to dinner.
It’s also how he figured out Aaron was gay. They were in a bar in Tampa, Emile was missing his wife, and Aaron wouldn’t let him set him up with the redhead at the jukebox.
“I can’t put my finger on you,” Emile had said, and in the same moment, he figured it out. His whole life, Aaron lived in fear of that recognition in Emile’s eyes. “Because you don’t want me to,” he said. “Oh, Buck. How long have you been holding that inside?”
Before, they hung out because they were the veterans on the team. Emile was thirty-eight. He had played for seven teams in seventeen years. After that night, they became friends.
Their waitress brings a tray of drinks to the table, and Emile sneaks away in the commotion. Aaron doesn’t see it happen, but Dexter is gone, and Emile returns with a smile stretching his face, his wallet a little lighter.
“Did you tell her not to scare the kid?” Aaron asks. He passes Emile the fifty from the front pocket of his flannel shirt.
“He’ll have a great time. I bet you he scores two goals tomorrow night.”
The music fades away, and the PA crackles before a booming voice announces the next dancer on the main stage. The beer is shit, watered down and too hoppy for Aaron’s taste. But he keeps drinking until his head goes fuzzy. Emile is hollering for the dancer’s attention, so Aaron sits back, looking up only when Green taps his shoulder.
“How did you do that spin without hitting the board?” Green is all about technique. He’s like a parrot, except he imitates players’ moves, not their words.
“Strong core,” Aaron tells him, patting his stomach, getting a little softer in recent years. He has to work hardest at the crunches because after a certain age, it doesn’t matter how much you work out—you’re going to get flabby.
Behind them, Aaron hears a snort. “Give it up, Buckley. You’re done with hockey.”
Green is the first to react. “Shut the fuck up.”
When he turns around, the guy is younger than Aaron expects. His face is still spotted with acne. He’s wearing a Raiders cap. Aaron decides to let it go. He gives the dude a smile and turns back to the table.
But the dude won’t let it go. “How much are the Kings paying you to hobble around the ice, Buckley?”
“Enough for me to pay your tab so you can get the hell out of here.” Aaron puts up his hand for a waitress. It doesn’t get that far. He hears a sound, and he feels a spot of wet on his cheek. “Really, dude?” Aaron wipes the spit off his face with the back of his hand.
Everyone at the table stands up. Laurent has to hold Green back, but when Emile catches on to the commotion, there’s nothing Aaron can do to stop the fight. A secret part of him doesn’t want to. The worst part of him enjoys the crunch of his fist when it connects with the Raiders dude’s nose.
Aaron goes quiet when the bouncers kick them out of the club. He’s not quite steady on his feet, but they pile into his car: a confused Dexter and anyone else who can’t remember where they parked. Aaron drives, and when the guy in the passenger seat turns on the radio, Aaron snaps it off.
He’s pissed at the dude; he’s pissed at the team; he’s pissed at himself. He’s pissed at the drunk kids stumbling across the street, the last thing he remembers before his car slams into a telephone pole.