The Snows of Lesser Peaks

The new kid drops into the seat next to Evan. He suppresses a sigh. This is the last thing he needs, this chatty rich New Yorker in his pastel button-down and boat shoes. Granted, his parents’ well-timed divorce conveniently filled a hole on Evan’s hockey team with his goaltending skills, but as he watches the kid brush his blonde swoop of hair into place and check it in his phone’s camera, Evan is struggling to remember why he’s let this kid drift into his orbit.

“C’mon Evs. Gotta make some girls thirsty.” Mark snaps a photo of the two of them and blasts it out to his not-insignificant following.

“Not in the mood.” Evan pulls his sweatshirt hood up over his cap and retreats into his shell, even though it is a sticky, 90-degree day in the Twin Cities. After five summer tournament games in three days his muscles ache, his gimpy ankle flares up, and he would like to do nothing more than shut out the world and read a book on the bus ride back home. Bridget is gone for the week at her family’s cabin, so there is no cuddle in a hammock waiting for him back home. His mom won’t be home until late, and he’ll have to come up with his own meal. His aunt and cousin are coming up for the weekend; he needs to clear enough space on his floor to add an air mattress for Colin. He is a strange bundle of nerves, tense all over, a feeling he remembers only from that summer two years prior when his life turned upside down.

Mark tugs at Evan’s hood with a finger. “Moody Evvy is my favorite Evvy.”

“Oh, fuck off. And don’t call me that.”

Mark’s smile only grows wider. “God. Love having a bro who can see through all the bullshit.”

“At least someone else can see that it’s bullshit.”

“Aw yes. You in deep.” Mark fires off a few replies to the immediate comments on his picture. “Can give you an escape tonight if you want.”

“What you got?

“My dad’s gonna get me some booze when he picks me up. We can pregame before we go to Jack’s tonight if you want.”

“Bridget says I’ve been partying too much since you moved here.”

“Yeah, I think I’ve seen you have two whole drinks. Real rebel there.”

“It’s not that. I’m just not in the mood for a big group.”

“We could just hang at my mom’s. She’s having a girls’ weekend down at the casino, got herself a room.”

“Is every weekend girls’ weekend for your mom?”

“Pretty much.”

“That does sound like more my speed right now.” The words come out before Evan can even think.

Mark beams. “You just wanna chill and read on the way back?”

“Uh, yeah. That exactly.”

“I got your back, bro.”

“You’re my hero, Marks.” Evan exhales and fishes a book out of his bag and sets in. A teammate wanders forward to ask them about the team hangout at Jack’s, but Mark brushes him off with a casual swat, says he and Evan may need an evening as lovers together. Evan finds it in himself to laugh before he retreats behind his cover.

Mark tunes in and out of the conversations behind them on the bus: one kid’s struggles with a girl, the rehashing of another’s sloppy day on the ice, a group hammering away at some game on their phones. The same old high school baseline in every row, save in this kid next to him who now wears a contented smile. Mark’s eyes alight on the book and he wonders if he’d have the balls to sit here and read in front of his new teammates, even if he had some good material. He settles for scrolling around a map of Duluth on his phone, finding the town’s best hidden parks and escapes he’d gleaned in a team poll the night before. He glances at Evan every few minutes but feels a foreign sense of respect, almost a reverence, and. only when the bus crests the green ridgetop of his new home does he ask the question.

“What’s that about?” He nods at the book and keeps his gaze down at the late afternoon haze over the river estuary that fans out before them.

“It’s about a trek in Nepal. The guy goes to find a snow leopard. But it ends up being more of a spiritual trip.”

“Huh. Like it?”

“It’s older, so some of the parts about the Sherpas are a little awkward. But…damn, it makes me wanna go.”

Mark looks at Evan sideways. “You a lil Buddhist or something?”

“I dunno about that. But that sort of journey…I really respect that.”

“Huh,” Mark repeats. He goes back to scrolling around the map. He decides that Evan’s contributions to the list are by far the most alluring: tucked-away old ruins in the woods or hidden spots along creeks, solitude instead of the crowds. He gazes up at Duluth’s rocky spine, resplendent in midsummer green, houses clinging to the hillside just like his dad’s further up the shore.

“I’d go on that kind of trip,” he chances. “Not for all the God shit. But just to do it. To see it all.”

“Let’s go then,” Evan laughs. “Me and you, we’re gonna go on a trek. Get out there and live.”

“You mean buses to fucking Vadnais Heights in July ain’t living?” Mark laughs.

“Gotta find answers somewhere beyond…this.” Evan’s eyes flit back toward their guffawing teammates.

“Just don’t expect to find it in some god.”

“Why the hell is there a cross on your chain then?”

Mark fingers the chain around his neck. “To remind me that I have a cross to carry. And cuz it seems on brand for this world.” He waves an arm vaguely around him.

Evan laughs, then lowers his voice. “Sometimes I don’t even know if I want to play after high school.”

“Seriously, Evvy? You can be D-one material and you know it.”

“But there’ll be an end of the line after that. And you know this world, it’s not totally me.”

“Don’t let anyone on this bus hear you say that, they’d kill to be in your shoes. And it’s about more than hockey. They set you up real good. Good jobs, good money. To say nothing of the scholarship…”

“Right. I could use that. But I also want to do what I want to do.”

“What do you want to do?”

Evan shrugs. Marks laughs.

“I just…don’t want to do something just because it’s the path of least resistance, okay?”

“Got it. Hey. Maybe you can tell me which of these is path of least resistance.” Mark pulls up photos of two girls and flips back and forth between them.

Evan groans. “Is no resistance all that matters?”

“Not in the long run. Gotta get it right. I’ve seen that way too clear. But in the meantime…”

Evan averts his eyes and stands to collect his bags. They let themselves drift back into the chatter again, both offering vague noises over the plans for the party, and Mark follows Evan off the bus and down the sidewalk away from the group.

“You need a ride?” Mark asks.

“Nah, I was gonna take a bus.”

“Dude, we can take care of you. Why do you do that?”

“I just…” Evan trails off and shakes his head.

“My dad’s got you, don’t worry. And don’t be ashamed that your mom has to work.”

Evan grimaces and watches as a few of their teammates roll off in the cars their parents have bought for them. “Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era.”

“Nah. You were born to bring something to this era that it needs.” Mark’s smile pierces through Evan and sets loose a torrent of new thoughts.

“Why Duluth?” The words jump out of Evan’s mouth before he can stop them.

“What do you mean?”

“You could’ve gone back east. Could’ve gone to some private school that would set you up for Yale like your dad. Why here, with all us shits?”

“I don’t think I need Andover to get into Yale if I play my game.”

“Andover?”

“Sorry. The prep school. In Massachusetts. Not the white bread Cities suburb.”

“Ah, got it. But…”

“I did the boarding thing for a year. Didn’t love it.”

“Yeah, but why not?”

“You bros are a lot more chill. And—” Mark breaks off and nods at the Bugatti snaking into the lot. Evan gawks at the approaching vehicle before it dawns on him who owns it. The car pulls up and the window rolls down. The driver is a stone-faced man with flowing white hair, collared shirt poking high up around his cheek, shades pulled down by his left index finger to scrutinize his boy. Evan flips his cap around from backwards to forwards in what he knows is a ridiculous attempt to look more dignified. The man behind the sunglasses merely stares out over the top of his lenses.

“We’re giving Evan a ride to my mom’s, too,” Mark says.

“Where are his parents?”

“Well, his dad’s dead and his mom works her ass off to make sure this kid can keep his hockey dream alive. So there’s that.”

“Get in,” says Mark’s father, still expressionless. “You gonna play D-one, kid?”

Evan shrugs. “If I can.”

“Which is why you just spent a whole bus ride talking about how you’re not sure you want to do that with your life,” Mark says with an eye roll.

“I mean, yeah,” says Evan. “But…” He gets it now: Mark’s father will want his prince’s confidante to be more than a dumb jock. “I want to go to a good college. Maybe study abroad. See more of the world.”

“You’ve traveled much?”

“Not really. My aunt’s an anthropologist, so we visited her on site in Mexico once. Otherwise we always go to the same beach in California. Or used to. But that’s about it.”

“What’s your mom do?”

“She’s an ER nurse.”

“And your dad? If it was recent…”

“Just two years ago. Outside sales.”

“How’d he go?”

Evan swallows. “Suicide.” He’s shocked at how easily the word tumbles from his mouth.

“Shit. You know that?” the elder Brennan asks Mark.

“I…we never actually talked about it. But I could tell it was…something not great.”

“How do you fight through it?” Mark’s dad asks. He takes off his shades and bores his eyes into Evan’s in the rear-view mirror.

“Well, we moved back here. To be by my mom’s family. It’s like her safe space,” Evan starts. “And—”

“Not her. You.”

“I…I make sure I take time to stop and think about him. Use him as a reminder that I can’t take anything for granted. That I gotta work for everything I can.”

“Good.” Mark casts Evan significant look, one of care and surging respect: he’s passing muster.

“Evvy’s my best bud on this team for a reason. Kid knows his shit.”

“Not well enough to escape all your shit,” Mark’s dad says. Evan cannot tell if this is a joke or not.

“He knows the game,” Mark says, aweing Evan with his well-practiced cool.

“Well that’s good. Play the game. Learn to win. But it’s all just part of the ladder.”

Evan nods vigorously. “I like the sound of that.”

“As you should. The world helps people who know that. Gotta get it. You boys need anything before I dump you at your mother’s?”

“Evvy’s got a soft spot for tequila.”

“You’re too young for that.” Evan blushes and tries to parse the thin smile playing around his driver’s lips in the rear-view mirror. He’d expected anger over his miscreant son, but instead he senses a sort of pride, an acknowledgment that Mark has shown his worth.

“If you don’t, Mom will just buy me cheap shit. Better to learn on good stuff, no?”

“Nice try. You as much of a little fuck-up as my boy, shaggy?”

Evan brushes at the hair fanning out from beneath his cap as he fumbles for words. “I…ride the waves, wherever they go, you know?”

“What Evvy means is that he gets it more than any dude on the team cuz he went and got himself one of the hottest girls we got. And he’s smart enough to keep her.”

“Thanks for translating he Minnesota Nice bullshit,” Mark’s father muses before he snaps his gaze back to Evan. “How’d you manage that?”

“I, uh, snuck her into my hotel room during the State Tournament last year.” Evan’s conquest is legend in the hockey world, but he’s never dreamed of telling an adult this story until now.

“Well now. Kid’s got some game.”

“Ya shouldn’t doubt me,” says Mark.

The Bugatti pulls into a liquor store parking lot. Evan and Mark sit in silence as its owner makes his purchases and returns with two stuffed bags, one of which he drops on Mark’s lap. Suddenly, Mark’s dad seems to have lost all interest in Evan. He grills his son on Hemingway novels on the way back, and Evan’s eyes widen as Mark answers the questions in rapid fire bursts: his life in Duluth so far is just like The Sun Also Rises only with worse fishing, come on Evan show me the good spots, he could use some Nick Adams time out in the woods, and yeah Dad aren’t you kind of just the Old Man fighting the sea?

Mark’s father doesn’t answer the question. He dumps them at the base of his ex-wife’s building and shoots off with only a toneless goodbye, Evan’s stammered thanks thoroughly ignored.

“Holy shit,” he mumbles as he watches the car gun up the street.

Mark exhales. “Filled the quota for Dad time for the next two weeks. But bro, no lie, that was the best any friend of mine’s ever handled him. You were magic.”

Evan purses his lips. “I…is it like that all the time?”

“Pretty much. Gotta flip that switch and be ready to go.”

“How can anyone keep that going all the time?”

“I don’t know, ask my mom.”

“And you…”

“What about me?”

“You’d always kind of made it sound like you hated him.”

“With everything I got. Gonna beat that fucker at his own game.”

“That’s…wow.”

Mark shrugs and shoves the bag of booze into Evan’s arms.

“But, thing is…I think he’d be proud of you if you did.”

Mark’s self-assured smirk slides off his face. “You might not be wrong.” He walks up the sidewalk to show Evan the conversation is over.

Mark’s mother has settled in a condo at the top of a building overlooking Lake Superior. An elderly couple in the opposite unit greets the boys as they exit the elevator, and Evan detects the hint of glee Mark takes in Evan’s cringe as he greets them like old friends and makes small talk: yeah we had a good tournament this weekend, had a couple shutouts and this kid got a couple goals, and here this is Evan isn’t he the best? Evan shuffles his feet and fails to look inconspicuous with his bag of liquor. Mark’s grin widens as Evan stammers about his mom and how happy the team is to have Mark now, and yes they’d been plotting a Himalayan trek on the bus ride back, didn’t that seem like a good adventure? The couple nods in shared pride, and the woman tells him that these kids these days, they sure are alright when you get to know them.

“That was mean,” Evan says as soon as they’re in the condo. Mark doubles over in laughter as he wrests the bag from Evan and places it on the counter.

“Too easy, Evvy. Too easy.”

“Just the way you like em.”

“Guilty as charged. Drinky drink?”

Evan gulps. “I mean, hell, why not?”

“Let’s try the tequila.” Mark scrutinizes the price tag but pulls it off the bottle before Evan can see it. He dishes out the beverages and takes a shot without batting an eyelash. Evan tentatively brings his glass to his nose, sniffs, and takes a tentative sip. He struggles to choke back his cough, but he needn’t have worried. Mark pounds his and retreats behind his phone without looking at him.

“Aw yes. Got a fish on the line,” he says.

“Well that’s rare.”

“Fuck off. Yeah, she’s gonna get the worm.”

Evan suppresses his groan and scrutinizes the shapely blonde out of central casting whose picture Mark waves in his face. “Who is she? I don’t recognize her.”

“Hermantown girl. Senior. I like chasing fish from different schools. And different years. Fewer witnesses that way.”

“I give you credit. How much of that bus ride was the boys giving each other shit for all the girls they say they’re gonna get? But they never actually do anything. It’s all talk. You actually get it.”

Mark beams. “I do. But you do, too. You went and got Bridget.”

“You don’t wanna know how long I was planning that, scared to actually go through with it.”

“That’s the thing, though. No one has to see that part. All about the results, Evvy.” Mark leads Evan out to the floor-to-ceiling windows that command two walls of the main room. The sun eases its way down in the west and leaves the calm vast lake a glowing molten silver. The condo feels overly sanitized to Evan, every bit the temporary landing place for two people rarely at home that it is, but the view makes him forget all that. After passing Papa Brennan’s tests he feels like he’s earned this commanding perch, could get very used to living like this. Now all he needs is a wife with vast sums of wealth, he thinks, worrying with sudden realization that he and Bridget could never pull this off.

“I see your mom’s finally decorating,” says Evan, nodding at an excess of ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ and ‘Faith, Family, Friends’ pillows that have appeared on the couch since his one previous visit.

“Give ya fifty bucks if you spill your drink over those,” Mark scowls.

Evan laughs. “If only life were so easy that a pillow could tell you how to fix shit.”

“Welcome to Hope Brennan’s world. You should see what she did in the extra room. Put up a marker wall.”

“I didn’t know she was an artist.”

“If you saw her art, you still wouldn’t.” Mark leads Evan to a back room, a lonely space with an unused exercise bike and a spare couch, a potential home office if the condo’s owner were the sort of person who had a job. One long, blank wall opens up as blank canvas for the boys. Mark reaches into a large tub, grabs a purple marker, and draws two stick figures mid-coitus.

“I didn’t see that coming.”

“Alright then, let’s see your Sistine Chapel here.”

“That would be kinda fun. Draw out a whole scene.” Evan takes a few more sips from his drink and sets to work on a green mountain range. Mark nods in approval and starts in on a lion baring its teeth around his loving couple.

“Can we go back to how much you kicked ass with my dad?” he asks. “‘I snuck her into my hotel room at the State Tournament.’ God, that was awesome.”

Evan shrugs. “Well, it’s the truth.”

“How did you even pull that off?”

“We’d been talking for a while by then. I was too scared to pull the trigger. Wasn’t sure what she’d think about a hockey player, Bridget’s no jersey chaser and she wouldn’t even go to games if I weren’t playing. And I wasn’t sure how okay she’d be with quiet nights where we just read and shit. But that whole school year we were both getting out a little at the same pace, and then we were in the same hotel, so I thought that was a sign. And I started thinking about it on the first night, how it might work. And then we beat Edina and it was like, if I don’t text her now, when do I ever? I was rooming with Aaron and told him about it and he’s like, yeah dude, you deserve it, I’ll get outta here and make it happen for you. Of course, he went and told everyone after, too…”

Mark genuflects in mock worship. “Just building the Legend of Evvy. Spreading the good word.”

“Made it awkward as hell.”

“Don’t hate, bro. I’m not sure you know how much everyone loves you. I saw that right away when I got here. Everyone said you were the best we’ve got.”

“Do I get a trophy for that?”

Mark beams even wider at Evan’s bitterness, his refusal to be content with mere respect. “You get to hang with me when I ain’t letting anyone else up here. Hope that’s an okay prize.”

“What an honor.”

“You gotta let me into your world too now. If we go to State this year, I’m your roomie and we’re having a four-way.”

Evan scoffs and starts adding a forest above the couch. He should have a snappy comeback here, but it eludes him. Mark, meanwhile, is content to fantasize and lets a dreamy gaze lay claim to his face.

“I would say sorry that my dad asked about your dad,” he says, intent upon his growing pride of lions gnawing at the limbs of the couple. “But you know I’m nosy. And I’m glad you shared that. You’re one fuckin tough kid for saying what you did, Evvy. I mean that.”

Words again fail Evan, who colors the leaves on his pink trees more vigorously.

“I’m serious,” Mark adds. “I know you don’t wanna turn it into a sob story. I respect you even more because of that. But you gotta be able to tell someone.”

“Thanks,” Evan says. “It…it felt good to say that out loud, actually.”

“I could tell.” Mark dumps a refill into Evan’s glass.

“God, you’re totally that kid they warn you about in middle school health class.”

“Because you never, ever had a drink and were a total virgin till you met me.”

“Hah, right.”

“Just letting you live how you want to. Were you one till that night you snuck Bridget in?”

Evan nods and turns away, ostensibly to peruse the marker collection for a new color.

“Makes the story even better. Way better than losing it on some sad hippie girl in seventh grade.”

Evan fumbles through the plastic bin and settles on puce. “Where are we going with this?”

“The Serengeti,” Mark says without missing a beat. He adds a herd of googly-eyed zebras who discern his lions’ carnage.

Evan stops to watch Mark work. The world swims around him. Has he ever been this drunk? He always has to be on the watch, make sure he gets home sober, make sure Bridget doesn’t scold him for going overboard. Right on cue she texts him and he provides a dutiful reply, but there is no real conversation, just assurances that yes, he’ll be around in three days when she’s back from her cabin. Tonight, though, he is free, under some spell cast by the collision between Mark’s obvious intellect and his crudeness, an assurance that he really can have it all if he wants it. He is in awe.

Time passes. They add to their scene and Mark continues to dole out the tequila, though at some point Evan registers that he’s pouring Evan far more than he is for himself. When Evan’s lines grows sloppy they drop the markers and head back to the kitchen, where Mark pulls out a collection of munchies and poses Evan with stray questions about his hypothetical Himalayan trek. The idea had never really formed in Evan’s mind, but the answers come easily now, and before long he’s looking up plane tickets and recoiling in horror at the cost of the numbers that swim before him on his phone.

“Would you use a Sherpa?”

“I wouldn’t want to. Want to do it myself. Unless that’s insensitive? I’d need to learn more.”

“Would you learn the language?”

“Enough to function, I’d hope.”

“Kay. And are we going up any actual mountains?”

“Like Everest? I don’t think so. People die doing that. Seeing it would be enough.”

“You’re so damn responsible.”

“The biggest mountains aren’t always the hardest ones.” Evan smiles to himself at his quip, but Mark’s eyes are back in his phone.

“Hm.”

“What is it?”

“My fish wants to get in the boat.” Mark brandishes the latest message from his would-be lover in Evan’s face.

“Well, shit. Want me to get out of here?”

Mark pauses. “I mean, don’t feel like you have to. We could both…or you could invite Bridget…or—”

“Don’t worry, man. I’ll go.”

“Sorry. Don’t want it to feel like I’m throwing you out. Honestly, if you wanna stay, I’d rather—”

“Nah, forget it…damn, I don’t even have a way to get home. I don’t want my mom to know I—”

“Don’t worry about it. I got you covered.”

“Sorry. I need to get a job so that I can—”

“You’re not going to do that either. We’ll take care of you.”

“Mark, I can’t take that.”

“Why the fuck not?”

“I…hockey is expensive. It’s hard for my mom to cover it all, and save for my college. You can’t cover all that.”

“I sure can.” Mark bores his eyes into Evan to show he is serious.

The full scale of Mark’s wealth immobilizes Evan. “No, you can’t do that.”
 “I can if I wanna make sure we can keep having nights like this. And doing it while you wait tables at fucking Applebees would kinda be a downer.”

“You’re drunk, Mark.”

“Drunk people are the most honest people.” Mark throws an arm around Evan and guides him back out into the main room, where they stare down at the lights on a ship waiting to enter the harbor. Evan chances a mushy smile, but Mark keeps his gaze outward, and Evan follows his eyes into the void of the lake. This night is exactly the escape he was looking for, but is that only because it is a step into a world he cannot afford, and probably never will? His new friend is a strange creature, both the teammate most like him and least like him all at once.

Mark walks Evan down to the lobby and salutes as his car pulls away. He jabs all of the elevator buttons on the way back up, stops to peer out on to every floor before he finally heads back to his mom’s place, where he goes to stand before the windows again. He checks his phone; his date won’t be here for another twenty minutes. He misses Evan already, wonders if he’s made a mistake. Maybe the two of them should have just passed out here together, drunk and pussyless but content. For that matter, did he come on too hard to a friendship that is only a month old? Was he too clingy, too desperately in search of a real connection? He frowns, idly scrolls through Wall Street Journal articles his dad has sent him without processing much. He thinks back to that question Evan had asked on the bus: why is he, a kid who could be anywhere, in this lonely loft in a lonely city, struggling to form any sort of connection?

The girl calls him. He lets her in the building and directs her to the condo. The place is a mess, he notices: bags of snacks strewn across the counter, a deeply dented tequila bottle atop the stove, his and Evan’s hockey bags abandoned atop the inspirational pillows and stinking up the whole place. Mark leaves the unruly scene and checks himself in the bathroom mirror, brushes his sweep of hair into place and finds a smile that looks cool without betraying how wasted he is.

The girl pushes open the door without knocking. He appraises his catch: shapely, wider around the hips than he’d hoped, but the blonde is indeed natural, and he rather likes the tired look in her eyes, the sense that she’s seen it all, even at seventeen. He has little patience for the naïve.

“Welcome,” he says. “Sorry bout all this, my boy Evan just went home. You know him?”

“Evan DeBleeker? I’ve seen him at parties, but he’s usually off with that one girl. He seems shy.”

“He’s the best. But he can do some damage, too.” Mark hoists up the bottle and pours the girl a generous shot. She accepts it and gazes around the apartment.

“Holy crap. You live up here?”

“Honestly, I’d rather we’d got a house, but my mom wants to pretend she got her New York glamor back.”

“What does she do?”

“She’s an artist. Which mostly means she’s a retired hooker who lives off the child support she gets from my dad for me.” Mark pours her a second shot.

“Oh. What does your dad do?”

“Screws over poor people, mostly.”

She shuffles her feet uncomfortably. “You’re even taller than I thought.”

“You’re even hotter than I thought.”

Her face is caught between embarrassment and eagerness. “Honestly, you’re the most exciting thing to happen here all summer. Every party I go to, it’s like, have you met the new Mark kid? Seen those pics he does?”

“I do have that effect on people.”

“You’re playing with all of us, aren’t you?”

“I’ll let you be the judge of that.” He puts an inquiring arm around her back, and she draws him in and lets him kiss her. She spins him around, an invitation to push her up into the wall. Mark lunges in for a few deep kisses slides a hand down toward her waistline. She pulls back and laughs, and he eases up, content. Yes: they have a rapport, much more than with the last three.

“Damn, boy. You know what you’re doing.”

“Did you doubt that I would?”

She laughs. “You have marker on your arm.”

“Evvy and I were coloring.”

“Coloring?”

“Let me show you!” he guides her into the back room and throws on the light to reveal the sprawling marker mural.

“It’s…an entire safari scene?”

“Yup. Not many people know about my artistic side, you know. I figured I had to let it out.”

“Yeah. I mean, the stick people getting eaten by lions? You’re obviously the next Van Gogh, Mark.”

“I try to be modest about it.”

“The blue giraffes up there are a real nice touch.”

“Yeah, I made Mount Kilimanjaro a little thinner than it should have been. But I had to leave room for the landing strip for the bush plane there…”

“What’s that beneath all the trees?”

“That was Evan’s contribution. But I think it’s a rhinoceros.”

“Can I ask why a safari?”

“It’s called symbolism.”

“Is this some weird roleplay crap?”

“Eh, not quite. Just want you to know what you’re getting into.” He pauses, isn’t sure he likes her troubled stare, but decides to let it loose: he is who he is, isn’t he?

“The giraffes are my mom, since she has a long neck and always gets into everything. The man-eating lions are so totally my dad. The herd of zebras who just blend in are my bros on the team. Evvy and his girl Bridget are the chimps fucking over in the corner there, he didn’t like it when I drew that part. I’m the dormant volcano. I didn’t put you in there, so I guess you can be Evan’s rhinoceros.”

“What the heck does that mean?”

Mark ponders the question. “Means I’m gonna be your guide. Gonna take ya every damn good love-making place this city has. I’ve learned from the masters. The best hidden little parks. Some of those old ruins up on the hill. Wanna get into Glensheen at night? I know the way. Best safari you’ll ever go on.”

“Didn’t you just move here a month ago?”

“I’ve made it mine.”

She cackles. “That’s what I like to hear. But…why? Why this?”

“I’ve been reading some Hemingway. Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“You’re such a dork! I love it.”

“Whatever the hell Hemingway was, he sure as fuck wasn’t dorky,” says Mark, hurt coursing through him. He takes a swig from the bottle and hands it back to the girl, who struggles for words and instead follows suit.

“Sorry,” she says after she chokes down the drink. “I just love it. Here you are, nonstop shirtless selfies and little rap videos, hockey star, and what do you really do for fun? You draw safaris from old books.”

“We can do the shirtless part if you want.” All of Mark’s expectations for this hookup are gone now: it is merely that, and he was rash to ever expect more. He will take what comes, but he won’t ask her to go all the way. His line in the sand, he muses, eyes flitting to the cross on his chain on the chest that she now begins to massage. Pity.

The door bangs open just as the girl is getting into a rhythm.

“Marky’s still up!” he hears his mom yell. “Oh, he must have friends over, look, and—oh.” She rounds the corner, tipsy in leather and high heels, followed by a fellow dolled-up middle-aged woman with a hairdo twenty years out of date.

“Oh, shit.” Mark hikes his pants back up and tightens his belt as the girl shoots up to her feet. Hope’s eyes travel to Mark’s yawning fly and the bulge he has managed to tuck slightly off-center.

“Sorry to—oh, hi there.”

“Uh, hi.” Mark applies a mushy smile and, after an instinctive jerk of the hand toward the damning evidence, decides the more prudent move is to turn their collective attention elsewhere.

“You’re back from the nino already?”

“I just wasn’t in the mood.”

“Could’ve used a heads-up,” Mark mumbles.

“How old is he? Fifteen?” demands his mom’s companion, who is not one Mark recognizes. Her discerning stare conveys both sobriety and intense judgment, a formidable pairing. “I thought you said he read fat books for fun.”

“Not mutually exclusive,” says Mark, even quieter than before. The girl starts to laugh before she cuts it off in a strangled yelp. Mark, now that his drunk eyes look more closely, sees his mom is not in a chipper mood. His adrenaline surges.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine,” she says, with a rub of her eyeliner that assures Mark she is not.

“Think I might go home now,” the girl says as she pulls her shirt back on. Mark finds some confused sense of chivalry and collects her purse for her.

“Come on now, we can’t just throw her out like this,” says his mom’s friend. “She’s just had this happen to her and now…come on, do you need a ride home?”

“I have a car—”

“You’ve been drinking—”

“Not that much—”

“Cheryl, she’s had enough of a night already, we can put her in the guest room. Can you imagine her coming home to her parents now? Honey, here, we can pull out the couch bed.”

“You think she wants to share your apartment with this little pimp wannabe?”

“Hey, she had a fucking choice,” Mark yells, a bit more loudly than he’d intended. “She didn’t have to do any of this.”

“Fifteen, Hope. Fifteen and already just like his dad. Sweet-talking them. Manipulating them. Get past your mom genes and take some control.”

Mark’s anger ignites into an incandescent rage. “Who the hell are you? You’ve never even met me! If you ever think I’d do what that cheating sleazebag did to my mom…”

Hope throws her arms around her son, half in embrace and half in restraint, tears welling in her eyes. “Now Mark. Cheryl works with battered women, she’s seen some things. Let it go. We’ll all be alright. We’ll all be alright.”

Mark stares bullets of fury into Cheryl’s eyes. She seems cowed now, almost stunned. This, Mark gathers, is not the nerve she expected to trip. Suddenly he sees a different emotion in her eyes, one a million times worse than her condescending judgment: a hint of pity, a dawning understanding of what this spoiled brat has been through, torn between a father he hates and a mother who can only blubber. His eyes soften and flit to the girl, whose mortification is on a level unknown to Mark.

“I think I’ll call my mom. She’d want me to come home safe,” she finally says to break the frozen scene.

“I’m serious, sweetie, you can just stay here—”

“I’ll be fine,” she sniffs. She snaps her purse out of Mark’s hands and marches out of the apartment as purposefully as her tequila-addled legs can carry her. Cheryl chases after her, though the girl loudly tells this mystery woman to stay away. Cheryl pauses back in the doorway but Hope brushes her off with a wave. The door closes behind her.

Mother and son turn to each other and share a synchronized sigh. Hope sinks to the couch while Mark closes up the chip bags.

“Drink?” He lifts up the tequila bottle and gets the laugh that assures him he’s disarmed her.

“Your dad gets you top-shelf stuff, I see.”

“Sorry. I mostly had a quiet night. Just me and Evan and your marker wall. But then I got that text.” He looks down, frowns, zips his pants back up, and draws out a second laugh.

“Marky, I love you, sweetie, and you know I want you to be happy. But you’re scaring me these days.”

“You telling me you weren’t doing this when you were my age?”

She gazes around the apartment in a haze. “Not like this. Not about that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know.”

Mark had expected this response. He crushes the chip bag in his hands down as small as it will go, pulverizing its contents before he pitches it back in the cabinet. He is left to ask questions in his mind. How did his mom get her start? Some crude and thoughtless mining town kid north of here, not someone who’s been trained by an expert—an expert like herself who has dropped more than a few hints to her boy on how to make a woman happy. Did she, too, chase anything she could get at a young age, or was promiscuity merely a vocation? Is she the source of his hunger, or is Cheryl on to something, and is he the inheritor of his father’s predation? He solemnly swears to himself yet again to never, ever commit to a relationship until he knows it is one he can sustain forever.

Does Cheryl’s work with battered women include his own mother? Is that why they never talked to him about what was going wrong? Should he drive up the Shore right now and pound the shit out of his lecherous, scheming, wife-beating father? The man who is responsible for two broken families and thousands of outsourced jobs, but also for this condo for an unemployable ex-trophy wife, for all of Mark’s hockey training, for his hunger for canonical literature, the man who has him set up for Yale, or wherever else he may want to go? Suddenly Evan’s escape to the Himalaya sounds that much more alluring.

“You should see what Evan and me drew in the back room,” Mark says. “Come take a look.” He takes his mother by the hand and guides her before his scene. He doesn’t tell her what any of it means, just sits back and revels in her wonder at the scale of this creation, this reminder that this bursting vessel of ego and testosterone is still her little boy. She traces her way from one wall to the next, eyes glazed over, off in some other place.

“Did Dad ever hurt you?” Mark asks quietly.

“Not physically,” she says. “Mentally…”

“That I don’t doubt.”

“How was he today?”

“He absolutely grilled Evan. But, you know, it went okay. I think Evan’s a keeper.”

“Good. You need friends like that. Your dad never had many.”

She’s right, Mark thinks. Who in his father’s life is there for anything other than instrumental reasons?

Hope musters up a trace of a smile and provides the answer for him. “You do mean the world to him, you know. Even if he never says it.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I just wish…”

“I wish a lot of things about him, too.”

“Yeah…but not that, so much. I wish you’d given me a chance.”

“A chance to do what?”

“To fix everything. Instead of trying to hide it from me. Pretending I couldn’t hear you yelling. Or making excuses for him when he was off with one of his hookers.”

Hope laughs and sniffs. “Oh Mark. There are some things you can’t fix.”

“But I would’ve wanted to have tried.”

Evan’s ride back home is a painful affair. His driver, a stern-faced Native American man, expressionlessly processes his drunk 16-year-old passenger and waves him into the back seat without a word. Evan crumples into the back seat in shame. This man carts around dozens of drunks every weekend, he tells himself; if he’s driving a cab now, he probably has little regard for the façade that college-bound kids like him put up in front of their neurotic chase, will forget him within five minutes of dropping him off. He knows Mark would think nothing of the man’s judgment, would sit in cool repose. He tries throwing an arm across the back of the seat, but realizes it only makes him look like more of a stuck-up little asshole. It’s too late to take it down, though, and Evan sits there awkwardly as the car shoots through the highway tunnels and up along the lakeshore toward Evan’s quiet neighborhood. If he had any money on him, he would tip everything he could; he texts Mark to do so and says he’ll pay him back, but gets no reply. He mumbles an inaudible apology as he bolts from the car, which pulls away as quickly as he does. Evan trips on the front steps and falls forward in a heap. He swears and rubs at the scrapes on his arms.

The house is dark. He fumbles with his keys for half a minute and the door sticks as he pushes it open. He throws the keys down on the floor and stops, shocked at his own anger. He retrieves the keys and stalks past their cat, which stares in fear at this sudden intruder, this unfamiliar version of her guardian. She bolts toward the basement, claws clattering on the hard wood floors. Evan is alone.

He’s just had a night that was exactly what he wanted, perhaps the best male bonding he’s ever had. Why is he so bitter now? For starters, Mark never answered his question on Duluth. He still can’t figure out exactly why that kid is here, why he has taken on Evan of all people as his lone confidante when there are others who could better play wingman or feel less awkward around his wealth. He is ashamed that Mark wanted to offer him all that charity, he supposes; annoyed that Mark wanted his night to end with that girl. For all Mark’s kind words, he sometimes feels like a hollow vessel, a fishing boat trawling only for easy bites, its stray sweeps through the depths merely an amusing pastime. But just as he’d said, he wanted an Evan in his life, someone he could speak to freely. And sure enough, he’d gone and collected him, just as his father collected untold millions, the lesson he’d passed on to his son.

Evan stalks to his mother’s liquor supply: two dusty wine bottles and a three-quarters-full handle of rum from a vacation in Jamaica five years ago. He’s never raided it before, but tonight he takes a deep pull straight from the rum bottle and immediately chokes. He puts it back, grimaces, and stalks up the staircase, filled with instant regret. The floorboards creak beneath him, join his coughs in wrenching through the silence. His sock snags on a loose nail and he mutters “fuck” a few times for good measure. All of the charm of this groaning old traditional feels diminished after a day in Mark’s gleaming world.

He flips the light on in the bathroom, runs the water, tosses his cap aside and brushes his hair in a doomed quest for order. He pauses, opens the medicine cabinet, surveys its contents. It is sparse, his mother’s deliberate purge of anything that might call back her late husband’s final cocktail. Evan takes out the bottle of aspirin and shakes it. More than enough to do some damage.

He’d found his dad when he got home from school. It was a different house, a mortgage only two incomes could afford and before they knew the extent of the debts. The bathroom was larger; there wouldn’t be room to drape the body over the side of the tub in the same way here. He’d stammered his dad’s name a few times, backed away, collapsed into the wall in the hall. Feebly dialed 911, strung together words that cannot have been coherent but were enough to get the point across. Sat, watched, waited as the ambulance came and then his mother and then been trucked off to Aunt Cathy’s. He’d never cried, a source of retroactive guilt. He just took it all in, eyes wide open, silently consuming it all just as whatever had killed his father silently consumed him.

Evan puts the pill bottle back on the shelf and shuffles into his bedroom. He leaves the lights off as he strips down and stands there, naked. He shares those genes, he thinks. He recoils in horror, pushes down the framed photo of himself with his dad at a squirt hockey practice, even though he can’t see it in the dark. But yet he can’t feel that same way. Is this a failing on his part, an inability to connect with a dead man whose lack of connection killed him? Is it his triumph, proof he will never fall down the same hole?

A pair of headlights swings into the driveway. For a moment he panics, thinks either his driver or the neighbors have called the police over the drunk teenage delinquent making a racket, but he realizes it’s his mother, home from her shift. He considers feigning sleep, but instead pulls on his boxers, flips the light on, and settles into a seat on his bed that he hopes will look natural, pretends to scrawl a few notes in his journal.

“Hi, sweetheart,” she says from the doorway to his room a few minutes later. “Up late?”

“I, uh, actually just got home,” he says, blushing. “Was at Mark’s. Just the two of us. Quiet night. Guess it was a little late.”

“You’re almost spending more time with him than with Bridget these days.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Just an observation.”

“He just…jumps at things more than anyone else I know.”

Charlotte DeBleeker smiles at her son. “I remember when you used to be the kid who hid behind my legs because you were scared of Lily Yu next door.”

“Well, she did have a mean left hook.”

“You’ve come a long way. And even if that’s hard for me…I’m proud of that.” Evan now knows she knows he isn’t fully sober, exhales in relief as his defenses come down. He makes eye contact for the first time. She brushes a stray lock of hair back behind her ear, a move Evan subconsciously copies with his own locks.

“I’ve had to. Or maybe not quite that. But I’ve seen that I can.”

“Please don’t give your Aunt Cathy reason to think you’re a budding alcoholic this weekend, will you?”

“I was kinda looking forward to corrupting Colin a bit,” he says with a toothy grin.

“On second thought, Colin could use a little of that. Just don’t let his mother find out,” Charlotte says. The two share a laugh. She comes forward to muss with his hair, and he reaches up to wrap a hug around her chest. He holds her there for a minute, and her eyes alight on the picture turned downward.

“Two years to the day,” she says. “I wish I had some words that could help, but this might have to do.” She feels Evan nod in her chest, holds him through his silent, dry sobs. His relationship with his mom since that day has not been one of deep words, but it has been one of simple honesty, and one of frequent raw, perhaps even carnal, contact. Fresh off an afternoon with Mark and his dad, he has some inkling of just how lucky he is.

The tension in Evan’s shoulders eases away. The game slows in front of him. Somehow this great hurtling contradiction that is himself is okay now, is a reality he accepts he must inhabit. The cat leaps up on to the bed and rubs up against him; slowly, he reaches to pet it and relaxes his hold on his mother. She kisses him on the forehead and makes her exit.

Evan settles into bed. He has his phone out to call Bridget before he reminds himself he is drunk and she is asleep; that would hardly be becoming boyfriend conduct. She has been the essential brake pedal on his most reckless urges over the past five months, and frankly from before then too, as the promise of someone like her made sure all his nights didn’t descend into this sort of fear.

But oh, will he take more nights like this. He closes his eyes, laughs back at his art project with Mark, drifts away, drifts up toward the clouds, up toward Kilimanjaro and then perhaps on to even greater heights, his mind back on that Himalayan trek. That urge to go isn’t one that Bridget would quite understand. His mother might, but she would only want to live vicariously, would never do it herself. No one in his life would follow him there. Except Mark. Mark would.

‘Fish off the line?’ he messages Mark.

‘Had it on the worm for a bit, but it got away. Long story. But I’m cool with it.’

‘Aw. Good to hear. Thanks for tonight.’

‘Showed me what’s really important. And that’s why I’m here.’

Evan replies with a heart and settles in for sleep.

Greyhounds Reunited

After I finish this post, I’m going to put away the computer, grab a notebook, and start to write every memory I have from this past weekend. It’s something I’ve done on a handful of occasions before, a stream of consciousness for my eyes only, and a task undertaken only after events that left me with so many interactions I wanted to preserve that I couldn’t think of any other way to capture it all. The occasion of my Duluth East High School ten-year reunion was more than enough inspiration this time around.

A reunion for a public high school in northern Minnesota makes for a noticeable contrast with my Georgetown reunion last year, the last time I felt compelled to do this. The range of life experiences is much broader, the number of paths trodden more evident in what goes said and unsaid. This time there was no Ritz, no tents on lawns, no huge dose of patronage from another former class to those of us who were new to the reunion game. There was, however, an afternoon at a brewery, a range of after-parties, and some run-ins with the East Class of 1988 and the 2008 grads of the late, great Duluth Central, both of which had their reunions this weekend as well. Ten years allows for more changes than five, and while there’s been an increase in facial hair and piercings and some measure of maturity (sometimes), personalities haven’t moved all that much in a decade.

My Duluth East reunion was a healthy mix of people, old quirks and new insights all coming out, most carried by genuine desires to see one another, if only for a little while. Some came from across the country, some from down the street; some I hadn’t seen in ten years while others are regulars, and there really wasn’t much of a correlation between those two. It was a tidal wave of memories, all brought back. As an afternoon event turned into evening marathon, a few friends slipped off here and there, if only for a momentary escape, looking for their own little breath of freedom or reflection or chance to simply marvel in the perfection of a summer Duluth day. I pushed through until the inevitable end of the night at the Reef, and saved my own moment of solitude for a hike back to my own cathedral, that spot I’ve been escaping to since my days as Greyhound when I need it, on the following day. It’s not what it once was: a recent windstorm decimated its more frail pillars, and the trail, such as it is, now avoids the tall grass and loops around it. But that is no loss. It is only the way of things, as this hometown evolves and as the march of time makes short work of us all.

As I hiked, I stopped to marvel at how much a part of me my city has become, as the kid who spent his childhood memorizing the minutiae of world geography has become a staunch defender of tradition and local culture from the little pocket of a city where he grew up. Not a new thought, but still one that can strike me in its more defining moments. Culture can mean high culture, such as literature or the classical music many of us participated in, but it can also mean the shared rituals of sports teams or even the adventures into questionable activities that, in those formative years, take on an added edge that one starts to lose as one moves through one’s twenties. That culture is mine, and mine to defend and tend to going forward. I’ve become a Duluthian through and through.

While my perception of my Georgetown days has undergone some evolution since my graduation, my thoughts on my time at East are basically unchanged from a 2014 reflection on those four years. High school remains one of the more formative eras in my life, even as someone marked by other places and events, and it now seems only natural that I settle in here and look forward to raising some of my own little Greyhounds. Perhaps a curious evolution for someone with no shortage of ambition, but sometimes the most ambitious pushes we can make don’t follow conventional paths. Our stories, wherever they have taken us since, all have their roots here, and the initial participants in that drama, no matter where they may be now, are forever seared into the script. Take it away, Octavio Paz:

All of us, at some moment, have had a vision of our existence as something unique, something untransferable and very precious. This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall–that of our consciousness–between the world and ourselves. It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work. The adolescent, however, vacillates between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflection: as he leans over the river of his consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children, becomes a problem and a question…

The vision of the adolescent as a solitary figure, closed up within himself and consumed by desire or timidity, almost always resolves into a crowd of young people dancing, singing or marching as a group, or into a young couple strolling under the arched green branches in a park. The adolescent opens himself up to the world: to love, action, friendship, sports, heroic adventures.

May these weekends help us to never lose that openness to the world. Time for me to write, and hold on to another dose of that ever-so-powerful nostalgia.

Why High School Hockey?

Some people who read this blog know me first and foremost as a commentator on high school hockey. Others, who come for the other stuff, tend to skip over it, with reactions ranging from bemusement to downright incomprehension. I don’t blame them; I know this place is eclectic, and a high school sport may seem a strange obsession for someone whose other interests include local politics and intellectual musing. So why do you do it, Karl?

The easiest explanation is that it’s just an accident of history: I grew up on the east side of Duluth during a time when that part of the city put out plenty of hockey talent. I went to a high school blessed with a strong hockey legacy, and even the kids who didn’t much care for the sport would come to a few games and join the party in the stands. The juicy storylines surrounding our coach—Mike Randolph was headline news my eighth grade year when he temporarily lost his job—added to the intrigue when I went to Duluth East. Those stories only got crazier my freshman year, as a tumultuous season on and off the ice resulted in a surprise playoff run. The Hounds missed the Tourney my last three years in high school, but those section losses, each more excruciating than the last, left a feeling of unfinished business. Those years also aligned with the peak of the East’s rivalry with Cloquet, a legitimate war that was on par with any high school sports clash in the country. The program seemed bigger than life, and came to define the East experience.

East has made the State Tournament every year since my graduation, which has made it easy to stay in touch. Even when I lived on the East Coast, I’d fly back for the Tourney, and it was always an impromptu reunion, a way to keep those old ties going as I crashed on friends’ couches, bumped into them in the upper deck, or joined them for drinks after the games. That tradition now has a life of its own, and I expect it to endure no matter the Hounds’ fortunes in the coming years. It’s a ritual that keeps me true to my roots.

And so I’ve been sucked in. I’m not the sort who can half-ass anything, and so I couldn’t just be a casual fan; I had to learn everything I could about every team, and before long I was posting about it on an internet forum, and one thing led to another. I now moonlight as a high school hockey talking head, putting in many hours, compensated only with the occasional beer and some nasty anonymous comments. Those internet ties kept me in touch when I moved away, and are even more important as my own time at East fades into the rear view mirror. There are moments where the madness of it all wears me down, but they never last long, and I’ve built some real connections with people through my work, too.

Still, hockey goes deeper than a mere childhood backstory. It has quirks that are downright fun, from hockey hair to public-private rivalries to opportunities to remind Edina that they’re still cakeaters. Hockey is also a marker of regional identity, and an eternal point of pride for those of us who hail from the North. American hockey was born here, and while the tropes of hard-working northern boys can wear thin, there’s still enough truth to it that we take this mantel seriously, and there’s always that air of allure when an entire town heads south and shocks St. Paul in March.

On another level, the allure is aesthetic. Hockey is a beautiful sport. This will baffle anyone who immediately associates it with fights and lost teeth, but where else can one find such consistently smooth play? It has much longer stretches of action than football or baseball; scoring is neither as incessant as in basketball nor as sparse as in soccer. Two minutes on the clock actually take about two minutes. To even begin, hockey players must master movement on two thin blades of metal and glide easily across a rink. Next come the soft hands and slick passing, the ability to wield a stick and flip a puck across the ice on instinct. Add a layer of strategy, and you have units of players floating about in forty-second spurts, making extreme exertion look seamless. High school skills on all these fronts run the gamut, making it that much easier to enjoy the best of them.

And then, yes, there is the violent side. Hockey combines its grace with some punishing body blows, though unlike other contact sports, it’s possible to play it well without the brutality. While there are obvious limits—no kid with repeated head trauma should stay on the ice—I also think there’s an unfortunate, growing societal stigma around raw, physical activities, as the parental sheltering becomes ever more oppressive. Sports like this are not for everyone, but they are wonderful releases of pent-up forces, particularly young men with an excess of testosterone. It taps into that primal urge without putting it center stage, and channels it toward a greater goal.

So why high school, in particular? College and NHL hockey are also big in Minnesota, and my loyalties could have progressed with my own added years. High school is cleaner in a number of respects, but there’s no shortage of things to decry about the state of youth hockey today, from exorbitant costs to some unseemly searches for greener grass. (Note that I certainly don’t lump all transfers or early departures into that category.) Defenders of the sport, including a famed Sports Illustrated piece from a few years back, point to its purity. To an extent, this is true, though as I’ve noted before, few things are less pure than the minds of teenage boys. But if purity isn’t quite the right word, it does hint at something: the sheer, unbridled joy of doing what one loves. High school hockey has a special panache to it; a combination of raw force and light artistry that fuels a fire on the ice, and taps into a restless hunger that I hope I never lose. At the high school level it spills over into the stands, where student sections let loose and feed an atmosphere that can sweep up an entire community. All of the petty divides that often define high school fall away behind a common mission, if only for a few hours. It helped turn an often awkward stage in life into something I now recollect with nothing but fondness.

A few people are weirded out by the fixation on high school kids, but hockey in Minnesota is cross-generational, something that ropes in parents and grandparents as much as the kids. I also think it’s a healthy thing to take an interest in people outside of one’s often myopic age group, and high school is a particularly formative time. The experiences many of these kids have here are some of the most important forces in shaping a life, and hockey can push them to achieve things they never could have before. Readers of my Tournament reflections will know that some of the most crystallizing moments for me have been those press conferences after losses where I see kids contemplate life beyond high school for the first time, now that a run for one of their greatest passions has come to an end. It’s an essential part of a coming-of-age story, and the commitment and work ethic and sense of camaraderie many of these boys build do indeed serve them well in whatever comes next. The attention we heap on high school students can go far; I’ll admit to some squeamishness about media outlets that fixate pre-high school hockey (especially if they try to rate or hype up individuals), and take my role on the Forum as a defender of high schoolers from slander or libel more seriously than anything else I do in the hockey world. But this is also a time to begin that transition into life in the public eye, and once again, I’m skeptical of anything that shelters anyone for too long.

Hockey intertwines with my own story, too: it can’t be a coincidence that my two greatest sports loyalties crystallized immediately after the two most disruptive incidents in my personal life. For a little while, it was both a release and a distraction, and those bright spots endure. No doubt sports obsessions can grow unhealthy; people make dumb decisions that prioritize sports over life, or fall victim to a broader athletic culture that doesn’t always have its priorities right. But for every skipped test or Twitter dust-up, my hockey work has become one of the healthiest things I do: it puts it all into perspective. Just as it pushes us out into the world, it also lets us retreat from it, if only for a few moments. It’s an entirely different realm from school and work life, and it’s a blessed relief to come down from weighty real world affairs and watch a bunch of kids scoot around in pursuit of a piece of rubber. Anyone wanna join me at a rink this winter?

Red and Grey Till the Day I Die

The Duluth East Class of 2014 made its plodding way across the DECC stage tonight, the students’ last names butchered one last time before they are released out into the world. Six years out from my own graduation, despite a new building and a maze of budgetary travails, my love affair with that school burns as much as it ever has.

East’s strengths are nothing otherworldly. Like any school it has its cliques, both exclusionary to those on the outside and giving rise to tunnel vision for those on the inside. Teenagers still do normal teenage things, and East couldn’t save a number of them from some truly damaging situations. (Anyone who expects a school to be the primary line of defense against these things has a rather disordered view of how these things come about.) Some will no doubt look back on their time there and remember the requisite high school awkwardness and ignorance, blaming the school for those bad memories. No doubt East can do better, as any school can.

East is also fairly homogenous, and many of its comforts stem from the good fortune of being situated on the wealthy, old money side of a town that values education. And that dominant culture can indeed be problematic for those who don’t naturally slide into it: witness Duluth’s brutal achievement gap, along with some of the concerns about diversity voiced in this recent video. (I could mount a nuanced critique of all of this if I wanted, but I’ll save that for another day and say simply that East has its issues. The school supports the troublesome Robert Putnam study that says that, traditionally, a relative lack of diversity correlates with social cohesion.)

And yet, even as it produces plenty of kids who are entrenched in that comfortable majority, East manages to be more than a factory of bourgeois culture. There’s enough questioning of that culture, both from the children of the east side elite free to ask Big Questions and the salt of the earth folks who don’t quite see the point of the whole rat race. (Interactions with the latter are one of the real merits of public education, reminding us relatively pampered kids that there are entirely different worlds out there that we can’t ignore.) It manages to blend the dominant culture necessary for success (under its standard American middle class definition) with allowances for some individual dalliance. There are people actively fighting the isolation felt by those who don’t quite fit in. When I was a Hound, the cliques came down without too much trouble, and the best of the teachers really were transformative. When I went off to college and talked about my high school experience with college friends—some of whom attended some of the country’s most “prestigious” high schools—I still came away with the sense that there was something different about East. Without trying very hard, it put out kids who were ready for most anything to come after, from elite colleges to the local schools to the armed forces to jobs straight out of school. It breeds that success with minimal pretension or self-satisfied claims of greatness, and does not cater to vogue tests or metrics of success while doing so. It doesn’t need to sell itself. As a school, it simply works, and anything that works that well ought to be preserved.

All else held steady, East allows its students to age at their own pace. Sure, some will be living lives of hedonism as freshmen, and most will make gradual forays down that path as the years go by. But it was possible to live another way and not suffer any serious social repercussions if one so chose. Any East alum from my generation will recognize the phrase from the daily announcements—and I do hope they still use it, much as it all drove us all to roll our eyes at the time—“make it a great day or not, the choice is yours.” The message sank in. East grads were subject to the same social pressures as kids all across the country, but we Hounds always seemed to have an intimate awareness of our own agency. And for those of us who were a bit too aware of our own uniqueness, it helped bring us back to reality.

In some ways, East does its job too well. I know plenty of my classmates left with everything they needed to succeed anywhere; as a result, East is now just some source of distant nostalgia, with many of its brightest farmed out far beyond Duluth. It’s something to remember, fondly but not worthy of a second thought; something to acknowledge from afar, but not something worth repeated return visits or donations to its foundation. I was very close to heading down that same path, and the painfully earnest quotes from some old high school diaries prove it. I had to go away to realize how lucky I was.

My fervor is that of a convert. When I wandered into its doors as a freshman, I scoffed at all of the “school spirit” pageantry, and was content with fairly insular group of friends. Sure, I had some public school pride after touring Marshall and coming away unimpressed, but East was just a means to an end, four years to get over with as quickly as possible so that I could get out and do what I really thought I wanted to do. By the last day of senior year, I was crying buckets as I walked out its doors, leaving behind the first place I’d genuinely called home.  I’d decided I might as well befriend everyone, branching out enough to try to be that kid who went to every single grad party. I didn’t always fit seamlessly into its culture, but I found that level of comfort necessary for asking bigger questions and pushing my limits. East fed my relentless ambition and got me into Georgetown, but at the same time, the education I got there was complex enough that I was unconsciously starting to question everything about my world while at the same time acknowledging that it had made me who I was. The searching, probing, and frustration of the next five years makes no sense without East at its starting point, and in the end, that journey led a kid who’d been so eager to study international affairs straight back to the east side of Duluth.

Was I a sellout? I suppose I was, after a fashion. I neglected an old friend or two in my rush to climb the ladder, and at times spread myself far too thin. I abandoned a few morals, which left an overly uptight kid with no lack of inner conflict. I’m now more likely to spend a cold winter night watching an amateur hockey game than I am to be tracking election polls in South America. The long journey that began and ended with East led me to back away from earlier grandiose dreams of saving the world and settle for living fully within my own world. And yet I couldn’t be happier. I still ask those big questions and follow those world affairs, but I no longer let them consume me. Everything has its proper place.

Things started falling into place over the second half of my senior year. From academics to extracurriculars to following the exploits of the hockey team, I was at home. As Stuff happened in life beyond school, I began to understand the real power of a community, and what a support it can provide—a lesson doubly important for a kid who was consumed by the solitary pursuit of success. I am forever indebted. In a dream world I’d settle down here and raise a few more little Hounds while working for the betterment of Duluth, but I’m not sure quite what life will throw at me yet, and it’s hard to know where I’ll end up. No matter what, East’s presence will endure. As I wrote in a good-bye note some time after graduation:

No reason it has to be an abrupt good bye to East—because what is East, really? Some reified, odd concept—in a way, it’s the building, but building didn’t make any memories for us. Of course it’s the people, but they’re not static either—some will change, some will drift away, some will die. All we’re left with is a pile of memories. Little snapshots frozen in time, immutable, unforgettable. How can we miss something we never let go of? We can’t. And so long as we let life change with us, and hold on to what we can, we can always go back.

To all of my fellow Hounds who made those memories possible, no matter how large of a role they played: thanks again.