The following is an excerpt from the title story of Visigoth by Gary Amdahl, published by Milkweed Editions.
I am a hockey player. That would be the first thing you suspected about me. Though perhaps on second thought it is not an entirely familiar pursuit. Hockey is a smooth violent sport played primarily in the cold blue silent reaches of the North, where the report of a puck on wood at night will carry for miles like fire from a high-powered rifle. I am from Minnesota, which qualifies, and played to standing-room-only on the Keweenaw in Michigan, again an easy qualifier. The players tend toward the bully and the dumbbell; as for myself, yes, and yes again, Christ, yes, all that and more. I had all my teeth until this time last year, at which high-water mark they exploded from my gums like tiny enameled angels, bursting in a rain of blood heavenward, released at last from this pit of woe, my mouth.
After the teeth, the Hobey Baker Award. What is the Hobey Baker Award? The Hobes is a statuette given once a year to an outstanding college hockey player. Unlike the Heisman Trophy in football, nobody gives a shit about the Hobey, and you only have to have one good year. In my case, freshman, which only made things worse, really. Of the ceremony I remember only that my remarks lasted an hour and that I shook hands four different ways.
I spent the summer thinking lordly thoughts. Rogue! Dark-browed prince! What next! I was ready for a martini with the business leadership as a slugfest with apes. Someone said the world was my oyster and I took it to heart. I’d committed apostasy, and I wanted it all. I did not want to be left behind.
Then I got hurt. My brain decelerated rapidly against my skull after my head got slapped to the boards at about a hundred miles an hour. My eyes rolled up in their sockets and I collapsed in a heap. Not a week later, I dove into the boards again and separated my shoulder. Skating gingerly in practice, sling in place, there was a miscue and somebody knocked me unconscious for a second time. My overlords treated it all in a light and manly way, judging it nothing to write home about but I knew better.
Ruth was my girlfriend. She came to me as an instructor of freshman composition. A poet at a technical university, she was amazed by my essay on summer vacation. She introduced me to William Blake but withheld Rimbaud, insisting that I learn the language. Ruth was an older, darker woman of twenty-seven, from New York City. What an accent! A real gypsy. If we discussed poetry, she would make reference to “Lowered Boyron”; if the weather, that it was “co-eld.” She, of course, received no end of hoots over what I maintained was American Standard, saying I pronounced “Dave” as “Deve,” and “napkin” as “nakkin.” Anyway, we fell to each other easily and amused ourselves, for a time, simply by talking; louder, as that time went by, and louder.
Once, early on, just what you might expect, sophisticated city girl meets bumpkin musclehead, she tried to play dominatrix with me, but this backfired, bringing on not great desire but a terrible reflexive violence I caught and was able to turn back only in the nick of time. She said, I will not try that again, and I felt like someone not in control, not of his self or his destiny, someone in whom it was easy to bring out the worst.
Ruth bought my clothes for me. I had plenty of money, thanks to the Booster Club and the Chamber of Commerce Hockey Patrons’ Discount Club, but I could not be trusted. I affected loudish punk cowboy attire, really a low-rent fashion zoo, and Ruth made me look good to a wide range of people, the widest range, really, people, honestly, from all walks of life.
I in turn washed her clothes, having a washer-dryer combo in the basement of the house I rented with one of my wingers, an Indian named Mikey Perch, the only guy from Wisconsin on the team, and the only Indian I know of playing hockey, though why I don’t know. Mikey and Ruth liked each other a lot. Too much, I fear, but I have nothing in the way of evidence to back this fear up. Still, fear is fear. It is one of those things that brings out the worst in me.
I had a new Jeep as well. This was a kind of T-bone tied around my neck. Many in my collegiate circle lacked wheels, so I found myself racking up the miles not unlike nobody’s business. Ruthie was a geology buff, and as you may know, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is rife with ancient stone exposed for all to see, though many who pass know not what they see, and probably never do, the country being composed as it is largely of money-lusting half-wits on frenzied vacation. And even those who do see and know sometimes get lost in the figures. Confronted with gneiss at Norway Lake three billion years old, we revert to a childlike wonder that makes our eyes roll up in our heads and our teeth click in stifled yawns. Even to say that ten thousand years ago there was no Lake Superior doesn’t really chill you the way you think it should. We go back a thousand, maybe two, before we lose the thread. I personally go back to the heyday of the barbarian nomads who invented the protosports that are now, in their mature forms, ruining us. The barbarians we are somehow given to understand we have “risen above.” I don’t get it. What is it we have that they didn’t? Or what is it we don’t have that they did? We live longer, have computers . . . and I know, I know, I know . . . if I were hurtled back in time and forced to be an actual Visigoth I wouldn’t like it at all. Still, I look back and see their chief crime was that they were unnecessarily cruel to one another. Didn’t speak Latin. Were greedy and limited in their arsenal.
Ruth had two looks. One was librarian and the other was Hebrew empress. If you are a subscriber to Time-Life Books, maybe you have seen a picture of the former Josephine Marcus, wife for fifty years—you heard me, fifty—of mythic good guy/bad guy Wyatt Earp. She died in Hollywood, trying to sell the film rights, in 1944. The resemblance is there, you catch Ruth in the right mood and the right light. Josie left a bourgeois San Francisco home to pursue high life in the Wild West, and here again is resemblance. There was something about NYC that Ruth could not stand, and it is my belief that she never would have taken up with a hockey player—never mind me—had she not been somehow desperate.
Ten below and the snow is shooting horizontally past me, a hundred straight lines of it, tracks, effectively forming a wall, an infinite series of walls, that I fight my way through, making my way to Ruth’s office, a nook in a temporary building that shakes when you open the door. My boots made big ominous noises down the plywood floor. I admired these sounds and thought as I banged down the hall, I will woo thee with my sword, Hippolyta. All the right myths were lit up in my head like Art Deco stations of the cross. A pinball game. Ruth and I were on the skids. Age difference.
She had her feet up on her old desk, the feet actually hidden behind tilting piles of blue books. Faint gray cathedral light fell from the high window on her powdery pink sweater, lighting up the kinky mass of her hair, neatly tied back with a pink ribbon. It was a peaceful, scholarly scene. She wore her glasses. But I did not care for it. In fact, it enraged me, a red flag. Last time I’d seen her, she called me an idiot, and I was brooding over the possibility. Meantime, I wanted to have her, there in the cool monkish cell, in the waning light. I wanted to slash the awful exam books and the horrifying poetry from the desk, heave her bottom up there as upon an altar, and make everyone in the building pause midsentence, look up from their books, and hear her Wagnerian screaming.
I closed the door and fell upon her, hands in her hair, tongue in her mouth.
She pulled away. Something like five seconds.
“I’m too busy, please, Neale.”
Staggering, I said, “No, don’t say that.”
“No no no. Please.”
“I want to have you. I must have you. Now. While the brothers chant. Here. On this desk.”
“Find a cheerleader!”
“Cheerleader!” I gaped.
“Cheerleader!” I said again. “Busy!”
“Go away!” She was half laughing but too angry for it to work. I mean sincerely angry, her eyes wide with disbelief. “Get out, Neale!”
“Ruth, I love you.” I would have said something else but I think you get the picture: not altogether there, as far as good working order went. The only other thing I might have said was “cheerleader” again.
Sometimes, that’s all it takes, a little sigh like that. You are as surprised as the next person. But there you are: at your worst. This is what plagues me today, what will plague me tonight, tomorrow, the rest of my life because I am an idiot, because I will not learn: How do you check the progress of an invader when he is in your camp before you know it? Sometimes the sigh in the shadows is all you will hear. What do you do?
I grabbed the nearest thing. It was a tall heavy bookcase, an old oaken thing, finish gone, but intricate carving bracketing the shelves and along the front, fabulous crenels and merlons of a miniature battlement along the top, and Christ what a sinner, glass. I put my fingers between the back and the cold Sheetrock wall and pulled, stepping lightly away as it came.
It fell in perfect silence for a long time, like the last great pine, a lapse of hallucinatory seconds in which it was possible for me to see not my whole life in review but a good year or two of the arrogance and bullying that really set it apart, and then crashed against the desk, glass panes popping and flashing, a shelf splintering with a clear awful snap of cold dry wood, spilling volumes, the pages fluttering and whirring, dust rising, some heavier tomes smacking me in the face, now how could that be, the velocity is great, the pain remarkable . . . are they ricocheting somehow . . . ?
No, it is Ruthie, pegging anthologies of American literature at me. Underhanded, just heaving them up with all her strength. One catches me squarely on the chin and I fall down.
“Don’t you ever fucking sigh at me,” I said, infinitely pitiful, my wobbling, damaged head full of smoke.
“Animal,” she said. “Criminal.” It was true. She had her hands up now around her head as though fearing a blow.
“Sigher,” I shot back. It was all I could think of. I was guilty and I knew it.
“I will get out pretty much when I want to and not a second before.” I was just legging this one out.
“Why did you do this?”
Suddenly my brain let go and I had much to say. “I have no time for this quotidian busywork!” I shouted. “Roundtable exchanges of reasonable views and compromise and balanced diets and designated drivers—you want sanity and routine, find a farmer! I’m crazy! I’m a star! I’m out of my mind! I’m tired of the virulent smugness of these people and their struggles to reconcile check registers with bank statements!”
“You what? You what what what?” She was up and at me.
“You heard me.” I was overcome by loneliness and fatigue.
“You have lost it entirely!”
“I will not miss it for I do not need it.” I wondered if I had any friends; and if not friends, enemies. Then I wondered what made one one and the other the other. I was so lonely I wanted to cry.
“It’s irretrievable. You have ruined yourself and you don’t even know it.”
“Spleen, vigor, terror, and wonder,” I said. “The Four Horsemen.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Just a minute!” called Ruth pleasantly.
“I am ready to go now,” I said.
“You were staring at yourself while you were kissing me, weren’t you?”
There was a three-by-two black-and-white blowup of me on the back of her door, an action photo, very flattering, pretty much me at my best, defenders in chaos around me. “I wouldn’t dignify that question—“
“Oh, just admit it why don’t you? Don’t be so goddamned pathetic! I can’t take it! Four Horsemen!” She was shouting in spite of the student on the other side of the hollow door.
“—even if I could.”
Whispering now, eyes slits: “Get out. Without another word if you can. You’ll like yourself more if you just shut up and go away.”
I went to the door. I put my hand on the knob. I couldn’t look at myself. I thought, she’s right, it’s all over now. Crush the infamous thing!
I opened the door on a startled coed. Her fist was raised to knock. She saw the carnage and her eyes narrowed. Behind me, Ruth was picking up books and, ironically, whistling our song, “Body and Soul.” I had three recordings of it: Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Lee Konitz.
“Hi, come on in,” she said, her voice unnaturally high, accent largely missing.
I said to this girl, who remained standing there like she would not share a room with me, looking at me, God help her, me, whoever, like she knew me and what had happened, I said to her, “I go to pull Emily Dickinson off the top shelf and it exploded!”
Behind me, slapping books together, Ruth laughed, high and remote, the laugh, I don’t say this to demean her, I’m past all that, but of a witch, the laugh of an innocent woman hung by ignorant savages in wigs.
I said, “I will go get that broom.”And Ruth said, “Oh, no, thanks, I’ve got one here, you just hurry and don’t miss your class.”
—from Visigoth (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2006) by Gary Amdahl. Copyright © 2006 by Gary Amdahl. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.