The Curling Game

Connie Jodrey

This is one of 24 stories by 18 Nova Scotia authors in Moose House Stories Volume 1

On a gray afternoon in late January, Max stopped at the library to pick up Diane’s books. It was anybody’s guess if the snow would come, but the wind had started up and Charley, the librarian, was standing outside in her shirt sleeves, tossing handfuls of salt onto the sidewalk. She tugged the heavy door open for Max and followed him inside.

   “I hear the house next door to you has finally sold,” she said.

   “It has?” This surprised Max. “Any idea who bought it?”

   “A funny name. Goo-shoe?” she said, dragging out the word. “Something like that.”

   “Gushue?” Max said. “As in Brad Gushue?”

   “Brad. I think that’s it.” She pulled Diane’s stack of books from the holds shelf and started scanning them.

   “Brad Gushue the curler?” asked Max, excited now.

   “I haven’t a clue.” Her eyes flicked back and forth from the scanner to Max.

   “You know who Brad Gushue is, don’t you, Charley?”

   “Nope.”

   Max was practically dancing. “Anyone who doesn’t know who Brad Gushue is should be ashamed to call themselves Canadian! Brad Gushue won the Olympics with Russ Howard. He’s won every major tournament in the country including the Brier. He’s a curling icon, and if you’re a Newfoundlander, Brad Gushue is nearer to God than God himself.”

   “Well it can’t be him, then. If he’s as great as all that, why would he be moving here?”

   “Good question,” Max said, watching Charley’s hands as they slid another book under the scanner. “But if it is…and I know it probably isn’t…but if it is the real Brad Gushue, I need to get my hands on him before Wallace Dempsey does.”

   “You have a problem with Wallace?”

   “A big one. Wallace Dempsey darn near killed my brother.”

   Charley shoved Diane’s heavy stack of books across the desk. “I thought Danny had a heart attack.”

   “Caused by Dempsey.”

   “That’s quite an accusation. What did he do?”

   “He might as well have shoved a knife straight into Danny’s heart. I was there that day, helping Danny stack wood in his garage when Dempsey gives a thump on the door and struts in like he’s king of the world and announces to Danny that he’s off the team. Danny’s been on that curling team from the beginning, and just when they’re getting good, when there’s a possibility of getting into the provincials, Dempsey tells him he’s out.”

   “Why?”

   “Turns out Dempsey got his hands on a young guy, one of those muscle types who can throw a torpedo and sweep the whole length of the ice without breaking a sweat. Danny might be getting up there in years, but he can shoot and sweep just fine. And anyway, curling is not just about physical strength, Charley, it’s a game of strategy and precision.”

   “Is that what Wallace told Danny? That he was too old?”

   “Not in so many words. He mumbled a bit of an apology, I guess, but it didn’t mean anything. I told Danny he should go talk to the other guys on the team, but Danny said it wasn’t worth it. He said—and it’s true—he said there’d be no joy playing on a team with a skipper that didn’t want you.”

   “So Danny did nothing?”

   “He went back to stacking wood and whistling through his teeth the way he does. And I went back to helping him. But Nancy—you know Nancy, don’t you? Danny’s wife?”

   Charley nodded. “She’s in here all the time.”

   “Nancy told me later that Danny went out and brought down another whole load of wood afterwards and sawed it up and stacked it outside, practically enough for the whole of next winter. That wasn’t Danny. That was pure annoyance. Danny was never the sort to push himself like that.”

 

~

 

Max had driven Danny to the hospital that night. He and Diane had just finished supper—Diane’s fried chicken with milk gravy, made only the way Diane can make it—when Nancy came running over in a panic. They loaded Danny into the car and clocked a hundred and twenty on the 101 all the way to the hospital.

The hardest part was coming home after leaving Danny back there in the hospital. Max remembered standing at the kitchen window, looking out into the pitch-black yard, while Diane scraped gluey old gravy into the garbage.

   Danny was still in the hospital on Tuesday when Nancy called Max to come over and help her get the back door unstuck. A January thaw had sent the temperatures from cold to hot in a single day, and Danny’s back door always needed adjusting when the frost started to lift.

   Danny wasn’t out of the woods yet, but things were looking hopeful. Nancy put the coffeepot on while Max worked away at the door. When he was finished, he sat down at the table, the sun warming a spot on the back of his neck. The warmth felt nice. Reassuring somehow after the difficulty of the past few days.

   Out of the blue, Nancy said, “I want you to enter the charity tournament this year, Max. I want you to beat Wallace Dempsey.”

   Max couldn’t help but wonder if Nancy had lost her mind. This was the big event of the year at the curling club, and Dempsey, with Danny throwing third, had won that tournament three years running.

   How the heck was he supposed to beat Dempsey when he didn’t even have a team?

 

~

 

Max managed to recruit the Sherman brothers, Harve and Gary, but he couldn’t nail down a fourth—nor did he want to. He was pinning his hopes on the new fellow, Brad Gushue, when he arrived. Max figured with a name like Gushue he had to be a curler, even if he wasn’t the real deal.

   He couldn’t have been more wrong. This Brad Gushue was a chubby little guy with a wife and two small kids and another one on the way. They were barely out of their car when Max was over there with a basket of blueberry muffins and a plate of macaroni and cheese that Diane had made as a welcome gift.

   “Never tried it,” Brad said when Max asked him if he curled. “With my name? In Newfoundland? Can you imagine?”

   Max could see what he meant. It would be a lot like living in the United States if your name was Donald Trump—but for different reasons, of course.

He was probably related somewhere along the line to famous Brad, he said, but he didn’t know him except to see him on TV like everyone else. He’d moved from Carbonear to manage the fish plant in Delaps Cove.

   “Are you hooked up? Electric?” Max asked, handing him the macaroni. “This needs to be warmed up.”

   “Yep, we’re good,” Brad said.

   Famous last words though. An hour later a Nor-Easter swept in and took out the power in communities all up and down the Bay of Fundy, and there’s nothing you can do with cold macaroni and cheese during a power outage except eat it cold…unless you happen to have a wood cook stove and a generator.

   Within ten minutes of losing power, Max was over at the Gushue’s inviting them for supper. “Bring the macaroni,” he said.

   During supper, Max set about trying to convince Brad to take up curling. There wasn’t a single athletic thing about him: short legs and arms, oversized gut, big clumsy feet. But to be honest, it wasn’t the man’s ability he was after. What chance of winning did they have anyway?

   What Max was after was the name. Brad Gushue. To see that name in big letters on the board in the rink right next to his own name? Now that would be worth a photograph and a frame. It might even end up in The Spectator.

   Max cracked open another Keith’s and tipped the bottle over Brad’s glass. “Drink up,” he said. And then he spooned another load of macaroni onto Brad’s plate.

   The way the wind was shaking the house and piling snow up against the windows, Max figured the power wouldn’t be on until morning, and that’s if they were lucky. “Crews won’t be out working in this mess.” he said after supper. “You folks had better spend the night. There’s no sense going home to a cold, dark house when we have a perfectly good spare bed upstairs and air mattresses for the kids.”

   Diane stood up and started clearing the table. “Grab the glasses,” she said to Max, and when they were in the kitchen, she put down her stack of plates none too gently and gave him a look.

   “We took that bed apart to make room for my sewing table, remember? And the air mattresses went to the silent auction for the Syrian refugee family.” She opened the dishwasher and dumped in a load of silverware. “You could’ve talked to me first,” she said.

   But by then it was too late. And Max knew the outcome would have been the same, anyway. Diane would never send them home on a night like this no matter what she said.

   Max slept on the recliner and Diane slept on the couch, and Brad and Marlene slept in Max and Diane’s queen with their two little kids…and Max nabbed himself a fourth player for his curling team.

 

~

 

Harve and Gary were waiting on the ice on Wednesday when Max and Brad arrived. The sidewalks had been cleared but there was still a foot or more of snow in the parking lot and they had to park at the Legion across the street.

   Max helped Brad settle himself in the hack and Harve slid a rock over. “Let’s see what you’re made of,” Harve said. “What would you normally play anyway? Lead? Second?”

   “Lead,” Max said, answering quickly for Brad.

   “A master of the tick shot, are you?” Harve said. “I’ve seen that shot done a hundred times and I still can’t manage it myself.”

   Brad gave the rock a casual spin like the pros do on TV. Then he grabbed the handle and tried to flip it on its edge to clean its surface, but the rock shot sideways and sent him sprawling.

   Harve walked away, muttering a single word to Max under his breath. “Idiot.” He jerked his head toward the lounge upstairs and said to Gary, “C’mon. I could use a beer.”

   “Don’t mind Harve,” Max said, nudging Brad out of the hack. He stooped to take hold of the rock. “Watch how I do it.”

   He heaved the rock backwards in a wide arc and swung it down onto the surface, giving the handle a little twist as he let go. “I can’t crouch down like some guys because of my knees. Just be careful when you bring the rock down that it doesn’t crash on the ice.”

   He kicked a rock over to Brad and said, “Now you give it a try.”

   Brad took hold of the rock and gave it a hard shove. It came to a slow, wobbly stop halfway down the sheet.

   By the time nine o’clock rolled around, Brad was starting to get the hang of Max’s method, standing up and delivering the rock like a bowling ball. He’d even managed a couple of decent draws and a takeout.

   “Let’s see if you can make a double,” Max called down the ice. He grabbed two rocks and planted them a few inches apart on the four-foot.

   “Seriously?” shouted Brad.

   “Sure! You call the turn. In or out?”

   “In.” Brad was grinning. He’d obviously started to feel the confidence—or recklessness—that comes with a little bit of success.

   Brad flipped the rock over and wiped the surface with his hand. Then he gave a little wiggle and propped his broom under his left arm for stability. Harve and Gary had come down from the viewing area and were watching from the boards. The rink was deadly quiet.

   Max positioned his broom on the ice. “Whenever you’re ready,” he shouted. “Aim for the broom.”

   Max kept his eyes on Brad, watching as he swung his arm backward with what looked like enough momentum to pull it straight around like a Ferris wheel. Max had to hand it to the kid. He was going to make this double takeout even if he ripped out all the tendons in his shoulder to do it.

   At the apex of Brad’s swing, the pivot point before the downward drive, Gary cleared his throat.

   It wasn’t a loud noise, but it was enough to stop Brad in mid-swing. Startled, Brad jerked his head around and the rock went flying backwards out of his hand. It missed Gary’s head by an inch and crashed through the viewing window into the lounge. As Marty Price working the bar told them later, that rock landed on top of a table, slid off, scooped up a paper cup and some change on the floor, took out two chairs, and came to a stop by the men’s restroom door.

   Once all the hullabaloo had died down, they had a good laugh about Brad’s reverse double takeout.

   “Those chairs didn’t have a chance,” said Gary. “You’ll make a helluva curler, once you get your directions straight.”

 

~

 

Midweek, on his way home from the Superstore, Max decided to pop into Frenchys to look for a team uniform, matching polo shirts maybe, or jackets if he was lucky. Every time Max went into Frenchys, and it wasn’t often, he lasted about a minute. He couldn’t stand the mess and he hated the smell. It made him think of dead people lying in those sheets or wearing those shirts and pants and underwear when they’d keeled over. Underwear! Did anyone really buy used underwear?

   He found a bin of shirts, a mishmash of shapes and sizes and colours, and plucked an olive-green tee-shirt from the pile. This didn’t look too bad, if he could find three more.

   He started digging, picking up speed as he ploughed through the pile, and when a clerk came around the corner, he held up the green shirt and said, “Have you got three more exactly like this one?”

   She rolled her eyes at him and walked away.

   Max tossed the shirt back in the bin. He hated this place.

   As he was heading for the door, something in one of the bins stopped him, jazzy white pants with blue and red zigzag stripes like those crazy things worn by the curling team from Norway, Thomas Ulsrud’s team. It would be ridiculous, but funny as anything if Max’s team could pull it off. Jazzy pants.

   Maybe they could! It would put Dempsey off his game, that’s for sure.

   He yanked the jazzy pants out of the pile and shoved them under his arm and went searching for more. He tossed aside a red stretchy thing with feet and something yellow and shimmery, grabbed hold of a bit of black lace, and then stopped and pulled himself upright.

   This was stupid. Never in a million years would he be caught dead in pants like these. Or Harve. Or Gary. He couldn’t say for sure about Brad, but he didn’t think so.

   The bit of lace in his hand, he saw now, was a brassiere. Good God! This thing wouldn’t fit on a nose let alone a chest. He dropped it into the bin and tugged the jazzy pants out from under his arm just as the rude clerk from shirts came over with a fresh load.

   “You won’t find shirts here,” she said to him. “This is ladies’ lingerie.” She pronounced lingerie as if this were a French boutique and not a stinking Frenchys.

   “I don’t care if it’s shirts or not, so long as I can find four the same,” he said. “It’s a uniform I’m looking for, for my curling team.”

   She flashed him a grin. “You know those are pyjamas you’re holding, don’t you? Ladies’ pyjamas?”

   He glanced down and started to smile back to let her know it was a joke, that he wasn’t stupid, of course he knew they were pyjamas even though he didn’t, when he saw Wallace Dempsey, arms crossed, a big smirk on his face, staring right at him.

   Max fired the pyjamas into the bin and headed for the door.

   “McPherson, wait!” Dempsey shouted.

   Max turned and saw Dempsey holding the flimsy black bra by its straps. “Did you forget something? With any luck this little number here might just fit Harve or Gary. It’s way too big for you.”

 

~

 

The day before the tournament, Max dropped a folder off at the library for Charley. The proceeds this year were going towards the library expansion fund and Charley was hanging on to the paperwork.

   “Excited?” Charley asked.

   “Nah.” Max watched Charley thumb through the papers. “We don’t stand a horse’s chance in Hades of even making the final, three old guys who can hardly stand up and a new fellow who’s so green he’s still learning the rules.”

   Charley looked up at him. “Don’t sell yourself short. You never know.”

   On the way home, Max thought about what Charley had said. You never know. She was right. The stars might line up and the gods might be smiling. His team might be on fire and Dempsey’s might be off by a hair or two. You never know.

   What if they won? Max could see it now, his team lined up on the red carpet—if someone remembered to bring it—holding the trophy up in the air while Dempsey stood there pretending to be happy with second place. Oh, how sweet....

   And then a light bulb flipped on in Max’s brain, one of those crazy-ass ideas like the ones he and Danny used to come up with when they were teenagers looking for something to do on a Saturday night. Max changed direction and walked across the street to the hardware store.

   The bags of sand were by the door next to the snow shovels. A corner of one of the bags was open, Max saw, and a little hill of sand had dribbled out onto the floor. He scooped up a fistful and spilled it into his jacket pocket, grinning to himself. Sand and curling rocks are sworn enemies. A few grains lodged under a rock will make it skew off course, maybe a little, maybe a lot, but always enough to ruin a perfectly good curling shot.

   As he left the store, Max saw Wallace Dempsey waiting to cross the street. He had a penknife in his hand, and he was wiping the blade on his sleeve. Max started to turn away, but he was too late.

   “Hey, McPherson!” Dempsey called. “Still looking for uniforms? You should take a peek in the V&S. They have a whole section of ladies’ underwear.” Then he snapped the blade shut, shoved the knife in his pocket, and stepped out onto the crosswalk.

   Max wished he had words for moments like this, but he couldn’t think of a single thing to say. He crossed the street and walked on home.

 

~

 

A handful of club members and friends came out on Friday night for the first game of the tournament, a halfway-decent cheering crowd but that’s about it. Max couldn’t blame them. He’d rather be at home himself, if it came right down to it, hollering at the Leafs on TV to stop messing around and do something for a change.

Max was tying his shoes when he looked up and saw Nancy and Danny in the doorway. Nancy ran over and handed him a brown paper package wrapped in twine.

   “What’s this?”

   She was smiling at him. Excited like a kid.

   Inside the package were four team sweaters, blue and gold, the players’ names in big letters on the back: McPherson, Sherman, Sherman, Gushue.

   “Did you do this?” Max ran a thumb over the shiny letters of his name. He was having a hard time finding his voice.

   “We did,” Nancy said, nodding towards Danny. “And Diane. Diane sewed all the names.”

   The jackets could have been measured and made, a perfect fit all around except Brad’s. Brad’s was a little too big. But with the sleeves rolled up it was fine.

 

~

 

To everyone’s surprise, Max’s most of all, Max’s team won Friday’s game and then the Saturday morning one, neither by a giveaway. Dempsey’s team won both their games by landslides. No surprise there.

   Game time for the final was two o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and at one-thirty, from his position in the hack, Max could see the lounge was already full of people elbowing for a spot at the viewing window. No wonder. It was the David and Goliath shocker of the century, Max McPherson versus the bully who’d fired his brother.

   It threw him, all those faces staring down at him. He let go of his practice shot too early and watched with disgust as it came to a stop just this side of the hog line.

   Dempsey called out from the other end, “Looks like you could use some help, McPherson!”

   He wasn’t altogether wrong about that, Max thought, stepping out of the hack on slow, stiff legs. What he could really use was a nap. He’d had more exercise in the past twenty-four hours than he’d totalled in the last two months.

   At two o’clock, Andy Harrington, this year’s chairman, lined up the teams and tossed a coin to see who would throw the first draw to the button for hammer. Dempsey called heads and heads it was.

   Max’s heart was thumping hard as he watched Dempsey’s rock come to a stop on the four foot, just touching the button. Dempsey gave Max a wicked grin and said, “This game’ll be over in six ends McPherson, and that’s if you’re lucky.”

   “We’ll see about that,” Max replied, trying to sound more confident than he felt.

   He dug his fingers in his pocket, searching for the security of the sand he’d nabbed from the hardware store—not that he’d probably have the opportunity or the sneakiness to use it. But it wasn’t there.

   And then Max remembered. The sand was in the pocket of his red sweater, the sweater he’d given to Diane when he put on his new blue and gold curling jacket.

Max turned to see if he could spot Diane through the viewing window, maybe motion her to come down. But then suddenly the door flew open and there she was, jogging onto the ice, all out of breath. She couldn’t be bringing him the sand, could she? Nah. How would she even know?

   But it wasn’t Max Diane was after. She was yelling at Brad, telling him Marlene was in labour.

   “Go now!” she shouted, and Brad raced through the door, leaving the two teams, minus one player, standing there wondering what to do.

   This was a blow, losing Brad just as the big game was about to begin. Max had been surprised at how well the young fellow had been doing. He’d been impressive really, unaffected by the pressure, ribbing the guys, keeping things light, making decent shots from time to time.

   Dempsey turned to Max and said, “Your draw to the button.”

   “What are you talking about? We’re down a man.”

   “You can play with three.”

   “We need a fourth,” said Max, glancing around to see who might be available.

   “Not allowed.”

   “Who says? There’s no rule book for this tournament. What do you think this is, the Brier?”

   Max couldn’t figure out why Dempsey would even care. Dempsey knew the odds were stacked in his favour, full team or not. Was it possible that Dempsey was a bit worried? The idea gave Max a jolt of pleasure.

   Pete Ryland, Dempsey’s new third, shot an apologetic grin at Max and told Dempsey he saw nothing wrong with Max recruiting another player. But Dempsey was fired up, a big overgrown kid throwing a tantrum, and there was nothing anyone could say to get him out of it.

   Eventually the organizing committee came over and told Max to go ahead and choose a fourth player but do it in a hurry, they didn’t want to delay the game any longer.

   Dempsey threw his slider on the ice and stomped away a few feet and then he turned around and came back. “If you’re gonna pick a player, pick one now, McPherson. I have a game to win.”

   Just then the door at the back of the rink opened and in came a man Max had never seen before, at least not in person.

   “Am I too late?” the fellow said, looking around. “I had a rough time finding this place.”

   Max recognized him right away, tall and slim, short sandy hair, smiling eyes. Max had seen that face a hundred times on TV, the raised eyebrows as he shot a look at the big screen to check the position of a rock, the tilt of his head when he spoke a word or two to his sweepers as he settled himself in the hack, his appreciative nod to the cheering crowd after executing a raise double takeout to win a game.

   It was Brad Gushue. Real Brad. In the flesh.

   “I pick him,” Max said.

 

~

 

Max was stuffing his gear into the trunk of his car when he saw Charley drive in.

   She pulled up beside him and cracked open her window. “Did you win?”

   “Pretty hard to lose with Brad Gushue on your team.”

   “Ha ha funny,” said Charley. “You won? Really? With the new guy?”

   “Nah, we won without the new guy,” Max said. “He went off and had a baby.”

   Then Max told Charley how the real Brad Gushue had arrived just in the nick of time.

   “That’s crazy! What was he doing here?”

   “It was a promotional appearance. When you win the Brier, you get money for promotional appearances.”

   “How come nobody knew about it?”

   “That’s the funniest thing. Apparently, someone from the Canadian Curling Association called Brad about our tournament. Only thing I can think is they must have come across fake Brad’s name on the list of players somewhere. In the Spectator maybe, or it could have been on the internet. Real Brad checked with the club and they confirmed his name was up on the board. You know what it’s like. Anybody and everybody answers the phone around here when it rings.”

   “I’m surprised they allowed him to play. Wasn’t Wallace cheesed? It seems like an unfair advantage.”

   “He started to put up a fight, but when the crowd went wild, he knew it was hopeless. Think about it, Charley. When would these folks ever get a chance to watch the real deal, the real Brad Gushue, play a game in their rink, in their town, right in front of their own eyes?”

   “So, you beat Wallace.”

   “Fair and square. Brad held back a little, you could tell. He made some dandy shots, but he’s way too nice a guy to walk all over Dempsey without giving him a fighting chance.”

   Max chuckled. “You wouldn’t believe it, but it actually came down to the very last shot. Dempsey had a chance, but it was tough. An angle raise. He had to hit his own guard a smidge off centre and raise it to the button. The line was good, but Dempsey knew right away he was light and he came scooting out of the hack to sweep. All four of them were out there sweeping like crazy. But then the rock caught something and made a sharp right turn and stopped dead just like that. When the boys went down after to take a look, they found a bit of sand on the ice.

   “How would sand get there?”

   Max shrugged. “Who knows?”

   But Max was pretty sure he knew. On his way to the car to fetch his wallet after the game—Max owed the guys a round, that’s for sure—he saw Dempsey lighting a smoke outside the door.

   “That game was ours, McPherson!” Dempsey called out as Max walked past. “We shoulda won, you know. Woulda won for sure if my rock hadn’t got burnt!”

   Max could only shake his head and walk away, especially when he realized what Dempsey was doing out there. He wasn’t just sucking on a cigarette. He was dumping something out of his pocket and it wasn’t shreds of tobacco. It was something that looked suspiciously like sand. Dempsey had sabotaged his own shot when he’d been out there sweeping like a maniac.

   Charley started to roll up her window, but then she stopped and said, “Where is he now? Real Brad?”

   “On his way to the airport. He’s flying out tonight for a big money tournament in Toronto.” He pushed the trunk closed and straightened up slowly, stretching his back. “You know what’s almost as good as beating Dempsey?”

   “No. What?”

   “Pete Ryland quit Dempsey’s team.”

   Charlie let out a laugh. “Good one. How come?”

   “Besides the fact that Dempsey is a number one a-hole? He quit because Brad wants to work with him."

   “What?”

   “That’s right,” Max said, hauling his keys out of his pocket. “Brad wants Pete to spend some time with him in Newfoundland. He thinks Pete has potential.”