“So, good summer?”
It was the lamest of lines, not even a line really, but one I’d had to use a disturbing number of times in the last few weeks. Goddamn this lockout, I might not survive it.
I didn’t really leave Edmonton this summer, much to my mom’s chagrin. There’s just not a lot to go back to in Regina, in terms of training or anything. Yes, it was always good enough growing up, as I’d been reminded ad nauseum. But growing up was a trip and at some point you had to reach your destination. Not that twenty-two is adult. But it’s too old to have your parents visiting all the time.
“Yeah! I love summer. We went to the lake a bunch of times and....”
I smiled and nodded without listening. She was cute, this girl my mom had somehow contrived to place in front of me. We were at my aunt’s house in Edmonton, having another early fall barbeque. As if the lasting nice weather would keep us from remembering that hockey was not coming anytime soon. My mother was desperate for me to find a girl and get serious. I thought she might stay until she saw it happen. With the ink barely dry on my new contract and a few seasons under my belt in this hockey-mad town, there was no shortage of willing girls. There might even be a few left that Taylor hadn’t test-driven. And that’s what my mother was so worried about.
Puck bunnies. Knocked up. Child support. Scandal. Those ideas haunted my mother’s dreams. As if I were running around with no pants on all the time. Still, I got where she was coming from. Horror stories about clingers and stalkers and sluts ran constantly around the NHL like commentators over a game broadcast.
So my mother tried to fix me up. She found someone who knew someone, and every one of them knew who I was. They sent their daughters and nieces and neighbors to these little parties my mom organized. The gatherings were bearable, as there was always plenty of company, but the goal was clear. I was beginning to feel like the King of England, visiting the countryside while people foisted their womenfolk on me, hoping for a favor.
“Yeah, training hard and just hoping to get back to playing soon.” My brain could run this show at half-power. A few minutes later, I politely excused myself and didn’t look back to see disappointment on her face.
“Dude, can we get out of here?” Taylor cornered me in the kitchen, glancing around only after he’d spoken. “It’s Friday, it’s hot out, there are going to be girls everywhere tonight. Tell your mom I’ll find you someone.”
“We should send her ahead to scout Oklahoma City for you,” my dad’s voice came around the corner before his body. “Go on, go have fun. I’ll take care of your mother.”
TEN DAYS LATER
“I still can’t fucking believe this is happening.” I threw my bag down on the hotel room bed.
“I can’t fucking believe I can’t even play here. Oklahoma City. Why on Earth is there a hockey team here? Did they run out of rodeos?” Taylor was still on injured reserve, and ineligible to be sent down to the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons before the lockout occurred. Now no roster moves could be made, even if he was cleared to play. He was here for now though, and I was glad.
Oklahoma City seemed like the middle of nowhere for a hockey team, but it wasn’t that different from Regina or Edmonton in other ways. Just warmer. I liked warmer. Otherwise it’s was pure country, from the tip of it’s boots to it’s down-home roots. They just sang more songs about it in America. The hotel was alright. It wasn’t the Ritz, if this city even had one, and that’s what we’d become accustomed to on the road. But without knowing how long this lockout would last, permanent accommodations were no on the to do list - and I hoped they never would be.
“I need a beer.” Taylor grumbled. That wasn’t going to happen.
We went next door to Buffalo Wild Wings, a chain sports bar we saw in a lot of US cities. Taylor was still only twenty, so he got a soda and I ordered a draft beer. The bartender looked twice at my ID - at home, that was someone was recognizing me. This guy clearly though it might be fake. Or maybe he didn’t know where Canada was. Either way our drinks arrived and we nursed our grumpiness with an American Thursday night football game.
“You guys hungry?”
Taylor and I both turned so fast the barstools nearly spun out from under us. The voice was attached to a waitress, and a plate of wings in each hand. We ignored those - not an easy feat - because also attached to this waitress was my newest hope of salvaging anything out of a season that was falling apart beneath my feet.
“Hi,” I managed to stutter on a word with only one syllable.
“Hey there. Aren’t you the best thing that’s happened to us all night?” Taylor was already taking a plate, smiling back. Winning her over with that tallness and lantern jaw. We weren’t supposed to eat wings, but I’d have eaten a sack of dirt if she offered it to me. Her name tag said ERIN.
“You too?” Her eyes were blue. A long and wavy ponytail of brown hair hung past her shoulders. Her black polo shirt was just tight enough and the buffalo in the restaurant logo was rounding second base perched atop her breast. I quickly moved my eyes from the buffalo’s territory.
“They’re on the house,” she put the plate in my hands because I was incapable of doing anything.
Taylor only needed a second. He asked her about the wings and the menu and all the different sauces and what time she got off work. Or he might as well have. Erin talked with him, but glanced at me a few times.
“I’m Taylor,” he finally said when he grew tired of me dragging him down. “This is Jordan. He’s a little special, has a tough time making friends.”
She laughed good-naturedly, but it wasn’t the reaction Taylor was hoping for. At home, girls launched themselves into his huge arms in faint hysterics after a joke like that. Guess a lot of things that worked in Canada for NHL stars were not going to fly in Oklahoma City.
Erin reached out and rubbed my arm through my shirt. “I think he’ll do okay here.”
We both watched her swing her hips across the dining room, then Taylor rounded on me. “Why do you have to be such a noob all the time? Jesus, Ebs. That chick probably has a hundred hot friends in little cut-off shorts and boots and pigtails and you’re gonna fucking ruin it because you’re drowning in drool.”
“Suck it,” I said, tearing into a wing. It was not far from the truth.
Taylor waved a drumstick in my direction. “Fucking hopeless. I’m glad I’m leaving you here with Nuge all year, you two can play with your dolls.”
When the food was gone and the football game over, Taylor went to the bathroom. The bartender dropped off the check. I paid it, wondering how I could also tip Erin. She’d brought us free food, after all. The kitchen door opened and I spotted her carrying a tray of silverware to a station at the back of the room. I folded a twenty in my hand and told myself she was just a person. I could talk to people.
“Hey, uh, hi.” That was easy, her back was turned. She was a few inches shorter than me.
“Oh, hi. Jordan, right?”
Kick me right in the junk, why don’t ya?
“Yeah. Hey, thanks for the wings before, that was really nice.” I gave an awkward shrug and held out the money. “For you.”
Erin had dimples to go along with a fantastic smile. They flashed and I knew I’d be eating a lot of chicken wings this season, probably while acting as hopelessly as Taylor had pointed out before. She took the money, brushing my hand in the process. “Thanks.”
There was a moment where I could have asked her out. Asked her something. Told her I just got here and seen if she made a move. Her hundred hot friends in slutty cowboy attire came to mind. Did I want them to be lonely all winter? But I didn’t take the chance.
“Have a good night,” I mumbled, retreating.
Taylor was at the bar, sipping his drink and pretending not to watch me blush my way back. He was laughing before I sat down. “Strike out, Romeo?”
“No,” I hissed. “Just giving her a tip, she did give us free food.”
“I’d like to give her the tip of something else,” he said, arching an eyebrow. I snorted and drained the last of my iced tea. Then a footstep sounded behind me and a hand appeared at my shoulder. With a twenty dollar bill in it. Taylor’s mouth was open, as always, but he was looking right past me.
“You forgot something,” Erin said and dropped the money on the bar.
Taylor was scrambling for his wallet to give her more. “I’m sorry, I told you he was special.” He came up with another twenty and added it to the first. Erin clicked her tongue.
“Twenty, or forty,” she smirked, “is not the number I want from him.”
I made it into the kitchen before I started laughing. Like a loon. I’d left those two guys at the bar gaping and sashayed my way out of the dining room, hips set to Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show mode. Good thing they couldn’t see my face turning blue.
“Such a flirt!” I told myself. I loved it, it gave me a little kick every time. And a lot of extra tips. Not that I’d been after more money from tonight’s boys. Just another gap-toothed smile and a little fumbled blushing from the dark-haired one with the perfect eyebrows. His taller, blonde friend who actually spoke English was already on the hook.
Not that I wanted him. I could tell Taylor was too smooth for me. But guys like that tipped more for attention than for wings. Couldn’t hurt to give them both and maybe make new regular customers. For now, I waited until they left before I went back to the bar.
“Hey, did those guys....”
“Erin. Fuck. If I had half your sass I wouldn’t need your tits to make more money than anyone in this place!” Greg the bartender produced a one hundred dollar bill from his pocket with great ceremony. I unfolded it quickly, and scrawled on the front was a phone number with a 780 area code.
“It’s from the little one,” he added with a wink.
I stuffed it into my bra. “Good.”
Two days later, when I showed up to start my shift, Taylor was sitting at the bar with a water and a chicken sandwich. He was really well-built, I admitted to myself, and rocking a gray t-shirt with jeans and sneakers.
“I was hoping I’d see you,” he also had a great smile. “You know my friend’s been waiting by the phone this whole time.”
“The phone he keeps in his pocket?” I smirked.
“Sleeps with it under his pillow, hoping it’ll ring.”
“And you, what are you hoping for?” I leaned my elbows on the bar opposite him and thought there would be quite a few girls hoping for him, period.
“Hot friends,” he shrugged. “More free wings wouldn’t hurt.”
I had to laugh. Taylor would go through my friends like a boat through water, and they would love every minute of it. “Maybe. You guys at State? Or OCU?” A blank look crossed his face, which meant they were not students at either school. But Taylor wouldn’t spill.
“Gotta leave Jordan something to talk about on your first date,” he said.
By the time he left, I had promised to call Jordan before dinner. Otherwise Taylor was bringing him over to see me. “You thought he was awkward before,” he warned.
“Okay, I’ll call!”
And so I did, on my first break. Jordan picked up on the second ring. “Hey, it’s Erin. From Buffalo Wild Wings.”
“Hi. Hey.” Jordan repeated himself adorably. I pictured him smiling, fidgeting. Oh boy. “I was hoping you’d call. I, uh, I had fun the other night.”
“Me too,” I offered.
Jordan drew in an audible breath. “Would you want to go out sometime?”
I said yes, of course. I was only surprised by how much I wanted to say it. We agreed he would pick me up at seven the next night and I could hear him smiling as we said goodbye. Somewhere, probably in the room with Jordan, Taylor was very pleased with himself.