Instruments – by Zana Previti

Gosso drives the Zamboni and sells surgical instruments from a JanSport backpack. He’s been working at the rink since before I started coming there; it has become a ritual with the hockey players, to buy scalpels and suction tubes and anoscopes after losses. They buy more from him when they’ve played badly, as penance. They shoulder their bags, file out of the locker room, hand over wads of cash and receive their gleaming tool or sterile packet. “Gimme some splinter forceps, Gosso,” they’ll say, “and one of the little amputating knives.” Then Gosso will unshoulder the knapsack and kneel on the floor to unzip it and scrounge until he comes up with two antiseptically wrapped packages, hold them up, and take their money. He keeps the bills on his person, in a lime-green fanny pack, so as not to infect the surgical tools.

I asked him once where he got all those hospital-grade instruments. He squinted at me and stepped backward so that the backpack was squashed between his back and the cold wall of the rink lobby. “Not sure I should tell you,” he said.

The backpack, on any given day, can have a variety of different instruments. On days when someone has made a specific request, the number of scalpels and syringes and all the normal stuff is reduced to whatever fits in the front pocket of the JanSport, and the main bag is filled with, I don’t know, nine-inch gallstone scoops. Hemorrhoid ligators. Blunt-pointed retractors with six prongs. These, the retractors, I’ve seen a few times. I couldn’t imagine what possible medical use those things could have. Last week I heard a rumor that Gosso sold a skull drill to Pete Brandt (#50, forward, London Ontario, University of Minnesota Duluth, two years with the San Antonio Rampage, first year with Wilkes-Barre). Pete takes wild shots and swears in French, throws off his helmet at any provocation. He excels on the power play. I don’t like to watch him on the ice, though. Sometimes, though the game is going on and I should be watching the puck, I get mesmerized by the movement of one man. What he does, when he is in the play, is just as interesting as what he does when he is not . . . His entire body is alive to the game. He is never still, never lost, never unsure. Certain players have this grace about them, which is why I watch Bobby.

Gosso sold Bobby (Robert “The Cannon” Cannon, #35, first black man to play on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, stay-at-home defenseman, shoots left, also the man I’ve been involved with intimately, on and off with only occasional lapses, for the past fifteen years) a full set of specialized amputation equipment and surgical supplies and this is the bit of strife between me and Gosso right now. 

When I say Bobby and I have been involved intimately . . . it is true. Though it would not be accurate to say the relationship is reciprocal or conventional. It is intimate. I began following Bobby’s career in high school. It wasn’t until five years after that, after I’d followed him to Houston and his wife found me watching them in the cereal aisle three weekends in a row, that he took out a restraining order against me.

 I wish I had a deeper understanding of why I am the way I am, so that I could explain it. I know what brand I am, at least. I am the quiet, studious, serious type of crazy. Not the fun, party-girl type of crazy, the girl who makes out with other girls and drinks the worm in the tequila, who goes bungee jumping in Nepal with her sherpa and a goat, who wears bright pink suspenders and feathers in her hair. She chooses her crazy. I’ve envied her. I don’t know. I’m not the violent, scary, wild sort, either. Guns and knives don’t interest me. When I do something wrong, I regret it. I stand to the side; if there is a cart coming down the supermarket aisle, I let it through and look at my shoes. If there is an opposite to ADHD, perhaps I have that. I am hyperfocused. Hyperaware. I notice one thing, forever, very, very well. Once focused, I cannot shift my gaze. I cannot forget. I cannot be distracted.

 *        *        *

Yesterday, I told Bobby that the restraining order really hadn’t been necessary; all he had to do was ask me to back off, and I would have. Did it really bother him that much, I asked, and he told me it wasn’t so much me that freaked him out but the fact that he hadn’t known about it, before, and the not knowing freaked him out.

“You’re not really observant,” I said to him.

“No,” he said, looking down at his lap.

I say his “lap.” It was not his lap. What he was really looking at, and had been looking at for the past few hours, were his testicles and penis exposed atop a blue operating sheet. His right hand held the scalpel and his left was either cupped over his penis or, when he wanted to look, hovered a few inches above and to the left.

“I’m going to again urge you not to do this,” I had said, but, obviously, ineffectually.

*        *        *

Now, it is morning. The rink is empty, and it is only Bobby and I in the locker room. Last night he turned on the fluorescents, which flicker, and the little hanging light bulb over his locker. The hockey stink—a yellow smell of sweat and moisture and hair and synthetic padding—has abated because we’ve been in here so long, and grown used to it. By now I can make out Bobby’s scent.

He wanted to be somewhere cold, he had explained, and somewhere where he felt strong, and so really the rink for him was an obvious choice. He is wearing his Penguins winter hat, with the earflaps and the stripe. It is freezing, and his penis must be frostbitten by now. I am wearing my winter coat and I’ve slid my arms out of the sleeves and now hug them into my chest.

            *        *        *

“It’s just a matter of making the first cut,” he’d said yesterday when I found him.    

“Jesus Christ,” I had said. He was on the floor in front of his locker, pants pulled down off the hips and his genitals cringing, the blue sterile sheets laid out on either side of him with gleaming silver instruments arranged in the order he’d need them.

I explained to him all the risks of self-castration, though this was a topic I had never studied. I guessed. I made stuff up.

“Infection,” I said. “A locker room, particularly the locker room of hockey players, is not a place to be doing major surgery. There’s bacteria everywhere. “

He snorted. “What kind of locker room would be better?” he asked.

“Maybe basketball,” I said. “No pads. Or helmets. Breeding grounds. Or—no, you know what? Even better. Tennis.”

He snorted again. “Tennis?” he said. “Tennis.”

“They’re athletes too,” I said. “My point is, this doesn’t need to happen here. If it needs to happen.”

He drew his hand away and peered again at his little frozen genitals. The fluorescent lights hummed. Tunelessly.

 *        *        *

The painful part of it is that after all these years of watching him, I could have helped him out. Especially in the recent portions, when he got injured and his marriage started going badly. By the Grand Rapids game, I’d known him a long time, much better (I say this with certainty) than he knew himself. He was my only interest, and he had many interests that took away from his ability to concentrate on himself. I could have told him how to save the marriage (she wasn’t leaving because he’d slept with that girl in Grand Rapids, she was leaving because he slept with the girl in Grand Rapids twice and assumed after the first time that she wouldn’t forgive him. It was the assumption that drove her away, and his refusal to try to apologize because he thought he already knew what she’d say. Which was wrong; Lena was an incredibly kind and forgiving woman, and she did love him, and had bought What to Expect When You’re Expecting three days before they separated). But even before the incident in Grand Rapids, I could have helped. Because of course when he slept with that girl in Grand Rapids it was because of the hamstring tear that had happened against the Griffins and so the girl had had to sit atop him in the hotel bed and do all the work that way, both times, which she didn’t mind but which upset him. What he needed that night was someone to talk to; he knew that the injury marked the end of his career. And his career wasn’t as splendid as he would have liked, or hoped. He never made it out of the AHL. He’d never played against his heroes, who were now all retired and working for ESPN. He was almost thirty-five and his hamstring had actually ripped apart. That’s why he slept with that girl. I should have gone up to him after the game, introduced myself, taken my chances with the restraining order, and talked him through it.

 *        *        *

Earlier this morning, I explained how castration was not an answer to his problems and was, in fact, a whole new problem, should he go through with it. I asked him what good castration was supposed to do. I tried to explain how this would really upset his family, Joan and Bobby Senior, at home in Worcester, Massachusetts, and that his little sister Jennifer would likely be confused and traumatized by this for the rest of her life, and didn’t he really need to think of them before he did this to himself.

He stared at me and for a moment the scalpel hand dropped to his side.

“My god . . . my family?” he asked.

I had hugged myself tighter.

 *        *        *

The energy in the locker room shifts. He sops a cotton ball with iodine and swabs it so that brown juice runs everywhere and stains the blue surgical sheet.

“Whoa, whoa,” I say. I hold up two hands, palms toward him. “Let’s be logical, Bobby.”

He screws the cap back onto the bottle of iodine. And laughs.

“You—you—are going to talk to me about being logical?”

It is a good point.

 *        *        *

I saw it happen often: one person watching me with a sudden wariness, and then turning to her companion’s ear and whispering, with her fingers shielding her lips as they formed the words, “That woman is crazy.”

I was never unhappy, not really. The way that the moon isn’t really unhappy, or happy, about orbiting the earth. You just have your elliptical path, your rotations, the times when you are bathed in sunlight and the times when half of your body is dark and cold. You go about your business, circling and circling, and circling. 

 *        *        *

“You don’t want me to do this because of you,” he accuses. “You’re mad because you won’t have anyone to stalk anymore.”

“No,” I say, honestly. “I’m not the concern here.”

“Fuck this.”

“Also,” I say, “It’s very insulting for you to assume that I watch you because of your genitalia. I don’t care at all for your testicles. Or penis.”

He snorts.

“Believe what you want. I’m not really interested. I wouldn’t sleep with you, even if you wanted to. It’s not about that.”

“Then why?” he asks. The scalpel is safely on the floor. His hand is limp, and the spot of iodine is drying, settling into a film atop his skin. 

“I wish I knew,” I say. I sigh. “A lot of times I don’t even want to go watch you. I get very tired. Especially when you have early practice on Tuesdays. I have to wake up really early to get ready and drive here in time to sneak in through the receiving door when the Powerade guy comes. I don’t even want to, but then my brain’s like, Hey, lazybutt, get out of bed, right now, and I have to do it. I get,” I say, knowing I am repeating myself, “very tired.”

 *        *        *

For a while we thought Gosso would cool it with the surgical instruments, on account of Jess Mosher. She was an anemic-looking woman who ran the concessions and sometimes helped with retail. She had really, really long hair—the unhealthy kind of long, the color of nothing, of dirty bathwater. She always looked disheveled, and she had eyes that drooped at the outside edges, which made her look pathetic. A year ago she bought four ten-millimeter syringes from Gosso, went home, and injected forty millimeters of air into her arm. Then she died.

“How was I supposed to know?” Gosso asked, and shrugged. He was eating a turkey sandwich. “People gonna do what they do,” he said. He took a bite and a piece of wet lettuce dropped onto the floor. “Shit,” he said.

 *        *        *

This morning has been very quiet. Every time I try to talk to Bobby, to say anything at all, he brandishes the scalpel. He’s been moving his lips, like he’s talking to himself, but nothing audible. I’ve been going from locker to locker, folding the players’ clothes, removing the dirty towels and piling them in the big rolling bin, throwing the empty Powerade bottles into the recycling.

He looks uncomfortable, sitting there on the floor. I roll up a towel and, very gently, I move him forward and put the towel between his back and the metal locker behind him.

“Thanks,” he says.

“Okay,” I say.

 *        *        *

He’s not a bad man. Of course he’s done bad things, on the ice and off. Mostly off. He likes women, and they like him. But he loves his wife. His ex-wife, now. They used to eat breakfast on Wednesday mornings at Boulange in the old district. He’d order her bear claw and coffee, and go over to the little station and put in the milk and sugar-substitute for her. Lena liked her coffee with so much milk that it was almost white, so much so that when he ordered the coffee he had to ask for a small coffee in a large cup, to accommodate all the milk he knew he’d have to put in. She would sit at the little table, playing with her napkin and watching him. I liked Lena because Lena loved him.

“Bobby,” she had said, the Wednesday after he had come back from Grand Rapids. There was no bear claw on the table, only coffee. “I can’t understand why you did it. I really can’t. I don’t understand the reasons. If you could just explain the reasons.”

But of course he couldn’t, because he didn’t really know them himself. I did. That was the first time I really considered going up to them, interrupting, explaining him to her, and her to him. It seemed such a waste . . . all these years of mad watching, following, listening, compiling. I was an expert on their lives. I could recreate them from clay and air, if they were lost. I knew them so well . . . and yet I wasn’t able to help. The one person who could explain everything and save their marriage, and I was trapped at a distance of forty yards.

That’s a nice definition of my whole life. At a distance. Simply unable to come close. My intentions, my motivations, they’re good. I think they’re good.

But Bobby wouldn’t know that. To him, I’m the stereotype, the woman in the creepy movie, the crazed frustrated female staring maniacally at her wall of photographs, her shrine of used tissues, dropped ticket stubs, used matches. He has a world all his own: his race, for one thing, in a sea of white men in a sport that hasn’t seen the likes of him, ever. The Houston fans threw fried chicken onto the ice, once. It would be different if he were great. If he had been drafted into the NHL right out of college, gone on to a brilliant career, hoisted the Stanley Cup with his teammates. But none of that happened. Being the first doesn’t make you the best. And most athletes are just that: athletes. They’re not superstars. They wake up, practice until their bodies fail them, play their best, win some, lose a lot. He wasn’t great. He was just a good hockey player. This wasn’t enough for him.

In Bed, Bath, and Beyond, once, his wife held one of his hands clasped in both of hers. They bought a new shower curtain, a dark blue one with a huge white orchid stretching from the top to bottom. Their old one had become moldy. Their old one had been green and gray striped.

 *        *        *

The tradition of the instruments began with a joke. This was before Bobby had begun playing for the team, and I’ve only heard snatches of it, but the gist is this: every season, in every sport, there is the game that is played so badly, with so many mistakes, so many missed opportunities, that the team can only laugh about it. It is a one-off, a reality of professional athletics. Eventually, you lose, and you lose very, very badly. Far worse than any one player’s ability. Years ago, this game had come against the Pirates, and in the locker room afterward, the team had laughingly blamed one man, Blake “Stone Hands” Angevine, and someone—the name is lost to antiquity—joked that they should amputate those stone hands. Someone else, or a few someone elses, had arranged for Gosso to procure a full set of amputation equipment. He did. The next time the team came to the rink, for a practice or a chalk talk, whatever, the tools were laid out in front of Stone Hands’s locker. By which I mean to say, it was a joke. And over time, it became merely the price for playing badly, or the price for loss.

 *        *        *

He’s reapplied the iodine, resettled himself and taken up the scalpel. He has also produced, from his jacket pocket, a typewritten sheet of self-castration instructions.

“My wife left me,” says Bobby.

“I know,” I say.

He snorts. “Of course you do.”

“Where did you get those?” I ask, nodding at the sheet of paper.

He looks down and then back at me. “Google,” he says. “I Googled castration.”

“It’s not going to solve anything, Bobby.”

“Not the point.”

I walk to the door of the locker room, open it, and look out. Maybe a janitor might come in today, but probably not. Maybe one of the players will have forgotten something, come back for it. I could, I remind myself, leave. Right now I could walk out the door. I sit down next to him, my back against the locker, too.

He hands the paper to me.

“You can read it to me,” he says, “when I’m ready.” His voice breaks a little. He cups his testicles in his left hand. They look unbearably small, brown baby birds in his hand. Sad. Vulnerable.

I give it one more try. “Seeing you is my favorite thing in the world,” I say, even though it makes me sound like what I am, a crazy woman. “Please don’t do this to yourself.”

He can’t keep his hand from shaking, and it still holds the scalpel, so I reach over and I wipe his tears for him.

“So don’t do this,” I say.

 *        *        *

The first time I saw him, we were in high school. I was attending as a scholarship student; he was attending for hockey, two years below his grade level because he had flunked geometry and English more than once, at his last school. But I didn’t know any of that yet. I was only nervous, and new, and thirteen years old. I had skinny legs, so I was wearing a long skirt that came to my ankles. My mother drove me and dropped me off, part of a long train of cars from which teenagers were emerging and tugging backpacks and musical instruments in heavy black cases. From the car in front of us, a muscular black student emerged, massive shoulders first. Instead of pulling his backpack from the car, he unbuckled his baby sister. He stood on the sidewalk in front of the school, talking to her in her ear. It was the end of August, and sunny, and the baby was laughing. The bell rang inside the school, and the young man threw his little sister into the air. She squealed with happiness, and when he caught her she stared at him, open-mouthed with delight. Bobby threw her again, and, when he safely caught her, he said to her, so happily, “You’re my sister!”

 *        *        *

“Look,” he says to me. His eyes are large and brown, wet still with little sparkling bits caught in his eyelashes. “I need to do this. It is not a want. I don’t want it. I need it.”

His hand is steady, and he shakes his head and squints his eyes. He takes his left hand and lays it on my own, the hand that is holding the instructions. He squeezes it but he is not looking at me and I don’t think he is thinking of me, either. The fluorescents are humming along. The smell of hockey is gone. All in the air is the smell of him. I think it is a good smell. I think it is the smell leftover from when we all traveled in tribes, the smell of each other. And then sometimes when someone was hurt, when someone had to be expelled from the tribe, when someone was left behind, she sat alone, in the forest or desert or canyon, and remembered this smell. It is a very real smell. The smell of us.

“Okay,” he says. “Read me what to do.”

I read out what to do. And it hurts. It is terrible.

But we do it.

-1Zana Previti was born and raised in New England. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Irvine and is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho. Her work has been published in The New England Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, RHINO Poetry, and is forthcoming from Ninth Letter and Blast Furnace.


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