Rico sets up four lines of coke on the glass-topped
table in Jack’s living room and says, “If I looked like you, pal, I’d never
According to Rico, Jack should start dating again now
that his marriage has officially ended. Jack says he prefers his solitude. He
doesn’t like to feel responsible for a person’s suffering, he says, and
whenever he enters a new relationship, someone suffers.
Jack dreams occasionally of spending a lifetime with a
woman in a world of unconflicted passion informed by logic and an absence of
anxiety and self-doubt. But whenever he gets involved with a woman, he soon
becomes conflicted, anxious and all of a doo-dah. Keeping all this to himself,
he remains physically present with the woman even as he drifts away into a
remote psychic galaxy from where he watches the relationship fall to pieces.
Sometimes the skin on his fingertips begins to peel.
“That’s why I date women with no self-confidence,”
Jack says. “They think it’s their fault when things fall apart.”
Rico keeps insisting that Jack needs something called
“hand”. He says it again now, after he snorts the first line. “You gotta have
hand,” he says. “Otherwise, a woman will walk all over you.”
“How can they walk all over me,” Jack says, “if I’m
“Hand,” Rico says again. “You gotta have it.”
From Rico’s swaggering demeanour, Jack infers that
hand has something to do with assertiveness and self-confidence, and he knows
he doesn’t have it. Nor does he know
know how to get it. Even when he wants to, Jack finds it almost impossible to
assert himself. He could more easily walk on water. He remains a stranger to
himself and regards himself as the quintessential hollow man, headpiece filled
with straw or, tonight, with cocaine.
At the age of forty-one, Jack has perfected the art of
imitation and exhibits to the world the appearances of a normal man. But when
normal people talk about their normal lives, Jack feels the same way as he does
in a relationship with a woman, as if he’s listening to a conversation in a
foreign tongue. He recognizes the words, but their meaning confounds him. He
smiles and nods as if he, too, believes that he can alleviate the sadness in
his life by playing golf or spending a week in Florida visiting Disney World.
He senses madness and desperation in the lives of normal people, but since he
has nothing better to offer, be withholds his observations, and the effort
exhausts him. That’s why he enjoys his time with Rico. Rico doesn’t pretend to
be normal, and when Jack tells him what he thinks, he pays attention.
Now that he’s no longer married, Jack lives in an
apartment near the waterfront. He works from home as a freelance writer, and
spends most of his time alone. To keep in shape, he jogs every afternoon along
sparsely populated streets that lead past factories and warehouses, where he
seldom encounters another person. In the evening, he drinks Scotch and watches
Humphrey Bogart movies. On Wednesday mornings, he plays hockey with a group of
salesmen, doctors and other people with no urgent obligations, including Rico,
who still lives with his parents, does nothing except sell drugs and dreams of
making a big score that will set him up for life.
Jack has played hockey with
Rico every Wednesday morning between September and April for ten years, but
until this year, they’ve hardly said a word to each other. Rico is a much
better player than Jack. He skates without apparent effort. His passes are hard
and accurate, and he shoots the puck with the precision of a laser-guided
Rico started playing hockey
after his parents brought him to Canada from Italy. Tormented by his
classmates, who called him “dago” and “wop” and laughed when he struggled to
speak their language, he developed a stutter, lost interest in school and now
suffers from Krohn’s disease. But he excelled at hockey and became good enough
to earn a living for a few years with a semi-professional team in Bari, on the
Adriatic coast of Italy.
Comparing himself on the
ice to Rico, Jack feels like a lumbering buffalo pushing a curling rock with a
shovel. Goalies stop his shots as if he has tossed them a loaf of bread. When
he passes the puck, he occasionally hits his own teammate in the back. When
Jack bumbles one of Rico’s infrequent passes, Rico gets angry, slaps his stick
on the ice and yells, “Fuck!” Jack feels mildly insulted, but he also
understands that, in the universe of hockey, he and Rico live on different
Early in this year’s hockey season, after Jack missed
another of Rico’s passes, Rico surprised him. Instead of reacting with
indignation, he gave Jack a tip. “Keep your stick on the ice,” he said. “If
your stick’s on the ice, I’ll hit it.”
With that simple piece of advice, Jack immediately
became a better hockey player. He not only received more passes from Rico and
the rest of his teammates, he also became better at passing the puck himself.
Jack felt grateful. Apart from his dad, whom he hadn’t seen in more than thirty
years, no man had ever taken the trouble to help him to improve his game.
Later that morning, in the dressing room, Rico
surprised Jack again. Everyone in the room knew that Jack didn’t own a car and
came to the arena by taxi. Cars were a lethal pain in the ass, Jack said, and
he saved a lot of money by not owning one. Until today, no one had questioned
Jack’s approach to transportation or offered to drive him home. “I’ll give you
a lift,” Rico said.
“Thanks,” said Jack, “but I’ll take a cab.”
Jack knew that Rico lived with his aging parents in a
suburb about twenty miles north of the city. But he didn’t turn down Rico’s
offer out of kindness. He did it because he thought he might have to return the
favour. What could he offer to Rico?
“I need to talk to you,” Rico said. He picked up his
equipment bag and opened the dressing room door. “I’ll meet you outside.”
The other players in the room looked at Jack.
“Watch your step with that guy,” said Al, who owned a
“Wait till he asks you for money,” said a guy named
Rod, who owned a grocery store.
“I lent him fucking money,” said a retired airline
pilot named Mark. “Four thousand fucking dollars to import a fucking
container-load of stolen fucking coffee beans from fucking Brazil, in a fucking
boat. Fuck me.”
“What could he want from me?” said Jack.
“If you lend him fucking money,” said Mark, “maybe
he’ll fucking use it to pay me back, for fuck sake.”
“The guy’s a walking Ponzi scheme,” said a lawyer
In the parking lot, Jack found Rico sitting in the
driver’s seat of a grey Buick sedan, smoking a cigarette. He dumped his hockey
bag in the back seat and got in the car.
“Where to, shlick?” Rico said.
Jack told him how to get to his apartment, then
accepted a cigarette. As they started driving, Jack thanked him for his advice.
“Advice?” Rico said.
“How to take a pass,” Jack said.
“Nobody told you that before?”
“No one ever bothered.”
Jack opened his window to let the smoke escape from
the car. To play a game well, he thought, you needed to play with passion. Jack
hadn’t felt passionate about anything in his life, not until his wife had
betrayed him. Now he felt passionately grief-stricken over the loss of his
marriage, which he’d hoped would last a lifetime.
“You’re a writer,” said Rico. “What do you write?”
Jack said he wrote magazine articles about banking.
“I have an idea for a movie,” Rico said.
“Everybody has an idea for a movie,” Jack said.
“You couldn’t make this up.”
“That’s the trouble,” said Jack.
different,” Rico said.
When he’d returned from playing hockey in Italy, he
said, he’d lived for a year in Cincinnati, playing hockey and selling marijuana
by the ton. “I was making so much money,” he said, “I couldn’t spend it fast
He drove a Porsche, hung out in bars with professional
baseball players like Pete Rose and lived with a California swimsuit model in a
penthouse apartment overlooking the Ohio River. “We were going to get married,”
One afternoon, as he drove across the Big Mac Bridge
to Kentucky with three pot-filled garbage bags in the trunk, he saw a roadblock
ahead of him. Rico stopped the car, tossed the bags off the bridge and then
jumped after them. He owed money to the dealer who’d sold him the marijuana,
but without the marijuana, he couldn’t make enough money to pay him.
“So I came back to Canada,” he said.
Jack waited for the rest of the story.
“I can see Brad Pitt in the movie,” said Rico. “And
that other guy.”
“Sean Penn,” Jack said.
“See, I knew you’d get it,” said Rico.
That night, Rico returned
to Jack’s apartment with a bottle of single-malt Scotch and a gram of coke,
ready to write the script. By dawn, they’d not only written the movie in their
heads, they’d analyzed the human predicament, as well, and might have saved the
world from senseless conflict if they could have remembered anything they’d
After that, Rico spent one
or two evenings a week at Jack’s apartment. Sometimes they went for dinner to a
restaurant in the north end of the city, owned by Rico’s second cousin. Rico
introduced Jack as “my friend, the writer.”
Some nights they went
downtown to a seedy bar on the fringe of the city’s night-club district. It was
furnished with battered arborite tables and wobbly chairs on chrome-plated
legs, and the granite floor sloped toward a drain in the centre of the room so
the manager could wash the floor each night with a hose. Rico bought coke there
from an enormous bearded biker dressed in black, who perched on a stool at the
end of the empty bar like a bear on a unicycle. “Meet Jack,” said Rico. “We’re
writing a movie together.”
One night at the apartment,
Rico told Jack that he was in debt to a Mafia hoodlum who’d lent him money to
import a shipment of counterfeit Armani jeans from Italy. Rico had used the
money to fly to Milan, where he’d set up the scam through a friend of his
father’s. “But the shipment got stopped at customs,” said Rico. “He says he’ll
break my legs if I don’t pay him back.”
“How much do you need?” Jack said.
“Thirty-five hundred,” Rico
“How soon do you need it?”
“Tomorrow,” said Rico.
Jack knew he couldn’t
afford to do it, but he wrote a cheque against his line of credit and gave it
to Rico. “Don’t do that again,” he said.
“I’ll pay you back,” said
Jack studies Rico, hoping that he might learn
something useful. Rico behaves with passion, bravado and swagger, but he’s also
vulnerable and just as fucked up as Jack. But no matter how closely he watches
Rico, he doesn’t think that he can imitate “hand”. To Jack, the word has similar
connotations to soul. Jack thinks of imitating Otis Redding and knows that he’d
look like an idiot. He feels the same way about hand. “Some things you just
can’t fake,” he says.
“I have to introduce you to Sonja,” Rico says one
night as he pours another pile of coke onto the table from a little plastic
Rico has mentioned Sonja several times, but Jack says
he has no interest in dating another woman. Rico has persisted, though, and
when he talks about Sonja, Jack pays attention. If he ever gets involved again
with a woman, he figures he stands a better chance of forming a lasting
relationship if the she comes with a friend’s endorsement. His first wife was a
complete stranger when they met. When they got married, he had no idea what to
expect, and neither did any of his friends. When the day of the wedding
arrived, and his best man drove him to the church, Jack felt as if he’d closed
his eyes and jumped out of an airplane. It was downhill from there.
Jack figures that, if Sonja’s a friend of Rico’s, she
might be different. Maybe she won’t expect much from him. Maybe she’s fucked up
too. At least they can take drugs together.
“Why would she
want to meet me?” Jack says.
“Her friends are losers,” Rico says. “She deserves
Rico takes Jack to a bar on College Street where they
join Sonja at a table by the wall. When Rico introduces them, Sonja extends her
hand to shake Jack’s. In the dim light of the smoky room, she looks fit,
stylish and intelligent. She wears a jaunty white cap and seems refreshingly
candid. At the end of the evening, Sonja agrees to meet Jack the next afternoon
at a cemetery near a wooded ravine that runs through the middle of the city.
“We’ll go for a walk,” Jack says.
Jack gets there early and stands inside the gates in the
shadow of a mausoleum. It takes him a moment to recognize Sonja. She wears
moccasins, blue jeans and a tank top. Daylight has hardened her features. Her
cheeks look sunken, and her face seems shadowed by anxiety. She walks without
enthusiasm, as if she’s keeping an appointment with a dentist. Jack wants to
run away, but he overrules his instinct and waits politely for Sonja to spot
“Sorry I’m late,” she says.
“I’m glad you
came,” he says.
As they walk, Sonja tells him that she lives with a
boyfriend. But their relationship has ended, she says, and she plans soon to
move to her own apartment.
They stop at a restaurant for dinner. Jack tells
himself that he needs a woman in his life who will accept him on his own terms.
Perhaps if he feels accepted, he can nurture the barren seeds of love that lie
smothered beneath his self-doubt, anxiety and confusion. He is, after all,
fucked up, and he knows almost nothing about love. Just give it time, he
thinks, as he dabs at his lips with a napkin.
Sonja and Jack meet several more times, have dinner
together, exchange email messages and talk daily on the phone. Although she
doesn’t spend the night when she visits, Sonja stays many times at his
apartment until well after midnight. But after two months, she still lives with
After another month, Jack tells Sonja that she has to
choose between him and her boyfriend. Until she does, he won’t see her again.
It’s a strategy he learned from a marriage counsellor, the one who advised him
not to return to his first wife. This time, while Jack waits for Sonja to make
up her mind, the counsellor suggests that he might benefit from seeing a
psychiatrist. “You’ve done this before,” he says, “always with the same result.
You should find out why.”
At their first session, the psychiatrist asks Jack to
describe his father. Jack shrugs. His father is dead, he says. He hasn’t seen
his father in thirty-three years, and he doesn’t know much about him. When the
psychiatrist asks Jack to describe his mother, he talks about her with
reverence for twenty-five minutes: her courage, her kindness, her generosity of
spirit, her strength in leaving her marriage and raising two children on her
own. When the session ends, Jack wonders why his recollections of the past seem
so distorted. It will take him ten years to find out.
At the end of the summer, Sonja leaves her boyfriend
and moves to her own flat. She and Jack resume their relationship. Now, when
Rico visits Jack’s apartment, Sonja often joins them. They consume blizzards of
cocaine. By the time hockey season starts again in the fall, Jack thinks that
Sonja is the smartest, most insightful woman he has ever met. When the other
players ask why he spends so much time with Rico, he says, “He introduced me to
my girlfriend.” He doesn’t mention the drugs.
In January, Jack announces to the dressing room that
Sonja has agreed to marry him.
“Didn’t you learn your lesson the first time?” says
the player named Rod.
Pat, the lawyer, jokes that Jack should forget about
marriage. “Just cut to the chase and give her a house,” he says.
“This one’s different,” Jack says. “She seems to like
The marriage starts smoothly. Jack has seen enough
movies, read enough books and met enough decent men to behave like one. If
their life together doesn’t smolder with the heat of mutual passion, they can
at least conduct a civilized relationship. But without the forgiving embrace of
love, Jack soon finds fault in his wife. Jack gives her a monthly allowance for
groceries and personal expenses, but she has no ambition and seems in no hurry
to find work. They buy a house and Jack starts making mortgage payments, but
Sonja doesn’t offer to contribute. Nor does she share the sense of relief that
he feels after occasional episodes of enlightenment that occur during his
sessions with the psychiatrist. In her opinion, psychoanalysis offers nothing
more enlightening than astrology or the I-Ching.
Two years pass. Jack feels himself drifting away from
Sonja into the realm of psychic indifference. He finds excuses to avoid
spending time with Rico, as well. One night he returns home from a late meeting
and finds Rico and Sonja at the kitchen table. Rico has just returned from
Moldova, he says, where he has met a former KGB agent to discuss the bottling of
black-market vodka. He needs to raise a few thousand dollars in Canada, he
says, before he moves back, probably for good.
Without the embellishment of cocaine, Rico’s
half-baked plan angers Jack. He knows that Rico travels on other people’s
money, and the gratitude that he once felt for Rico’s friendship no longer
compensates for the annoyance he feels over Rico’s feckless ambition. Jack goes
to bed, leaving Rico and Sonja to inflate themselves till dawn on the hot air
of their cocaine fantasies.
On the day after Rico’s visit, Sonja asks Jack for
more money. Jack says he has already given her money for the week. “Where did
it go?” he says.
“I lent it to Rico,” she says. “He borrowed money from
the Mafia. He said they’d break his legs if he didn’t pay them back.”
“Where have I heard that before?” Jack says.
“He’ll pay you back,” Sonja says.
“He’s had three years to start.”
Jack hopes that Sonja will understand his reasons for
turning his back on Rico. It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Rico does the
same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result. But
Sonja defends her friend, says he’s unsuited for a regular job, just needs a
break, and casts Jack in the role of a Judas. Jack reminds himself that his
marriage depends on more than a detail. If it irritates him that Sonja remains
loyal to Rico, at least she has a good heart. But he wonders if she remains
loyal to Rico because he supplies her with cocaine.
Jack considers leaving his marriage, but he has given
his word, and he believes that men don’t walk away from their wives simply
because they feel dissatisfied. But instead of telling Sonja how he feels about
her laziness and instead of telling Rico how he feels about his self-deluded
corruption, he avoids confrontation and keeps his mouth shut.
One Friday afternoon Sonja tells him as he sits at his
computer that she has decided to leave him. “I feel so lonely,” she says.
“I understand,” Jack says. And of course, he does. He
knows he has become distant and unreachable. He’s amazed that she has put up
with him for so long.
On a Wednesday morning later that winter, Jack tells
the players in the dressing room that his marriage has ended.
“I told you just to give her your house,” says Pat.
“Gotta choose your fucking friends more wisely,” says
To his psychiatrist, Jack says he feels sorry for
abandoning his wife in spirit and betraying his friendship with Rico. They
thought he was the person he’d pretended to be, he says.
“I feel as if I’ve broken a promise,” he says.
“What promise?” says the doctor.
“To remain fucked up and ignorant,” Jack says with a
“Betrayal,” says the shrink.
“Betrayal,” Jack says. “The price you pay for hand.”