From “You Could Believe in Nothing,” Chapter Eight

What You Need to Know: Derek Butt has often heard the story of how his parents, Lou and Elizabeth, traveled to Detroit in 1965. They went there to claim a boy named Curtis, Elizabeth’s son by a previous relationship. Before returning to Newfoundland, the reunited family also took in a playoff game between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. Derek has acquired a DvD copy of the game. Note: Derek’s father Lou Butt also goes by Lou Langdon, the name he uses as a TV and radio host.

The DvD fell from its sleeve, polished and smooth, an avatar. This was how technology promised only good things, by keeping up appearances. The machine pulled the disc from Derek’s fingers and made seductive whispering noises before the television screen shuddered to life.

In this big land of ours you will always find a touch of tradition… In the taste of today!

Derek settled into his chair and adjusted the volume as a smart young man burst through swinging doors into the street, carried down the sidewalk by swells of brass. Office towers soared behind him.

Modern people like you, people with a taste for ale, get the true ale satisfaction they want in Molson Export!

His older colleague waited outside the lounge. Men of modern business, sheltered by the splendid reach of skyscrapers, savouring the froth of Molson Export on the tongue. They’d be dead by now, probably. The older one for sure. The game would be full of dead people too. The announcers, at least some of the players. Anyone in the crowd past forty or so.

Derek felt like a peeping Tom, crouched outside a window in hopes of catching a steamy embrace. He tried to imagine his father as a young man hot with devotion, refusing to be turned from his love by the disgrace of an unwed mother, or the taint of the guy who had been there before him. Lou and Elizabeth’s engagement must have been an unspeakable disgrace, and their perseverance lent great drama to the romance. The drama intensified with their heroic quest to Detroit, their need to claim Curtis and make a family. Now Derek had cracked a curtain on that story.

Measured against the wonders of true ale satisfaction, the Detroit Olympia looked almost gothic, much of the black and white picture losing its detail in shades of grey. The players threw long shadows and most of the crowd was shrouded by the gloom. A rotary clock loomed over centre ice, its hands sweeping away the minutes and hours.

“Bill, it would be useless to say there isn’t more than the ordinary amount of tension around this game tonight. I noticed that even the fellow who drives the ice-making wagon appeared to have tightened up before this game.”

“This first goal is going to mean a great deal, Jim.”

Jim spoke with a drinker’s warble, a fumbling grip on each word. He was surely a man of the hotel bar, drowning all the useless hours between games.

The picture froze and dissolved in a brown blister, followed by a few seconds of spitting interference. The screen went black, and then 1965 returned with more clarity, bright and spacious. The game was underway.

“It all comes down to this,” said Bill.

A few names confirmed the evening’s archival merit. Hull and Howe, of course. Lindsay, Esposito, Henderson. Others were unmistakably antique: Elmer Vasko, Warren Godfrey; names belonging to brush cuts and tweed jackets and rye whiskey. The players were mostly indistinguishable, uniform as fence posts, their faces drawn. Derek saw nothing of the modern athlete’s cold vanity or near-autistic absorption with the task at hand. Nor did they share the supreme confidence of those other obsolete heroes, the pop stars on the walls of Lou Langdon’s office. These were small-town men who married young, made decent money, bought rounds at the Legion, and worked a bit of construction on the side. Most retired with nothing.

Gordie Howe turned ponderous circles with the puck, waiting for a worthwhile option. “The old man,” Jim called him. Lou Langdon wouldn’t have taken much notice. The elder’s steady hand was easily dismissed by an ambitious young man with a TV show. Pestered by an inferior, Howe countered with a quick, vicious stick, and drifted to the penalty box without complaint, without so much as the flicker of an eye.

The game pressed on with little speed or hitting, a workmanlike struggle on an ice surface that resembled an overcast sky. Players swarmed to stifle every promising foray. Attackers either turned back or pressed hopelessly forward, the puck squirting loose from the mob like a tiny rodent.

Derek examined the periphery, where shapes settled into the good seats, folding overcoats. A corner faceoff brought into view a well-fed man with silver whiskers, a young blonde at his side. Derek guessed an industrialist on his second marriage, disappointed to find the dull domesticity of the first replicating. Like the players, the spectators were mostly featureless. Would he recognize his mother? Could Lou Butt be the man in the glasses? Or the fellow hunched in the aisle seat? This is why men used to meet the world in sober suits and Brylcreemed hair, thought Derek. The sameness of it. Whatever their failures or degradations, all could bleed into the calming embrace of regular fellows. There was not a single man who looked like he didn’t have his shit together.

Here at last was Bobby Hull, charging into traffic as if an explosion in his head had sent all synapses firing. Even in the grain of ancient film his head and face had a silvery glint, as if lit from within. His shot came without warning, a bruising puck off the goalie’s shoulder.

“He nearly put that one right through Crozier,” croaked Jim.

Gordie Howe responded with a goal that half the arena probably missed, a simple opportunist’s play at the front of the net. Derek rolled back the picture, watched the old man reproduce his precise flick of the stick with dreary efficiency.

“Let him loose like that, and you’d be a fool to expect good things,” growled Bill.

Celebrating fans heaved garbage down from the cheap seats, delaying the next faceoff. Jim and Bill fell silent. Howe sat on the boards, gazing at the ice and scratching his nose. He could have been a man waiting for a bus.

 

From “You Could Believe in Nothing,” Chapter Two. Introducing Lou Butt: Derek’s father, classic rock DJ, community stalwart, adulterer, embezzler…

Rebounding from a sickly childhood, Lou Butt hit the radio airwaves straight out of high school. “A new voice on the teen beat” according to the newspaper clipping, a column of miscellanea under the headline “Around and About.” Derek had found it folded into the family copy of The Book of Newfoundland:

CKOX promises an accent on youth, and what better way than to have this personable Brother Rice grad spinning the latest discs. His nightly turn at the microphone is ‘For Teenagers Only!’

He became Lou Langdon the following year, changing his name for a move to television. Every Friday afternoon the studio at Buckmaster’s Circle would fill with squirming kids for a dance-to-the-hits show called Crazy, Man, Crazy. A photo from those days showed Lou in a dark suit with pointy-toed black boots, equal parts hipster and chaperone. His flat cheeks and sunken chest, evidence of a bed-ridden youth, suited the modish look. Beaming teenagers flanked him on either side, squeezed into the frame so you could sense the static among them, the skirmish of libidos. Several boys bent slightly at the knees, the better to catch an incidental feel of ass or thigh. The girls turned pointy chests to the camera. Little vinyl records dangled over their heads…

About four decades later, Lou was reborn as a morning man and community stalwart. He chaired the campaign to build a new wing at the children’s hospital. He stood by as the mayor lit the municipal Christmas tree. He manned the Classix 490 Boom Box on Regatta Day. He entertained banquets, taking the podium as the smell of congealed gravy soured the room. Pop music and Lou Langdon had led parallel lives; after difficult middle years, the music was embracing its dotage, complete with cardigan, comb-over, and ample belly. “Hey-Hey Lou Langdon” they called him now, cuing his show with musical snippets that played on the name—usually the Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! refrain from a Beatles song.

Classix 490 traffic, brought to you by Augustino’s Funeral Home. A pre-planned funeral means peace of mind and security for your loved ones. Back from her holiday in the sunny south, Gina Lush is out and about in the Classix 490 Road Cruiser. Hey, Gina.

Hey, Lou.

Nice trip?

Great trip. Relaxing. Got a great tan.

Do a little dance? Make a little love?

Dream on, sailor.

Ah, you know I will. Let me know if you want all the details.

Let’s stick to the traffic details.

Looks like smooth sailing on the Kenmount this morning, right outside the Classix 490 twin towers. How goes the weekend driving, Gina?

Such flirtatious banter was a staple of Lou Langdon in the Morning, Derek’s father playing the randy uncle to Gina’s cheerful ice queen. She was a remarkable radio instrument, biting down on throaty vowels, her mouth red and cavernous in the mind’s eye. Her laugh was explosive, a shock of pleasure you could follow all the way down to her painted toe- nails. Gina’s elusive Road Cruiser, prowling the city streets, was the most palpable manifestation of the horniness bubbling beneath the stale music and workaday chatter of Classix 490.

The station was hugely popular with men over fifty. Its catchphrases and tag lines were a secret language of past glories. The music you grew up with! (Your first backseat hand job.) The music that changed the world! (Those marathon slippery sweaty sessions with that girl in university, when you had to pretend it was about her politics.) Rock and roll never sounded better! (That summer you were fucking your secretary.)

 

From “You Could Believe in Nothing,” Chapter One. The story begins…

He can fly, as Ronnie Bulgin used to say.

In the muted winter light of Derek’s youth, Ronnie Bulgin was a sentinel, remote and unyielding behind the glass at the far blue line. Fixing his chunky horn-rims on a bantam game or Flyers practice, his puffy face slack with concentration, Ronnie would stand silent, occasionally lifting a yellowed forefinger.

“He can fly, buddy, I tell you.”

Given Ronnie’s outport drawl and misshapen palate, it came out as Eekuhn floyy, buhee, uh tal oo, followed by an authoritative, congested snort. All the heaving and hawking to clear the snot from his passages was like the firing of an engine, the stoking of a hockey mind. His gallery—a handful of boys, a few men off the morning shift with nowhere else to be—would murmur assent as Ronnie folded his arms across his dirty ski jacket, resuming his watch.

Derek spent almost every afternoon at the rink that year. He was eleven years old and his father had left home. Dad had to go, because he had been screwing other women. This was never said out loud, and Derek couldn’t recall how he came to know the truth, or when he understood that it was known throughout town.

His mother never stopped moving that winter, pushing the family through each day, resolute, her face like a plaster mask. For all her haste, a spirit of lawlessness overtook the household. Dinner late, homework undone, agitated voices in the morning, dirty shirts and socks trailing downstairs to the laundry room. Derek didn’t want to be there. So after school he went to the rink, sinking himself into the cold smells of coffee, exhaust, and damp. Boys playing games of no importance. The Zamboni turning unhurried circles. Ronnie at his post, smudging the glass with a snotty sleeve.

The memory gave Derek something to hold on to as his hangover gathered and took the shape of a heavy sponge behind his face. All he wanted was to get from his kitchen to his back porch. The rust from the door latch left an orange stain on his thumb. Derek jiggled it and swore out loud. He had meant to replace the latch, should have replaced it long ago. If only he could get his head out of his ass, he could do all the things he should have done long ago.