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McPherson was the only one of us who had ever been to prison, so the rest of us didn’t get it when he suggested we call our hockey team the Hammer Hawks. It seemed like a strong name to me — we lived in Hamilton and people called Hamilton “The Hammer” all the time. And the Hawks part was a no-brainer. Growing up I had played on the Falcons, the Eagles and the Golden Hawks. But there was a light in McPherson’s eye every time we said the name. When we got the shirts made with Hammer Hawks written across the front in white block letters on a blue background, he smiled that yellow smart-ass grin of his, the missing teeth making it more obnoxious. He laughed when Bryan and I tried our shirts on in the parking lot outside the bar. Bryan took out his phone and started taking pictures of us in the new threads.
“Okay, seriously, what are you smiling at?” I asked McPherson.
McPherson held his shirt out in front of him, appraising it, then he held it against his narrow chest. His prison tattoos poked out of the sleeves of his plaid shirt, a cross on the inside of one forearm, the head of a cougar on the other.
“Bullshit,” Bryan said, and it meant something when Bryan said it, people took him seriously.
“Since you asked,” McPherson said, smiling even wider. “When I was in the crowbar hotel, guess what we called the guys in the shower whose eyes would wander below the belt of their neighbour?”
Bryan and I looked at each other.
“Nobody knows that, nobody’ll get it,” I said.
“Know how many ex-cons work at the steel mill? Or drive trucks around here?” McPherson said.
“Goddam,” I said, thinking of all the ex-cons that hang out at Jilly’s, and at The Ship and at Cadillac Jax.
“Bullshit,” Bryan said again. “You play on the team, why would you do that to yourself?”
McPherson tossed his T-shirt back in the box.
“You know, I’m too old to play the game anymore. I quit,” he said, laughing as he went through the front door into the bar.
“You asshole!” Bryan yelled after him. Then he turned to me. “I’m not drinking with that prick, let’s go to Jilly’s.”
I hopped in my truck and followed Bryan’s rusted-out Corolla across town to Jilly’s. It was almost fun to watch Bryan drive angry. He wasn’t normally the type of guy to throw caution to the wind.
Neither of us saw McPherson alive again after that night.
Turns out his first name was Neil. He had a heart attack sometime in late May and checked in to Hamilton General. He never checked out. We heard he had a daughter somewhere, but word was that the girl’s mom kept her away from McPherson after he went to prison. Nobody else knew that old sonofabitch so Bryan stepped up to take care of things and I followed his lead because that’s how it worked with us. I didn’t have any family and hoped that someone might do the same for me one day.
Bryan came to pick me up for the funeral. I’d totaled my truck and I’d been bumming rides off him for two weeks.
“You look awful,” he said.
“The bandages will be off soon,” I said.
“You need some mouthwash,” he said.
“Don’t kiss me and you’ll be fine.”
“It’s not even eleven o’clock, Tim.”
“Look, man, I’m not driving, I’m not working and I don’t like funerals,” I said. “Give me a break. Painkillers would have made me a zombie. At least with some booze in me the pain is dulled and I’m still on the ball,” I said.
He gave me a look that was half-disapproving, half indifferent.
“If you’d let me smoke in your car, you wouldn’t smell the booze.”
“You know I can’t let you—”