One chilly morning in late August, I drove in to work like every other Saturday. I had a job behind a checkout counter in a big box office supply store. Banners hung in all the windows advertising back-to-school specials. That particular morning, before the early rush, a large, white Infiniti SUV pulled into a parking space close to the entrance. A woman rounded the back of the car and a girl stepped out of the passenger side.
The woman wore a silver fox fur jacket, skinny jeans on mile-long legs, and high-heeled ankle boots. She looked like a model. Models were few and far between in the small city I called home. I watched her come around to close the door behind a stocky, red-haired girl. The model caught my eye because of her beauty but more for the contrast between her and the girl whom I presumed to be her daughter.
The girl slouched under an Army Surplus jacket and baggy pants. Her ginger hair was cut in a short, curly bob, the opposite to the model who wore a long, wavy mane of highlighted blonde locks. The girl dropped her fists deep into her oversized jacket pockets. I smiled. I, too, had a rebellious daughter.
I lost sight of them in the store until they came to the colorful pop-up display of pens and pencils in front of my checkout. The girl had a half-full shopping basket in her hand.
“Oh, Heather, these are just darling,” the model said to the uninterested girl. She held up a package of pink pencils. “They even have glitter.”
The girl ignored her mother and picked up a box of pencils stenciled with hockey team logos and dropped it into the basket. The mother followed behind down the next aisle and slipped the pink pencils, unnoticed, into the back of the basket.
Several minutes later they arrived at my checkout. Heather began unloading her items while the mother inspected her manicure.
“Good morning,” I said with a smile. “Did you find everything you need?”
Heather looked up. “Yeah, I guess,” and shrugged. When she came to the pink pencils she turned to her mother.
“I won’t use these,” she said with a sigh.
“Well, we’ll take them anyway.” She looked at me with a pursed-lip smile. Maybe someday you’ll grow out of this wretched tomboy phase.” She took the package from Heather’s hand and slapped it down on the counter. Green eyes rolled and glared.
She’s afraid of losing herself into the void of her mother’s abyss, I judged.
“I have a daughter named Heather,” I said in an attempt to engage the girl. “She’s about your age.”
A cell phone rang. The mother walked past Heather to the end of the counter. A manicured hand clicked open a designer handbag. “I have to take this,” she said, turned toward the windows, and walked away.
I scanned through the hockey pencils, held the pack up for a close look, and said, “I coach a girl’s hockey team. My Heather is our goalie. She’s pretty good.” She looked up at me as her eyes sparked with interest for the first time.
I felt confident engaging remote girls. After a few trials and errors, I relished the feeling I got when their eyes lit up. I scanned through more items and placed them in a bag. Heather began packing items into her new cammo backpack: notebooks, a calculator, a box of paper clips.
“We practise on Sunday mornings, starting the week after next at the rink on 8th Avenue.” She kept packing.
“I don’t know how to skate,” she said, focused on her task at hand.
The mother’s voice rose. “I don’t care what happens to that woman. I want her gone by Monday.” Heather ignored her.
“You can learn. Lots of girls are learning,” I said. “6:00 AM sharp.”
The mother came back, took the drab backpack from Heather’s hands as if it was dirty, and tossed her platinum credit card on the counter.
“Okay, I’ll ring this through.” I swiped her card, concluded the transaction, and gave the girl a quick smile.
They started for the door. The mother gripped the shoulder of Heather’s baggy jacket like she carried a rag bag. I turned to my next customer.
“Good morning. Did you find everything you need?”
“Is there another girl in your class named Heather?” I asked my daughter the next morning.
“No, but there is one who goes to the private school out near the Bear Mountain Lodge,” she said and downed her cereal. “Her dad is the mayor of Roseville.”
I nodded as I unfolded the newspaper. “She came to the store with her mother yesterday. I invited her to practice.” I picked up my coffee as my delightful tomboy daughter kept eating.
“I can’t wait to start. Tommy doesn’t have much of a shot,” she said. Her little brother had been substituted for the team’s sharp shooters during off season. As proud as he was, he didn’t appear to be up to the job.
“Me, too,” I said. “I hope the other Heather comes. And don’t talk with your mouth full.” I peered at her side-eyed and went back to my paper.
I had two Heathers on the team to start the season. The other one showed up with borrowed gear and a check for her team fee written with a hand so strong two of the pen strokes broke through the paper. She was an eager student and quick to learn.
A few weeks later she said, “I’ve been practicing, “as she skated circles around me.
“I can tell,” I said, and placed her in the center position. We did dozens of face-off drills. She had snappy reflexes, took to the game with heart, and got along well with the rest of the players. We were jelling as a team and winning games.
Local politician’s wife in critical condition after single vehicle rollover – Distracted driving suspected, the headline glared off the page. The mayor of Roseville’s wife in ICU in hospital . . . I stopped and looked up at my daughter.
“Geez, honey, look at this.” I showed her the story.
“That’s awful,” she whispered.
We signed the cheery get-well card displayed on the concourse of our town’s only shopping mall. I called the mayor’s office and left a message with his assistant on behalf of the team and our family.
The other Heather didn’t show up for practice that Sunday, or the next. Games weren’t as fun as the team displayed her number on stickers at the back of their helmets. Christmas came and went.
Mayor’s wife out of ICU. Long road to recovery, read the Saturday paper in January.
One calm, frozen Sunday morning, Heather came to practice and sat high in the dark bleachers, elbows propped on her knees and watched. I climbed up to her perch and sat down beside her. I offered her my Tims coffee, she took a sip, and handed it back without a word.
“I’m sorry, Heather,” I said with as much caring and concern those platitudes offer. She shrugged. We sat together until the end, listening to the click and swish of steel blades on ice.
The next Sunday morning she came out in her equipment and started warm-ups. The other girls hugged her in turn as quiet tears rolled down her face. She worked hard that day and stayed late, lined up pucks at the blue line and drilled them as hard as she could, each one hitting the net, until the custodian started turning off the lights. No one noticed a man watching from the other end of the rink, high up in the bleachers. I knew him to be her father from pictures of him in the papers.
“Heather’s dad’s on the phone, Mom,” my Heather called. “He wants to talk to you.”
“Thank you,” he said when I came to the phone. “I don’t know how she could have gotten through without the team. She is carrying a lot of guilt. Her last words to her mother before the accident were in anger.”
“No need,” I said back. “How is your wife?”
“She is on a long road. She is determined. We expect her to have lengthy health problems. There is some paralysis . . .” he drifted off. “She is a different woman,” he said candidly.
I didn’t know how to respond. I have often wished I could have that moment back, with the useful words I would later find to say, something profound that may have made a difference. Instead, I fell back to what I knew.
“Heather is part of our team. I am happy she came back and can start working everything out.” We exchanged a few more pleasantries and said good-bye.
The long summer off-season ended with an early snowstorm in late August. Back-to-school banners went up in the windows of my store. Heather came in with her mom and dad. She held up her hand to me and waggled it beside her chest. She wore a yellow parka with faux fur around the downturned hood, fitted jeans and UGG boots. Her father held her mother’s arm as she focused on willing her flat boots to make each jerky step.
“Hi, Coach,” Heather said several busy minutes later.
“Well, hello there, stranger.” I smiled.
“We went to visit cousins in Australia for the summer.” She started unloading her school supplies onto my counter. She introduced me to her father. He shook my hand and wore a kind smile that softened his craggy face.
“Mom got special treatment at a hospital there,” she explained. Her mother reached out her shaky hand to me that felt warm against my palm.
“Thank you,” she said in a low, raspy voice and genuine kindness shone in her bright, green eyes. I could see her daughter in those eyes for the first time.
“I like the new do.” I changed the subject to admire Heather’s new hairstyle. Her mother beamed at her daughter as if she had finally discovered something new, something very special.
“It’s the thing Down Under,” Heather said with a sly smile and circled a long, copper curl behind her ear. “Don’t go thinking I am going all girlie,” she said, looking up at her mom. “I promised Mom I’m gonna be the best center in the league this season.” Her father nodded reassuringly at me as he wrapped his big arm around her high on her shoulder.
“Her mother and I will be at every game.” He slid his credit card across to me.
The last item I scanned through for Heather was a package of pink pencils.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com