EMPTY NET by Kevin Litwin

I would be hard pressed to think of anyone who lived a more stimulating life than my good friend, Michael Chow.

“Ever hear that country song by Rodney Crowell called Earthbound?” Mike asked me at a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game we attended.

“Yes, real good mandolin and guitar playing, right?”

“Good lyrics, too,” Mike said. “One line pretty much describes my 50 years here on Earth. It goes, ‘My life’s been so sweet I just can’t stand it, I must admit I’ve made out like a bandit.’”

One year ago when the Blackhawks hosted bitter rival Detroit, Mike and I first met. Being hockey fanatics, you’d think we died and went to Heaven as we sat next to each other in our individual season-ticket seats, only five rows off the ice behind the Chicago bench. We introduced ourselves and got to talking.

“Is there no better game than pro hockey?” he asked.

“Love it. Love it,” I said. “The speed, the violence.”

“I agree,” Mike said. “My favorite players are the ones who have some nasty in ’em.”

Hockey wasn’t all we chattered about at games. The subject of women frequently arose, with interesting parleys about our conquests and failures throughout life. To be honest, romantic woes were much more discussed than conquests, thanks in large part to Mike being thrice divorced and me twice.

Dialogues occasionally centered around our respective careers, with Mike a top financier with Wall Street connections, and myself an art critic of some renown. Turns out, we both admired the works of masters Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Cezanne, and the classical music stylings of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

Mike also appreciated fine clothing, leaving his office on Blackhawks game nights and heading directly to the stadium resplendent in one of his many $3,000 suits. I often observed that his dapperness caused eye-pleasing gazes from attractive females sitting nearby us, and I easily surmised why he married three times.

But truly, it was our mutual love of hockey that cemented a bond between us, and we eventually became close comrades. Our paths crossed only at Blackhawks games, then afterward at what became our favorite rowdy, hockey-crowd bar – a place called Crash the Net, two blocks from the stadium.

I greatly anticipated Blackhawks home games, and Mike and I had attended about 20 contests when one night, after a hard-fought Chicago victory, Mike wanted to talk.

“I’ve got something to tell you,” he said as his eyes drooped and forehead wrinkled, a grave seriousness covering his face.

“What is it?”

“C’mon, I’ll tell you at the bar.”

The two of us braved a January snowstorm and walked to Crash the Net, found an empty table, and ordered double whiskeys. We toasted the Blackhawks victory and took hefty sips, then Mike tugged at his collar and twisted his watch band with nervous agitation.

“Here goes,” he said, his eyes growing large and watery. “I’m dying, my friend. I don’t have long. Got word from my doctor this week.”

Dumfounded, I stared into his swollen eyes for several seconds.

“I can’t believe it. Are you serious? I mean…what happened?”

“Just one of those things. Incurable disease. My doctor got the lab results two days ago.”

I won’t go into the gruesome particulars about his affliction, but every piece of news hit me like a mortar shell. After the horrible reality sank in a bit, I let Mike speak nonstop about his calamity, which allowed him brief flashes of psychological relief. Following his 10-minute soliloquy, we ordered another drink and turned our attention to hockey in order to lighten the mood.

“Do you think there’s hockey in Heaven?” I blurted at one point, then apologized for bringing up such a subject given the nature of the occasion.

“No, no, don’t worry about it. In fact, I tell you what. Once I pass away and get accustomed to my new surroundings up there, I’ll return for a quick visit and tell you whether or not hockey exists in Heaven. Deal?”

We chuckled and clanked glasses and finished our drinks before ordering one more round, and after 10 additional minutes of verbal discourse that couldn’t help but rue somber, I paid the tab and we rose from our chairs, exiting our favorite tavern under the saddest of circumstances.

*****

Michael died three days ago. Age 50. A final few strenuous days of battling bitter sickness ended with him giving up his spirit and succumbing to the ruinous malady.

The melancholy I felt remained overwhelming at his funeral, and after the ceremony, I wished to be alone to remember my departed friend and contemplate life in general. I hailed a cab and told the driver, “Crash the Net,” where I meandered to a secluded table and informed my waitress to please fetch a double whiskey so I could begin easing my hurt.

“Here’s to you, Mike. I’ll miss you, good friend,” I whispered, hoisting my shot glass toward the ceiling before downing it.

Suddenly, for reasons I initially attributed to my sorrow and the instant effects of the double whiskey, a phantom presence materialized and took a seat beside me.

“Thank you for the toast, my friend,” said Michael’s apparition.

His specter was haunting but welcoming, and I struggled to shrug off shock.

“What’s going on?” I asked, feigning ease but not succeeding. “I mean, it’s great to see you, Mike. What’s happening here?”

“Order another drink for yourself – you need it. Don’t worry…nobody but you can see me and hear us.”

When a second double whiskey rested before me, I pounded it like a kettledrum to calm my frayed nerves.

“You okay?” Mike asked.

“Yeah, I’m getting there. Just surprised. Real surprised.”

“Alright, my friend, the reason I’m here…here goes. Remember our discussion awhile back where I said that when I die, I would return to tell you whether or not hockey exists in Heaven?”

“Yes, yes, I remember! That’s why you’re here? Okay, so tell me. Is there hockey in Heaven?”

Mike grinned and his spectral eyes seemed to stare right through me, but the grin abruptly disappeared, overtaken by grimness in his shaded face.

“I’ve got two pieces of news, so here goes. Yes, there is hockey in Heaven. A big game is played every night in front of a massive crowd of angels and saints and other excited onlookers.”

“Fantastic!” I shouted with a beaming smile covering my once-sullen face. “Let me order another drink to celebrate.”

The waitress served and I consumed the liquor with exuberance before remembering that Mike had a second bit of information to convey.

“You had more to say, Mike? Another message?”

“Again, I want to reiterate that the great game of hockey we both love does, indeed, flourish in Heaven and is played every single night.”

Mike then paused for several moments and let out a long sigh.

“The other news…well, here it is. You are one of the starting goalies in the game one week from this Saturday. I will see you there, my friend.”