In Memory of Denny Coughlin
By Peter Orner
Walpole, Massachusetts (1995)
Things were good for a while. A team made up of guys from Southie would play a team made up of guys from from Charlestown—with a couple of lifers from Chelsea or Malden thrown in to make things even up. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. Can’t you see Pinkhands Salerno, still nursing his eye with a frozen sausage? Shouting from the sidelines like we were putting on Guys and Dolls, “Fuckers, this show's gotta go on!” The place used to just be called Walpole, but the people of the town of Walpole got tired of being known only as the town with the prison so the state of Massachusetts changed the name to Cedar Junction, a mythical place, an intersection of horrors just off Route 47 North. Turn right at the Dairy Delight and keep going a mile and a half. Paint scabbed, looks like an abandoned factory but for the razor wire loop-di-looped and the guard towers.
Denny Coughlin made the rules and Salerno, his most faithful lieutenant, carried them out with the love and zeal of a convert. Denny Coughlin. Good old Boston Irish from an old Southie family. Some of the sons went into the racket, others into politics. When his brother Len got hitched, Mike Dukakis was at the wedding. It’s true. There’s pictures. Denny though was in the crime branch and back then, he’d be the first to admit it, he wasn’t so bright. He got lugged on a murder two for smashing a little drug runner in the head with a tire iron behind the Shell on Columbus Boulevard. Denny pled to manslaughter and landed eight to ten at Walpole.
The game had two basic rules:
Rule 1: No injuries. Ever. If you got hurt enough so that you couldn't play you had to drag yourself off to the sidelines and stuff your elbow back in the socket or get a towel to staunch whatever was bleeding. But—you were forbidden to go to the choke. The rule came about because Sergeant Hanrahan said the game was getting too expensive after Rent Meelhan got snocked so hard by Joey Norris he had to be carried off—gushing eyepucks—on a stretcher. Spent a week in the choke with five broken ribs, a lump on his head big as Uranus, and minus his right eye. And after that they even had to send to him a real hospital. So Hanrahan said, “Next time somebody goes down like that, that'll be it. You useless hogs will suck each other’s dicks while the blacks get double gym time for basketball.”
So Coughlin decreed it: “Now we play through the pain boys.” Pinkhands, who was a trustee, would steal the frozen ground beef from the kitchen we'd use as icepacks.
Rule 2. Which was around long before they needed Rule 1: The puck’s always live. No time outs. Constant action. The game never stopped unless the puck went under the equipment cage on the far side of the gym. When this happened one of the screws would have to get up off his lolly ass and open the metal gate to retrieve the puck. Now, the important thing to understand here was that the puck remained live even when it went under the wooden bench the officers sat on during games. The drill was that the screws covering the gym—usually Morton and Salazar—would leap up whenever the puck went under the bench so the guys could fight over the puck until somebody dug it out. The officers—at least Morton and Salazar—knew the deal. Plus, they got a kick out of seeing us beat the living crap out of each other up close. So when the puck went under the bench (about three times a game), the screws ran for the hills.
(The only other rule, so minor it didn’t have a number, was that the blacks didn't play floor hockey. But that was less a rule than a simple fact, because the blacks, according to Coughlin, were scared pissless to play with us barbarians. “Same reason they don’t come to Southie. We’re big, white, and hairy, baby!”)
And so, like I said, things were good for a while. Nobody ever fessed up to being hurt, nobody went to the choke. So maybe it was surprising that it was rule 2, the old rule, that caused Hanrahan to finally ban hockey after all the trouble they went through to enforce Rule 1. And it was Coughlin who did it—even though, as the facts will tell, he didn't break his own rule.
It was a tight game, only four minutes left before count call. Charlestown was up by one. Coughlin was having an off day; he hadn’t scored. For a big man he had a strange grace going after the puck. He moved with a real fluid motion as if he really was on ice skates. I played for Southie, defense. Though I’m nearly as big as Coughlin, I’m not an agressive a guy. I’m here on a murder one, crime of passion, my lawyer called it, long story, actually not that long. It happened fast. They say everybody has it in him to kill once. Anyway, I rarely moved all that much during games. I just stood there in front of our goal and blocked more shots with my bulk than my stick. A lot of times my head wouldn't even be that much in the game because I was too busy just watching Coughlin. He’d thread through a bunch of guys, twirl like some hulk of a ballerina, and come out with the puck like it was glued to his stick. It was a beautiful sometimes. Coughlin could be a real artist out there, and losing seemed to bring out the best in him. Coughlin never wanted to crush Charlestown; he always wanted them to believe they could beat us. Why would anybody bother otherwise? Coughlin always said you have to give Charlestown some reason to believe.
That day I think Coughlin may have pulled a hamstring or something because he was favoring his left side a bit, but as soon as he heard the first warning bell, five minutes to count, his body seemed to forget about it and he got the hunger back. But Charlestown had some strong players and they were hanging in there; most of them dropped back to defend. Coughlin couldn’t get a decent shot off. They kept deflecting his shots—not only with their sticks, but their shoes, their heads. It was getting bloody down by the goal. Charlestown wanted it for once. And Coughlin with about a minute to go was raging.
One thing to let the people believe, another to let them see God’s face in the score.
A rain of shots one after the other and still Charlestown’s holding—one shot richoets off the top bar of the goal and this time the puck slides under the officer’s bench. And, see, that day a brand new screw was down in the gym and he didn't know the rules. And Morton, the lazy fuck, didn’t bother to tell him. Salazar would have told him. Salazar would have showed him the ropes. But Morton, never. It would have taken too much energy to open his mouth and say, Hey, listen, rook, when the puck goes under the bench, they’ll kill you if you don’t get your ass out of the way, got it? What would it have taken? And so of course when it happened, the twenty year-old puny rookie screw didn't have any sense. Even though Morton was way the hell out of there. Morton was practically in New Hampshire when that puck slid under the bench. The kid didn't move. Even with Coughlin heading right toward him, the kid still didn't have sense. I’m a guard, the kid thinking, I’m wearing a uniform. Two hundred thirty-five pounds of Denny Coughlin barreling his way and the kid sits there on on a picnic. Coughlin couldn’t stop and he popped the kid so hard the kid’s head mulched against the concrete wall like a kicked-in pumpkin. And it was bad. Morton, who knew damn well Coughlin was only going for the puck—fucked him anyway. That should be Rule 4: They’ll fuck you. Don't ever believe they won’t. Morton got on his radio and called an an emergency B single assault on an officer. It didn’t take more than sixty seconds for Hanrahan to burst in with six helmets from the Special Operations Response Team, plastic shields in one hand, wombats in the other. And the SORTs went right for Coughlin. He didn’t even resist them. He just lay down on the floor not covering his head with his hands, almost as though he was relaxing, day at the beach. Kick away boys, I’m your meat. Kick away. But, hear this, Coughlin, even on the floor, even getting his teeth kicked in by the toes of the SORT screws boots—still spoke up for the game, for us: “Puck’s always live. Puck’s only dead when it goes in the cage! All we got is hockey.” And when they dragged him away by his pits and he was nearly unconscious, his blood wandering across the gym floor, he kept spluttering that he didn't need to go the choke, that he was fine, absolutely fucking fine. Salerno told us what happened after. He had his contacts. They couldn't save him in the choke so they had him airlifted him to Mass General. But that was only a formality. That was only covering their asses. Coughlin was brain dead before he left Cedar Junction.
Peter Orner is the author of the novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a collection, Esther Stories, Finalist for the Pen Hemingway Award. He currently lives in northern Wisconsin, a few miles south of Lake Superior.