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Jan/Feb 2013 Fiction

A Period Said as a Question Mark

by Benjamin Henry DeVries


Late last season, when our chairlift stalled and we dangled together in the wind for several cold and ruminative minutes, I asked Janica to try and define the mindstate of a successful ski racer. She asked me what "mindstate" meant, and I said, "Never mind that, just tell me what good skiers think about when they're skiing."

She stationed her goggles above her eyes to get a good look at something ahead of us. Then, with a decisive single blink, she stated, "Forward-looking," and put her goggles back on. I asked her what she meant, but all she did was say "forward-looking" again, except the "for" sounded more like "fahr" this time. The chair lurched to a start, and I dropped the issue in favor of trying it out. I envisioned the wheelhouse at the summit where the cable that carried our chair would be received and redirected, where our skis would touch down on snow grown hard from a life in the shade and the wind, where Janica and I would part ways from our chair. When the chair reached the bottom again, who would be its new passengers? And how many trips from base to summit would the chair make before some inspector deemed it worn out to the point of being unsafe? Then where would it go?

I revisited the issue of forward-looking on later chairlift rides, but Janica seemed displeased at my curiosity. FOER-ward-looking. Forward-LOO-king. FAR-ward-LUKE-king. The more exasperated she became, the more distorted the phrase became, but never would she elaborate beyond the two words. She seemed to think I should understand.

I know she means it literally: that I should try to see as far down the trail as I can, that the faster I'm skiing, the farther forward I should be looking. But I wish she'd say more. What I really want to know is—and I've begged her to tell me, but only received yet another strange pronunciation for my efforts—how far forward should I be looking?

 

For some, the ski season begins with those first snowflakes spotted in late autumn, and the hunger they trigger for more, millions more, enough to shut down major highways, if only to clear them of traffic for those dedicated skiers who will find a way to reach the mountains so long as there's snow to cover them and so long as GMC keeps manufacturing Suburbans with 4-wheel-drive capable of handling otherwise impassible roads. For me, the season begins with a first trip to the ski shop. I try to anticipate trends in ski gear so the skis and boots I pick out at the beginning of the season will never embarrass me by the end of it. This year Dad and I went gear shopping even earlier than usual, in October. It was raining steadily that day.

Dad installed himself, with a succession of comfort-seeking adjustments, on a boot-fitting bench and read the newspaper as I explained to the ski salesman that I needed a pair a few centimeters above my head. "Bigger equals faster," I informed the salesman. Sensing condescension, the salesman stroked his beard, which was auburn and anvil-shaped and frustratingly impressive to me, and looked over to Dad for guidance. In response, Dad slackened his jaw. The salesman seemed to understand this expression in a way I did not. He panned his gaze to the rack of skis, fanning its wares like the wing of a tropical bird, and made a move for the most expensive pair.

As I already knew from my research, the K2 Merlin Fives relied on crisscrossing electronic filaments to sense snow vibrations and tense the ski's core in response. For a demonstration, the salesman flexed one of the skis with his hand. A little red light blinked at the ski's middle. "The light lets you know they're working," he recited.

"Sold!" I declared loudly.

He held them up to me as a yardstick. The tips reached my bangs. Pinching where my beard would be, I mock-considered this length of ski, then smiled and shook my head no.

"Listen, kid," said the salesman, "Anything bigger than these planks is gonna throw you all over the place. Not gonna be a fun winter."

"Let's just see the 193s, huh?"

The salesman scoffed openly, but did as I bade him. The 193s towered above me. I craned my neck slowly back to survey the ceiling through their looming tips.

"Better," I said.

When it came time to inspect the price tag— $780 without bindings—Dad grinned and put a hand on my shoulder. "I'll have to sell the house to afford these!" he joked, and the salesman joined my father in a round of chuckling. I waited out their display of ski shop bonhomie, absently fondling a nearby pair of mittens. I directed my gaze up at my father and said, "That's funny. Mom told me the house is worth 4.8 million. Couldn't we just sell a carpet or something?"

Dad's chuckling stopped; the salesman's chuckling rolled on like a hubcap beyond the car crash. Before the salesman fell silent, Dad took hold of my forearm, and with the slight quivering that bewitches his person at times of delight or distress, escorted me from the ski shop. The lecture in his parked GMC Suburban brought a few things to light. The worth of our primary residence should not be public knowledge. As I should know by now, talk of money is not allowed in public places, especially not in the ski shop, where new gear should be presented in a setting free of class distinctions.

"After what you just showed me in there," Dad finished, "I'm not sure you deserve a new pair of skis."

My parents strung me along pretty successfully for a few months before the Merlin Fives debuted under the Christmas tree. My gift, wrapped mummy-style with a long, thin strip of candy cane print paper—the wrapping style, I noted, favored by our maid—came with a totally unnecessary comment from my sister about how "fucking spoiled" I apparently was, and some more salient pieces of advice from Dad, who told me to take care of them, and Mom, who said something about how equipment does not a man make. She said it in the tone of a quotation I was supposed to know—still haven't found the source.

True to Dad's advice, I shield the Merlin Fives from all hazards. When storing them, I keep the edges separated with Swix tuning straps, which layer a neoprene membrane between the skis so that their bases shall never meet. I store them, along with the rest of my gear, in the front hall of our "barn," which is finished as an exercise room-cum-party space, with oversized mirrors and pastel chevrons painted on the walls. Sometimes my parents complain about me leaving my skis in this room, but as I've explained to them, they don't throw many parties anymore, or exercise very much, and I prefer to keep my skis in a heated indoor space rather than in the cold and dusty garage portion of the barn. What if I get the urge to check on my skis in the middle of the night?

In the arrangement of my gear, the Merlin Fives stand next to my skis from last year, my beaters. I call these other skis my beaters because I beat up on them. I use them instead of the Merlin Fives whenever I ski in the trees, where rocks and roots remain a lurking danger. I take a certain kind of pleasure in inspecting the bases after feeling a scrape underfoot. I marvel at the carnage, the claw marks and gouges, inflicted by sharp objects beneath the lulling white cover of snow. My private accomplishments.

I considered taking the beaters along to the championship. They could serve as a backup pair and keep my racing edges fresh until the very last minute. I've watched older racers admiringly as they skied off to the starting gate on their beaters, with fresh racing edges slung over their shoulders, secure in Swix tuning straps. But it was something beyond the fulfillment of this vision that made me want to take the beaters along. It had to do with the talismanic quality they attained in the woods, their resilience against the flaws and outright dangers of ragged and forgotten trails. I thought they might bring me good luck.

In the front hall of the barn, my bags at my feet, I took an evaluative look at them. They caused me to pause, to reflect on our history together. This is why I left them behind. In forward-looking, there is no time for nostalgia.

 

We had stayed at the 1825 House before, but not in winter. The last time we visited, in summer, a waiter from another era had sidled up to our table to make a Caesar salad the old-fashioned way. He cracked an egg into a wooden bowl, poured vinegar and oil from chin height, and whisked the mixture vigorously as he explained the emulsion process to my sister, who was a little old for this, and me, admittedly interested. Dad had quivered with approval throughout the production. And in the months since, he reminded our family several times about the spectacular old-fashioned Caesar salad at the 1825 House in Conway. His telling elevated such details as the setting sun, which matched the egg yolk for color, which yolk was reflected, so claims my dad, in the lustrous pomaded hair of this good old-fashioned waiter. Several fond retellings snowballed into a Lesson. Though my sister and I were clearly headed for "Great Things" and probably not likely to make tableside Caesar salads for a living, our father advised us to take heed of the waiter's work ethic. "Whatever you do," Dad almost certainly phrased the lesson at some point, "do it with pride!"

Now, as we checked into the 1825 House, I could see the glassed-in porch where the salad had been prepared, this time haunted by furniture dressed in ghost costumes. As the man at the check-in desk informed us, the quaint rooms in the hotel's main building stayed vacant through the winter (heating problems, ghosts), so one of the hotel's spacious auxiliary condos would have to accommodate us for our one-night stay. The auxiliary condo, a 1979 House in its own right, proved spacious indeed. My sister had stayed home for the weekend, so we didn't need the three bedrooms, certainly not the kitchenette. Her absence gave me a choice of rooms, and they each had two beds each, from which I also had to choose. I determined east and chose the bed closest to that direction, to home and the sea where my own bed faced.

Tired though I was, I decided to try on my GS suit one last time before morning. A GS (Giant Slalom) suit is a skin-tight bodysuit that lets you cut through the wind. They're usually brightly colored, and the pros' suits are festooned with the emblems of their sponsors. If you're not sponsored, GS suits can get pretty expensive. At first my parents didn't want to buy me one, but then I wrote this story that made them reconsider. The story was about a ski racer whose mother was dying of heart disease or some kind of heart cancer—I left it pretty vague. I ended the story with the racer envisioning his mother's heart pumping its last couple pumps as she, in turn, imagined his race: the gates rushing by, red gate, blue gate, red gate, blue gate... a very pulmonary story.

Mom gave the story to some teachers at the high school to see what they thought of it. Now I have to bike over there every day at lunch recess for English class. I was hesitant to give up my entire lunch recess for this class, so as an incentive Mom took me to pick out a GS suit. I recall how the colorful sleeves on the rack shifted in waves like the legs of a centipede as we sorted. Mom found the destined sleeve, one with red spider webs spackled against an azure background. She clutched and held up the thumbhole cuff as if catching the suit red-handed.

It cost $495. When we were checking out, I could see Mom's eyes starting to puddle up. I told her not to worry, that Dad could afford it.

"It's not that," she croaked. She waited until we were outside the store to take me in her arms and weep softly. Out of the corner of my eye I searched for the anvil-bearded salesman. I pulled away from her.

"What is it?" I demanded. "Mom, what is it?"

I probably shouldn't have repeated my question in so vehement a tone, so soon after I asked it in the first place, but I did. She slapped me, and I felt hot tears spurt from my eyes. My neck went limp and my head hung forward, driving my bangs out over my forehead and delivering my sternum a strange massage as shivering sobs began to course through my neck and chin. And through the torrent of tears I saw that my feet were not moving, that I was standing in one place, crying, with no idea where I should go next. From a lightening shadow I realized my mother had begun walking away. The shopping bag with its deflated man spilling his limbs out the top stood beside me on the sidewalk—she had left him there for me. In a moment of bitterness, the thought returned that I should seek again in an even louder voice an answer to the question I had asked, but I had no words, no breath. I followed my mother—or followed the suggestion of her shape as blurred by my tears, because how could it really have been her?—to her Lexus sedan. I still wondered whether or not the anvil-bearded salesman had witnessed this scene, but found I was too ashamed to look back.

The slap, the tears, and the possibility that the salesman witnessed it all lingered in my thoughts as, with contortions, I slipped into my suit. I retrieved my ski poles from the car and repaired to the auxiliary condo's living room to practice my tucks. I faced the hearth, absent of light and heat. I pitied it the way I pitied once-grand snow banks eaten alive by first spring rains. Before this void I gripped my poles in my hands—barehanded, but I could imagine the leather creak of my gloves tomorrow. Up I raised the poles as if I were carrying a lunch tray. I flexed my knees, canting my shins to the correct forward angle. I rocked up and down, my knees absorbing imaginary knolls of snow. I leaned to one side, to the other, rolling on the balls of my feet to feel where my edges would catch and cut. They caught, they cut. Then came the straightaway. My knees bent deeply; my hands shot forward, snuggling the poles against my sides; my back fell in line parallel to the ground; up came my eyes, butting against my brows, looking forward into the fireless hearth. I focused on the vanishing point, barely perceptible, between sooty stonework and pure shadow.

And from the void came a cry.

Singular, sharp, human—I've heard the cries of dying animals before, and this was no animal. I didn't dare come out of my tuck.

I heard another cry and started breathing again.

The sound wasn't coming from the hearth, but from somewhere left of it, where the staircase began. Cautiously, I rose out of my tuck, the sheer fibers of the GS suit swishing together at my underarms and inner thighs. I set my ski poles down side-by-side on the carpet. As I began to walk, I heard another cry.

I reached the base of the staircase and heard gasps like sweeping bristles. These sounds were lost under the ever more frequent cries, brush beats under mad trumpeting. As I started to climb, I was struck by how much like the attic staircase at home this one was: steep and joined to the upper floor with three low walls, suggesting the dimensions of a casket. I crept on, up these relocated stairs. I craned my neck back and saw a pleasant honey-colored wash on the ceiling, the reception of lamplight from somewhere in the room. As my head drew parallel with the top of one of the low dividing walls, I turned my gaze down so that only one eye overshot the edge.

Like gnarled birch trunks, my dad's calves and feet hung over the edge of the bed. They emerged from the pitted curvature of Mom's rising and falling ass, which rested at momentary intervals on her thighs, which in turn rested on her compressed calves, which ended at her upturned feet, the toes of which burrowed under the backs of Dad's quivering knees. At the center of this squiggle of flesh, a deep cleft of black hair and dead looking skin rose and fell, each time engulfing his pink and almost motionless penis. Something seemed pale and sickly about it, the penis, like it should gasp for breath each time before plunging back in. Her sex seemed to suck the breath away. It made tiny masticating sounds.

At first I couldn't really tell whether mine was growing or shrinking, but then I felt it press against the sheer GS suit and could tell: a printed spider web bulged to a pinnacle. I covered it with my hand.

A sincere "Please!" escaped my father, but no sooner had the word come out than was it squashed under my mother's last startling cry. A puncturing blast, the cry struck the air with the finality of punctuation: a black dot burrowing a hole through space. A period. It reached my eyes before my ears. But as the echo followed in its wake, the sound bent sinuously, distorting as it rose. The cry's meaning arrived to me transformed. A period said as a question mark.

 

As a village girl from outside Sarajevo, Janica was called upon to forerun the Slalom course at the '84 Olympics. Her run would have earned Gold, had it counted. It earned her glory on a more intimate stage. The night after the race, everyone who knew her raised a stein in her honor at a tavern built of spruces cleared from the mountainside to make room for the tavern itself. At this same tavern that night, and who knows how he found the place, was an American racer, drowning his sorrows after a poor showing on the same course Janica had slain. Drunk and boastful, this fellow challenged Janica to a midnight race, insisting that her earlier pacesetting had thrown him off. She accepted, on one condition: that he take her hand in marriage if she won—presumably for the visa, which was a difficult thing to attain in those days.

She won. He ended up hitting a tree, tearing his meniscus, and forfeiting whatever was left of his career to chew painkillers and hand out trail maps (professionally) at a New Hampshire ski resort. To support what was becoming a very expensive habit of her husband's—and out of love, for she had grown to love him in a way—Janica got a job as a coach. They split up when he started stealing televisions and she started being less discreet about her affairs with snowcat drivers, lifties, and all manner of resort town dwellers and transients, including, or so it is rumored, young racers.

So usually when she gives me vigorous pre-race massages, I feel thankful to have a layer of long underwear between the unforgiving thinness of the GS suit and my aching admiration for her. But on this morning, her mitten-handed swats could stir no warmth, no blood.

After the massage, she told me to close my eyes and envision the course, and held my shoulders to tilt me in simulation of various turns. I had watched her forerun the course earlier, with grace that lingered as a tickle in my throat. She whispered "right" and "left" as she held me. I went limp, tensed, and let the shudder run its course. She ceased her tilting.

"You shiver. Why?" asked Janica.

"I'm very cold, Janica."

I opened my eyes to the scene around me. A temperature drop overnight had turned slush to ice, and various sounds around the starting gate fulfilled the promise of the phrase "cold snap." Rigid boots forced themselves into the tense machinery of bindings. Sleeves of ice slid off birch trunks and shattered on the ground below. I looked to the course. It had been whittled to its icy core. Patches glowed blue between ruts that menaced like sneering lips and eyebrows, their grimace deepening with each skier that dared cross their surface.

"Yes. Cold. Remember: forward-looking," said Janica.

"What is it you mean by that?"

"FORD-LURK-ING."

"Yes, yes, I heard you."

"Yes. See the boy you are at end of race. Be that boy."

"I don't understand."

"Then forward-look to when you may."

Holding my elbow and shoulder as one would an invalid, she slid me toward the starting gate. "Racer ready?" barked an official.

I brought my poles into the daylight outside the hut. I pressed my shins to the timing wand.

"Three!"

I gripped my poles but the leather of my gloves was too soaked to creak satisfyingly.

"Two!"

I couldn't feel my thing.

"One!"

I knew it was there, but...

"Go!"

The gates up top were set for slight, speed-building turns, and I slipped through them as straight as I could, steadily accelerating. The first tight turn lay just over the vanishing point between snow and sky, a shelf beyond which an entire valley gaped. My eyes grasped, and found snow, then grasped again, and came up with empty air. The snow dropped like a trapdoor from under my skis and I was suspended between mountains for a moment. While weightless, it occurred to me to check for the swinging of my testicles, and I found them deeply retracted, which terrified me slightly more than the hard and quickly rising surface below me.

My skis hit the ice with a slap and twanged like twin diving boards. I met the steeps. I made several graceless turns. Time lurched with me, viscous one moment, and then, each time I faced downhill, water-thin. I felt my edges slip and skid, and thought of punches landed ineffectually in the faces of dream enemies.

The course doglegged around the middle, its bottom half curtained off by a stand of pines. As I skidded into the long left turn that brought these trees rushing by, I envisioned the straightaway that would arrive after a right turn and one more left. My tuck would come in handy there to build speed, and the gate placement would allow me to regain the driver's position from which I had reclined. As I emerged from the long left, riding an extra bit of speed, the gates stood against the oppressive purity of the white expanse before me like distant kites in a luminous overcast sky. I threw my weight into the right turn and felt my edges bite in and my skis flex deeply against the hard snow. The camber of my skis lifted me up at the end of the turn, and I exited upright, a driver. Hope rose with my posture. Warmth churned near what I'm told is my prostate.

I shifted my weight for the next turn, a left, and pointed my tips directly at the blue gate before me, the last before the straightaway. I intended to do more than just whiz by this gate. I intended to hit it. That's what racers do when they're cutting it close: they thwack gates, they move on. I leaned into the top portion of the gate, shoulder first, cocking my head as if offering my cheek for it to kiss. But I did not feel a connection. I heard no thwack. I was not moving on from this gate.

It's amazing how much contempt a beard can hide. Lost are the ripples at the upper lip corners, the subtle variation of cheekbone positioning that distinguishes an ironic eye-smile from a genuine one. Dad says beards are only good to hide weak chins. I don't actually know what a weak chin looks like—all the examples my father has tried to point out to me have been covered by beards—but I am fairly certain my father's saying does not apply to this man's chin. I believe it lurks with striking definition and a flinty cleft beneath his auburn bristles.

The face of the anvil-bearded salesman, scoffing at the size of the skis I required, occurred to me distinctly during the fall. Beyond my control, the tip of my too-long ski hooked on the gate like a croupier's wand trying to rake in something immovable on the table. I spun and dropped onto my wrists and face. I tumbled and slid facedown, skis first. My crash was not spectacular enough to inspire cringes in anyone but my parents, who probably saw what happened in no significant detail from their vantage at the finish. I'd be down to tell them about it soon.

I did what any respectable racer would do: I hiked up to the gate I had "missed" ("Did you miss me?"), spat, skied around it again, and finished my run to post a time with the day's (considerable, though it's no excuse) field of fallen and disqualified competitors. My overall ranking, which would affect the first race of next season, plummeted from 11th to 45th.

On the car-ride home, I questioned whether there would be a next season, in low tones volleyed without aim from my encampment in the third row of seats (whenever possible I leave the second row empty as a buffer). I made vague plans and excuses. None of the prep schools I planned to maybe attend had ski-racing programs anyway. I'd have to pick a new sport, or just focus on academics. Maybe, if I worked hard the next four years, I'd get into Dartmouth and be able to ski there. Dartmouth has its own private ski mountain...

"Something to look forward to," said Dad, without humor, and the conversation ended there. My parents weren't very talkative at the beginning of the ride. At first I thought it might be because they had noticed my presence on the stairs the night before and were disappointed I hadn't 'fessed up to my sneaking. As it turns out, they were quietly making calculations, each individually as they gazed into the coming road: how much the ski condo was worth; how much the house was really worth. I should have noticed Dad's lips in the rearview mirror—they move whenever he's tallying.

I had seen none of this coming.

After detailing the separation, they asked me if I had any questions or comments, and I told them I was flattered they waited so long to tell me.

"Flattered," asked Mom, forgetting the question mark.

"Well, I assume you didn't want the news to mess up my competitive mindstate. It didn't do any good, but thanks anyway. I'm flattered you found my race that important."

"This isn't about you at all," said Mom. "Do you realize that?"

"You're probably right," I replied, after a pause, "But it affects me, doesn't it?"

"We'll see," said Mom. "I hope so."

If it wasn't about me, what was it about? I asked them, but their answer was stuttered and faltering—clearly they hadn't gotten their stories straight—and so I tuned out. I began to reach back in my memory for signs I might have missed, but in a bemused sort of way, like trying to pick apart a magic trick. To realize the presence of trapdoors in the past excited me terribly. I felt hot little maelstroms swirling in my hips, on the insides of my elbows, and behind my eyes.

"We left Serena home because she knows already," said Dad.

"We thought she might," Mom sighed and searched for a phrase that was not really difficult to find, "Spill the beans."

Several of Serena's weekend activities, or those that took place on her watch, were evident in the state of the driveway and yard when we got home: the arabesques of motorbike burnouts in the gravel; the old oaks margining the driveway dressed up as toilet paper mummies; egg yolk smeared on the long panes of a front door no one but salesmen used; matted footprints orbiting two ring-shaped nuclei in the thin snow cover of the back lawn (keg impressions, as I put together only later); and my beater skis, together as a pair, sticking like an unexploded bomb from a hedge overdue for its first trim of springtime. My parents said nothing as we drove past these exhibits, our long driveway now a safari park the animals had destroyed and fled. Dad parked the Suburban out in front of the barn and shut off the engine.

"We'll unpack," he told me. "You go warn her."

Before I did, I went to retrieve my poor old beaters. I set loose a cascade of crusted snow in my efforts to free them, jumping, grabbing, shaking the bush's branches strategically. Finally, they tumbled down, unstrapped but no worse for wear.

As I was brushing myself off, I hazarded a look back at my parents. They inhabited each end of the Suburban, waiting. Dad sat on the tailgate, supporting himself with arms held out as struts behind him. He dangled clogs from the ends of his feet, jiggling them with his toes. At the grille end stood my mother. She reminded me of a hood ornament who had gotten tired of cutting through the wind and the onslaught of bugs and somehow grown to human size and stepped down from her perch. She looked dazed, as I assumed an overgrown figurine would. But the daze left her, and she hunched over her purse to rummage for something. Then, in a violently fast maneuver, she unwrapped a pack of cigarettes and whacked it a few times on the heel of her hand and drew one and put it to her lips and lit the end of it. Her first exhalation took a conical expression: a megaphone of silent fog. I had never seen her smoke before. As she drew the cigarette away from her face, she leaned her other arm against the grille and pushed her chest out, the edge of the hood pushing her back into an arch. She brought her arms above her head and craned her neck back. Her jaw unhinged.

I braced myself for the cry to come, but something else emerged instead, delayed by the distance between us, and softened, but not enough to mute its character. The yawn was long and leonine, and ended in a little flourish that condensed and repeated the sound that had come before it. And you might not believe me when I say she yawned in ecstasy, but there's really no other way to put it.

 

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