Art by Bob Dornborg
Silly television shows aside, you shouldn't try to mix families. This becomes painfully clear on a trip to the Sierras.
The first time it hits me, we are just outside of Mojave, driving over a freeway on-ramp that points the nose of my black Lincoln Continental north along route 395 toward Mammoth mountain. The television show analogy isn't an accident because my wife's son has actually begun singing the Brady Bunch theme song. "Here's a story of a man named Brady..." My own sons, though nearly the same age—Jack fifteen and Collin thirteen—stop reading their surfing magazines. Collin, mostly to impress his cynical brother, sticks his finger in his throat and pretends to gag, his bleached blonde hair falling into his eyes. I see this through the rear-view mirror, and I should say something to Collin, but I have to admit the saccharine flavor of the song makes me want to gag myself. A balancing act is essential in this world, and, noticing a smile come across my wife's face, I place my hand on her knee and sing, "Here's a story of a lovely lady." After a verse I stop singing, but my wife and Nathan continue, apparently planning to sing the whole thing.
Kids are supposed to test things out, stretch limits, be self-involved, but something is strange about my step-son. I feel I love him. It's hard not to love a child, especially one who lives with you, who you feed and buy clothes for—one who looks to you for protection and attention. And, he is my wife's child from her previous marriage. I love her, and as these things go, I love the things she loves. He looks like his mother, but I can also see his father in him, a man I knew from church.
Jason—Dana's ex—is a good looking man, self-possessed, but prone to drinking too much. Sensitive and proud of his earlier Air Force career. I sat with him one church picnic, lounging at a bench over-looking the man-made lake at Mason Park, as he drank one of too many beers to be proper at a church picnic. His nose was red and his eyes glassy from the muddying effect of the Budweisers. He was recounting a story I'd heard numerous times of an emergency landing somewhere in Colorado, a landing gear problem or something—I never cared all that much for planes—when Dana caught his eye as she leaned over the potato salad at the pot-luck table. She was—and still is—a beautiful woman, and at that time of the year with the summer sun, the heat of the afternoon, and her dress opened just enough at the breasts, she was as radiant as I've ever seen her. Mid-story, Jason stopped, his mouth hanging slightly open, and said, "I'm always surprised by her." His sensitivity caught me off-guard, and I felt a kinship with the man, because at that moment I understood exactly what he meant. This face, this moment, comes back to me often in the face of my step-son.
I believe Jason was a good father to Nathan before the divorce. Dana has told me stories about nights of drinking and long hours at work, but everyone has their weaknesses. Whenever I saw them together, at church or other functions, he treated Nathan well, his arm around his shoulders, encouraging him during softball games, and Nathan never shrunk from him. It was after the divorce that things got bad, and they got worse following our marriage. Nathan more than once had to put his father to bed drunk. One night, driving the S curves leading to the housing tract in which Jason lived, they veered off the second turn and plowed into the support beams of a not-quite finished condominium. The unfinished second floor collapsed on top of them, but, luckily, the roof of the car didn't completely cave in.
That was it for Dana, and she took Jason to court to get full custody of Nathan. At first I refused to handle the case, but our marriage was young and I acquiesed to her pleas. Maybe I wanted to assert myself, our marriage, to let Jason know things had changed permanently. I had convinced myself this would be a final chapter and it would allow him closure, but who knows about these things. I believe, now, this was a mistake. I've never seen a man collapse before, but in that courtroom, while he watched me steal his son away for my—my—wife, I witnessed a quiet implosion. I don't know if anyone else saw it. He wasn't the type of man to fall apart in front of you, unless he'd been drinking, but there was a horrible change, like everything was turning to liquid inside him. When I turned away from the judge and caught his eyes by mistake, I could see it: his pupils sunken and swimming as if his body would flow away down the courtroom aisle. I will always feel guilty about this. I've listened to people's lies and half- truths most of my life, and I'm not prepared to lie about this, although I don't like it, and it would be easier to delude myself.
Before the divorces, I was an unofficial marriage counselor at the church. Women and men would come to me for support or advice for fixing problems in their marriage. I enjoyed the work, and I was good at it. Dana came to me during this time. She came, not to fix her marriage, but to look for support in ending it. I've thought about this a lot, and I think I'm right here, even though my feelings for her were certainly strong at the time. But I didn't sway her in any way, even though my ex-wife and others have suggested, accused even, in front of my kids no less, that this is a lie. I simply listened to an unhappy woman make an unhappy decision and supported her. That we were married three months after our mutual divorces were final doesn't change this fact. Nothing happened between us until after the seperations, after the marriages were already dead. What gray area exists there is another matter, but in the black and white of it, we were innocent of the abuses others have suggested.
What's difficult to foresee is how this affects children. I've often wondered at the destructive effects of love. This is a hard thing to do, because none of it is at all clear. There's not a law code or a statute objectively laying out the consequences of such a crime. This thought bothers me, because how could loving someone and wanting to have that love for a lifetime be at all equated to a crime? But I believe, for Jack anyway, he would see it that way.
Jack. I can see him through the mirror in the back seat. He's wearing earphones and shrinking away from the singing interrupting his Korn and Limp Biskit, band names that confound me. I'm glad he's brought the discman so he won't ask to put it on the car stereo, although I know I'm not giving him the same respect at this moment, letting The Brady Bunch theme song continue. His body is pushed against the side of the car as far away as he can get from Collin, even though he loves his brother. I can feel his knees in the back of my seat, stabbing into my kidneys, but I say nothing; he has grown so fast in the last summer, I pity him having to pretzel up his legs in the back seat. I know, too, the request would make him bitter and angry. Like Nathan, Jack has had to take care of a parent—his mother. Not that his mother is drinking, she never did that in the first place, a straight-arrow woman if there ever was one (I've often joked her last life was spent in Salem in the 17th century, though only making that mistake once in front of the boys). I'm not sure what effect this has had on him, but I've seen him with her, by accident, when she was upset.
It was a year earlier, and I was coming home from work one Friday, picking up the boys, who live with their mother and visit me (when they feel like it) on the weekends. It was a hot day, and the windows to the house were swung open. I had to park the car down the street, so they didn't hear me walk up the driveway, and through the screened-in window I could see him holding Janice and rocking her like a mother would a child. His face was sad, quiet and innocent, and his thin fingers pushed back the hair from her forehead. I stood on the edge of the driveway a moment and then walked up and rang the doorbell to my old house. When Jack opened the door, Janice was gone, and his face was hard and angry, his jaw clenched so I could see lines underneath his cheeks. It was the first time I was scared of my son.
"All right, shut-up with the lame song!" It's typical Collin. He's young enough that the bubble-gum pop to the song still attracts him, and it makes him nervous his brother might find out. I move my head enough so I can see him in the mirror. He doesn't notice me see him turn for approval from Jack.
"Don't say shut-up," I say. Collin looks at the back of my head and says nothing. If it had been Jack, he would have told me to shut-up, but Collin's still young enough to believe I can actually do something to him, and he sits back in his seat with his arms folded over his chest. But this kills the singing, and we all sit quietly in the car, the only sound the whistling of the wind through cracks in the doorjams and the tin-metal sounds emanating from Jack's earphones.
We're heading to Mammoth for five days of skiing. I love the drive through the high desert, along the ridge of the eastern Sierras rising like a row of clean white teeth in the dim sunlight. The colors here are subtle shades of blue and rust touching the edges of my joy at this beauty with an inexplicable sadness. I want to share this with the kids, but I know Jack won't be interested, and Collin, even if he was, will follow his brother's lead. I think about sharing it with Nathan. I think he will appreciate it. He's brought no magazines, no music, and he watches everything blur by the window in a wide-eyed fascination. I almost say something to him, but I've found this balance is the most precarious; I have to ignore Nathan to a certain extent to keep my kids from feeling slighted. I want to say something to Dana about the bit of sadness I feel, even though I'm happy, but I'm afraid she'll misunderstand, and I don't want to upset her. So I watch the uninterrupted spine of the Sierras, thinking of a thousand things I won't say.
I'm hoping this trip will be better than the last. Last summer we loaded up surfboards and drove to Baja California, to a beach south of Rosarito named Popotla known for its great south-swell break. I only know this because of my boys. On the cliffs overlooking the beach is a retirement community—old couples who have moved down from Southern California. We rented out a house from some clients who were gone for the summer cruising in the Mediterranean. The house was filled with pictures of children and grandchildren, and even wedding pictures of the couple thirty-five years before.
The boys spent the days surfing, something they'd been doing since they were eight. Jack and Collin would be out the door by 6:30 AM, like two little men, their surfboards under their arms, the wetsuits folded down at their waists exposing lean, sinewy muscles only young teenagers have the luck to possess. Nathan didn't surf, but he had brought a boogie board, something my boys disdained, and he waddled out behind them, tripping over the leash he'd attached to his ankle. I tried to tell him to wait and attach it on the beach, just before going in the water, but he wanted it on before he left the door to the condo. Nathan was like that.
It was only a year after the marriage, and there was some hostility, but that's natural. Jack had told Dana emphatically one evening she was not his mother when she asked him to clean up the dinner table. Fair enough, we decided. He was right, she wasn't his mother. But we had rules, and he was supposed to follow those rules. He seemed to understand this, and things were okay. Collin tried to impress her (I believe, at first, he had a crush on Dana). But I heard Jack in the backyard one day tell him he was acting like a pussy—his word—and he was being a traitor to their mother. Collin's crush ended there, but he managed to be polite. As far as Nathan went, they mostly ignored him with a quiet indifference they used to show Nathan he wasn't as good as them.
In the mornings I would let them hit the surf alone for half an hour, enough time for Dana and I to have a cup of coffee and to make them feel they had some independence. I knew they would sit and watch the waves for at least ten of those minutes, analyzing the curl and tube on the swells. It would take them another ten just to pull on the wetsuits, wax up the boards, and paddle out. I figured not much could happen in the remaining time.
From the cliffs one morning as I walked to the beach, I saw the three of them: my sons like seals in their wet-suits and Nathan's white, slightly flabby back. When I reached the beach, I could see it was a strong swell. The waves were large and hollowed out by the wind, so spits of water flew back off the lip of the waves like flames. Jack caught one, fell down the face like a man out a window. When he reached the bottom of the wave, the lip curled above him, and he cut up the face of water until he broke through the crashing and fell backwards again, somehow still on the board, and he rode out the whitewash, bouncing up and down to keep the momentum as it petered out on the shore. Then he dropped down on his stomach and paddled out to where Collin and Nathan were waiting for the next set.
What happened next will always bother me, although I like to think I misinterpreted it. When Jack reached the other boys, he pulled up next to Nathan, a boy significantly smaller than him, and pushed him into the water with the palm of his hand. Nathan fell under the surface, his feet and arms splashing, as Jack held his head under. I expected Jack to let him up, just kid fun, but he held him under long enough to make the joke dangerous. I stood up on the beach to see more clearly, and when I did, Jack let Nathan break the surface. As soon as he took a breath, his lips rounded in a gasp, Collin slipped from his surfboard into the water and grabbed Nathan by the foot and pulled him off the board once again. Jack, laughing, pushed his head under, and Nathan's whole body disappeared. I yelled out to the boys to stop, but they couldn't—or wouldn't—hear me over the waves rushing onto the shore. I stripped off my shirt and swam out through the waves, kicking seaweed from my ankles as I pushed through the cresting swells out to where they sat bobbing on their boards in eight feet of water.
When I reached them, I found Jack and Collin sitting up on their boards, their legs hugging the fiberglass arrows as their feet dangled and kicked below. Their bodies were so steady in the water, it seemed they were sitting on the unmoving beach. Nathan had managed to get back onto his boogie board, and he rocked back and forth, slipping his wet stomach from side to side and working hard to keep himself righted. His face was red and he breathed hard.
"What were you guys doing?" A swell carried us all up a few feet and dropped us down again.
"Hey, Dad," said Collin. "Body surfing?"
"Jack, this is not the place to play games." Jack ignored me and watched a wave forming on the shortened horizon of swelling water. I swallowed some water and spit it out, the salt burning the back of my throat.
"Boards plus wet-suits plus waves equals surfing." He turned around and began kicking as the wave grew above our heads. "You okay? Don't drown, Dad."
"You know what I'm talking about, Jack McCabe."
"It's okay," Nathan said. "No problem, I just fell off my board, and they were helping me up."
"See, Dad. No problem." And Jack disappeared behind the wall of falling water towards the long white shore. I swam back to the beach and watched them closely the rest of the day, and they seemed to get along just fine. I even saw Collin show Nathan how to put a knee up on the board.
We are now rising out of the desert into the shortened wind-swept pines of foothills preceding the rush of rock that are the mountains proper. Behind us the desert is a swath of blue and gray and forms a river of flat land between the Sierras and its sister mountains across the valley. I point out to Nathan, because he's the only one listening, these mountains were formed—and continue to be formed—by unimaginably powerful forces: earthquakes, creeping ice sheets, tectonic plates shattering the skin of land, splitting the seams of fault lines. He listens closely, watching my profile as I speak, then turns to look at the mountains.
"It's like it's alive," he says. I smile at his excitement and try to see this land through his eyes.
The White Mountains across the valley, while less dramatic, are equally tall and imposing, like the back of a great monster. I wonder, as I always do on this drive, at the power of natural forces, how there is a tug and pull to things beyond us, stresses fracturing and breaking, and science has no way of preparing for the rupture. While these mountains seem unmoving, an earthquake a few years back threw them, the whole mass of their bodies, nearer to the sun by three inches.
As we reach the top of the ridge, Mammoth mountain comes into view, a volcano itself, waiting to erupt. The vague fear I have about the boys being on the mountain is calmed by the fact the chances of an eruption happening on our vacation is negligible. Dirty snow begins to gather on the side of the road, and A-frame houses dot the landscape preceding the town. When we reach the cabin, the driveway is snowed in, and I park the car on the street. Jack and Collin are jumping out of their seats. It's only noon, and they can still get in a half-day's worth of skiing. Before I get the car into park, they are out the door, making snowballs and throwing them at each other. This relieves me, because it's clear they're still kids, and they can stop their posing for a few moments to have fun.
Nathan waits for his mother to exit the car, and when he gets out, he stands and considers the blocked driveway. I want him to go and play with the boys. I want to see him screaming and jumping and pummeling Jack with the freezing snow. I can see what he's about to do, because Nathan is as predictable as the sun, and I nearly grab him and force him to be a kid.
"Should we clear the driveway?" He turns to study my face, waiting for me to respond.
"It's okay for now. Why don't you play a little?"
"But the driveway's blocked, and it seems silly to carry everything so far."
Silly is his mom's word, and I can see her well with pride at him copying her, and Nathan can see it too. He walks to the trunk, which I have opened, and I consider holding onto the shovels I've packed for just such an occasion, but how do you prevent a kid from performing a nice deed?
He grabs the handle of one of the shovels, walks back to the two feet thick snow, and begins shoveling, by himself, while we watch. Dana smiles and holds out her hand in amazement.
"Look at that," she says. "How did I get so lucky?" She looks at me, a smile spreading across her face.
I have to agree with her. "I just don't know," I say.
Then her face changes as she looks past me towards my sons, the expression shifting effortlessly to disgust and disappointment, as if she's practiced it. I turn around to find Collin using his finger to finish writing WASH ME in the accumulated dirt on the side-panel of the Lincoln.
"No, no, Collin. 'Blow me.' Write 'blow me!'" Jack yells it as he sends a hard packed snowball sailing at Collin's back, hitting him squarely between the shoulders. It hurts Collin, but rather than cry, he screams, "Faggot!"
"That's enough, you two," I say. "Get yourselves over here and start shoveling." Jack starts to protest. "Now!" My voice is too harsh, peppered with embarrassment.
We spend the afternoon shoveling, and the boys miss the half day of skiing.
From where I sit in the cabin, I can see the storm clouds moving in. In the blue evening darkness, they loom like the shoulders of elephants stamping across the flat valley. The boys are asleep, finally, after my having to threaten Collin and Jack with no money for skiing tomorrow if they didn't get their butts upstairs. The constant battle with my boys tires me out, and sometimes I think my ex-wife puts them up to it, conspires with them against me. There are two twin beds and a couch in the room where the boys sleep. Earlier Nathan offered to take the couch, before my boys could even form an argument. I told them, as forcefully as possible without seeming angry, they would share the beds for the next few days, but Nathan countered he didn't mind. In front of my boys, I had to thank him.
Dana and I have split for our usual half an hour alone in the evenings. We find after a long day with the kids, we both need some time alone to decompress. Out the window the black Continental sits, like a huge hole in the driveway against the reflecting snow. It's the same car I had before the divorce. The boys and Janice and I took our last family trip in it to, of all places, the Calico Ghost Town out by Bakersfield. It was a weekend trip—at the time I had too many cases at work and had to get back. I'm not sure why we chose a ghost town; we did it on a whim, but there ended up being something strangely pleasant about the experience, although the site itself wasn't much to see: just a row of wooden buildings painted up to look like the old west with a barber shop, complete with licorice pole, and a blacksmith's.
But it was the desert and the eerie possibility of ghosts that kept Jack and Collin quiet and calm, and Janice and I, who were always searching for things to say at this point in our marriage anyway, were allowed the relief of silence together.
The irony of this car is not lost on me. I've thought about selling it, but it runs fine, and there's a lot of room for a family. The car, which is black, used to be painted an iridescent pearl. It's the car I drove away from the my ex-wife's house for the last time, throwing all my clothes in the back, all of this while the boys watched from the window—silent because their mother asked them to be. I'm not sure when this happened—I'm not sure, to be quite honest, even who did it, although I like to believe it was Janice—but sometime in the night, someone spray painted SIN in florescent orange lettering all over the hood and side-panels, the trunk and even the roof of the car. On the driver's side door was also painted in smaller letters, like a neon whisper: LOVE THY NEIGHBOR! I couldn't drive it to work like that, so I took it to an Earl Schieb car painting center and had it painted. Black seemed assured to cover up the bright orange, and to this day it's the color of the car.
It begins to snow small raindrop-like flakes spitting through the porchlight. In five minutes the flakes get bigger and fall like tiny parachutes from the sky, rocking down to earth with the softness of a bedtime lullaby. Dana comes to join me, and I make room for her between my legs so she leans her head against my stomach and I can run my fingers through her hair.
"I worry about the three of them alone up there," she says. She touches her hand to my knee, and her touch, as always, reminds me why I married her. "I think they might never get along."
"They're okay. They're stuck with each other, so they better figure it out."
"Yes, but there's no blood between them. They don't see themselves in each other."
And I know she's right, so I say nothing and stroke her hair up over my stomach, and we watch the Continental turn from black to gray to ash as the snow continues falling, bleaching the world before our tired eyes.
It has snowed all night, and when we wake in the early morning so the boys can be on the slopes by eight, the early sunlight seems to be filtering through layers of white gauze, the light diffused and pale, and the landscape devoid of shadows. Out the window, the Continental is nearly covered, only a hint of the black roof shines through the snow, and it looks like a body wrapped in a shroud. Jack and Collin are leaning up against the couches on the floor of the front room, eating bear-claws bought from Safeway. They talk like experts about the back bowls of the mountain, getting their skis waxed and the edges sharpened. Collin wants the pitch of his boots adjusted so he'll have more flexibility in the newly fallen snow. Nathan sits alone at the breakfast table, eating a bowl of cornflakes. I want Nathan to go join my boys, but, then again, I hope he doesn't. It's too early in the morning for me to act as referee.
I have an old knee injury keeping me off the slopes, so the boys will go skiing by themselves, leaving Dana and I those precious rare moments when we get to be by ourselves. We have two different relationships, Dana and I, and I wonder if this is true for all second marriages sharing children. By ourselves, we are, as the vows go, one. I can tell what she's thinking and she can do the same. The ease with which we communicate when we are alone calms me, makes all the days I spend convincing strangers on a jury what the truth is—through tricks of rhetoric and veiled questions and hidden evidence—easier to swallow. It's one of those rare things, and when I wonder if we've sacrificed too much to have this together, my doubts are assuaged when we are alone. But when the kids are around, even just Nathan, there's a lingering suspicion, a doubt about each other's motives. It's like we're standing in two separate corners of a ring, and when the bells sound, we meet in the middle, eyeing each other, never actually throwing punches, but waiting for the other one to do so.
When the boys leave, walking down the driveway in their stretch pants and neon gore-tex jackets, we stand in the doorway and watch them, coffee in our hands and steam rising to our faces. I don't know if she feels it too, but I can't wait until they are out of sight, around the corner and out of our lives for a few hours. I feel guilty about this, a little anyway, and I think of mentioning it to her, but I don't, afraid she'll misunderstand me. But when they're out of sight, and we close the door to the cabin, she opens up her robe, revealing her naked body beneath. She takes my hand and places it on her chest, and I can feel her heart beating fast underneath like she's just been running, and I sense the teenage girl in her, the days when her body was her own only—before first husbands, before children—her own to offer to me. She takes my hand and leads me upstairs, I dressed in layers of winter clothing, her lean body out ahead of me, white against the brown of the log walls, and I know we're one in the relief of an empty house.
Later that morning I dig out the car. Enough snow has fallen that the lines of the square car have been softened, so much so the mound looks like a snow drift rather than a ton of metal. I use my gloved hands to wipe away the snow until I find the steel body. Careful not to scratch the sides of the car and ruin the paint, I turn the shovel over and slowly scrape a knife-edge crust off the surface. When the car is cleared enough to open the driver's side door, I get in, start up the engine, and sit and watch the remaining patches on the hood melt with the heat.
We've decided to drive to the resort and watch for the boys. When we get there, we sit down near the fireplace of a bar smelling of wet carpet and sweaty boots. We're the only ones in the place wearing street shoes, the rest walk around in boots looking like something NASA astronauts would wear on the moon. From the cushioned seats near the gas fireplace, we see the steep face of the mountain, like a glacial wall falling to the flatness of the base lodge. Ant people swerve and hop and zigag across the mountain.
Dana and I open up books to read. We pretend to bury ourselves in the words on the page, but we're really watching the slope out of the corner of our eyes for the distinctive three-some. After twenty minutes, I see them coming down the mountain. Jack in front, coolly carving up the hill in short turns so sharp he seems to be riding knives, Collin behind him, hopping over moguls, throwing back his skis to touch his back, and Nathan, a little further behind, but staying up nonetheless. About halfway down the face, Jack stops and cuts across the mountain, and Collin follows. Nathan, not a bad skier, but certainly not as strong as my boys, isn't able to turn as fast and continues down the mountain.
Jack and Collin find flat ground near a grove of trees, and Jack points down the hill. I follow his hand and see what they are looking at: a three foot high ridge of snow from which they will be able to fly back onto the steep trail. Nathan is now at the bottom of the hill, sitting in the snow and looking back up the slope towards where Jack and Collin have lined up their skis for the descent towards the ridge. They are standing side to side, apparently planning to hit the rise at the same time and fly through the air together. They push off and Collin, surprisingly, has the lead until Jack crouches and barrels out ahead of him. They don't turn at all, and as they gain speed, I can feel a lump in my throat, the helplessness of watching your kids fall to their doom. I've seen them do this a dozen times, but it still scares me. Just before the the jump, the slope flattens out a little, and their accumulated speed is slowed just enough I think they won't kill themselves. They hit the ridge, Jack first and then Collin close behind. For a few seconds they are both suspended, their skis pulled up tight, their arms and poles waving, their bodies hurtling through the air like two strange neon birds. When they hit ground again, Collin catches an edge and skids out across the slope but manages to keep himself up. They barrel down the last part of the mountain, heading straight towards Nathan. I look at Dana, but she's reading her book, not looking out the window at all, and I don't tell her what's about to happen. I watch, my hands gripping the arm rests of the chair, digging my nails into the sides, and in my head tell Nathan to stand up. But he sits there as the boys approach. They still haven't turned, and it seems to me they are travelling at highway speeds. When Jack gets within ten yards of Nathan, he lifts his skis, leans to his left and slams on the brakes. Collin does the same, and both my boys are leaning into the mountain, digging their sharp edges into the snow, throwing up a cloud ahead of them. They stop a foot in front of Nathan, and the snow falls over him like a small avalanche, covering his hair and face and the shoulders of his blue jacket. Get up and hit them, I think. Don't let them do this to you. But Nathan just sits there, wipes the snow away from his jacket, shakes off his hair, and stands to join them as if nothing at all just happened.
The next day a second storm hits. I'm sitting near the window overlooking the driveway, preparing for the defense of a man who stole a bike from a WalMart for his daughter's birthday. The man has a history of mental problems, and the trick is to make the jury believe he actually thought, in his crazy mind, that he was borrowing the bike, that he planned to return it when he was finished. It sounds ridiculous, but I find juries believe the outrageous and suspect the rational. The snow falls in big dry flakes, like ash from an unseen fire, and within an hour, the Continental is covered and quickly disappearing. Dana is in the small kitchen cooking tacos for dinner, and I'm expecting the boys home from skiing any minute.
I see Jack first. He is carrying his skis and another pair over his right shoulder. Through his ski mask his breath escapes in clouds, and I, for a moment, imagine what he must look like smoking a cigarette. Behind him, but a few yards back, are Nathan and Collin. I stand up when I see them and place my work on the couch, because Collin is holding onto Nathan's arm, helping him down the street. I'm briefly impressed with Collin's care, and I feel a rush of pride and want to point this out to Dana, until I realize, without any real evidence, Collin is helping Nathan because he and Jack are responsible for whatever has happened to him. For a second I think about not calling Dana at all, but then a sense of betrayal sets in, and I yell out her name. Hearing it in my voice, she comes out of the kitchen in a panic, her hands pushing hair out of her face, her eyes scared, saying, "What's wrong?" and I'm briefly frustrated it takes only the inflection of my voice speaking her name to sound such alarm in her. Again, I have the feeling she has been prepared, waiting patiently for something like this, practicing her response.
Jack climbs the stairs to the cabin, and when I open the door our eyes meet. I only see his eyes and brow through the mask and it makes him difficult to read, but what I first think is fear and guilt I quickly see is defiance and anger.
"What happened?" I say.
"He fell." Jack sets the skis against the the wall of the cabin and brushes away snow from the bindings with his gloved hands.
Even before they reach the stairs, I can see the knot on Nathan's head, blue against his white, frozen face. When Dana sees it, she lets out a panicked sigh and rushes down the snowy stairs in only her socks. I follow her and want to tell her to put shoes on, but she's already up to her ankle in the snow, her arms held out to grab Nathan. When she reaches him, she looks at Collin and pushes him out of the way to get to her son. Nathan swoons against his mother and when I reach his other arm, he seems to be ready to pass out. At first I think he's faking it, but when I get a closer look at the knot, the goose-egg rising underneath the skin, I change my mind.
We walk him up the stairs and into the cabin, and sit him down on one of the couches in the front room. The room is organized with a geometry separating it into two halves. One half is the space containing the couches, bunched in a U shape around a glass coffee table. The other half of the room is empty. Dana sits on the couch with Nathan, placing his head on her lap and pulling the hair away from the bump. I sit on the glass table near Nathan and look at his eyes to see if they're dilated. They're normal size, but they're watery and glassy and he seems far away.
"Get some ice," Dana says.
I turn to Collin who is standing behind the couch. "There's some in the freezer. Wrap it in a towel."
"No, David, you get it." She waves a hand in the general direction of my kids. "They've done enough."
I instinctively look at Collin, who, at this point, is halfway to the kitchen. He stops, stands awkwardly for a moment, and then looks to his brother. Jack's leaning against the closed door, his hand on the copper door handle as if he is ready to run.
"We didn't do anything," Jack says. His voice is steady and slow, angry or resigned, I can't tell. Voice is sometimes a give away, but there are other more reliable clues to the truth of someone's testimony. If a man blinks too much when asked questions, he's probably making up his story. If he touches his nose while answering or looks to the side in deep consideration, there's something he's hiding. The jury often picks up on this and biases itself accordingly, regardless of substantial evidence, and they are usually right in their assumption, their gut reaction. The only wild-card in this is when a jury is presented a victim. The jury always leans towards the victim. Jack's head is down and his eyes are fixed directly on me. He doesn't move, except for a barely perceptible all-over-body shake, and, again, I can't read him. Is he scared? Angry? At this moment he no longer seems a child, and the distance between us grows, as if the floor is a conveyer belt pulling me away from him.
"How could you?" Dana says, her voice trembles with anger. This question reminds me of the surfing trip to Mexico and Jack's hand and all my doubt is gone.
"He fell and slid into a lift pole." Jack looks at me, then turns to watch his brother as he moves towards the kitchen. For a second I think Jack is going to stop him, but he lets Collin go. "I can show you where his ski chipped off the paint if you want, but you'd have to come up the mountain." I don't know if it's the tone of his voice or the way he is staring at me, but the elaborateness of the lie infuriates me. I stand up, placing myself between Dana and Nathan and my son.
"I can't believe you," I say. "Nathan has done nothing to you." As soon as I say it, his shoulders drop and his face raises a little so the overhead light catches the fat of his cheeks. His whole demeanor changes, like someone who is convicted and has finally heard his sentence. In the silence, I hear the scrapes of Collin rummaging in the ice box, and I want to tell him to stop. Jack takes his hand off the door handle, walks to the kitchen table, sits down and looks away across the room, his slumped body resigned to the truth.
As Collin exits the kitchen, coming towards me with ice cupped in his hands, Nathan coughs, suddenly coherent, and says, "It's okay, I just fell. I fell is all."
I look at Jack, but he doesn't move even an inch. I turn toward Nathan, a hundred questions in my head, but mostly, Why didn't he speak up earlier? I study his face, hoping to find evidence of a lie, actually praying my boys did beat him up.
"Here, Dad," Collin says, and he places the ice without the towel in the palm of my hand, the hard edges so cold it burns my skin.
I make few mistakes, in my professional and personal life, but this one stays with me all night, even late, after I know for sure the boys are asleep, and I think it will stay with me for some time more. Something has snapped, like a fault line breaking after years of pressure, but I can't assess the damage, and I have a feeling I won't be able to for years. Despite the weather reports, it snows all night, swirling flakes fall as if being poured from the sky and settle on the ground like wet cement. By 2:00 A.M. the Continental is covered, and by four, I can barely make-out the square shape of its body. All the stress of the evening has exhausted Dana and, even though Nathan did not suffer a concussion, I tell her I'll check on him every two hours to make sure he's okay. He's on the couch where we left him, and he sleeps so soundly, a couple of times I sit and watch for the rise of his stomach to ease my mind. I watch this boy I've inherited, and run through in my mind all the things I could have said to Jack that would've made a difference to him, all the ways I could apologize that would help him understand why I chose this boy over him at such a critical moment, but nothing I think of seems adequate, nothing eases my sense of guilt.
It's still snowing when the sun comes up, and the white outside is so complete, I barely notice the sky separate itself from the trees in the coming dishwater light. The boys eat quickly, Jack ignoring me, and I letting him. Jack is like a bottle of Coke: open it too soon after shaking and it explodes all over, but let it sit for a while and the gas settles and calms. Nathan remains on the couch, looking white and sick and Dana places a wet towel on the bump which has already begun to recede. She then motions me to the bedroom, and tells me she thinks the boys shouldn't go skiing, her eyes darting back and forth the way they do when she wants me to know she's more serious than usual. She still suspects them and, honestly, I do too, but her telling me what to do with my kids gets my guard up. I think about accusing Nathan of silence, of using sympathy to drive himself between me and my kids, but she's already angry and I hold my tongue. I explain to her, rather condescendingly as she points out, the concept of innocent until proven guilty. This angers her because she knows we'll never get proof, and she knows as well as I do I'm using this as a catchall, that in the black and white of things, she has no argument against it.
We are planning to leave tonight as I have the bike stealer case the next day. Luckily, the storm begins to break, the sun casting crisp speckled light through the trees and onto the bright, fresh snow.
Five minutes before Jack and Collin leave for one more half day on the slopes, Nathan begins to moan and complain about a throbbing headache. Dana looks at me as if to say, Look what they've done and you still let them go skiing. But after the boys leave, plowing through snow up to their waist, Nathan stops complaining and watches the endless skiing videos on the local cable television channel.
When the snow finally stops and blue sky shatters through the white trees, I bundle up to go outside and dig out the car. I'm about to head out, and I realize I haven't asked Nathan how he is doing. I walk over to him, pull off my gore-tex gloves, and place my hand on his head.
"How's the noggin'?" I ask.
Before he answers, he grabs my hand in his and holds it tightly, the skin in his palm soft like a young child's. He turns to face me, places my hand against his cheek, and for a moment I think he'll put it to his lips and kiss the knuckles, but he just holds it there a second, looks up at me, smiles, and says, "Feeling better, I think."
"Good," I say. I pull my hand away and place it back into the glove.
"Can I help?" he says.
"No, you should rest."
"I'm fine, really."
Freshly fallen snow glows in direct sunlight, like a translucent blinding fog, and when Nathan and I exit the cabin, we both shield our eyes from the brightness. White contains all the colors, unlike black which is actually the absence of color. That is why when you look at white closely, you begin to realize there is no such thing, at least purely. It always takes on the color of something else: the blue of shadow, the green of trees, the red of a setting sun. The snow we are about to dig in feels pure, untarnished yet by the world, and I really don't want to dig out the car. I'd prefer to leave it hidden, entombed and useless, under the trillions of tiny snowflakes.
Nathan takes his shovel and starts at the back. For all his passivity in other areas, he takes initiative when it comes to work. I watch him start at the window. He takes the square end of the shovel and scrapes downward, in one stroke pulling off a foot of snow. When he bends toward the lump that is the car, I can see his aqua colored jacket reflected in the snow. I walk down the steps of the cabin and begin near the back so I can supervise him. He's very careful. Before each stroke, he eyes the snow to gauge the lines of the car, and adjusts the edge of the shovel accordingly. He scrapes clean, straight lines, and soon the soft snow of the car begins to give way to the harder, frozen stuff beneath hanging onto the black body of the car like a caul of ice.
"Hold off on that," I say. "Get all the soft stuff first."
Unlike Jack or even Collin, Nathan stops and listens when I speak, and immediately, he goes to work on the softer snow on the side of the car. He's almost too attentive, especially for a kid. He is the exact opposite of my sons, and I suspect he knows as much, plans it as such. When we reach the hood, he on one side and me on the other, I ask him about the accident.
"What happened yesterday?" I ask.
He stops for a second—only a second, but I notice.
"We were skiing near the edge of a trail, near the trees. I hit a patch of ice at the bottom of a mogul, and shew! I fell and slid towards the trees. I hit one of them head first."
"Let me see how it looks."
He stops shoveling and stands up to face me. I lean over the hood of the car, to make sure about what I already know: there's a mean bump, but no cuts, no abrasions. I look into his eyes, and he glances away into the forest. For a moment I can see his father's face, something about the brief distant gaze gives it away. I want to believe him. I wish I wanted to believe my kids as much as I want to believe this strange boy, but finally he is transparent, and I know why he won't tell me what's really happened. To do so would be to reveal a series of lies that have brought us closer.
"It's looking better," I say.
Working together, we manage to clear the car in twenty minutes. The sun is warming, and the snow around our feet begins to melt. I show Nathan how to hold the shovel to get the hard stuff, and when he slides the shovel across the hood, he digs too deeply, scraping ice away but also a layer of black paint. Beneath, the black a streak of orange neon breaks through. He doesn't seem to notice, and before I can say anything, he scrapes across the hood again, shaving away the thin black.
"You know," I say. "I think I can get the last of this. Why don't you go in and rest?"
Without stopping, he smiles and says, "Seems silly when I can help." We move onto the side of the car, down the passenger door, around the back to the trunk, and when we're done I can see parts of orange spray-painted letters, their brightness reflected in the melting snow beneath the Continental.
Nathan notices, too, and says, "I'm sorry."
I'm not sure about the sound of his voice, but I choose to believe him.
Later, as we are driving out of the mountains and into the high desert valley, the wind whips the car, making it difficult to hold on the icy road. Dana is asleep, her head leaning away from me, against the passenger side window. The eastern slope of the mountains stand white and frozen above the valley like huge stalagmites misshapen with so much snow. The storm has broken over the spired peaks, and the white of the mountains glow with haloes in the afternoon sun. I see it first, but before I can point it out to everyone, Nathan whispers, his voice full of amazement.
"The mountain's falling down."
The pointed top of the peak has collapsed and a cloud of snow hurtles down the steep canyons, picking up more snow and debris with it and curling at the front like an ocean wave.
Through the mirror I see Jack look up from his magazine and glance out the window. "That's an avalanche, dumbshit." He turns his face back to the magazine and continues turning the pages.
I glance at Dana to see if she has awakened. She seems fast asleep, so I pretend I don't hear and hope she hasn't, either.