He’d surprise his young friends, Peter Purple thought, allowing a smile to cross his face roughened by the week-old stubble. Normally he’d insist each of them carry their own equipment, but this was their last day, and he wanted it to be special. Strong enough to carry the skis, he picked them up in the little foyer where they kept them overnight and, balancing two pairs on each shoulder and eight poles in his hands, he walked down the steps into the area between the condominiums. A narrow path covered by packed snow led to his car.
It was still dark outside, and snowflakes twirled in a distant streetlight. He couldn’t tell if it was snowing again, or if the wind was shaking the treetops. The asphalt of the plowed parking lot shone black like a river. Peter set the skis against the side of his rental, and stretched. It was too early for a winter morning. Again, his mind turned to his young companions. They needed a little push, he thought, a little encouragement, for their own benefit.
The metal straps of the ski rack were frozen and stuck to the rubber stands on the roof of the car. To separate them, he hit the straps and the stands with the ski pole. Then he took off his gloves and pulled at the straps, cursing softly.
Julia came out of the building. Peter saw her move tentatively on the packed snow, and noticed she was wearing sneakers. She carried her ski boots under her arm. The other day she had complained the boots bothered her, and he had told her to wear them with only one pair of socks. She was almost fifteen, but he enjoyed telling her what to do, like she was much younger.
“You took my skis!” she exclaimed turning a sleepy and somewhat dumbfounded face towards him. “Why? I spent twenty minutes looking for them.”
Gently, Peter took the boots from her hands and placed them in the trunk of the car. Twenty minutes was definitely an exaggeration. “Get inside,” he suggested, opening the rear passenger door for her.
She shivered, looking skinny in her pastel colored ski jacket. “Start the stupid engine,” she yelled, her breath steaming. “Freezing in here.”
Peter got in and turned the key in the ignition. The wipers, evidently left on since last night, squeaked on the icy glass. He stopped them, adjusted the ventilation levers to get the heat to the back of the car, then got out and scraped the windshield.
Randy walked over and deposited his backpack in the trunk. “Who brought my skis over here?”
Peter didn’t answer.
“Tom’s almost ready now,” Randy said. “He’ll be locking up in a minute.”
“Do you have your ski pass on you?”
Randy was quite pedantic. His goggles, wind mask, trail map, and Chap Stick were always in his backpack. He was two years older than Julia, and to him, his father’s remark sounded redundant. “Dad, what’s wrong with your eyesight?” he asked and pointed at the square pass attached to his ski jacket’s zipper. “How can I forget it, huh?”
When Tom came, they backed out into the narrow street, and drove to the security gate. A guardhouse with a light under the roof marked the entrance. Its shutters were closed, and the gate was up. Since they arrived almost one week ago, the guardhouse had been deserted. US 40 ran perpendicular to their street. As they turned onto it, the tires skidded slightly, and for a split second the shadow of the elevated gate fell on the pavement in the shape of the cross.
Tom was Randy’s best friend. They had gone to elementary and middle school together, and now they were in the same high school, in Columbia, Maryland. Tom was one of those lucky youngsters who did extremely well in school without much of an effort. He possessed an almost photographic memory, an analytical mind, and a natural curiosity that allowed him to easily rise above the norm, and surprise his teachers. They considered him exceptional. Sometimes, Randy envied Tom, but mostly he admired him, and not just for his academic achievements, but for being his friend, warm and sincere. Tom was a tall boy, broad shouldered, with overgrown black hair falling on a high and melancholy forehead. Before his parents’ divorce two years ago, his eyes had been serene. He used to live in a house with gray siding, two streets down from where Randy lived. After his mother left, he moved with his father into a two-bedroom apartment located across the street from a shopping center and the High School. The location was crucial. His father worked at Fort Meade, and had no time for his son’s needs or education. Since the divorce, Tom’s mother found no time for her son either. Relocated to the other side of Baltimore, she lived with her younger sister, a married woman with three children of her own, a dog, a gerbil in a metal cage, and several birdfeeders spread throughout a quarter-acre backyard. Rain or shine, for the last two years, Tom’s mother had spent her time watching in silence, the sparrows, robins, and cardinals consuming their daily rations of seed and pecking at each other with a human voracity. Every morning and afternoon, Tom walked the short distance between his apartment building and the high school thinking of his parents. When he was with Randy, he thought of them less. His spirits picked up and they ran, pushed each other, and wrestled. They talked about cars. Many of their classmates drove to school, honking at them from the street, showing off by revving their engines. On the day he turned seventeen, Tom passed the driving test and acquired his license. He did it alone. His father had driven that morning to Ford Meade, in their one and only car. When he returned home in the evening, he told Tom he had accepted a transfer to a military base on the outskirts of Syracuse, approximately six hundred miles north from Columbia. They would be leaving at the end of the fall semester.
It was a cold and rainy November evening, and the wind was howling. Tom rushed out the door, passed by his high school, cut behind the shopping mall, and reached Randy’s house faster than ever. His dark hair was dripping wet, and the sweat on his forehead was mixed with rainwater. Seventeen-year-old boys don’t cry, but Tom hugged his friend and burst into tears.
It was Peter who invited Tom on the ski trip. He felt sorry for the boy. Tom had practically grown up in his house, and was Randy’s best friend. Taking him skiing out West seemed the right thing to offer. They had skied together before on the East Coast, but the Rockies were different. They were taller, more rugged and wild. On those never-ending slopes, the boys’ friendship would grow stronger. Julia would benefit from Tom’s presence, and they would all come back suntanned, and invigorated by their experience.
Before driving his son to the airport, Tom’s father gave him one last tidbit of advice: “Do what Mr. Purple tells you, as if he were your father.”
They liked to begin their day at the base ski lodge, twenty-four miles south of the condominiums. With the weather and the curves in the road, it took them forty minutes to make it. Tom was sitting up front, his booted legs stretched as far as they could go, his head tilted back on the head rest.
“Find some music,” Julia asked, leaning in between the two front seats.
The radio was on, but the reception was poor. Tom pressed the seek button. It scanned almost half the dial before stopping at a new station.
“Yuck!” Julia shrieked almost without listening. It was chamber music. “Change it!”
Tom pushed the button again, and as soon as something else came on, Julia protested.
It was annoying, Peter thought, but didn’t say anything. He wasn’t a music person, although in his youth he had enjoyed the sounds of certain fashionable rock groups. What these children were searching wasn’t easy to find, and when they did, it sounded like mambo-jumbo to him. At least the light was breaking over the mountains, and driving was easier.
An eighteen-wheeler approached from the opposite side. In the distance, the truck’s cabin resembled a locust’s head floating on a misty veil. As it got closer, the powerful headlights caused Peter to squint. The air displaced by the truck shook the car, and the noise overtook the radio. Then peace descended again, and the exhaust fumes from the truck trailed in the air like a morning spirit.
The clean sound of a guitar emerged from the radio. Julia screamed.
“Leave it!” Randy yelled simultaneously. “It’s Jimi Hendrix!”
“What do you know about Hendrix?” Peter inquired alertly, happy to recognize the name of one musician.
“He’s the best,” Randy whispered.
“He played Woodstock,” Julia said.
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” Tom added.
“He’s dead,” Randy said.
“From a drug overdose,” Tom clarified casually, so casually in fact that Peter turned to look at him for an instant.
In his life, Peter Purple had tried a joint or two, but he’d have never done it with such a majestic indifference. These kids lived in a different world. They hadn’t tried the stuff yet, of that he was sure. Their standards were different, just like their music. He wanted to understand them, and become their equal. That’s why he bit his tongue and he listened. Maybe he enjoyed babying Julia, but for now, he wanted to erase that invisible line that reminded them he was a grownup. He had asked Tom to address him as Peter. He treated him like his friend, on every occasion. Nobody should be calling him mister.
“Looks like it’ll be another great day,” he said, changing the subject.
The light was brighter, penetrating the cloud cover that hung from the top of the mountains. There were more cars on the road, and more depth to the scenery.
“Daddy, why do we always have to get up so early?” Julia complained.
Mockingly, Randy joined in. “Yes, Daddy, why? Why, Daddy?”
“You know why,” Peter answered. “To beat the crowds, like the day before yesterday, remember?”
“What was the day before yesterday?” asked Julia.
“We had breakfast at the lodge,” Tom said. “Didn’t we, Peter?”
“Yes,” Peter said, encouraged. “We started early, and had enough time to eat those giant pancakes and catch the quad before the lines got out of hand. At the top, there were very few people. Wasn’t it fabulous?”
“It was,” Tom acknowledged. “Are we going to ski more black diamonds today?”
“It’s up to you, guys, entirely.”
“Is the Hole in the Wall a black, or a double black, Daddy?”
“Double black,” Tom said. “You ride in the Challenger, and come half way down on Sleeper. When we did Sleeper we saw the sign to the left of the chairlift.”
“It’s a straight run,” Julia said. “It’s steep, and it ends at this rock, where you have nowhere to go, but through the little tunnel. That’s where I want to go today, Daddy.”
“Great,” Peter said. “We’ll go there.” He felt the excitement building up in the car, and was happy. “Skiing is life, guys,” he said. “You go up and you go down, and you go up and you go down, and the higher you climb, the more of the world you have at your feet. That’s why you have to get up in the morning.”
“Yes children, that’s why,” Randy said.
Peter ignored him. “When you are at the summit,” he continued, “you can touch the clouds and you can touch the sky. Only there do you understand that reward follows effort, and that nothing in life gets served to you on a silver platter.”
“Are we going to have breakfast on that silver platter, Daddy?” Randy asked.
“We’ll have breakfast,” Peter said. “And for lunch, I’ll take you guys to the Sunspot Lodge, for a true fine dining experience.”
They started with a run on the easy side of Mary Jane. The snow was hard from the morning wind, and snow clumps left by the grooming machines rolled down with the skis, causing them to vibrate and screech, and making the turns more difficult.
Julia seemed tentative. She stayed high on her skis and turned too often, as if afraid to lose control, as if her body was brittle. Peter didn’t say anything. He waved the boys to go ahead, and skied near his daughter. When the land flattened between two inclines, Julia fell. It was an easy fall and she got up quickly, but instead of proceeding, she began brushing the snow off her jacket with a slowness of movement that seemed deliberate. She took off her gloves and placed them over her pole handles. Then she removed her goggles and ski cap. Her hair, sprinkled by snowflakes, fell freely on her shoulders. She reached back to gather it in a loose ponytail, and in doing so she turned sideways to Peter. Her exposed neck and oblong jaw made her face look pretty and vulnerable.
“The boot is bothering me, Daddy,” she said bitterly. “At the lodge, I’ll get myself a Band Aid.”
“Too bad you didn’t tell me at home,” Peter said. “I had plenty.”
“It didn’t hurt at home.”
“Are you wearing just one pair of socks, as I told you?”
“With the socks I have, I’d be freezing with only one pair. That’s the other thing I want to buy at the lodge: a new pair of woolen socks, Daddy, a good pair.”
“And wear three pairs?”
“No. I’ll throw the others away.”
“Suit yourself,” Peter said. “But you know this is a tourist trap and you’ll be wasting your money.” He really didn’t care about the money, but said it for the educational value. He looked down the slope. “Let’s get going now, the boys must be waiting.”
“They can wait,” Julia said and her lips trembled. She unzipped her jacket and removed some snow stuck in between the lining and her sweater.
Peter thought his little girl was becoming a woman. He liked it. The sun broke through the clouds and illuminated a valley ahead of them and a round, snow covered mountain. “Look, Julia, a mountain like a white elephant,” he said trying to cheer her up. She had been precocious with her readings and last year, for his forty-fifth birthday, she had bought him a collection of Hemingway’s short stories. He was sure she would remember.
“Hills,” Julia said. “It’s hills like white elephants, Daddy.”
When they caught up with the boys, Peter said, “Julia’s going to the lodge. She needs a few items.”
“I’ll go in with her,” Tom said, and Peter thought it was nice of him to offer.
Julia didn’t object.
They agreed on a meeting place, and Peter went skiing with Randy.
They rode a few times up the mountain and came down on a different slope each time. They skied well together, following each other, racing and stopping only to catch their breath, or to evaluate a difficult run, and chart in their minds their way through the moguls.
On one of the chairlifts a man rode up with them, and sat next to Peter.
“Nice day,” Peter said to him, and stretched out his hand as if trying to point to the niceness he had mentioned.
“Yeah…. very nice,” the man said with a foreign accent.
“Where are you from?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to Torino, but I’ve been in the Dolomites,” Peter said. “The Dolomites, Cortina.”
“Cortina d’Ampezzo, si. Good skiing in Cortina.”
Peter had driven through the Dolomites many years ago one summer, but he found it difficult now to admit he had never skied there.
“Yes,” he said to the Italian. “Very good skiing.”
They rode quietly for a while, hearing only the hum of the cables, the cracking sound the chair made when passing over the support towers, and the permanent murmur of the forest. They reached a steep incline, and the cables pulled the chair above the treetops. In the distance, they could see the mountains as wide and long and white as the horizon.
“The Continental Divide,” Peter said and the Italian didn’t understand him.
The area leveled again and the next incline grew ahead of them, with a swath that looked like a white river. People were skiing through the clearing in little groups, some coming down fast and full of confidence, some struggling to stay on their feet, cutting sharp turns into the sides of the slope. A huge rocky formation leaned against the incline, throwing its triangular shade over the ski slope and the forest. Its top was dark and menacing, with vertical rocks scraping the sky. The area below, sheltered from winds and people, was peaceful. Two skiers moved across, looking like flies zigzagging in a white pool of brilliance. They were outside the confines of the official trail map.
“Your country has a great presence in skiing,” Peter told the man. “Especially in the Olympics.”
“Olympic team, si.”
“What was the name of that one … your best…. the downhiller?” Peter puffed and concentrated. “Tomba,” he remembered.
“Ah, Tomba,” the Italian said. “Si. Tomba la Bomba!”
The restaurant was rustic, but elegant. Their table was near the window. The sunny world outside seemed warmer than it really was, and somehow remote. They could see the skiers getting off the chairs, skiing by the small building at the terminal station, regrouping for the downhill, and disappearing. They could see their moving lips, but couldn’t hear them. And all those skiers coming and going, seemed to be doing it for them, for their perpetual entertainment.
A waitress in a lacy blouse and a pleated colorful skirt brought four menus to their table. Her blond hair was braided and her eyes were blue and friendly. She recited the specials in accented English.
“She’s Austrian,” Peter said when she walked away. He turned towards Randy. “It’s quite a coincidence. We just spoke about the Dolomites on the chair lift, and here is this waitress all dressed up in a Tyrolese costume.”
“What’s he talking about?” said Julia.
“This ski area in Europe,” said Randy. “He talked about it with an Italian guy who rode with us on the chair lift. I don’t know why Dad needs to be talking to everybody.”
“Hey, it’s skiing, remember?” said Peter. “You’re supposed to be friendly.”
“They have shrimp scampi,” Julia said looking through the menu.
“I wouldn’t order sea food in the Midwest,” Peter said. “It’s never fresh.”
“I’ll have a cheeseburger and fries,” Randy decided.
“I’ll have the same,” Tom said. “But with buffalo meat.”
Peter studied the menu. “Look, they have Rocky Mountains oysters.” Nobody commented, so Peter lowered his voice and continued. “You don’t have a clue what they are, do you? Testicles, bull’s testicles.”
“Yuck,” Julia said.
“And you eat them?” Tom said.
“Some people do,” Peter said. “I’ll just have a steak sandwich and a beer.”
“I’ll have shrimp scampi,” said Julia.
“After lunch,” Randy said to Julia, “do you want to do the Hole in the Wall?”
They paused a little, thinking of what might be awaiting them.
“We can do it,” Peter said. “If you guys really want to.”
“I wonder if we’re good enough,” Julia said.
“We are,” Peter said. “I bet we could gown down on any slope, and I mean any slope in the world. We might go down slowly, we might take a fall, we might even slide on our butts, but we’ll make it.”
“That’s not very good though,” said Randy.
“Well, it’s not. And you know, there are some people out there who really know how to ski. Like my favorite story, from this guy at work.” Peter stopped for a while letting the silence linger. They were listening. “He was skiing at Killington, in Vermont. It was the year we hosted the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. I don’t think you guys even know about it, you were too little. The Austrian team came over and trained at Killington. They closed the hardest slope on the mountain to the public, and put the hoses on it. When it turned to ice, they skied on it, straight down. People couldn’t see them, but could hear their edges screeching from anywhere on the mountain.”
“And what was the name of that Italian guy, la Bamba?” Randy asked.
“Tomba,” Peter said. “His name’s Tomba, but they called him ‘Tomba la Bomba.’ That’s because he was quite a party animal, and that’s what I liked about him. The others were sleeping right, and eating right, and planning the race with their coaches, but he’d party all night. Then he’d show up at the last moment, and win the race. What do you do with such a guy? He had talent, if you know what I mean.”
“And you admired him because he could party?” Tom said.
“He could have been better if he took his job seriously.”
“He didn’t need to, he was already the best. I admired his talent, you see. His genius, if you could call it that. Anybody can work hard, but not everybody can win. Ants work hard, don’t you think? And anybody can follow orders.” He almost said, ‘like in the Military,’ but stopped thinking of Tom’s divorced father.
“Somebody fell,” Randy said, looking out the window.
Not far from the end of the chairlift, just below the area where people were getting off, a body was lying in the snow. A few skiers stopped next to him. With each chair arriving, more skiers gathered at the scene. A young man came out of the chairlift building and spoke into a hand-held radio. The body in the snow didn’t move.
“A little boy,” Randy said.
“He must have fallen while getting off,” Tom guessed.
The waitress brought the food. She placed the shrimp on a portable side table, and took a lighter out of her apron. Blue flames shot up in the air and quickly died. Julia rubbed her hands and Tom asked for a coke. They ate hungrily.
“I don’t get it,” Randy said a minute later. “This kid isn’t moving at all.”
“They stopped the chairlift,” said Julia.
“Most likely it’s not a big deal.” Tom said. He took a huge bite out of his hamburger.
“It’s not a big deal, and he doesn’t get up?”
“Maybe they told him not to,” Tom said. “Sometimes when you fall, it’s better not to move.”
“It looks serious,” the man at the next table said.
Two men in yellow ski patrol jackets kneeled by the little boy. They talked to him, or did something to him, for what seemed a long time. The boy didn’t move. Peter wondered where his parents might be, but didn’t say anything. His stake was a little too rare for his taste, and he looked around for the waitress. Suddenly, the restaurant seemed noisy.
“More than genius,” Peter said, “I admire creative genius. To create is to be closer to God.”
“To create like in literature,” Julia said.
“Like in anything: like in math, music, art. You remember that movie, Amadeus, about the rivalry between Mozart and that other guy?”
“Salieri,” Tom said.
“Exactly,” Peter said. “Remember how easy it was for Mozart, how unfair it seemed?”
The waitress came with Tom’s coke.
“What’s happening with that boy?” Julia asked her.
The waitress looked out the window, shook her blond head a few times and said she didn’t know anything.
“She knows,” the man at the next table said after she left. “They just don’t want bad publicity.”
By the time they ordered dessert, the little boy had been placed on a stretcher and taken down the mountain. To him, the morning that had just passed could make a huge difference. Peter realized they would never know. Bad things happened all the time on and off the mountain, and for them, what happened to that boy, didn’t change anything. The chairlift was working again, the desserts were plentiful, and his youngsters looked happy.