Authors: Norman Ollestad
HEN CHARLEY AND I
loaded into the VW bus it was filled with smoke from the joints going around. I took a puff, careful not to inhale too deep, and Big Fowler had to jump out so that the bus could make it up the beach access road to the Coast Highway. A mile south we turned off the highway past the Getty Museum. Shane floored it so we could climb to the top of the hill, then one of the girls would drive the bus down to where Coastline crossed another street and went uphill—the run-out.
Barefoot and shirtless, hair in ponytails, the gang spilled out of the sliding bus door. Polyurethane wheels were fairly new, replacing the old clay ones, and I was awed by the swooping high-speed S-turns the gang carved down the center of the street. Charley and I watched until the succession of dangled arms disappeared around the first bend.
All that remained was the black slope. Charley didn’t seem
intimidated and stepped right onto his board and took off. I had never skated anything this steep and I didn’t want to be all alone up there. I rolled forward, kept my turns long and made sure to curve back up the hill before starting the next turn. Charley went around the bend in a tuck and I worried that he would finish way before me and that everyone would be watching as I dribbled in last.
I sucked up my fear and pointed my board down the center of the street. In an instant I was flying. As I came around the bend I could feel the board start to wobble. I shot out of the turn and kept leaning up into the hill, trying to eat up some of the speed. The wheels sent violent quivers into the trucks—the metal axle below the skateboard deck—and up through the deck into my legs and my legs vibrated like loose exhaust pipes. Hold on, I told myself. The sidewalk was closing in and I had to start the next turn. I fought the whipping motion and shifted my weight to my toes and suddenly the wheels stuck and the board booted me into the air. I landed on my left hip, bouncing twice before my skin gripped the pavement and refused to let go. I put my hand down and my elbow came with it, flipping me over. When I finally stopped my back and ass were scraped raw too.
The air stung the whole left side of my body and the ground hurt against my backside. My hand burned and my hip throbbed but all I cared about was if anybody had seen me eat it. I looked up—Charley was already around the next turn.
My skateboard was in a rosebush and I plucked it out, scratching up my other hand. I threw down the board and pushed off, making big round turns for the remaining quarter mile. When I reached the run-out Charley was sitting against the bus with all the guys and the girls with the flowers in their hair.
What happened? said Charley.
Looks like Norm wiped out, said Trafton.
I nodded and pulled my trunks off my hip to show them my war wound. It was as red as a raspberry and bloody and the skin surrounding it was smeared black.
Check out that road tattoo, said Shane.
Everybody laughed and my bravado shrank.
You must’ve been hauling fucking ass, said Trafton.
Way to shred, said Trafton.
Thanks, I said.
I didn’t have to look at Charley or anybody else—I knew I had their respect now. I pulled up my trunks and picked up my board. Charley offered me a sip of beer and I said no.
My mom was standing outside our garage, so Shane pulled the bus over at the top of the access road and I slipped out amongst a group of boys and right through someone’s gate. The gang climbed back into the bus and I heard it sputter away. I hoped nobody was home because I didn’t really know these people too well, only that a boy who visited one weekend a month stayed here with his father. I decided to walk down the stairs around the side of the house in order to make my way back home via the beach.
The stairs dropped past a window and I saw the boy’s father below on a bed. He was between a woman’s legs fucking her. I stared straight down on them and the woman turned her head side to side and her cheeks were pink and when she moaned a ripple of excitement washed down the center of my body. I could never share this with Dad. He’d tease me if he knew I liked girls. So would all his friends.
The boy’s father thrust hard into the woman and she cried out and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Then he rested down on
top of her. My nose was inches from the glass and the glass was steamed up from my breath. I stepped back from the window and there was a wet spot on it the size of my face.
I dreamed about her pink cheeks as I wandered down by the mossy rocks exposed at low tide. To the south near the bottom of the cove Bob Barrow, Beer-Can Larry, and Nick’s brother Vincent were hunched around the poker table on Barrow’s porch. I heard some scratchy noises next to me and turned. Music echoed from the yellow house where all the best surfers lived. They called that house the yellow submarine. Nick used to live there before he moved in with my mom. I was shocked when I found out that he didn’t surf. Trafton and Clyde appeared on the upper deck with their electric guitars. They stood stiff-legged and rehearsed bluesy riffs.
A woman with crow-black hair drifted down the beach as if carried by the wind. She fluttered to the foot of the yellow house and lay on the sandbank formed by the waves at high tide. She gazed up at Clyde and Trafton stroking their guitars. I ambled off the rocks onto the wet sand, drawn to her. She rolled onto her back and looked out at the ocean and bobbed her head to the jam. I kneeled down and dug a hole in the sand and stole glances up her miniskirt. Her body was magnetic, which seemed natural enough, but I was unsure of what to do with the excitement coursing through me.
At first I didn’t notice her watching me. It seemed like a long process of me tearing my eyes away before I noticed her there, looking at me. She studied me as if I had not been looking up her skirt but up some other woman’s skirt, detached, like she was studying a photograph of this scene. She didn’t seem to care that I was staring at her private area. Like the nude sunbathers around the point didn’t care whenever Charley and I meandered up there.
I picked up my skateboard and walked home.
I scurried over the ivy growing out of the sand in front of our porch. I heard a door slide open and saw my mom step onto the side walkway. It was shaded in there. Her silhouette moved around in the darkness and then went back inside. I made a run for the walkway. Once under it I hid my skateboard on the lower shelf behind the dog and cat food. I walked to the sliding glass door and stepped inside.
My mom’s torso was curving out from the laundry room doorway. She leaned back and looked at me.
Where have you been, Norman?
Down the beach.
Without Sunshine? she said.
Sunny came out from under the kitchen table, tail wagging and wiggling as if she hadn’t seen me in years. I kneeled down and petted her and kissed her snout.
You’re lying, said my mom.
What are you talking about?
You were skateboarding. Your board was gone.
I don’t keep it there anymore because Dad keeps dinging the surfboards on it.
I ducked into my room, which was right off the kitchen. I shut the door and Sunny scratched it as I whipped off my T-shirt and put on a long-sleeved shirt.
Coming out of my room I went right to the fridge, drinking from the milk bottle. My mom appeared on the other side of the fridge door.
Are you telling the truth?
Don’t lie to my face. It makes it worse, Norman.
I’m not lying. Ask the guys. I didn’t go.
She eyed me and I shrugged.
Why are you wearing a long-sleeved shirt? she said.
I’m going up the canyon, I said.
She looked confused and sort of worried. I called to Sunny and we crossed through the kitchen into the living room, past Nick’s rocking chair from which he watched the news every night. I thought about having to watch the Watergate hearings and Nick shouting at the TV from that rocking chair with a bottle of vodka in his hand.
Sunny led the way, jumping off the step into my mom’s sunken bedroom and bounding through the opened sliding glass door onto the porch. Sunny was missing her front left leg but that didn’t stop her from leaping off the porch onto the sand.
She knew where we were headed. Topanga Canyon emptied at the point, the creek water gathering into a pond that trickled into the ocean, gushing when the winter rains came. We navigated a dirt pathway around the pond overgrown with licorice plants. The smell perfumed the air. I tore off a limb and chewed on it and tore off another and gave it to Sunny. A VW bus was still in the middle of the pond, having washed down the canyon after a big rain years ago. On a dare I once swam out there and stood on its roof.
Under the bridge it was cooler and the cars rumbled overhead. We came out the other side and the path meandered along the sandy edges of the creek. I led Sunny into the bamboo stalks and we sat down on our tattered blanket within the confines of our fort. I continued to tell Sunny a story I was writing about Murcher Kurcher, the famed detective who was looking for the
thief aboard a ship bound for Europe. As I spoke I wrote it down on the pad of paper I kept rolled up in an old metal thermos that I found in the canyon.
At the end of my story I told Sunny that when I got older I’d have big muscles and would kick Nick’s ass if he yelled at me or bossed me or my mom around anymore. Sunny looked into my eyes. She always listened like I was the most important person on earth.
Y BODY QUIVERED
like a freight train and woke me. I was freezing cold, and the cold defied the soft fog wrapping around me. It was the same as when I woke up the first time—an impossible landscape devoid of shapes, a bottomless cloud that I seemed to tumble through. Then I saw the twisted instrument panel.
I tried to move and I was on my side in my flipped-over seat. The slope, a curtain of ice, dropped from my hip, so steep I wondered why I wasn’t sliding down it. Carefully, I turned only my head. My blond hair was stuck to a piece of metal that was torn and jagged like a giant piece of tinfoil. The frozen strands cracked as I turned.
I searched beyond the instrument panel to where the tree had been before. Foamy clouds walled it off. The foam ball washed over me and I lost my sense of up and down again.
Slowly I gained buoyancy like a fetus adapting to its milky
chamber. The experience of skiing in a whiteout flickered across my mind. Ignoring the instrument panel I supposed that maybe I had hit a tree and that Dad couldn’t find me in the storm.
The fog undulated, as if breathing, and it lifted off the snow for a moment. Fifteen feet across the slope the pilot’s shoes wandered in disparate directions. His legs twisted in the snow. The hem of his shirt folded back and his belly was pale.
Am I still asleep?
I squirmed away from my seat, bumping my foot against the instrument panel. It dropped away, as if through a trapdoor, down the curtain of ice, vanishing in the fog. I wanted off this sheer face and scuttled on my hip and shoulder across the slope. I wondered if the pilot was really as mangled as he had looked. I heard another piece of the plane move, metal scraping ice, but all I could see was fog crawling upward. I was slipping too so I stopped. I rolled onto my stomach. The cold cut right through my ski-racing sweater and Vans. The weather was warm in Big Bear yesterday, I thought. Wish I had my gloves and jacket and ski hat now. I clung to the ice with everything I had: bare fingers, chin, chest, pelvis and knees. The curtain of ice climbed right past my nose into the fog, so steep I seemed on the verge of falling backward. Then fog closed around me, encapsulating me in a tiny gray pod.
I inched across the curtain, from left to right, toward where I had spotted the pilot. A few minutes later the ice softened to a hard crust and it was easier to grip. I noted this change in snow texture, this easier-to-grip section. When I got close I saw the pilot’s nose resting on the snow next to his face. The empty cavity was frozen with blood and his eyes strained open as if looking over his forehead. His brains leaked out the back of his skull.
I called for my dad.
Searching the drifts of fog swarming from all directions, I was not able to find him.
Dad. Dad! I called again.
A woman’s voice echoed then dwindled away in the wind.
I followed the voice and found Sandra above me, a dim figure veiled in fog. She was still in her seat, torn free of the body of the plane. A blast of snow obliterated her for a moment and when it cleared I could see. I was in a gully that tunneled upward into the high clouds and fog. Dad and I would call it a chute. It ran down from the peak of whatever mountain this was, and I guessed it poured into a wider slope or a canyon below. I looked downward and the concave ice slide reminded me of the Hangman’s Hollow run in Mammoth.
Not for the faint of heart
, my dad had said. I assumed jagged rocks, now covered in fog, bordered this chute, as in Hangman’s Hollow.
I hope it’s a short chute that ends just below that line of fog, I told myself. Not some thousand-footer.
I looked upward again to find Sandra. She was perched just to the right of an even steeper, slicker groove in the chute that ran vertically down this side of the chute. Skiers would call it a funnel. When avalanches broke from the high peak they’d wash down into this funnel, wiping away everything, leaving a polished slick of ice. That’s where I had been before I crawled away from my seat—in the funnel. The funnel sucked everything into it like a black hole. Have to stay away from it.
Sandra was crying and trembling.
Your father is dead, she said.
I glanced around and could not find him anywhere. She’s just upset, I decided. Need to find him though. Through a fresh wave of mist and wind I searched for my dad. As the mist cleared I looked back toward the funnel section. Dad’s figure appeared just above my seat, just above where I was a few minutes
ago—the pitch so steep and the fog so thick that I had not seen him there crumpled behind my seat. He was hunched over. The crown of his head pressed against the back of my seat. His face between his knees.
Dad had come forward and across to my side. Did he lunge to protect me, or was he thrown?
What are we going to do, Norman? cried Sandra.
Another surge of fog swept over me, passing quickly, then I saw that Sandra’s shoulders were crooked like a wilted puppet. Her hair was tangled around a wound in her forehead and it stuck to the tacky blood clumped there. She kept talking and I turned to study my dad’s body again, trying to figure out how he ended up against my seat. His arms were limp resting on his thighs and his hands dangled over his knees.
Oh God, Norman, said Sandra.
He might just be knocked out, I said.
No. No. He’s dead.
I refused to accept this. It was impossible. Dad and I were a team, and he was Superman. Sandra wailed and her right shoulder hung too far below her collarbone and I realized that it was dislocated, like she was, and that gave me confidence that she was wrong about my dad. She put her other hand over her face, sobbing like a madwoman.