Authors: Norman Ollestad
The guy scoffed at my dad. My fingers tingled and I was anxious. The sunburned guy approached my dad and my throat closed. My dad said something to him in Spanish and it took the man by surprise. He didn’t speak for a moment and then he said something back. My dad smiled and began playing a Mexican song and sang in Spanish, and some more people came out of the bar and the sunburned guy gestured toward my dad as if he had arranged this little concert with his old gringo buddy.
I walked over and sat next to my dad. Between songs I told him I wanted to go. After my second request he glanced at the ocean.
Yeah. No waves around here. Gotta review the map, he said.
We checked into a cinder block motel and my dad paid the elderly clerk to watch the truck. We parked it in front of our room and kept the yellow curtain open. My dad looked over the map. The red circles indicated a good surf spot he had heard about.
Apparently we’ll pass a few tomorrow, he said.
The road cut through shades of gray and as the dawn gave way the dirt turned more golden. Cacti posed like stoic cowboys with the sun still behind the sharp ridges. Nothing but cactus and bush could live out here. It was going to be hot and dusty in a couple of hours and we would spend another day baking in the truck, sticking to the seat, hoping for the air coming through the window to be cool but tasting the dust and slumping there
like zombies. I daydreamed about snow, cool and fresh on my face, turning to water on my tongue. I would have given anything to turn back the clock to winter.
Just eight months ago my dad and I had ridden the single-chair chairlift up the face of Mount Waterman. It took an hour and a half to drive his little white Porsche there from Topanga Beach. It was snowing and my dad didn’t stop to put on chains because he wanted us to get the first chair and find untracked powder.
The lifty put a blanket over me as I sat on the wet seat and I glided up the slope into the driving snow. I was warm beneath my parka but my face was frozen. I thought about my friend Bobby Citron’s birthday party and eating chocolate cake and I hoped I wouldn’t miss the party.
At the top we hiked into a cluster of spruce trees that protected us from the wind. My dad’s thighs flexed like a racehorse as he sidestepped above me. We reached a nearly square boulder the size of an outhouse and my dad hiked up next to it and looked over the lip of the ridge.
Looks fantastic, Boy Ollestad.
Is it steep?
Just right for all this snow, he said, and I knew that meant it was steep.
I hate it when it’s too steep.
I’m going to cut across the ridge and check for avalanches.
Don’t fall in.
He cut across the ridge and a chunk of snow sloughed off and drained into the gully that dropped from the ridge. A hundred feet below, the gully disappeared in the clouds crawling upward.
Looks good. Go for it, Ollestad, he said from up on the sidewall of the gully.
I kicked and bucked my skis to turn them the right way. I looked down and it was really steep.
The deep snow will hold you up. Don’t be afraid to get some speed going, he said.
I dug my poles in and they sunk all the way to the handles. I jerked them out and rocked back and forth until my ski tips broke through, then I began to track downward.
Up and down. Pump your legs, yelled my dad.
I tried to move up and down. The snow was thick and deep, shoveling up against my chest. I wrenched my body in an attempt to turn. Through the snow covering my goggles I saw the side of the gully curving up in front of me. I tried to pump my legs again. Suddenly I pitched forward, releasing from the heel of my bindings, and vaulted head first into the gully wall. Snow plugged my mouth and I couldn’t breathe. I strained to move my arms. They were swaddled to my sides. I coughed out the snow, yet every exhale produced an involuntarily inhale. The more I fought to breathe the more snow stuffed down my throat. My mouth would not close.
Boot-first my dad pulled me out. I regurgitated snow. I cried. I yelled every swear word that I had learned on Topanga Beach. He cleaned my goggles and told me he was right there. There was no way I was going to suffocate because he was right there.
When my mountain fit ran out of steam he strapped the goggles back around my helmet and fitted my boots into the bindings.
We should just hike back up, Dad, I said.
It’s too deep.
That’s why we shouldn’t have come here. It’s too deep.
Yes it is. It’s too deep to even see or move.
You have to pump your legs right away before the skis submarine.
It’s impossible, I said. Why do you make me do this?
Because it’s beautiful when it all comes together.
I don’t think it’s ever beautiful.
We’ll see, he said.
I’m just going to crash again. And it’s going to be your fault.
Keep the legs pumping.
Then I pushed off and lifted my arms up and out like a bird opening its wings. I meant to prove that I was stuck but my skis rode to the surface.
That’s it, Ollestad. Pull the knees up.
Above the gluey snow it was easier to bank my skis. As I sank again I lifted my knees up into my stomach. The counter-weight elevated my tips like a ship heaving over a swell and I rocked up and over the next billow of snow. I kept it going, the up-and-down rhythm, wrenching free of the heavy snow before my tips buried. I heard my dad hoot and then a wave of snow splattered across my goggles and I was blind. I swiped at the goggles clearing the left side enough to see another wave hit me, and I swiped again and remembered I needed to pull my knees up. It was too late. I ejected out of my bindings, somersaulted and landed on my back.
I brushed the snow off my face and was able to breathe. I lay there until I heard my dad hooting and I sat up. A wedge of snow rippled toward me down the center of the gully as if an orca tunneled beneath pushing a white wave.
My dad’s head appeared for an instant, popping out the top of the white wave. Then he stopped just above me. His mustache was a frozen white sausage. His beige sheepskin jacket and black pants sprouted cotton balls of snow. I caught sight of one of his eyes, electric blue through the rose-tinted goggles, half-crazed like something wild that had just killed and eaten its prey.
Beautiful Ollestad, he said in smoke puffs.
Inside I was jumping for joy but I was careful not to let him see because that would only encourage him and then he’d ask for more.
Can we go home now? I said.
He groaned. You’re a real
, he said, and I knew that was German for powder hound.
Wait till you ski Alta, Utah, he said. The powder there’s like floating on a cloud.
I caught myself dreaming about superlight Alta powder for a second, then turned away to hide any glimmer from him. Sometimes I detested his charisma, the way it trampled everything and always won out. Yet even then I wanted to be like him.
It was a lot of work to make it to the road in the heavy snow. We hitched a ride from a Cal Trans truck back to the parking lot. I could tell that Dad wanted to ski another run. I even knew the logic of it:
These days are rare and you gotta get ’em while you can
. I wanted to share in his excitement for this golden moment. But I wanted to play with my friends more.
For some reason he didn’t push it further that day, and an hour and a half later we pulled up in front of Bobby’s house. I ran inside with my ski clothes still on and discovered that the kids had just finished the chocolate cake. I cried and wouldn’t talk to or look at my dad. The mothers eyed us—we were out of place in our wet ski clothes and soiled matted hair, and we smelled like sweat. They had come from showers and smelled
like lilacs and we had just crawled out of the woods. Oblivious to it all my dad charmed the ladies and then scarfed down the vegetable plate. Feeling rough and dirty compared to everyone else I stayed in the background, hoping for, but never finding, a thread of conversation to grab that would tow me into the gang’s banter. I had nothing in common with these kids, and once again, I yearned to live the life of my peers—riding bikes together after school, playing ball in a cul-de-sac.
Am I going to miss any birthday parties? I asked my dad as he cracked open a bottle of water and handed it to me, the Baja heat coming on early this morning.
None that I know of.
I gave him a bitter look and he added, There will always be more birthday parties.
I turned away from him, sulking. He patted my back.
You got it easy, Ollestad, he said. Grandma used to drag me off the baseball field right in the middle of games and make me go to dance lessons. Imagine that. Shit, all you have to do is go surfing and skiing, fun stuff.
Shocked, I swung around to face him. Dance lessons? Like tap-dancing? I said.
Oh man, I said. Why?
She had a dream, he said, stretching out the word
, of me being in movies.
Cheaper by the Dozen
Dad played the oldest son, twelve or thirteen years old, and I remembered that in his first scene he was wearing a baseball uniform.
Was it your idea to wear the baseball uniform in
Cheaper by the Dozen
? I said.
A smile lifted his whole face.
Absolutely, he said.
That’s pretty cool, Dad, I said.
Well, he said, riding that bus for hours to one of the studios and then having to wait like cattle for two or three more hours wasn’t cool. I missed a lot of fun for Grandma’s dream.
Dad looked like a little boy asking for sympathy, and I knew he was still pissed at Grandma.
Waiting in those lines I’d sleep leaning against the wall, he said.
Didn’t you fall down? I said.
He glanced at the road and shook his head.
You made money though, I said trying to make him feel better.
True. That helped me get through college, he said.
We stopped to get gas and eat and then we were on the road again. The road climbed through higher country. The remainder of the day was just a blur of heat, and I nodded off and drank water and stared out the window at the same thing over and over—dirt and chaparral and cactus. I complained about drinking only water. I needed something else, some kind of juice. He gave me a hooked-eyebrow glance and took a showy swig of the water.
Mmm, he said, smacking his lips. Water-juice. It’s fantastic.
He handed me the bottle.
Water-juice? I protested.
Try it, he said, as if this were a brilliant idea worth celebrating.
I took a sip.
Mmm water-juice, I said.
At around sunset the road wound back down to the sea and we spent the night in a hotel near crashing waves. The heat kept me stirring all night and I tried to pretend I was in the cold so that I could sleep. I kept thinking about the trip we took to Alta, Utah, during Easter break.
My dad was brushing his teeth in front of the bathroom mirror at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City. I saw his dick hanging in the mirror. His ass was whiter than his legs and the muscles up his spine made a deep groove to his shoulders.
The shower shut off and Sandra stepped out in a waft of mist. Like a ghost I saw her reach for a towel and wrap it around her chest. It hung over her sex and her legs looked really skinny—chicken legs, my dad would tease. She moved out of the mist and saw me watching from the bed and the skin around her eyes twisted. I wondered if she knew that I had watched her straddle my dad last night, across the room on the other bed, her face cringing with pain but her sighs full of joy.
Norm, she said, addressing my dad. Can’t you put some clothes on?
You’re one to talk, he said with a smile.
It’s like a barn around here, she said.
My dad laughed and Sandra closed the toilet room door behind her. My dad walked to the window and slid the curtain all the way open.
There’s at least a foot of snow on top of the Porsche, he said.
A blast of wind peppered the glass and he turned his head and shot me a look full of hunger.
Sandra emerged from the toilet wearing long johns. When she saw the blizzard outside she stopped.
You must be kidding me, she said.
My dad crossed the room and his eyes were glazed, lost in some powder-feast. He collected my ski clothes and brought them to me.
Let’s go, Boy Wonder.
What’s the rush, Norm? said Sandra. Look at it.
Exactly. Look at it. It’s a dream come true.
As we rode up the first chairlift and snow pecked at my face I wondered how come Sandra got to sit in the Alta Lodge and sip cognac.
At the top of the lift Dad and I tucked and skated to fight through the driving wind.
Stay in my tracks to the next chair, he said.
The second chairlift was also empty and the lifty hardly acknowledged us. Blown by the wind, our chair clanged against the first tower. Lightning flashed and cut open the clouds and I huddled next to my dad. He nestled his armpit around the back of my neck.
They’re going to shut it down, he said. We’re lucky we made it on the chair.
Thunder clapped and he didn’t respond and I wasn’t going to twist from under his wing to see his face.
We slid off the chair at the top of the mountain. I waited with my back against the wind while my dad scouted out the area. He hiked up the ski patrol trail to a ridge.
He looked like a bare spruce tree leaning over the far side of the ridge and I waited for his signal. I heard a whistle. It could be the wind. Then I saw an arm wave.
I hiked up to him. When I looked over the ridge a gust swept dry powder off the long white humps of snow like a swarm of diamonds. A silver cloud tumbled out of the sky and unraveled into tendrils like a ballroom of dancing ghosts.
I can’t see shit, I said.
We got to find the trees.