Men, Mountains, Women and Hot Chocolate
A Short Story by Doug Dean
Written using the suggestion "Columbus"
Originally featured on 11-16-2007
As part of our series "Journey To A New Word"

Racing isn’t allowed in the official rules. However, the rules of the race are simple and every child understands them:

Push forward on the stick and your sled’s wheels touch the track. Pull backward and your brakes do.

Which gets simplified to:

Forward, Fast. Back, Slow.

And that simplicity makes a race unavoidable and irresistible at the same time.

“Annnnnnnnd….Go!”

***

You start out standing there holding a plastic sled. You’re bundled up so tightly and yet you’re still numb. Your hood and scarf give you tunnel vision. It’s an effort to breathe and when you inhale it stings the inside of your nose. Your little sister has gone to get hot chocolate. Your mother has gone to warm up.

Your eyes begin to get lost in the murky blue ski jacket of the stranger in front of you. You exhale and the air seems so hot on your chin. You see creatures at the bottom of the sea feeding on each other. You see a rocket flying through outer space towards a nebula; is that what a nebula is? just stars?—or is that a cluster? Cluster? Is cluster a space term? Nebula definitely—Whack! A doubly gloved hand smacks the back of your head. The line has moved forward. You twist your body to try to turn but it’s too hard. Then you realize that your eyes teared up. They’ve wanted to do this whole time. It feels natural to cry in this cold air. You stop trying to turn around.

It’s your father behind you. Without seeing him, you know that steam is clouding around his face as he lets out big breaths. You know that he’s grinning about smacking you in the back of the head. You’re grinning somewhere too. Somewhere warmer than your face.

Wind gusts hit everyone.

There’s a collective moan and shiver. The man with the shaved head and no hat, the one your dad nicknamed “Mr. Clean,” laughs. It’s throaty, his laugh. He’s embraced the cold and his feet are firm on ground. His laugh reminds me of my own.

Your feet bounce and scrape along the dirt—there is so little dirt and so much that must feel like rock—like brick. I’d apologize, but you can’t feel your feet anyway.

You look around at the weekend speed junkies. Waiting in line, they all shut down. It’s so unnatural to them, yet so natural at the same time, that they have to shut down. Drone bees do the same thing.

You don’t see this yet because at thirteen years old, to live for speed and the rush and the weekend seems perfectly natural to you. You still look forward to summer vacations. But these two lines of people, they’re mostly men older than thirty.

You lift your sled off the dirt with a grunt and step forward. The rhythm of the line is that whenever your shoulder begins to relax, it’s time to lift and drag your sled five feet.

And to what? What’s at the end of the line?

You know, but you still lean to your side and look twenty feet ahead.

There’s the dirty wood platform. I know you’re wondering if the wood is older than you. It is. But not by much.

There’s a newer looking fence that outlines the platform. The middle beam of it is removed for you kids. So you can feel the wind in your face. The middle beam isn’t there, and instead are the two concrete racetracks that lead across the platform through the fence and down my hill.

With a mitten’d hand, you examine your lift ticket. You count the purple marks. There are nine. Nine is respectable. You don’t know it but every other man in these lines has counted their purple marks in the past five minutes. Every other man holding his sled knows how many he’s got. It’s something about men that never changes. I’ve seen some of these men here before. I’ve seen some of these men break bones. And they’re back and they still know that they’ve gotten in seven or ten or five rides. And part of their egos is affected by knowing it. It’s something about men that never changes.

I mentioned that today is the day of the true speed junkies. Today is the last day of the season. Because it’s a holiday, many people would think we’re closed. The lines are shorter. So the true speed junkies of the speed junkies are here. The ones that have organized their lives around being here when the lines are shorter and they think they’ll race through them too.

You and your father ran from end of the track to the ski-lift line. Carrying your sleds, throwing them on the spinning rack, and then running up to the attendant; you couldn’t help but grin as he examined your lift tickets. He nodded at your eight marks, before reaching out and blessing you with the felt tip of his marker, for the last time. Then, you and your dad were on the platform waiting to be whisked away on the other ride. The preliminary ride. The slow one. The ski-lift.

And the ski-lift is a mixture of boredom and anticipation. But mostly boredom. And I understand this. Because I’ve come to understand men.

However, I’ve never understood women. I think it’s because we’re too similar. We’re too much alike in our indomitability. Our persistence. And the strength and intimidation we seem to draw from stillness. It all comes from perception.

Women will never conquer me. I will never conquer them. Another way we’re alike is that neither of us cares. We’re not here to conquer. We’re here to be conquered, to be explored, to be ascended and to tell stories about. At least, that’s what men have believed. Some men giving everything they have to try to do so. It’s something else about men that never changes.

Mr. Clean is climbing up onto the track and mounting his sled now. A darker fellow wearing a sky blue scarf, Oakley sunglasses, and a dark blue jacket but not mittens is on the other track. They look at each other. They know each other. They grin. The attendant standing in between the tracks tells them to wait by extending out his arms palms open.

“Annnnnnd…Go!”

Both men lurch forward pushing down hard on their control sticks. Mr. Clean holds down the stick with one hand and pushes off with the other. They’re both leaned completely forward. And then you can’t see them. But I do.

They stay pretty even in the beginning. The sound of their wheels against the cement track. Mr. Clean holds down his stick and leans forward slightly. He appears still while moving fast.

The other man, his friend, is falling slightly behind. He pulled back on the stick erratically before the first sharp curve. Mr. Clean banked the turn, whipping right through, sideways then vertical in a second.

Friend doesn’t have a true grip on his stick. He keeps changing hand position with each view of upcoming turns. Mr. Clean is pulling away from him.

Mr. Clean leads as they go over the steep dip. His sled catches air. Mr. Clean lets out a ‘whoop’ and then he lands, wheels down. Incidentally, Mr. Clean’s ticket bears eleven purple marks.

The right half of Friend’s sled leaves the ground for an instant, but he doesn’t catch much air. He skids down the dip intermittently pushing forward on his stick. Friend’s ticket bears four purple marks.

The sun descends with Mr. Clean and his Friend, ducking behind the trees. Everything turns a little gray. Because of the time of day, there aren’t any scared little girls or conservative mothers to smash into. No apologies to make for coming up too fast and scaring someone. Just reckless boys pushing their sticks forward towards the rushing air.

You’re still up at the top, though. Your sled is two back from the starting line. And as you watch the red and yellow leaves dim, you breathe in. Though you know it is colder, the air doesn’t sting your nose. Though you know it is darker, the slide track seems lit up.

“Annnnd…go.” The line moves forward.

You turn and look back at your dad. He nods at you. And for a moment, images of compatriotism flash through your mind. You see the remaining men holding sleds as a platoon. You listen to the same quiet air as them and imagine a platoon of monks meditating at the top of mountain…and holding sleds. You begin to look the other bundled men in the eyes, wanting to nod approval at them. But you just end up looking them in the eyes because you’re thirteen and don’t think that they want your approval. You want to be included in their ranks. You want to be men with them. And what you don’t know yet (but I do) is that they want to be boys with you.

I know this because neither men nor boys hide their thoughts from me. There is no point. For as long as I can remember there being men, they’ve always shared their fears. Not with each other, but with me.

In 1869, before there was an alpine slide, or paved roads, a two man climbing team came up here. After a snowstorm, I listened to them to talk to each other, neither admitting they wanted to head back down. Later when they were freezing, I listened to them the talk to themselves.

You’ll learn on some other mountain that your hopes and your fears doesn’t make you any less of a man. And if you hid them, it wouldn’t make me any easier to conquer, to explore, to ascend or to climb. If you pretended to be more of a man, do you really think I would shrink to become less of a mountain?

You’re next.

In this moment, you realize that your dad nodded because he’s going to try to catch you. He weighs much more than you and his sled will race down that hill. He’s been chasing you all day and he is going to smash his sled into yours one more time if he can.

So you attempt, without guile, to conquer. You share your desires, your illusions of grandeur, and your doubts. And you candidly admit that you have to climb me and many others like me to feel like a true man. And you don’t really know why. And there’s no point. And you don’t apologize. Because there’s no point in that either. And you know that I’ll never feel bad when one of you men fails to climb or to conquer and is wounded in the process. I won’t lament when you die of starvation exploring.

Your father walks over to the man on the other track. The man you would race. Even though racing isn’t allowed in the official rules. He’s got a red ski jacket and a yellow and red striped wool hat. The man in the striped hat looks you over. Then he looks at your dad. Then he steps back. And for a second—a second you would never admit to—you think your father has convinced the man that you’re not ready to race.

Then your dad puts down his sled on the other track. You can feel your feet again. I can tell. You try to hold back the grin but it’s pointless. You put down your sled. You’ll race and not for the last time. But for the last time today.

Annnnnd…

Read More By Doug Dean

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Portland Fiction Project

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