He knelt on the ice and watched his brother Craig skate the wide oval they had cleared off the flood. On the straights, Craig crouched and stretched and pulled with one arm then the other, his crocheted scarf trailing out behind, then glided into the turns, carefully cross-stepping to make each bend. The skates were old and dull but his brother clacked them smartly down, leaving beautiful white traces behind. Craig had never looked more athletic. The wind had scoured off a good deal of the snow, leaving only patches to be shoveled, and where they’d scraped away the patches the ice was sandpapered but flat. His brother completed the circuit, dragged one serrated toe behind him to brake, and baseball-slid across the ice. He lay next to the boy breathing hard, looking at the sky.“How fast was I?”
“Thirty-two seconds.” The boy had been counting. “Fast.”
“When you lay back like this, it feels like you’re falling into the sky,” Craig said. “Try it.”
“It’s too cold to lay down on that ice.” But the boy slid onto his belly and then rolled over, feeling the cold ache its way through his snowsuit onto his shoulders and the small of his back. A bitter wind swept low across the ice; overhead was blue as all rapture, and cloudless – only the expiring smear of a jet plane’s vapor, half visible, recoiling. He tried but didn’t feel like he was falling up into the sky.
“See what I mean?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, do you, or not?”
“Yeah.” He sat up. The cold was all through him. “Here comes Mom,” he said.
She had her white skates over one shoulder and a snow shovel over the other. She was wearing her yellow homemade hat with the big pompom on top. Behind her, their house and barn appeared faraway and strange; this was a neighbor’s field, not theirs, and he was unaccustomed to the view from this angle.
“Wait till she sees you skate that fast,” he said. “She ain’t gonna believe it.”
It was true. Their mother had known he was getting fast but as Craig shot around the newly enlarged rink, her face had taken on an aspect that the boy was not accustomed to seeing – a delicious, sinful pride. While his brother skated, the boy stood drinking in the changes in his mother’s face, the blue eyes twinkling, the lips curled in a smile that could not be contained. His brother glided up to them bent over with his palms against his thighs, breathing fast, shaking his head and grinning as modestly as he could.
Their mother dabbed her red frozen nose with a ball of Kleenex and said, “Pretty fast, ain’t you, boy?”
His brother grinned some more. “Think I could beat Jerry?”
“I don’t know. Think you could?”
“That ain’t fair,” the boy said. “Jerry’s fourteen.”
“I still might be able to beat him,” Craig said.
“Well, he’ll probly be out here before too very much longer,” their mother said. “You can find out.”
Their neighbor Jerry did come out, and the boy’s brother beat him, and it was an honest race – Jerry wasn’t taking it easy because he was skating against a kid. They did Crack the Whip and they all tried backwards skating, and their mother told them about skating parties back in the old days with bonfires right on the pond, and hot cider. Jerry said to Craig: “They have skating races, you know, for the winter carnival. You should do it.”
The boys looked at their mother. She was smiling out toward where the cloudless evening was building against the treeline. But what she said was: “We’ll see.”
He was better at milking than his brother, even though he was almost two years younger. He loved the ring of the first fast threads driving into the bottom of the galvanized pail and, when the bucket began to fill, the throaty schuss of the white jets churning the accumulated milk into foam. His father had him work the front two tits and then the boy stood behind the cow stomping his feet against the cold while his father stripped the front udders the rest of the way clean and then emptied out the back ones. His brother was next to them, cleaning out the steer’s stall. They sang a cowboy song, the three of them, as they worked, their breath roiling up to the low ceiling where chaff had seeped between the cracks of the haymow floor to hang in the gauze of last summer’s cobwebs.
The boy said, “You should have seen Craig today, Dad, skating. He beat Jerry, he’s so fast.”
“Oh, did he?” Their father did not skate.
“I want to race in the winter carnival.”
“He’ll win, too, Dad. You should see him.”
There was only one bulb in this part of the barn so it was always shadowy and their father’s face was up against the orange Guernsey cow. He didn’t answer them. After a while he stood and handed the teeming bucket to the boy. “Think you can get this into the house without spilling it? It’s awful heavy.”
“I can carry it.”
“Don’t spill it.”
He didn’t like walking from the barn to the house alone at night. The light from inside the grain room made a yellow box on the snow just outside the barn, but it felt like a long way from there through the dark to the door of the house. Overhead the stars gleamed fiercely. He loved the stars so he looked up as he walked, taking care not to bump the bucket with his leg. He knew six constellations. Someday he would be like Luke Skywalker. He wasn’t jealous of his brother. He didn’t care much for skating, himself. He liked the smell and feel of the crateful of old leather skates that came down from the attic every January, and he wouldn’t have dreamed of not going out onto the ice with the family, but skating made his ankles sore. He was going to be very, very good at basketball.
His mother met him at the door and took the bucket of milk. She already had the gallon glass jar out with a strainer and funnel waiting, steam lifting off the clean glass of the jar in the chilly kitchen. As he pulled off his boots she poured the hot milk through the strainer. His sister stood washing dishes. It was warm and light and pleasant to be inside but he already understood that it’s better to come inside than to stay inside.
“Can I play a record?” he said. He found the one with Lorne Greene singing Nine Pound Hammer, and laid the needle on the right track without using the index. On the chalkboard mounted on the living room wall, among a scrabble of notes, games, and animal drawings, their father had smeared clear a straight clean rectangle in which he’d written “39 B in the OT.” The boy sprawled beside the woodstove with his feet up on the bench, feeling his pantleg heating up against his shin, picking his nose and listening to his mother and sister in the kitchen singing along with the record. His hands still smelled of the barn, which he liked. He studied his father’s puzzle. An idea came to him and he began humming a melody and counting on his fingers. “Haw!” he crowed. He jumped to his feet and seized a stub of chalk and wrote “Books in the Old Testament!”
He called his mother and sister in to see what he had done, and they both agreed that the answer seemed obvious now but they doubted whether they’d have ever gotten it no matter how long they lived. When his father and brother came in from the barn, he led them to the living room to show them his triumph.
“Good,” his father said. But his smile was a rind of ashy snow and he was looking all around the room as if seeing their shabby quarters with new eyes, too distracted to focus on the boy. His brother stood by the stove with his arms crossed, rocking back and forth in his sock feet, minutely nodding his slightly elongated head. The boy always felt a jolt of panic when his brother appeared so grown up.
“Took me a while,” the boy said, “but I figured it out.”
“Good,” his father repeated.
His brother uncrossed his arms and went to the bathroom to wash the barn smell off his hands.
The night before, the wind had blown a streak of snow through the gap in the frame of the boys’ bedroom window, and the upstairs had never got enough heat during the day to melt it. It lay there like a fence-post fallen across their bare floor. Now he jumped over it and landed in the bed and pulled up the covers waiting for his brother to switch off the light and join him. The boys huddled together under the blankets for warmth.
“Are you mad at me?”
“What did Dad say to you out in the barn?” He was, after all, nobody’s fool.
“Just talked about the race.”
“What about it?”
“Well, he had to have said somethin’.”
They’d been talking low but now his brother’s voice dropped to a whisper. “He said if I really want to do it that it’s up to me.”
The boy lay for a long quiet moment, considering this. He could locate no significance within it. “So?” he said.
“So that’s it.”
“No it ain’t. He said somethin’ else.”
His brother held the silence only briefly. “Yeah,” he whispered. “He said it’s better not . . . .” Here the whisper trailed off to nothing again.
“Better not what? What’s the rest of it?”
“I don’t remember.”
The boy tried to coax it out of him but he wouldn’t give, and the boy gave up. Nobody’s fool, but there was only so much you could do when your age disqualified you from knowing a thing.
The night before the race, his father ran an extension cord from the car to the kitchen to keep the battery from dying, and on their way to the arena the sun flared off the mirrored fields but the windows never cleared and a frigid sucking wind dashed pellets of dry snow across the open places. They parked outside the arena before a snowbank too tall for his father to see over, and as they walked inside he reached for his father’s hand.
“What’s the matter? Are you scared of something?”
“I never been here before.”
“Why, we’re half a mile from your school.”
To be at the school would have been no better. At school, it was crucial that he be separated from his family. His brother and sister had it hard at school, and it was always waiting there for him, but so far he had managed to dodge it. He was popular. Popular, smart and athletic (a triad as aphoristic as corn, beans and squash). His popularity was a sure thing in third grade, but it held no currency among older or younger students, who would only associate him with his siblings or judge him by his rags. He had promised himself that the things that his brother and sister endured would never touch him. Distance was vital.
When it was time for the ten- and eleven-year-olds, his brother gulped and turkey-walked in his skates over to the penalty box and stood among his opponents. They would race in groups of three, two laps keeping outside a set of cones, coin-toss for starting position. His brother was in the very first heat. His brother and the other two boys came out onto the ice. His brother’s opponents – all of them – wore hockey skates, and a titter washed through the crowd at the sight of the lanky kid in torn plaid pants and dry-rotted old figure skates. In the bleachers, the boy felt his face flush and decided to pretend he hadn’t noticed.
His brother won the flip for the inside lane. The hockey coach blew the whistle, and the boy stood aghast watching as his brother’s opponents broke into what looked to him like a run, not skating at all, just a ragged artless scamper – was it even legal, to run instead of skating? – and his brother in the old ratty figure skates stretching and pulling and gliding beautifully, anachronistically, preposterously, and falling further and further behind. What had seemed astonishing speed up on the flooded meadow was now impossibly, comically slow, everything fallen out of scale. His brother had not yet gotten once around when his two opponents came clattering past him neck and neck. It wasn’t fair.
The boy watched, trembling, clinching his teeth like that might end it. The other skaters finished and his brother took his entire second lap alone, still gliding, crouching, crossing-over, while his classmates and their parents laughed. The boy wanted his brother to quit or curse or kick at the ice; but instead he did the very worst thing that could be done: he stretched his face into an appalling grin – habitual diffidence, compliant apology, the cringing humility of generations – and skated along amidst the jeers until he floated belatedly across the blue line.
Wasn’t there going to be any fairness? Hadn’t those other boys cheated? The boy looked to his parents and saw them meeting the crowd with that very same ingratiating smile, the leer of stinging chagrin that is the sneaking travesty of inviolable pride, the feeble grin of the striving weak who know that if they wish to appear strong they must prove capable of laughing at themselves but lack the heart for it. He was young but he saw the years stretched out before him now, and a lump fisted up in his throat.
On their way back through the parking lot, his mother and father and sister wore that same accursed grin, and it stayed planted on their faces all the car ride home. He rode with his head against the blind throbbing frost of the side window, blinking at his tears. Sudden blasts of wind whumped against the glass. He stole a look at his brother, who was no longer grinning. Craig was looking at his own bare hands as if inspecting a pair of gloves he’d never worn before. The boy furtively studied his brother, the familiar hands, the oval head that he knew better than the sky and sun. He had never hated his brother more. No word from the front seat. Something needed to be said, and the boy would be the one to say it. He slid across the seat and laid his palm on the shoulder of his brother’s quilted coat. “Them guys weren’t even skating,” he said.
Craig smiled, but this time though there was a sadness in it, it was the smile between brothers, no secrets. “Yeah they were,” Craig said.
“Well,” the boy said. “You never quit.”
They were alone in the back seat like astronauts walking in space. The little low car droned over the winter roads as the bitter east wind scraped plumes of snow down off the banks to hang like intermittent screens that ticked against the windshield in the hush.