By Liz Madden-Zibman
“Anybody up for a ride?” Dad shouted.
The ear flaps of his checkered hunting hat dangled, and his jacket zipper “zooped.” He meant for us to hurry. This was our weekly routine before heading to grandmom’s. She lived with Aunt Ellen, Uncle Bob, and my smart cousins, Louis and Richard. They knew how to play “Chopsticks” and had a “playroom,” reserved for everything to do with kids. It bulged with boxes of Lego’s, flash cards, chemistry sets and wood burnishing kits. Half the floor had a train platform with a miniature H&O set. Its engine burned pellets and spewed smoke from the stack. The other half held the scuffed upright piano piled with torn music books and stacks more board games. Mostly, my cousins and I were confined to the playroom because of what the adults called “rough housing,” tickling, wrestling, and hurling games pieces at each other.
I hopped in the back of our rusty Chevy, the one Mom called the wonder car.
“It’s a wonder we get anywhere without breaking down,” she complained.
Dad checked the chains on the tires, for traction in the snow.
“Their street,” Mom warned. “slippery as the Matterhorn!”
“With horsepower and will power, we’ll reach the top,” Dad assured.
We passed the farmer’s market, closed for winter. Ten foot tall letters spelled “Big Mart” and blinked red from the rooftop.
“Remember that goat?” I asked.
“Heck, I can still smell him,” said dad.
“Bad enough he nibbled my purse. I can still feel him butt me,” mom joked.
Dad turned off the boulevard at the cookie factory and rolled down the window. The car filled with the scent of vanilla wafers. I stuck out my head, inhaling the sugary air.
“OK, enough. I’m freezing,” yelled Mom.
We passed the duck pond where iridescent green-headed mallards with black necks and brown wings huddled on the ice.
“Can we skate here someday?” I asked.
“Too risky! You’ll fall in,” said Mom.
We turned left on Erwin Hill. Dad called it Mt. Erwin. Mom called it “Ridiculous, on a day like this.”
The car spun on an ice patch, like it wanted to turn left in the middle of the road. Mom grabbed the door handle and told her to calm down.
“This car has a mind of its own,” she worried. “And I hope it plans to cooperate.”
Dad studied the steep hill. Grand mom lived in the house next to the top.
Mom held the edge of her seat and turned around to make sure I had something to hold onto. She pointed to the low brick factory behind us.
“If we slide backwards,” she said, “we’ll be wearing that on our heads.”
Dad kept his eyes on the road ahead. He slapped the dashboard like it was a lead horse that needed to get going and accelerated.
“Give it all you got,” he bellowed.
I closed my eyes. The engine growled like it might explode, and the car lurched, pulling us forward and up until our backs were pressed against the seats. Then engine simmered to a steady hum and we pulled parallel to the curb directly in front of the house. Mom sighed like she’d eaten too much.
“See! No reason to get your fur up,” said Dad. He yanked the emergency brake, and secured the car from rolling downhill into the brick factory.
Everyone was watching and waving from the living room picture window. They rushed outside, scrambling across the frozen front lawn to greet us. Richard shoe skated at me, slipped and bashed mom with her arms full of bags of glitter and glue for making holiday paper stars.
“You’re gonna break your neck,” Aunt Ellen shouted.
“Never mind about me,” Mom griped.
Grand Mom threw open her arms like a garden gate. She wanted to know what took us so long. Uncle Bob asked about the icy roads, and the boys pleaded for us to sleep over. Louis invited me to his school play. Richard said he waxed the blades of his sled so we could really take off. Mom asked where their coats were, and that prompted us to hurry inside.
While the adults unpacked the crafts, my cousins and I slipped out the back door where the sleds were lined up against the house. Louis took the longest one. He was tallest. I grabbed “Black Beauty,” for its name. Richard claimed “Red Hot” with the U.S. flag imprinted on it. He pointed out the runners clogged with wax .
“Fast,” he said. “And, the hill’s a sheet of ice.”
The cold air froze the moisture inside my nose, and I wrapped my scarf around my face until only my eyes showed. Richard said I looked like a bandit and I could ride with him the first time.
Neighborhood kids trudged across the crusty snow and crowded around the mailbox on my cousins’ lawn, waiting to see who would “go” first.
“Dangerous,” Dad shouted from the front door. “It can be dangerous,” he warned.
He and Uncle Bob counseled us on steering and zig-zagging to cut the speed. They climbed down the hill to prevent us from running into the main road.
Louis went first. His feet dangled over the edge of the sled. He pushed off with his hands. The blades scraped the packed snow and banged bumps. He cut wide swathes across the hill, careening and spraying as he turned quick and smooth from the curb.
We cheered Louis for his perfect ride. Uncle Bob patted his back. Dad whopped that he “stopped on a dime.” Eager to descend, we lined up across the crest of the hill like warriors. A crush of kids jumped on each other’s backs. Under the pile up, the sled couldn’t budge so they clawed the snow and pushed off with their hands. Richard shoved the end of their sled. The top rider rolled off, pulling the one beneath him, and they slid on their backs partially down the hill. One boy remained on the sled but he was terrified of the speed and swaggered until the sled turned over, and crashed upside down.
“I’ll ride with you,” I told Richard.
He sat up front, jiggling the steering grip with his feet, and testing the turning radius. I clung to his back, squeezing handfuls of his jacket. Louis pushed, and we were launched. Wind stung my cheeks. Snow wet my eye lids. My ribs ached from inhaling frozen air. The white breath of our laughter trailed us. It was the closest I’d ever come to flying—then the rut. We’d been warned about it. If you lifted the sled front slightly, Louis told us, a second before you reach it, you can sail over it.
“It’s really flying,” he said.
Richard blamed me. I was too heavy, he said, and he couldn’t lift the sled front. Sprawled and stunned, we watched our sled rip downhill.
“I’m going alone,” Richard snarled.
Dad talked me into a solo run.
“You know what you’re doing,” he shouted. “Go back and forth across the face of the hill.”
I lined up among the warriors, across the hill crest, looking down, wishing my mom would call me inside. There was a lull in the smacking of metal blades against the hard snow. I breathed hard and pushed against Black Beauty until I dropped on top of the smooth wooded surface of the sled. It was like throwing my self away.
For an instant, Richard and I were close enough to join grips and ride down together. But, he had gotten caught up with a pack of boys in a frenzy of ramming each other. It became like bumper cars on ice. Sleds cutting off and crashing. Sleds turning over. Bodies rolling in front of oncoming sleds. Dad shouted to knock it off but the boys were deaf with intensity. Uncle Bob charged uphill trying to snatch me out of the path of the onslaught. I heard “Get her!” and the clatter of wood hitting wood. I jerked the steering bar and fish tailed. The swagger spun me backwards. Dad had climbed the hill by now, and was trying to break up the chase. No one was guarding the open road. I dragged my feet to slow down. My boot got caught in the blade and the sled turned over.
Dad grabbed my jacket and pulled me up before I rolled. His laughter assured me I was safe. He dragged my sled up the slippery incline. “You got caught in a pickle,” Dad said. “And, you held your own,” he beamed. A reckless sled zipped past. It headed for the gulch that got me. I saw the driver drop his head and recognized his mistake. He should have jumped up the sled front. I understand the trick, now. I could take the hill, next time. Uncle Bob shouted, “Last run. S’getting dark.” Three sleds took the hill at once. I pulled the sled rope from dad’s hand. “Once more,” I said. “Not tonight,” he said.
We kicked the snow from our boots on the back step. The light in the kitchen was golden. The ice pills on my hat melted down my face and neck.
“Hot cocoa!” said grand mom.
We peeled off our frozen socks. Our toes were numb and we limped to the table.
“You’re a sight,” said grand mom. “Next time, stay inside with us. We’re making paper stars. You can do sprinkle the glitter.”
Louis, Richard and I made goggle eyes. Aunt Ellen brought in a huge tin, the kind for storing Charles chips and pretzels. She loosened the tight lid and unfolded a layer of waxed paper. Home-baked cookies were piled like loose puzzle pieces and stacked to the brim.
“To go with your cocoa,” she winked.
There were cookies big as baseballs and rolled in powdered sugar and nuts. There were butter cookies shaped like stars, Christmas trees and dreidels, all sprinkled with bright blue, red and green sugar. Everyone had their favorites. Dad’s were the thumbprints filled with raspberry preserves. Mom’s had two shortbread hearts on a napkin. Louis, Richard and I held out for the chocolate chips. We smelled them before the lid of the tin was fully off. Each one was round as my hand with my fingers spread and chunky with chips.
“Help yourselves,” said Aunt Ellen.
We nibbled the edges slowly to make them last.
“Next time,” said Grand mom. “We’ll all work on those paper stars. Keep you kids safe and warm,”
Liz is a student in the MFA creative writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She received a Bachelor’s Degree in English/Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is published in the Painted Bride Quarterly, Transfer 37, The Kennesaw Review, Open Mouth Poetry Anthology, and U.S. 1 Newspaper. She writes freelance copy for an architectural home plan design firm and the National Association of College Auxiliary Services. Currently, she is working on a novel, Michael’s Chance. Contact Liz.