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“Okay. Stamp down on the boot.”
I slide the toe-tab under the fitting and press down on the heel. It locks in with a satisfying click.
“Awesome,” she says. “Feel okay? No rub-spots?”
“None that I can feel.”
“Zappo! You’re ready to fly.”
“I was kinda hopin’ to stay on the ground. Can you tell me where the ticket window is?”
She hands me an afternoon pass. “Right here.”
“Wow! So what do I owe you?”
“I have orders from secret sources.”
“Now hit those slopes before I change my mind.”
I carry my gear outside, feeling like royalty. I’m way ahead of schedule, so I spike my skis into a snow bank and head to the café for a snack. The mountain is a bowl of milk criss-crossed by ants, umbrella’d by blue sky – for January, quite a treat. Thinking of sun damage, I clomp to the gift shop and find a Castro-style cap, 50 percent off. (Evidently, we’re still afraid of looking like communists.)
When the time arrives, I check my list of instructions and head for a two-seater chairlift called the Koala. I arrive at the top of a ridge and find a devastating view: a field of snowcapped mountains going on forever. A jet etches the the blue with a vapor trail. Once I’ve had my fill, I cruise to the left and turn downhill at a mellow intermediate called Hog Back. I’m relieved to find that I remember how to ski, the groomed snow sliding under me like sugar. I straight-arrow the hill and take in a double rush of speed and wind. I plant a pole and pivot left, scraping a bank to a flat trail, funneling out to the main area. I head straight across, making for a three-seater called the Bear. Next to the lift line stands my contact, a lean young man dressed all in white – ski suit, boots, knit cap – plus a pair of reflective goggles. I pull up too early and I have to duck-walk to his post.
He gives me a blank look (which is easy with those goggles) and points a finger. “Devil. Come on, let’s board up.”
I follow him through the ropes, noting the bits of red hair sticking out from the bottom of his cap. I’m a little remiss on the choreography, and I arrive at the boarding stripe just in time to plop onto the chair. The lift operator shouts at me.
“What’d he say?”
“You need to reach for the chair with your outside hand.”
“Whoops. It’s the little things that you forget first.”
“Been a while?”
“Couple years. Lack of money, mostly.”
Angel scans the slope in front of us, wide, flat fields of white, skiers and boarders sliding in from all directions.
I laugh. “Functionally.”
He’s got an interesting nose, small but with a slight misdirection, a boxer’s break. His chin is narrow, a little long, whispers of a goatee. Thin lips, his mouth a little robotic, like the mouth of a ventriloquist’s dummy. I’m having a hard time working up any trust.
“Here’s the deal,” he says. “A chairlift is the best place in the world for exchanging confidential info. Now, I work here, so I’m a pretty advanced skier. When we get to the top, just keep going, over the hill to the back side. I’ll be heading for the black diamonds; for you I’d suggest the blue squares to the right. The runs are pretty long, which is why I gave you the Koala as a warmup. But if you get tired it’s okay, take your time. Meet me at the very bottom, it’s a quad, the Polar Express. It’s fast, but it’s also the longest lift on the mountain. Questions?”
“You’ve really thought this through.”
He scans the trees, looking for secret agents. “I have thought about this since I was fourteen. We’re dealing with some pretty scary shit here. I’m still working a little bit on the issue of trust. That article about your store was a help. Gotta say, major balls. Very impressed.”
“Eh. Marin County.”
“There’s religious wack jobs everywhere.”
“So let me see – oh, the shot with Kelly and the newspaper. Nice touch. Kind of a shock seeing her. But… you’re sure you’re not some undercover Christian?”
“They don’t really offer atheist membership cards. We’re kinda informal. How about this: Your so-called Christian God can suck my dick!”
This earns me a laugh, albeit a robotic one. “Okay. I believe you. You’re gonna burn in hell, you know.”
“Okay. Good. Well, here we go. Head to the right off the chair. I will prepare my confession on the way down the hill. Seeya!”
I raise my skis, push up from the seat and manage to navigate the exit hill without killing anyone. I look around and Angel is gone, so I plant my poles and push off toward the back side. The most winsome candidate is Shady Grove, a mellow little shot between two stands of fir, but Angel’s right, it’s plenty long. I can feel my quads straining with the workload. I give them a little pep talk – taking one for the team, that sort of thing – and they seem to respond. I groove into some long curves, bottom out at a narrow trail called Pipeline and coast into the Polar Express. Angel wears a small smile.
“Oh yeah. I do some pretty serious mountain hiking, and still…”
“Well, like I said, take your time. Let’s go.”
The lift picks us up slow, but at the fifty-foot mark it kicks into overdrive. I consult my Inner Molly, who advises me to shut up and listen. We trace a line of treetops laced with snow. Angel begins his story.
If you drive three miles west out of Carter, Montana, you’ll spot a dirt road marked with a small cross. If you follow that road for twenty miles, you will climb a slowly rising plateau and descend to a small valley filled with cottonwoods. Scattered among the trees are squat white cottages and a long white church with a modest steeple. This is the Cloudburst Christian Camp. They call it a camp because it’s temporary; the residents are much more interested in attaining heaven than in having any kind of actual life on Earth.
The central figure of Cloudburst is a young, bearded man called Sam Matterhorn – a name as obviously made-up as any you will find in a strip club. Working only on externals, you would assume Reverend Sam to be the worst kind of snake-oil salesman, but he does have one mitigating quality: he absolutely believes his own bullshit.
Sam’s major theory on getting to heaven was to beat the sin right out of you. Parents at Cloudburst were given monogrammed paddles, and were expected to use them at the slightest provocation. I can’t tell you how many times I went to sleep to the cries of some poor kid getting walloped – or the many times I received such treatment myself. As I made my way into adolescence, I developed a strategy for avoiding this. Hide your thoughts. Talk as little as possible. Try your best to exhibit no hint of personality. My father became concerned that he hadn’t punished me for a while – Reverend Sam having convinced him that sparing the rod was a sure ticket to hell for both wacker and wackee. So he decided I was too content with my goodliness – a sure sign of excessive pride – and he beat me for that.
We were also kept in line by certain underground legends. Years before, soon after Reverend Sam was led to the cottonwoods by a talking goat – seriously, you can’t make up this shit – a three-year-old smacked his one-year-old brother and refused to apologize. So they paddled his little butt, and still he refused. After two hours of continuous spanking, he passed out. They took him to the hospital, but of course that prize-winning dirt road slowed them up, and by the time they got him to Great Falls he was dead. Internal hemorrhaging. His parents left the community, probably to avoid arrest. Sick fucks.
Later on, I figured that story as another piece of Reverend Sam bullshit, sent out to scare the bejeesus out of us, but then I discovered a news report. The couple who beat their kid to death were suing the church for creating a “pernicious atmosphere.”
Another thing I discovered was how my parents ended up there. A couple of their old friends looked me up in Great Falls and told me the whole story. They were swingers! My mom found out she was sterile, so they decided to make the most of it. Cocaine, orgies, cross-dressing, S&M – you name it. I guess when my mom did get pregnant, they were so shocked at how wild they’d gotten that they boomeranged back in the opposite direction. It’s the worst sinners that make the most insufferable Christians. ‘Course, my parents were nothing compared to Kelly’s mom. Ah, shit. Remind me where I am. Sylvia, right?
We slide off the exit hill, and Angel disappears again. I nudge my bearings a little to the left and find a slope that’s even easier, Grouse Connection. I try to see if I can actually enjoy the skiing, but my mind is racing. I have run into the freakin’ Mother Lode. I catch an edge and nearly buy the farm. The idea of breaking a leg in the middle of all this revelation is pretty horrifying. The slope runs a long, long way straight to the lift. Angel waits for me, looking a little disheveled.
“Y’look a little frosty.”
He smiles, his goggles flashing in the sun. “Kohoutek Gully. Lots of trees and powder. I love powder.”
We board up and rise to the trees. Angel uses his pole to knock the snow from his boots. “One time I was doing this and I hit the release. My ski fell to the snow in slow motion. Like a Hitchcock movie. Had to rake my way down a double-diamond on one ski. Misery! So…”
Sylvia was the most fucked-up bitch in the history of Christendom. Word was that she got knocked up and her boyfriend deserted her. Smart man. After that, she saw nothing good in the world, so why not get ready for the next one? So she brought her bastard child to Cloudburst. The emphasis on corporal punishment was a bonus. It gave her license to take out all her anger and disappointment on Kelly. I don’t think I ever saw that girl without a bruise, a cut lip. Burned hand. Broken arm. By Reverend Sam’s calculations, Kelly was destined to get to heaven before any of us. Sylvia backed it up with her mouth, too. She was just in love with the idea of hell, spouted the gospel of damnation everywhere she went.
That was a mother-daughter combination that could make you question the power of genetics. Kelly’s father must have been one handsome son-of-a-bitch. And of course that kinky hair raised a lot of speculation. Kelly was also incredibly kind, and wise beyond her years. Normally a boy will do anything to avoid a kid two years his junior, but I never felt that way about her. She had this ability to find joy in the tiniest things. One day, she swore me to secrecy and led me through a network of deerpaths to a clearing covered in clover and mustard. At the center stood a broad sycamore. Kelly had constructed a lean-to over a log, and along the log’s top she arranged an impressive collection of quartz crystals. A couple of them were rose quartz; one was an amethyst. Cloudburst children were not allowed to have private possessions, so to me this exhibit was both a scary and thrilling thing.
“How do you hide the pieces from your mom?” I asked. She reached into a braid of her hair and pulled out a crystal. “But aren’t you afraid your mom’s going to find a piece and beat you?” She said, “My mom’s going to beat me regardless.” I kept that thought in my head for years, and I took it out when it came my time to escape. That Kelly was an amazing girl.
Hunting for quartz became our main pursuit, and often I would sneak into the clearing to offer my latest find. One time my dad found a piece in my pocket and beat me for covetousness. I got a kick out of that later, when I discovered how many times he coveted his neighbors’ wives. Hypocrisy is a delicious meal.
“That’s my next cue. Sex education. See ya!”
My legs are getting limber now, and I’m pretty proud of myself when I get to the lift before Angel. He arrives a minute later, coated in snow and cracking up.
“Ha! Totally bought it. Landmine.”
“Land mine. That’s when you got a really harsh mogul, and it’s camouflaged by a smooth layer of powder. Kablooey! Anyways, off we go.”
We board up and clear the first tree.
So! Sex education. There was none. Again, richly ironic, coming from my perverted parents. They never talked about it. Never. And if I talked about it, even managed to stumble onto something that could halfway be construed as sexual, then let the floggings begin! They wanted us to abstain, but they wouldn’t tell us from what. They talked about it in this vague biblical code: “temptations of the flesh,” “carnal knowledge.” What does that mean to a ten-year-old? Was there ever a religion that had a more fucked-up view of sexuality?
One day – spring, gorgeous day – Kelly and I were hiking a footpath next to our road, searching for quartz. We heard a trail bike and jumped behind a bush. We had been trained to fear outsiders. To anybody else, it would look like a pair of college kids out on a lark. What we saw were demons, with wild clothing, tattoos, piercings. The girl had a stripe of magenta in her hair and a ring above one eyebrow. Jezebel!
They rode around the bend, and then the engine stopped. Bored children that we were, we followed, creeping along the trail like Indian scouts, and found them in a field of grass. They were naked, and the boy was pushing the girl from behind. It seemed like some kind of wrestling. As we crept closer, we got a profile view, and made a shocking discovery. It appeared that the boy had somehow inserted his penis into the girl’s body. Imagine what a wild concept that is to someone who has absolutely zero information on the subject. The girl began to scream, as if she were being attacked, then the two of them collapsed into a fit of giggling. It seemed like terrific fun.
After they left, Kelly and I walked back to the clearing in silence. She added a few crystals to her collection and said, “What were those two doing?” I said I didn’t know. She said, “How did he get his thing inside of her? Isn’t it too soft?” I confessed my most shameful secret. “Sometimes,” I said, “it gets hard.” In truth, I found my erections terrifying; I thought there was something horribly wrong with my body. I thought I was dying.
Kelly came back with her own secret. “My… where I go pee? Sometimes it bleeds. I wouldn’t dare tell my mother.”
I said, “Do you suppose… we could do what those two were doing?”
“Well!” she said. “Let’s look.”
You can imagine the rest. When I took off my pants, my penis started to grow. Kelly thought it was a miracle. Through a lot of trial and error, I managed to fit myself into her peehole, and then we did what the other kids did, pushing and sliding. The blood kinda freaked me out, but Kelly told me it was okay. Poor kid had an overdeveloped threshold for pain. Once I got used to the weirdness of it, it got to feeling really good – but when I came I thought I was having a heart attack. I recovered, of course, and over the next month we played our mysterious game four or five more times. And then Kelly kind of disappeared.
“I hate to leave you hanging, Devil, but here we are. See you at the bottom!”
Halfway down, I can feel my legs giving me the early warning signs. It’s not the amount of skiing, it’s the pace. That’s the problem with weekday skiing. I dawdle at the snowboard ramp, hoping for a free show, but all I get are timid beginners. When I get to the chair, Angel looks concerned.
“Hope I’m not working you too hard. That’s how it is when you work here. You build up this superhuman stamina, and you forget that other people… well, for one thing, other people don’t live at seven thousand feet! But don’t worry. I’m almost done.”
We board the lift. Angel takes a deep breath. A skier in black cuts through the trees below us.
Even when I heard that Kelly was “with child,” I didn’t make the connection with our game. Such were the depths of my ignorance. I’m guessing that Kelly didn’t make the connection either. That’s how stories of virgin births get started.
One day in early summer, I was out on a chore that took me past Kelly’s house. I heard screaming, and a steady drumbeat. I crawled to the basement window. Kelly was naked, crouched on all fours atop her bed. Her stomach drooped down. Her hands were cuffed to the bedpost. Sylvia stood behind her, spewing the usual hellfire and taking swings at Kelly’s rear end with her monogrammed paddle. The surface of the paddle was covered with blood. The part that really got to me was Kelly’s face. A blank slate, no expression whatsoever. Mouth open, eyes just… dead. Like she wasn’t really there at all.
Even though I didn’t understand my part in this, I felt horribly guilty. But then, guilt was my default mode. Since then, the guilt grows exponentially. Because I heard that screaming all summer, all fall, and I never did anything. They had me so scared.
Angel’s voice is beginning to break. I didn’t know he had it in him. He shakes it away.
I did one thing. That October, we had a heavy rain. Kelly’s house sat near a creek, so I made a point of walking past to check it out. The water had climbed the bank, and some of it was pouring into the basement. I worked up my courage and knocked on the door. That woman was terrifying. Her hair was this crazy-quilt of red and gray, and she had one eye that seemed like it was knocked out of joint – too many years of staring down sinners. She said, “What do you want?” I said, “I’m sorry for bothering you, Mrs. Copper, but I noticed that you’ve got some water pouring into your basement.” She gave me a long stare, and apparently I passed the test. She said, “Okay. I’ll go check.”
I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had just let her drown, but I guess that wasn’t the purpose. She was going to force Kelly to have that child in the same way that she was forced to have Kelly. I can’t figure the reason for chaining her down. Like she was going to run off and have an abortion? We didn’t even know what that was.
Angel goes quiet. I suppose it’s time that I can ask a question.
“Did she have the child?”
“Yes. She brought it to church for baptism. Ruth Elizabeth. A week later, Kelly and the baby disappeared. But Sylvia remained, and acted like nothing happened. People in that place talked about nothing but heaven. It was like Kelly never existed.”
This appears to be a hole in Angel’s life, so I give him a little time. A kid in a red-and-black suit takes some wicked air off the snowboard ramp below us.
“You got out?”
“Yep. I waited till I was eighteen. I wanted to make sure they couldn’t send me back. My folks went to a bible meeting one night. I pretended to be sick. Loaded up a backpack and just walked. I got to Highway 87 just as the sun was rising. What a great fucking feeling. Got a job at a grocery store in Great Falls and spent years working the bullshit out of my system. It was only last year that I left Montana. That’s why my phone number’s still there. Whoops. Heads up.”
The lift exit is right on top of us. I raise my skis and manage the dismount, but this time he’s not getting away from me. I slide up from behind and grab his elbow. He stops and gives me a look of surprise. I’ve broken protocol.
“Angel. Believe me, I understand the caution. For years, I envisioned some late-night visit from the Jehovah’s Witness Mafia. But I’m pretty sure Cloudburst is not on your trail. It doesn’t seem like they’d even go to Great Falls, much less California. And I’m not sure if I can make it down that hill again.”
He thinks about it and nods his head. “Okay.”
“So why the flyers? Why are you doing this?”
He looks around, like he still doesn’t believe me, and leads me to a bench bordering a grove of pines. We sit; my legs are immediately grateful.
“Number one,” he says. “I guess I need to know if I’ve got a kid out there. And… if I can do anything to help. Two, I want Kelly to know something.”
Angel takes off the knit cap, unleashing a mop of squirrely orange hair. Then he takes off the goggles, revealing a pair of light brown eyes with a hawk-like sharpness.
“Wow. Okay. I’ll do what I can. I assume Sass told you…”
“Repressed memories. Self-injury. It’s amazing the girl hasn’t killed herself, really. But you know all about that remarkable brain of hers. Anyways, just keep me up-to-date. You’ve got my number. Oh, and my real name is Jacob.”
I offer a gloved hand. “Thanks for finding me. This’ll help a lot.”
“Good. Um, you might want to stop at that shack for a cheeseburger. Anywhere else they’re awful; on top of a mountain, they’re fantastic. When you’re rested, hit that run to the left, the Mokelumne – nice, easy groove.”
“Hey, and if you get the itch sometime, I can always get you a lift ticket. Two, if she’s ready.”
He gets up, grips his poles, then stops. “Oh, one more thing.” Jacob reaches under his shirt and pulls a silver chain from around his neck. He opens his hand to reveal a chunk of milky purple. It’s the amethyst.
I make my way down the Mokelumne, stopping to take in the vistas and rest my legs. When I take off my boots, I discover blisters on both feet. Still, the pain is pleasant, especially in my well-worn tennies. I limp to the deck and find a surprisingly festive gathering. It’s a conference of wineries and cheesemakers, complete with free samples and a combo of youngsters playing hot jazz from ‘30s Paris. I settle at a table with my bounty and let the dark secrets of Jasmina’s childhood run laps through my head.
Photo by MJV