We found the best hill in town. Some other guys had already been sledding on it, so there was a nice deep groove in the snow, past the powder and into the good hard slick stuff. The snow was thick everywhere, about eight inches, which was more than Birmingham had seen in thirty years or more. It had stopped snowing that morning, and the sun was out making everything beautifully bright and sharp. The hill was steep and long with a tiny valley at the bottom. It was a great hill. It was probably the best hill ever seen by anyone. About twenty-five yards behind us was an off-ramp to the freeway where cars occasionally smoothed by, and behind that, green and white pines.
We had some flattened cardboard boxes, but soon discovered the best sled we had was this shiny red Pizza Hut thing, one of those huge insulated plastic bags they carry pizzas around in, keeping them warm until deliverance. We also quickly discovered the best way to sled with it was to get face down; it only covered your chest, so you had to raise your legs a little. The first time you go down, you get going so surprisingly and blindingly fast, fish-tailing and basically out of control, you let your legs fall, hurtling fragmented waves of snow on all sides, but this doesn’t seem to slow you, so you dig in with your booted ankles and heels, your clenched toes, which does slow you up quite a bit. Then you hit the valley, and thud! You’re dead in the water. Actually snow. Your timidity has robbed you.
Then Chris goes. He gets a running start and belly flops onto the thing and zoom! tears down the hill like an electron leaping between atoms, and when he hits bottom, goes flying into the air and everybody laughs. Then Wyn goes. Then Lee. Then Wyn’s wife Laura. Then Laura’s sister Shelly doesn’t feel like trying it yet, so it’s your turn again.
You hold the large red square in front of you and sprint toward the trail, throw your body at the snow and pow! you’re zipping along at sixty miles an hour, with your chin only three inches away from the amazing white blur of ground, like a yo-yo after gravity snaps his gigantic wrist, with your gloved hands curling the front of the plastic box up for better speed and so your knuckles won’t graze; the cold wind strips you of everything but an awful swiftness and drive, then you hit the tiny valley and zing! fly up the far side up out into the air, you to the right, the pizza bag to the left, your arms and legs outstretched, back arching, like a receiver high up and trying to reach the ball, then getting hit hard, then tumbling and twisting like Neo or Njinsky through this sudden slow-motion footage, violent and elegant, and then, well then you bounce the way a drunk bear might bounce and roll several yards through the snow. You lie in the snow and laugh. On your back, you breathe out and briefly close your eyes. Then you get up and shake a layer of snow off your black raincoat. Some of the snow slipped into your right glove at the heel of the palm, and some of it clouds your fine hair, but it feels good to be cold, now, where you are.
You look around for the pizza thing, grab it, and trudge up the hill. It’s a bitch getting back to the top. You have to pull at the sharp air to breathe, your nerves tremoloing. Helter Skelter, you think. I‘m coming down fast so don’t let me break you. Well you might be a lover, but you ain’t no dancer. …now here she comes, Oh…. …look out!
You look up from your brown boots wounding the thick surface as you lift your feet and let them fall. Looking up, you see everybody standing at the top of the hill. From here it looks like a postcard because the top of the hill is your horizon, and everybody’s crisp and black against the blue sky, standing, talking, looking, enjoying the day, the snow, and the air. You think of the childhood Christmas memoir by Dylan Thomas, of the vinyl album Wanda had, probably still does, that had Thomas reading the story, you and Wanda lying on the throw rug in the loft in the deep dark, lost in the lilting roll of his sure sweet voice, wonderful to be lost in his snow and far away church bells, with hot broth somewhere steaming and waiting for you. You wish Wanda were here now for the last two days of snow. The slipping and rising and sliding with Shaeffer and Miller Lite and mushrooms. The communion over thin naked trees beautiful under full white burdens easily borne. Now, on this last day of good snow, clearheaded and brilliant, you think how much more all of it would mean if Wanda were here. There’s nothing to do about it. So you think about your next jump, planning to run even faster, to really let go this time, looking forward to it even though getting up this hill is a real bitch. You think that if somebody wanted to draw a picture of somebody but couldn’t draw feet, or shoes, or boots, they could draw the person standing in this kind of snow. Once when you were a kid, your dad hand-built a sled for you, but you didn’t come home until late evening, and all the snow had turned into slush.
Finally, you reach the top of the hill and stand for a moment with your friends, catching your breath in little pulls. Chris and Wyn are talking about Dali verses Magritte. You hold out the pizza thing for whoever wants it next when a car slides by fast on the off ramp not twenty feet away, a boxy silver Nissan. You see inside only for a second, but obviously it’s a family, older couple in front either parents or grandparents, and in the backseat a very young boy with cropped brown hair, a puffy blue jacket maybe Patagonia or Land’s End. The way his round face so close to the window peers out, you know this boy has never seen snow before. He gazes at all of you, you grownups playing in his wonderland doing whatever you want, his small bare hands pressed against the window like dried flowers. The car slides by, you watch it merge onto the freeway, falling far behind a semi in the gleaming distance.
You turn back and notice the breath leaving Wyn’s mouth as he proposes the superiority of Magritte’s imagery. You’re still holding out the pizza thing and Lee walks up and takes it. He says thanks with a slight fog of breath. You notice your own breath. You notice Chris’s breath while he says Dali was a master in the classical sense. You notice the breathing of Laura and Shelley as they whisper about something. It’s good, you think, to see that everyone’s alive.
Brent Stauffer lives in a basement on top of Red Mountain, sometimes working on
a collection of poetry; “Knuckles Tickle Pulsars.” Occasionally he writes for
and edits the Birmingham Free Press. Often he plays double bass and fiddle in
the Mayberry Rollickers, Three Man Stone, the Mississippi David Hornbuckle Band,
and other local bands of note.