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Frostbite : Dale Gregory Anderson

      The winter after my mother left, after she packed the small, hard blue suitcase and ran off to a butterfly sanctuary in the forested mountains of central Mexico, my father decided to take me skiing. I didn't want to go—an arctic air mass had moved down from Canada, dropping the windchill to fifty below—but my father wouldn't change his mind. He dismissed windchill as scientific conjecture. Plus, canceling the trip would've meant losing the deposit he'd put down on the motel room in Tofte. It would've meant no skiing because I had to go back to school next week.

      We left on the coldest day of the year, driving up to Duluth, with its reeking paper mills, and following Highway 61 along Lake Superior's north shore. On the morning news, the weatherman had tossed a pot of boiling water into the air, and it had vanished without a trace. Every time I stepped outside my nostrils froze and my jeans stiffened against my legs. The sun was just a frigid little jewel in the sky. As we drove, I stared out the window, wondering if all the animals would die. The air was so cold it burned like fire, like the invisible, most dangerous part of the flame.


      Somewhere north of Two Harbors I noticed we were almost out of gas. My father said we were fine. The low-fuel light hadn't come on yet.

      "We could go another fifty miles," he said, driving with his thumb on the wheel and a toothpick in his mouth. He belched, and the car filled with the smell of the onion and cheese omelet he'd fixed himself for breakfast that morning.

      "It's not exactly the best day to run out of gas," I said.

      "Relax," he said.

      I didn't know what he was trying to prove, didn't know why he wouldn't just pull over and fill the tank. He passed another exit, and I just sat there, my jaw clenched, my fingernails digging into my palms. I asked him to at least turn up the heat, but he said it was warm enough.

      "You need to put some meat on those bones," he said.

      "It's freezing in here," I said, zipping up my jacket.


      We ran out of gas on a deserted stretch of highway with no exit in sight. The engine seized, and my father guided us onto the shoulder. We had passed a station about five miles back, but there were no signs of civilization.

      "Told you this was going to happen," I said, squinting through the salt-coated windshield and watching the icy wisps of snow snake across the pavement.

      "I don't get it," he said, leaning forward to examine the gas gauge. He was a stocky man with thick, hairy fingers and poor eyesight. Whenever he inspected something through his reading glasses his mouth fell open, as if it helped him see. His mouth fell open now.

      "Line must've froze," he said.

      "Should've thought of that earlier."

      "Must've been some water in the bottom of the tank," he said.

      "What are we going to do now?"

      He glanced over his shoulder into the back seat, as if the solution to our problem were waiting for him there. He picked up my earmuffs. "What the hell are these?"

      "What do think?" I grabbed them.

      "I think they must've belonged to your mother."

      I put them on. I didn't care what he thought about my earmuffs. They were black and snug and kept my head warm without messing up my hair. And they were slightly rakish. Wearing them was, for me, a small act of defiance, though against what I wasn't entirely sure.

      He gripped the wheel with both hands and sighed.

      Things had been strained between us since my mom had left. He was still angry. I wasn't sure how I felt about the whole thing, but I missed her. Mostly, I was glad she had gotten away. I never knew how she managed to live with him all those years. She had left in October and had sent me a postcard at school as soon as she had arrived in Mexico. It was a picture of an oyamel fir tree covered with monarchs—thousands of them, hanging in clumps from the branches. Every year they migrated down from North America to spend the winter in Mexico. On the back she had written that the locals believed monarchs were the souls of the dead. Have seen cowboys in serapes and burros hauling corn up the cobblestone streets. Today, I bought a sturdy pine-needle basket from a child in the square. Take care of your father. As Ever, Mother.

      I thought it was a strange thing to tell a sixteen-year-old boy. He was supposed to take care of me. But here we were, on the last Friday in December, stranded in the middle of nowhere without gas or heat. I didn't know what we were going to do, but figured my father would think of something. He'd grown up on a farm and had been in the army and was used to struggling against the elements. Before he married my mom, he'd spent a winter in Aspen, skiing and tending bar. When I was little, I used to feel homesick for those days, long before I was born, though I wasn't sure it was possible to feel homesick for something you had never known. I'd seen Kodachrome slides of him on the chunky slopes in a black turtleneck sweater with a wineskin looped across his chest, the baskets orbiting his ski poles like the rings of some distant planet.


      We waited for almost an hour before a rusted cream-colored Fairlane pulled over. I was so relieved and desperate to get warm that I leapt out of the car without bracing myself. It was colder than I remembered. The air knocked the wind out of me. My father jumped into the passenger seat, and I climbed in back. The Fairlane smelled like an ashtray, but the woman behind the wheel had the heater going full blast, and I wasn't going to complain.

      "Sorry for the mess," she said, flashing me a milky smile. "Just shove that stuff to the floor."

      The back seat was littered with napkins and ketchup packets. There was a headless Barbie, a windshield scraper, a crushed box of Kleenex, and a pair of formal white gloves in a crinkled plastic bag. Barbie was naked, and the bristles of the scraper were flattened like an old toothbrush. I pushed everything aside and rubbed my hands together.

      "One of these days I'll clean out this old car," she said, laughing too hard. Her face was pale and doughy. Tangled dishwater-blond hair stuck out around the edges of a pink cap. There was something about her eyes that told me she'd been crying.

      My father explained our situation. "Frankly," he said, "I'm surprised you picked us up."

      "People are freezing to death out there," she said, holding the wheel at ten and two and keeping her eyes on the road, as if my father were her driving instructor. I knew exactly how she felt.

      "Young lady like yourself can't be too careful nowadays," he said. His voice was too loud for the inside of a car. "There's no telling what sort of maniac you might pick up at the side of the road."

      "I suppose that's true," she said, glancing at me in the rearview mirror. "But you two looked pretty harmless." Her eyelashes were clumped with mascara.

      My father shook his head. "If I were you," he said, gazing out the window, "I wouldn't pick up a hitchhiker in a million years. Seems like every other day you hear about some innocent girl getting raped or murdered."

      I didn't know what had gotten into him and wished he'd just shut up. The woman was driving slower now, weaving back and forth, as if she were having trouble keeping the car on the road. I hadn't noticed it at first, but the radio was on, tuned to static, thick and flat, the kind you had to search for at the end of the dial. It poured into the car like noxious gas.

      "Wasn't it around here that that young girl was abducted?" my father said.

      The woman shook her head. There was a sign for an exit, and she sped up. "What girl?"

      "That young girl," he said. He turned and looked at me over the seat. "What was her name?"

      I shrugged. I didn't know what he was talking about either. The woman was watching me carefully in the rearview mirror, her eyes wide, her fingers gripping the wheel. I wanted to tell her that she was going to be okay, that my father was harmless. I wanted to tell her about my mom and how she used to take me to the Como Park Conservatory in the winter. She liked the warm, damp air, and all the different flowers, and the Japanese garden. Mostly, she liked how you could see winter on the other side of the glass, and how it couldn't touch you, as long as you stayed inside.

      But before I could say anything the woman exited the highway and pulled into a gas station. "I think you should get out here," she said, her voice shrill.

      "We really appreciate it," my father said. "Sure you have better things to do than chauffeur us around all day."

      She glanced at me through the passenger window one last time. Then, she negotiated her car carefully around the service islands and pulled slowly onto the road, as if she were guiding a ship out to sea.


      My father carried a can of gas back to our car on foot, telling me to wait in the station. It was less than a mile away, he said, but there was no sense in both of us hoofing it all the way back. He had forgotten his hat in the car, so I gave him my earmuffs, which he refused to take until I reminded him it was fifty below outside. He adjusted the size and stretched them over his head. From the window, I watched him hurry up the shoulder of the exit ramp, the weak sunlight flashing against his bald spot. I'd never seen him look so small. I pictured him getting struck by a car and knocked into the ditch. I wanted to run outside and call him back, but already he was too far away. He was just a smudge on the horizon. Then he disappeared.

      I turned from the window and looked around for something to do. The station was empty. Just me and a kid about my age sitting behind the counter. I thought maybe I should explain why I was here, but he wouldn't look at me. He was flipping through a magazine, eyeing every page as if it were part of his job.

      I grabbed a pair of cheap sunglasses off the swivel rack and studied myself in the mirror. They made me look ridiculous. I'd never looked good in sunglasses—nobody in our family did. It had something to do with our heads. I put the sunglasses back and pulled my mom's latest postcard from my pocket. It was bent and smeared because I'd been carrying it around since before Christmas. I had pictures of her, but I liked the postcards better. I liked looking at her handwriting, at each carefully formed letter. It made her seem close. She didn't ask about Dad, but said she hoped we would have a nice Christmas. A present from her would be waiting for me when I got back to school. She was working in a café, she said. Feel very good in fact could not feel better. It has tried hard to rain, but so far just enough to make things wet. Keep busy cooking for the café as last week made rice then cabbage, corned beef, cabbage and chicken soup. Cabbage is now cheap as it sells for 70 centavos a lb. Can go out in my yard and pick oranges and grapefruit. You would like that. As Ever, Mother.

      I put the postcard away. I didn't want to think about my mom or Mexico or going back to school. I didn't want whatever she had sent me. My father and I hadn't done anything special for Christmas, hadn't bothered putting up a tree or hanging stockings. All we did was exchange presents. He gave me a new pair of ski boots, which I guess I needed because I'd outgrown my old ones. He hadn't wrapped them, he said, because he didn't know where my mother kept the paper. I told him it was okay; it would just end up in the fireplace. I didn't mention that the boots were the wrong size.

      I'd gotten him a level at the hardware store up at school. It wasn't much, but the center vial in his old one had broken, and the liquid had drained out. I'd wrapped it in a sheet of shiny silver paper and had taped a red bow on top.

      I hadn't sent my mom anything because I didn't know her address. All I knew was the name of the town where she was living: Angangueo. In the winter, it was crowded with tourists. But in the spring, when the monarchs left, it would become a ghost town. The monarchs would migrate north to Texas, my mom said, before they laid eggs and died. Their hatchlings would make it all the way to Minnesota. It was an amazing journey, a 2,000-mile trip for a creature that weighed less than a bay leaf. Nobody could explain how they knew where to go. The generation that arrived in Minnesota each spring had never been here before.

      I glanced out the window for a sign of our car, but my father had only been gone a few minutes. The kid behind the counter was still reading his magazine. He had long sideburns and the simple, reckless expression I'd seen before on the faces of boys from small towns. Near the counter I found my name on a key chain. I bought a pack of Fruit Stripe gum, and he dropped the change into my hand without touching me. I wandered down the snack aisle, watching him in the fish-eye mirror mounted to the ceiling. I imagined him taking me into the restroom and yanking down my pants. I imagined the rest of his body would be like his arms: smooth and muscular, hard beneath my fingers. His skin would smell of tobacco and gasoline and male sweat. I tried to make myself look defenseless and willing, but he never even glanced at me.


      My father pulled into the station almost an hour later, his ears bleached with frostbite. He wasn't wearing the earmuffs, and they didn't seem to be in the car.

      I asked what had happened, but he just shrugged and got out to fill the tank.

      When he climbed back in, I asked if he was in pain.

      He dismissed the idea with a snort. "What, this?" he said. "This is nothing." He pulled back onto the highway and headed north, telling me he'd had it a lot worse on the farm.

      I didn't ask what had happened to my earmuffs.


      We got to Lutsen that afternoon, only to find that they'd closed all the chairlifts due to the extreme windchill. The woman in the ticket booth explained that if a lift broke down they wouldn't be able to evacuate everybody in time. We could buy reduced-price tickets, she said, but the only lift that was running was the T-bar in front of the chalet.

      "Some weather we're having," she said, smiling and shaking her head.

      My father was furious. "Too cold to ski?" he said, as if he were repeating gibberish. He handed her some money. "I've never heard such nonsense."

      The chalet was empty. A few skiers were milling about in thick wool stockings, clutching cups of hot cocoa, but my father and I were the only two people crazy enough to brave the slopes on a day like this. I didn't want to go back outside, but figured I owed it to him after everything he'd gone through to get us here.

      My earmuffs were gone, but I had a stylish red wool ski hat with earflaps and a long yellow braid that sprouted from the crown. The charcoal-grey crisscross pattern brought out the blacks and greys in my jacket and ski pants. I also had a pair of aerodynamic goggles and a lavish jet-black scarf that I looped around my neck with calculated carelessness. As I stepped outside, the shell of my jacket froze, and the snow squeaked beneath my new boots. They were too tight, but I didn't say anything. The T-bar crept up the hill at a sluggish pace. All of the Ts were empty, dangling from the cable like pickaxes.

      My father looked absurd in his outdated caramel-brown belted jacket and blaze-orange hat. He'd put on some weight in the past few years and, in addition to clashing with the rest of his outfit, his navy blue bibs were a couple of sizes too small. I was embarrassed to ride beside him on the lift, but he didn't care about what other people thought of him.

      I started down the slope, bouncing from mogul to mogul, but I couldn't stop shivering, couldn't find a groove. Usually for me skiing was like dancing: I felt clumsy for the first few seconds until I forgot what I was doing and found a natural rhythm. The skis became extensions of my feet, the poles extensions of my hands. But today I was too cold. And my feet hurt.

      At the bottom of the hill my father noticed that my cheeks were pale—a telltale sign of frostbite. "Better get inside," he said.

      "Aye-aye, captain," I said, grateful that he was letting me go.

      In the chalet, I took off my jacket and sat at one of the empty picnic tables. I'd only been out for a few minutes, but already I was frozen to the core. My face was numb, and my nose was running. I couldn't feel anything below my knees. I unbuckled my boots and extracted my cold, hard feet. As I held them in my lap, they throbbed and burned, and I wondered if they were frostbitten, too.

      After a while, my toes started to tingle and itch. I expected my father to join me for a cup of hot cocoa, but he didn't come in to warm up all afternoon. I sat at an empty table in front of the thick plate glass window and watched him. He was in his mid fifties, but he skied with the ease and confidence of an expert, planting his poles gingerly and carving out large, graceful turns. He leaned back and blazed his own path, as if he weren't here in Lutsen, but back in Aspen, twenty-four years old, cruising down the mountain on a pair of long, black Head skis.

      I wondered what my mom would think if she saw him now. I wondered if she would ever come back. I didn't think so. In the spring, when the monarchs headed north, she would stay behind. She would spend the summer in Angangueo, wandering the deserted cobblestone streets until the monarchs returned.

      My father stayed on the slopes of Lutsen that day until the T-bar stopped running. He was the only one on the hill. Though it was just four o'clock, the sun had already begun to set, and a flat, greyish light filtered through the trees. He paused at the top of the run and glanced at the chalet. I wondered if he could see me standing at the window. I waved, but already he was carving out his first turn, planting a pole and carving out another. He was beautiful. My father was a beautiful skier. Near the bottom he crouched into a tuck and sped up the short incline in front of the chalet. Before he came inside, he turned and peered up at the hill, as if he expected to find another version of himself poised at the top, with one more run left to go.