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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
“It kept right on snowing almost to April,” I’ll tell my grandkids when they come visit, ignoring me, staring at their holodex. “My sister—your great-aunt Mallory, kiddos—well, we couldn’t believe it, watching the snow falling.”
There was so much snow that winter that my father built a luge in the backyard.
It was twenty years ago, 1994. The Winter Olympics were in Lillehammer, sending us images of a Norwegian fantasyland, where hotels were carved out of glaciers and beds were layered with the skins of winter beasts I could only conjure in weird, sweaty nightmares. During breaks in coverage of alpine skiing, hugely bearded men with chainsaws danced outside venues, carving ice sculptures with quick, precise, terrifying slicing motions. Then chiseling features into the ice with delicate-looking picks. Frozen statues of speed skaters, bears, and gold medals threw glimmers at TV cameras. And those cherubic, plump little Norweigian kids, man, now they had a real winter. That’s what Mallory and I thought. Those little brats! With their ice hotels and their bearded ice sculptors and the Olympics in their hometown.
All we had was Cool Runnings, which had come out in October.
But it started to snow in January, a little every day,” I’ll say to them, my angels, my son’s kids, my spoiled little lumps of joy—a hundred years from now maybe, who knows. And instead of melting, the crystalline white blanket in our suburban New York backyard built on itself. It piled up to the fork in our twisted magnolia’s trunk, sixteen inches off the ground, and went on accumulating. The hemlock that separated our yard from the Garetys’ to the west sagged with snow, its branches shrugging beneath the weight. Every few minutes, one of the boughs would give way, and a torrent of watery ice and snow would spill into the garden below, where Mallory and I waited to be buried.
They’ll come for visiting hours with their father, probably. And when they want to know what winter was—when my own little cherubic decedents look up from Angry Birds MCX on their mini-holodex for one second (just one goddamned second!)—ask questions of wheezing Grandpa A-J, who smells like stale bacon air as he endures yet another round of treatment in the hospital’s StemCellz© care unit, I’ll close my eyes and brainlink these images of the winter of 1994 to them.
There he is, kiddos,” I’ll say, eyes closed as I begin to send the series of pictures, sliding deep into distant reverie. In the memory, he’s wearing his rabbit fur-eared hat, forcing an orange push-shovel through the heart of the backyard. His face ties into a squeamish little knot of pain every time he lifts a load of powder above his waist; though he’s careful to maintain a slight but apparent downward slope to the path he’s carving.
He’d torn his rotator cuff the summer before. Or rather, over the course of the previous 25 summers, slowly chipping away at it with topspin second serves. Fraying its fibers until the last one snapped awkwardly in September. He tugged straight through it with a career’s worth of one-handed backhands, dealt to older and older opponents, themselves now with replaced knees, receding hairlines, metalloid hips, sutured ligaments, and baroque mid-life crises involving Porsche Carreras and stained short shorts.
That winter, I watched him from the kitchen window, lifting myself up onto the stainless steel sink and looking past the thermometer mounted outside. The snow found its way down, down, down. On the other side of the house, in the living room bay window that faced the street, I set up a weather station to monitor incoming storms (Mallory was the on-screen talent, distracting our rapt parents with her dinnertime reports as I, unseen, scooped inedible pot roast off my plate and crumpled it up into napkins). I assembled Lego satellite dishes and drew on pieces of cardboard: weather maps and Hi/Lo pressure systems depicted in Crayola marker. In my predictions, the forecast for Central Park always called for ten inches of snow, and much, much more North and West of the City, where we lived.
See that my little loves?” I’ll say, the StemCellz© lending my face a pinkish-orangish tint, preaching with eyes closed and metallic-tasting spittle coming down my face as the cells reconstruct a bundle of failing organ tissues.
We had to make up things. No kid could even dream of a day when we’d have those devices you’ve got plugged into your heads, immediately conjuring tactile images of whatever. We had to design our own flat screens, radar apparatuses, banks of phones to call local municipal emergency services and say things like, ‘Hi there, Frank, we’re going to need plows on Pasadena Place, like, stat.’ You think all this technology makes you happier than we were then? Smarter? HA! HA!”
Over the course of a string of late January storms, my father finished an initial cut that banked through the backyard, starting in the northwest corner and curving around the house, ending in a kind of flat cul-de-sac—where we would have space to hit the brakes. We’d dig our boots into the snow and grind to a stop before hitting the snow pile that separated the luge from the street. After shoveling once through, my father walked backwards over the cut, tamping down the snow with the shovel, smoothing and hardening it into a layer of ice, covering his footprints, and leaving lines from the shovel’s backside in the widening course. Then he repeated the process and used the removed snow to build up walls on either side.
The result: a 60-yard long tube of ice. A backyard luge.Cool Runnings.
“Lillehammer in Mount Vernon, mon,” my father probably said in a Jamaican accent.
The pain in his shoulder had grown from mere annoyance into a consistent presence, a reminder of impending surgery in March. He’d pretty much destroyed it, he figured, so he didn’t care if he hurt it some more before they “went in there and cleaned it up.”
So over time, the dull ache blossomed, stabbing him with high-voltage shocks when he pulled his pickup truck into second or fourth gear. It got so bad that he would hold his hand over mine on the shifter. When he shouted “Now!” we would pull together and yell.
He took a lot of Advil.
Doctor Unis, an orthopedic surgeon friend of my mother’s, told my father that he couldn’t serve overhand anymore. Which was obvious, given that he couldn’t quite lift his hand higher than his eyeballs anyway. So he started missing his Eastern Sectional men’s 40-and-over tournaments—those Tuesday night reprieves from the house (meatloaf, usually), when he’d escape into whatever fantasy middle-aged suburban men entertain about prowess, glory, or maybe just about longevity.
Otherwise, the winter of 1994 became a total dead zone.
My father owned (and owns) a small outdoor tennis club the next town over.
“He bought it on my birthday in 1985. Can you believe that, kiddos? Another story entirely! More than 125 years ago! HA! HA!”
The club closed on Election Day. Every November, when the grounds crew took down the nets and rolled up the lines, my father would just shake his head and look at the grey clouds, and turn his attention back to his enormous green ledger—his year-end report-card.
Another summer vanished. Poof. Gone.
“I know that you’ve learned about seasons and about how the leaves would fall and fall and fall off the trees,” I’ll say, waving my hands like fluttering leaves (let’s assume that seasons are done away with entirely, either by technological choice or climate change, or something else. Maybe we’ll have moved to California—who can predict these things? Maybe the scientists are all wrong and it will just be endless springtime a hundred years from now. Maybe they’ll know plenty about snow).
“I’m sure your teachers tell you that autumn was hyperflex,” I’ll say.
I’ll notice their sudden attention.
“What, you don’t think I know your slang? HA! HA!” I’ll stare into their faces. Their mother’s eyes. Maybe I’ll see a hint of a cleft Aronstein nose budding in the boy. The curiously brutish straw-blonde stranger, who maybe likes to throw rocks at cats but looks like I did more than a century before.
“And it was beautiful, you know? It was pretty—all those oranges and reds floating around. That smell of Canada on the air. If Canada is your thing, man, fall was a real trip.”
They’ll fidget, the glow from the holodex illuminating their perfect-skinned cream faces, but the images from my brainlink will distract them, threatening to overwhelm. The Hudson Valley wrapped in golds and reds juxtaposed against the blank whiteness and muted evergreens of deep winter of our backyard in February,the luge winding through it. I’ll save the images of apple picking and upstate farms, of corn mazes and the smell of funnel cake. I’ll save later memories of Chicago’s skyline from Promontory Point in November, Lake Michigan spray blowing up into my face—I’ll keep them for myself, or stored away for some other time, some other lesson.
Save it for when they’re paying attention and deserve it. When they’re older and ask how to endure loneliness or uncertainty or the persistent sense of a lack of future.
But then again, maybe there won’t be time. How do we figure out what to share and what to keep? How do we separate the meaningful from the merely worthwhile?
“But, Molly and Merton,” (or Eugene and Helen, or Leo and Pamela, or whatever of our family names they get), “in my father’s case, autumn was super duper depressing. He would try to pretend that it gave him this extra zetz of energy, you know? Lift us onto his protesting shoulders when we went for walks after dinner. We’d drink hot cider and pull the gunk and seeds out of pumpkins before carving them into scowling faces, cats, spider-webs. And we’d laugh like baboons when my parents raked the leaves in the backyard—when they shouted, “GO! GO NOW!” and Mallory and I sprinted into the piles. But you’d see this look dance across my father’s face as he dug out the slime from those pumpkins, taunting him as he dumped the seeds onto a baking tray for my mother to roast. You could tell he was staring down another winter of teaching lessons to pimply middle-schoolers indoors and just mega fucking bummed about it.”
“And that year especially, to know that there would be nothing to distract him from his breaking-down body must have fucking haunted him.”
My son will look up from his own holodex, where he’ll be checking solar futures or something, or maybe brainlinking with colleagues in Taipei, Delhi, Sao Paulo. Wherever commerce ends up fleeing after the next big crash. Or after the next two.
“The cursing. You’re cursing in front of the kids again.”
“You let them play with those holodex things and you’re worried about me cursing? HA! HA!”
The kids will look up,the glow of the machines going black. Pausing. Waiting for their hungry eyes to return to the eyeAds. Live entertainment, the timeless father-son contest, will always capture attention.
“There are parental controls, Dad.”
“HA! HA!” I’ll laugh and cough and sputter, “And you never got around parental controls.”
He’ll stare, daring me.
So I’ll brainlink him a quick little memory—one of those real Freudian nightmares I assume one holds forever over one’s kids. I’ll make it the one where I find him sitting agape at our old family room iTeeVee. Maybe I came home early from the content farm one Sunday, wrists aching, fingers calloused. I tripped into the house, a bit tipsy, smoking my e-cig, and he was sitting upright, with the 3D goggles strapped on his face, school uniform pants kicked down, and the iMitten accessory wrapped around you-know-what.
“It was in the family room!” I’ll say, laughing and sputtering, the kids looking up still and confused.
“Oh Jesus, just leave it alone. Just leave it,” my son, my grown little guy will say, making the emergency delete motion with his hands in the air. And I’ll be filled with mirth and overwhelming love for him in his rare moment of vulnerability to me, this captain of some future-industry (moon hotels, body-transplants, holodex-tainment). He’ll know how I feel about him, I think.
“The luge, kids. Well. That was my mother’s idea.” Settling back into it, brainlinking a memory of her standing over my shoulder as I sit on the sink, watching.
“What’s up ma?” and they’ll roll their eyes as I reenact the scene, so strange and corny to hear an old man’s voice coming out of the remembered image of his childhood self.
The luge. It strikes me now as a kind of perfectly strategic spousal construction, meant first of all to prevent atrophy in the already cabin-fevered imaginations of two bored children—one of whom, remember, had built a kind of worrying array of fake meteorological gizmos in the living room, talking to a man named Frank on an unplugged 1980’s office phone from the basement junk-heap. The child-rearing books had no explanation for that one, and just forget about AOL parent chat-rooms, full of pedophiles and parents of kids who started fires in suburban family rooms.
“And whoo boy!” I’ll startle the kids, remembering times when I’d find my mother humming and rubbing her temples with clockwise finger-motions just staring at the floor, “Did mom ever, God rest her soul, have some winter demons to wrestle!”
They won’t know it, but, God rest her soul, is a bit of her speech that survives in my personal idiom. It has already become mine. A tic. A superstitious incantation I’ve inherited. A verbal talisman held up against the world.
“What else do you have of hers?” they’ll ask absently, if at all.
The shallow tenor of her sighs, the wedge in her brow when she stares worriedly, the faded and fading pigment under my eyes, maybe the mitral valve prolapse. Definitely some of those unquietable, darkly velvet voices. The ones that beckon at me, taunt me, in deep pockets of solitude on late-winter or early spring nights—ice storm nights—voices that toy a little too comfortably and a little too credulously with themes of self-annihilation.
They’re hers too.
But how to communicate that to anyone? And to what effect? How to tell people the trillions of small things that you’ve come to learn how to endure—the parts of yourself that you feel as your own, but are really vestiges of your parents’ bodies and minds? Their demons. Their creaking shoulders, starting to give way. Their grandparents’ names. The genomic or familial detritus we start to find with worrying regularity when we get closer to where they were when we were born. As if rummaging around the attic of the mind only to find these dusty curios of forgotten affairs, military service, trips to Acapulco. It’s too much. Too much to endure let alone to—
Leo or Merton or little Gene looks up, concerned.
“Dad! Grandpa threw up, eeeeeeeeeeeeewww.”
Dammit. Now they’re screaming and mewing in the room. Disgusting. These reflexes that one starts to lose. God. The auto-freshN guns start firing off and the room fills with the smell of marshmallows.
“Fuck. Dad, your shirt.” He looks up. The puke keeps coming. And that disdain from my kids, mixed with worry and low-grade horror. God, I’ll inherit that too, I know it. And then I’ll pass it right along.
HA! HA! You’re cursing in front of the children,” I’ll wretch—the terrified humor of men facing the certitude of demise. Final approach. Landing gear down. My grandfather’s last meal was a bowl of sauerkraut. That’s all he wanted. The acidy taste. That texture. He craved it.
How unbearably sad it is to want such small things, especially at the end, I guess.
And yet, there we were a few days later, sitting shiva at my uncle’s house, making fart jokes about my grandfather and his sauerkraut.
“Fittingly, he spent his last moments at home on the bowl, kiddos,” babbling, puke dribbling down my chin, probably in a portentous way, judging by my son’s face.
I try to diffuse the situation as his holodex falls off the bed and he grabs paper towels, shouting for a nurse, spittle now tasting like copper wire.
What I’d want to tell them is that the luge was this kind of noble project for my father—and our joy and anticipation as he built it became an elixir that acted on his fear-receptors. Fear of aging. Fear of surgery. My mom made coffee on snow days, wearing one of her cotton flower-printed nightgowns with sweatpants under them, the color of her long yellow hair not yet beginning to flag. Or sometimes this old Harvard sweatshirt that I think she long ago sold at a yard sale for a nickel, sitting outside, humming and reading on the stoop as neighbors rummaged through our stuff.
As early as that February of 1994, she’d discerned the changing climate of the house. I didn’t know it—how could I have?—but my father’s own protracted mid-life thing had already entered its fourth year. My mother sensed the coming breaking point. His own father was already having heart issues. A bypass seemed to be in the offing—both men would go “bravely” (HA! HA! Right!) under the knife by Saint Patrick’s Day.
And she knew what rehab from shoulder reconstruction surgery looked like. And she knew the numbers and the risks of bypass surgeries were swirling in his head at the same time.
She gave my dad that luge construction project to take his mind off of it—or at least to get him outside and fill his ears with the adoration of his children.
“Can we go outside yet?” we asked.
“He’s almost done. Go get your long johns on.” She watched him carefully constructing the rounded walls, squinting over her coffee mug, plotting her next carefully executed move. Silencing those voices.
“A lesson, kiddos,” I say as my son dabs at the flannel hospital shirt, lifting cold green vomit from the fabric on my chest. I have to crane my neck to see their faces, their eyes widening with concern.
“Guys, can you just back up a bit?” my son says to them. Now they can’t stop paying attention, of course.
“When emotional economies begin to flag, the household government—stop it I’m fine David—must turn to infrastructure developments. I want to talk to them, stop it.”
“Would you just let me?”
“A kind of affective Keynesian stimulus,” shouting now, “Demand side—let go David—economics. Shift the—OW! HA! What are you doing? Shift the curve. Move it toward— ”
“Dad, please. It’s starting to. SHH. Dad, Keep it lower. It’s okay. Guys can you go in the hall, I have to—”
She stood in the kitchen, my mother, hugging that coffee mug to her face, squinting as he sculpted sides into the luge. He smoothed a huge pile of snow in the northwest corner of the yard, shaping it into a ramp and a platform to stand on.
Mallory and I both had Flexible Flyer sleds. She in her pink snow pants and that hat with the fuzzy ball on top of it. Those fat cheeks. HA! The last few weeks of winter before his surgery. Before the April thaw, when we fed him in bed because he couldn’t really eat well with his left hand, his right arm in the sling.
Mallory lay on the sled, face aimed down the luge. And my father, HA!, he would let out a huge “ONE, TWO…TWO AND A HALF!” And we squealed like snow-pigs at the old taunt. We’d just absolutely squeal at him and tingle all over.
“PUSH HER, DAD. PUSH HER!” I’d scream. HA!
And then he yelled three and pushed her. And down she went through the chute. God, kiddos, I can hear that laughter fading around the yard. It stays with me. How could he have been so strong to fling her that far? I couldn’t believe it. How could she have made it all the way around the house? And I looked at my father then, in his tan winter coat and his mittens and that fur hat. Holding his right shoulder and not really saying anything, but breathing hard. And I knew. He looked at me and he said “Okay, you ready?” And I said “Dad, you don’t have to if your shoulder hurts,” and he said “Ah, don’t worry Slim,” because that’s what he called me HA!, “my shoulder’s pretty fucked up anyway.” And then I said (or, I wish I said, because it would just fit perfectly, which means it probably didn’t happen), “Dad, don’t curse in front of me.” And then the memory skips, and jumps, or fast forwards, like, and all I hear is a big grunt and I feel the wind in my face as I steer away from the walls toward Lillehammer or spring or total annihilation or maybe it’s just toward the front yard.
A-J Aronstein lives in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. He co-teaches a course at the University of Chicago called “What are the Humanities For?” His fiction and essays have appeared recently in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Paris Review Daily. He is working on his first novel.