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Vinnie Hansen

Thin Ice in Four Pieces

     I may have been born legally blind.  My earliest memory holds only smell and taste and effort: a baby crawling onto our battered oak table, straddling a large can of pineapple juice, and then lifting the punctured holes to my mouth, to taste the shocking sweetness. 
     While other toddlers imagined shapes in the clouds, I held rocks veined with stories from the Ice Age to my eyes.  Even though I was tall, my first grade teacher sat me in the front and allowed me to scoot the desk up to the blackboard.  My parents must have known I could not make out the large E at the top of the eye chart.  I pressed books up to my nose and learned to read. 
     When my older sister Eva was ten, she counted all the money she’d saved from helping our grandmother, who took in laundry, and rode the train ninety miles to Rapid City.  She walked toward downtown and then asked a woman on the street, “Where is a place to buy glasses?” With no help from our parents, she bought a pair.  Then she took the train back to Philip.  But I was not as resourceful or as brave as my sister and there was no longer a train between Philip and Rapid City that carried passengers.  Like Eva, I received my first pair of glasses when I was ten, but our parents drove me to the optometrist and paid for them. 
     They arrived in the mail and I found the package on our round oak table.  My brothers charged into the house behind me.  School lunchtime provided twenty minutes to walk home, twenty minutes to walk back, and ten minutes to eat, so my brothers pushed directly to the kitchen where they jockeyed and fought to find and fix something to eat.  I ripped open the package and slipped on the cat-eye frames.  Everything snapped into hard, sharp edges.  I looked at the door out to the east porch.  It was covered with nicks. I looked up and saw the pocks in the acoustic ceiling tiles.  As I lowered my eyes, the front windows swept to the side. When I peered in the mirror by the telephone, there were two me’s: a clear, narrow face inside the brown frames of the glasses and a bigger fuzzy one outside the lenses.  Which one was the real me?  My eyes hopped between the two.  I felt dizzy. 
     “They don’t look too bad.” Buba trooped by with some sort of sandwich. 
     A pot had clanged and I now smelled Campbell’s tomato soup.  Hanky whined that Bud should let him have some. 
     Bud wandered into the living room tipping a soup bowl into his mouth.  He sat the dirty dish on the table and banged out the door without noticing my glasses.
     My little brother ran after him and hurled a spoon at Bud for not sharing the soup.  It thunked against the outside door and clattered on the porch floor.  In the kitchen, I sliced a wide chunk of my mom’s bread, spread it with commodity butter, and threw it, butter side down into the fifty-gallon drum of sugar under the counter.  Outside, the world was an intoxicating whirl of leaves and swaying daggers of weeds.  I tried to eat the butter and sugar sandwich on my way to school, but the earth sprang before me like a rabbit and my steps landed flat-footed and jarring.  I shuffled forward like walking on thin ice.  I felt nauseous, but we never missed school and we were never late.   I threw the sweetness onto an ant heap where it wouldn’t go to waste. 

* * *

     Bud inspired me. He was two years older, old enough to look up to, but close enough to be close.  Bud could take a washing machine apart and reassemble it, but he did not do well at school, which meant he was given the shit chores.  One of those jobs was milking our cow Red. 
     Fetching Red from the nether reaches of the pasture was part of the job.  Bud, creative soul that he was, decided to reduce the workload by riding Red to the barn.  He simply looped a rope around Red’s neck and climbed on her back, and Red, who knew Bud intimately and had a full udder aching for relief, tolerated it. 
     When Red strolled to the barn, Bud sat atop her like a prince, bobbing and and swaying and smiling at the rest of us kids like he had the best job in the world.  To make the vision complete, he needed only tinkling bells on his ankles.  I watched as an envious eleven-year-old for a whole summer.  Then I’d had enough.
     One hot bored afternoon, I took the rope from the barn and headed out to the pasture to find our cow.  My tough bare feet picked their way slowly to avoid cactus.  My heart drummed with excitement.  I’d never ridden anything except my grandma’s Saint Bernard when I was about five.  But, riding Red looked easy enough.
     I found the cow not too far away, down in the draw by the dried up dam where green still grew.  She looked up, curious, and then continued to graze.  I approached and patted her shoulder. 
     “It’s okay, Red.”
     She looked up again, eyes rolled toward me, suspicious.  What the hell was going on?  It wasn’t milk time.  I wasn’t her milkman.  And no one casually sauntered out in the pasture to chat with her.  She didn’t lower her head. 
     I patted her again and she switched me with her tail. 
     “Shhhhh, that’s a good girl.”  As I slid the rope around her neck, her body tensed.  I belly flopped onto her back, heaved my leg over and barely had time to grip the rope before Red took off running.
     I pulled back on my makeshift reins, which had no effect whatsoever.  I wasn’t Bud and I didn’t belong on her back.  She twitched with me bouncing and gulping and gripping that rope.  The ride was thrilling and terrifying.  Then Red headed for the barded wire fence.  If she couldn’t throw me off, she was going to scrape me off. 
     I let go of the rope and rolled away from the fence, but on my way to the ground two barbs caught near my ankle, one cutting light and long, the other ripping short and deep. 
     Lowing in alarm, Red trotted off toward the barn, the rope dragging behind her until it finally slid off into the withered buffalo grass.  The fall hadn’t hurt much, but blood streamed to my crusty heel.  I hobbled toward the house and wiped the bottom of my foot on the back porch mat.  When I entered the kitchen, I walked on the ball of my right foot, but I still left a dripping path to the bathroom.  I sat on the edge of the tub, turned on the cold water, and let it gush over the gouge in my leg. 
     My mother followed the blood trail and found me there.  “What happened to you?”
     “I got bucked off the cow and my leg caught on the barbed wire.”
     “Let me see.”
     I turned off the water and my ankle looked momentarily better. 
     My mother grabbed my leg and twisted it toward her.  She frowned at the two-inch hole, which started to pour fresh blood. She rummaged through the stack of mismatched face cloths on the open shelves, and handed me a pink one almost worn through in the center.  I pressed it against the cut.
     “What put that fool notion in your head?” 
     I don’t know what to say about that moment.  I don’t remember it.  My brother Bud does. 
     Unlike my brothers, I’d never been much of a liar.  And I was talking to Mama, so maybe I thought it was safe.  It was a bad cut that needed stitches, so maybe I was just thinking about my own leg.
     “I saw Bud do it.” 
      My mom left the room. 
     The cut wasn’t life threatening so I never went to the hospital. 
     Bud, on the other hand, did go behind the outhouse.  My dad never hit his baby girl, but that didn’t mean someone wouldn’t pay for this bloody mess. 
     Bud silently served as a whipping boy, defending me, his little sister, with his back.  During my youth, my wide pink scar reminded me only of my big adventure.  It took my brother to remember for me my betrayal, but he never held it against me, never even told me until I was an adult.  He carried that shard of my life, my duplicity and blindness, and didn’t return the piece until I was grown and ready to be complete.
     The occasion was our first family reunion.  A bunch of us were sitting on the steps outside our childhood home, waving away flies and drinking ice-cold Budweiser from sweating cans, as we swapped “poor stories.” As Bud regaled us with the riding Red saga, he slipped in the beating as simply another detail. 
     “You were beaten?” I sat shocked, the beer suddenly burbly and sour in my hollow stomach.
     Bud rolled his eyes.   He knocked on the top of his stomach to make himself intentionally burp.
     In that glaring South Dakota sunshine I realized that everyone I had ever encountered might carry a sliver of my identity like that: as sharp and sparkling, as hard and ephemeral, as a splinter of ice.  And, I needed every fragment to be whole, to have a true picture of myself. 
     I wondered what it had cost Bud to carry my blindness all those years.  I fished for some shiny secret silver to offer in return, to reflect his identity for him—my amazing, inspirational brother.
     But Bud only laughed, with a wisp of bitterness, at my surprised face. Then, the best storyteller among us, he moved on to getting lost in Disneyland.

* * *

     Here I reflect Bud’s tale.
     At the end of fourth grade, I was farmed out to take care of my three little nieces in Wyoming, and my mom was off to college at Spearfish.  My dad, not quite sure what to do with all the boys left at home, loaded up Hans, Bud, Buba and Parker, ages eight, twelve, thirteen, and sixteen, and in two days drove them to California to visit their oldest brother Wayne.   But Wayne had a job and his wife worked, too.  They were okay with my dad spending his days at their house, watching television, napping and reading magazines, but my four brothers were another matter. 
     So, the next day Wayne crammed them into his Volkswagen bug and dumped them at Disneyland.  He bought each of them the cheapest packet of tickets.  “If anything happens, if you get separated, you meet right here, and you be here at 5:20.  Don’t get in trouble.”
     They trooped around getting the lay of the land—all brick road and green grass and castles.  They felt like they were inside a movie. 
     “This place is like an exploded miniature golf course,” Bud said.
     The four of them huddled and calculated how many tickets they had and what was possible. 
     “Let’s start at the arcade,” Parker said.  “It’s cheapest.”
     In the arcade, they spread out to investigate the games.
     “Come here!”
     They congregated around Bud and a red upright machine.  It didn’t look like much.  Two metal grips stuck toward them.  “It tests how much electricity you can take.  Watch this.”  Bud slipped in coins and grabbed the bars.  Their eyes fixed on the meter that shot up until Bud couldn’t take it any more.  The readout let them all know that Bud was tough, but not close to a champion. 
     “What’s it like?” Hans asked.
     “Like an electric fence, but it doesn’t zap you, it starts real gentle.  Who wants to go next?”
     “I have an idea,” Parker said.  “I’ll grab one handle and Buba can grab the other and we’ll all hold hands with Hanky and Bud in the middle.” 
     It was a good way for all of them to play for cheap and with the electricity passing through four bodies, they ran the needle up to the champion level. 
     They strutted away, plucking their tee shirts from their chests, bumping into each other and others, shouting out names for themselves: The Electric Crusaders! Super Electricity! Super Conductors! The Franklins! The Franklinsteins! 
     They came to a fountain where a lump of dry ice caused the shallow water to bubble merrily.
     Without discussion, Parker reached in, grabbed the ice and ran.  His brothers sprinted after him.  The ice burned like licking a playground pole in January on a bet.  He bobbled it into a basket of his tee shirt, which caused him to run one-armed and awkward.  He stopped on a small arched bridge where visitors leaned on a rail to view alligators.  The dry ice burned even through his shirt.  Parker hove the chunk into the lagoon and everyone watched dumbfounded as the water roiled.
     A bearded tourist looked at them and then looked at a security officer on the far side of the bridge. 
     The four boys took off running.  The officer was no match for their long skinny legs, but they pumped, anyway, splintering around clusters of people, and at one long line of Japanese students, Bud went left while the other three dodged to the right, and when Bud reached the end of the uniforms, he found himself alone.  He saw a gate to his side and climbed into a secluded area, a place where he could stop and try to spot his brothers.
     Strangers threaded by on the paths.  He didn’t panic.  At age nine, he’d been separated from his Cub Scout troop in the Badlands, but spouted on the front page of The Pioneer Review, “I wasn’t afraid because I had my scout knife.”  At age ten, he had sat the front weed patch on fire with a bottle rocket, but had beaten out the flames with his pants by the time the fire engine arrived.  And when he was eleven he had floated down Bad River stranded on an iceberg. 
     He turned to see what was behind him and spotted an ordinary door, like it might be an office, so he opened it.  There was Snow White, sitting, stooped over, rubbing the arches of her feet under her slippers.  Across the room the Seven Dwarfs were in an irregular line at the coffee pot with the tallest one in front distributing cups.  Goofy’s severed head sat on a table, while a man’s head on top of Goofy’s body smoked a cigarette.  None of them were singing or dancing.  None of them looked at him in a very friendly way.
      “How did you get in here, kid?”  Goofy had stood and latched on to his shirt.
     Bud pointed at the door, but couldn’t speak. 
     Goofy pushed him toward a security officer, a different one than at the bridge.  The man grasped him by the shoulder, but not too roughly, and steered him to a small office.  He sat Bud on a chair and seated himself at a desk. 
     “What’s your name?”
     “Bud.  Nelsen.”
     “Are your parents in the park?”
     Bud shook his head.
     “It’s customary then to have an officer drive you home.  Where do you live?”
     “South Dakota.”
     The officer huffed, exasperated, and looked at him.  “Pierre?”
     He pronounced it like a French man’s name and Bud wondered if the whole outside world pronounced the state’s capital that way.
     “Peer,” Bud mumbled. 
     “Is that how you folks say it?”  He folded his meaty arms and Bud stared at the golden hairs.
     Then the man lit a cigarette. 
     “You have anyone in the park with you?”
     Bud nodded, but didn’t rat out his brothers. 
     After another minute or so, the officer led him back out to Disneyland.  “Do you know how to find them?”
     Bud nodded again.  He followed the map in his pocket back to the entrance.  He stopped and stared at the open arches where only air marked the division between the world of asphalt and cars and whining and the world of winding paths and bright rides and joyful canned “It’s a Small World.”  It struck Bud how a person could step over a line and move from one reality to another, just like electricity jumping hand to hand, or dry ice moving directly from solid to gas.   The thinness of the separation terrified him like no security guard ever would. 
     He stood frozen for a moment.  Then his brothers swarmed up to him and sang, “Bud got caauuught!”
     He wondered why they thought he had been caught and not just lost, but caught was vastly superior so he said, “I need something to drink.”
     They were all thirsty from running, but at the concession stand they stared at the shocking red plastic numbers.  They each dug around in their pockets and counted their change.
     “Let’s go together and buy a quart,” Parker said.
     “I want Coke,” Hanky said.
     “Yeah, Coke,” Buba agreed.
     “7-Up,” Parker said, and because he was oldest, they bought 7-Up.
     As Parker twisted the cap off the drink, they jumped on a trolley, each in his own seat, to rattle back toward the heart of the park.  Parker gulped the drink before Hans pounded on his back.  “Gimme some!”
     He spilled 7-Up pulling the bottle away from Parker.   He drank, burped proudly, and passed the container to Bud whose mouth was paste from the encounter with the officer.  Bud guzzled the liquid until Buba hit his shoulder.  He passed the bottle back.
     “There’s nothing left but spit!”  Buba shoved it back at him.
     Bud tipped the bottle and drank to the last drop.  It might have been spit, but after you’d been yanked from one world to another by a decapitated Goofy, it tasted like 7-Up.      
* * *

     One conversation can change a life. 
     Ever since my Uncle Cecile and Aunt Dee died, I believed the same story. One drunken night, Uncle Cecile had chased Aunt Dee with a hammer.  She had run out on the ice to escape.  The ice cracked and Dee plunged into freezing water and drowned.  Cecile died from exertion trying to pull her out. 
     My Uncle Cecile had met Aunt Dee when she worked as a maid at the Senechal Hotel in downtown Philip, South Dakota.  Rumor said she offered more than fresh pillowcases.  They made a good match as wild drunks together, the type who got arrested for public intoxication and barroom brawls. 
     As a child I knew this and didn’t care.  Whenever my Uncle Cecile and Aunt Dee visited, they brought us kids salted peanuts and sometimes, plastic bags of orange peanut-shaped marshmallow candies.  
     One afternoon, while my husband and I sipped margaritas on the deck, I told him about Uncle Cecile and Aunt Dee.
     “Did anyone ever look to see if there were hammer marks on the ice?” my husband asked.
     “Why would they do that?”
     “Maybe he wasn’t chasing her with the hammer.  Maybe he got it to break the ice.”
     “Wow!” Cecile had been trying to save Dee, so maybe my husband’s version could be true.  Maybe he had not been trying to kill her with the hammer. I swirled my margarita as my long-held belief melted like the chipped ice.  Maybe it was alcohol induced, but when my perspective shifted, the whole picture changed.  My uncle grew more heroic.  Hadn’t he, during The Depression, run away from home at age fourteen to find work?  Hadn’t he been a sergeant during the war?  Hadn’t my father, a decorated veteran himself, looked up to him?
     “Was there an investigation?” my husband inquired.
     “I doubt it.”  Philip, South Dakota had fewer than one thousand people.  Everyone knew my Uncle Cecile and Aunt Dee.  The two had died in the middle of nowhere.  People knew what had happened, and neither the town nor the county had a CSI unit.
     I took another sip of margarita. “Wow.”

     But at the family reunion, I overhear my mom and sister Jazz discussing Cecile and Dee.  It stirs me from ninety-degree-weather-induced torpor. 
     My mother and sister are sitting at the table, reminiscing.
     Mama is recounting how once Daddy went to Rapid City to spring Aunt Dee from jail.  He’d thrown her in the back seat of the car, and even though the woman swore like a sailor, all the way home she pleaded with him to pull over because she had “to take a tinkle.”  My mother, who has become a bent, little old lady, all wrinkled skin sliding off bones, relishes the story, enjoys mimicking the babyish voice of my aunt.
     “Tell about how they died,” I prompt.
     Cecile and Dee went to a country dance, got drunk, and were dropped off at their long unplowed driveway by another aunt and uncle.  For some reason, maybe it was easier than post-holing through snowdrifts, they decided to walk home along the frozen creek.  Even though she was just a twig of a woman, Dee fell through and Cecile died trying to save her.
     “Didn’t Cecile chase her with a hammer?”
     My mother turns her kaleidoscope eyes on me.  “Goodness gracious. A hammer?  Where on earth would he have gotten a hammer?  There’s no hammer in the story, just thin ice.”
     My uncle shrinks back to size.  Neither a hero nor a villain.  The story flattens like a watered down drink.  And I think of the reliability of all the stories of my life.  Do I remember crawling on the table as a baby, or do I imagine it because I’ve been told the story?  In the end, it seems, I am an unreliable, nearly blind eyewitness to my own existence. 


Vinnie Hansen
Vinnie Hansen was born and raised in South Dakota, Vinnie packed everything and moved to California the day after she graduated from high school. She earned a BA from U.C. Irvine and an MA with an emphasis in Creative Writing from SFSU. A finalist for the Iowa School of Letters Award in Short Fiction, Vinnie has many published short stories and articles to her credit. She also writes the Carol Sabala mystery series, and launched the sixth title in the series, Art, Wine & Bullets, in October, 2012.

 

Spring 2012

Fiction
Vinnie Hansen
Clifford Henderson

Nonfiction
Vergere Street
Dena and Becky Taylor

Poetry
Bri Bruce
SA Smythe
Debra Spencer
J. Zimmerman

Morton Marcus Poetry Runners-Up
Curt Anderson
Catherine Segurson
David Sullivan

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