26 comments

Jan 18, 2021

American Contemporary Fiction


It takes a discerning eye to see the difference between ground and sky, to make out the thin horizon, to distinguish between the shades of white and off white and pale grey, to locate the subtle break where the frozen lake meets the snowy banks and then bleeds into the featureless, uninterrupted clouds. The eye of someone who has grown up in northern Minnesota or some similar place where winter descends in late-September and holds tight until early-May, if you’re lucky. I used to be that person with that eye. Now I stand on the brink, disoriented and blinded, scared to step into the abyss.


“Dad lived for days like this,” Paul says. “When it was too cold for the weekend types. When he could come out here and have the place all to himself.”


I nod and turn towards him. My brother has eight years and six inches on me. I’ve always looked up to him.


“Are you sure it’s thick enough?” I ask and poke my chin towards the frozen lake. My hands are buried deep in the pockets of my down coat.


It’s twenty degrees, but Paul is dressed only in the dark tan Carhartt jacket he wears year-round and a purple knit cap with the logo of the Minnesota Vikings. He is clean shaven except for the blonde mustache he’s had since he was a young man. Paul takes a deep drag from the Camel Light he keeps hanging from his lower lip, and I watch the ember glow bright red. He exhales and squints. Thick creases emerge around his eyes and the corners of his mouth. The cloud of smoke hangs dense in the air, the burnt tobacco mixing with the warmth of his breath.


“Positive,” Paul says. “It hasn’t been above freezing for over two months. The ice must be a foot thick. You could drive a dump truck onto it and be okay.”


For a long couple of minutes, we stand there in silence. It is a silence that has grown all too common between us.


“I haven’t been out here since it happened," I say at last.


“I know.”


“I used to love this place.”


“Me too.”


He takes another drag.


“You should quit.”


“That’s what they tell me.”


He doesn't smile.


The place is so quiet that when neither of us speaks I can hear the blood rush through my ears in time with my pulse. Somewhere in the distance, a raven’s caw breaks the stillness.


“Do you remember how graceful he was?" I ask. "Remember how he made a single axle look easy?”


Paul chuckles and I try my best to crack a grin. “Hell, the guy could do a Lutz. And what was the other one? The one with the skip and the half turn and the backwards landing?”


“Salchow,” I say.


“Right. Salchow.”


“All our friends’ moms would ooh and ah over him,” I say. "When it got crowded out here, when it was warm enough for the weekenders. He was the center of attention. He liked that, being recognized."


“He wasn’t like the rest of them, that’s for sure," Paul says. "He was the only dad who skated. Who figure skated, I mean. Some of the others played hockey, sure, but mostly they ice fished and drank beer. Those women thought he was so refined. A professor. He was always quoting, like, Proust or someone. Remember?”


"We are all of us obliged, if we are to make reality endurable, to nurse a few little follies in ourselves."


“What does that mean?” Paul asks.


“Nothing."


A grimace flashes across Paul's face. He is hurt. He wants me to explain, to be part of the conversations that I may have had with Dad.


"He tried so hard to teach us to skate like he could," I say, returning to where we began. "I was never any good at it. I was always scared of falling. Not like you. You had real talent. He was proud of you.”


Paul considers for a moment. “He had a strange way of showing it. You remember his temper. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you were too young.”


“I remember it." I stare into the distance. "Dad struggled. He felt like he was destined for bigger things. Bigger than community college and a few publications in obscure literature magazines. He had that novel he was always trying to get picked up."


"He never did have much luck with that."


Paul removes his hand from his pocket where he is keeping it warm and takes the cigarette from his mouth. He flicks the ashes. His hands are rough and calloused. They look like the hands of a giant compared to mine. His fingernails are stained a light shade of yellow from his decades of smoking. He is the opposite of our father in so many ways, but he has Dad's eyes and mouth and chin. Paul looks like how I imagine Dad would have if he had made it to Paul’s age.


“Do you ever wonder,” I start to ask, but then hesitate.


A light wind blows, rustling the winter-bare limbs of the aspens and oaks at our backs.


“I mean,” I try again, “he knew this ice so well. He loved this ice. It’s always seemed so strange to me. He had to have known. Right? That it was too thin that day.”


Paul nods but doesn’t turn to me. He is staring out at the frozen surface.


"So that's why you've come back, is it? After all these years? You're looking for answers?" He reaches up and touches the eye that is away from me. I can’t tell whether he is clearing the smoke or dabbing away a tear, and I don’t ask.


"I suppose so. Some sort of closure, maybe. I ran away. I only came back now for Mom's funeral. And this might very well be the last time."


I can make out the thin line of black trees on the far side of the lake. It's the necessary point of reference. My eyes are relearning what they have forgotten.


“In that case, there’s something that I need to tell you." Paul says. "About Dad.”


He tosses his cigarette. Bright orange sparks spiral as it arcs through the air. It lands in the snow and I watch as it melts a small divot and then slowly extinguishes. He pulls another from his pack and lights it. He is trying to compose himself. Finally, Paul speaks again.


“Dad had a…” Paul clears his throat. There's a worrisome rattle in his lungs. For the first time since we’ve been standing on the side of the lake, he shifts his weight uncomfortably. He looks down and kicks at the snow with his workman’s boots. The freshly fallen layer crunches as he does. “What's the right word? Lover, I guess. He had a lover.”


We stand there, the words hanging, mingling with the smoke and our thick breath, a billion little ice crystals, lighter than air. I hold out my fingers and motion with them, the universal signal for a cigarette. He hands me one.


“These'll kill you, you know,” Paul says. He holds the lighter while I shield the wind with my hand.


“So they say.” I exhale carefully, suppressing a cough. Soft hands and soft lungs. “Who was she? His lover?"


“He, actually. I found letters in the back of his closet. When I was cleaning out the old house. Before Mom moved to the nursing home.”


“But that was years ago.”


"Six. I know. Too long. They were from a man named George. There was some poetry too. And a few photos. Old Polaroids. Most of them with their arms around each other, but a few were more-." Paul trails off.


“Intimate?"


"Right. Intimate."


"How come you never said anything?”


“I don’t know. I’m not real good with words. I’m not like you, Ben. Just look at you. A tenor professor downstate. You’re everything he wished he was."


Tenured.”


“See what I mean? A man of words."


Paul is embarrassed.


"I'm sorry," I say. "I didn't mean to-"


"I guess I figured there was no need to drag you back into all this. Besides, we’re not exactly close, in case you hadn’t noticed."


It’s true, what Paul says, about us not being close, although I don't know why it happened that way. He stayed. I left. But it's also more complicated than that.


Paul touches his eye again. His face is red, and it’s no longer ambiguous. He is crying. The muffled sobs of a gruff man with calloused hands. I consider giving him a hug but don’t, and then it’s too late. The moment’s gone.


“Do you know who he was?” I ask at last. “George?”


“Not really. Someone from the college. An administrator of some sort.” 


“Do you think Mom knew?”


“She knew. It was in the letters. She and Dad had a kind of... arrangement. George threatened to tell everyone unless Dad left us and went away with him. You know how it is up here. People ain’t exactly tolerant of that sort of thing. Especially not back then.”


“Jesus Christ,” I say, mostly because it feels like the appropriate thing.


I look at Paul, at his six inches on me, at his thick blonde mustache. Mine was always thin and dark brown. I remember being jealous. At his face like Dad's. At his athletic build, his graceful movements. I could never skate. I have always chalked it up to me taking after Mom.


“That was the last letter. It was postmarked a week before Dad fell through the ice.”


“We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”


"What's that mean?"


"It's Proust. I think that's why I'm here. Why I need to walk out on the lake. To experience what happened to Dad to the full. Maybe find some healing in the suffering."


A few flakes of snow begin to fall. Paul and I watch them whip around in the strengthening breeze, pirouetting and looping and Salchowing.


"You're just like him," Paul says.


I take a drag. “Where was it? Where did he go through?”


Paul points off toward the distance. “The investigators said it was about three hundred feet straight out, but it’s hard to know exactly. They didn't actually find his body until the spring, as you know."


"He always hated the spring."


I look towards where Paul is pointing at the vast white and off white and light grey horizon. The thin line of trees. I can hear my pulse.


“I suppose there’s only one thing left to do," I say.


I hesitate. Paul notices. He steps towards me and for the first time in many years, Paul and I embrace.


"Want me to come with you, brother?" Paul asks once he has let go.


I nod.


"You don't mind?"


He shakes his head. Then together we step out onto the ice. 

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26 comments

David Gottfried
20:55 Jan 18, 2021

Just a nugget of an idea. There's something here, but I need to develop this one further.

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Tom .
13:55 Jan 26, 2021

Love the new title.

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David Gottfried
14:48 Jan 26, 2021

All credit for that belongs to Cathryn V., who always gives terrific feedback!

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Tom .
14:54 Jan 26, 2021

I just read her comments I see what you mean.

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Zilla Babbitt
15:22 Jan 21, 2021

"My brother has eight years and six inches on me. I’ve always looked up to him." Literally! I love this line. It's so true. My brother is two years younger than I and it was very disconcerting when he finally passed me up at age 13. "When it got crowded out here, when it was warm enough for the weekenders. He was the center of attention. He liked that. The recognition that he excelled at something." This is a good piece of dialogue but it's just telling. It being dialogue makes the telling part stand out. A shorter sentence, like him sayin...

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David Gottfried
16:27 Jan 21, 2021

Thank you, Zilla. This is exactly what I'm looking for! You're right about the bit of dialogue about being recognized. Let me try to tone it down and make it sound a bit more genuine. Re: University of Minnesota: right again. Thank you. The bit about "tenor" is Paul using the incorrect word. Ben corrects him in the next sentence and Paul feels embarrassed because he isn't as well educated as Ben. Re: time constraints, I completely understand! It's very impressive that you are able to write at the pace that you do. I'm just glad to be a...

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Zilla Babbitt
21:08 Jan 21, 2021

Of course! Glad to be helpful. I try to bridge the gap between the teens with colorful bios and the adults with long stories, but sometimes I have to step back and just focus on writing. Thanks for the encouragement :)

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Heather Mc Quaid
23:14 Jan 20, 2021

You had me at the first paragraph..."It takes a discerning eye to be able to see the difference between ground and sky, to make out the thin horizon, to distinguish between the shades of white and off white and pale grey, to locate the subtle break where the frozen lake meets the snowy banks and then bleeds into the featureless, uninterrupted clouds." It reminded me of Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg. The only tiny critique I have is the use of 'adorned' to describe Paul's moustache. It seems maybe too feminine for such a burly chara...

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David Gottfried
16:18 Jan 21, 2021

Thank you, Heather. This is really great feedback. You're right about the word "adorned." Let me revisit that one and figure out how else to say it. I'm glad you liked the description of the scene. This story started from that nugget. I had a strong visual in my head before I had any other element of the story. I've enjoyed this site immensely. It's given me the confidence that I needed to write and show my work to the world. I plan to be back, but I need a little mental health break. It shouldn't be more than a few weeks. Keep writing. Y...

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Heather Mc Quaid
16:33 Jan 21, 2021

Thanks, David. Hopefully see you after your break. :)

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Tom .
06:06 Jan 19, 2021

The heart of the story is great. You are right there are a few dangling threads. I do not have an answer for you so maybe I should just give you a couple of questions which will look weird after you make the adjustments. I feel the back story of the dad is pretty complete it is the brothers that need work. Why confess now? Why are they not close?, maybe something could be eluded to in their recent past that has brought them together. Maybe mum dying? One brother now only has the other. that could explain the first question. The confession is...

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David Gottfried
12:55 Jan 19, 2021

Tom, Thank you. You're one of the few people on this site giving really meaningful feedback and providing criticism. These are exactly the questions that need to be answered and that I was struggling with. What is it that brings Ben back after all these years? And the timing of the confession has to be more meaningful for Paul than just "I needed to get this off my chest." For Ben, the walking out on the ice needs to be about confronting the past, rather than just running away to Minneapolis and never looking back. After this story, I'm ...

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Tom .
13:30 Jan 19, 2021

I have started doing some open submissions and competitions. My brother brought me entry to NYC Midnight for Xmas which starts in 3 days. Before you go I could do with some decent feedback on my latest Plato's Peak. Planning to do my rewrite tonight.

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Tom .
13:36 Jan 19, 2021

Walking away from the dross here for over a month was really healthy for me. Do it but don't stop writing I can point out some good competitions for you. I found a really good one for Jewish horror today that I am going to work my old story, Moses of Crete' for. Just let us know.

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David Gottfried
13:44 Jan 19, 2021

I'll read Plato's Peak this morning and let you know what I think.

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Tom .
11:49 Jan 22, 2021

That works. Good Job

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David Gottfried
14:23 Jan 22, 2021

Thank you, Tom! And thanks for reading. I always appreciate your insights.

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Cathryn V
20:30 Jan 24, 2021

Hi David, This story blows me away. You're a professional writer, aren't you? My goodness, the poetry. But the real grabber is this: He, actually. I found letters in the back of his closet. When I was cleaning out the old house. Before Mom moved to the nursing home.” “But that was years ago.” "Six. I know. Too long. They were from a man named George. There was some poetry too. And a few photos. Old Polaroids. Most of them with their arms around each other, but a few were more-." Paul trails off. “Intimate?" "Right. Intimate." I have ...

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David Gottfried
21:32 Jan 24, 2021

First of all, you're way too kind. You made my day. Second of all, thank you for reading! I'm glad that you're enjoying it. The only thing is that I was going to take a few weeks off, but now I'm going to have to write a story this week! I made the mistake of reading the prompts, anyway, and now I have one of those darned stories floating around in my head. If I don't write it down, it's going to drive me crazy anyway! Regarding the title, it is a reference to the Proust quote that the younger brother recites toward the end of the story. I ...

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Cathryn V
23:43 Jan 24, 2021

haha, I know what you mean about looking at the prompts. Sometimes I work on a story for a whole week and have to bail out because I can't get it to work. Seems like I have every other week type creativity. I wanted to add that I really enjoyed the tenor vs tenure exchange in this story. Please don't take it out. Re the title...it's bold of me to criticize your choice. So, please ignore my comment. I looked at the story again and have one suggestion which may not work for you but if a person who is unfamiliar with your talent is perusing th...

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David Gottfried
23:56 Jan 24, 2021

I love it! See the new title!

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Cathryn V
23:58 Jan 24, 2021

Yes! Glad you liked it 😉

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K. Antonio
21:33 Jan 21, 2021

Real quick, what I noticed: Change mostly for most (forgot where) By the end, add a "to" before come. I actually really enjoyed this story filled with melancholy. The interaction of the two brothers and the details I felt were great. Strangely we took more or less a similar approach on this prompt, which I felt was great, because now my nugget wasn't so out there either 😂. As someone who used a frozen lake in their story, I will already state that it was very difficult to create a story without repeating some words like snow, frozen and l...

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David Gottfried
21:41 Jan 21, 2021

Wow. Thank you, Antonio! Thanks for catching those two typos! It seems that no matter how many times I read and reread, there's always something. I'll revisit the description of the brother. The reason for the lengthy description is that it feeds into the realization later in the story that the dad may not actually be the narrator's father. Re: Salchow, I agree that it's a lot, but it feels to me like natural banter between two brothers estranged brothers who are sort of grasping for something to say. I think we'll be two of hundreds who...

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K. Antonio
21:47 Jan 21, 2021

Oh and sorry for the excessively long comment, I get excited when typing and analyzing text, I need to filter myself a bit! I do think that the conversation all throughout the piece seems very natural, as someone who has estranged siblings, we talk more or less in that same manner. xD It flows between cold, to warm, to warmer, never reaching hot, but reaching a certain level of comfort accepted by both. I think the conversation all the way to the end does capture that flow.

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David Gottfried
22:09 Jan 21, 2021

Not at all. I really appreciate the thought you put into this. I just read your very nice story and left you some suggestions. I really enjoyed it.

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