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 used to love this place.”
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.
“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.
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.
"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."
“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.
"You don't mind?"
He shakes his head. Then together we step out onto the ice.