We can all be geniuses because one definition of genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains.
Mothers of boys fell to weeping each time snow fell on Hague during the winter of 2004. One national magazine referred to the events along Indiana Route 612 as “Winter Carnage in Middle America.” We all thought that was rather sensational, but it was turning out to be a particularly bloody season.
A sign at the edge of town called Hague “The Pennsylvania of Indiana” on account of the area’s odd propensity for mushroom growth. Civic leaders had hoped to spur people to associate Hague with mushroom farms rather than prepubescent boys being hit by cars, but the slogan never took hold outside of regional food production circles. There was no redefining Hague’s true nature. It was a slider town.
The term “slider” didn’t refer to tiny burgers. It referred to the generations of boys who had careened down a steep-sided, 100 yard-wide gulley into the roadway on the backs of single-rider sleds. And though the majority of us survived, some didn’t, and others may have wished they hadn’t. If my father wished he died in 1978 rather than merely being mangled by a 1977 Fiat 128—green in color—he never let on. His only comment to me on the matter, which he signed one-handed, a letter at a time was “F-U-C-K F-I-A-T.” Outside of that, he didn’t say much at all. At least not to me.
The state and federal government had been rumored on the verge of various remediation projects for as long as anyone could remember, but all that ever happened was Route 612 got a new coat of asphalt, and local law enforcement was encouraged to increase prevention efforts—which they never did. They were mostly Hague boys and former sliders themselves. They knew what tradition meant, and the officers who didn’t got taught.
If you were a boy of Hague between the ages of eleven and thirteen—unless you were a pansy or a twat—you took to Slider Hill when it snowed, and you slid. I was thirteen going on fourteen, and I was neither a pansy, nor a twat. My last season sliding was drawing to a close. My mother had become desperate to keep me home, but I resolved to see the season through, in spite of the horrors of 2004.
* * * *
Before his skull was crushed under the wheels of a Blue Onyx Pearl Lexus LS 430, Tristan Walters was my best friend. It made a hell of a sound, and an even worse sight. Honestly, the man who hit him seemed more upset about the damage to his car than to Tristan, but his wife cried awful hard, as did I.
My mother, who had been tending my father’s colostomy bag since before they were married—it’s how she met him for Christ’s sake—seemed to believe Tristan’s death might dissuade me from sliding. She had similar hopes that my baby sister would stop lighting fires after she suffered third degree burns over 17% of her body. In both cases, she was disappointed.
Tristan made it a full dozen boys who had been struck on the year: a record. He was 2004’s fifth fatality: also a record. The seventh grade basketball team lost its entire frontcourt, and the track squad was short two on the 4×100 relay. It hadn’t been this bad since 1991, when Nirvana first broke and people say boys were keen to die.
Tristan and I had run staples into our hands at the first sign of snow that season and mashed them together in pride. We were blood brothers, and brothers in having staple scars. We met in preschool, and aside from a brief Yu-Gi-Oh/Beyblade split, people said we were like non-conjoined fraternal twins living in different households.
Tristan and I had amassed the largest ninja throwing star collection in Indiana according to the leading authorities at our school. We kept half at my house and half at his. He kept his part of the collection in a red plastic Classic Roast Folgers coffee tub. Mine was in a green Classic Roast Decaf. His tub sat atop his coffin at the funeral and it wasn’t until I made my way through the greeting line that his mother took it from its perch and handed it to me. “He always said these were yours and his both. You can do whatever you want with them. Shove them up your ass for all I care.”
I decided not to. Instead, I kept them in their separate tub and put them on the shelf in my bedroom next to my green tub.
What looked to be the last good snow of the year started falling the morning after Tristan was buried. The forecast said the temperature would spike to sixty the following day. Before I got my sled for what looked to be my final slide, I showed the red and green tubs to my baby sister. I said, “If anything happens to me out there, these are yours.”
“Okay, thanks,” she said. “The only thing that’ll burn is the tubs, though.”
* * * *
People said my father was the most daring nosediver who ever lived. They said I had a lot to live up to. They said he shit in a bag. All of it was true. If Fiats weren’t so small and hard to judge, the last might not have been the case. Nosediving was when you ran your sled right at the front grill of a car or truck. If you timed it perfectly, onlookers wouldn’t know if you made it safe or not until the car went by and you were unscathed on the median. All sliders were respected. Nosedivers were revered. Whether it be in town, the ICU, or the graveyard, nosedivers were special.
No one slides until noon. That was the rule, and only one person ever broke it. He was beaten so badly, charges got filed. They were later dropped. We had about five minutes left to wait. Slider Hill crackled with chatter and noise. Some boys already called out our battle cry, “Diggy diggy hooo!”
The battle cry was first used January 14th, 1978, by the greatest living slider, Hal Boldman, before the greatest slide of all time. The greatest slide of all time was known to everyone in Hague whether they liked sliding or not. On that auspicious day, Hal slid between the front and rear axles of an eighteen-wheel mushroom truck.
Hal was what is now referred to as “intellectually disabled” but at the time of his legendary slide people called him something much worse. After the greatest slide of all time nobody called him that word anymore. They called him “the greatest living slider.” As an adult he also became known as the best real estate agent in Hague. My mother said Hal Boldman could sell anything.
Though she fell to her knees almost daily begging me not to slide, my mother was enamored of sliders when she was a girl. I had heard she never missed a minute of sliding season during her teenage years. That she was always either watching the sliders ride, or in the restrooms behind the concession stand giving pep talks to some of the older sliders inside the bathroom stalls.
Whenever we ran into Hal Boldman in town, my mother kind of swooned. Sometimes I wondered if she wished she could trade my dad, the most daring nosediver, for Hal, the greatest living slider. But Hal was married, and besides that, people said he got around.
All at once the battle cries and chatter fell away. A hush overtook the snowy hilltop, followed by murmurs, and I knew something extraordinary was happening. Even the adults and children in the grandstand went silent. One by one the boys all around me turned and held their Flexible Flyers, Pelicans, and COOPs to their chests, our greatest sign of respect. I turned to see my mother struggling to lead my father, the most daring, through the four inches of fresh powder. My father could walk but not well. It was this sort of sideways, two-step, stumbling affair. We had an old picture of him at our house running the bases in a baseball game when he was maybe nine years old, and I always wished I could see him that way one time, but his running days were over.
They came straight to me, her leading him by the hand. I had been waxing the runners of my sled, but paused when the crowd went still. My mom stood in front of me with her hands clasped. My dad looked me dead in the eye with his right eye while the left one stared into space, four feet over and to the left of my head, but I was used to that.
“Calvin,” she said, “you don’t have to slide today. You don’t have to slide at all. Everyone would understand.”
I clenched my jaw. “Naw they wouldn’t. Tristan wouldn’t understand.”
My mom shook her head. “I think he would. Especially now. I think he’d want to see you alive. I think he’d want to see you healthy. He’d want you to throw those ninja stars. That’s what I think he’d want.”
I sighed hard and looked at the sky. “Why are you doing this, Mom? Why are you asking me to stop? You loved sliding. I know you did. How can you ask me that?”
“You’re right,” my mom said, putting her hand to her chest, “I did love it. But I didn’t know any better, Calvin. It’s different when it’s your own child. My heart’s been in my mouth every minute since your eleventh birthday. Everyone thought I cried at your party because your Uncle Roy exposed himself again, but that wasn’t it. I cried because you had reached sliding age.”
She went into her pocket for a handkerchief and put it to the bottoms of her eyes before she continued. “If anything happened to you, I don’t think I could go on. There’d be no point to it. None of this is worth it, Calvin. None of it. It’s not worth seeing you, or any of these boys, get hurt over a few years of glory.” She swept the surroundings with her handkerchief wrapped finger. “Over tradition.”
My dad still stared at me with the one eye. I stared back. Then I said, “But sliding’s in my blood. I’m a Hague boy. We’re all Hague boys. This is what we do.”
“It’s not all you are,” she said. “There’s so much else. There’s other things you could love if you gave them a chance. Things like basketball, and soccer, and crappie fishing. I don’t know. There’s just so much out there. You had a good run, Calvin, but think of all you could lose for one last slide.”
My mom gestured toward my dad, her hand shaking like a can of paint at the hardware store. “Think about all sliding’s cost your father. We’ve had a good life, you know that, but what kind of life could we have had? What kind of life could Tristan have had?”
I looked at my dad again. His head shuddered, and I couldn’t tell if he was nodding, or if it was involuntary, because sometimes he did that. A little line of slobber dripped down his chin, and I had the urge to take my shirt sleeve and wipe it off so bad.
Then I looked back at my mom. She extended one hand toward my sled. She looked around, then shouted loud enough for the people in the grandstand to hear, “Haven’t we all given enough?”
No one on Slider Hill made a sound. For the first time, I realized the other boys had gathered around. They were listening. Then I heard someone nearby say quietly, with reverence, “Crappies are good eating.”
Then it was someone else who said, “I like bowling awful well. I’d hate it if I couldn’t bowl anymore.”
Another boy said, “I don’t want to shit in a bag.”
That was when I heard myself say, “Baseball. I like playing baseball.”
“You always have,” my mom said.
“I don’t just like it, I love it. What with all the running, and throwing, and spitting, and touching your balls.”
“That’s right, Calvin,” my mom said, “I know you love all those things.”
My eyes went to the grandstand, then the hill, then all the other boys. I looked at my mom who clutched her handkerchief like it was a squirrel and she was trying to wring its neck. Finally, I looked in my father’s eye one last time before I held out my sled and put it in my mother’s hand. As I did the boys all around me looked at their sleds. The corners of my mother’s mouth creased with a soft smile.
Just as she took the sled from me my father’s good hand shot out and knocked it away. I was so startled that I didn’t move. He looked down at my sled on the ground, then fixed his right eye back on me.
I didn’t understand. I couldn’t. I said, “I don’t understand. I can’t.”
My father’s nose flared and his lips flexed like he was trying to get something out of his teeth. He raised his hand again and slowly signed, “F-U-C-K F-I-A-T.”
I stepped toward my father, took my sleeve in my hand, and wiped the drool from his chin. Then I grabbed my sled, raised it over my head with both hands, and howled, “Diggy diggy hooo!”
The boys around me all cried back, “Diggy diggy hooo!” out of unison, like a pack of dingoes.
And I was gone, tear-assing for the hill. Tear-assing toward glory and tradition. Tear-assing toward the rest of my life, no matter how short or long, with a horde of puberty stricken boys bawling at my heels. I would remember that instant of abandon as the last great moment of my life in Hague. Nine months later my family would move away after the high school burned down.
I crested the hill, and in the distance it was all mushroom farms, dormant, but sprawling as far as my eyes could see. In closer, I spotted a throng of cars and trucks rumbling along 612. As soon as I saw them my feet left the ground, and I was in the air headed for traffic. In that moment of flight, I’d like to say I thought of Tristan, or my dad, or all the boys who came before me, but I didn’t. I thought only of the feeling in my chest and in my head, and of the sled in my hands. I thought I should hold on tight. Hold on tighter than I ever had.