norbert blei | skating backwards

27 01 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 167 | January 27, 2009

Skating Backwards

by
Norbert Blei

Once after the war the small boy went from the city in a new blue Buick convertible and skated a frozen river in a forest preserve with his favorite uncle who was like a father to him.

Uncle Stephan was a soccer player, a soft ball player, an archer, a photographer, a singer, and a speed skater. He was married to Aunt Edith who always complained about her health. Uncle Stephan had a thin mustache and wore flashy shirts and pants the boy’s father called race track clothes. The blue Buick convertible, the family suspected, was bought on the black market after the war when new cars were almost impossible to buy. Uncle Stephan, who worked for his family’s business, which he hated, was a neighborhood butcher who provided for the family during the war when food was scarce. Packages of meat wrapped in pink butcher paper and tied in coarse string would miraculously appear once a week behind their kitchen doors.

There was some mystery and jealousy to Uncle Stephan which was never mentioned outright. Something about the way he dressed, the way he spent money, the way he ignored Aunt Edith while she worshipped him, which was whispered by the father, the mother, aunts and uncles in the family. But in Uncle Stephan’s presence all this disappeared. The family always seemed happy to see him. Everyone ate and drank and laughed and told stories. Often stories in another language. Sometimes Uncle Stephan would reach for the small boy, “Come here, Sport,” grab him and tickle him till the boy screamed, and Aunt Edith would scold the uncle, accuse him of acting like a child, and the boy, filled with laugher and tears, would come back for more.

He loved Uncle Stephan, who often took him for thick strawberry malts, drove him around the city in his black market Buick with the top down, kidded him about girls, taught him to play soccer and soft ball. Uncle Stephan knew everything. All the boy’s aunts loved him. Including the boy’s mother.

“Okay, Sport,” he said to the boy as they approached the frozen river,” let’s see if you can catch me.”

In the boy’s eyes, he had entered a Christmas card world of woods and snow and children in bright mufflers skating on ice in an afternoon sun slowly turning to twilight skies and lavender shadows, backlighting the black branches etched in snow. He skated very slowly, uncertain of his balance, absorbing the natural world around him, feeling a part of it. It was like nothing he ever witnessed or felt in his neighborhood. Nothing so alluring as a river and the quiet of a forest in winter.

This was the same river where one summer he stood on a bridge and watched men fish from green wooden row boats with white numbers painted on the bow. Bullheads and carp and sunfish were somewhere under his feet at the moment, somewhere under the ice. This was the same river he had seen his Uncle Stephan one golden autumn kissing a woman against a tree. The boy pushed hard with his blades, glided, pushed again and fell. Got up and followed the curving river of ice, his legs shaking.

Up ahead he could hear Uncle Stephan singing, see him moving gracefully on black leather skates with long silver blades. See him making a beautiful arc in the distance and pause to wait for the boy under the bare branches of an old willow tree leaning over the frozen bank. A young girl about the same age as the boy, stood next to him.

“Here he comes,” he could hear his uncle tell the girl. “He likes you. He’s shy around pretty girls.” Both the girl and the uncle smiled and began skating backwards in circles around the boy as he approached.

The girl had beautiful dark eyes and long brown hair. She wore a red coat, red mittens, and furry white earmuffs. She stopped in front of the boy and extended her arms toward him. The boy took hold of the girl’s red-mittened hands and followed her as she skated backwards, pulling him toward her.

Slowly he fell into the rhythm, push…pull, push…pull…

The boy was in love with the girl, the long white river of ice, the black branches of the trees overhead against the falling light. The uncle went back to the car to get his camera and took a picture of them skating away from him down the river, holding hands, balancing each other. Neither had much to say and the afternoon passed quickly.

“Time to go, Sport,” the uncle yelled. “It’s getting dark.”

Years later, alone on a small lake a great distance from the city, near an invisible Canadian border where he settled in midlife, the boy who is now the age of his Uncle that afternoon on the river, skates backwards in the night, swiftly gliding around and around a frozen lake, extending his arms toward the darkness, pulling it with him.


Copy of the original publication of the hand-painted cover edition of 25 copies.

from WINTER BOOK, Ellis Press, 2002; originally published by Chris Halla, Page 5, #6, (Limited Edition), 1995, as a chapter of an experimental novel, WHAT I KNOW BY HEART SO FAR. Winter Book is a mature performance with a satisfying sense of completion. The season is winter; the dominant theme is the acceptance of small wonders, including decay and obscurity. Like Blei himself, Winter Book is alternately nostalgic, angry, and amusing. It is in some respects a very public book, in others a very personal collection. The journalistic profiles are Blei’s own experiences and friends, including public figures like Chan Harris and Al Johnson, and Door County natives, poets, musicians, and artists. Blei’s fictions explore the Door landscape on a deeper level. Blei is an astute observer whose attitudes are shared by readers inside and outside the County. Once again the personal becomes the public, and Winter Book, like Door Way, records communal experience.








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