“Didn’t people know by now that nobody was better at punishing Ellis than Ellis?”
Ellis shifted his weight on the bed carefully, having sneezed in the shower earlier and thrown his back out again. A headboard thumped against the wall in the next room.
Vanessa, his wife, put her book down. “Why do they have to make these walls so thin?” she said.
Ellis was staring at the ceiling. “I think they’re probably standard thickness.”
Steve, Ellis’s childhood friend and current colleague at the high school, grunted through the wall while Debbie, the young woman Steve had brought on this annual ski trip, was just being ridiculous.
“I can’t believe them,” Vanessa said. “Her –she’s so young. But he’s got to be doing this on purpose.”
Ellis continued staring at the ceiling. “There does seem to be a sense of purpose in it.”
“And with a woman half his age. She doesn’t even know what she’s doing.”
The thumping quickened and one of the snowboards leaning against the wall near the bed slid to the carpet. “I’d say she knows what she’s doing,” he said.
“That’s not what I mean.” She slapped him on the arm with the paperback. “And it’s not funny.”
Ellis got an erection. “They’re going to town.” He poked her in the ribs with his finger.
“Ow!” She jerked away. “Damn it. Now that really isn’t funny.” She gave him a look. “And she is half his age.”
Ellis dropped his head back onto the pillow. “Your math is wrong.”
“She brought a fake ID to the bar last night.”
“It’s a real ID. It’s just her sister’s.”
“She could have gotten us all arrested. I’ve seen it happen.”
Ellis was silent.
“Well, they’ll arrest him for screwing one of his students. I know that’s against the law.”
Ellis’s arm flopped onto the nightstand. “You know…sometimes…. before you start shooting your mouth off like that? Because it could get you into trouble.”
Vanessa was silent.
“…I’m just saying, sometimes you say things like you’re an authority and you’re not.”
Vanessa closed her book. “So then what, I’m going to embarrass you? In front of your friends?” She motioned toward the wall. “In front of Steve who pulls his dick out of his pants every ten minutes to show everybody?”
Ellis turned his head.
“Yeah,” she nodded.
“He showed it to you? When?”
“In the kitchen, tonight, with Debbie.”
“What were you doing?”
Ellis removed his glasses and made an attempt to sit up. “Wait a minute. How did this happen?”
“He just whipped it out and started swinging it around.”
“Swinging it around?”
“Yes, like a tassel.” She opened her book again. “Can you believe it? I feel so bad for that young girl. She was talking marriage. Can you imagine—”
“Wait. Swinging it around? Was he hard?”
“No. Well, I don’t think so.”
“What do you mean you don’t think so?”
“It’s hard to tell.”
“Hard to tell?”
“It’s so big.”
“What the—” Ellis winced, rolled over and managed to straighten up out of the bed. He looked back at Vanessa. “What did you guys do?”
He squinted at her. “So that’s what that was about.”
“Oh my gawwd!” Debbie’s crescendo resonated through the wall and Steve’s grunts reached a climax. The thumping stopped.
Ellis tossed a pillow onto her head. “Screw it. You can have it.” He picked his towel off the floor with his foot and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Through the kitchen windows the whitish slopes glowed under the half moon. Ellis brought his fist down onto the counter in the dark, catching the end of a spoon, which flung itself up into his eye.
“Sorry about the noise, man.” Steve was standing at the kitchen door in a bathrobe. “Everything alright?”
Ellis had one hand to his eye and the other on his back, slightly bent at the waist. He nodded.
“You sure? I’m just getting some water.” They passed each other in the dark.
Ellis stepped into the hallway bathroom. He splashed his face and took some deep breaths through the cracked window. He looked at his eye in the mirror. Somebody, something, some goddamned spoon always reminding him that he was Ellis. When he turned off the faucet, the drain made a gurgling noise that sounded like laughter.
In the morning before anybody was up, Ellis went for a walk. The air was smoky and calm and his tongue tasted like wet ashes from the cigars that Steve had produced the night before. He had spent the night on the couch but oddly, his back felt much better. In the village, small groups of people were already out. Kids were playing, making snow angels in the rising sunlight while their parents bought lift tickets. Couples near the main lodge held hands while the backlit mist from their hot mouths rose into the air.
When he got back to the cabin, Vanessa and Debbie were drinking coffee. They stopped talking when he tossed the Sunday paper smack into their midst, blowing their napkins off the table. ‘IED BARRAGE STRIKES MED CONVOY IN SADR CITY’.
“Four more,” he said.
“Four more years!” Steve yelled from the bathroom. “That’s old news, buddy.”
“No. Four more dead, idiot!”
The toilet flushed.
“We’re on vacation,” Vanessa said. “Can we please just leave the politics alone for the weekend?”
“Politics. Sure. Why don’t we just forget about the rest of the world while we hide away in our own private paradise.”
Steve came out of the bathroom zipping up. “What can we do right now? Would you have us sit around here all day and mope? Or would you rather enjoy this beautiful morning.” He bent to kiss Debbie.
Vanessa got up from the table, clearing her cup and saucer. “Well, I don’t want to talk about politics today.”
“God no,” Debbie said, following her.
Ellis’s posture vaguely resembled a question mark. “Politics… It’s called war. And you can’t just pretend it isn’t happening.”
“I can today,” Vanessa said from the kitchen. “I’m on vacation.”
Ellis turned to Steve.
“You take these things too personally,” Steve said. “Last year you’d have thought Rumsfeld was talking directly to Ellis McMann straight out of that TV.”
“Yeah? Well, last year Debbie was getting a B minus and you were still married. At least Jackie had a conscience.”
Steve nodded. “You’re actually enjoying the fact that four more Americans have died over there, aren’t you?”
“I’m not the one who’s enjoying myself.”
Ellis timed his pulse by holding his breath. “You think you can just do whatever you want, whenever you want?” The kitchen was silent. “You can’t just, you know–”
“Can’t just what?” Steve said. “Are we talking about me or the government here?”
“You can’t just humiliate people and expect there to be no consequences.”
“Humiliation? Is that why the terrorists want to kill us all? Because we’ve hurt their feelings somehow? Grow up.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. And you know it.”
“No? Then why don’t you get your argument in order for once. First you complain about the sanctions that were killing, quote-unquote, thousands of children a month. Well, they’re gone now aren’t they? So what are you gonna bitch about now?”
Ellis shook his head.
“How about the oil argument again? We haven’t heard that one in a while. You say, ‘We’re only there for the oil’ and then I say, ‘Who cares?’ Those people get democracy and we get a little oil so you can drive up here to the mountains. Is that so bad?”
“Yes,” Ellis said.
“And why is that again?”
“Because you’re nothing but a cheerleader. Just like your boy in the White House.”
“Then why don’t you–”
“With a big, giant fucking megaphone,” Ellis said, spit flying. He wiped his mouth.
Steve dragged a finger under his eye. “Then why don’t you go over there and appease your conscience?”
“I’m not the one who wanted this damn war. You should go.”
“I don’t have a problem with it..”
“Ok, enough!” Vanessa stepped in between them. “Why don’t we all go get some bloody marys or something. Chill out a little.”
“A B minus?” Debbie said. “Not bloody likely.”
Ellis looked at Debbie, then back at Steve. “Why do you think seventeen-year-olds strap bombs to their chests and blow themselves up?”
“Baby, please stop,” Vanessa said.
“I really don’t know, man,” Steve said. “But I’ll tell you this. As soon as we make drinking and fucking legal in those godforsaken countries, there aren’t gonna be any seventeen-year-olds wanting to blow themselves up anymore.” He walked toward the door and pointed back at Ellis. “That, I can guarantee you.” He took his jacket off the hook.
It was late morning when they all arrived in their ski gear in front of the main lodge.
“You guys go ahead,” Ellis said, looking at Vanessa standing arm in arm with Debbie.
Vanessa raised her eyebrows at him.
“Come on, have a drink with us,” Debbie said.
“I want to get some practice in. So I can keep up with Steve.” He attempted to laugh but nobody joined him. “I’ll just take a couple runs and then meet you guys down here when you’re finished. No big deal.”
“You sure?” Debbie put her hand on Ellis’s arm.
Ellis pulled his arm away while looking up at the mountain. “Yeah, the lift goes right by the patio on its way up.” He pointed. “You guys can wave to me.”
The group trudged off toward the patio lounge. Ellis watched them walk away, having brought them together once again in solidarity against him. “The man you hate to love,” he said. He bent down to fasten his front foot into the bindings of the snowboard and warm blood rushed into his head. While he was down there he picked up a little snow from the ground and then skated his way over to the lift line. Loss of life or loss of love–either one was unbearable. Once in line, he bent down again to fasten his bindings tighter and picked up a little more snow. He packed it onto the little ball he already had in his hand and stood up. The chairlift riders rising past the patio clapped their skis together, flaking off the excess snow, trying to dump it onto unsuspecting skiers cruising underneath. Steve and the group were arranging themselves at a table near the railing. A few feet further along in line, Ellis bent down again for more of the lift line slush. The children holding their parents’ hands looked at him quizzically when he stooped to pack more snow onto his stash every few yards. By the time he got to the lift, he was slightly surprised at the size of his creation. The snowball had swollen to the size of a snowman’s head.
Everyone was smiling. “Mornin’!” Ellis said out loud to no one in particular. He boarded on the right side of the chair. The busy lift operator didn’t notice the frozen bowling ball Ellis was packing on his hip. As the chair picked up speed and altitude past the tower, Ellis acknowledged a father and his two children that were also on the chair with hellos. “Beautiful morning,” the father said.
“Yep.” Ellis swiveled in the chair and hoisted the giant snowball above his head with both hands. “Hey, Steve!”
Steve and everybody else on the patio looked up. Ellis hurled the chunk of ice with all his might in their direction. A few women and children managed to scream before the miniature comet, bearing towards touchdown at a wooden picnic table, sailed a good fifteen feet over its intended target. A photo-negative image of a family, of a father feebly reaching out at the last second to try and deflect the errant missile imprinted itself onto the back of Ellis’s eyelids when he squeezed them shut. The impact created a sound equivalent to a large firecracker, which echoed off the mountainside, accompanied by a waterfall of shattering glass and clanging silverware–a collective gasp.
Ellis turned back around to face forward. He didn’t look left or right. One of the children sitting on the chair said, “Did you see what that man just did?” The father didn’t answer. He may have been nodding or putting his finger to his lips when somebody shouted from behind, “Hey asshole! Yeah, you with the red ski cap in chair thirty nine! We’ll see you at the top, punk!” Ellis then realized that the person yelling at him was not on the patio, but two or three chairs back. He didn’t turn around.
It was so calm as the chair glided along that he could hear snow slipping off the tree branches. He felt like he was floating along next to his own body. What had he just done? He considered jumping off the chair and making a break for it just as soon as it became feasible – ditching everybody and promising himself never to do anything like that again. His face flushed. My God, could they file charges? What was this guy behind him really going to do when they got to the top? Try and beat him up? Punishment was unnecessary. Didn’t they know he was capable of learning his own lessons? Didn’t people know by now that nobody was better at punishing Ellis than Ellis?
“Hey punk! Why are you pretending you’re all innocent?” The acoustics of the enclosed valley seemed to magnify the man’s voice. Or was it a kid? “Everybody on the mountain knows what you just did. You’re gonna get your ass kicked.” Ellis remained seated forward. The reality of his predicament was beginning to materialize in front of him. He was going to lose his position at the high school if any of those kids were hurt back there. Maybe even jail time. The chair rose out of the valley and over a ridge to reveal a complete horizon atop a fiery lake in the distance. The snowpack of the surrounding mountains blazed in brilliance under the naked sun. It was so clear that it momentarily struck him that he could almost see the stars through the pure blue sky.
A sudden gust of wind made him grab the chairlift bar, the ice-crusted metal cutting into his glove. It was a long way down – a busted knee, maybe even worse if he jumped and landed wrong. He squinted at the ground below, trying to gauge the consequences. Rock music now blasted out of a small snack stand near the tree line. Far ahead of him, where the lift was headed, red clad ski-patrol with handheld radios converged on the lifthouse in their snowmobiles.
And then behind him, as Ellis slumped off the chair into empty space, dropping like a bomb, the man’s threats became inaudible in the vast expanse of a world that was now suddenly and so effortlessly rushing up to meet him.
Art by Yvonne Martinez.