I started writing stories when I was five or six, almost as soon as the basic syntax of English had gelled in my head. Like any relationship that lasts that long, there have been dry spells and rough spots. Times when I hated writing and wanted it to stop coming around. Times when I loved it, stalked it shamelessly, cried and begged it to come back to me. Best friend. Worst enemy. Indifferent neighbor with a dog that barks at 3 am.
Most often, and especially since I started writing novels, it has reminded me of a boy from my home town. Jimmy was a few years older and rough. The sort of boy who by sixth grade was taking smoke breaks on the school loading dock with the lunch ladies.
Winter in southwest Kansas is mostly a place brutal wind and no precipitation, a place without hills for sledding. Every once in a while, we get real snow, deep and luscious. Snow so deep it turns barns and buses into sledding hills.
I think I was ten, Jimmy thirteen and already gone onto junior high. A few blocks from my house was a construction site and a foot of snow had turned the house frame and a nearby pile of dirt into the perfect hill for sledding, if you were brave enough to scrabble up to the second story roof and ride down on cardboard.
For the most part I watched–the writer’s curse. To observe and document. Jimmy had just come down the hill and stood in jeans, boots, and a t-shirt. No coat, no gloves. He lit a cigarette and laughed with his friends, daring them to go up. Then he turned to me, nobody to him. I doubt he knew my name.
“You wanna go?” he said.
I don’t know if I nodded, shrugged, or anything, but he took me by the waist and boosted me up to grab the edge of the house’s front porch roof. He came up after me, dragging a chunk of cardboard from a refrigerator box. With him forcing me ahead, we climbed up over the front gable, onto the upper roof, and shuffled to the chimney stack by the garage. From there lay a plunging hill of snow, supported by nothing–just a massive drift built by the wind coming off the Rockies.
Sitting up was too dangerous, concentrated too much weight in too little space. We went lying down, me on my stomach on the cardboard, Jimmy on top of me, his cigarette almost in my hair.
We didn’t stop when we hit the bottom, but skidded another twenty or thirty yards, going too fast, into the ditch and up over the unplowed road. In the field on the opposite side of the road, I lay stunned in the middle of corn stubble. Jimmy leaned over me, his cigarette crumpled in the side of his mouth, a streak of blood from his nose to his lip.
“You alright? You’re okay.” He grabbed me by the front of my coat and hauled me up, laughing. Both of us laughing.
“Cool, huh? Wanna go again?” he said.
On the best days, that’s what writing is like. Wanna go again?