By M. Malcomb Moore
“One more time and I’m done,” Liz proclaimed, pushing her empty beer toward the waitress. “Three beers and its lights out when my head hits the pillow.”
The corner table in the Elkhorn Pub had become her drinking office. Doers and wannabes, mostly younger, packed the place from wall to wall during the games. Standing around in threes and fours, dressed in matching team outfits, they would swap stories in a dozen languages trying to relive past races won and lost. Liz was not impressed that some wore their medals around their neck. Occasionally someone would spot her red hair or hear her big laugh. Whispers and pointing often preceded a walk to her table to ask for her autograph in a language she didn’t know. They would point to a notepad or napkin and hand her a pen.
“Ms. Russell,” a blond kid asked with a thick Slavic accent, “sign please?”
She would always offer a generous smile and invite them to sit down while she signed: “Your skis are only as fast as your heart. Make it happen. Elizabeth Russell.” It was a cliché she knew, but after twelve years in the circuit people would often ask her, “How fast is your heart today, Liz?” It has become her logo.
Paul, her most recent interest, sat across the table sipping quietly on his brew while Liz guzzled her fame. After three Olympic golds, four silvers and numerous world trophies for speed skating, he had become the head coach of the French skating team. Looking for a gap on her stardom he interrupted. “Liz, Liz, when are you going to tell me?” He had asked to move in with her, but she was indifferent to the idea.
“God, Paul, look, there’s Erik. I didn’t think he made it this year.”
“Liz?” Paul persisted.
“Excuse me, I’ll be back in a bit.” Again, her eyes avoided him as she left him with a “you-understand” squeeze on his shoulder before leaving to weave her way through the room.
The EHP had itself become an icon, abandoned by the few members of the Free Will Methodist Church in 1927, owned by a local farmer for twenty years to store hay, and finally, Norm and Greta paid the back taxes and picked it up in the late sixties two weeks before its scheduled demolition. They put a bar in the choir loft and christened it the Elkhorn Pub.
Wooden pegs held together the hand-cut beams which intersected to form the hundred triangles of the cathedral ceiling so high as to vanish in the near dark of the candle-lit tables. Crowded squeaking pews lined the stone walls bearing witness to this new gospel of speed and gold. Stained glass windows arched into the smoke-filled darkness reflecting the multicolored mosaic of sights and sounds within.
They were all there, like saints in the pictures above the bar. The long-bearded Pastor Norquist and his band of scruffy of woodland parishioners, farmer Nils and his wife Ebba standing stone faced in front of their well-worn Farmall tractor, and an unavoidable photo of Norm, Greta and their little girl posed and grinning in front of the opening day of the Elkhorn Pub. Around the room were celebrity pictures. Lured by the ski resorts and the out-of-the-way mystic of the EHP, all the tribes had come; Washington big shots, business tycoons, Hollywooders and every brand of athlete had come to see and been seen. A single picture, five by seven, hanging in the EHP meant acceptance into the inner circles, to be saved and immortal.
“Erik, I heard you were hurt and couldn’t make it. Damn, you look good.”
“Liz, there you are. I thought I would find you here.” Erik took her in his arms and thought of days gone by. He smiled and asked, “How fast in your heart today?
“Fast enough for gold. What about this injury stuff I heard?”
“I made it as an alternate. They didn’t trust my ankle. Total bummer, but Liz, you have to tell me what is going on with you and Paul. The rags have you guys getting married.”
Liz turned to see Paul at the table surrounded by skaters. “I try to avoid the topic. You know how it is, things change. Tomorrow is my last race. One more than I’m done. I’ll ski fast, win my sixth gold, then maybe I can finally get my picture up in this place.”
“No picture? Liz, you’re famous. Why haven’t your folks put your picture up?”
Liz looked for her dad standing behind the bar. “Long story, let’s just say they’re busy. After tomorrow, maybe they will reconsider.”
“Too bad it this place couldn’t stay up longer.”
“What do you mean?”
“You haven’t heard? This place is history. After the games, the south-bound lanes of the four-o-five will run right where we’re standing. Your folks didn’t tell you?”
“WHAT?” Liz stood frozen then threw a menacing look across the room at her dad.
“Damn! I won’t be distracted, Erik. We’ll talk about this after the race.”
“Tunnel vision, God, Liz, I forgot that about you, no wonder you’re still a champion. Who are you up against?”
“Renee Blono from France. That’s her in the blue and white sitting with Paul. She’s at one minute twenty-four in competition but has done one twenty-three in practice.”
“Is that a problem,” Erik asked concerned.
The big smile on Liz’s face was the only answer she offered. “I better get back to Paul. We can swap gold stories tomorrow.”
Again, Erik pulled her close. “Good luck tomorrow, Liz.”
“That’s right, don’t tell me, ah, what is it? Oh, I remember. There is no luck, only guts, speed and gold.”
“You’ve got it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Paul was standing at the table downing his last one.
“Are we leaving already, Paul? It’s early.”
“Well, Liz, how’s Erik, the asshole?”
Liz offered a disgusted look on her face. “Does that really deserve an answer?”
“Yea, whatever. Stay if you want, I’m going with the team.”
“I’ll be here awhile, there’s one more person I need to see. Paul, can you maybe bunk somewhere else tonight? I need to do my routine.”
“Hm, I guess I have my answer,” Paul said with a caustic edge on his voice, trying to make his words cut as deeply as possible. Liz took his hand. Paul pulled away and went to join his teammates.
“Paul?” Liz called with apology. She watched as they vanished through the front door. “Out of mind, Liz, don’t get distracted, focus, focus.” She muttered only loud enough for her own ears to hear. She closed her eyes to the crowd, her ears to the laughter and deafening beat of the music, her heart to the loneliness.
White. Her mind filled with fields of white broken only by the dark lacy pines which surrounded her like guardian angels. They were calling her, guiding her. From the top, this dream was a panorama of her life, a thousand slopes she had conquered. Her long neon skis were her friends, poised beneath her begging, panting and eager to own the hill. Planting her poles in the mountain she pushed forward cutting a virgin path into the powder like a master surgeon with a scalpel. The snow whispered beneath her as she carved wide s’s on the ever-steeper slope. Sudden drops would leave her airborne, flying off the earth into paradise. Rises would press against her muscular legs as she autographed the snow with her courageous heart. Sun, wind, snow, cold, sky, speed, power, grace, and finally peace consumed her consciousness. She was home.
“Ms. Russel? MS. RUSSEL?”
The young voice yanked her back the mortal world as she opened her eyes to another empty book and pen. Pounding music, choking smoke, near darkness, drunken laughter, and the crowded room insulted her senses. A black-haired speedling stood before her with gold in her eyes. Taking the book she scribbled, Liz Russel, on an empty page and handed it back without a word or smile. She sat staring at her full glass of flat beer, feeling the need for a good sleep. She glanced once more at the bar to wave goodnight. There was no response.
“You can’t leave, Liz,” Gerhardt ordered blocking her way, “Rolph will be here later and he wants to see you.”
“Hey, Ger, how the hell are you? I’m sorry. Tell him…ah…tell him I’ll see him tomorrow. I need to rest up for tomorrow.”
Liz made her way to the door and stopped. She turned and drank in the EHP, her home for the last twenty years. Across the room under the Miller sign was an empty piece of wall reserved for the next picture. The gods of the Elkhorn were never gracious. They gave nothing to the weak. Only those who had sacrificed their own humanity to speed and gold were considered pious enough for sainthood. Her eyes lifted to the smoky shadows of the ceiling. “You owe me, goddamnit,” she spoke to herself. Closing the door behind her, she zipped her jacket against the night air.
Acknowledgements came from several groups gathered outside as she made her way across the lot to her Rover. She raised a tolerant gloved hand to them without speaking. Her log house was near the slopes twelve miles away. Some sponsor had bought it for her six years ago after her third gold. Her shelves were filled with dust-laden tokens and trophies she had earned doing little more than going downhill faster than anyone else.
The winter night sky always made her smile. It was clean and quiet as it stood watch over the sleepy hills touched only by the soft light of a three-quarter moon. Her routine had begun. Liz rolled down her window to feel the embrace of winter air and to hear the funny grudging sound of the tires pressing against the snow-packed road. The green numbers on her clock read twelve-forty-two as she slid her favorite CD into the slot. Soon the intoxicating lilt of Gregorian chant floated into her ears, washing her mind of all things unholy. Thoughts of self-doubt dissolved. Fears of injury and failure were confessed and forgiven. Memories of pain and loneliness were dismissed in the darkness. Soon her heart was naked, stripped of all resistance to the golden gods.
With her garage in sight she turned off the engine and rolled to a quiet stop. She left her keys dangling in the unlocked doors leaving her earthly possessions to the profane world around her. Her gloves, jacket and boots were shed inside the door. Sweater and socks tumbled down the stairs as she ascended. Slacks, jewelry, head band and underwear left their trail in the upstairs hall. French doors opened in her room onto a balcony facing the mountain. She pushed them open and stepped into the fresh-fallen snow. Now naked under the moon she scooped the cold whiteness from the railing holding this holy element high above her head. Melting snow mixed with the tears on her face as they fell onto her shoulders and breasts, baptizing her with this sacrament of surrender and petition. Rivulets of water flowed downward across her body like her skis carving their way down an early morning virgin snow on the cathedral of her mountain. She stood in cold meditation until her skin was numb from the night air.
Morning came with no sign of Paul… a relief. Hot lines of water massaged her flesh until she finally gained her full consciousness. Her mirror looked back at her, alone again, eyes looking at eyes, searching for that place in her soul where that fearless champion lived. She chanted, “guts, speed, gold,” moving through a long crescendo until the unavoidable decibels owned her mind.
The red, white, and blue spandex felt like her own skin sensing every breeze, touch, and temperature. She laughed as she remembered when she skied naked for Playboy and how much she embraced the feeling of oneness with her mountain and the snow. The morning, the mountain, the snow, it all belonged to her. They were her servants, she their master.
“Beethoven, my friend, shall we conquer another hill?” Her words moved through a confident smile as she placed the CD in its place. Beethoven’s fifth, first movement, one minute twenty-two seconds to the repeat from gate to finish. She had memorized every note of this hymn of speed and turned the notes and phrases into every turn, drop, straightaway of the hill she would soon ski. While others had thoughts of strategy and fears, Liz would lose herself in this euphoric liturgy of power, speed, and passion.
“Once more, then I’m done.” She opened the doors in her bedroom revealing the mountain before her, latched on her skis, grabbed her poles and hit play. Crouched in her start posture she paused until her eager reflexes heard the first notes. Pushing forward, down, acceleration, wind, muscles, white, passing blurs, flags, sky, and Beethoven all played in her mind as every high-speed foot the mental slope raced through her being. F-I-N-I-S-H vanished behind her as the master’s music returned for a second run. “Damn, Liz, you have so got this,” she yelled, enjoying her cerebral victory. Again her finger touched her system. The CD changed this time playing the National Anthem. She leaned forward to receive her last gold. Tears flowed down her cheeks as pride filled her veins.
. . . . .
Skiers and teammates filled the training room with her teammates. They had learned to leave her alone except for her trainer.
“Good morning, Liz.”
“You are ninth out of twelve. Turn four will have some exposed ice by then.”
“Sixth. She did a one-twenty-three yesterday.”
She looked into her coach’s eyes. “Well, damn, maybe one of these days she could win herself a gold, ya’ think?”
His smile replaced the look of concern from moments earlier as he caught a wink in Liz’s eye. “Time to go,” he laughed, throwing his arms around her one last time before the race.
Liz and Coach rode the lift to the top without speaking. “Guts, speed, gold,” echoed in her mind. It was her time to worship, like ascending Olympus into the hands of the gods.
Blono was next to ski. Liz walked close enough for their eyes to meet. Desire was oozing from Blono’s face, a desire sprinkled with a hint of fear. Liz tried to remember when she last felt fear before a race. She had learned to replace it with joy and peace.
The announcer called, “Blono, Renee Blono.” With that she placed the goggles on her face and moved to the gate. With three beeps and a buzz she was out of sight.
Coach watched the big timer. Liz smelled the pine trees and threw a snowball at a teammate. One minute passed, one-twelve, one-fourteen and finally the numbers froze at one-twenty-two point eight five. Close and distant cheers broke the quiet. Coach stood silent knowing not to break the champion’s thoughts.
Skiers seven and eight left the gate and disappeared.
“One more, then I’m done,” she spoke just loud enough for Coach to hear.
“Russel, Elizabeth Russell.” Liz pushed her poles against her snow and took her place. Beep, beep, beep, but there was no buzz. The gate flew open as her soul filled with the double meter of the master. Like a gazelle at play Liz bounded forward, playing with her mountain, sating her senses with all the sounds, smells and sight of her religion of speed. Beethoven raced through her consciousness. One minute, one-twelve, thirteen, fifteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two even, then F-I-N-I-S-H. Liz glided through a big arch as she slowed, passing the blur of cheering voices for their hometown girl. She panned the crowd hoping to find those two faces most important. Finally she spotted them, not cheering but there stood her dad with a smile and nod giving her all she needed to ensure her picture on the wall of the EHP. She gave off an excited scream, took off her hat and threw it to the nearest child. She turned to see Paul cheering. She skied over to him offering a big hug and kiss.
“You are magnificent, Liz,” he yelled over the roar.
The medal ceremony was a joyous benediction for Liz. The leaning over, the weight of the gold, the National Anthem, the cheering crowd, the media, the sponsors, the autographs, the envy of other skiers, she loved it all. Finally she had achieved sainthood. The day wore into evening as Liz found her way from one bar to another, soaking up the kudos from friends and the wannabes.
She pulled Paul aside and stumbled out some drunken words, “Paul, my Rover, in the alley, could you get my ski bag?” Twenty minutes later he returned to find Liz sloppy drunk, dancing on a table with a drink in hand.
“Liz, LIZ,” Paul screamed above the music. “I’ve got your bag.”
“Paul, you ol’ lizard, you…hey, get him a drink for god’s sake.”
Liz moved to put her hands on Paul’s shoulders but missed. Falling on the floor she slurred, “damn, I didn’t see that mogul coming.” Trying to get up she drooled, “Paul, in my bag, a Polaroid, take my picture.” Several helped her to her feet, straightened her clothes and hair. “This hunk of gold oughtta get this fuckin’ picture on the wall, huh, Paul, you think? Okay, take my picture.”
Paul knew the picture would be more of an embarrassment to her than a tribute, but click, flash, and sixty-seconds later there it was, a picture of a red-haired drunk with beer spilled on her team suit wearing a shit-faced grin with her gold medal around her neck.
Liz looked at the picture and squealed. “Great, perfect. Okay, I gotta pee.” She picked up her bag and stumbled down a narrow corridor toward the bathroom. Her drunk didn’t rob her of the plan she had devised weeks before. She opened the back door to the alley and found her Rover where she had left it. She took out the extra set of keys kept in her bag and, after several failed attempts to unlock the door, finally found her way behind the wheel. She propped her Polaroid picture on the dash and made her way down several back streets to the highway.
“Okay, Elkhorn, Fub Dub,” she laughed, “Elkhorny flubadub, here’s your damn picture.”
Once out of town she pulled off the road and shed her clothes, reliving her bedroom ritual of speed and gold. She rolled down her windows to soak up the night sky and slid the Beethoven CD in the slot. “Hey, there, Bugthoven, good buddy, let’s hear it, baby, one fucking last time, then you’re done.” Liz sang along, “Bum, bum…bum, bum…bum, bum, bum, bum.” The voiceless music rekindled her mental routine, left, squat, jump, right. She skied the mountain in her mind following the impulses of her well-rehearsed duet with the maestro. The road left her consciousness as she bathed her senses in the vision of her outdoor cathedral. The wheel tracks on the road morphed in her mind to become her two neon skis beneath her, eager, calling her, faster, steeper, left, right.
It was four days before they found her car in a deep ravine under the new blanket of snow. She was there, her naked body frozen, her hands holding a small Polaroid picture. She had turned the wrong direction off a curve and rolled into the wooded mountainside.
It was a funeral for a whole town, a whole era. Champions from around the world came and cried. Norm, Greta, and Paul sat in silence. Their champion lay motionless in a white coffin pillowed by white satin, the gold medal laying on her chest. Papers, local and national ran stories and pictures of the unconquerable woman. Her grave stone read, “Your skis are only as fast as your heart. Make it happen.”
. . . . . .
Summer sunlight filtered through the windows of the EHP turning the empty room into a kaleidoscope of geometric colors. Bull dozers sat poised outside ready to demolish the room full of memories into a pile of stones and splinters.
“Norm, wait, please wait,” Greta pleaded as he started the car. “Just one last look inside, then we can go.” She made her way through the front door. The bar, the rafters, the stone walls, the pews all echoing the memories of a thousand nights brought a lump to her throat and tears to her eyes. There on the far wall under the silhouette of where the Miller sign once hung was one last picture stapled to the wall, a newspaper clipping of Elizabeth Russell. The headline read, “DRUKEN SKIER TAKES ONE LAST SLOPE.” Greta sighed, turned and walked out.