By Jesse Turri
I grew up in a little town in North Dakota called Devil’s Lake. Devil’s Lake got it’s name because the Sioux people called the lake nearby mni wak’áŋ chante, or “bad spirit lake.” The word “bad” in the name referred to the high salt content of the lake, making it unfit to drink, and the “spirit” part referred to the mirages often seen across the water. It was the European settlers who heard the “bad spirit” part and immediately thought, ‘oh, the Devil,’ even though the Sioux people had no such concept in their religion.
It gets cold up here in Devil’s Lake (ironic, I know). And I’m not talking Ohio cold or New Jersey cold, but arctic cold; 20 to 40 degrees below zero sometimes. Once winter sets in, the snow never melts. Layer upon layer of packed snow and ice is the normal daily living environment between November and March in Devil’s Lake. It becomes absolutely unbearable at times. There are days where it gets so cold, and seems to last for so long, that no matter what you do you simply cannot get warm. It’s as if your bones were put on ice so that they’re hovering just above freezing. Turning up the temperature in the house doesn’t help, and no amount of bundling up or layering does any good. I remember times when I would be sweating, covered up in my arctic survival sleeping bag, while wearing three layers of clothes, but somehow still feel cold inside.
“Ask your Dad if I can go.”
I looked at Ben and smiled as we walked. “You’re not exactly the best skier, man.”
“Well, I know. But you taught me a lot last time.” Ben was persistent. Reluctantly, after a while, I caved in.
“OK, I’ll ask,” I said. “I’ll call him tonight.”
Ben and I parted ways when we got to my house and I told him I’d see him in the morning. Then I waited until he was halfway up the block and launched a snowball at his head.
As much as I loved him, I got sick of Ben sometimes. He was my best friend but he was always at my house. Day and night, without fail. And, if there was any chance that he could stay at my house overnight, he would jump on it. I assumed this was partly because he enjoyed my company, but I also suspected it had something to do with his home life.
Ben was a foster kid, and although the family he was with at the moment was really great, they had a lot of other kids in the house. Some were other foster kids just passing through–they tended not to stay long–and the others were the foster parent’s biological children. At any given time I’d say there was probably a total of 7 to 10 kids in that house, ranging anywhere from 9 to 18 years old. Like Ben, all the other foster kids had tragic stories. Most of the kids came from abusive families, or families where the parents had given up their parental rights for one reason or another. Inevitably–as you can imagine–this lead to many of the kids developing serious emotional and behavioral problems. On top of that–as if it wasn’t enough–I know at least one of the foster kids in Ben’s house had special needs. Ben’s foster brother, Christopher, had severe brain damage due to his parents feeling the need to savagely beat him when he was just an infant. Now, at age 13, Christopher communicated by grunting and moaning, and he needed to wear diapers and be spoon fed at meal time. The doctors were amazed that he had lived this long.
Being surrounded by that much chaos and pain must take a toll on someone. I didn’t blame Ben for wanting to seek refuge at my house sometimes, not that my place was all that much better, though.
Friday morning, as usual, Ben showed up at my house at 7:00 am to walk to school with me. As I gathered my books and grabbed an apple to eat on the way, Ben spoke to me in a voice low enough that my Mother couldn’t overhear, “Come on man, get your stuff. We’ll bomb some houses on the way.”
One of our favorite activities at the moment was “bombing houses.” This was the not so subtle phrase Ben and I used for throwing rocks at the awnings attached to residential homes. I’m not quite sure why we enjoyed this malicious activity so much. It might have been the adrenaline rush we got from furiously sprinting as hard as we could after we heard the rocks explode against the metal awning, or maybe it was because it made us feel…significant. Perhaps it was our pathetic way to push back against a world that had hurt us so badly. We made noise and disturbed the peace because, well, we didn’t want to be quiet anymore.
“Hey, I talked to my Dad last night, he said you can come skiing with us tomorrow.” Ben was visibly delighted to hear this news, smiling from ear to ear. “He’s got custody for the weekend, and we’re staying ‘till Sunday, so you’ll have to pack clothes,” I said.
“Awesome, man! Can I borrow your old skis again?” He ask asked, enthusiastically.
“Of course,” I said.
As we walked along the frigid snow covered streets of Devil’s Lake, steam that looked like smokey cotton balls billowed out of the street grates, and the freshly fallen snow on the sidewalk crunched with each step. We decided not to take our usual route to school and detoured south looking for some good targets.
“Hey, do you got any smokes, man?” I asked, hoping Ben had stolen some more packs of cigarettes from his older foster brother.
Ben and I met when we were 13, and he had already been smoking for a few years by that time. At first he tried to hide from me the fact that he smoked. I guess he thought I would judge him or think less of him or something; or maybe he didn’t want to expose me to the nasty habit. But after a while of him coming to my house and smelling like a chimney, I couldn’t play dumb anymore. I confronted him about it, told him I didn’t care that he smoked and asked for a cigarette. That’s how I started smoking.
“Holy shit man, Rob found out his carton was gone the other day and almost killed me. I told him Gale and Tony found them, heh heh.” Ben chuckled at his stroke of brilliance. Blaming his foster parents for the disappearance of the cigarettes was probably a good idea. Over the years, Ben had gotten good at avoiding the rage of his older, and meaner, foster brothers.
Ben pulled a pack of Marlboro Lights out of his pocket and removed two cigarettes. He gave me one, and then we lit them using his djeep lighter which, unbenounced to me, Ben had modified by messing with the flame adjustment tab so that it was now less like a lighter and more like like a flame thrower. WHOOSH! The large flame caught me off guard and Ben laughed his ass off while his pocket torch nearly scorched my eyebrows.
“Good one, dick,” I muttered, unamused, handing his lighter back. “This one looks good, I said,” tapping Ben on the arm and pointing to a green, two story traditional house with a large fiberglass awning. Ben nodded and we instinctively began searching the quiet and deserted, snow-plowed street for something to throw. We spotted a pile of medium sized stones peeking out of a snow bank and quickly filled our coat pockets.
Casually–like we had done a hundred times before–we strolled past the house on the opposite side of the street, checking to make sure the coast was clear. Then, without a seconds hesitation we unloaded on the innocent, unsuspecting awning–rocks rained down like a monovalent meteor shower.
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
The multiple rocks crashed against the awning, concussing the soft quiet of the early morning street, making a sound so frightening that it sounded like a full blown gun battle had erupted.
After that, if you listened closely, you could hear the sound of two 14 year olds laughing and sprinting down the middle of the rode.
“You can only take so much shit, man. I hate that feeling. It all makes me so angry sometimes. Parents, teachers, cops, and their ‘authority,’ I can’t stand it!” Ben took the last drag of his cigarette and angrily flicked the butt, adding to the others that were sticking out of the snow bank, making it look like some kind of bizarre arctic cigarette cactus.
“I know,” I said, “and people always wonder ‘why bad things happen to good people,’ but everyone assumes that those people were good to begin with. How the hell do they know who’s ‘good’ and who’s ‘bad?’ How do any of us know?” I sucked smoke into my lungs, then exhaled, releasing the smoke into the air. It wafted above our heads like misty fingers reaching toward the sky.
Ben and I sat in our usual spot, behind the bowling alley, skipping first period and smoking as many cigarettes as we could stand, getting our fix before we had to go to class. If we were lucky we would be able to sneak away between classes to smoke in the bathroom, but those chances were becoming very infrequent due to the addition of the new school security guards. If we had drugs we did them too, but this time we didn’t. Lack of money was the main problem this day, not lack of desire. In truth, we weren’t ballsy enough to start snatching purses and selling drugs to support our habits…yet.
“In me you will have peace, my son, for I have overcome the worrrrld.” Ben’s tone was exaggerated and mocking. “Gale is always reciting that junk to me,” he said “I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.”
“Well, your foster mom is cool, man, but she’s on a lot of meds, right? Religion is just another pill, ya know? Yo, by the way, you should try to steal some of her xanies!” I said, excitedly, my young mind already beginning to morph into the cauldron of lunacy that is the addicted psyche.
“She counts ‘em, dude. I can’t.” Ben looked at me apologetically.
After a few more minutes, and a few more cigarettes, we got up and headed to school. When we got there the cops were waiting for us.
“Wait. The hot tub’s outside?” I asked, completely puzzled.
“Yup, feel free to use it. We close it down at 11.” The ski lodge employee smiled at me and then went back to folding her towels.
10 minutes later I was in my swim suit, standing in front of the glass doors that led out to the snow covered deck of the ski lodge. I stared in amazement at the outdoor hot tub, it’s steam rising into the cold night air like wispy spirits straining to reach heaven. I was completely baffled that something like this existed. Walking outside in 25 degree weather, wearing a swimsuit and no shirt, was something I certainly did not see myself doing on this ski trip.
My thoughts then turned to Ben, and my enthusiastic mood turned somber. I found myself wishing he were there with me so we could run out into the cold together. ‘Ben would have enjoyed this,’ I thought. It was what we were good at after all, running out into the cold. And lately, our lives seemed to be getting colder and colder. I missed him.
I unlocked the glass door, prepared myself, and slowly turned the handle. I stepped outside and the cold air rushed at me, clenching me like a giant icy hand that had wrapped around my entire body. I quickly tip-toed down the shoveled path toward the hot tub and carefully eased my frigid body into the water. It felt good, and after a while something remarkable happened. To my complete amazement, as I sat in the warm bubbling water, surrounded by that icy snow which blew and twirled about like a million tiny-tornadoes, I realized that I was finally warm inside. Without even realizing it, the frost from my bones had melted away in the soothing, therapeutic liquid–something I was certain would never happen. The incredible thing, though, the thing I couldn’t comprehend, was that I had not changed anything. I wasn’t trying to escape the cold this time; I wasn’t trying to hide from it. In fact, the cold was still there like it had always been, and I was directly in the middle of it. Somehow, sitting there half naked in the midst of that frigid chaos in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, I finally found the warmth that I longed for.