High School Confidential (Episode 001)
With each lightning bolt, Addie Decker jumped slightly as if she’d felt some degree of the electricity in it. Her subtle shivers became visible lurches each time. She let her gaze wander a block or so down Nickel Drive, just ahead of the car and she saw the dark outline of the Columbine Chalet. They passed a streetlight and she quickly held her watch up to the window and squinted.
“Is it six? Already?” she asked. “Shit. I thought we still had time. He’ll be home in fifteen minutes. Wait! Wednesday night? Happy hour starts at six. Maybe we’re OK.”
“Honey,” the driver paused. “It’s Tuesday, not Wednesday. Are you OK?” she asked. They heard the wind as it began to grab at the car. Shadows danced around the base of the street lamps as the car neared the building. Another sharp streak of light stabbed down and brought everything before them into a harsh, colorless focus.
“I hate this shit,” Addie said. Then, mostly under her breath, “Fucking hate it.” She looked at her watch without trying to read it.
“What? These storms? We have storms here almost every day. I’d think you’d get used to it,” the young woman behind the wheel said as she pulled in front of an aged apartment building.
“Ever been in a tornado?” Addie asked. Her voice was as cold as the rain. Her head drooped as she leaned her shoulder into the passenger door and looked toward the building.
Even in the dullness of the stormy night, Addie could still see small icons from her past. The satellite TV dish for each of the front units stuck out on either side, giving the dull, brick building a set of mechanical ears. A blue, plastic tarp that was still partially clamped to the Char-Broil grill flapped along with the oncoming storm. A citronella tiki torch leaned into three plastic Adirondack chairs that tipped, uneasily, rocking in place as a thick, wet lawn tried to anchor them against stiff gusts. Instead of the gentle serenade for which it was made, a Denver Bronco wind chime banged a rude warning into the night.
Addie reached into the pocket of her sweatshirt and pulled out an empty pack of Kool Milds. Wadded cellophane punctured the temporary quiet as she looked for a trash bag, then stuffed it back into her pocket. She ran her fingers through her auburn hair, then stopped and considered her trembling, outstretched left hand and wiggled her fingers.
“I’m still not used to it. It feels so naked,” she said. The driver’s head was fixed, but her eyes glanced sideways at Addie and then back to the street in front of them. Between the intermittent flashes of lightning, the darkness folded into itself across the skies above the small Front Range town of Purvis, Colorado. Addie reached for the handle but let her hand slide to her lap. She brought her head back up from the glass and glanced at the woman, then back at the front door to the building. Addie opened the door.
She slid out of the passenger side of the ‘98 Corolla and into the steady falling rain. The thunder rolled down off the Flat Irons twenty miles to west and bounced back across the plains toward her. She closed the door so that it would make no sound. The car puffed a light, steamy breath from the tailpipe, as it idled on the asphalt. Her clothes soaked up the showers immediately and she looked again at her watch. The shivers had turned to a continuous quake as she braced herself against the new streaks of lightning that chased her up onto the curb. She turned and motioned for the driver to turn off the lights of the car.
“My God… What’s her name?” she quietly wondered. “Lisa? Lora?” She rolled her eyes as the raindrops rolled down her cheeks.
As she reached the front door, Addie patted the pouch of her now drenched hoodie, reassuring herself that the plastic Wal-Mart bags she’d found at the shelter were still there. She entered the long hallway. The light inside the door was still burned out.
“Four weeks and it’s still not fixed.”
The smell of ancient cigarette smoke and Pine Sol clung to the walls and carpeting as she walked to the door of the first unit. There were no sounds inside, just a light coming under the door. She stopped and tapped a soft knuckle on the door. She waited a moment and tapped again, slightly harder. Still no sound of movement came from inside the apartment. She leaned her head against the door.
“Where are you? Mrs. Anderson, you’re always home. Please?” she whispered quietly to the door. She tapped again, waited for only a moment and then gave up.
The shadow of the hall receded into the naked, antiseptic brightness of the further hallway light that did work as she moved down to the door of unit 3A. Her hands were still shaking as she reached the key towards the lock. She could see the once beautiful nails of her right hand were now chewed along the edges and colored the hard pink of missing skin. She didn’t have time to be shocked any more. She pushed the key into the lock and twisted. When the lock gave way, she let out a tight breath and turned the handle. For the first time in four days, Addie was back in her apartment.
The kitchen light was on as she closed the door behind her, pulling out the first bag. She tried to go through the checklist she had memorized over the past few days.
“Bathroom…bedroom…kitchen…cash. Bathroom…bedroom…kitchen…cash,” she whispered to herself.
Addie looked around then stood still for a moment while considering a scene that was part of her mental tapestry. It was as if this were the first time she’d really ever taken it in. There were dishes in the kitchen sink. Two pizza boxes sat open on the tiny table that served as the dining room. The size of the flat screen TV on the wall startled her.
We should have asked the landlord, before we hung that on the wall.
Addie could see the silver duct tape still straining to contain the crack on the sliding glass door, which led to more lawn chairs near the garages in the back. The dull, blue curtains were pulled back exposing her to an outside world of darkness. Near the door, the food and water dish for the cat on the floor sat empty. As if on cue, a large gray cat scampered out of the bathroom door in the hallway, stopping to stare at Addie. It arched it’s back, but let out no sound. Addie’s nose scrunched almost instinctively as she caught the scream in her throat and took in a breath, bringing the bag in her hand to her throat. The cat glued his eyes on Addie as he slumbered down the hall and sprung up to sit next to the pizza boxes.
“Jughead, stay away from me,” she seethed at the cat. The presence of the cat brought Addie back to her purpose. She glanced at her watch and her knees went weak.
“Fuck. Five minutes. Where do I start? Bathroom…bedroom…kitchen…cash.”
She moved quickly to the bathroom and flipped the switch above the sink. Into the first bag she tossed a tube of toothpaste and her naked toothbrush. She pulled open the mirror above the sink and reached into its cabinet to grab her half-full bottle of Xanax. She also picked up the small case with her extra contacts in it. From under the sink she grabbed contact solution and a box of tampons shoving it in the bag.
She moved to the bedroom at the end of the hall and turned on the small lamp next to his side of the bed. She stopped and instinctively began to reach for the dirty clothes on the floor, but pulled back and stepped up to the dresser standing next to only window in the room. She took her eyeglasses sitting next to a framed print of a young bride and groom. When she pulled open the top drawer, a streak of lightning brought her eyes to the rain beginning to pound at the glass. The tree at the edge of the property line was flushed with the yellow blaze of headlights. She knew someone had pulled into the back lot. The tree went dark again. She grabbed at panties and bras stuffing them into the bag without looking. Addie pulled out a second bag and opened the next drawer on the dresser. Suddenly, even this far back, through paper thin walls, she heard the hallway door open from the outside. Addie froze, one hand still stuck in the drawer, clutching a pair of jeans. Heavy footsteps walked the hallway. A peal of thunder buried all other sound and the rain pounded the windows and siding. She wiped her nose, which had started to run with her tears. She tried to re-catch the sound of the steps. They had moved onto the stairs going to the second floor. She moaned and her knees buckled slightly again. She grabbed at the drawer and steadied herself. She opened the third bag and shoved in another pair of jeans and a pair of tennis shoes from the floor.
She made it as far as the dining table when Jughead howled and jumped at her zooming back to the bedroom. She stopped in her tracks and muffled another cry. To her left, through the sliding door, was the glare of headlights again in the parking lot. Addie ran out the door of the apartment and away from the closest exit. Her arms clutched the three bags to her chest as she struggled to keep her legs from giving away. Addie stopped at the door of Mrs. Anderson’s apartment and looked back over her shoulder.
“Shit! The cash,” she cried out.
The darkness beneath the dead hallway light swallowed her as she crept backwards toward the exit, feeling around for the knob. Her eyes were glued to the parking lot door. When it opened, she saw his figure walk in. Addie turned and grabbed the knob, then pushed her way past the door and into the shelter of the storm.
As she tried to time the revolving door that would save her from the blast of arctic air funneling down Seventh Street, her heel caught, only for a moment, between the massive wall of rotating glass and the jam that helped seal the door. She felt the tug at her heel and her leg gave an instinctive pull that freed it just as quickly as it had caught. The heel supported her into the building and another three steps before deciding to wobble and add another layer to her less than perfect day.
“Great,” she thought. “What else?”
She walked to the nearest seat in the lobby and set her Ralph Lauren shoulder bag down next to it. She began calculating her travel schedule once again as she pulled off her Valentino pump and tested the heel with her gloved hands.
“Thirtieth floor… sign the papers… back down… meet the Uber… back home… grab the luggage?” She let out a restrained breath. Her tongue began to unconsciously click against the roof of her mouth. “I’ve still got plenty of time,” she thought. To her relief, the heel seemed still intact, at least enough to finish her business downtown and get back to where a change into her travel clothes was already laid out.
She stood, slipped off the gloves, unbuttoned her overcoat and smoothed out her sweater dress. She pulled her bag once again over her shoulder and started for the elevator. The doors were already open, so stepping in, she pushed the ancient round button that brought the number thirty to life and stepped back toward the corner alone as the doors began to close. Just before they came together, a quick dark hand shot between them and gave an easy tug, triggering the safety sensor and the doors slid open once again.
“ ‘Scuse me, ma’am… is this one going up?” A short, dark-skinned man with smoky white hair stuffed up under a black porkpie hat leaned his head into the opening of the door to address her. He wore large tinted glasses and a broad smile that revealed what appeared to be a perfect set of immaculately white teeth. His hand held the door back in its pocket as his tilted waiting for her response.
She simply looked down at her shoes without a reply. Reaching up she gave a slight pull to the collar on her coat. She felt her tongue search out the roof of her mouth, softly snapping away forming an almost inaudible click that repeated itself a few more times before she regained control and stopped. Her body shifted very slightly to her left as he nodded, stepped into the car and searched for his button. As the doors finally closed, she looked casually at the Fitbit on her wrist. She shifted the bag to her other shoulder and fixed her stare on the Otis Elevator Company sign straight ahead of her.
The car began to rise, feeling to her as if it were in slow motion just like this whole day had started to feel. The man cleared his throat. He cleared it again and pulled a red linen handkerchief from inside his jacket. Her eyes were slowly drawn to the dusty creases along the back of his sport coat. She became aware of this and quickly brought them back to the Otis sign. A muffled ding signifying each new floor followed the rhythmic, ancient cadence that the elevator had memorized over the many years it had served others. The old man finished wiping his nose and folded the handkerchief into a neat square and tucked it back inside his jacket. He turned to smile at her.
“Do you work here, young lady?” He asked in a pleasant tone.
She started slightly. “Umm, no. I’m just going to visit my lawyer to sign some papers,” she said as her connecting glance at him shot away from his eyes to the wall behind him.
“Oh, I see,” the old man replied. “My son, he’s an attorney. He works down here everyday. I come to have lunch with him every Friday.” He waited for a response, smiling at her. When none came, he added, “He’s a good son. Smart kid. Gave me three beautiful grandbabies.”
At first she hadn’t noticed that the dinging at each floor had slowed, but now her eyes widened as she became aware that the elevator was barely moving, although it hadn’t completely stopped either. Her eyes shot up to the floor indicator. Her shoulders tensed as she saw that the antique indicator was as old as her own fears. It too barely moved, seemingly stuck between floors eighteen and nineteen.
“What’s happening? Why aren’t we moving?” She asked, not quite realizing she had said it out loud.
“Oh don’t worry, miss. This happens now and then. Happened to me three or four times on this old ride. They’ll get her going pretty quickly,” he said calmly.
She looked at him again and for the first time noticed the pin attached to the lapel of his jacket. It was round, about the size of a penny with white background with the image of a red and white road leading into a blue sunset with the slogan “Obama ‘12” written below the image. She was not aware of the slight shake of her head that came with the recognition of the pin. Her eyes hastily darted back to the floor indicator above.
“I don’t have time for this,” she snapped. “I have a plane to catch. “I can’t get stuck in this elevator.”
“It’s gonna be OK, miss,” the old man’s face remained relaxed and smiling as his palms reached out, reassuringly.
The young woman stepped back from his gesture. She was now as far into her corner as she could get. Her eyes momentarily widened and both hands, now on the strap of her bag, briefly tightened. The old man’s smile faded into a thin, straight line, as he looked first at the woman, then at his outstretched hands. Almost as if it had been something he’d previously rehearsed, he stuck both hands into the pockets of his pants and stepped back into his own neutral corner. The indicator dinged once as the car finally slid to a fixed stop and the doors opened onto the nineteenth floor. He quietly turned his head toward the woman, but she had once again found the Otis sign. He redirected his view to the bustle on the floor before him and slowly stepped off of the elevator. The doors closed quietly and the young woman returned to breathing, looking distractedly at her Fitbit while her tongue found the roof of her mouth and began softly clicking away at nothing.
“Sometimes the light’s all shining on me…other times, I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me…”
The sound, just for a brief second, was clear and I could understand the words. It was as if someone had pulled cotton out of my ears, just a momentary blast that brought me closer to the surface.
“…What a long, strange trip it’s been” And with that the cotton seemed to get shoved back in and all I could hear was the deep throbbing bass that pounded through the concrete walls and directly into my slightly swooning head.
Don’t ask me how my parents ever agreed to this trip…but in their loving naïveté, they signed off on it and the rest was a hot mess. We got word early in the fall that the Grateful Dead would be playing the Iowa City Fieldhouse in the spring of ’71. Bruce and Doug, both tenth graders, represented two of my more mature friends and this concert was all they needed to make life worth living. Bruce had been a fan ever since he first heard Friend of the Devil. Doug was Bruce’s best friend and sidekick, so that made it his mission too. I was the kid a couple years behind them in school, but hip enough to have a decent record collection and a growing knowledge of who was who in the rock scene of the early seventies. I had, in fact, earned my stripes on a warm fall afternoon the previous September when I read the headline telling me that Jimi Hendrix had died and promptly rode my bike onto the field at the high school baseball practice and announced it to everyone. I was like a carrier pigeon with a vocabulary. While the coach didn’t much appreciate it, the boys on the team did. From that point forward, I had become an ally in the rebellion against adulthood.
It was a chilly Saturday morning in late March when Bruce and Doug finally pulled up in his 1967 Blue Ford Mustang, fondly known as Marvel. Hopping into the back seat, I joined another friend, Mike, an ancient senior and lead guitarist in the local rock band for which Bruce sang.
By the time we finished the two-hour trip to Iowa City it was time to grab a quick burger and find our lodging for the night. We had been granted floor space in the dorm of another Van Meter legend. Steve was an identical twin and I literally could not tell him from his brother Stan, until they went to college and Stan joined the ROTC. Steve was the older brother of a classmate, so I knew him too and it was with great pleasure that we dropped our sleeping bags off in his room and went our own way.
Now, I may have considered myself to be worldly in a rock-and-roll sort of way, but I was not worldly in the way of college life. So when the boys walked into a liquor store a few blocks from the dorm, it was the only time I’d ever been in one without my dad. He was a connoisseur, so I had full knowledge of how the system worked when he was doing the shopping. But with Mike and Bruce leading the way, I was puzzled to see that liquor stores carried anything on their shelves besides vodka. Before I could even be consulted, Mike, the only one of us old enough to buy anything was walking us out with a grocery bag full of various flavors de jour for our merry troop. I had been casually grandfathered in on the liquor order and as such was told I would be allowed to have small samples of whatever was available. By the time we bought some mixers and headed back to the dorm room, small scraps of snow were beginning to spit from the gray skies.
My whole job for the rest of the afternoon was to keep the ice bucket full and the munchies nearby. What each person was drinking is blurred now, but I remember lots of orange juice, vodka, schnapps and a very lonely bottle of cheap wine that soon became my dearest friend. After a couple of happy hours in a sterile dorm room, it was time to work our way through the increasingly cold gray afternoon. Bundled up in my heavy parka, complete with a snorkel hood, I was set to battle anything…that plus my blood had been thinned to a degree I’d never before experienced.
Seating at the Fieldhouse was broken into two sections. Reserved tickets were given wooden folding chairs on the floor in front of the stage all the way back to the scaffold risers where general admission tickets took over. The four of us had made it to the point where we would be dead center in front of the stage, only the length of a basketball court between musicians and us. I marveled at what must have been several fifteen-inch speakers in the gigantic PA cabinets. It was hard to tell because each speaker was covered in some fashion or another by a thin tie-dyed fabric. It gave a slightly inebriated eighth grader the notion that he was in the hall of rock gods. Bright, multicolored lights spotted the stage and the double drum set waiting for the night to begin. Huge Fender amps created a wall along the back of the concert space. Even at this early point of the evening, the stage was alive with an assortment of free spirits that looked like they had a purpose up there. Either tuning guitars, or plugging in microphones, or just sitting on the drummer’s throne, occasionally slapping the snare and looking important while doing it. In a time when it wasn’t uncommon for people to smoke in public, the stage was already starting to drift into a fog of sorts…and the place was only about half full. Many of the chairs in the reserved section were still empty. I had grown up with two smokers in the house for most of my thirteen years, so I was well acquainted with what that smelled and tasted like. I wasn’t familiar with the sweet, herbal smell that now greeted the growing crowd, but I had a pretty good idea it wasn’t coming from the Marlboro Man.
Eventually the crowd filled and the lights dimmed. I was smiling for no particular reason as Bruce, Doug, and Mike bounced to the beat. Bruce and Mike looked around as if they were waiting for something to happen nearby. The Fieldhouse was still cold enough that I kept my parka on as I started humming whatever song was being played as part of the pre-concert filler. When the lights finally went all the way down and the crowd got on its feet to welcome the band to the stage, what seemed like ten thousand lighters torched simultaneously. Some song I didn’t recognize at the time began the show and we were off. Within a couple of minutes I could see the guy three people to my left passing something to Mike. He took a hit and passed it along to Bruce. He took a hit and passed it over to Doug. He took a hit and passed it along to me. It was the first time I’d ever really seen a joint. It wasn’t beautifully crafted but its sweet smell made me wonder what it would be like. I looked back at the boys, who were motioning me to get on with it and send it back their way. Having been an avid cigarette smoker for all of one week in sixth grade, I felt like I knew what to do. I stuck in my lips and pulled hard expecting the same guilty pleasure I had felt when I smoked Kools back then. When the smoke got about half way down my windpipe, it did an abrupt about-face and came gasping back out my mouth and nose in a burning cough. I handed the joint back to Doug who worked it back down the line to its owner. My eyes were now running as if I’d been kicked squarely in the berries. No matter how much smoke came wheezing out, half of it seemed to get sucked back in when I tried to catch my breath. My ears had taken on a ringing that was colliding with the guys on the stage who were too late in warning me about the evils of Panama Red. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered The New Riders of the Purple Sage had preceded the Dead on the stage. Was I ever getting a hands-on education about purple sage.
Eventually the coughing subsided, but didn’t go away completely. I would be caught off guard and hack up a puff from my freshly singed lungs. The ringing in my head grew worse and had evidently awakened the contents of my stomach. Bruce got up to go to the bathroom and I decided I needed to go along as well. I wasn’t sure why he felt he needed to hold onto my coat, but hold on he did. We walked about a hundred feet toward the edge of the risers when my brain rolled over and made me walk it again. In front of me, I could see the men’s room only a few feet away, but in my mind I was still a good forty feet behind my body. Something had kicked in and that outlaw Panama Red was about to steal my head. I’m pretty sure I got my pants zipped up before we left the men’s room, but I was no longer in control, so it’s all pretty much speculation.
By the time Bruce had my body half way back to our seats, I could feel the conversation in my stomach now turning into an intense argument. I stood at the corner of the bleachers, Bruce patiently standing beside me, and gazed across what used to be the reserved section. Things didn’t look the same and I didn’t trust my own reality anymore. Where there once were rows and rows of neatly lined up folding chairs filled with fans, there was now a wasteland of openness filled with hippies and smoke. Around the floor, I could see four or five small dark mountains. The folding chairs had been unceremoniously removed and clumsily stacked. The whole concert had apparently become general admission as people were now pouring out of the bleachers onto the floor to get closer to the stage. Bruce was about to join them when I made a U-turn and grabbed the nearby trashcan with both hands. The day came rushing back at me in a Technicolor yawn. My knees buckled and my nose was now running with whatever hadn’t made it past my teeth. Bruce looked at me and looked at the stage. He paused, reached for me and helped me sit down next to the bin.
“Stay here,” he said. “You’ll be alright. I’ll be back to check on you in a couple of minutes.”
Any reference to time was pointless, because in my mind, I was just leaving the bathroom and hadn’t yet made it to the trashcan. I had no idea what he was talking about. I just knew that wherever I was, was the perfect place to sleep. As I wiped my nose and mouth and pulled the furry snorkel up over my head, I distinctly heard a voice saying, “Man, I feel just like that guy looks.” I felt pity in my heart for the guy being pointed out.
I thought I was asleep, but I’m pretty sure it was a different form of unconsciousness. I could feel people shuffling by, occasionally tripping over my outstretched feet. A blast of song would penetrate the hood on my parka and I’d wonder why the stereo was up so loud. Suddenly I was brought out of my miserable slumber by a gruff voice with strong hands…four of them.
“Come on buddy, let’s get you out of here.” I opened my eyes to see not my returning caregivers, but two largish gentlemen in official looking uniforms. Something registered in my cloudy mind that this might not be a good thing. They pulled me to my feet and set me off on a path I was clearheaded enough to believe would be prison for life. I had no words or strength to do anything other than be their “buddy” and do what they did. To my surprise, I was not hauled outside to a squad car but taken through a door where the bright lights were enough to start me on a second path toward sickness. Before I could give that much thought, a cup of water was placed in my hands with the command to drink it. My rugged friends herded me toward an examination table and bid me goodbye.
“Stay here, buddy. They’ll take care of you.” Seems like I’d heard that before and I was wondering if I was now stuck in a nightmare. A man with glasses and a light blue shirt with some symbols on it quickly scurried up to me and put his hand on my forehead while simultaneously pulling my left eyelid up and shining a flashlight at me.
“OK, pal…whatta ya on tonight? Uppers? Weed? Acid? Do you remember what you been taking?” He seemed sincere and priestly, so I thought I could confess to him.
“Boones Farm?” I replied.
“Boones Farm?” He echoed.
“Yep… Boones Farm… Strawberry Hill… I think.” I tried to squint my eyes but the light and his thumb was moving between them too fast for me to outmaneuver him.
“You mean you’re just drunk?” He asked sounding terribly disappointed.
“I am?” I returned his question with my own.
“You are!” He switched off the light and released the current eyelid. “Why don’t you finish your water and just lay down over on that cot?” He politely suggested.
And sleep I did. As mentioned at the beginning, I would occasionally get an aural glimpse into the greatness of the Dead live and in concert. But these were short-lived and more interruption than pleasure to my suffering head. It was later in the night that Bruce, Doug, and Mike finally found me. Not where they expected to, of course. In fact they let me know that they had gone all the way back to the dorm in hopes I had found my way there. They retraced their steps to the Fieldhouse and finally asked security about some kid wearing a puke-stained parka that had been parked by the trashcan near the bleachers. The particular officer in this case had seen the cops haul someone of that description out in handcuffs earlier. Maybe they should check downtown. Thankfully for me, they checked the first-aid room prior to the jailhouse.
As I grew older, my love for the music of the Grateful Dead only got stronger…to the point where I have a recording of my then five-year-old son singing Friend of the Devil. I regret that I only heard bits and pieces of their concert, but I still have a great deal of fondness for what a long strange trip it’s been.
As we stepped out of the bright noonday sun into the murky dusk of the shadowy pool hall/bar/cafe, my dad’s jaw fell open.
“Jesus Christ, would you look at the size of that Polo Bear?” he said. My Uncle Herb just smiled and laughed out loud at the look on his brother’s face.
I headed to a nearby booth as my dad and my uncle did a very slow waltz around the inner sanctum of Ole’s Big Game Lodge, a huntsman’s paradise with walls that were smothered with every kind of mountable trophy except a decent Yeti. There were elephants, goats, wildebeests, and a rhino. There were lions, and tigers, and bears, (oh my) and yes, it was a big-assed polar bear that had ambushed dad once his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. A great eight-footer about to snack on an understandably pissed-off harbor seal trapped under its giant paw.
After nine long hours, we’d finally made it to Paxton, an interstate town just inside the Mountain Time Zone on our westward voyage up to the mountains. We were nearing the overnight point of our trip to Steamboat Springs, soon to be my home away from home for the foreseeable future. After two horizon-expanding summers as a camp counselor just at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park, I had been seduced into pulling up stakes on a pretty dim future as a teacher in Iowa and rolling out west to tackle a winter on the powdery slopes with the romantic dreams of everything that a blank check like that might hold for a twenty-seven year old with no money and no future. It was a siren call that already captured two of my buddies, Greg, the original transplant, Sully, the teacher and Bob, the pearl diver. All Midwesterners looking for something closer to adventure than what could be found on the rolling plains of the heartland.
So, that next day with a bit of a lump in my throat and a few tears held back for the sake of pride, I bid farewell to Dad and Uncle Herb as they dropped my few bags off at condo on the hill above the old west ski town and headed back down the road to the safety of Iowa. As Bob helped me toss things onto the floor that would be my bed, I silently wondered what I had gotten myself into.
I never took the smile away from anybody’s face
It didn’t take long for the plan to unfold. That night when Sully came dragging home from a full day of social studies with sixth grade hooligans, we hopped into his yellow Opel and headed out to the mountain to begin my internship as a full-fledged snowbird…albeit the working kind. It turned out that Bob had recently been promoted from his position as a pearl diver to that of short-order cook at the Sidestep (née: Side-ache) Cafe. This left his dishwashing job open to the next man up. So began my working life in the mountains. As it turned out, the money wasn’t great and the free meal was even worse. Still, until something better came along, it was my last best hope. The job I was really waiting for was on the mountain. But the corporate bigwigs were still a couple of weeks away from holding the open interviews. So liquid Palmolive became my friend.
In the meantime, I was tightly holding onto the four hundred dollar grubstake my mother had secretly endowed upon my adventure. Rent would be due long before any possible paycheck might come from the “real” job I had yet to secure. My share of the rent was about to go up, because Sully’s original roommate Greg had found a better place to hang his hat and get away from the now overcrowded condo. Greg still held tight to our new friendship and proved valuable on many occasions. Bob and I quickly learned the art of turning hotel hors devours into a full meal. On Fridays, Sully would join us, but during the week, teaching was too demanding to turn him into a happy hour punk. Bob was my guru in this newfound survival skill. We would work our way across the base of the mountain, from one hotel happy hour to the next, drinking pretty cheap swill and living on cocktail wienies and cheese cubes. We looked like tourists, and we acted the same. But really, the waiters and bartenders all belonged to the same seasonal brotherhood of vagabond workers and as such, were required by the very bylaws that joined us to watch out for jokers like the two of us. As such, we survived. On the nights we didn’t scrounge, Bob’s idea of a home cooked meal was half a package of Top Ramen noodles and some sweat and sour sauce, lifted from the local Chinese carryout joint. I was a potpie man, myself…a full meal wrapped in a crust. The beer of choice around our condo was whatever we could afford. These were desperate times. One weekend adventure found us pooling our combined pocket money to afford a twelve pack of Buckhorn. With the aid of some environmental voodoo that allowed us to return bottles for a nickel apiece, we were only twelve cents short of our goal. That problem was quickly solved when Sully found a quarter stuck in the cushions of our Goodwill couch.
As the weeks quickly passed, first I, and then Bob got jobs as lift operators on the mountain. Bob was either a better skier or a better liar, as his lift was on the backside of the peak where the finest powder lay waiting for the first shift operators to come and violate it in their sacred runs to the bottom shack. I, on the other hand, a relative novice with boards strapped to my feet, was assigned to a place called Headwall, the beginner slope right in front of the Steamboat Sheraton. We were the first faces that our adoring public would see if they knew little about skiing on snow. When Thanksgiving finally rolled around two very noticeable things happened. First the sun went away for over a month, to be replaced with dark skies and the most beautiful, fluffy snow one could imagine. It really seemed a bit like living in a snow globe…that was being shaken on a 24-7 basis for thirty-five straight days. The second was my lift mates and I soon became introduced to every form of southern drawl that had ever been loosed by overweight, acrophobic women forced into a vacation not of her choosing. On more than one occasion, we would have to bring a snail-paced lift chair to a complete stop to accommodate a stressed out skier who knew her legs were about to be torn off by that seat slowly crawling around the bull wheel.
When finally the ever-present clouds shred themselves into nothingness, it was on New Year’s Eve. As it happened, a full, gigantic moon crawled up over the mountain long after dark and it’s orange blood flowed down the jagged strips of pale snow where the runs had been carved into her side like so many painful wounds. It seemed to freeze the warm air from our lungs like a Polaroid snapshot. But for the temperature and deep snows, it had a look and feel more like Halloween than the final day of the year. With the breaking of the snowy spell, the rest of the New Year fell into a more normal routine. An occasional large snowstorm followed by several days filled with enough sunshine that at least mentally, we felt warmer as we crept into spring.
When March tossed St. Patrick’s Day down at our boots, Bob and I decided that the time was right to push back and show this mountain who was really in charge. We’d adopted another lift operator along the way. Anthony was from South Carolina and his low country twang was charming and nearly undecipherable to Bob and me. It was he who brought his love of the Scottish band, Big Country to us. This alone would have endeared him to the two of us. Their music seemed to follow us around the town, in and out of most every bar. It became our anthem. Anthony was athletic and wiry and was all but impossible to catch on a downhill run. He fancied himself a rock hopper. He lived for deep powder and the larger snow-covered boulders from which he could get some serious air. In this regard, Bob was his compadre. I was a chicken in this area. I had learned to ski and love deep powder and I had acquired an ability to handle the bumps on a black slope, but I stayed away from runs that might combine the two. Above all, I knew I was too big to be skiing off of large rocks thinking that I’d do anything besides plummet like a pig without wings.
On this particular day, the sun was pushing the temperature into the mid-forties. After a winter of sub-zero days on the slopes, this was too tempting to disregard. The three of us ignored the crowded, subway mentality of the gondola and instead headed up the mountain first hopping up on one lift and then the next in only shorts, light coats, gaiters and gloves instead of our heavier togs and Anthony had hidden a fifth of peppermint schnapps that we felt would serve us better once we got to the operator’s party, secretly being held on the west side of the peak.
I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered
But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered
The schnapps never made it to the west side party. It was gone before we got off of the third and final lift dropping us just above Buddy’s Run. It took only a few minutes to ski down to the informal gala, which was hidden, from the touring public by some fairly deep powder and quarter mile of firs. We shared a beer or two while standing around soaking in the warm rays, joking and making plans for later with a few dozen of our brothers and sisters in arms. It was one of the most vibrant, and pleasant memories that I return to as I think about that time in my life. I can remember telling Bob and Anthony that I was surprised the schnapps hadn’t bitten back at us. I reasoned that it was likely because three of us had shared it and already skied off any of the bad juju. After half an hour or so, we knew it was time to head back down to the bottom, so we thanked our friends and made ready to go. The mountain broke before us in a cascade of feathery runs, an open invitation to breathe deep and become one with nature and all its beauty.
I should have known I was in trouble when I tried to step into my skis and fell over for no apparent reason. Bob began what would be a nonstop cackle that would last for the next thirty minutes. Of course the unapparent reason from my balance issue was that the schnapps had indeed caught up to me. The two beers at the gathering proved to be just stupidity in action. After a couple more attempts, the skis were on my feet and I was pointed downhill with my friends laughing with every awkward slide I took. What usually should have been a ten-minute run at good speed eventually took about half an hour. Tears had started to freeze to my face as the temperature had started to sink with the sun. I could manage about thirty yards or so before my balance gave out and I’d have to right myself and start the agonizing ritual over once again. My lower half had taken on the painful pink one might see when glancing at frozen crab legs in the seafood shop. I was laughing so hard that I could barely see the trail. It was all I could do to keep from pissing myself, which the dropping temperature had taken off the table as an outdoor option. Bob and Anthony were less than helpful in any regard, whatsoever.
In the end we made it back to the employee lockers and thawed out a bit. I threw on some pants and we decided to keep the day moving and headed into our happy hour routine. About at week later, Anthony flew awkwardly off a rock and snapped his tibia. It proved to be his ticket home as the season was winding down. With April came even warmer weather and fewer skiers. By the end of the month Sully was counting down the school days, Bob was making plans to ride his bicycle to Alaska and I was on a plane back to Iowa…waiting for another adventure to pop up calling me forth somewhere in this big country.
Having followed much of the protest of the Dakota Pipeline at Standing Rock, I was pleasantly surprised to find a poem in my journal archives that reaches back almost twenty-five years. I can’t pull to memory, what exactly it was that inspired the creation of this poem. It was almost certainly written while journaling with my students at that time. It seems to me that I was doing some reading about the Sioux at the time, but any specific title now escapes me. Just the same, it’s worth bringing forward and sharing, especially if it inspires anyone to go in search of the story of Wovoka and the Ghost Dance.
They dance with spirits
That haunt ancient minds
Apparitions of holiness
Phantasms of time
Blend into one circle
They speak of no pleasure
They sing of no pain
Tread softly on clouds
That scrape desert floors
Ride thunderbolt ponies
Ghost braves of great wars
Send spirit to eagles
That glide round the moon
Send courage to women
Left lonely too soon
Having spent a significant chunk of my thirty-year teaching career in the English classroom, I feel I’ve come to know a good book from something less. My very core has been built from the bottom up by the literature I’ve been able to take in and more importantly by the books I’ve been so fortunate as to help others understand. So when it comes to recommending a book for others to read, I don’t take this risk lightly.
And make no mistake there is a risk in sharing a book with another soul. In a way, it becomes an act of sharing yourself and all of the vulnerabilities inherent with the act. But in this case, and through this vehicle of a blog, the risk is well worth it. Even when the book has already, been around for a while.
The book is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ve told my wife that although it’s a nonfiction work, this is a book that should be read as a follow up to Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, the seminal novel that pulled back the curtains on life within apartheid. Unfortunately, Mr. Coates succeeds in making me cry for my own country as he pulls back these curtains of ours.
I recommend this book because it is important! I hope you keep this in mind as you work your way through it. And make no mistake; it will take a bit of work… on a few different levels. First, Coates is brutally honest… and being the target of direct honesty is seldom as pleasant or romantic a notion as it sounds. Second, his book is an open letter to his own child, which will hopefully bring the truths he is sharing to an empathetic ear. Whether or not we are parents, we all have children in our lives. Think of those children if you can put yourself in his place. Third, his stream-of-consciousness style of writing requires a trip or two to your desktop dictionary. That is a blessing in disguise.
If you choose to get your hands on this book and give it a proper reading, please remember that it should not be considered a gift. In fact, it is like most good books, a tool. Once it’s in your hands, you must decide how to best use it.