Shelter From the Storm

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.

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In A Big Country…

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’ve never seen you look like this without a reason

Another promise fallen through, another season passes by you

Shock

polarbear

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

And that’s a desperate way to look for someone who is still a child

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.

In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside

Stay alive

 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

ski-lifts

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’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert

But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime 

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.

So take that look out of here, it doesn’t fit you

Because it’s happened doesn’t mean you’ve been discarded

Pull up your head off the floor, come up screaming

Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered

Shock, One, Two

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.

 In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside

Stay alive

I Lift Mine Eyes…

…unto the hills, whence cometh my strength.

Some version of this Psalm hangs in the non-denominational chapel at Cheley Colorado Camps, snuggled secretly away in the foothills on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. It was here way back in the early 1980’s that I felt the touch of a stronger presence which opened my eyes, my ears, my heart to the possibilities and choices of life. It is to these same hills that I constantly turn when the GPS of my soul needs to recalculate before I can continue the journey I am on.

Over the years the path of that journey has curved left…or right…or in some instances, stopped and rolled backwards. Bruce Springsteen tells me that it isn’t unusual to take, “One Step Up, Two Steps Back.” But at those moments, I am able to fix my spiritual compass on the mountains I have visited so many times and find my path again. The mountains are the source nearly all of my true spirituality. Of course, there are family and very close friends to help steady me, but for that feeling that we all need to feel, deep down inside, we need a source.

Many people would probably visit their church dejoure for a serving of spirituality. I can’t do that. Oh sure, I still go to church with my wife and kids. I have for over twenty years. I’m Methodist and they’re Catholic. When my friends ask why I do this, I paraphrase W.C. Fields, a well-known agnostic, who when found thumbing through a Bible shortly before his death was asked, “What are you doing,” Fields replied, “Looking for Loopholes.” The real reason I go is because of Father Vince…a radical priest with the hidden agenda of lifting the veil on the conservatism of the Catholic canon. He’s a tremendous story-teller who knows how to work a crowd.

So to me, there is a vast difference between faith and religion. I have faith. I’ve been on mountain tops and seen what’s below me. That vision surely reflects eons of scientific rendering, but it all had to start somewhere by something. Even if the Big Bang is the result of a hot, dense point of matter that expanded quite rapidly, that hot, dense matter must have come from somewhere. I’m not a scientific thinker, but I think there is room for the argument of a greater power here. So as I sit on a mountain peak and soak in the scene before me, I am inclined to believe. I am less cynical. I am at peace.

Can’t say the same for sitting in a church. Some of the most glorious structures on this earth are churches. As far as I can understand, the basic purpose of a church is to throw up walls that make you focus on one person’s (too often a man’s) interpretation of the written scriptures of any of a number of different religions. What churches really excel at is hiding nature when we most need it. That one hour or so we dedicate to looking inside ourselves and try to understand our journey to this point and where to move next, should be sacred. It should be personal. It should be unique to each of us. It should NOT be interrupted by the clanging of a “sacred” gong to which we are all meant to be called. If God wants me, he or she knows how to find me.

And if it’s any help to you God…just lift your eyes unto the hills. In one manner or another that’s where you’ll find my spirit.