By: WB Riggs
I ski the steeps all day long and arrive at your storeroom in the afternoon for the evening delivery. You step out of your office with a roll of the eyes and a further instruction for our haul up the mountain: The sourdough, you say, is for the day party at Moonstone. I roll my eyes, too, and you part your lips at what has become our recent greeting. You open the cooler, but do not enter. Point to the note on the corner stack, the swooping brushstrokes of your pen hand.
I’ll take the rest to Hale’s Landing, I reply, panting, once Jesse situates the hold, where’s he gone to, the slacker?
On this day, the day of the firing, I show up breathless from my last ski run. An amazing run, Lisa, through the deep snow in the trees. It’s a story for our tea. But first, the work.
I raise up the storeroom dock door. The snow cat sits in position, rumbling, warming. I see that Jesse, hunched and hoodied, is sitting in the driver’s seat, sitting there not proceeding. Probably cracking peanut shells in his teeth.
So I pound the steel gate with my gloved fists to let him know I am standing on the long metal teeth of the rubber cat tread. A warning shot, in a way. I don’t want to get run over. Get the parking brake on, bud.
You know how it goes, Lisa. Unlatch the metal rods and lower the steel side wall of the cargo hold. Climb back up and place the steel plate that bridges the dock to the dropped down gate. Heavy lifting, but maybe Jesse is rolling a joint to share with me, I can handle it solo.
I begin, as always, in the cooler for Hale’s Landing, rolling the dolly to the cargo hold with the kegs and the bottles and the frozen steaks. The ski slope is steep, the heavy in the back.
I work immediately and quickly – because here’s a secret…since my last ski run goes long, I work with an extra haste to make up clock. I never dally with the dolly.
Still, Jesse sits in the cab seat as I’m five, six, seven stacks into the hold. I’m thinking, Bud better be dead…he can hear me working!
According to Mountain Ops procedures, we may not proceed up the mountain with our delivery until a good half hour after that last skier comes off the last lift.
I’m not going to do the work for two all night, Lisa, so instead of starting on the breads and the salads, the cold cans of mixed nuts, I take a moment to make a hot tea. I whistle around the corner. You make a mouse click at your desktop and step out of your office. I offer you a tea.
What kind are you having, Baxter? you ask me, pleasingly, every time. So here’s another secret…I vary my selection if only for my response: Oolong peppermint with a half-packet of raw sugar.
Your evergreen eyes sparkle like sunshine on snowy pines. That sounds wonderful, you say, but no thanks. I’ve had enough for today.
True, our day begins as yours ends.
You lift a finger to twirl the blond curls hanging from your burgundy beanie. On a cold day like this your face takes on a pleasant pink, a hue that stays atop your cheekbones, a color that rises when you assemble the carts and proves the passion in your double-check accuracy.
You shift your hips from one leg to the other, putting one boot—steel-toed under the faded leather—in front of the other. Classic rock streams out of your office and someone is on the phone behind a closed door down the cement hallway.
It’s “Black Water” by The Doobie Brothers. I sing the words to the song, like we sing to all the old songs, right there, with my tea.
Jesse walks over mid verse. His eyes are blazing fires. You stop singing.
Bud, I say, you’re not dead.
He doesn’t look at me, keeps his flaring eyes on you.
A face that was as sweet as a birdsong now sharpens like the edge of a ski. Your curt complexion contains as much authority as it does annoyance, and I imagine that you master many a man in your career on the mountain.
He comes from the city, Santa Fe or somewhere urban, inner, concrete, where buses overheat. He works various jobs in his late teens and twenties – occupations centered around cutting down trees, damming up streams, demoing walls and impounding autos.
Make yourself a hot tea, I tell him. It’ll cool you down.
He turns to me. I stiffen my shoulders. He is without his bandana triangle, the one he wears over his face on cold nights, perhaps to cover his somewhat repaired cleft palate. His is not an unattractive aspect, but, unlike you, Lisa, I’m not used to seeing him sans bandana.
He scowls at me, intensifying his scarred flesh.
Put those boxes back in the cooler, he says.
They’re for Hale’s, I say.
I know that. Put them back.
What’s going on, bud?
Get the job done and quit asking questions, he says.
Talk to me proper and we get the job done, no problem.
Don’t talk about it, he says, just do it.
Grab a dolly, I say. Let’s work.
He walks away without making a tea this time, and I wonder what he’s up to.
I speak the line about the water in the moon shine—for your smile, which does not reappear—so I say, I’m tired of his lip.
Because, Lisa, we have a load to take up, and no time for bickering. Now, I’m no official chief of the operation. In a way, Jesse has labored with the crew since last summer. Me, since Christmas. So, I can’t pretend to know your history around him.
If you won’t take tea, I say to you, then I’ll break the lemons and make you a lemonade.
You step into your office, pinch your chapped lips, roll your eyes and smile.
Because, you remember, when the box of lemons breaks – we each put a slice in our mouths. With the peel between your lips, you roll your eyes. We roll our eyes like dizzied baboons. You touch my twitching eyebrow as I poke your puckered cheeks. We tilt our heads and touch our lemons. Peel to bright peel, until the sourness has run its course.
So, please, Lisa, let me clear up the firing.
Lisa, do you remember when I asked you if you had ever driven the snow cat? You said – Can’t you see me crashing down the mountain because I can’t reach the foot brake!
The key to the cat is to be aggressive in tight spaces. Throttle it purring through heaps of snow or you’ll never get up to the dock for the deliveries.
When I work my nights with Nick, he and I take turns driving. Nick favors his right arm, after a busted 720 off the snowboard kicker, but he’s a hard worker.
Then there’s Jesse. He always drives. No big deal to me. I sit back, read a novel, Crime and Punishment, something long and literary for the slow trudge up the ski hill. I scribble some lyrics, jot down thoughts. I fall asleep and don’t wake up until I feel the cat stop. Then I get down and do my part.
One of us sets up boxes on the lip of the platform – the cargo hold door folds down to extend over the tread of the cat. The platform hits me at my chest as I reach my arms around the stacked trays of Coca-Cola bottles, or the boxes of tomato sauce, or the other labeled foodstuffs you have sent with us. I walk the manageable stacks through the snow into the restaurant for the staff to find in the morning.
Oftentimes, the guy organizing the truck bed gets ahead of the guy walking the ground. Five stacks fit across the platform, a row behind it within reach, ten trips in all, so I jump down and help walk the stacks through the snow to the cabin. Nick walks the stacks, too. Nick and I work well together. Jesse, however, stays up there and just shoves a back row to the front.
Tonight, he sits down on a keg of beer and cracks open some peanut shells.
You wanna come down here, I say, and help walk them in?
I’m up here.
You’re lazy ass isn’t doing anything here.
You can leave. I don’t need you here.
You think I need your lip out here?
Do your job and we’ll get out of here.
Sure thing, bud. As I reach to take the double stack of Coca-Cola trays, he has a foot on the boxes behind it ready to push the row into place. Okay, bud, that’s not work. Instead, I push the row into his heel. So he digs in and kicks the row at me. I move aside, and his attack misses me. Plastic bottles scatter in the snow. One punctures and spews.
Now get down here, bitch, and pick it up.
I’m sorry, Lisa, for the language of the field. But I don’t want to withhold an accurate report of the firing.
And maybe this isn’t the Jesse you know around the warehouse. I see you hold his tea as he changes the light bulb in your office. I see you hold the clipboard steady as he points his gloved finger at an annotation, keeping his hand beside yours for a prolongated thought. And after you receive a Valentine’s Day rose from an anonymous admirer, he Duct tapes it to your office door, hanging it upside down to dry, where it still rests today.
I’m not trying to recreate his image before you. But he tells me to be careful of what I tell you. Tells me to never enter a cooler with you. Tells me to never trust your counts. I say, Okay, man. Okay, bud. Okay, dude. But his decisions do not reassure me.
Jesse messes up from time to time and our evenings often go past midnight. I won’t hesitate to command the practical, for a smooth and efficient night. We are paid by the hour, I read in the cab, then I bust my ass at our stops. I try to shoot the shit with him, gripe about the daily grind, share a story of the shred. I spot girls and point them out to him, but he has made up his mind. He will not reconcile. He will take me down.
I, too, have made up mine: He will work to the end.
Driving the night cat is a good gig for me. It keeps me from spending time and money on the bluegrass bands at the bars. I can ski every day if I want to. Or visit the girls at SteezStyle café. Listen to their stories. Tell them some of mine.
Lisa, you love to tell me about the slopes. I tell you about my line in the Captain Jack trees. Oh, you say, I love those trees. Open trees, all powder, so fast for a long beautiful stretch.
Oh—you sweetly start your sentences always—I wish I could, but… Well, you are at the warehouse six days a week. We work hard to maintain the location of our lives. I come from Missouri, where my old friends manufacture valve lines or sell light fixtures to support their young children. So I try not to mistake this moment of my life in the mountains!
I never told you about one night at work. Back when he still asked me to drive the cat, we made three 500-gallon water deliveries up to High Camp. That night the two of us brought our snowboards! We each took a moonlight run to the bottom while the other drove the cat.
Do some 360s in the headlights.
Meet me at the Bullwinkle hut.
But now, Jesse and I only stick to the job and don’t talk in the cab. Maybe it’s my fault. I’m not above blame. It takes two to tackle. I seem to always find a way to mislead myself. But when it comes to telling a cohesive lie, I can’t even begin to fabricate.
Anyway, after we get the hoses connected and the water starts draining into the restaurant reservoir at High Camp, I sit on the front patio in the wooden chairs. I sit bundled in my thick work snow pants, hoodie, and Dickies jacket, and watch the quarter-moon above Palmyra Peak.
Lisa, have you seen the beauty beyond the blinding daylight? Was white snow not made for the gleam of the moon? I trace the snow veins between the rocks, imagining ski lines down the shoots. The still snow freezing deeper on the peak provides a perfect pause for adoring my delicate life.
And I always like hearing about yours. Like what book you are reading. Did you finish A Thousand Acres? And are you splitting the firewood like I showed you? Has your neighbor returned to you the good snow shovel, the one with the foam handle you like? And how is your St. Bernard puppy? Has he pushed you out of bed again? The poor guy, you said that when your body hit the floor, he woke up howling and alone?
Oh, Lisa, just to see you smile again.
You are the only one near enough to our work to observe it. Our work is never supervised. It’s just me and the other guy going about our assignments into the night. The work speaks for itself, right? But in the end, it doesn’t speak at all. Just like the cooler cannot confirm Jesse’s gloveless hands under your flannel. Neither do I believe his boasts.
So, Lisa, let me tell you about the firing.
Later this evening, we return to the storeroom to grab another load. I man the dolly, fetching the items for Jesse to position in the snowcat. That old cooler smells like stale milk, so I gulp the icy air outdoors while wheeling the keg of Samuel Adams Boston Lager to go to Moonstone. Next, I start carting the cases of Stella Artois, Heineken, and Fat Tire.
There in the cat bed, Jesse is sitting on the Sam Adams keg in the back corner. Instead of tying down the keg so it won’t roll around on our journey, he’s sitting on it eating peanuts. With his bandana loose, he’s popping the peanuts in his mouth and spitting the shells into the frosted lot. Sitting on the job, eh, coworker? Okay, take a load off, our job is not always hard.
I place a stack of cases beside him in the back of the truck. The heavy in the back. Back to the cooler, and back to the cat with another stack. Jesse still hasn’t tied down the keg. I place this stack of beer at his feet.
Those don’t go there, he says and blows a peanut shell off his tongue.
Are you sitting on the job? I ask him as I turn to go for another load.
Now, Lisa, all I want is a smooth and pleasant night on the clock. But when I return to the truck and find him still seated on the keg in the corner, I take his inaction as a direct attack.
I want you to enjoy this picture: his foolish face crumbling peanuts in his teeth, his forward eyes flitting the peripherals, daring my nerve, as I set the third stack of six cases at the last corner of the keg to complete the encasement of my seated stooge opponent.
What the hell you doing? he says, spitting, spewing peanut skins off his crummy lip.
I walk backwards off the loading ramp, dragging my dolly, watching him stand, jerk, and catch the cases so they don’t fall to a crash, then study how he would slip out, casting mean eyes at me from behind the structure I have trapped him in.
I hurry to the cooler, and back to the cat bed with another load, to pile up more loads for him to organize. Because he is now behind on his duties. Since he wants to play, I will play.
Lisa, stop reading my letter, please, and consider what it is. He is the one still employed. He is the one still with a ski pass. He is the one whose story lasts in the boss’s round table meetings on every other Saturday morning, while I’m out shoveling snow off sidewalks. So, Lisa, when you level a secondhand accusation against me, I remember that his busted-tooth tales are the only accounts transferred firsthand.
Now let me clear up the firing.
This night of work is extremely frigid. Water levels are down all around. We need to carry several containers of water to the upper mountain cafes. Under the lot lights at the warehouse hydrant we fill the 500-gallon tank. Then roll up the hose, hop in the cat and up we go with our load of water.
My nose, cheeks, and neck below the ears feel the cold coming through the window glass. Even the headlights seem to shiver and retract as we roll over a rippled rise. “A bobcat,” I say, but he’s silent as I watch it enter the woods.
We get to Alta, park on the flat, open the drop down gate, unwind the hose, clear the ice off the fittings, lock the connection, give the signal, and begin to drain the tank, no problem.
Alta still needs more water. We head over to the mid-mountain spout. This hydrant peeks from the snow like a bare finger in a shorn glove. I jump out, take the hose end over. This hydrant, at this altitude, is completely frozen. But I like a challenge.
I start beating the ice with my wrench. I have to carve a space for the hose’s metal pipe head to slip straight into the mouth of the hydrant, and latch tight. My wrench is blunt like a hammer, not spiked like an axe, so the hard ice is not chipping fast.
I look up at the snow cat, and see Jesse sitting in the warm cab, sans bandana, probably cracking peanuts into his hand. You owe me a beer, bud, but I got this. It takes me a twenty-minute battle to get the hose clamped to the hydrant and get the water going. Exhausted, I fall on my back on the snow and gaze at the stars. So many stars I can’t spot a single constellation through the vapors of my breathlessness.
When the container is full Jesse gives me a shout. I turn off the flow, disconnect the nozzle. The excess water comes out of the hose and fills the trench I just created. I watch it harden before my eyes. He rolls up the line and I follow the nozzle back to the cat.
My knees and fingers are frozen. My cheeks and nose are freezing. The cab is warm but the heat is off. I turn it on. Jesse turns it off. I turn it up. He turns it off. I turn it back, and he cranks his side window down completely. Whatever, bud.
At Alta, Jesse takes the hose and the wrench to the building. He connects the hose to the reservoir pipe, no problem, because the valve is clear of ice above the snow. Then he turns the wrench. He’s on the ground, so I climb into the cat bed and release the water from the tank. If this is his idea of trading off duties, his portions don’t balance.
We return to the warm cab and wait in silence for the water to run out. To my surprise, he is not cracking peanuts, but crafting a fabric. With yellow thread and a thin needle he is sewing designs into a dark patch – a patch, Lisa, you might sew onto the shoulder of a canvas jacket, or onto your backpack.
I watch his fingertips pulling and placing the fine needle. My elbows are still trembling. I breathe steam onto my tingling fingers.
Ortegren’s needs water next. Jesse drives back down to the mid-mountain hydrant.
You don’t want to do that, I say. It’s frozen stiff.
You got it the first time. You can do it again.
Get to it, he says.
It’s your turn.
Do your job, he says. I’ll be doing mine. He locks the brake, opens his door and steps out onto the cat tread to unlatch the gate, unwind the hose, without shutting his door.
I quickly crawl across the cab and sit driver, reach for the door. Close it. Lock it.
Jesse tries to open the driver’s door. Sorry, bud. His anger crinkles the bandana.
Get out, he says. I’m driving.
Nah. I’m the captain now.
I unlock the brake and let the cat tread roll. A warning shot. But he doesn’t jump off.
He holds up the hydrant wrench. He still has it from the Alta job.
Get in, I say. We’ll need the wrench at the warehouse.
I hold the brake with my foot. At the top of the window glass, I see his eyes sparking. He jolts the big wrench over his head and swings.
Reverberations rattle the cab as I coil in the seat. The cat is moving. I reach for the brake pedal, but touch the gas instead, purring the cat before finding the brake and stopping.
I lock the brake and open the driver’s door. Jesse is picking himself off the snow. His bandana is under his chin. Blood spills from his nose into the groove of his cleft palate. He coughs and his tooth pops out, a charred blemish atop the snow.
But, Lisa, he is not under the cat tread, like he has said to get me fired. Instead, he stands and lunges for me. He swings the wrench at me wildly, again and again, until I have stepped away from the cat.
He crawls onto the cat tread. Out of his pocket falls his patch and thread craft. In the light of the cab I see the yellow design is an L and a J. But the space is dark between the two. He’s up on the cat tread and he’s going for the driver’s seat.
I climb up behind him, because I don’t want to get left on top of the mountain in the bitter cold. He pulls the door into my backside. I see the wrench come swinging, but I don’t release his wrist as we fall onto the cat tread.
The tread is jumping forward. I crawl to the edge. I fight to free my boots from under his body and throw myself to the snow. I turn to look.
The tread pulls him under the open driver’s door toward the front wheel base. I can only watch as he scratches and tears for escape. The cascading tread throws him over the front. He roars into the mountain against the prrrrrrrr of the cat.
But I see it’s only one boot under the rubber tread. His foot is not under the bone crushing metal claws, like he claims.
He still walks today, no problem. He still sits on the job while others work around him. He still pushes the boxes of food and trays of Coke to the lip of the dock with his foot.
Meanwhile, my new job is pushing a snow shovel over sidewalks so that over-scarfed children marching in ski boots don’t slip onto their asses.
On the mountain he yells until the cat tread completes its cycle under all six wheels.
I make a daring retrieval of the cat by way of the back gate, traversing to the cab along the side wall like it’s a via ferrata, and carry the cat from the driver’s seat before it races down the mountain.
I send him home that night, and I top off the water levels on my own.
But, that is a story for another time.
It’s no longer a story for our tea, Lisa. The apricot herbal blend with a dash of cane sugar, your favorite. Or, my favorite, blackberry sage with agave.
Yes, I am okay.
I still find tight turns in deep snow along the steeps. I think of how to tell you about it. Then I roll my eyes.
Subj: The Firing :Original message :email
Are you okay? What’s going on? Did you really say ‘This one’s for Lisa!’ when you punched him in the teeth?! Now everyone is pointing at me! Jesse says that he saw you and me in the cooler. I think it was that time you asked me why the canned nuts were in there. Because they’re good cold. Rememeber? Now you like them cold. He says they will fire me. I was only drinking tea with you. Why would you do this to me?