The rind of a moon lies cocked in the sky, and the world looks cold and blue. He sees the ice-sickled stocks of weeds dead in the yard. Beyond them is the frosted barren and pestilential locust wood. And the trashed papers and newsprints buried in the drifts like varied birds, ill-shaped and restless in the wind.
Jake wanders as if he means to read the old bleached news. The artless felonies and the murder in the snowy mountain streets. His tongue is swollen in his mouth, and his skull veils his brain. He can see figures moving in the woods with green and phosphorescent eyes. He thinks he might hear singing, and he stands in the dark for a long time listening, but there’s no sound. Not even a wolf howls.
He opens a heavy wooden door to see the innkeeper’s son raising his eyebrows.
“Thought you’d fell off the mountain and landed in the city,” he says.
“I’m back now. Looking for your dad."
“The old man isn’t doing too well. He’s probably laid up in bed.”
“Is that so?”
“Cancer. It’s gotten the best of him. No telling how much longer we’ll be able to keep the Inn with all the medical bills and creditors breathing down our necks.”
The man’s fragrant arm descends on Jake’s shoulder. He wears a cuff-link coined like a bicycle reflector.
“I’d like to see him,” says Jake.
“If you’re looking for work, you’ve come to the wrong place. All’s we got on staff is old man Tom and crazy train Troy. Dad’s health is failing, and mama is pretty much checked out. It’s only a matter of time.”
“Well, that’s just the thing,” says Jake. “I know I left in a hurry, but I made a promise to your dad, and I intend to keep it.”
“He’s been spending a lot of time in the bunkhouse behind the bar. I reckon the pressure and the pain is getting too much for him. If you want to see him, I’d start there.”
A few minutes later, Jake hears the dogs starting up again along the perimeter of dark trees surrounding the lodge. And later still, when he wipes the water from the glass and peers out, he can see an old man bundled up and shoveling snow along the bridge. He sees him move and become the faintest figure disturbing the globes of light one by one until a distant dark had taken him.
“Old man Tom,” Jake says to himself. “Still alive. Still working.”
Jake goes up the frozen winter path towards the bar. An old mountaineer named Troy opens the door and recalls Jake through drink-galled eyes and stands aside for him to enter.
“Just saw old man Tom,” says Jake. “Seems well enough. How you think he’s doing?”
“Yup, Tom’s okay. Financial problems with the lodge makes paying him a problem. But he still stays and works,” says Troy.
Jake enters the room with its odor of stale beer and the urine-like smell of fried pork rinds between the dirty bathrooms and whatever is cooking in the back. Troy shuts the door and hobbles on his twisted leg to the wall where he’d left his broom waiting.
“What happened to Jason?” Says Jake.
“Up and left on us. Like you did. Here one second and gone the next. Ain’t seen him in months.”
“What happened to your head?” Asks Jake.
“What happened to yours?”
Jake smirks and rubs the patch of stubbled hair over his occipital bone. Troy has a massive bandage taped across the left side of his forehead.
“I got hit with a floor buffer,” Jake says.
“I got hit by a bus,” says Troy.
He nods, looking at the floor and sweeping heavily at the trash.
“Doesn’t it hurt?” Says Jake.
“I got drunk first,” says Troy.
“I wouldn’t have done it had I not been drunk. I got more sense than that.”
“Well, how did you manage to keep from getting killed if you were drunk? Especially in all that snow,” says Jake.
“It ain’t easy, I’ll tell you that much. The only reason that bus came and ran over my legs that other time was because I got too drunk. The thing had chains on and all. Slid right over me. You gotta’ keep your head about you.”
“How much will you get this time?” Asks Jake.
“I don’t know. They don’t want to settle. I may have to get me another lawyer.”
“What will you do with the money if you get it?”
Troy looks up from the floor. He seems surprised by the question.
“Well,” he says, “get drunk, I reckon. At least I won’t be sweeping the floor for everyone else getting drunk, and I could help the old man with the loan. At least, maybe for a while. No telling.”
Troy pushes at the trash.
“Sun don’t shine up the same dog’s hind side every day,” he says.
“I hope not,” says Jake.
“Things have come to a sorry pass when an old man like me has to look after all these white trash mountaineers for work. Always coming and going. Nobody stays more than a couple nights through these winters. It’s no wonder we’re scratching by.”
“Hard times, indeed. But look on the bright side. The old man keeps you on the payroll,” Jake agrees.
“You don’t happen to have a little drink on you, do ya’?”
Jake had not.
Behind Troy walks in Dolly, the innkeeper’s wife, in her disheveled housecoat. She opens up her palm with a few dollars.
“Run and grab me a pack of Lucky’s, will ya?” Says Dolly.
Troy places the broom against the wall, takes the money, grabs a hat from the back of a chair, slips on a pair of rubber green galoshes, and shuffles out the door. His racked body was like something that had been disjointed and put back by drunken surgeons. His elbows poking out. His feet bent wrong. Dolly watches him with one watery eye.
“Good afternoon,” she says.
“Afternoon? It’s dark out,” says Jake.
He inspects his watch and remembers how the night seems to consume the entirety of the day up on the mountain.
“How’s the old man?” Said Jake.
“I don’t know. Tony always laid up in bed. Go ahead and go on back.”
“I don’t want to bother him if he’s sleeping,” says Jake.
“He ain’t asleep. Go on.”
Dolly held the curtain back for him. Jake enters a room darker yet. There was some sort of heavy material curtaining the window in the direction of the snowy river. A rich funk of nameless odors. There was a radio playing so softly that he could barely hear it. The foot rail of the bed came right to the door. Tony laid in bed like a tree.
“Who dat?” Says Tony.
“Jake? Jake. Jake!” He realizes. “Young man, come on in.”
“You’re not asleep?”
“No. I’m just resting. Come on in.”
He raises himself up just slightly in the bed, and Jake hears him catch his breath.
“I just stopped by to check on you,” says Jake.
“Sit down. Where’s your beer, young blood?”
“I didn’t want one.”
“No, that won’t do. Hey, old woman!”
He is groping around in the dark for something and finally comes up with a bottle. He unscrews the cap and drinks, then puts it back. He wipes his mouth with the heal of his hand.
“Hey,” he calls out.
Dolly appears at the curtain.
“Bring this man a beer. Sit down, young blood.”
Jake can see him better. Tony shifts his colossal frame and is so clearly in pain that Jake asks him what is wrong.
“Don’t say nothing to her,” says Tony.
“Same old stuff. White-coat doctors poking and prodding at me. Trying to keep this place running in a lull. Hush about it.”
Dolly comes to the curtain and hands a beer bottle into the room. Jake takes it and thanks her, and she leaves without a word.
“Did they keep you in the hospital?”
“Yeah. I got out about eight o’clock this morning. Felt like I was making bond after a jail stay.”
“Well, have ya? Been staying out of trouble, I mean.”
Tony’s scarred face looks wrinkled and old.
“I’m too old for that now, and I got me enough trouble as it is. But don’t let Dolly know that, though, of course. This bull still got some buck left in him!”
“Are you all right?” Says Jake.
“It ain’t nothing. Been a dry season with occupancy. Barely anybody be coming around these parts, it seems.”
Jake swallows his beer quietly.
“What about all them hikers, ski-heads, and snowboard stoners? I see you still got them lifts running.”
“It costs more in electricity than the few tickets we been selling. Don’t know how much more of it will last. The man don’t want us small outfits to be in business no more, ya heard me?” Says Tony. “Banks have no problem shutting something down overnight that took generations to build. They just wanna’ level it and up the price for some big-shot developer to come in and commercialize the whole town.”
He draws his bottle forth, unscrews the cap, and takes a drink.
“Can you get up and around?” Says Jake.
“Yeah. I ain’t down. Just resting. I’m okay,” says Tony.
“Well… I came because I’d known you was in trouble with the bank. When my dad passed, I got quite a sum. Guess my great grandfather had some luck investing.”
“You got a good heart, young blood. Look out for your own.”
“I don’t have any own.”
“Yes, you do,” says Tony.
“You was the only ones I ever knew as my own,” says Jake. “You’re out of options. All I ask is that you give me a place to stay and a job helping run the place. I’ve lived just about my entire life without a place to call home. Figured here would be as good as any.”
Tony wipes his mouth.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard all this sweet talk before.”
“Have you? And what makes you think I’m just talking?”
The offer recalls a sudden frustration.
“Lemme tell you about some people,” Tony says. “Some people ain’t worth anything rich or poor, and that’s about all you can say about ’em. But I never knew a man that had it all that didn’t forget where he come from. I know a man I took care of the whole time when he was coming up. He’s a big man now, and he don’t know me. Drives a fancy car and all. I got no use for a man that pisses backward on his friends.”
Jake sits at the foot of the bed. He takes a sip from the beer bottle and holds it in his hands.
“You see a man, and he’s scratching to make it. He thinks that everything will be all right once he’s got it made. But you don’t never have it made. I don’t care who you are. Wake up one morning, and you’re an old man. You ain’t got nothing to say to your brother. Don’t know no more than when you started.”
Tony appears angry.
“I see,” says Jake.
Jake nods his head in passive agreement, and without a goodbye, he gets up and leaves. He passes Troy coming back with the Lucky’s, gives him a casual nod, and makes his way out.
The beer warms Jake’s belly. Everything seems oddly familiar around him. He sees a Norther Goshawk gliding over a house he vividly remembers as a child. An enormous shape laboring over the chimneys like farm stock flying in a dream. Apparitions of such graceful levity quartering in the naked wind.
A soft amber light folds and swells in the direction of the cold grey snowbanks. And he sees what had been so. How the rotting dirt leans and smells with a taste almost musty. He moves and sits on the porch of what looks to be a vacant balcony. Ghost-like in its proprietary transition.
He sees a snowy owl crusted on the spores of the wooden bridge and a crashing ravine, half-frozen, that runs two ways. The whispering sound of a marbled moonlight crest. A sea of drifting flakes and the long clatter of pebbles in the foam. He sits observing things until it’s late, and he breaks the cold and once again moves.
Jake walks back in and sets a check on the counter for the innkeeper’s son to see.
“The old man took care of me when there was nothing left in my life to live for. Here’s a gift. Payment for all the days I was lost, cold, and alone. If he don’t want it, tell him to burn it. Otherwise, I be seeing you on my way back from wherever I be going.”
Jake makes his way in a world unreal. Through causeways in a darkened town. A gray light moves in the East past blackened brick walls and windows kept by steel grates, their pains opaque with icy soot. He wanders in a night mirk by the river and the cold damp of dead frosted weeds.
He lies in his sleeping bag, half-awake when he reaches an unoccupied cabin. A stray skier passes along an unpowered line. Jake lay with his feet together and his arms at his sides like a dead king on an altar. He dreams and rocks in vivid night swells, floating like the first germ of life adrift on the earth’s snowy floor, and all creation yet to come.