I put my foot in my mouth the first time I ever met Jim, one of the regulars at St. George’s Hot Meal Thursday. “Hope your arm gets better soon,” I said, painfully unaware that his condition was permanent. His right arm was in a sling.
“It’s not going to get better,” said Jim. With his good arm he scooped a slotted spoonful of pork and beans onto a depression in a mound of rice. He nudged his tray toward the turkey and gravy.
Jim relayed the little of what he knew about his injury without any embellishment. I was still surveying the foil pans for vegetarian fare by the time Jim had finished retelling it. He declined when I offered him a hand to carry his lunch tray.
Jim's vague description of his freak accident and his apparent lack of curiosity unnerved me. According to him he'd injured his arm in a skiing accident, simple as that. It was nobody's fault. He said he'd apparently hit a tree but he had no recollection of what had happened for hours before and after the collision. He'd been a professional downhill skier leading up to the crash that changed his life forever. End of story.
St. George’s served a free hot meal on Thursdays, one of the small number of things to do in Leadville with weekly regularity. With the odd exception for a blizzard they hadn’t missed serving a Thursday hot meal since they’d started, long before any of the current crop of regulars and I made it our dining room away from home.
Bookended by resonating church bells, St. George's Fellowship Hall was lively with conversation on Thursdays noon to two, most of the stories having a solid basis in reality, if not always the details. After a few weeks of free hot meals helping me scrape by, I was on my way to becoming a regular. I was taking it all in at face value, getting to know the regulars over salty mashed potatoes, the aroma of green beans cooked in bacon fat steadily eroding my commitment to a meat free diet. Inevitably the topic surfaced of where we came from and what brought us to Leadville. Hardly anybody was from there originally and unlike any church I'd ever been to there weren't any old people around.
I'd only been in town for a few months, not even a full winter season, but I considered myself a bona fide local. Being a local is more about how you stay than how long. I aspired to live up to it, to endure through the seasons, to have a few stories to tell. To the real locals, clear from a mile away, I was merely the latest in a series of wannabes, that year's transient. I was still living in the clouds at the time though.
Knowing what people are capable of doing in the area, and what the place does to people over time separates the locals from the transients. A wannabe local, I was somewhere in between. Even the long haul locals don't, or can't, stay forever, as they know on a visceral level how the thin mountain air won't support a weakened pair of lungs. You never see elderly folk in Leadville unless they're dragging an oxygen tank to regulate their intake.
The air in Leadville leaves people wanting. Perched at the top of the Rockies, Leadville is a tiny town with an outsized reputation, known for its 10,000 feet plus altitude, the highest city in North America. In spite of the boomtown's once prosperous silver mines the state of Colorado wisely looked past Leadville when establishing its capital city.
The first day I rolled into town was the day of the annual Leadville 100. Having barely arrived on fumes and holding my breath half the time, I parked my truck. It had almost run out of gas on the way up. Fans and Leadville locals were cheering on West Sixth Street at the finish line. It was my first time to witness an ultramarathon, and I expected the participants would be desperate for an ambulance or a helicopter, that they would utterly collapse whether they completed the 100 miles or not. Maybe some of the runners-up needed medical attention and dropped out early, but the winner that day looked like he was just getting started, like he could have run twenty more miles. He was gesturing to his supporters to join him for a group photo. He'd just run a hundred miles and was ready for more. I was exhausted and out of breath after walking three blocks. My red blood cells hadn't yet adjusted to the Leadville oxygen levels.
As winter peak season settled in a few people drifted through but nobody newer than me had consistently kept showing up and become a Thursday regular. I hadn't seen Jim at St. George's, the coffee shop, or anywhere else in town for a few weeks.
One Thursday Becky dropped in for a hot meal. She was a friend I knew from Melanzana, a boutique outdoor apparel manufacturer in town, a couple blocks over from where I worked. I had landed a job as an overnight baker at the coffee shop on Harrison Avenue, and I'd soon made fast friends with the Melanzana seamstresses and seamsters by making a habit of bringing them freebie day old baked goods.
Becky set her tray down and pulled up a folding chair next to me. Whispering to keep the conversation between us, she relished my confused look for a moment. "I guess you heard about Jim."
"His arm?" I wasn't sure what she was getting at.
"Yes, Jim and his one good arm." She was teasing me, taking her sweet time since I didn't seem to know the gossip yet. She leaned closer and added "...and his selective memory."
Holding two sugar packets together, I tore off a corner and sweetened a plastic cup of iced tea. I hadn't wanted to be impolite to Jim but it was true that his attitude did strike me as stilted. I offered up some sympathy. "It's sad about his arm. If I were him I'd want to know more about what happened."
"You're not the only one. You didn't think his story was a little bit... off?" Becky looked at me and rolled her eyes. She was getting more animated and some of the St. George's regulars were starting to take notice.
Becky continued prying at my gullibility. "Did he mention he was a 'professional' skier?"
I told her I usually gave people I met the benefit of the doubt, but I had wondered how much of a professional he was. I was surprised that he always mentioned that detail when he summarized his accident. It wasn't uncommon for sponsors to give away merch to season pass holders, for the publicity to tourists and good relations with locals. Even I was was sporting a complimentary Melanzana hoodie, after all. I had figured he was exaggerating but not exactly lying.
"He was a professional skier in the sense that his family's business advertised on his jerseys whenever he went to Copper Mountain or Ski Cooper," she said. "His family runs the Bailey-Kent Funeral Home here and also one over in Gunnison."
I didn't know that funeral homes sponsored professional athletes. The prospect of death was ominous in such a spectacular environment on the mountain slopes.
"Do you suspect he'd been drinking?" I asked. I imagined a ski ranger finding Jim's unconscious body splayed on the slope, with the Bailey-Kent Funeral Home ad on his back, ski poles strewn about.
"It's possible," said Becky, "but there's more to the story." She went on. "The funeral home is right behind the coffee shop. You ever smell anything in the alley?"
Sometimes when I arrived for an overnight baking shift, I did smell some pungent odors that I always figured emanated from garbage dumpsters. A few times I smelled a dead animal when I emptied the trash cans into our dumpster at the end of my shift as the sun was rising over a fresh blanket of snow.
I was losing my appetite. "Yes, there's a bunch of dumpsters in the alley. Do you think the funeral home was causing some odors?"
"Yes!" Becky had everyone's attention. She smiled at one of the diners. "Hi. Excuse me. Mind your own business, please."
She continued, unleashing an avalanche of juicy gossip. "The FBI came and shut them down. The whole family got arrested. It's the biggest scandal in Leadville that anybody can remember. We're talking seriously abnormal, unsafe, just crazy business practices. You don't know the half of it." She took a sip of iced tea. "My uncle is a police officer and he told me he heard they're facing charges of corpse desecration and unspeakable offenses against human dignity."
She went on. "My uncle said the FBI questioned Jim, but he claims he's had nothing to do with the family business ever since his accident. I don't know if he was involved or not with all that but I have a theory about him, maybe it explains his family and possibly some other strange behavior in Leadville."
I listened, jaw dropped. She whispered into my ear.
"Hypoxia." She gauged my reaction. "It's a lack of oxygen. It makes people lose their memories, and lose their minds in some cases. You get fatigued, forget to take your meds... It can cascade out of control before you know what hit you."
I don't remember smelling any foul odors in the alley in the weeks following. The sign at the funeral home came down and eventually got replaced with a nearly identical wooden sign but with a new name. I stuck around for a few more months until the owner accused me of stealing from the coffee shop and fired me on the spot. I didn't last in Leadville much longer and I never ran into Jim again.
Without gainful employment even St. George's free hot meals weren't enough to keep me. I hadn't made it over the hump to establish myself as a local. I fell into an easier existence in the foothills and I never quite realized that Becky was pulling my leg.