The Passenger 

A short story.

I was probably only out for a minute or two, lulled to sleep by the hum of the snowtires on the wet pavement. I looked over at Jimmy, resting comfortably behind the wheel. He was always more relaxed than I was when we headed home after a night at the bar. He didn't buy into the fiction that you could will yourself to be quick and alert and, well, sober, after five or six beers. So instead of moving the seat way up, like me, hunching over the steering wheel and white knuckling it all the way home with the stereo blasting and the windows open so the icy wind could impose a state of shivering, hyper vigilance, he settled in like he was piloting a La-Z-Boy recliner across the den.

The orange ember of the cigarette hanging from his mouth wasn't bright enough to illuminate him, but the green glow of the dashboard allowed the faint outline of Jimmy's face to emerge as we rolled toward Gunnison. The snowbanks on each side of the old Saab offered the illusion of protection, like we'd be gently buffeted by mounds of cotton until we came to a tranquil resting place if we skidded off the road.

I angled around to look at Sparks and Chris in the backseat. They were asleep, bundled up in the thick wool blankets we'd liberated from the lost and found at the ski resort. It was a cheaper solution than getting the heater fixed. Still wearing their wool ski hats and Gore-Tex gloves, they'd staked out opposite sides of the worn leather seat in back. Chris had an unlit cigarette in his mouth, the tip bent and leaking tobacco. Sparks had pulled his hat down over his face so only his mouth and chin were visible. Like the rest of us, he hadn't shaved in weeks — a calculated move to look local, not tourist — and it was hard to tell he was only 22.

The four of us grew up together back in Michigan and pledged we'd ski for at least a year after college. Jimmy had to talk me into coming when I tried to back out after graduation.

We'd been living in a room at the Sweden Motor Lodge in Gunnison for a month, waiting for a dilapidated rental house in Crested Butte to get re-plumbed. Every morning we drove up to the mountain to work and ski and drink, then backtracked every night, maintaining it was only a matter of time before we found girls to spend the night with. Cheap houses were hard to come by, so we told ourselves it was worth the wait.

I'd gauged my drinking perfectly tonight, pacing myself early instead of pounding as soon as I hit the bar after closing down the pro shop at the mountain. And I'd resisted the urge to get high before last call. I'd let loose tomorrow or maybe Friday night because I had Saturday off. I'd come to the conclusion that it was one or the other for me. I either got drunk or I smoked, but not both. Well, sometimes if I smoked then drank I was fine, but never the other way around. Three shots of tequila, four beers, and the hummus plate had been just right for me tonight. Pleasantly drunk, mildly uninhibited but in control, content knowing I wouldn't have to close one eye on the forty-minute drive home to keep the wavering center line from making me sick. No hangover tomorrow, either. I was sure of it.

The Talking Heads were on the tape deck, as they had been for the past nine days after the eject button stopped working. The radio had never worked. Play, Rewind, Fast Forward, and Stop were still reliable options, however. We'd memorized all the lyrics — you had no choice — and they popped into my head without warning while I was skiing or ringing up T-shirts for customers at the shop. I feel numb, born with a weak heart/Guess I must be having fun. I didn't even like the tape that much. We bought it for $1.99 at a gas station in Columbia, Missouri, while we got the muffler fixed on the way out. But sometimes I wondered if there might be some message in the random musical arrivals.

We were on the long straight stretch that signaled we were halfway there. A big house was set back from the road on the left, floating in a sea of snow. It had flood lights that momentarily lit the interior of the car. I looked over at Jimmy again. His eyes were closed, even as his gloved hands loosely gripped the wheel and his cigarette continued its slow burn. The Tibetan prayer beads he wore on his right wrist were vibrating slightly, telegraphing the terrain below.

He was fast asleep.

It had been an eventful night at the bar. A big gang of rich tourist girls from Texas or Arkansas or somewhere South had shown up, wearing expensive après ski wear. Who knew NorthFace made down jackets in pink? They were unchaperoned. No fathers decked out in garish one-piece ski suits like cold-weather Evil Knievels, no boyfriends on the Ol' Miss football team wearing backwards fraternity hats. Just eight girls. With purses and eyeliner and everything. I swear it was like an old Western when somebody walks into the saloon and conversation halts, the piano player stops in the middle of a ditty, a single note hanging in the air, and all eyes turn toward the newcomers. I was sure they'd take one look at the bar, turn on the heels of their goat-hair boots, and haul ass, but they didn't. They walked right on in and ordered a variety of frozen drinks at the bar. From our table in the corner, I could see Neil, the bartender, frantically hunting for a blender in the kitchen.

There just weren't that many available women in town. This wasn't Aspen. Most of the girls who did show up to ski bum arrived with their boyfriends. The few who came unattached were so sought after that they inevitably opted for the ski instructors or rich dilettantes from the East Coast whose parents owned condos in the area. On occasion, single women connected with other single women, which just didn't seem fair.

That meant the bar was filled with unattached guys like Jimmy, Sparks, Chris, and me — unshaven and broke, laboring to achieve some kind of Zen-like spiritual and emotional breakthrough via skiing. Working bad jobs and reading Thoreau. Dodging the student loan authority and living in some varietal of compromised housing like a closet or an unheated tool shed or, in our case, a cheap hotel room with two double beds and chocolate shag carpet, performing all auto, clothing, and ski equipment repairs with duct tape. And getting drunk, can't forget that, and high, both of which fueled seemingly endless conversations about telemark equipment and hidden backcountry runs and who had avalanche beacons we could borrow and, dude, how come you didn't hike up to the cornice with us? And why the hell did we go to college in the first place? I'd made the mistake of trying to explain some of this to my dad on the phone one day, part of my continuing campaign to rationalize why I'd ditched a free ride to grad school for Colorado. And why we'd sort of decided to work through the summer and ski next winter, too. It seemed so obvious, but not to him. I hung up feeling like I'd let him down.

Needless to say, I couldn't have gotten within five feet of those girls if I'd tried. They were surrounded. Even Thierry, this incomprehensible Frenchman with no front teeth who came here twenty years ago on vacation and never left, was in the fray, shamelessly hitting on one of the gals. Which is why I was a little shocked when I came out of the bathroom and ran right into one of them. She was tall and had short black hair and I could smell her perfume or lip gloss or conditioner or something nice besides the smoke and beer of the bar. Of course, I panicked. I must have looked like Yosemite Sam, fresh from the cartoon mountains, deprived of female companionship for god knows how long, stammering with disbelief. I was blocking her path to the women's room. I had to say something. Yosemite Sam lines like "Ma biscuits are burnin!'" popped into my head.

"Nice purse," I finally managed.


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