They had been sitting in Kevin’s truck for the last half hour at the turnoff to the Mt. Rose Highway. The heater was on and Kevin was talking on the phone to Nancy, while Fatty, with an imaginary pistol, pretended to pick off highway officials darting back and forth between their pickups. They were wearing blue and white parkas with big DOT emblems on their backs and their hood flaps undone so they could yell across the storm to each other. It was no easy hunt. They spent very little time in the open, running with their heads down against the blowing snow.
The highway was packed with idling SUVs, filled with people sipping coffee and staring blankly out of the gigantic binoculars made by their windshield wipers. One of the morning DJs called it, “The Storm of the Century.” Kevin cupped his hand over the phone. “Someone should tell him the century’s only three years old.”
It was a big storm. It had dropped four feet of snow up in Tahoe and two and a half feet down here in Reno, and they were saying that two more feet were on the way. I-80 going over Donner Pass was closed, as was Kingsbury Grade going over to South Lake Tahoe. At least up until now, the Mt. Rose Highway was the only way in or out of Lake Tahoe. Fatty had resigned himself to the fact they likely weren’t going to get up to the mountain, but that was all right. It would give him another day to weigh his options.
One of the highway officials made a circular motion with his hand, meaning the road had just closed. It took some time for the line of cars to move. When it was their turn to pass him at the turnaround, Kevin, still on the phone with Nancy and now frowning, cocked an imaginary shotgun and blew the guy away. The highway official, his beard frosted by snow, gave him the finger and his best I’m only doing my fucking job look.
Kevin hung up the phone. “What did Nancy say?” said Fatty.
“She said the schools were closed, too, and that she’s practicing for her maternity leave by lying on the couch and watching The Jetsons.”
“So, you’re free,” said Fatty. “That was close, huh?”
“She also said she’s going to meet us there.”
During the Christmas rush a week earlier, Kevin and Fatty had managed to jockey their students onto the same chair. Fatty had Yuan. He wore soaking-wet blue jeans and a smile. His eyeglasses had fogged up on the way over to the chair and were now completely opaque. He turned to Fatty like he could see him. “We do parallel turns now, Fatty?” Fatty had taught him two days before. He was a fighter. Kevin had Hannah. She wore a bright yellow ski-school bib over her snowsuit, and a red helmet that slid part way over her eyes. Her skis, dangling a full foot above everybody else’s, scissored for most of the ride. “Don’t swing your skis, please,” said Kevin. “You’ll knock them off.”
“I’m being careful,” she said
He squeezed her knees together. “Stop, okay?” Hannah squirmed for a while. Kevin was getting edgy. He had developed a pretty good instructor schtick this season. He had learned to be at least a little charming, pretty good at leaning on his ski poles, and staying halfway vague about technique. Over the high season, he had a lot of private requests and most of them were from thirteen-year-old girls or kids of single mothers.
“Do you know what Nancy asked me last night?” he said, talking over Hannah. “She asked me how much longer I was going to work up here.”
“Ooh,” said Fatty. “What did you tell her?”
“It’s not funny, man. I told her instructing was a legitimate job and that she had no right to ask me to change who I am.”
“Well, it’s essentially a moral question, right?” Fatty said. “How much of an asshole do you want to look like?”
Yuan, who had been watching, pointed at Hannah. “I have son her age. You teach children, right? You like children?”
Fatty pointed to Kevin. “He’s going to have a kid in April.”
Kevin pulled his hand off Hannah’s red helmet and smacked Fatty across the face. Nancy’s pregnancy wouldn’t be common knowledge for another month. That’s when she’d begin to show through her sweaters at school and Mrs. Rosenblatt would pull her aside to tell her that an unmarried mother wasn’t a suitable role model.
“You have baby?” said Yuan. “Congratulations.”
“Yeah, well,” said Kevin, “We’ll see.”
Reno was weathering the storm like it usually did—struggling back. Half of downtown was dark, while the other half glowed yellow and open behind snow drifts. The roads were slick, but people were out on yet-to-be-cleared sidewalks that had shrunk to the width of footpaths.
By 10:30 Fatty and Kevin had picked up burritos, made a stop at the liquor store, and had settled into the back row of the Parklane Theater for the first matinee of the day. Nancy sat next to them, stuffed into a burgundy sweat suit and a powder-blue fleece that didn’t zip up quite right. She was wearing small, round glasses and she had pulled her hair into a ponytail—like she used to do when she jogged. She also took up a whole second seat with gloves, hat, scarf, down jacket, burrito (extra sour cream, extra guacamole), and a large lemonade. She didn’t look comfortable. She was short and now her belly was too big for her feet to reach the chairs in front, so she sat, slumped with her legs sticking out.
Kevin and Fatty had their feet up.
“Need anything?” Fatty asked.
“Ha,” she said. “You don’t know the half of it.”
Fatty looked at Kevin, who was avoiding the conversation, staring at the previews. He clearly didn’t know what to do with her, either.
The Parklane Theater was an old cineplex. A lot of the seats rocked back but didn’t rock forward, and the carpeted parts were yellow and gray where once there was a celestial pattern. Heads stuck out here and there above seat backs. A bunch of non-chaperoned kids across the aisle were giggling about something that wasn’t on the screen, but it was early and most of the school kids hadn’t mobilized for the theater yet. There was an usher (bow tie, black sneakers, acne) who would march down one aisle, make two 90-degree turns, then march back up the other aisle. It seemed like a cool job—wandering around a theater, leaning against the back wall every now and then. He was the same sixteen-year-old kid who had torn their tickets and hadn’t noticed the large rectangle that the twelve-pack had made under Kevin’s uniform jacket. There was also a guy up front with a cowlick and two kids, whose head spun around every time Kevin or Fatty popped open another bottle.
The movie was Shrek.
“I didn’t realize the whole thing was going to be a cartoon,” Kevin whispered.
“You said you didn’t mind seeing it,” said Nancy. “We can go watch something else if that’s what you want.”
“Well, I like this movie a lot,” said Fatty. “A lot.”
“No. No. This is fine,” said Kevin. He stared at Fatty and held his index finger over his lips.
Fatty had actually been expecting to be written up when he was called into the Ski School office earlier that week. He had been conducting a “safety meeting” with a lift attendant and her brand new glass pipe in the parking lot that afternoon and missed two o’clock lineup. He walked in ready to mix the bright eyed ‘n’ bushy tailed act with a deep, sorrowful apology.
Next to Soren, who looked like a Mafia boss behind his desk, was John, the food and beverage manager, and Cal, the general manager. They seemed to be sharing the part of consigliere, not quite sitting and not quite standing, but leaning on whatever piece of furniture was handy. There was an unoccupied chair in the middle. “Fatty, have a seat,” said Soren.
“This isn’t an intervention, is it?”
“An intervention implies that the person can be helped,” said Soren.
“What we’re trying to say,” interrupted Cal, “is we’d like you to stick around, but we think it’s time for some changes.”
The deal, Cal explained, was that they would create a new position—Midweek Ski School Trainer (Fatty could even put it on his résumé for future job applications). He would be in charge of teaching other instructors how to teach. It would be part time and he would have close to zero contact with the general public. They said it wouldn’t be too bad because this late in the season weekdays were pretty light, and that either Cal or Soren would be there to check in on him. Then, at the end of this season, they’d see about next season. But there were conditions. he would have to take care of himself. No more trouble. He would have to curb the partying and he would not be allowed in the bar. This was why John was there.
“I mean it,” he said. He had been hired the same year as Fatty. Fatty had once seen him plunge his head into a cooler filled with ice and beer, but that was years ago. “I’ve told Angie and Peter and Denis and the wait staff to radio me if you so much as step inside Timbers. We’re serious about this.”
“How does that sound?” said Cal.
“That sounds great,” said Fatty.
By halfway through the movie a small army of empty green bottles stood at Kevin and Fatty’s feet on the polished concrete floor. “Watch out,” said Fatty. “Those things are loud.”
“I know that,” said Kevin. He had to go the bathroom. He planted his feet between several of the bottles in preparation to get up, then knocked one over. The bottle went clink, then clink again as it rolled into the leg of a chair. It was silent for a moment then there was a drum roll of grooved glass on concrete, until it went clink and hit something else. The guy in front with the cowlick spun around. “Come on, you guys,” he said, shouting a whisper. “This is a movie theater.”
“Are you talking to us or your kids?” asked Fatty. Nancy put her hand over her face.
“I’m talking to you,” he said. But there was little that could be done about a runaway bottle and he settled back into his seat.
Kevin moved past Nancy. “I hate guys like that.”
“You mean fathers?” said Fatty. Kevin punched him in the arm.
After Kevin left, Fatty slid into the seat next to Nancy. It was hard not to love her. She still had the same soft skin and she had even put on a little lipstick this morning—a light pink that was only noticeable up close. Fatty put his hand on hers and she jumped. “Fatty!”
“Are you making a move on me?”
“Me?” said Fatty. “Never. Did Kevin tell you that I was promoted to Midweek Trainer?”
“That’s quite a career move for you.”
“Yes, thank you,” said Fatty. He bowed his head. She laughed quietly with that deep grin that showed her molars and he was thankful. She was still who she was–despite being pregnant now and responsible—and she still appreciated those who enjoyed themselves. “I came over here to tell you that seeing how the mountain’s closed and I have these newly developed supervisory skills, I’ve decided to be your and Kevin’s relationship counselor for the day.”
“I think we can manage on our own,” she said. She pulled her hand away, but faked a stretch to do it.
“I’m serious. Kevin wanted me to tell you that from now on he would like to be introduced to your students as Mr. Nancy Watts. Got that? Mr. Nancy Watts. He said he’s tired of bumping into your students and having the kids looking at him like he’s Snuffleupagus.”
“Well, sometimes he does act like my imaginary friend.”
When Kevin came back he wrinkled up his forehead at Fatty. Fatty patted his old seat. Kevin sat down. Both Kevin and Nancy, it seemed, were happier with the seating arrangement than they should’ve been.
On the screen a large green man and a donkey tromped through an imaginary forest.
“I was just telling your girlfriend about my promotion,” Fatty said.
“You mean your sentencing?” said Kevin.
“We agreed that I should be your relationship counselor for the day.”
Nancy leaned over. “I didn’t agree to anything.”
Fatty put a hand on each of them. “You need to stop pissing each other off. Kevin, you need to start coming home earlier. And Nancy, you can’t pile all of your work crap on him, and expect him to want to come home. You two are all you have. Do you know that? Guys, you’re having a baby. It’s snowing out there. This is big.”
When the usher made his next lap, Cowlick reached across his two kids and flagged him down. They whispered for some time. There were a few glances up toward the back. The whole thing finally ended with a nod from the usher, and he made his way up the back row, slowly. He stepped a few chairs in. “Hey, the guy up there asked if you’d keep it down, this being a kids movie—” Then he stopped. He stared at their feet. “Geez, guys, that’s a lot of beer.”
Kevin explained, “We’re working through some issues.”
Fatty had to give the usher credit. For a young guy he was patient. He gave them time to put on their parkas and gloves. He also made a deal with Kevin that the pregnant lady could stay and he could keep what was left of the beer if they vacated immediately. Fatty had been kicked out of plenty of places before, though never a movie theater. But apparently the rules were the same: obey the bouncer, and try to impress him with your cooperation—even if he did weigh eighty-five pounds.
They followed him out the theatre door.
The lobby was littered with ten-year-olds and popcorn. Kids were stomping off snow and lone parents haggled with groups of children at the refreshment stand. All of the school lunch rooms in Reno had apparently reconvened for the day in the Parklane Theater.
Fatty and Kevin got a few stares. The uniform parkas were an obnoxious blue, made so that they were easy to spot on the hill. But Fatty realized, they were a familiar sight to the kids. That is, they looked like disobedient school children being pulled across the playground to the principal’s office. They were childhood gone to seed. One kid walked into Fatty as he was talking to his friend. “Hey watch out, doofus.”
The usher was really a nice guy, Fatty decided, good at his job, calm. He would probably go somewhere someday—maybe even manager. He pushed a pair of lobby doors open to the outside. “I’m sorry, guys,” he said. “I just don’t want to lose my job.”
They sat in the cab of Kevin’s truck for a while, waiting for it to heat up. There had been another small dusting of snow while they were in the theater. They got out and swept off the windshield and windows, then climbed back in to wait for the truck to heat up some more, looking to see if Nancy followed them out or not. Kevin looked soft—his face was red and puffy. For the first time, Fatty thought he saw a little bit of himself in him.
A trickle of people emerged from the front doors of the theater. Nancy was one of them. Several teenage girls passed her in a group—all of them pretty and wearing quilted jackets and furry mittens. If you knew her, you’d know she wasn’t too different from them. But right now, her down coat hung over her belly, and she was practically directing traffic with it as she paced underneath the awning, looking for them.
“You ever have a kid?” Kevin asked.
“No,” said Fatty. “I was never with anybody for that long.”
“You regret it?”
“Not as much as they would have.”
“I keep hoping for a miscarriage or something.”
“You’ve got a real gentle soul, you know that?”
After a few minutes she gave up, stepping sideways off the curb. She walked carefully, taking smaller than usual steps across the snow. Every once in a while her hands would go out, and she’d take a moment to steady herself. She did some methodical zigzagging through an island of parked cars, then finally put a hand on her own car and climbed in.
Once they were out of the Parklane Theatre parking lot, Fatty aimed Kevin’s truck toward downtown, looking for other parking lots and neighborhood streets to drive through. This was safer. There were more cars on the road than he had planned on and he could see straight with one eye, but not two. Reno was coming back to life. The sky had cleared and snow was starting to drip off some of the traffic lights. The storm of the century was fizzling. Kevin had asked that they not go back home yet. Second Street was loaded with bars and they could spend the rest of the day there, maybe stop in somewhere and play blackjack.
Fatty imagined when they got back that night they could tell Nancy that traffic was really bad. “I mean really bad,” he would say, and she would forgive Kevin because his friend and mentor was so funny. This was a good plan. It had certainly worked before.
But as he lined up in traffic at a stoplight about halfway there, Fatty made a U-turn. The roads were still slick and the back end of the truck slid wide, glancing off a parked Toyota. “Hey, Fatty,” said Kevin, “you just hit that car.”
“I know,” said Fatty. In the rearview mirror, he watched a police cruiser slowly weave through the idling traffic and pull up alongside the Camry, then turn on his flashers and accelerate when it was obvious they weren’t stopping. They swung onto a neighborhood road. The snowplows hadn’t gotten to the smaller streets yet and this one was rutted and uneven. One moment the truck dipped and Fatty was a foot taller than Kevin and then there was a jolt and Kevin was a foot taller than Fatty.
The plan was to get Kevin there and hold him in their kitchen. Then after some yelling, he and Nancy would quiet down, move closer, and maybe talk. It would be a difficult moment to explain to this eager, but probably well-meaning cop behind them, and to Soren and Cal, who would demand his pass and uniform once they found out. Fatty imagined himself standing guard in their kitchen, eating something out of their pantry, while in the other room, they made clumsy love around her pregnant belly. He smiled across the truck to Kevin, who had one hand on the dash, and one gripping the seat back. He was twisted, looking out the back window. “He made the turn,” said Kevin.
“I know,” said Fatty. He stepped on the accelerator and the truck bucked up and down. “But we have to get you home.”
© Matt Reed
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Matt’s interview]