Tack would talk about winter nights speeding through the farmlands of Pennsylvania, careening across blue ice toward bare trees in the headlights when he told his mother, “Don’t be surprised if I don’t make it home.” The pigs whose throats he slit, chickens he chopped and a cow he shot, “the first bullet bounced off her head,” when he couldn’t stuff her uterus back in.
He was climbing in the orchard when the FBI came to dig up the makeshift grave of a murdered small-time crook that became a scene in the movie “At Close Range.” He said the smell was “Piss on perfume.”
He didn’t like riding chairlifts. “You’re just sittin’.” Or sleeping. “Because I get bored.” So it was strange how busy and anxious he said he was for how calm he seemed. Only his foot would be tapping, or his big blue eyes were looking around. But when he moved, it was like being stuck in concrete in a dream. I had to run when he walked. When he ran, I had to start sprinting. He was like a bigger animal, a bigger track ahead of you in the snow. I knew I was going to get better just by being near him. And that I was in danger because it would take me to places I would never go alone.
“As long as you don’t fall, you’re fine.”
I put together a bag of things to keep me safe: a plastic soldier with skis over his shoulder, a red rubbed corner of ski wax, the pewter angel my mother gave me, and from the truck that night, Tack’s tiny stone.
It’s as soft as the river, weighted like the wind. And I wonder if there isn’t some memory of his touch, some lingering moment of surprise like when it skipped across the water and sank for a million years or was blasted back to the surface in a volcanic eruption; a sense of glaciers and rivers and wonder at how the world can seem so intimate and infinite at once, like from an open window to the back of your mind.
My friend Penn has a St. Christopher medal, the patron saint of skiers. Esteban from Chile has a snowflake tattoo and a silver ring. Miller wears black sunglasses and Marc-Andre carries a picture of his little girl. He showed it to me in Mont Tremblant that night when we knocked wood at the mention of snow and remembered how we learned the language that we use.
“I’d never heard that word.”
The first story I ever published was about Tack Strau, about the two-story cathedral windows that faced the Tetons in the house we shared on Sylvester Lane. How on clear days it seemed we were at sea, drifting below black ragged shores. And on the big snow days the glass would rattle with the bombs. Sometimes we could see the flares rising like matches against the mountain before we felt the “boom.”
There were lots of stories in bigger magazines by people that never knew him, with quotes that were 10 or 15 years old from when he was still in college, still racing. My story ran in Couloir Magazine a year after he was gone, when the place was already starting to become something of a soul-filled ski bum shrine.
Couloir ran a spread featuring the giant black woodstove in the living room. It could eat an entire pine tree in an hour. To feed it, we stacked six cords of wood against the wall in the three-car garage and froze our trash out there until the spring. We played tennis ball hockey under carpenter’s lights, only stopping when we got too drunk or someone was really bleeding — two events that often seemed to occur at the exact same time. You could see the two torn couches and the news from Idaho on the television. The cream-colored carpet looks black, it hadn’t been vacuumed in so long, and the hall to the garage was just exposed insulation and uncovered beams.
It wasn’t the kind of place to meet girls, but all night long other Skids would drop in. Someone would bring a couple of beers or a bottle of Beam and we would stare into the fire and pick at guitars and try to remember the lyrics to certain songs. “Take me down, little Susie, take me down … ”
We rented the loft to Virgil, a narrow-faced boy from Virginia with lemonade veins and newspaper skin. He had a golden hoop earring and a little red ponytail like Thomas Jefferson. Tack said he was “a pilgrim” who couldn’t believe that the Tetons existed until he created them in a poem or a letter back home. And one night, Virgil proudly told us. “Since I have been here, I have not had one intelligent conversation.”
The front door opened onto the dirt lane that led to the Village Road. And the back door opened onto a giant plank deck like a woodcutter’s dancehall, where Tack had shot a magpie and nailed it upside down above the frame. They had been stealing Toby the Dog’s food off the deck — that was their crime. The magpies and crows together had measured the length of his rope and squawked their oily gossip every time he “gacked!” at the end of the line.
“That shit’s got to end.”
Tack said the other birds would read it like a keep out sign. “They’re smart birds,” he said, right before he took his .22 rifle and put a red buttonhole straight through the white chest of one of them.
There was a pop and he fell off into the grass, then it was quiet like the whole world was waiting. And as I picked up the little warm body, I was surprised by how light it was, but then I figured that’s how it happens. And the birds did stay away. But so did the storms. So it got to be a week after Thanksgiving, with the sky as still as glass, like the sun was painted on.
What clouds there were seemed lost, the dust of nomads disappearing in the dawn. “Don’t say a goddamned word.”
We tried not to talk about the spiders crowding into the house to hide from the cold that was sure to be coming, and how the grass that supposedly grew as high as the snowpack was “plenty tall now!” Or even that all the cows had been facing north along Spring Creek Ranch Road that morning. But when Short Fat Bald Stewey shot an elk that had built up five inches of fat for the winter, we couldn’t help but begin.
“Them boys know somethin’!”
“Even if it was a waste of time.”
Short Fat Bald Stewey made us big juicy elk burgers as soft and red as velvet inside at his trailer one evening. We brought potatoes and beer and some hot peppers we had grown in the yard, so that Bald Stewey’s head was soaked in sweat as he started babbling about how many storms we were going to get, and how “DEEP! it’s gonna be,” and Tack handed him a Pabst and said, “It ain’t snow until it’s on the ground.”
Still, the superstitions burned. Bonfires were built with old skis at parties where high-pressure bubbles were metaphorically “popped” by some hippie driving a knife into a balloon. There were kegs, barbecues and one-night bands, and non-stop speculation about unusually intense volcanic activity in the Pacific where the entire ocean was apparently being drained. Clouds were filling like freighters. There were “unmistakable signs.”
It’s only two or three storms that separate a good season from a bad one, Tack said. “Four or five nights when the snowflakes run by the window like old friends with a bottle of wine.” And those chances are thrown through the prevailing weather patterns, jetstreams, melting glaciers, warming ocean water and the way the clouds can build all day with the drama of a deluge until the wind blows it out all blue and gone.
“You buy a pass. You put your money down.”
Each season, we bet that the skiing would be as good as it has ever been. That black clouds would tear their bloated bellies on the jagged peaks like shipwrecked galleons. Then the snow would spill like confetti, and once it started, it would never stop, as if the weather were just a wheel that needs to be primed. We made little deals in the dark and put prayers on the wind. Until like a black answer, the weather came back, right behind the ravens flapping back over the house like burnt trash blowing in.
“Sqrawk!” the first raven said, as fat as resin, dripping in sin. And we looked up to see the bloated wraith beating the air with his wings, coming over slow, rubbing it in. He called and was answered, and the sky was suddenly filled with them. “Sqkrawk!” the others sang, flapping in pairs and one by one. They came off the mountains and telephone lines, gathering at the edge of the fields in a big wide pine.
“Somebody called a meeting.”
It was like a mob reunion. Like limousines rolling in. And, in minutes, there were more than 30 of them, squawking from branch to branch like black bandits planning which barn to burn.
“You think that magpie was their friend?”
I thought I should pick up a shovel to stand them off if they came. And Tack watched so deliberately that, when he blinked, I half expected to see one sink like a kite to the ground. “They’re social birds,” he said. “I know a guy that puts a tape of them beneath a tree, and when they come to see what’s up, he starts blasting.”
“That’s false advertising.”
“No,” he said. “It’s for a golf course. He kills crows for golfing.”
Toby the Dog was just one year old then. His little black ears were folded like triangles as he sniffed the air like he was trying to figure the wind, sniffing up against a post where he liked to pee and was getting ready to pee again. But then one last late raven soared by and sang, “Ach! Ach,” and Toby’s stout little doggie body went stiff before he jumped up and barked back at him.
“A-roo-roo-roo,” he yelled, then bolted off across the grass so fast that all I could see was his fuzzy tail like a flag as he ran.
Tack just laughed and said, “There goes your dog, man.”
Editor-at-large Peter Kray lives in Santa Fe, from where he edits shredwhiteandblue.com.