Where I want to start is back around Christmas. I was living with my boyfriend, Jack, in a log cabin at the convergence of the Snake and Hoback Rivers. It was our very own miniversion of True Romance. The kind that’s too impossible to last forever. That’s why that movie’s so great. The happy ending. It kind of tricks you into believing that two people could go through all of that crap and come out living like millionaires with their adorable baby on a beach in South America somewhere. That’s never how it happens in real life though. Not to be too much of a bummer. But seriously, you can only kid yourself for so long.
The cabin was right off Highway 89. Which wasn’t a highway in the usual sense—it was no four-laner, more a regular old road. You could see a bridge out the kitchen window that looked like a Roman aqueduct. In Manhattan, a view of that bridge would command serious bucks. But this one didn’t have the same cachet as a view of, say, the Brooklyn Bridge. In Hoback Junction, getting away from things like bridges was the whole point. I don’t want you thinking we were living large or anything.
Anyway, the cabin was pretty much a one-room deal, with a separate kitchen and a bathroom the size of a postage stamp. It had a propane stove and a big stone fireplace that leaked cool breezes even when the flue was closed. The bulbous pink fifties refrigerator with the stainless pull handle was my favorite thing about the place.
Not that it wasn’t quaint. Just a little dark since Jack had stapled plastic on the windows to keep the drafts down. So you could call it rustic, or you could call it depressing, depending on your mood. In fact, depending on whether you were being honest with yourself on any given day, you could call the place a trailer, with logs stuck on the outside to make it look all Davy Crockett. It was part of a cluster of fishing cabins down on the point. Each one had a name—Lodge, Pinyon, Pinecone—very sweet. Fishermen apparently rented them weekly for mucho dinero in the summertime. Or so Jim, the new owner, said. In the winter he could give us a deal because Hoback was twelve miles south of the town of Jackson, and about twenty-five miles from Teton Village, where the ski area was, so it was a bit of a haul.
I should probably clarify the whole “Jackson Hole” thing. Whenever I refer to it as Jackson, people always say, “You mean, Jackson Hole?” Like perhaps I’m not saying it right. It confused me a little at first too. The “Hole,” as it was explained to me, refers to the entire valley, encompassing what I guess you could call the “villages” or “towns” of Jackson town center, Kelly, Moose, Wilson, and Teton Village, each with its own post office. And most locals don’t call it “Jackson Hole” in casual parlance, just “Jackson.” So now you know.
Jack and I moved in together at the beginning of October and we didn’t have a phone, so calls were made on the pay phone up the hill at the Hoback Motel, the money-losing arm of Jim’s real estate empire. It wasn’t hard to see why. The place was kind of Bates-like, truth be told.
But Jim was pretty cool. Nice, the way midwesterners can be. He’d moved with his wife, Cathy, and their two kids from Ohio or Kansas or somewhere. If you ask me, the guy had his work cut out for him. There wasn’t much going on down there in Hoback. I’m sure he’d made his purchase with an eye toward the future though. In a few years it’ll probably be hot, like Jackson, and the only people able to afford it will be the rich. Jim said if we ever had friends come to visit, they could stay up at the motel for cheap. Ten dollars a night or something ridiculous. That’s the kind of guy he was. So the place could be seen as creepy to the naked eye. But to me, on most days, it felt like home.
We’d cut the wood that was stacked on the porch ourselves. Boy, did that make me feel mountainous. Driving up into the hills in Jack’s Chevy Silverado, hauling out dead trees like a pair of friggin’ lumberjacks. Jack had taught me how to use the chain saw, and the ax. The most important thing to remember about chopping wood, he said, was keeping your legs wide apart when bringing the ax down so as not to lodge the blade in your kneecap. I kept forgetting though, and almost did myself a couple of times. It was pretty hair-raising. Not as hair-raising as the chain saw part by a long shot. The whole procedure was in descending order of fear. The hair went up with the chain saw. Then came back down a little when you got to the ax.
I liked being seen as the sort of girl who could wield those appliances with a certain amount of authority. Even if I was secretly about to shit a ten-pound brick. I’d have that chain saw cranking, the reverberations shooting through my body like electroshock therapy, and all I could think was, I had no business, no business whatsoever, handling one of those things.
Every once in a while you’d hear gruesome stories about chain saws “kicking back” into the jugulars of real he-men—men who pulled those cords every day of the week. If those guys were getting aced, what sort of chance would a sissy girl like me have? I’m not saying I can’t be macho when the situation calls for it. But fear is a pretty crippling thing. And clearly, when it came to chain saws, Fear was my middle name.
But that’s the way things were with Jack—danger masquerading as normalcy, if that makes any sense. The kind of stuff you hear about in the news—accidents where you can’t quite believe people would be so stupid. Except I can, because I was.
I’d moved to Alta, Utah, from New York City the previous Christmas, after getting fired from a small video production company that did industrials for my father’s law firm. The boss, Lieberman, was eager to suck up to Dad, and I was eager to suck up to anyone who’d give me a job. They hired me the summer after I graduated from a small liberal arts college upstate, and everyone was pleased as punch. The whole thing went exactly as planned from the point of view of postcollegiate success stories. That is, get hooked with an internship and work your way up from the bottom. It looked like my career had officially begun.
Lieberman was a high-strung guy who paced the halls clapping his hands, yelling things like “Come on, come on, come on! Let’s get cracking!” As if we weren’t all busting our humps to begin with. As far as I could tell, the only person not cracking was him.
But that’s neither here nor there. As a lackey, I had the job of writing and producing the “Didja Know?” segment for this food show that ran on cable. I’d hang out at big touristy intersections like Fifty-ninth Street where the Plaza meets the Park, with a cameraman and a sound guy eliciting reactions to gems like “Did you know that back in the dark ages people ate with spoons because the fork was considered the devil’s instrument?” Stuff like that. People stopped and talked to me too. Not to pat myself on the back or anything, but I was alright at my job.
Things started falling apart when the food show ended and Lieberman asked me to make sales calls. I just couldn’t get on board. Especially if it was going to benefit that jerk Lieberman. Making those calls was so painful that I began faking it—having in-depth conversations with the dial tone whenever I heard him clapping down the hall.
It was around this time that Lieberman called me into his office. The way he was pacing back and forth, running his hand angrily through his winged, prematurely graying hair, I knew I was about to get chewed out for something. Lieberman was prone to throwing tantrums for the hell of it, so we could all see what a creative and passionate individual he was.
There was a styrofoam cup sitting in the middle of his desk, a lipstick smudge on the rim, remnants of stale Cremoraed coffee festering in its depths. The vein in Lieberman’s temple was about to erupt. Pointing to the cup, he said, “I found that in the editing room.”
I didn’t know exactly what he was getting at so I said, “Uh-huh.”
“Don’t you ‘uh-huh’ me, Winters! I’ve got your number!”
I’d seen him go off before, but never like this. The man was unhinged.
“Do you think this office is your fucking trash can? Huh? Huh? HUH!” He stood there, mustache twitching.
His reaction seemed so totally out of proportion to the crime that I thought he might be pulling a Candid Camera on me or something. I didn’t want to seem foolish, so I cracked a smile.
Bad move. Before I knew it, his face was in mine. He said, “You better wipe that smile off your face and give me some goddamn answers here or I swear . . .”
The spit was flying. I’d stopped smiling. Indeed, I was so flustered, I had no answers for anything. A leathery lump gathered in my throat, and I must have looked like I was having a hard time swallowing, because Lieberman’s face slackened somewhat. An indicator, he must have thought. Proof. It didn’t take long to work myself up into a full-blown crying jag. Now that I think of it, that’s probably why bullies get such a kick out of me. Maximum tear return.
When I was finally able to speak, I denied any knowledge of said cup and astutely pointed out that I didn’t wear lipstick. Besides which, I managed to add, I wasn’t a slob. I’m extremely anal when it comes to stuff like that. It didn’t matter though. Lieberman had already made up his mind. In fact, it occurred to me on more than one occasion that he’d made up the entire scenario just so he’d have an excuse to fire me.
After that, I went into panic mode. December in New York City is no time to be without a job. You can get pretty suicidal walking around amidst the glittery white lights on Madison Avenue when you don’t have a dime to your name.
Through a help wanted ad in the Times, I got a part-time gig. Unlike the Salvation Army Santas, ringing their bells and jingling their change cups outside Bloomingdale’s, I was stationed, wearing four-inch stilettos and an enormous rare mink, on the sidewalk outside the Trump Plaza. Perched beside me was a huge cardboard sign that said, “Prestige Furs.” If you consider loitering in the freezing cold for hours with your toes jammed into unnatural positions easy, aside from getting generally harassed and spit on a couple of times, you might say it was pretty easy money.
That’s approximately where I was at seven months after receiving my diploma, when the Winters clan headed out to the Buckeye Lodge in Alta, for our annual Christmas holiday. To my parents’ consternation, I wound up staying. The idea was, take a couple of months off from the New York rat race to mull the future over while waiting tables and brushing up on my ski technique. Sounds legit enough, no?
The Buckeye was a regular Peyton Place. The vodka flowed like wine, the 3.2 beer tasted like water . . . The scent of burning cannabis was so prevalent the management might as well have been pumping it in through the vents. As for the “snow,” let’s just say we were living on a dirt road at the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon, but it felt like Bright Lights, Big City to us. It was the perfect spot to be a delinquent if that was what you were into. And let me just say, I was.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Mountain Betty by Hannah McCouch. Copyright © 2005 by Hannah McCouch. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.