Thick sheets of ice spread across grass and over cliffs; jagged fingers reaching down and shining in the sun’s delight. Beads of water slid down these frozen digits and onto the road creating a small pool of freezing water. Light twists and turns around the mountains brought us further into their reach and soon we were far beyond the tall buildings and instead of gazing in awe at manmade sights we were surrounded by something that didn’t come from our minds, which never desired our aid in existing.
Once we passed Greenwood Lake and the incline became sharper the wind became aggressive. My green SUV swerved slightly and rocked around twists and turns that wound up Mount Peter and though we spoke, I was secretly praying that my car wouldn’t sputter out somewhere on this narrow, desolate road. The wind would grow larger and overcame the sounds from the radio. With some pushes of force it seemed as though the wind was trying to knock us off the cliff we were driving on. With others it seemed as though it wanted to slam us into the rocks so close to my door.
The lookout is directly after a turn; fairly simple to navigate in the fall season but mounds of snow altered the terrain and the right turn came unexpectedly, my tires kicking mounds of white everywhere. The car spun around the turn and continued its erratic dance while I tried to control it by pumping the brake pedal. Any sounds that my tires should have made in the moment were lost in the thick of snow before they could come up and shout their distress into the winter’s air. Without the loud sounds the sudden turn seemed graceful, almost deliberate. Gina offered a worried look my way in place of any unsatisfied comments regarding my driving. Finally it ended and the small snow storm I created tapered off and lay on the ground as though it had never been touched. Though not at the lookout point yet, the view in front of us was already spectacular. A small wooden fence separated us from a sloped field of glistening snow glazed with ice until it was broken by a descending horizon of bare oak and maple trees with some scattered green brush visible through the white shield. Our destination was 5 minutes from the parked car but it seemed as though we were the first of the season to make the trek up here. During Apple Fest or any other more populated seasons people would park near this fence and buy ice cream from a local vendor, watching the sun set behind the mountains of the Wawayanda state park. A small road snuggled close to a row of trees opposite the wood fence. Travelers who followed this path would eventually come to an end of pavement and come into contact with a set of stone steps that led to various trails veining through the forest and across highways and around lakes. These trails led to various views from Mt. Peter at all angles, dazzling with pictures of landscape and towns that dotted the greater Sterling forest area. The wind held a grip on everything up there and knocked on my window, forcing the car to slightly lean away from and towards the wooden fence and shining hill just beyond it.
She stepped deliberate, carefully in the snow; her arms bent and steadying herself with a concentrated look on her face. I leaped with each step, making holes in the fresh powder and coming up with heaps on my boots. Every few steps I looked back and watched her carefully etch her own path with her face down inside the hood of her coat. When the wind picked up I felt a chill so deepening it hurt; Gina would stop and hold her hood down bracing for the battering. The leafless trees to our left were inviting and even without any greenery seemed warm. The path was somewhere around here, but I think I went a touch too far ahead. The wind pressed into us, stinging my ears with each colossal roar. I turned back and could tell that this wasn’t enjoyable for her. She was many steps behind and still careful not to fall, focused on each step. The inches of snow were already settling into my boots and dampening my socks. My feet wiggled to gain some warmth for themselves. The quiet between assaults from the wind was stunning, the small incline we had been climbing proved more difficult than we had planned. Nobody before us.
The “path” was a sheet of ice: solid and pristine. I shouted from ahead that I couldn’t find the few steps that led to the path. She suggested with assertion that we go back to the car, it was too dangerous to be up there. I leapt back past her and down the hill as a sign of agreement. This time I had caught myself a few times on some ice. I didn’t fall, but the rush from my core to my head and genitals was felt each time. It was a burst of excitement for me: every forward leap. After each slip I imagined falling and the thrill that came with it. I turned back and watched Gina continue to take her deliberate steps down. She seemed cold. I was too, certainly. I was disappointed that we couldn’t find the steps and my concentrated thought of the view presented itself on my face. Gina seemed a bit confused; maybe she wanted to know what was so special up there to me. I could have told her the memories or the view, each being an important aspect for me, but not the most truthful. I wanted to go up there because of how difficult it seemed to be. I knew what the outcome was: an absolutely mesmerizing view from Mount Peter to beyond: in autumn it gives a radiance of reds and orange and yellows under a burst from the dipping sun. It catches you quickly and silently offers its winds and change. It’s so beautiful that it overcomes some thoughts much later, weeks and months since being there. One memory snapshot continuously calling back to you like a memory of a childhood friend; a nurturing quality that calms me, a place to go in my mind when the realities of my world can no longer be tolerated. To me, that’s what was up there. I had gotten there in autumn with minimal difficulty but never in the winter. I saw Gina’s struggle up that incline and knew that I couldn’t ask her to go steeper into the forest’s enclosure. Her stake in this was my personal mission. She admired the view as well and recalled our first time there as the most romantic day of her life but her thrill for the adventure of getting there, of earning that view, was not as great as mine. It required proper arrangement to her, to be dressed in a way that better prepared a person for the obstacles ahead. I did not; my boots and leather jacket were fine enough for the climb.
We spent the rest of the day downhill in one of the small villages that dotted the forest. Life was quiet in Warwick and walking down the middle of the street reminded me slightly of the many trails sneaking around the Sterling. During dinner Gina commented on the simple profundity found there and likened it to a movie. The wind was quiet as we exited the restaurant, the temperature had dropped, the air became crisper, and I became more aware of my own breath: the sharp air simultaneously stinging and clearing out my nostrils and lungs of all impurities, showcasing itself before my eyes as small clouds of pale smoke that burst in the night air. The drive back through the forest was calming; a blanket of darkness draped over all but the moon and my headlights. I looked up to the trees where the lookout was and could feel Gina doing the same. My mind imagined what the view looked like now in the still night air or in the boldly bright winter days. I longed for the intimacy of seeing through the leafless branches and observing life pass on its own terms. I thought of our footprints stopping just before the steps and the trail we would have had to make ourselves. Gina reached over, took my hand in hers, and together we thought our memories of the day and beyond while my car pushed on allowing us to admire the onyx cape of night, the pale moon light, and the stars that sprinkled the sky like bright snowflakes frozen in time.
I stood stiff while the escalator brought me closer to my reality. My eyes were fixed on the darkness around the store, looking for him. These critical moments defined the rest of my day; if Max were sitting at the vendor’s table in front of the store then I wouldn’t find much to talk about from 8:30 to 5 pm. Since giving the notice that I quit, the slow incline of the humming metal steps had become an entirely different experience. I used to walk up with the moving steps, the two of us working together with a common goal that sometimes gave me a feeling like I was floating up that machine. We would ascend from the darkness of the basement entrance and onto the marbled steps of the first floor; that weightless feeling would push with me until I had to readjust to my own singular movement with my first few steps alone.
My eyes shifted from the obstructed view of the store and table back down into the darkness pooling just below me. I thought of my initial walk into the mall that morning, how the darkness didn’t seem as dark while I was in the thick of it. Even this small distance away offered such a different representation. I was just in its midst moments ago but it looked untouched: a wall of night peacefully contained in the corridor until limbs from the morning sun leaked through the glass doors and covered it with light. Only employees of the mall get the opportunity to witness this view but are usually too focused on their own punctuality to understand the peace eternally embedded in that darkness.
As the slow ascent continued and my eyes turned back to where the table and chair would eventually rise from the banistered horizon I thought the first moments of Max and I’s possible interaction. We would exchange morning greetings and remain as silent as the basement’s still night air while I unlatched the doors and opened them outward. He would enter first to punch in a security code making loud mechanical noises that punctured the air and briskly walk into the back. I imagined his walking pace being so quick that he cut the air into shards that curved around his body and into me, piercing with each rough blast of cold until he was in his office and I vanished into the back room for the rest of the morning.
Max and I rarely spoke to each other since I had given my notice, unfortunate comments he had made were a primary reason. Each interaction with the other throughout the day was much the same as our new morning ritual; awkwardness embedded into the very air we shared, a silence so separated from that of Mt. Peter: the place I ran to in my mind during these uncomfortable encounters. Sometimes the back door would open and though I typically worked with my back to it I could feel my muscles tense up and would become guarded by the world I wasn’t quite sure existed yet. My thoughts would immediately shift from blinding plains of white to a conscious awareness of the silence pervading the air. My breathing would become thin and short. The impurities that huffed out of me like tiny storm clouds just yesterday in Warwick were forcing their way back inside at this moment. Eventually he would pass behind me to find a different size for a client, brushing the cold conditioned air mixed with his fragrance off to his sides and into my direction. He would pass again and that same sharp breeze from the air he controlled would brush against my skin and sit with me until the door closed shut behind him, leaving me with my own memories of yesterdays while inhaling his uncomfortable air.
The escalator had carried me most of the way to the top when I realized I was holding my breath. My eyes focused on where the store would appear and when I was elevated enough to notice the empty chair I exhaled softly. I quickly leapt off the escalator and onto the metal landing, filling the lightless hallways with my noise. I could see the shadowy outline of a person standing still in front of the glass doors. Their back to me, they seemed to be intently staring into the store. My shoes refused to keep my presence a secret and as I continued toward the shadow ingrained in the doors she turned around in acknowledgement of my noisy footwear.
“Hellaayy” Ardith said; her greetings were always amusing to me but somehow seemed to lack some of the joyfulness they were meant to carry with them.
“Gooood morning” I replied with equal feigned joy. “What are you looking at?”
“Oh, heh, nothing! I’m so hot in this stupid suit and I could feel the air conditioning coming from inside … so I stood between the doors to let the breeze hit my face!”
“Are you serious? It’s cold outside!” I hadn’t realized until that moment that I was still gripping the inside of one pocket, the other half-warm from holding a cup of coffee.
“Oh I just run hot. I don’t even own a winter coat! I figure I’m inside so often that having one would be a waste of money!”
I remained silent while I fumbled for the store’s keys inside my coat, feeling only my own. I ran my left hand into a higher pocket but came up empty. Since my notice, my desire to no longer work there was my primary thought and showing up on time became very difficult. Ardith looked at me with a setting smile as I continued to frisk myself in front of the store. I sat my coffee down on a nearby table and searched with both hands, mumbling “please let them be at home. Just let me go back home.” Only once had I forgotten them at my apartment but the feeling of freedom after pushing the mall doors open and exiting was destroyed 15 minutes later when I was pulling them open to re-enter the mall, this time with keys in hand and no other escape plan.
Eventually I found them and bent down to unlock the door catching a chill from the crack between the slabs of glass. I opened them outward and was welcomed with a cold wind that immediately reminded me of Gina buried in her hood; refreshing in August but completely artificial in December. With that kind of force of cold air I expected a similar roar. Any validation that it was alive and forceful but it just blew past me soundless. This was not the same cold air on top of Mount Peter. This wasn’t even related to it. Our small talk continued into the store and the backroom, filling the scarf, bag, and dead cold occupied space with our voices.
Before flipping the switch and drenching the store with light it seemed so empty. The lights were positioned to lend extravagance to the items on display. The theme for the December holiday season had no particular meaning, just golden balloons made of hard plastic hanging throughout the store and squares of shimmering gold sprinkled on the floor of display windows. The light made things in the store come to life with a manufactured golden glow; an alluring brightness dissected by a table of pale people in suits to attract the most customers into the store. The scene was pleasant with the lights on but the store seemed to prefer itself in the dark. Without the lights it could exist without any form of human interaction. With them on, things needed to be rearranged to lend grandiosity and importance to the items in the light’s field. On occasion I would be carried by the escalator to see the lights in the store had not been turned off the previous night. The power in the mall was not on at these times when I got in to work and an artificial golden glow would emit from our store onto walls across the hall casting a shadowy interpretation of the product and store itself. There weren’t many ways in which the store didn’t give me a sense of uneasiness, save when the lights in the mall and our store were on together. The switch made a loud and deep CHUK sound when pushed upward and a low hum rose from its metal base filling the surrounding air until it was turned off later in the night. As soon as we entered the store any sense of quiet maintained within was destroyed. The lack of light, of beauty, the abundance of stagnating cold, and our bodies made it feel more like a tomb than a luxury retailer.
Change had occurred. Since our last trip just two days ago some amount of people had made their way up the inclined road in a car. The tracks from the tires created two lanes of depressed snow, a much easier path to tread than the deep freeze Gina and I had trekked through two days ago. Each track was a mixture of white and brown, the spring ground visible before its time. Today the wind was mild and as I walked alone to the side of the two easier paths, crunching white under each brown boot, I noticed the tire’s marks failed to hide our own from our first attempt towards the steps. I stopped and investigated the prints, making sure they were ours. With my hands on my knees I focused my attention on each past step: small and larger indications of existence in a slight zigzag pattern up the depth of white. I was surprised to find them still there; not because of the dirt raising tire tracks but because I was positive that in those two days since our trail making something profound had happened on that mountain. Something that hid all evidence of our presence up on Mt. Peter: an energy that kept our secret. A part of me didn’t want to see those footprints, didn’t want Gina and my own marks to be a part of the same scene as those tires. Some of the magic of what I was doing was lost in that moment but I pushed slightly off my knees and continued up the path; the tire’s marks separating me from the forest’s dawn.
The steps were visible but still covered with some snow. I carefully jumped over each tire track but continuing toward them was filled with an excitement that overcame any sense of coordination I had gained in the powder. I slipped and extended my arm to the side, hoping to minimize some of my impact on the ground. I fell and landed with silence, laying in the snow for a few moments before picking myself up and dusting the dampness from my jacket and pants. The wind today was as silent as my fall but the air around me was 24 degrees and a sting ran up and down my left hand’s fingers, turning each a deep red filled with a painful numbness. The numbing pain intensifying, I clenched a fist then spread my hand wide furiously trying to shake away some of the intensity. I rubbed each digit with my right hand and considered going back to the car, its warmth. I had made it only steps beyond our two day old prints before contemplating trekking back in defeat. Unlike days before I had a sight that guided me toward them; the people who had come between our visits and found the steps allowed me to continue my own small adventure and I pushed up each stone step, forgetting the pain and feeling a soft smile graze my chilled face.
Only a tiny portion of the path was etched out from the shine of white. Bare trees and brush lived copiously on either side of the small dirt divider I balanced myself on. Whoever had come before me wasn’t alone; dog prints sprinkled the ground and veered off in ways no human could: into thicket and up rocks and around trees. By following its tracks I could see this dog in a state of elation and curiosity, unaware of the cold or numbness of its paws so deep in the winter around us. I left the small dirt trail and followed the dog’s past until it led me to the wooden steps of the lookout. My smile had grown while following the prints I most trusted, the numbness from my hand had gone away entirely, and I felt warmth so immense I had to exhale and witness my own breath to make sure it was still cold.
On previous trips there was a lock-box fastened to the side of one of the wooden rails that contained sheets of paper detailing the aerial life viewed by boy scouts from all over the area. The box had been removed for winter but Gina’s and my own previous glances at them recalled memories and their details. Each bird described in simple language, innocence and wonderment wrapped snugly around each word: “I saw a big white and black spotted hawk fly across the sky. I think it was a mommy bird because it went to a nest in a tree and stayed with its babies”. I recalled another description of a hunt, “…then the bird dove to the ground really fast and came up with a animal in its mouth. It dropped it for a second but then it got it again and then it flew away. It was really cool looking!” Though I was a season early for their flights, I imagined catching a glimpse of the Goshawk the scouts had watched gliding over the mountains: a large black and grey shadow that drifted in a backdrop of pearl white. Without noticing its beak it resembled a piece of black fabric floating aimlessly in the sky above Mount Peter, Warwick, and everything; at times forming a vertical line, at others horizontal. When it flew straight, its white belly would allow it to momentarily disappear into its pearl sky. Each intense flap of its far reaching wings a nod to its own existence from a view that never caught nor cared about me staring in wonderment. Eventually the hawk would fly off in a direction without a sound and far away from my sight. I hadn’t seen a goshawk that day, or ever, but the simple words of the boy scouts allowed me to think their sights and feelings. I stood on the wooden platform staring into the empty sky for a moment. I wondered what the dog felt about this view.
Though the sky before me did not contain any wildlife I could see far beyond Mount Peter and onto other peaks. From directly below, a fireplace blew billows of smoke up the side of the mountain until it mixed with the winter’s wind and scattered across the sky. Patches of trees with their limbs outstretched to gods dotted plains of white. There was a lone peak in the middle of my view; half covered in snow and half in trees. It was split evenly down the center and beyond it still another peak was sprinkled with snow and trees perfectly, each complimenting the other with its presence, stretching into eternity. Snow sprawled across everything matching the whiteness in the sky. Each reflected the other to create a pearl before me: comforting and silent. Other than the dancing smoke from below no life seemed visible in the density of leafless trees; I was the only human on that peak. The silence was perhaps the most breath-taking part. While driving there I thought of how I would react if I made it up to the lookout site. The first thought was to yell my existence into the trees around, below, and out to the mountains beyond. I thought of whispering a sentence or two to the wind that could be kept with me in my thoughts. When I was there though, I felt part of something bigger, something beyond my own voice and words. The magic lost from the tire tracks was bestowed to me by the previous travelers, the dog, boy scouts, my goshawk, and this encapsulating view. I stared while up there, warm in the 24 degrees provided for everything around me. If everything around me could manage to be silent, I could too. My smile became the midday sun. I took a deep breath in, conscious of each individual piece of air filling my nostrils and flowing deep throughout my body. The view was sprawling, beautiful, and involved everything including me.
“So what’s the plan after this?”
“Not much, actually” I chuckled, “Gina and I’ll probably go up to Warwick for a few days but not much else. I need a break from jobs.”
The word sounded diseased. It formed in my mouth as a thick mass and seeped out into the air. It hung in front of my eyes and I could see it, touch it. The word mutated in front of me becoming Max, then the balloons, the air, the chill: the uncomfort. ‘Jobs’ became more than a word hanging in that air; it became my experience and memories within its world. My problem with the word and its world was my own; I wasn’t sure how Ardith would react to it. From stories she had told me, she was a hard worker who enjoyed the benefits she received from her jobs. Her experience with the word was far removed from mine and as it drifted toward her ears I grew tense, nervous of her reaction to my inflection. In that moment I wished the word were the goshawk and it would soar above all of this, finally disappearing into the miles of woods around it. I felt as though my presentation of the word had somehow included a deep secret about myself. I envisioned it as one of the impurities exhaled into the night Warwick sky, bursting before me before anybody could hear it. The word pushed into her ears with the aid of the conditioned air and I sat nervously waiting for her reaction. A small smile slowly grew on her face. “You’re a rock star.” She looked at me with a mixture of happiness and jealousy.
Her reaction immediately put me at ease, the word was removed from my mouth, and the air in the back room suddenly seemed forgiving. The cold callousness it had previously offered me seemed now to be on my side. That air allowed me to see exactly what the word meant to me, kept it pinned to the air so I could dissect it before my meaning was completely lost. The air on Mount Peter was quick to dissolve and as great a feeling as it was to breathe out every distress and watch them disappear into the Sterling, understanding each in this conditioned air was just as important and filled me with the same understanding as the sky of Warwick. Ardith and I sat in the back room together with the hum from the electrical box while the minutes chipped away at my final hour. I thought of earlier and how I secretly wished my keys away hoping for any escape. Now that the clock showed 34 minutes left of my employment, a rush of fulfillment came over me and I spread my body out in the chair spilling over the arm bars and laying obtusely off the bottom cushion.
“I’m gonna miss the heck outta you” She said, shaking her head and smiling in my direction.
“I’m going to miss you too! And most everybody else!” We laughed a bit and sat back in our silence.
When the door opened and Max cautiously entered with his air the silence immediately changed. He had come in with the mid-day rotation for the late shift. My relaxation turned to anxiety and my body pressed into itself, re-aligning to the proper way of chair sitting: legs folded under the chair’s edge with my forearms firmly planted on the arm bars. I spun a half circle and went back to work on the computer, forearms heavy on the desk while my fingers rapidly typed nothing: silent and stiff. I could feel the familiar blades of air as he passed; the smell of the company’s fragrance on him: the sudden storm that flung itself into me with each pass. The windy assault stopped short and I could feel him behind me. My breathing became short. I focused on my typing. His air became everything around me.
A hand presented itself out of the corner of my left eye and when I turned I could see the calloused palm cutting through his air and into mine; his thumb a sail navigating through the bitterness and into my sight. My right forearm rose from the desk, its grip a line that indented my skin and our hands met and shook for a short time. We separated and he continued on to find a coat for a client. There were no words exchanged, just a silence we were both comfortable sharing. I didn’t notice him walk past me again and out the door; the conditioned air steady and close to his body instead of attacking from all directions.
At 5 I immediately reached for my jacket and keys. It was a habit I looked forward to each day at the job; even now, even the last. I didn’t really have any specific plan to go to Warwick with Gina or by myself. I had no plan in general for the many tomorrows I would face without a job. I felt that if I went up there, I’d be disturbing something I had no reason to be a part of now. The previous trips up wouldn’t be the last time I would look at that view and breath that air but my presence on that peak wasn’t meant to be reoccurring. The Sterling, Warwick, and goshawks deserved to live without my air interfering with theirs for a while.
The conditioned air carried me out of the backroom and into the bright gold light bouncing off plastic balloons. I walked through the store towards the glass doors saying goodbye to each I passed. Some shook my hand while continuing to work with customers; others embraced and made me promise not to forget them. I promised I wouldn’t. Outside of the store the breeze carrying me disappeared into the deep hallway. I walked to the escalator and let the metal steps carry me back down into the darkness I was lifted from so many mornings before. That night somebody in the store would flip the light switch down: the hum would descend back into its electrical box and the store would immediately return to its natural dark state. Everybody would leave through the glass slabs and lock up behind them. The store would finally breathe its own breath and bathe in its own darkness. Nobody there to disturb its air. No one there at all.