Days before, a wildfire to the east turned the sliver of moon hazy blood-orange. Now the mountains were being blanketed with first snow. It was falling fast, and Maxine’s wool coat was covered in white when she reached the front porch of the house. Howard was glad he had shoveled the walk while he waited for her to come home from work. She did cuts and blowouts a few days a week at a salon in town, and updos for weddings, formals, the firemen’s ball. She took off her coat and shook it out before coming inside. When she opened the screen door, the old Border collie, as if by imitation, shook from nose to tail and followed her through. Howard stood up from where he had been crouched, making a fire in their wood stove.
“Hi, buddy. Cold out?” he asked.
“I can’t believe it’s snowing. Barely October. We should get the hot tub going in not too long,” she called from the pantry, where she was scooping kibble into a ceramic bowl for the dog.
They lived in an A-frame with a high porch that stretched across the length of the house. The hot tub sat underneath. It looked like a big cedar barrel. He had built it for her the winter before. Together they’d shoveled snow for extra cash on their days off, and her back used to kill her at the end of the day.
Howard went downstairs and out the basement door to take a look at the hot tub. He’d put off getting it ready because the weather had been warm, but this snowfall marked the beginning of the long winter. He took off the cover and leaned over to shine his flashlight inside. Small animals sometimes found a way in and drowned, but he didn’t see anything in the half-frozen water.
In the kitchen, Maxine fried trout with butter in a heavy iron skillet. They ate and sat together in the living room, which had a high vaulted ceiling and broad windows that looked out on the dark woods. Maxine sat down on the threadbare couch and lifted her feet onto the coffee table in front of it while Howard cleaned up their dishes. She was wearing long underwear and thick rag socks. Amos had his head on her lap. As Howard filled his thermos with hot coffee, he watched Maxine and the dog from the kitchen. She wasn’t reading or watching the TV. They were staring at each other as if some wordless thing were being communicated.
“Bye, buddy,” he said.
“See you in the morning.”
Maxine watched through the window over the kitchen sink. He waved to her as he got into his truck. At this time of year, the woods were totally dark when Howard left the house for work at eight o’clock. The driveway was long and steep and wound through the pines a quarter mile until it reached the mountain-pass road. The hotel where he worked as a night auditor was built near the top of the pass, high above the lights of town. There was more snow there, and the wind was blowing hard and fast. The hotel was modern and built low. From a distance, it looked almost like it had been built right into the mountainside, and in the summer grass grew on the roof. His cheeks stung and his eyes watered as he walked from the staff parking lot. He pulled the collar of his canvas work jacket up around his face. He hadn’t brought a hat, and his thinning hair was wet and stuck to his head. He went first to his locker downstairs and dressed for work. A white shirt and a black vest with a bolo tie and black cowboy hat. He felt silly. Like he was playing dress-up.
It was Howard’s job to sit at the front desk through the night, welcoming guests whose planes had arrived late and helping anyone who called. The cheapest rooms in the hotel were $750 a night, and the guests didn’t hesitate to ask for anything they wanted.
“Front desk, this is Howard. How may I help you?”
“Yes, this is the Suttons in room 43. Please send someone quickly.”
“I’ll be right down, Mrs. Sutton. What seems to be the matter tonight?”
She hung up without answering. Howard rushed down the hall to their room and knocked. A young woman wearing horn-rimmed glasses answered the door. Her cheeks looked flushed, and she took Howard by the hand.
“Please, there’s an animal.”
A heavy-set man with neat blonde hair and madras pajama bottoms stood on a chair in a corner of the room. He was gripping a tennis racket and craning his neck to look behind a set of thick window curtains.
“I . . . I don’t know what it is,” he said. “It’s not a bird, I’m almost sure of it. But I just don’t know . . . ”
“Tell him, baby, about how active it was a minute ago. It was very active. And very big.”
“Laurel, relax. We have this under control.”
The chair rocked slightly, but he managed to brace himself by leaning his shoulder against the wall. Howard took a look behind the curtain and saw a gray and white hawkmoth clinging to the red fabric. Howard thought it was late in the fall for the insect to still be flying.
“It’s a moth. Let’s turn off the lights,” Howard said.
“What? Why?” The woman said.
“When I say go, you shake the curtain, Mr. Sutton. I’ll turn on the bedside lamp, and we’ll see if she rests there.”
Howard switched off the overhead lights and stumbled in the dark to the bedside table. He found the switch and signaled for the man to shake the curtain. He clicked on the light, and in a moment it was clear that there was movement in the air inside the room. Just as he’d expected, the moth came to rest on the inside of the rawhide lampshade. With a wingspan of at least five inches across, her silhouette was dark against the soft glow of the lamp. Howard gestured for the man to open the sliding-glass door. He cupped the moth gingerly and let her go out into the cold. He stood for a moment, looking out into the night. The moth disappeared. Snow was still falling hard, and Howard imagined her soft wings, beating frantically against the strong wind. The man switched on the main lights.
“Sorry you had to come down for a ridiculous moth, Howard.” The man squinted and leaned in as he read the nametag. He tucked a twenty into his hand.
“Well, Peter, it was very active. We didn’t know what the hell to do,” the woman said.
“Thanks, again, Howie.” The man looked embarrassed as he opened the door.
Howard went back and sat at the front desk. At midnight the last bellman on duty came in the front door. Howard could smell the cold flood in behind him.
“Howie, my shift is over, and the Burkes’ plane is still grounded in Salt Lake. I’ve been waiting two hours at the airport. You mind picking them up when it gets here? It won’t be for a few hours.”
“I don’t mind,” said Howard. Although he didn’t care for picking up guests, it was something he occasionally had to do.
“Thanks, man. I’m still fucking hung-over from last night. I got lit up with Maria, that smoking hot new masseuse who works in the spa. Her dad was a music producer in L.A. I think he worked with Jethro Tull, or some shit like that. She’s loaded, I think.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, for real.” He paused a moment, and Howard didn’t say anything.
“I didn’t hit it, if that’s what you’re wondering.” He hadn’t been wondering.
The bellmen were mostly in their early 20s. They stayed for the ski season and left in the spring. Howard would sometimes go to their keg parties. He would feel old and awkward, and he almost always ended up drinking too much. Once he went outside for a pee and slipped and fell. He broke his front tooth on a step and then just went home because he couldn’t bring himself to go back inside the party.
“Go home and get some sleep,” Howard said to the bellman.
“Thanks, man. See you tomorrow.”
Howard sat at the front desk and waited for the airport to call and let him know when the flight would arrive. He thought about Maxine at home in bed. He had put an end to Amos sleeping with them years before. When he started dating Maxine, the dog slept right under the covers with her, but now he only snuck in once Howard left for work.
He played solitaire on the computer and looked at snowmobiles on eBay. He sent an e-mail to a friend in Nevada, but it was returned. At two o’clock in the morning, the airport called to say that the flight would be landing within the hour. Howard put on his coat and went down to the garage. He started the huge Lexus SUV they used. The car made him feel smallish, and he moved the seat forward and lowered the wheel. The snow had stopped falling, and the snowplows and salt trucks had already cleared the pass, so the drive would not be difficult. Howard worried about the snow in his driveway and thought he would call his neighbor to come plow them out so Maxine could get to work. He used to have his own plow, but one winter he got a DUI and decided to sell it to Maxine’s brother.
There were no cars on the road, and in 20 minutes he pulled into the nearly empty airport parking lot. He parked the car. Sleepy passengers were filing out of the automatic doors. He held up a sign that read “Burke,” and a couple who looked like they were in their 60s flagged him down.
“Please help me with this,” the woman said before anything else. Howard rushed over and tipped her rolling bag on its wheels. She wore a long fur, and her husband was dressed in a sport jacket and a leather cowboy hat.
“How are you tonight, Mr. Burke?”
The man climbed in the front seat, and his wife sat in the back with a travel pillow wrapped around her neck. Howard offered them bottled water and cashews, but they seemed to want nothing but to close their eyes. After several minutes of driving in silence, the woman said from the back seat, “I’m glad you told me now, before I have to see her at yoga next Thursday.”
Howard was startled. He had thought she was asleep. The man didn’t respond or even move. The radio was tuned to a station playing Al Green. Keeping you in love with me baby, laying all my troubles down. Howard fumbled to change the song and realized that his gesture had made the moment even more unbearable.
“Are you a hunter, Howard?” the man said finally, ignoring his wife’s comment.
“I’m not, sir. Are you here for elk season?”
“Well, I have damn meetings all week, but I hope to get out. I’ve hired a guide for Thursday and Friday. I didn’t expect this snow. I’ll have to buy some gear for the damn weather.”
“I fish some,” Howard said. “My girlfriend’s brothers work for hunting camps in Idaho. They’ve been trying to get me to come for eight years now. I just don’t care for it, really. My girl, Maxine, she wishes I’d go out and get an elk because we’d save on groceries.”
The man made a soft noise in his throat and nodded.
When they arrived at the hotel, Howard carried the luggage to their room and wished them a nice stay, hoping he wouldn’t see them again. On his way down the hall, the woman came out and stopped him.
“Wait, wait. Silly me.”
She was holding a quilted leather pocketbook and fingering through a number of bills.
“Do you have change for a twenty?” She asked him.
“Sorry, I don’t.”
“Well, I’ll drop something by the desk for you tomorrow, then. What was your name again, son?”
Howard sat back down at the front desk and tried to forget about the couple. They reminded him of a pair of entwined elk skulls he’d once seen in a roadside curiosity stop. The elegant bleach-white tines wrapped together in a hopeless tangle. How long could the survivor, burdened with that sickening weight, be able to last? He struggled against the thought of it.
During the early morning hours, Howard was rarely called on. He took out a little spiral-bound notebook where he wrote reminders for himself. While he was flipping through to find an empty place to write down his new October schedule, he noticed a rough drawing of an animal in the corner of one of the pages. He first passed by it, but then paged back. He hadn’t remembered doodling a picture like that. When he looked closer, he noticed that it was a reindeer with a bulbous nose. Rudolph, he decided. He often left the book out on the kitchen counter. He pictured Maxine sketching in it absently while talking on the phone. Underneath the picture was written, in Maxine’s flowery cursive letters, Season’s greetings and a happy New Year! With love, Howard, Maxine, Stephanie, and Luke. Who were Stephanie and Luke? Where was Amos? There were others. Wishing you peace, love, and many blessings in the new year! With all of our love, Howard, Maxine, Andy, and Liza. Joy to the World! Wishing you all the best for a peaceful and happy holiday. Love, Maxine, Howard, Joshua, and Charlie. He laughed out loud at the thought of Maxine, a 36-year-old woman, writing fake Christmas card greetings and with the names of phantom children. He was thinking he didn’t care much for the name Luke when he flushed with shame. He and Maxine had at one time talked frequently about children, but it had been a long while since she’d brought up the subject.
There was a bar open to the lobby and front-desk area of the hotel. Howard often snuck a drink when he was alone at night. The general manager didn’t arrive until a few hours after Howard’s shift was over. He was a prick. The only time he ever saw his boss was when he came in for dinner with his wife and daughters. They were all blonde, and his wife once grabbed Howard’s crotch at a going-away party for a bellman who was being deported.
Howard caught his reflection in the mirror behind the rows of bottles. He never thought much about the way he looked. He pushed up the brim of his hat and walked right up so he could peer between two bottles of mescal. Crow’s feet and wind-burned skin. He reached for the Jim Beam, poured some in a rocks glass and drank. He put back the Jim Beam and this time reached for a bottle on the top shelf. It was a 21-year-old single-malt with a stopper shaped like a top hat. Howard poured about an inch into his glass and drank. It was smoky and complex. He finished the glass, poured another, and sat down on one of the high barstools. One of the older waiters kept some Amsterdam Shag tobacco under the bar. He found it and started to roll a cigarette when he began to worry that someone would notice the liquor was gone. It had to be a $200 bottle of booze. He replenished it with Wild Turkey and put both bottles back on the shelf.
Howard sat down again and took his hat off. He lit his cigarette and looked up at the painting above the bar. A silly-looking cougar, crouched on a limb, snarled into nothing. He rested his arms on the bar, put his head down, and drifted off.
“Howard, are you all right?”
Dazed, Howard sat upright and wiped his bottom lip. Raul, one of the line cooks, had a hand on his shoulder.
“You’re sleeping, man.”
“Hey, what are you doing here?” Howard slurred a little.
“It’s 4:30, Howie, time to start breakfast. You should go home.”
Raul didn’t say anything about the drink sitting on the bar. He shook his head and went downstairs to the kitchen. Howard went to the locker room to get changed. He took off the hat and bolo tie and put on his sweatshirt and jeans, then made his way to the staff parking lot. He started his red Sonoma and brushed the inch of snow off the windows. He took a handful, squished it into the shape of the inside of his clenched fist and put it in his mouth. It was still dark, and a few cooks and housekeepers were arriving for work.
Howard climbed in his truck and looked at the hotel. It was expensive to sleep there, but he wondered how one darkened room was different from another. He wanted to be home. Sometimes he imagined that a plague had swept through and left him the only person alive. The yellow leaves of the aspens, heavy with snow, still clung to the branches. In the dark, he saw the eyes of an animal on the side of the road, and he slowed way down. He peered into the deep woods and saw movement in some low brush, but he couldn’t see the animal. A coyote or a fox.
When he got to his driveway, he realized that he had forgotten to call his neighbor to ask if he’d plow them out. He would have to drive Maxine to work at nine; her car didn’t handle well in the snow. The driveway was steep and narrow, and Howard had to use some force to power through the snow cover. Snow had blown up and collected in a thin layer on the front headlights, and Howard squinted in the darkness to see the open swath in the trees. Out of the corner of his eye he saw some movement, and then the car crashed into something as big as another car and as solid as a granite wall. The windshield shattered in an instant, and the seatbelt burned the side of his neck. The airbag had hit him hard, and he sat for a dizzy moment before he fought with it to climb out of the car. Outside, the cold air burned in his chest as he tried to catch his breath.
The front of the truck was a mess. Howard looked around for whatever he hit. An elk or, more likely, a moose. There was blood on the destroyed front grill. The animal would probably not make it far. The snow had started again, and the quiet woods were filling with the blue light of morning. Howard heard the labored movement of something large through the trees off to his left. He listened for a few moments, and then the noises stopped. He could see now the dark blood on the snow, and he followed it a little way through the trees. In a clearing 60 feet in front of him was a bull moose, lying still in the snow. The body was so immense that it could have easily been mistaken for a contour of the landscape.
Howard moved slowly toward the moose. He already knew it was dead. He kneeled by the massive head and looked down the length of its enormous side, where a large, pulpy wound was spilling blood onto the bright snow.
Howard had seen this moose before. He and Maxine once tried to grow a shade garden by their house. They planted mint, ferns, and bleeding hearts, and threw handfuls of wildflower seed. Nothing much grew during that brief summer, and the deer made short work of what did. In the fall, they decided to give up and toss sugar beets and birdseed for the animals. This moose had come to eat one very early morning. Howard watched him from the high back window of the house as he moved in graceful, protracted steps around the piney ground. He watched as he moved from the sugar beets to negotiate the branches of a woody plant at the back of the property and thought about how the animal had probably observed him from the woods a dozen times without him ever knowing it. He pictured him catching his human smell on an imperceptible breeze and, without a sound, lifting his head to watch from the woods.
Howard recognized the moose because it had a very black muzzle and heavy blondish fur around his neck. At this time of year he was in rut and perhaps had already found a mate. The rack was enormous, and Howard ran his hands all along the wide palms of each antler, up to where they swept into eight irregular prongs. He laid his head against the moose’s broad forehead. The warm, gamey smell of the animal was overpowering, and his head throbbed. Howard was thinking about calling the game warden when an almost queasy sense of excitement washed over him. He got up and ran toward the shed where he kept his snowmobile and power tools. In the back there was a rusty freezer, left behind by the last people who lived in the house. He cleared out the freezer-burned French-bread pizzas and half-empty liquor bottles in order to make room.
Howard went up to the house and stood outside the bedroom door a moment before he went in.
Amos’s tags jingled as he looked up at Howard, but he still didn’t move.
“Amos, out!” He got up from the bed and skulked past Howard out the door.
Maxine had her back to him and was lying with the afghan way up around her ears. The blinds were closed, and the only light in the room came in through the open door.
“Hi, buddy,” she said without rolling over.
Howard took off his clothes and got into bed beside her. He pulled her hips and pressed himself against the curve of her ass. Her skin felt so hot beneath the thin nightgown.