When I lived in Wyoming, I didn’t have any money, so I struck up a deal with my landlord. I’d seen the old guy out in front of the building every morning during the first weeks of winter, bent over, braving the early morning cold to clear away the night’s snow from the sidewalks and steps of the two story, horseshoe-shaped apartment complex. One clear, cold, dawn after a thin dusting of flakes, I told him I’d take over the job if he’d knock something off the rent. He looked at me like he didn’t understand the language. Again, I asked for the responsibility. Then he looked at me like I was crazy. He asked where I was from.
“Nebraska,” I said.
“Oh, you understand winter,” he clapped me on the back and handed me his broom. “Didn’t think you knew what you was in for.”
I sort of laughed as he spun and hustled away for his pickup. “Just leave the broom in the utility room when you’re done, “ he called over his shoulder, “and be sure to lock it up. I’ll get you a key tomorrow.“
That’s when I noticed my glove was already stuck to the broom handle.
I had a T-shirt back then that read “Wyoming Wind Festival: January 1 – December 31.” People back home smiled and thought I was kidding. That first week on snow detail the wind brushed aside my hood and tugged the stocking cap from my head as often it sucked the breath from my lungs. The shirt failed to mention that for about half the year the wind is well below freezing, and memories of temperate breezes are peeled away by this arctic dry thing that scrapes at the inside of your bones. At five o’ clock in the morning, the constant roar seemed almost sentient.
I was born in Colorado but lived most of my life in Iowa and Nebraska. I’d had snot frozen in my nose and my eyelashes fused shut with crystals of ice. I’d been to New England late in the year and caught the hacking flu. I didn’t know winter could be so cold until that first season in Wyoming. I didn’t know winter could be so dry until my lips split without giving up a single drop of blood.
But, no kidding, I sort of enjoyed it. The gauntlet had been tossed down, and my victory was realized when I paid the rent with a handful of single dollar bills. At first I thought I’d stumbled on to some kind of entrepreneurial secret. I was up at five, and always had the walks and steps gone over the first time by six. As my neighbors trundled from their cozy abodes to crank and scrape on their cars, I was in my groove, puttering about, chatting with folks I knew, maybe helping jump a slow battery or push a car from a drift on the street. By seven thirty I was warming myself with the Laramie Daily Boomerang, and the day’s second pot of coffee, the first thermos-filling pot having fueled the morning’s chore. The old man was so pleased to not have to come out, his eyes gleamed with warmth. My bank account was getting healthy, and I started to wonder if maybe my fellow residents wouldn’t be a bit jealous if they caught wind (pun intended) of my situation.
Then came January, and the snow moved in to stay.
Don’t get me wrong, I was accustomed to some accumulation every couple nights. But when it started to dump every night, when the drifts were measured in feet, not inches, I wasn’t having so much fun. The idea that any of the building’s other residents might covet my job was soon lost and smothered under mounting dry pillows of white.
There was no way I was going to quit.
Not now. Not after everyone knew me and counted on me to get the path to their cars cleared. It wasn’t the money, though I had saved more than I thought I’d earn all winter. It certainly wasn’t compassion for the landlord. (Didn’t he have a son who could drive over and do this?) Of course, it was pride that kept me going. And gallons of coffee.
And one day, the coffee pot broke.
An especially bad day. Wind chills in the minus forties and fifties. Half a foot of snow on the ground and more landing even as I started my routine. The wind shoved everything back into place as fast as I could take it away.
And no coffee.
Around six o’clock I wasn’t even close to half-way. A man on his way to work assured me I was doing a good job. Another informed me the University had called off classes for the day. I kept at it. As I worked in front of one particular apartment, the door opened.
The girl that stood there was no older than twenty. She wore a short robe that landed a ways north of her knees, the top part clutched close to her neck so it was tight and straining at every seam. I must’ve been staring because she sort of stepped back. “Are you okay?” she said. “You look really cold.”
“Yes,” I agreed. It was the best I could manage. I was completely frozen, nearly exhausted and almost speechless at the compassion of a half-naked girl I’d never seen before in my life.
“I’m Veronica,” she said. “Let me get you something warm.” The door closed and I looked around the grounds. Most of the morning’s work was already lost as the tempest of white continued to drop fresh layers on the steps and sidewalk. When the door opened again, she held a large, gray thermos in her hand. “It’s instant,” she said, meaning the coffee inside, “but it’s hot. I hope it’s not too strong.”
I nodded polite thanks, took a swig from the jug, smiled, and didn’t let her know that inside me choirs of angels were praising her name.
“Just bring the thermos back whenever you’re done,” she said.
Sweeping, shoveling, and nursing the thermos, I eventually called it a day. With the sky a dark gray and the wind more malevolent than ever, I retired to a hot shower, the newspaper, and the last of the coffee. As so often happened that winter, the sun came out after lunch, and the wind trailed off. A spring in my step, a freshly rinsed thermos in hand, I went to Veronica’s door and knocked. The door opened.
I didn’t know there was a Mister Veronica.
He looked as big as my car, had a tear drop tattoo under his eye, and a cigarette screwed into a mouth half covered with streaming tatters of reddish brown beard. He glanced at my face, looked down, and said, “Where the hell’d you get my thermos?”
Too rattled to lie and say I found it rolling around loose in the parking lot, I said, “Veronica gave it to me this morning.”
Heh. Wrong answer.
“What the hell were you doing with Veronica?”
There’s no easy way to describe what happened next. In my memory it replays like a Harold Lloyd silent movie. I shoved the coffee jug forward so fast it caught Mr. Veronica off guard. The lit cigarette tumbled from his mouth, hit his arm in a little fiesta of sparks, and made him curse loudly. But he had his property back, and I was already tripping quickly away.
“Hey,” he yelled. “Ain’t you the guy that cleans the sidewalks?”
Still zigzagging away, I didn’t answer. I was planning an alternate route to my apartment, maybe go in the back way so he wouldn’t know who I was.
“Yeah,” called Mr. Veronica, “You’re the guy.” I was busted.
“Listen,” he said, clomping toward me in the afternoon sun. “How much will you charge to sweep my truck off every morning?”
Breathing hard, I stopped and turned toward him. Dumbfounded again. “Five bucks?” I offered.
“Five bucks it is,” he said with a toothless smile. “Name’s Jerry.”
Whenever I think of winter in Wyoming, I remember that day. As it turned out, I cleaned off Jerry’s truck a total of four times, but he only paid me for one, then he and Veronica moved away one night under the cloak of darkness.
I bought a new coffee pot. And in September of the following year, took up my broom and shovel for another long but familiar romance with the wind.