Growing Up Gardnerville: Semester Break, Part III
Growing Up Gardnerville is a series of vignettes and short stories, combining the moments we’ve experienced, heard about and imagined in this wonderful Valley. It is an indulgence of the memory, Twainian in nature: It’s how it happened, clouded by years of exaggerated re-telling. The series premiered in June 2014 with The Lake. The places are real, some of the events are too, but names have been changed to protect the innocent, characters have been melded together for the sake of brevity, anonymity and convenience and the timeline has been jumbled and folded over on itself to serve a more entertaining storyline. When you say, “This didn’t really happen,” you’re mostly right. But it did happen, to one of us, sometime, sort of, growing up in this incredible place we call home.
Semester Break, Part III
by Joey Crandall, email@example.com
“Man, it’s cold out here,” Billy Tompkins’ words burst into a frozen vapor, curling slowly into the gray Sierra sky and revealing without question the honesty of their content.
We stepped off the curb in front of Ironwood 8 Cinemas, having just seen “The Green Mile” for our traditional Christmas Day visit to the movies. Kyle Cooper had been nearly every other day of the break, with different combinations of friends each time. Billy had seen it four times. It was my first.
I’d managed to hide a tear toward the end, despite Kyle turning to watch my face for the entire final 10 minutes of the movie – waiting for the slightest hint of emotion.
As we approached Billy’s car, Kyle turned toward me.
“So, honestly, when the big guy gets done healing the mouse, weren’t you just waiting for the ‘splat‘ noise?” Kyle ripped into peals of laughter, doubling over in the middle of the parking lot. “He spits all the death dust into the air and …” gasping for air between cackles, “Accidentally re-kills the mouse with his big ol’ hands? ‘Awww, I squish da mouse, Boss.’”
Billy and I watched Kyle have his fit of hysteria for several seconds.
“You’ve seen this movie too many times, Kyle,” I said.
Billy nodded. “Dude, that was a … haunting moment in the movie.” He shook his head. “I’m never gonna be able to watch it the same again.” He kicked at the ground with his right toe. “Just gonna hear your giggling ‘splat.’”
He shoved Kyle, still laughing, in the shoulder.
Watching the December horizon fade slowly to black, I found myself asking the most unanswerable question a college kid in Carson Valley in 1999 could ask.
“What do you guys want to do now?”
Kyle straightened himself, his laughter slowing as his face transitioned into a blank stare. Billy shrugged his shoulders.
There was the Pinon Plaza bowling alley – in Carson City. There was the Carson Lanes bowling alley – in Carson City. The was Laser Tag, near the old Ernst Home Center – also in Carson City. There was wandering around the Carson City Walmart and hoping we’d run into someone we knew … but , again, it was in Carson City and we’d recently been kicked out for rearranging the music section according the best album cover art – as determined by Billy. McDonald’s was closed – it was Christmas after all. And it was too early in the evening for Katie’s and its late night breakfast specials.
Our options were limited.
“I have an idea,” Kyle exclaimed, his facing brightening in what he obviously felt was a stroke of brilliance.”
“It’s in here somewhere,” Kyle had been grunting his way through his garage for the better part of 15 minutes.
Billy and I waited in the driveway, kicking at the concrete and blowing into our fists trying to stay warm.
The temperature hadn’t risen above 32 degrees all day and was rapidly dropping with the sun now tucked safely away somewhere over the Carson Range.
The drive from Minden had been an adventure in itself, with both Kyle and I sitting in the back of Billy’s 1992 Toyota Cressida to try to keep more weight over the car’s rear-wheel drive as it pin-balled across the slick Kimmerling pavement.
“Aha!” Kyle emerged from a pile of boxes in the back corner of the garage, holding an old Flexible Flyer sled with blue powder-coated steel runners and sun-bleached wood paneling. A well-worn strand of rope clung to either side of the steering cross piece. “Here it is.”
We knew the sled well, having ridden it in many winters prior. But none of us had seen it since we’d been in the sixth-grade
Kyle slung the sled over his shoulder and tossed a glittered purple open-face motorcycle helmet with a deteriorating chin strap to Billy. He gestured my attention toward a stack of Rubbermade rubbish cans in the corner.
“Bowling?” I said. “Come on, Kyle, we’ll end up at the emergency room.”
Billy snorted. “You scared?”
“No,” I objected.
Kyle let a wry smile reveal his teeth. “Then you’re going first.”
Ranchos Bowling had evolved as most Ranchos games do. It started as simply pushing each other down icy side streets and slowly escalated to add more daring facets as the years wore on and our common sense waned.
The trick, as your friends sent you careening toward the row of empty garbage cans, was to veer to the outside about 15 feet out and then to wrench the opposite direction on the cross piece just before impact. The broadside impact gave you a much better chance of knocking the entire row of cans down than if you hit it straight on. And it was easier on your head.
“You go first,” I shot back at Kyle. “This was your idea.”
“Fine,” he said, strapping on the white foam shoulder pads from the Hutch 49er football uniform he’d had since the third grade and donning the sparkling purple helmet, snapping the chin strap with authority. “Let’s do this.”
We set up at the mouth of Kyle’s family’s cul-de-sac because the street angled downward to the semicircle of houses at its end, forming the perfect bobsled run.
Kyle laid prone, facedown on the sled, cornering his legs upward in a 90 degree angle at the knee.
I grabbed one foot. Billy grabbed the other.
“Alright,” Kyle exhaled deeply, easing the sled back and forth with his hands on the ground. “Go.”
As we started him down the run, two things became quickly apparent.
1) Both Billy and I were considerably stronger … and faster than we had been in sixth grade.
2) Kyle was considerably heavier than he had been in sixth grade.
We sprinted maybe 10 steps at full speed, leveraging down hard on Kyle’s legs to get him up to speed, before releasing him to the will of the pavement.
Both Billy and I, winded from the flurry of the push-off, watched doubled over – hands planted on knees – as we gasped frozen clouds from burning lungs.
There are those moments in life where the memories do more than linger. They stick in perpetuity, unimpeachable like a photograph. The sounds, the smells, the sting of the winter night on your nose and cheeks – they just never go away.
The sled rocketed into the cul-de-sac, reaching a speed we’d never seen in our youth, kicking ice chips into the air and spraying peels of metallic sparks to the side wherever the cruel Nevada sun had left slight, bare patches of asphalt. The entire scene was couched in crisp fog, rising from the gutter encircling the venue – a ghostly horizon breaking only at the top for the bright stars cutting through the Sierra night.
Kyle steered the sled to the far left of the trash can barrier, veering harshly inward at the last possible moment.
Impact was perfect, spraying Mr. Cooper’s trash cans into three separate driveways as Kyle rolled off the sled and into a snow berm with a soft thud.
He scrambled quickly to his feet, lept in the air and pumped his fist.
“Five!” he shouted. “I knocked down all five of them!”
Billy and I whooped and hollered at Kyle’s success as he jogged the sled back. High-fives were traded while we made our way back to the mouth of the street.
A shadowy figure rounded the corner on foot, emerging from the darkness and stalling under a street light.
It was Tina Pinkle.
Kyle’s face quickly flushed as he stumbled toward her. He ripped off the helmet, dumping it on the street, and fiddled with the lacing on the fake shoulder pads as he approached.
“What are you doing?” she said, arms folded.
“Uh …” Kyle glanced back at us, searching for something better than the truth. “Bowling?”
She pursed her lips.
“It was Billy’s idea,” he said.
Billy shook his head.
“You look ridiculous,” she said, pausing several moments before lowering her voice. “I’ve … I’ve been thinking about your poem …”
She stopped short, noticing that neither I or Billy, both 10 steps closer than we’d been when she arrived, were trying to mask our interest in the conversation.
“Can we talk?” She nodded our direction. “Somewhere else?”
“Sure,” Kyle said, gesturing toward his car in the driveway.
They walked quietly, separately, to the car and disappeared inside, leaving only the silhouette of Tina’s waving arms and pointing finger for us to guess at what was being said.
“Huh, how about that?” Billy said after a solid minute of trying to decipher the hand motions. “See, look man, Kyle went out on a limb. He took a risk and it paid off.”
“I don’t think it paid off,” I said. “Look at her … she’s really letting him have it.”
“She’s here, isn’t she?” Billy demanded.
“Yeah, I guess. But she’s mad.”
“”But they are talking,” Billy looked thoughtfully down at the sled. “You know what?”
“I’m calling her again, man,” Billy said. “I’m going to give it one more try. Just seeing Tina here, hey, anything is possible.”
“Who, oh what, Delilah?” I said, struggling to catch up to Billy’s thought process. “Oh no, Billy, don’t do it.”
“I’m doing it.”
“You’re going to get arrested.”
“I’m not going to get arrested.”
“You’re going to get embarrassed.”
Just then, Kyle’s car roared to life. It backed out slowly out of the driveway, the headlights hiding the faces within, before driving away.
“No I won’t,” Billy said. “There’s a connection there, man. Look at Kyle. It’s all working out for him. You can’t give up on connections.”
“There’s no connection … She doesn’t know your real name … She thinks you’re sad because of a story that’s not your story, which isn’t even a sad story anymore, maybe … She doesn’t even know you,” I sputtered, trying to find the point that would strike home for Billy. “She’s a national radio host, Billy!”
It only seemed to strengthen Billy’s resolve.
“New Year’s Eve,” he said, nodding to himself. “I’m calling her. If it doesn’t work, I can start over with the new year and turn my affections elsewhere.”
“Yeah, we’ll see.”
“No, buddy, you’ll see.”
The run started on Monday.
It began quietly, with someone buying up the store’s entire supply of Filet Mignon and escaping with little notice.
Then went the batteries. Every kind of battery – Double-A’s, lithium cells, 9-volts – we were selling them all faster than we could restock the stand.
Y2K brought with it a special kind of frenzy to aisles of Scolari’s Food & Drug.
Sales had been heavy on canned foods for many weeks, but fervor ramped up in exponential factors in the days leading up to the new year.
Matches, Firewood, Dog Food. It all went. And as the shelves emptied, tensions among the customers grew.
On Wednesday, two women on the personal care aisle had to be separated after tussling over the last bottle of Paul Mitchell shampoo.
On Thursday, a man was arrested after trying to shoplift a full cart brimming with cold cuts. He tired under the weight of the meat before he could reach his car, though, and was apprehended out-of-breath without incident.
The nervous energy of the week hit its frenetic peak on Friday, New Year’s Eve, as shoppers prepared for the end of the world.
“You know,” I said to one customer as I rung up their cart full of bottled water. “It’s been Y2K on the other side of the world … pretty much all day?”
“What’s your point?” he said, drumming his fingers on his checkbook and glaring over the counter at me.
“Well, the world didn’t end there … you know?”
He didn’t hear me. He’d gone to retrieve two cases of candy bars from the stand in the entry to the register and heaved them into the cart.
“Don’t want to run out of Skor bars,” he huffed. “Do you carry ammunition here?”
“Want one for the road?” I said, waving a candy bar across the counter to him.
Kyle and I were stocking the refrigerated biscuit dough when a man waiting his turn at the meat counter grew impatient, reached around into the lobster tank and helped himself to the last two live lobsters.
One of the lobsters, perhaps slicker than he had anticipated, slipped out of his grasp and skittered across the floor in front of the counter. It came to rest in front of the shelf holding what ground beef remained in the store, legs flailing in the air and claws clicking desperately against the tile.
A child, waiting by her mother, began to cry.
“LOUIIIEEEE!!!!” she wailed, pointing at the man now sheepishly holding a lobster with one hand and trying to retrieve the other with his empty hand. “That man killed LOUIE!!!”
Kyle turned back to his box of biscuits, loading them carefully onto the shelf.
“People, man,” he chuckled. “This week is crazy.”
“Are you going to tell me what happened with Tina Pinkle?” I said, shifting the subject back to where we’d been before the attempted lobster heist.
Kyle had been tight-lipped all week, saying nothing about what had transpired on Christmas Day. Billy and I had waited in his street for 40 minutes before giving up and going to breakfast at Katie’s.
“There’s nothing to say,” he said with a shrug.
“You know, Billy is using you as an inspiration,” I said. “He’s calling Delilah again. Tonight. It’s like his last … gasp or something.”
“Well …” cans of biscuits clicked together as Kyle picked up his pace. “Billy can be pretty dumb.”
The frantic undertone of the day carried over into the early evening, with crowds bustling in and out of the store, gathering and collecting for whatever was going to happen at midnight.
With the strike of each new hour, the world didn’t end somewhere else – A point we repeatedly tried to communicate without success.
It continued to build, right up until 9 p.m., when the big ball dropped on Times Square in New York City without incident.
Then the store emptied out. Literally.
With bare shelves, an empty stock room and no customers, we retreated to the business office, where Kyle flipped on the radio.
“You’re listening to Delilah at night. Sometimes we laugh with you, sometimes we cry with you. Always we try to encourage you and share stories to touch your heart. We’re opening the phone lines back up and I understand we have … oh, we have Mark. Again. Seriously?” The station fell into a strange muffled silence for a moment as it sounded like Delilah had covered the microphone with her hand. “OK, Mark, what’s going on with you tonight?”
Billy’s voice filtered in over the phone line.
“Happy New New Year.”
“… Happy New Year to you, Mark.”
“Sometimes, I just feel like there is nobody out there for me, Delilah … Except when I talk to you.”
“Shoot, he’s going for it,” Kyle exclaimed.
“Well, Mark, that’s very nice, but this is starting to be a little awkward. Is there a song I can play for you?”
“I was just wondering, maybe, if we could meet someday, or maybe we could talk on the phone outside of your show or maybe write letters to each other … like pen pals? And we could see where it goes from there?”
There was a long pause over the air.
“Mark, I’m sure you’re a nice young man, but I don’t know you and …”
Billy cut her off, “I just want to know if there is a chance. I haven’t been completely honest with you … my name is not Mark. It’s Billy. I lied because I was embarrassed. And I made up the whole part about my ex-girlfriend. I was just looking for reasons you might let me on the air with you …
There was a clatter as Billy’s voice suddenly faded away.
“Did they cut him off?” Kyle asked.
“I think he dropped the phone.”
“Sorry, I dropped the phone,” More fumbling as Billy attempted to recover his momentum.
“That’s OK … really, if you could just request a song or something. Do you like ‘The Police’?”
“Delilah, I think I love you.”
Kyle burst out laughing, spitting a mouthful of sunflower seeds in the process.
Another long silence.
“You could make that more clear on your show.”
“Mark, Billy … Whatever your name is … Don’t call here again.”
The soft rhythmic intro of “Every Breath You Take” began float through the radio speakers
“It was horrible,” Billy’s head rested against the checkout counter, his eyes closed. He sat, resigned, on the floor. “It’s like my brain was shouting at me to shut up but words kept coming out of my mouth. I didn’t have control over them.”
I sat on the countertop and Kyle was perched on the chrome-plated railing opposite the register.
It was 11:45 p.m.
Fifteen minutes until the end of the world.
“You honestly didn’t see that coming?” I said.
Jose Salas walked through the front doors of the store and casually glanced down the long bank of slot machines facing the cash registers. We’d known him forever, gone to school with him since, well, forever.
“Twenty-one?” Kyle mouthed toward me, eyebrows arched, pointing toward Jose.
“I don’t think so,” I shrugged.
“I knew it was a long-shot, but…” Billy trailed off.
There really wasn’t an end to the sentence. Sometimes you just do things. And they’re dumb. And you look back 15 years later and cringe.
“The odds that anybody we know actually heard that, though,” I offered. “I don’t think anyone heard it. No way. No one we know anyway.”
Jose Salas, a good foot taller and 50 pounds heavier than any of us, started aggressively plugging quarters into machines, three or four at a time. Lights would flash, numbers and symbols would scroll by without success and he’d repeat the process. The machine attendant had disappeared.
Kyle elbowed me. “Stop him,” he whispered.
“You stop him.”
“You’ve got seniority.”
“Jose … hey what are you doing? Are you 21 yet, man?”
Jose Salas nodded me off dismissively. “What’s up fellas, “ he said, before turning his attention back to the machines.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” I tried to rationalize with Kyle. “We aren’t responsible for the slot machines, are we?”
Kyle accepted it with a nod.
“She said they’d call the police if I ever called again,” Billy lamented, closing with a quiet groan.
A minute or two passed. We started walking toward the Korbel display to watch the final countdown.
Kenny G’s “Auld Lang Syne Millennium Mix” began to play over the store’s radio speakers.
“Tina wanted to go to the movies,” Kyle said, breaking the silence.
He had our attention.
Kyle laughed. “She wanted to see ‘The Green Mile.’”
“She was mad about the poem … and the snowball. Then she started talking about how stressed out she was about the engagement and how she wasn’t ready to think about a wedding and things were moving too quickly.
“Then she thought you guys were trying to listen in, so she asked if I’d take her to the movies.” Kyle stopped his story there.
“Was that it?” Billy asked.
“No,” Kyle pushed forward. “We’re driving to the movies, and I’m feeling like there’s real hope there for the first time … well, for the first time since August when we broke up, you know? It was a nice moment.
“Then she starts talking about wanting to see ‘The Green Mile’, how she hasn’t seen it yet. And I said, ‘Hey, what about ‘Galaxy Quest’, you know, the Tim Allen movie? I’ve seen Green Mile a bunch of times now.’
“Then she just loses it, shouting about how selfish I am, and how this is the reason we didn’t work out.”
We stopped at the Korbel display.
Ten minutes and counting. Manny the Janitor was running the floor buffer along the tile in front of the milk.
“So she tells me to stop the car. And she just gets out and walks away.”
“Oh Kyle, no,” Billy said. “You didn’t let her walk home alone, did you?”
“She was pretty mad.”
“But it was like, 19 degrees that night,” I said.
“She walked away,” Kyle explained. “It was maybe a half-mile away from her house. I tried to drive alongside her and get her back in the car, but she kept walking. Every time I’d say something, she’d start shouting some more.
“Sometimes, I guess, when it’s over, it’s just … over,” Kyle turned to face Billy. “Kind of like for you tonight.”
Billy clinched his jaw and nodded.
Seconds flickered away on the Korbel clock.
Morty, the lonely label-reading Bostonian clad in his blue knit button-down sweater poked his head around the display.
“Fellahhs, where is the kaw-fee cream-ah?” This wasn’t an honest question. Morty spent so much time wandering the aisles of the store, he knew it better than most of the employees. He was looking for company.
Five minutes left.
“Just let me know when we’re down to one minute, OK?” Kyle volunteered, walking Morty past the milk to the various creamers.
Morty began explaining the difference between Irish Creme and French Vanilla “See, one is Irish,” he said.
The next three minutes were spent getting to “…and the other is French.”
“Kyle!” Billy exclaimed. “One minute! I can hear the robots starting to move.”
A number of things, which we were only later able to make sense of, happened over the following 60 seconds.
At 11:59:01, Robbie Williams’ “Millenium” began to blast over the store’s radio speakers.
“Aw, I hate this song,” Billy growled. “KYLE! Get down here!”
Kyle waved Billy off. “One sec,” he shouted.
At the front of the store, at 11:59:18, Jose Salas shoved a quarter into machine No. 5 in a line of 8, jabbed at a couple buttons and let it spin, moving quickly to the next machine with another quarter.
He returned to tap the stop button on No. 5 at 11:59:22, watching the symbols slowly click into place.
“That was pretty spectacular, though,” I said to Billy at 11:59:24. “You’re probably the only guy in the world that can say you asked out Delilah … while she was on the air. I mean, if you’re going to fail …”
Machine No. 5 hit the jackpot at 11:59:30. Jose Salas let out a yelp of joy, quickly giving way to panic as the reality set in that he’d won a prize he was not legally old enough to claim.
He filled his front pants pockets with coins and grabbed two handfuls more before bolting toward the back of the store with his loot.
We later decided he must have been aiming for the rear fire exit.
“Kyle! 20 seconds!” Billy shouted. “What was I thinking, man?” Several seconds more of pause, though we began to hear a strange cadence of jingling thuds rapidly approaching. Billy picked up the countdown, “10! 9!”
At 11:59:52, Kyle gave up trying to explain Amaretto, shoved three bottles of coffee creamer into Morty’s arms and sprinted toward us.
“Come on Kyle! 3! 2! 1!”
Kyle rounded the corner just in time to get a glimpse of the Korbel clock shutting silently off.
It just turned off. That was it. I started to laugh.
Still moving at full speed, Kyle ran headlong into the fleeing Jose Salas.
Jose’s arms flung out in an attempt to retain his balance, releasing a thick hail of quarters into the air as he tumbled over Kyle.
Kyle reeled sideways from force of the collision, slipping on the floor, still damp from the buffer. He hooked a row of Korbel bottles in the middle of the stack with a flailing arm on his way to the ground.
The entire display of champagne came to life, bulging in the middle and cascading outward, bottles shattering upon impact and releasing shards of green glass mixed among plumes of golden bubbles spraying into the air.
Manny the Janitor rounded the opposite corner of the display with the buffer, which was instantly overcome in the wash.
Sparks flashed out of the front of the machine with sharp cracks and crisp pops. The machine took on a life of its own, bucking violently out of Manny’s control into the heart of the flood before bursting into flames.
Manny scrambled for the fire extinguisher and quickly put an end to the blaze.
All the while, “Millennium” carried on over the store’s loudspeakers.
“Run around in circles,
live a life of solitude
’till we find ourselves a partner
someone to relate to
Then we’ll slow down,
before we fall down.”
Kyle crawled for safety, damp, thick strands of hair plastered to his forehead and his Scolari’s uniform drenched in champagne.
Jose Salas remained on his hands and knees, attempting to collect the coins he’d strewn across the liquor department.
We helped Kyle to his feet just in time to see the floor buffer’s cord begin to glow with electricity as the rush of liquid reached the outlet it had been plugged into.
The Korbel display board, itself plugged into the same outlet, shot tiny lightning bolts out of the sides, smoke escaping from the edges.
The lights overhead flickered slightly, staggering once in an attempt to stay alive, before power to the entire building (and as we’d later find out, the entire block) gave way to utter darkness.
“Oh man,” Billy’s voice dove through the blackness, barely audible over the steady hiss of foam at our feet. . “That was spectacular.”
There are those moments in life where the memories do more than linger …
I can still see Kyle and Billy pushing mops around the pools of Korbel, and Jose Salas grudgingly handing over fistfuls of champagne-drenched quarters to the authorities. I can see the deputy hesitating to hand Billy a police report after recognizing him for his opus on the liquor heist the week earlier.
It took nearly an hour to clean everything up and get things sorted out. .
I remember the snow when we left the store, falling quietly and heavily over the Valley, thick swirls revealed by the soft cones of light descending from the parking lot lights — an untouched, pristine blanket covered the ground.
A perfect snow. A new start. A new millennium.
It was a crazy night. Peter Jennings cried while signing off the 23-hour-plus ABC 2000 turn-of-the-millenium special later that early morning. Blink 182 mashed-up Smashmouth’s “All-Star” into its own “All The Small Things,” during a live performance in Times Square, and it was awful.
We ate breakfast at Katie’s that night, talking about the break and about the upcoming semester.
Billy marveled that in the end, the champagne clock had done everything we’d hope it would do. There were wildly choreographed movements, fireworks, and a big dancing robot – as it were. It even rained money.
Kyle worked up the courage to ask Mary Jordan to the movies while she was taking our breakfast order.
She turned him down. But it was a small victory in the road back from Tina Pinkle.
The world as we knew it ended. Or maybe it didn’t.
But it sure changed.