Two by two they enter the télécabine, hundreds of well-groomed schoolchildren, all on their way up the mountain. Every inch of the raised platform is packed and their footfalls clang against the steel grating, echoing through the empty resort below. The car shifts, rocks. The wires curve in the wet northern wind. Almost nothing of the mountain can be seen, its peak reaches too high, obscured in mist and distance. There is no pushing, no shouting, no stalemates over who enters next. The children, in plaid ski suits, with equestrian helmets, and freshly sharpened skis are eager, though they do not show it. There is a seamless arrangement to their movements, each ski boot stepping in time, as they have been taught. The flywheel has been halted and the cars swing idly from their trucks. The children glance behind, searching for some sign from the control tower, but all they see is darkness. There is not so much room in the télécabine.
The operator sits in the control tower watching his breath form on the glass. He’s had a hangover for the better part of the season, his kidneys throb. He cannot see an end to the procession of schoolchildren, though soon they are packed in the car, and the doors have closed, ready to climb.
“There are so many,” the operator says. “I did not think the télécabine could fit so many.” He holds his breath. “It will never make it to the top.”
The car bends the wires low.
The chaperone, a geometry teacher and part-time softball umpire, stands at the helm with his fingers on the levers. He clenches a pipe in his teeth.
“Never make it?” the chaperone says. “I assure you it will make it in no time at all.”
The operator wishes he had never surrendered the controls, but he felt so miserable all morning, and the chaperone is a very persuasive man.
“The maximum occupancy is only a suggestion, mind you,” the chaperone says. “And I imagine there is room for at least one hundred more.”
Snow has begun to settle on the platform, a powdered white rind.
The operator shivers.
“Besides, I know for a fact,” the chaperone continues, “none of these children weigh over sixty-five pounds.” He pulls on the pipe. “Even in those lovely ski suits.”
The télécabine smells strongly of brandy. Many of the children are familiar with this smell, their parents’ favorite, and it makes them feel as if the whole trip was prepared with their individual comfort in mind. They are happy children, well-adjusted, eager to please and observe.
“All aboard,” says the operator, over the intercom, though he sounds a bit tense.
The children pack against the sides, uniformly, drooping shoulders and constricting stomachs. When they first saw the télécabine, it seemed an impossible task, but the chaperone was so confident that they didn’t say a word. Now that they are crammed in, though there is very little room to move, it does not seem so ridiculous.
“What a spectacular vacation,” a brown-haired boy shouts to his best friend. “I’ve heard of mountain air before, but this is something altogether different. The very epitome of the good life.”
His friend’s nose is buried in the boy’s armpit. “Agreed,” says the friend, a short fellow. “Father told me one day I’d ski the slopes of Mt. Waupecony, but I never truly thought I’d make it here, never in my wildest dreams, though I knew, all the time, for it to be true.”
The brown-haired boy attempts a nod.
“And certainly,” the short fellow continues, “I never thought I’d be here on my tenth birthday. I am sure, though I hardly deserve it, that this will be the most splendid birthday present I will ever receive.”
“Today is your birthday?” a number of them yell.
“Yes,” says the boy. “Today I am ten years old, and I am going to ski Mt. Waupecony. If there is a greater feeling than this, I swear by God I could never stand it.”
The children cheer. The télécabine pitches.
The voice over the intercom is now their chaperone’s. “We will leave in five minutes, children,” he announces. “Make sure you have your buddy with you. Make sure your buddy is close at all times.”
Hundreds of children grasp the hand of the child beside them.
In the control tower the chaperone and the operator discuss the dangers of the télécabine ride.
“I’m not even sure how this happened,” the operator says. “Usually we can fit twelve to fifteen people in there max. I know they’re children, but a couple hundred is ridiculous. Frankly, it boggles the mind.”
The chaperone refills his pipe. “Yes, it must seem quite alarming to you, but I will assure you, here and now, that my children are not only the best behaved students I have ever had the pleasure of chaperoning, but due to their remarkable family breeding, and the school’s strict callisthenic program, they are paper-thin and unafraid of being packed into small spaces. Furthermore, they would never, under any circumstances, complain, amongst themselves, or to their parents. So, if it is a lawsuit you are worried about, then let me put your mind at ease. I repeat, once again, the children, under my supervision, will be absolutely fine.”
The operator walks to the control tower doors. His walkie-talkie sits inches from its cradle, unblinking. His cellphone’s minutes ran out days before the first snowfall. It would have been easy to recharge the thing, he considers, or to add more minutes to his phone. What has he done in this control tower all winter? There are slatted indentations where the captain’s chair has dug into his butt, his paunch ballooned to triple its original size. He remembers the weather reports predicted a storm for later that afternoon. If he could hold off the ride, even for an hour, maybe he could convince the chaperone that the weather is too rough to send them up, and avoid this catastrophe.
“Are you really the only chaperone?” he asks.
The chaperone chuckles. “Of course,” he says. “Believe me, these children will not need another.” He inspects the control board. “Now, which one of these makes it climb again?”
A girl who has recently lost her two front teeth gazes into her buddy’s eyes. “It is true,” she says, “ever since I saw you in line for chicken nuggets on Chicken Nugget Tuesday, I have loved you in the way you can only love your first love.”
The boy blinks.
“Do you remember the book we read in Literature Studies that afternoon?” she asks.
The boy is uncertain, but it is not in his nature to be rude, so he says, “Yes, of course.”
“It was Romeo and Juliet,” the girl says.
“Yes, Romeo and Juliet,” says the boy.
“And ever since,” she continues, “I have seen you in a certain light. In a light that I have never seen any boy inside or out of before. And I have waited until today, the day of all days, to tell you my secret.”
The boy, who is cheek to elbow with the girl, feels as if he should say something.
“I understand,” he begins. “I have seen you, from time to time, in our passings and classings, in a certain light as well. And I wonder, should I now, in the shadow of this great mountain, call you the name I have wished to call you ever since that fateful Chicken Nugget Tuesday?”
The girl tenses, expectantly.
“Then I will. I will ring it from the mountaintop. My love. My rich jewel in Ethiop’s ear. My dear, forsaken Capulet. My fair—Juliet.”
He pauses, unsure if he has gone too far.
“And you, if I understand you correctly,” he continues, hesitantly, “would like to call me, this lowly creature, a boy who is not fit to fasten the bindings of your precious skis, you would like to do me the honor of calling me your humble and devoted Romeo.”
She laughs. “No,” she says. “Not Romeo.” She smiles, toothless. “You, my sweet love, have been, are now, and will forevermore be, my Tybalt.”
The boy is confused. “Who?” he asks.
“Tybalt,” she repeats. “Inscrutable Tybalt.”
The boy scratches the thighs of his itchy plaid ski suit.
“Oh my sweet one,” she says. “He is the prince who tries to thwart the star-crossed lovers at every instant. He has the courage and the guile to see through Romeo’s mask, to slay the capricious Mercutio, and force Romeo into a life of exile, though he pays for it with his life.”
“Oh,” says the boy.
The girl draws herself closer.
“I have something to tell you.” She bends to his ear, her breath smells of green apples. “Dear, Tybalt, Prince of Cats,” she says, “repeat after me: What, drawn, and talk of peace,” she whispers. “I hate the word. As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.”
She straightens herself. “Now you,” she says.
The boy fixes his suit, does as he’s told.
The operator, still standing at the control tower doors, touches the glass. “It’s cold out there,” he says. “The reports from down the mountain—”
The chaperone waves him off. “I have heard the reports myself,” he says, “just this morning. A 50/50 chance? We’ll take it if it means our students can ski Mt. Waupecony this very day. Some of them,” he lights the pipe, “have been waiting their whole lives for this, have been told stories of how Mt. Waupecony is part and parcel of their future achievements, that all the students who came before them have skied it—when the time was right—their parents, as well, and when they came of age, they too would be allowed to tackle its mighty peaks, its boundless black diamonds. It is a rite of passage,” he says. “Our school is not your typical school, you understand.”
The operator feels woozy. This is not what he expected from this job. He thought that up here he would have the least amount of responsibility possible, that he would be cut loose from the demands of the workaday life.
A télécabine operator, they told him, it’s a pretty sweet gig.
Now he’s not so sure.
“Then you’ve done this before?” the operator asks.
“Yes,” says the chaperone.
“Tell me,” the operator presses his head to the glass. “Have you ever before packed so many of them into the télécabine?”
The chaperone blows a thick smoke draft. “No,” he says. “I don’t think so. Never so many.”
He bends toward the microphone. “Not too much longer now, my sweet ones,” he says.
The children cheer so loud that the operator swears he sees a sheaf of snow tumble down the mountain.
Inside the télécabine the ten-year-old boy and his best friend are reciting the Latin alphabet. Tybalt and his princess are embracing. The rest of the children tremble with excitement. The wind shunts against the car. More than five minutes have passed but they haven’t moved at all.
A skinny boy, with square-framed glasses, squeezes his buddy’s hand. “Are we, do you think, dear friend, destined for greatness in this lifetime?”
His buddy, a high-cheekboned boy, laughs. “Of course, you old worry-wart,” he says. “We have everything we need, now and forever. We have blossomed in the very orchards of luxury and grown into strong vines who will never squander their fruits as they grow old. Instead, I believe we will embrace life, and never expend a single green dollar that isn’t proffered to assist our fellow man, or commit a deed that doesn’t shore up the bounty of this great nation. I envision a future,” he continues, “of peace, of consensus, of righteousness and solidarity for every one of our poor brothers and sisters.” He raises his voice. “From this day forth, after we have skied the famous slopes of Mt. Waupecony, we shall return to the world with fresh eyes and ears and we will make it our duty—nay, our devotion—to always, no matter what the price, do what is right for our fellow man. For it is through compassion, uprightness, and the freedoms afforded to us by our illustrious education, that we will become one, as we were truly meant to be, a human doing—doing right by his neighbor, that is.”
The boy is out of breath.
His friend looks at him with tearful eyes. “That was wonderful,” he says.
“Thank you,” says the boy, “thank you. I get a little carried away.”
His friend dries his face and surveys the car. “Does it seem like there are maybe one too many children in this télécabine?” he asks.
The boy who has given the speech squints. “It’s funny,” he says. “But before I got carried away just then, I was thinking the exact same thing.”
The chaperone holds a brandy bottle and tips it toward the operator. “How about it?” he says. “A drop for you, and a drop for me.”
The operator, whose head is still planted against the glass, straightens. He knows the brandy will rouse him, clear the pain in his kidneys, and set him straight on the wire, so to speak. It is a tempting offer, but he feels as if he must be alert now, more alert, perhaps, than he has ever been in his life.
The chaperone takes a tipple. “My God,” he says. “If this isn’t one of the loveliest brandies I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. You know it’s a Martinique, don’t you?” he says. “Hundred-year-old, meticulously blended eaux-de-vie, smuggled from the cellars of a notorious Scottish brothel.”
The operator’s mouth waters.
“Come join me,” says the chaperone. “You wouldn’t let an old man drink alone, would you?”
The operator takes the bottle. The télécabine is bending the wires much lower than he has ever seen. It swings back and forth with great gusts.
“Hundred-years-old, you say?” the operator asks.
“Yes,” says the chaperone. “Do not be afraid.” He puts his hand on the operator’s shoulder. “It has traveled a great distance to reach you.”
The orator-boy and his friend are making miraculous plans. The princess and Tybalt are wooing. The birthday boy and his best friend are tic-tac-toeing. The rest of the children hold hands. There is a murmur going through the crowd that maybe there are one too many children in the télécabine, that maybe—what? two-hundred, three—is overboard, and, perhaps, it is unsafe for them to travel this way.
A boy with thick braces speaks up. “Schoolmates,” he says. “I want you all to consider, each and every one of you fine students, that the chaperone, the very man who we all most sincerely trust with our lives on this trip, would never do this to us. He is the wisest, and most hard-working chaperone we have ever had, and I cannot stand by while his name becomes sullied and dragged through the muck by this aggressive speculation. If we are to be censorious of him, my friends, then we must be censorious of the entire process: the school, and by proxy our parents, and by further proxy, the nation. Yes, our great nation, because this school, our school, is widely considered to be one of the greatest in the land, and the crowning achievement of a certain high educational standard.”
There is more murmuring. “So do not ask why so many of us are in this télécabine today,” he continues. “It is, as I think you will agree, not our place to wonder. It is our place to venture to understand.”
There’s some clapping.
“I’m of a mind to agree with him,” says another boy with a light unibrow, glancing around. “I admit,” he continues, “it seems like there are quite a lot of us in this télécabine today, but I think that only shows how much more the chaperone, and by proxy the school, and by proxy our parents, and further proxy the nation, know about these things than we. The ways of the world—plus the ways of télécabines. Furthermore, I am not sure that now is the correct time to mistrust them. I really am not. I am amiss, my friends, to suggest that at this moment, as we stand here at the wondrous foot of Mt. Waupecony, that we should question their authority, their tremendous capabilities, their all-ranging insight. But if you cannot agree, please do not remain silent. We are, after all, a democratic school, if nothing else, and every voice should be heard. Who will say different?”
Hands go up.
The boy calls on a freckle-nosed girl in the back.
“Of course,” she begins. “It appears that the chaperone has packed us all into a single télécabine with the utmost care and forethought. That he, a geometry expert, in his own right, must have measured, whether with actual instruments, or with his formidable instinct, every angle, every square inch. But I would like you to consider: what if the chaperone is not in control of the télécabine right now? Follow me, if you will, and understand that I do not want to upset anyone here, but it could be that the télécabine operator—that poor, saggy-bottomed man we saw on our way up—has somehow subdued the chaperone and piled us all into this télécabine without his permission, with some kind of terrible plan in mind to kill us all in a spectacular télécabine accident, and thus seek revenge on our school, a school, which he, himself, hoped to attend when he was our age, but was rejected for various academic and disciplinary reasons, and now, though he is not, at heart, a bad man, seeks revenge for this being the impetus of his downward spiral, his tomber en disgrâce. It is not probable, I admit,” she says, “but it is possible, and we do not want to rule anything out at this critical juncture. If you agree with me,” she finishes, “then I suggest we discuss it further.”
The car grows quiet. Hands, which were once raised, flag.
“Forgive me,” the girl says. “I should add that I have been told that I have a bit of an overzealous imagination, that sometimes I get a little carried away, and wrap myself up in a tangent, going on about this and that.”
She places her gum in the wrapper she has saved since the bus ride. “But I stand by my words,” she says. “The télécabine operator must be considered.”
She slips the gum into her ski pants pocket.
The chaperone and the operator pass the bottle. The chaperone takes a pull. The operator takes a pull. The chaperone ventures a long gulp. The operator does the same. It is a delicious brandy, just as the chaperone had claimed, and the operator, though still a bit wary, is delighted by it.
Could it be that not even ten minutes have passed since the chaperone made his last announcement? the operator wonders. He looks toward the clock, but it’s far across the room, and his vision is blurry.
“Should we commence the proceedings?” the chaperone asks, placing the bottle near the controls.
The operator snaps his fingers. “Whatever you think is best,” he says.
The chaperone presses the microphone. “Children,” he says. “Get ready for the moment you have waited your entire elementary school lives for. We will now be sending you to the very apex of Mt. Waupecony, dare I say, the eighth, or ninth, wonder of the natural world, where you will be free to ski to your hearts content, the way so many of your former classmates, and your parents, and many of our great nation’s leaders have done before you. May I say that this is a very special event in the life of any young person at our respected school, and I believe that once you have seen the view from Mt. Waupecony, you will understand why we have waited this long, why we have waited until you were as mature as I know each and every one of you are, and why we have dangled this, like the proverbial carrot, over your nose for so many years. This day will be unlike any day that has come before it, or any day you will experience hence. Mt. Waupecony, I am here to assure you, is nothing short of miraculous, a vision. And children,” the chaperone slurs a little, “remember, I believe that each and every one of you is very, very, very—”
There is a slight commotion. The children have heard their chaperone’s announcement, heard him halt in midsentence, and the sound, perhaps, of the microphone hitting the floor. They discuss amongst themselves.
“It’s probably a technical malfunction,” one boy yells. “Nothing to worry about”
“I’m not so sure,” says another, “I thought I heard him cry out.”
“That operator,” a third butts in, “are we sure he even works at the resort?”
The children continue to argue until the car is filled with hundreds of clanging voices. Nothing can be accurately discerned over the din, and the télécabine sways with more force than it has before.
The discussion, though thoughtful and democratic, does not appear to be going anywhere, until a single voice speaks up, somehow rising above the rabble.
“Friends, friends,” the voice cries. “Might I have a word?”
Necks crane, eyes shoot to the back.
It is Tybalt, Prince of Cats, with his lovely Juliet beside him. “If it would not seem such an inopportune moment, I would like to say that the way the chaperone ended his speech has had me most upset, most confused as to what to do in this situation, where our lives might not be in the hands of the one who we have trusted to take care of them, but in the hands of another, a man who—though I am sure, deep down in his heart of his hearts, is a man very much like anyone of us here—does not fully understand the implications of our trip to Mt. Waupecony, and may not, as has been pointed out, have our best interests in mind. I can see the questioning faces, hear the chuckles, friends, but I say unto you, my brothers and sisters, if this télécabine does not climb in the next thirty seconds, then we must approach the control tower.”
“Listen, listen,” he continues. “It is one thing to disobey orders from the chaperone, but as has been said, the chaperone is such a good man, such a wise, and conscientious man, that if we were to tell him of our reasoning for breaking out of the télécabine, that we thought he was in mortal danger, and believed that it was our duty to save him, and that any hesitation on our part could have resulted in his possible demise, then how could he blame us? Yes, we will be scolded. Of course, we will be punished. I think, we can all agree, that more than likely, expulsion is off the table. But I say unto you, the most superb schoolchildren I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, it is a small price to pay to make certain no harm has, or will soon befall, our chaperone.”
A tremendous round of applause, a few voices of descent, but mostly the télécabine is of one mind.
“Let us go then,” Tybalt shouts. “Let us save our chaperone.”
Each pair of buddies turns and faces the door. They stand there, wait.
A round-faced girl, close to the doors, speaks up. “It’s locked, I’m afraid,” she says. She jiggles the handle. “This doesn’t seem to do a thing.”
There are more than a few groans.
The brandy bottle, now broken, lies beside the chaperone, who is unconscious from a sharp blow to the head. The operator, very drunk, fumbles for the correct button to open the doors. He knows it is either the red one, or the two red ones, or the two red ones combined with the silver switch. He tries a number of combinations before he gives up completely and finds a crowbar in the janitor’s closet. He moves quickly to the control tower doors and swings them open, glancing back at the chaperone. The operator is not sure what came over him, but he tells himself once again that what he did was unavoidable, that there was no other choice, the télécabine would never have made it to the top, and each one of those schoolchildren would have died a horrible death.
The chaperone is not moving.
The operator steps onto the platform where he sees the télécabine swaying with an even greater force than before. The snow is falling harder now and the platform has become slippery since earlier this morning. He gathers his courage, and runs to the télécabine, sliding a little, making sure to stay away from the platform’s rails where there is quite a long drop.
He is only seconds away from the car, when the doors push open and the mass of schoolchildren move through. There are so many, more than he remembered. He freezes on the platform, unable to respond. The children exit the télécabine, two by two, looking poised and undaunted.
It takes some time, but soon they cover the platform, facing the operator who still holds the crowbar in his hands. He lifts his finger, and is about to speak, when the télécabine breaks away. The children watch it tumble down the mountain, where it crashes against the cliffs, and bursts into flames. They each hold the hand of their buddy, and press closer to the operator, hundreds of them, marching in time across the snowy steel. The operator feels more sober than he has ever felt in his life, though can’t keep his thoughts together. He wonders how he has found himself here—a drunk and simple man—unprepared to deal with this mess, these venerable prodigies, the very masters of the world to come.
They stare deep into his eyes. “What have you done with our chaperone?” they bellow.
There is a rumble atop the mountain. A sky full of clouds has moved in.
The operator stands still. How bad could this be? he wonders. The procession of students march closer. He raises the crowbar. They’re only children, after all, he thinks. Aren’t they?
Photo by Philip Milne