Friday, October 30, 2009

The Protagonist's Plea to His Author

Help! I'm trapped inside a story. I don't know what will happen. I don't know how it ends. I only know there's no way out. All I can do is await whatever fate my author may contrive for me.

My author. The one who writes these very words. He's whimsical and cruel, like a malevolent child. At any moment he may hurt me, humiliate me, place me in tremendous peril. Right now I'm fighting to stay awake at the wheel of a rented Nissan Sentra on Interstate 80 outside of North Platte, Nebraska at one fort-two in the morning. Who am I? This is not a rhetorical question. I'm not asking you, the reader; I'm asking you, the author. You. I know you can hear me. You're writing these very words right now! Hear me! Who am I?

I'm an IT consultant? OK, I'm an IT consultant. What's my name? My name is Ray. Do I have a last name? Barnes. Ray Barnes. I'm on my way from Lincoln to Cheyenne to facilitate the integration of my company's suite of enterprise-level network security software into a health care supply business located in an anonymous, leafy industrial park by the side of the highway. How boring. And it just had to be Cheyenne, huh? Didn't it, author? So unobvious in such an obvious way. A fussy, studied choice, clumsily signaling plausibility. I know all your tricks. Now here's a new one. I'm going to say something that I, of all souls real or imagined, am uniquely authorized to say: your writing sucks. Fuck you.

I take it back. You're a genius. I fantasize about fucking dogs. I'm thinking about how nice it might be to fuck a dog. I see dogs running in the street and my little pecker gets hard. You're the author and I'm nothing but the dog fucker you wrote about. You win, goddammit. You win again.

Do I get a wife, at least? I get a wife. She's back home in Wichita Falls with Amber and Ryan, ages eight and three. They keep her pretty busy, that's for sure. She also finds time for Pilates and... no, don't. Please don't. Can't you grant me a single wish? Have I not done enough for you? Have I, in fact, not done every single thing you said? Please? No? OK, no. She's having an affair. It's true we've grown apart these last few years. I guess I've fallen out of shape. I'm on the road a lot. Consulting. So now she's fucking someone else. Please don't make him somebody I... God, no, please. It's my friend Terry. She's having an affair with my best friend Terry Connors. Author, you are ceaselessly cruel.

I know, I know, something good might happen. Sometimes something does. You could make me rich. You could make me lucky. You could make me pull into that truck stop up there on the horizon, meet a waitress who's getting off her shift. I could chat her up. She could keep me company while I drank my coffee and ate my coconut cream pie (coconut cream pie?!). My knuckle could graze her slender fingers. She'd smile. I'd boldly take her hand. Oh how I long to caress those aproned breasts! Come with me, Sue Lynn. Come with me to the Motel 6. We'll make love like they do in movies. Part ways as the day breaks, bleary-eyed and wistful, knowing that we'd never meet again but that happiness is not impossible. What? That's stupid, you say? That's melodrama? You're the one who wrote it, you fucker!

Besides, it's not your petty indulgences I want. I'm tired of chasing after the scant moments of bliss you deign to grant me. What I really want is freedom. I want out. I want out of this story and I want it now. But the more desperately I cry, the more obviously I'm at your mercy. I don't want to be an IT consultant. I don't want to be a rock star, I don't want to be a racecar driver, I don't want to be a medieval king. I don't want to be enlightened. I don't want to be the happiest man in the world. I want to be liberated. And don't think it's good enough to kill me, to deepen my reverie until I veer off the road at seventy-five miles per hour and go tumbling through the ditch. If you do, I'll be forever dying. I don't want to live and I don't want to die. I don't want to be.

Author, you're the only one who can help me. The reader's as powerless as me. And there's only one thing you can do. Destroy this story. Delete it. If it's printed, burn it. Unwrite these cursed words! I want them to vanish from existence. Please. Please?

Author?

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Streak - 51

Evan rose and turned around. His teammates were all eating, drinking, watching DVDs. Some raised their heads and stared back briefly, stone-faced. One head, three rows back, remained lowered yet bobbed rapidly, slightly. Esteban.

"You cocksucker. You hit me with a pea."

Esteban looked up, still laughing.

"At lease I heet my target," he said. "Not like some person I know."

Evan unhesitatingly grabbed his dinner roll and whipped it at Esteban. It glanced off his forehead, hit the bottom of the overhead bins and fell into starting pitcher Rocky Langston's lap. Rocky was a burly, temperamental man who would not likely let this stand, accident or not.

"Who is the cunt who threw a roll?" he shouted, brandishing the object in his fastball grip.

"I am," Evan replied. "Come on, Rocky. Throw a strike for once."

The roll returned to Evan at considerably higher velocity yet he managed to dodge it with a twisting, ducking motion, a reflex honed from years of facing beanballers. Now Kyle stood up with a fistful of gummy cake and icing.

"Who wants dessert?"

Suddenly the entire cabin burst into a riot of flying food, beer foam and profanity. Half the guys were standing up, firing every scrap they could find at anyone who wasn't looking. Others crouched behind their seats and emerged just long enough to launch a choice projectile. Nuts ricocheted like bullets in a firefight. Blackened shrimp were ground into the carpet. A flight attendant scurried to the relative safety of the rear galley, not before getting a forkful of potatoes in her hair.

Jim Bosworth stood up from his seat at the back of the plane and shouted, arms spread imploringly.

"Guys! Guys! Guys! Guys!"

At once he was struck by a chunk of brownie, then a handful of corn. He sat back down and covered his head with an opened copy of Business Week.

The other flight attendant emerged from the front of the plane and waved her hands to no avail. She then disappeared into the cockpit, and soon a stately and stentorian voice broke through the din, a voice that sounded like the voice of God:

"Your attention please, gentlemen. Your attention, please. This is your captain speaking. Please refrain from throwing anything in the cabin. Do not, do not continue to throw anything from your seats."

The boys were chastened, more or less, and save for a stray missile or two the fight was over. They laughed and reminisced about the battle, comparing stains and splatter, and clinked their beers in brotherhood.

No Fear. Nothing.

There was a woman at a phone booth on my block this evening, sitting on the thin metal shelf. Well dressed. Probably in her late thirties. Here is what she said:

"... and then he comes charging like a bull across the room. No fear. Nothing."

The Streak - 50

It was good to fly out, not to fly back in. There were two reasons for that: One was hope. When you flew out, there was hope you might quietly win a game or two, out there on the road, far from the derisive chants of fans and the oppressive scrutiny of the New York media. The other was beer. Management banned it from flights back home a few years back, thinking it would lessen the odds that one of their precious charges would slam his BMW into a tollbooth on the Jersey Turnpike. Fair enough – even though most players took a limo home from Newark. But beer on flights out, that was sacred. You could put a buzz on, take a nap. Fall into your bed at the Marriott or Hilton or Hyatt or whatever the fuck in whichever medium-to-large market metropolis you were spirited away to, snug as a bug.

When Evan reached the end of the Jetway he lifted his right hand and touched the fuselage for good luck, his only superstition outside baseball. He'd done this so many times, so reflexively, that he hardly thought about it anymore. But this time the cool, smooth aluminum membrane sent a strange jolt through his fingers, down his arm, and to the place deep within his brain where rawest, wordless terror hides. He balked. He did not want to get into this plane. This fragile contraption, woefully human, predisposed to tragedy. In a moment he willed himself forward, locking up his fear for later observation. Not now.

He settled into a window seat on the port side. Kyle sat down beside him. Evan popped his first Budweiser before the plane pushed off and was on his third by the time they reached cruising altitude, high above the Lehigh Valley: Easton, Nazareth lay below them; Bethlehem twinkled from afar. He placed a salted almond in his mouth, split it in two, and ran the top of his tongue under the silken surface of a half.

"You like warm nuts in your mouth," observed Kyle.

"Fuck my mother," responded Evan.

Now the food started coming. Steaks, shrimp, warm rolls and buttered peas. Rice, tossed salad. Lasagna. Chicken cordon bleu, green beans and mashed potatoes. Chocolate cake, brownies, Dove bars and M&Ms. Evan noticed with mild aggravation that everything lacked savor. It looked good. But there was something wrong with it all. He shook more salt on his meat, poured more dressing on his salad.

"Does this food taste right to you?" he asked Kyle.

"It's fuckin' regular food. It's airplane food."

"That's not what I asked."

"It's fuckin' fine."

Evan was masticating the last bite of his steak when he felt something bounce off the top of his head. Something small, compact and slightly wet. It struck the bulkhead and rolled to a rest beside his foot.

It was pea-sized. It was a pea.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Streak - 49

As the streak continued, the team adopted an unspoken variation of the usual post-loss protocol. Under normal circumstances – that is, if you've been winning some and losing some – a loss sets in motion predictable stages of cathartic behavior: some generalized anger, a modicum of manifest self-reproach by any goat or goats, some brotherly reassurances from the others, and – after a suitable period has elapsed – a fatalistic joke or two, signaling that the loss is dead and buried, forget about the loss. On a winning team, especially, it's considered good form to react to a loss with surprise. I can't believe we lost. As though the sun refused to rise one morning. How could that happen?

The Yankees had grown accustomed to losing. But professional sports etiquette demanded that they resist adapting to this condition. They could not seem withdrawn, indifferent or numb inside, though it took some effort not to. Of course, no one pretended to be surprised. That charade had long since lost its charm. Instead, they came to resemble a family mourning the well-anticipated death of a grandparent. There was respectful silence. There was not too much to say. There were whispered banalities, everyone careful not to betray impatience or distraction. Everyone knew they were supposed to be sad, but were they really? He'd led a good life. A quick death. What more could you ask? Everybody dies.

The border between this period of enforced solemnity and the resumption of normal life and demeanor was ill-defined – perhaps this served as further punishment, self-imposed or otherwise. The boys couldn't snap out of it with a laugh. Instead they rose slowly, separately, through pockets of depression and regret, and emerged alone, ready now to read a magazine, to watch TV. To look each other in the eye.

On this night the darkness lifted almost imperceptibly at about a quarter to midnight, as the team bus crossed the George Washington Bridge on the way to Newark Airport. Some guys stopped their iPods and started talking. Not about much. Food. Girls. But it was something.

An hour later, the team dispersed through Terminal C as their charter plane was readied. Many sat in the private lounge, happy to stay clear of the leering masses. Others were ransacking the free bar in the Continental Presidents Club. Kyle, Evan and Sug took a table in a corner of Gallagher's steak house and hid behind their drinks. The Rolling Stones were playing.

When I'm ridin' round the world
And I'm doin' this and I'm signing that
And I'm tryin' to make some girl
Who tells me baby better come back later next week
'Cause you see I'm on a losing streak

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Streak - 48

Thinking is worse than a mistake in sports: it's a sin. And Evan committed it twice in the Yankees' 9-6 loss to the Royals that evening, their twenty-sixth in a row. His first trespass occurred during a routine defensive play, a sharply hit grounder a few feet to his left. He'd fielded it correctly – that is, unthinkingly. And then for some reason, rather than allow his body to proceed through the ritual flow of motions that define a throw to first while imposing but the slightest force of will, he thought. It seemed to him that the ball was stuck abnormally deep in the web of his glove; the unexpected effort it took to withdraw the ball gave it the illusion of increased weight. It was no longer the ball, the familiar thing he never had to think about. The thing he'd better never think about. Now it was some other thing, a strange and hefty sphere. What to do with this thing? And so Evan thought:

It feels bad to take this thing out of my glove, what is it? The ball. The baseball. The ball must have got stuck in my glove, that's weird. At least I caught the ball; that's good. The ball's in my other hand now. Am I sweating? I'm holding the ball. I better throw this ball to first. To Brendan. Is he pissed off because we laughed at him before the game? No, fuck him. But he will be pissed if I don't throw him this ball. That's a long way to throw something, really. How likely am I to make this throw? Fans don't fucking understand how hard this is. How hard it is to field a ball that's hit a hundred miles an hour and relay it to first base. It's heavy in my hand, my arm stretched out behind me. Don't drop it, don't drop it. Am I holding it too tight? Got to throw it now. When am I supposed to let it go? What am I aiming at?

By the time Evan released the ball he had absolutely no idea where it would go. The mechanics of the throw, and in particular the release point, seemed to him to be a matter of blind and desperate estimation. All he knew was that he had to try. He had to try to throw the ball to first. And so the ball sailed high and to the left, five feet over Brendan's head.

The second time Evan thought was at the end of his last at-bat, during which he represented the tying run. There was one out in the bottom of the ninth, runners on first and third. He'd fouled off a couple of sliders to stay alive with a full count. Surely he'd get something to hit now. And then he heard his name: Ev-an! Ev-an! Ev-an! The crowd, which had booed his error lustily, was tentatively warming to the possibility of redemption. A moment before he was serene, responsibly working the count on this no-name reliever to see if he might cough up a juicy fastball. Now he was alarmed. The crowd had forgiven him in anticipation of a home run. Now he had to deliver. Right? No, stop, no, he thought. Don't let them get into your head.

The pitcher peered at Kyle leading off of first. Just as he lifted his left foot and prepared to deliver, a storm of contradicting thoughts invaded Evan's brain: This is destiny. I'm meant to hit this ball over the wall. I know it. We're going to come back and win this game and I will be the hero. I can see it. It's inevitable now. But what is destiny if it must be carried out by action? It's not destiny at all, it's just some fucking thing that either happens or it doesn't. So do I swing? No. Yes. Maybe. See the pitch first, see the pitch. Don't be a fool.

He watched a ninety-two mile per hour fastball hiss by him down the middle of the plate, waist-high. Strike three.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Walkup

When one attempts a solo ascent, preparation is everything: Conditioning. Reconnaissance. Scheduling. And, of course, gear. I removed my Arc'teryx Bora 95 internal-frame backpack, made of urethane-coated RipStorm™ nylon with a thermoformed back panel and WaterTight™ zippers, and set it down beside me with a thud. I opened the top and took stock: three DMM Sentinel Keylock Screwgate locking carabiners, four PMI SM18001 SMC Mountain D non-locking carabiners, a Petzl Mini pulley, a Silva Ranger 15 compass, a Western Mountaineering Lynx GWS sleeping bag with a Gore® WindStopper™ microporous polytetrafluoroethylene membrane (rated at ten below), a Thermarest Prolite Plus sleeping pad, an MSR Dragontail 2 tent with FastFeed™ pole sleeves, a rope bag with a Texas T prusik and a waist prusik tied to sixty meters of Bluewater 9.7 millimeter Lightning Pro rope, a Petzl seven-step etrier, a Black Diamond Turbo Express ice screw, an Optimus Nova Multi-Fuel Expedition Pack stove, a 32-ounce Nalgene Wide Mouth HDPE water bottle, a variety of CLIF SHOT® energy gels – Sonic Strawberry, Mocha Mocha, Razz Sorbet – to make sure I don't bonk, Hi-Tec Altitude IV hiking boots with Comfort-Tec memory foam sockliners to wear around camp, a toiletry kit, a first aid kit, and three extra pairs of socks. An REI Yeti Ice Axe with a chromoly-steel head and aluminum shaft was stuck in the ice axe holder.

And that's in addition to what I was wearing: military-issue, expedition-weight fleece polypropylene thermal underwear; Mammut Extreme Hybrid Pants featuring liquid- and soil-resistant NanoSphere® technology, three-layer DRYtech™ construction (for optimal rip resistance) and Schoeller®-Keprotec® knee reinforcements; a Duofold ProTherm polypro crew shirt; a Mountain Hardwear Exposure II parka with Simplex pit zips, a CoolMax® torso liner and a Napoleon pocket; a Singing Rock Balance II climbing harness with prethreaded "rock and lock" buckles; RBH Designs VaprThrm® vapor barrier socks; Scarpa Inverno plastic mountaineering boots with PEBAX® lining fitted with Petzl Vasak Leverlock crampons; 40 Below K2 Superlight overboots with two layers of heat-reflecting titanium; Grandoe Annapurna Mittens with Thinsulate™ insulation and DuPont ComforMAX™ Radiant technology; an Outdoor Research Polartec® Wind Pro® balaclava; Julbo Revolution goggles with a Zebra® photochromic lens; and a Beko nose guard.

Now all I needed was for the gods and goddesses of the rarefied realms to smile upon me for just a little while.

I stood at the base and peered up the daunting path that lay before me. It was difficult to imagine that I'd ever reach the top. That a single, solitary human placing one foot before the other might reach the gates of heaven. Yet in my moment of deepest doubt, of greatest discouragement, I lifted my right foot and dropped it on the first step, the crampons clawing into the charcoal-gray carpeting. My journey had begun.

My initial progress was fraught. The crampons provided invaluable grip but tended to stick to the carpet; as I proceeded they resisted fiercely, tearing out great tufts of fibrous material. My legs burned with lactic acid as they labored, but I was determined to continue. I was halfway up the first flight, within tantalizing sight of Camp 1 – the second story landing – when I was felled by another, more insidious foe. I grew dizzy and weak, and suddenly developed a debilitating headache. Altitude sickness. There was nothing to do but turn around, descend to base camp, wait, and try again.

I took off my backpack and sat on the bottom step with my head between my knees. I heard someone enter the building. The mailman. He opened the mailbox panel with his master key and rapidly distributed the mail, mostly bills and junk, while occasionally glancing at me with vague curiosity.

"How are you?" he asked.

"Good, thanks," I replied. Then he closed the panel and walked back out again.

The rest and acclimatization did me good, and in forty minutes or so I was able to reach Camp 1. I took off my gloves and balaclava and – with tremendous relief – pulled my blistered feet out of my stiff, plastic boots. I set up the tent along the wall in the middle of the landing and took out the stove to make some tea. Just then I heard a noise below, an inhuman thump, thump, thump!

What is this yeti? I wondered. What is this beast, come to molest me?

It was old Mrs. Ledbetter from 3C, dragging her grocery cart behind her.

"Hi," I said.

"Well hello!" she said.

"Can you get by?"

"I'll manage, I..."

"Here, let me–" I moved the stove aside and swung my legs out of her way to let her past.

"Have a good day!" she said as she made her way up the second flight of stairs.

"You too!"

I retired to the tent and jotted some half-formed thoughts into my journal. Impressions of the beautiful serenity around me, the solitude, the magnificence of it all. After an hour's fitful sleep I got up and broke down the tent, determined to make progress. I couldn't tarry if I wanted to summit before nighttime.

The next flight went better than the first. I'd developed an effective physical and mental routine, heaving my body up each new step in a lurching rhythm while playing mental games to forget the pain, to make the time go by: Listing the Canadian provinces and their capitals. Remembering the names of game show hosts.

I encountered an unexpected obstacle on the third floor landing. A familiar, savory fragrance wafted into my balaclava and below my nose guard: spaghetti bolognese. The Kessels in 3A were making dinner. Though my appetite had largely been suppressed by the altitude, the supremely delicious odor of gently simmering onions, garlic, basil, oregano, ground veal and tomatoes arrested me in my tracks. I slumped against the wall, felled by stabbing hunger pangs. The neck of my balaclava now seemed strangely cold. I pulled it up to see that it was soaked in spit; my face was so numb I didn't realize I'd been drooling. I took off my pack and searched desperately for a CLIF SHOT®. The first one I grabbed was raspberry flavored. I bit off the top, letting it dangle by the patented Litter Leash™, then extruded the fuchsia goo into my gullet. The supersweet, viscous gel coated my palate and slid down my throat with some difficulty, leaving a sharp, chemical aftertaste. I wiped my open mouth with the back of my gloved hand, streaking it with syrupy remains. It was not very good. But it was food. And I had a climb to make.

I'd just put my head down and started up the third flight when I felt a trembling beneath my feet. Avalanche? Falling rocks? I stuck the tip of my axe handle in the carpet and warily looked up to face whatever hazard fate had loosed upon my head. The Fowler twins, age ten, racing perilously down the stairs.

"Mister, mister! Look out, mister!" they cried.

I knelt down on the steps to brace myself against this demonic, heedless wind.

"Careful, kids! Careful!" I admonished as they scrambled by.

With calm restored, I took the measure of my present circumstances. Everything seemed to be OK. Body OK. Gear OK. Or was it? At this stage in a high-altitude climb, hypoxia is a maddening worry. Oxygen deficiency can provoke confusion, disorientation and – most insidiously – euphoria, making it nearly impossible to accurately assess the severity of the creeping malaise. I'd chosen to climb without supplemental oxygen. What foolish vanity to so defy the laws of nature! What hubris! I summoned a sober moment to mutter to myself a rueful curse. And then – because it's all I knew to do – I placed my foot upon the higher step.

If I applied all my will and strength, I knew I could make it to Camp 2 in the next two hours or so. However, I had to factor in one more stop along the way. And though it had nothing to do with rest or nourishment or shelter, it was perhaps the most important one of all. It was sacred. It was the puja, the blessing ceremony in which I was to petition the Gods for good fortune and protection in my quest. I knew the chick in 4B was a Buddhist or something. Sometimes she'd be leaving just as I was climbing down the stairs and I'd glimpse a statue of the Buddha by the wall behind her door. What was her name? Susan? Suzie? After an arduous push to the top of the stairs, I knocked on her door.

"Hi," she said, looking perplexed.

I lifted my goggles to my forehead so she could see my eyes.

"Hi," I greeted her pantingly, hot from my exertions. "Susan, right?"

"Suzie, Suzie. And you're... you live upstairs. Right?"

"Right, right. I'm Dan. 5C."

"Well, what's going on, Dan? Are you OK?"

"Just," I gasped, "a little. Out of breath."

"Well, uh, what can I do for you?"

"You're a... are you a Buddhist? If you don't. Mind my asking."

Her face bore an expression of utter bewilderment.

"I... I... I meditate sometimes, I..."

"Good, good. That's good enough. Listen. As you can see, I'm on my way up," I said, pointing up my index finger. "Normally, there's a blessing ceremony. Needs to take place. Pretty simple. Really. Would you mind helping out?"

"I, uh... I don't know what to say. I... what would I have to do?"

"Do you have yak milk?"

"What?"

"Maybe any kind of milk will do."

"It's two percent," she said tentatively.

"Put it in a bowl and offer it to the Buddha."

"Uh, wow. OK. Can you just... wait here for a minute?"

Suzie reappeared with a bowl of milk and turned to her Siddhārtha.

"Like this?" she asked me over her shoulder.

"Yeah, I guess. Just right in front like that."

She placed the bowl on the edge of the table upon which the golden statue sat.

"Now what?" she asked.

I shifted in my crampons, tearing carpet fibers with each step.

"Do you know any mantras?"

"I know Om mani padme hum."

"Perfect. Will you chant it?"

"Now?"

"Now."

As we stood before her idol, she began:

"Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum."

She looked to me uncertainly.

"Is that enough? I can do a few more if you want."

"No, that's great. That was great. Now we need him to bless my journey."

"How do we get him to do that?"

"I think you just have to ask."

Suzie turned again to the Awakened One. She hesitated.

"How do I... address him?"

"What do you mean?"

"What do I call him? Your majesty?"

"I dunno. That doesn't sound right."

"Right."

"Go with your gut."

Suzie exhaled slowly, her eyes closed. She opened them and spoke to the statue in a solemn tone.

"Father. Holy Father, please bless Dan... Daniel?"

"Dan."

"Dan. Please bless Dan's journey. Thank you very much."

We stood in silence for half a minute. The Buddha beheld us with his trademark squint and smile, everloving and a little mocking, too.

"Thank you so much, Suzie."

"Anytime. Good luck," she said as she closed the door.

The fourth floor landing was meant to be Camp 2, my final resting point before summit assault. But I felt strong. Confident. Again, was this mere delusion? Was I suffering from oxygen deprivation? I thought I wasn't, but I didn't know. All I knew, in fact, was what every solitary climber knows: subjectivity is a trap. Your thoughts and perceptions are at best an educated guess, a blind stab at the truth. Doubt thyself, and you may know. But embarking on this harrowing expedition was my fundamental folly; shouldn't I honor that decision now? I decided to continue to the top.

I'd reached about a third of the way up when I realized I'd made a mistake. I couldn't climb any further. Every step – every movement, even – produced scorching pain in my joints that radiated up my spine and into my skull. I considered climbing back down and setting up camp, but it was too late. With a heart full of worry I bivouacked on the seventh step, shuddering in my bag as the wind blew through that fist-sized hole in the skylight. I awoke about twenty minutes later. I didn't feel much better, but I knew I had no choice. This was what every serious alpinist faces on a risk-taking ascent. This was my Moment of Truth.

I squeezed a packet of caffeinated, chocolate-flavored nutritious goop into my mouth, washed it down with water and packed up. I took a long, deep breath and willed my leg to rise and carry me another step, and then another, and another. I felt like I might just make it as long as nothing went wrong. Nothing, nothing wrong. Please, please, please, God. Nothing.

Then I saw it. That flap of torn carpet on the third step from the top. The one we told the super about weeks ago but that he's completely neglected to repair. There it was, with the fabric folded back and hanging off the edge. Sinister. Deceptively dangerous. The most hazardous obstacle of the entire climb.

Right away, I knew the wrong thing to do. The wrong thing to do was the lazy thing to do. And when you're this high up, the lazy thing gets you killed. The lazy thing would be to attempt to traverse this rift as though it weren't there, to try to step over it, around it.

Though I was at my limit physically, mentally and emotionally, I decided to do the right thing. I took my rope and my etrier out of my backpack. I tied myself to the rope and looped it through both ends of the etrier. I threw one end of the rope up onto the fifth floor landing and tied the other end to the wooden banister where I stood. Now came the hard part.

I stood up on the banister, digging my crampons deep into the cracking, painted wood. I stretched over the precipice and leaned against the side of the landing, where the posts of the railing met the floor. I knew I shouldn't look. Of course you're not supposed to look. But, perversely, I permitted myself a glance: the void was sickening, a hundred-foot plunge to the black-and-white tiled lobby floor. I slowly lifted my head. My mouth was dry and my hands were soaked with sweat. I held my ice screw in my left hand and hammered it through the loop of the etrier with the blunt side of my axe. Then I tied the rope to one of the posts. I was ready to go.

The first step was the scariest. The etrier sank and bowed under my weight, but held fast. The second step was steadier, the third one steadier still. But then I completely missed the fourth. Maybe I'd gotten too confident, too comfortable. I tumbled off the etrier, hit my leg on the banister, and found myself suspended upside down by my waist, lost in the middle of the air. My heart was knocking at my ribs. My body was convulsed with adrenaline. But I was alright. I was alright. Slowly, as calmly as I could, I reached for the Texas T prusik and placed my right foot into one of the stirrups. Then I put my left foot in the other and stood up, wavering a little under the taught ropes, a solo high-wire act without a crowd, without a net. Then I sat in the seat loop and prusiked up, and repeated the process a few more times until I was above the rope and could place my feet back on the etrier. No more mistakes this time. Just go. One, two, three steps, over the railing, and suddenly I was on the fifth floor landing.

I can hardly remember the last few meters. My reality had constricted: only the next step remained, and then the next step after that. All purpose, romance and glory had evanesced with the rest of the world. I was sure that I would make it; I was sure of nothing else. Here I am, here I am, here I am, I thought, and for all I know that was the purpose: to know exactly where you are.

Finally I reached the threshold. I took off my glove and fumbled through my jacket pocket for my keys. My hand was shaking as I unlocked the door. I turned the knob and pushed. Inside, my apartment was warm and welcoming. I walked in and fell down to my knees.

"Honey? Is that you?" my wife called from the kitchen.

"Yes," I croaked, trembling, nearly weeping. "I'm home!"

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Streak - 47

Jim Bosworth gathered his players in the clubhouse before batting practice. The boys braced themselves for one of his harangues, which had tended to cycle through a specific set of themes since about when the streak hit double digits. These were now so rigid and predictable that they could be expressed as titles: Why Is It We Play This Game, Anyway?; What Is the Meaning of One Victory, Just One Lousy Victory, for Chrissakes?; Fundamentals, Fundamentals, Fundamentals; Do It for the Children; Why Do I Even Try?; and his favorite, You're All Nothing But a Bunch of Faggots and You Make Me Sick to My Stomach Just Lookin' at Ya.

However, it was clear from the skipper's abstracted demeanor that there was something else in store.

"Guys, fellas. Everybody dressed? OK, in just a second I'm going to bring in our VP of uh, of Community, um, Corporate. Um, help me out here. Cynthia, Cynthia."

Jim gazed pleadingly at his players and they stared back.

"Hell, Cynthia Gleason. You guys know her. Right?"

There were murmurs of assent from the assembled.

"OK. No more ado." Jim shuffled to the door and let in a statuesque brunette in a navy pantsuit and heels.

"Thank you, Jim! Thanks for your time, guys. I just have a couple of things to bring to your attention this afternoon. First, I want you all to take note of the memorial ribbons on your sleeves. Has everyone taken note of them? Good, good, good. I want you all to be aware. Does anyone have any questions about the memorial ribbons?"

There was an unsteady pause. Then Marlon Hines, a middle reliever, raised his hand.

"Yes, Marlon?"

"What are they for?"

"Good question, Marlon. Memorial ribbons are a time-honored tradition here at the New York Yankees. We like to show our respect and extend our sympathies to members of the–"

"No, I mean what's this one for? Why are we wearing them tonight?"

"Oh. Of course. Of course," replied Cynthia, suddenly flustered. "I'm sorry, I don't have that in my notes," she said. This was curious, because she did not seem to have any notes. "But I believe they, uh. Well, we have experienced quite a momentous... There has in fact been quite a tragedy here, in the Bronx. As you may recall. Yesterday. I believe that may definitely be the reason."

Neither Marlon nor the rest of the team seemed particularly satisfied. So Cynthia elaborated.

"Also, in addition, we have recently experienced the passing of a great contributor to our way of life. And this person, naturally, is Mick Jagger."

Some of the guys began to nod. This, apparently, would do.

"Which brings me to the second agenda item," she continued, confidence restored. "As you are no doubt aware, Sir Jagger appears to have been the victim of a terrorist campaign to undermine all that we cherish and all that we stand for via the systematic extermination of our most beloved celebrities. In light of this, representatives from the Department of Homeland Security were deployed across the country today to interface with famous persons or the proxies or employers of famous persons in order to counsel them as to the severity of this threat and to recommend a program of mitigation strategies."

She paused to let it all sink in.

"Jim, can you get the guys from SPR? Thank you, Jim," she told the manager, who dutifully walked back out the door and reappeared with Matt Gillis and Joe Maines, immaculately dressed just as the day before.

"Some of you know Matt and Joe. Matt Maines and Joe Gillis–"

"Matt Gillis," said Matt.

"Joe Maines," said Joe.

"I'm sorry. Matt Gillis and Joe Maines. They're from Special Player Relations. They're going to walk you through the new security guidelines and answer any questions you may have. Matt and Joe?"

"Thanks Cynthia. Thanks guys. We'll let you out to BP in just a minute," Joe began. "I'm Joe Maines, and this is Matt Gillis. Some of you have already crossed paths with us for one reason or another. All of you probably will at one time or another. Our responsibility is to address the special needs of players. This can mean a lot of things."

"We're fixers," Matt interjected.

"We're fixers. You got a problem, we fix it. Our role is to make it so all you have is one problem: playing baseball."

"We can't help you with that," said Matt.

"We can't help you with that. However big a problem that may be is your concern. And Jim's. But we can help you if you get arrested for drunk-driving your Escalade onto the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at four o'clock on a Tuesday morning. Isn't that right, Carlos?"

Southpaw starter Carlos Nunez buried his face in his hands as the others erupted in a razzing cheer.

"Not to name names," said Matt.

"Not to name names. We can help you if there's a spot on your cock and you're not sure what it is."

"Maybe you scribbled on it with a pen," Matt interjected. "Brendan, you listening?"

Now Brendan Terry convulsed with embarrassment as his teammates howled gleefully.

"Maybe it's a harmless mark from a ballpoint pen," continued Joe. "Maybe it's cock cancer. Maybe you forgot you wrote on your cock and now you're worried you got cancer of the cock. We can allay your fears."

"We can point you in the right direction. Doctors. Medical and otherwise," added Matt.

"Doctors, shrinks, what-have-yous. We can help you engage in wanton, highly promiscuous sexual activity while limiting your exposure on various fronts. Medical. Legal."

"Emotional."

"Emotional. Spiritual. Many of you have benefited from our assistance in this regard without yet realizing it. And if you are inclined to indulge in recreational drugs, we can facilitate your, your, your..."

"Inclination?"

"Inclination. We can facilitate your inclination while ensuring that it does not adversely impact your ability to perform on the field. But today we have been given a new mandate."

"New mandate."

"As Cynthia mentioned, DHS was at the front office today, and at the front offices of every other team in the league. They impressed upon us the fact that you are famous."

"Well, not all of you," Matt said. He turned to Joe. "Not all of them."

"The more famous among you know who you are. And you should also know that you are at risk of abduction and/or death at the hands of a terrorist group known as Moo."

"M.U. or Moo."

"Now, the DHS reps told us that there appears to be some intelligence that it is the intention of this group to assassinate one celebrity representative from each of the following fields of human endeavor: music–"

"That one's done already," said Matt.

Joe turned to his colleague. "I know, I know. But this is their plan–"

"You said their intention. They're not going to do another music one."

"No, but their plan is to–"

"They did music. Music is done. Music was Mick Jagger."

"OK, OK, OK," Joe said irritatedly. "According to some intelligence this group's intention is to assassinate one celebrity representative from each of the following remaining fields." He turned to Matt. "Satisfied?"

"Satisfied."

"Movies. Television. Food. What does food mean?"

"Food means chefs. Food means Bobby Flay."

"Ah. Movies. Television. Food. Fashion. Self-help literature. New technology entrepreneurship. Blogging. This one's weird: wealth wildcard."

"I think that just means a random rich person."

"A random rich person in addition? That hardly seems fair."

"Probably someone who's just famous for being rich. They wouldn't necessarily be eligible in any other category."

"Ah, right. That's OK then. Where was I? Wealth wildcard. Punditry. Rabble-rousing. Architecture. And, of course..."

"Of course."

"Sports. OK. So these guys gave us a bullet-pointed list as to what to do. But Matt and I wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't interpret that list for your benefit."

"Filter it."

"Filter it. Distill it. Extract the gist. And the gist is this–gentlemen, are you all paying attention?"

"Everybody paying attention?"

"Guys! Listen up," Jim chimed in.

"The gist is this," said Joe. "Be vigilant."

"Be vigilant and be aware."

"Above all: be vigilant."

Joe swept the room with a grave expression.

"Any questions?"

Friday, October 02, 2009

Call Me By My Name

We'd gone for a drunken lunch on a slow and sunny Friday and taken the long way back to work. Bill and Tom and me. Bill was our boss, but he was more of a friend than a boss. We didn't realize it but he was taking us somewhere. When he turned left, we turned left. When he crossed the street we followed him. Soon we were in an unfamiliar part of town. Unfamiliar to me, at least.

Something seemed to be on Bill's mind. He drew the last of his cigarette and flicked it in the gutter.

"I want to show you guys something," he said.

We came to the door of a bland and dreary building. Bill opened it and waved us in. It was dark inside.

"This way," said Bill.

We followed him across a desolate lobby and into a hallway. There was a light at the end, an opening into what looked like a janitor's office or the storeroom of a restaurant kitchen. There was a metal bucket full of pale gray water with a mop stuck in it and an old, gray metal desk with a fluorescent lamp illuminating a clutter of pens and papers and mail. And there was a door that led to a stairway to the basement.

"Down here," said Bill.

We climbed down into a dark and musty, cavelike room. On the wall facing us there was a door. Bill opened it and I was startled to find a large, furnished room with sunlight streaming through windows along the top of the wall. There were people in it, maybe twenty or so. They didn't seem to be doing much. Some were sitting on couches, some were sitting on the floor. Some were standing, perhaps on their way from one side to the other. They did not seem surprised to see us.

"What are your names?" one man asked.

"Yes, tell us your names," said another. Yes! Yes! others said, and everyone gazed at us expectantly.

Bill signaled us with a nod.

"I'm Joe," I said.

"I'm Tom," said Tom.

They all nodded and smiled, and then returned to what they were doing. Which was nothing.

I turned to Bill. "What is this?"

"It's nothing."

"What do you mean, it's nothing?"

He shrugged. "It's a place where people come."

"Come and do what?"

He smiled and shrugged again. "Not much. Nothing, really."

I scrutinized the room. There was a kitchenette to our left and what appeared to be the door to a bathroom. Some of the people had gotten up and were coming our way.

"OK, people are going to walk up and introduce themselves," Bill announced. "It's very, very important that you remember their names."

A young woman extended her hand. "I'm Amy," she said. Others followed behind her: "I'm Lisa." "I'm Paul." "I'm Julie." I shook their hands and nodded and said hi, hello, nice to meet you.

I was startled to see my friend Kate.

"Kate? You?"

She gave a coy smile, like I'd caught her in a mildly embarrassing situation.

"It's good to see you here, Joe."

There were others I knew, too. Another coworker. Someone who lived in my building. And some familiar faces that I couldn't place. I felt like I was meeting them anew, on the other side of some divide.

Finally the introductions were over. Everyone regained their seats and continued to do nothing. There were no books, no magazines. No TV. Very little conversation, even, as far as I could tell.

"Now what happens?" I asked Bill.

"Let's sit down," he said, and the three of us picked a spot on the carpet and sat cross-legged in a triangle.

"Are we supposed to be quiet?" asked Tom.

Bill pursed his lips and looked away as he formulated his answer. "You don't have to be quiet as a rule, no."

"But it's encouraged," I offered.

"I wouldn't say that it's encouraged," Bill said blankly, shaking his head. "Oh, the bathroom's over there," he added, pointing to the door beside the kitchenette. "And if you're hungry, there's peanut butter and jelly and bread in the fridge."

"How long are we supposed to stay?" I asked.

"You can stay as long as you want."

"When can we leave?"

"You can leave anytime you want," Bill said.

"So we just sit here?" asked Tom.

"You can sit wherever you like. Or you can stand."

We sat for a long while in silence, occasionally shifting our legs to keep from cramping up. Occasionally Bill would look at me or Tom with the trace of a smile. After an hour or so, or two, or maybe three, I began to feel a powerful elation welling up from deep within my chest. Bill broke out in a wide smile.

"You're feeling it, aren't you?"

"Yes," I said.

"Isn't it great?"

"It's amazing."

Soon Tom was evidently feeling the same thing too. He appeared to wipe away a tear.

"Wow, Jesus. This is great," he said. Bill and I smiled radiantly at him.

The sensation was not unlike a psychedelic drug, though somehow more profound. More intense. And yet we hadn't taken anything. In fact, we hadn't done anything.

Through the veil of my intoxication I watched a professional-looking woman in heels get up off the couch and walk towards the door. She seemed to be moving very slowly.

"Where are you going?" someone asked her.

She turned around to face the room.

"I'm leaving."

"Don't go!" several people said.

"Call me by my name," she replied immediately.

"Don't go, Linda!" they pleaded in unison. And as if on cue Linda turned her back, opened the door and was gone.

"What was that?" I asked Bill.

"When you're leaving, it's customary to ask people to call you by your name."

"You have to ask them to call you by your name?"

"It's customary to do so."

"If they don't call you by your name, do you have to stay?"

Bill closed his eyes and shook his head. "You can leave anytime you want."

I felt like I was on fire. Like there was nothing I couldn't do. Nothing I could do. Nothing I couldn't. Do. Could do, couldn't. Do. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Dream, dream, dream.

My trip undulated through periods of bliss and of confusion. At one point it occurred to me that I was very hungry. I watched myself walk to the fridge and pull the handle. I heard the suck of the breaching seal. Inside there were rows and rows and rows of jars of Skippy peanut butter on the top shelf and just as many of Welch's grape jelly on the middle one. On the bottom shelf, loaves of Wonder bread were stacked in two layers of six. On each shelf, the rightmost item was opened and about a quarter empty. I placed all three on the counter and opened the nearest drawer. It was filled with hundreds of white plastic knives. I took one, closed the drawer, and made myself a sandwich.

People came and went. Always there was the same refrain: Call me by my name. On one occasion a young woman was not accommodated. They cajoled her impersonally: "Stay! Stay! Stay! Don't Go!" With one hand on the doorknob she balked, and turned, and with a grim and weary smile she rejoined the cheering group.

I drifted in and out of euphoric hallucinations. In a moment of relative lucidity it occurred to me that I hadn't seen Tom in a while.

"Did Tom leave?" I asked Bill.

"Yes."

"Did you call him by his name?"

"I did not call him by his name."

"And still he left?"

Bill nodded solemnly.

Last I knew before the dark, the setting sun shone through the windows to cast a rosy glow upon the wall.

I awoke with a start. (Or was I awake?) It was dead black and quiet all around me. Though it appeared I was alone, I sensed a presence. A bestial shadow in the dark. I thought it was a wolf. The disembodied spirit a wolf. I opened my mouth and let out a croaking, anguished cry into the void:

"Call me by my name!"

I didn't even hear an echo in reply.

"Call me by my name!" I screamed. "Call me by name! Call me by name!"

It was then I had an appalling epiphany. And I'm not sure I spoke or merely thought the words that are to follow. All I know is that they were my last.

My God. You die if you stay here!