I turn over for what must be the tenth time in as many minutes. The ground here is uneven and greets every attempt at comfort with a new root, or a small rock, or a pebble, or a hollow. I cannot fall asleep; I cannot find the position that might allow me to. Or perhaps I have slept, perhaps I have stretched my legs a little on sleep’s surface, I don’t know, but I do know that now I am very much awake.
So, back to the drawing board. I ease my way around again, slowly, aware of Rick not quite snoring but definitely—and happily, I gather—asleep only a foot from me. He must be used to this mountainous treatment. Even so, I don’t want to wake him. The sleeping bag rustles as I maneuver onto my back only to find the ground true to its mission.
There’s no way. I give up and open my eyes onto dark, cold air.
We’re two to a tent and there are three tents in our little camp. Rick and I in this one. Linda and Jeff in another. Jim and Eva in a third. It is very still. The earlier winds asleep, too. I listen to this stillness. There is not a sound from either of the other tents. It seems they are all asleep, all but me used to these rugged.
I can hear the soft gurgle of a brook about twenty feet away, awake just like me. And a sigh through the pines and the tall grass surrounding the camp, barely strong enough to gently flap the side of the tent.
It’s cold this high up. I imagine I would see my breath were it a little lighter, but all I see even though I strain with eyes wide open is black tinged with only a suggestion of a light, black eased by whatever starlight seeps through canvas. Not enough to see my breath though, and now something hard has crept in and settled under my left shoulder and I ease over onto my side to escape it. Not successfully.
A question crosses my mind, or more like one of those shadows that questions cast. Have I dreamed this? Recently? I close my eyes to sink again in hope of finding out, but I am too awake to sink and I remain all aware on the surface, like a bobber, and a frustrated one at that. The ground is too hard, too hostile, too there, and I can find neither dream nor sleep. So I give up on sleep all the way and slowly unzip the bag and ease my way out of it. Out into the cold, into the very cold now.
I rummage around as silently as I can—keeping an eye Rick to make sure I’m not waking him—and I find my jeans and sweater and boots and parka, and I manage to dress and leave the tent reasonably quietly. Quietly enough, as it happens for Rick only stirs and mumbles something as I re-zip the entrance flap but he doesn’t wake up.
Once outside, I stand all the way up and stretch. Here I can see my breath. There’s no moon, but at nine thousand some feet the stars are bright and things are quite visible.
I look up. They are everywhere, the stars, and as palpable as the ground I stand on. Suns, I think, they’re every one of them a distant sun.
I’m not sure what I’m doing here, dead in the middle of the night, alone, awake. I listen again: just the brook now, the trees and grass all done sighing, or perhaps holding their breath wondering what I’m about.
I’m not sure what I’m about either, so I look around. Three tents, five sleeping humans. And up again at the stars, the brilliant, uncountable star.
At the edge of the camp, not far from the brook, I spot my walking stick leaning against a boulder. I walk over to it, pick it up, and then I know what I’m doing. I head out of camp.
Not that I know where I’m going, just elsewhere, away for a bit.
My feet bring me down to the brook where I stop to watch more starlight. Then I look down at the water, dancing and gurgling, in it the stars, scattered and wet, dancing and gurgling downstream. A small jump lifts me across all of them.
I am a star jumper.
On the other side of the stream I see the path we came by. It’s quite visible now that my eyes have adjusted fully. For a moment I consider direction, up or down? then I strike out for the peak, dark and looming, some three thousand feet closer to the stars.
Some little way up the path I stop to take in the mammoth shapes surrounding me. There are four peaks, each at least twelve thousand feet, each pitch dark against the now blazing Milky Way. Everything is clear, tangible. The dust of the galaxy almost sings and a billion stars seem to pulsate, to breathe, to live.
None of these stars is quite where it appears to be. What I see is where they were. Strangely, I think I can sense where they are right now, and how far away precisely. It is a very odd feeling that makes me take a deep breath, and then I shiver. I look down again, upon the climbing path, and I set out again. I want to take a closer look.
A little farther up the path a stray thought returns to camp, to those asleep there, my friends. Should I have left them a note? No, I decide, no need. I’ll be back well before anyone’s awake.
But then I stop, for another stray thought wants to know: but what if I don’t? and I answer, don’t what? return, it says, before anyone’s awake. They’ll be concerned. Don’t worry, I answer, I’ll be back well before then.
So I fill my lungs with cold, clean, star speckled air and set out again.
The path, only two feet or so wide now and rocky, hugs the side of the mountain in ever rising sweeps. Looking back, I can no longer make out the camp, or even the swath of night down there I knew to be the camp.
Again, I stop to fill my lungs with air. It is sweet and cold but hollow. There’s not much for my lungs to wrap themselves around up here. And I take another deep breath, to let oxygen find and feed my legs and then I set out again, one foot, then the other as my staff swings forward, then the one, then the other.
The drop to my right is sheer now and the path is no more than a carved direction. I think about those who did this, those who with pickaxes and sledgehammers and muscle and enormous lungs swung their way up the cliff that I may now progress up into the night sky so many years later. What did they think about their ascent? And who were they?
Criminals perhaps, and their labor forced, part of their sentence? Or were altruists that gladly paved the way for others free of charge? Or students, perhaps, between semesters? Or a couldn’t-care-less contractor? I really have no idea, but someone did swing the axes and hammers that shaped the rock and someone did think about something as the hammer struck and splintered the stone as maybe a splinter hit a leg and drew blood or maybe they wore leather shielding to prevent just such mishaps.
And with one heavy foot then the next carrying me farther up the path, I wonder, strangely, why I really have no idea, why I can’t sense that person. Why can’t I tell who it was that carved my path to the stars and what kind of life he led. There should still be traces of him; at least a molecule or two that I could sense, discern, and build into the person swinging the axe.
I have to rest.
Orion has shifted a little, I notice, so I have been gone for a while. My lungs hint at burning as they fight for what few scraps of oxygen I inhale.
I stare out across the faint bowl of mountain far below. I take another breath and another and then set out again for the summit, still distant and looming and almost whispering. There is a hint of snow up there.
A part of me has been waiting for this need to climb—yes, it was like a need as I left the camp—to flag and fade, but it doesn’t. It has become the thing I do, and I can’t think of any reason not to, nor can I think of anything else I’d rather do.
So it’s what I do.
I had left Los Angeles in turmoil.
“If you go, then you damn well better stay gone.”
Her words. Yelled, more or less. I was never good at confrontations, while she seemed to relish them. I tried to look her in the eyes, I tried to stand my ground but I could find no purchase.
I could feel her vibrate with indignation, the air around her shimmering with it.
I cast about for the right words, for the combination of words to shut her up, but that combination does not exist. At least I have not been able to find it, and I have been looking for a long time. Still, I looked again while she stood there shimmering, waiting for my excuse. I avoided her face but then briefly returned to it and in that glimpse I could almost trace a smile. It was not a pretty smile. It was a vindictive smile. A pleased one. But only a trace of one, only the shadow of a departing one, and only if you knew exactly what to look for and where. Only if you knew her well.
I knew her well.
Finally, I said, “I can’t change everybody’s plans now. We’re leaving in the morning.” My voice fell far short of firm. Instead, it wafted across to her more like a whimper, like a complaint. Her smile almost materialized, she was enjoying this.
“And you made sure I was not invited.” It was not a question. It was an assertion, an accusation.
“You don’t even like hiking.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Well then, what is the point?”
“The point is that you live in your own little world and play your own little games and you’re dead scared of inviting anyone else amongst your little toys and fantasies.”
“You know that’s not fair.”
“Oh, for crying out loud, stop sniveling.”
We had drifted so far apart, were so distant as to constitute insanity. She had such little notion of who I was or what I wanted that the gulf between us was unspannable. Neither could I any more fathom what drove her, what truly mattered to her. And so, there was no answer I could give. Instead, I turned around, slowly through sticky emotional bog, and walked away.
“And don’t bother coming back.”
I didn’t turn around for I knew she would be smiling. She didn’t really mean it, is what I told myself. She just likes winning.
I catch a single shooting star to my right. It rushed down as a tiny explosion out of nowhere. A tiny, little star so much closer than the others, and such a short life span. I stop again. They usually come in numbers so I look hard at the spot where our atmosphere ate the little rock, expecting more. None came. And none came.
I scan the sky again. There’s no further debris. Just the calling stars and the vivid light of the Milky Way and two feet with boots on and a staff and the now soft hum of the wind that never completely rests at this altitude.
What does she matter now? Her winning and bullying and bolstering herself and her scratching and hurting. Her hands raw and burning and pulling and cursing the rope that anchors me to her as she does her best to see that I don’t drift up and away, a balloon too light to restrain, threatening to escape. What of her now?
I cast my eyes down the path I have climbed so far, and she is nowhere to be seen. There’s only me up here. And the fresh wind.
And the stars.
I shed her like a skin, and laugh. Not that I have the oxygen to spare. It takes three deep breaths to still my heart—three deep, oxygen-starved lungfuls.
It is definitely colder now. My ears burn a little, but not much. I think they are confused about whether to be hot or cold. I touch them and they are a little numb. Okay, cold then. I bring the parka hood up over my head to warm them. Yes, that’ll work say the ears, thank you so much. But no, this does not work for me. The hood may shield and warm but it also alters the night. It shuts out the wind, the silent hum of stars above me, the scraping of my boots against firm gravel and rock beneath and here I feel I need the night complete. So I bring the hood back down despite the colder air and over the silent protests or ears.
With every rising step, the dark plateau of the summit grows bigger by very small degrees, then it stops growing and even recedes at little as the path levels out and veers away and even descends slightly. Only for a while, though. I can see it climb again up ahead. I find it easier to walk here, though, on even ground. My feet are not quite so heavy.
There was no way, no way in hell I could leave without a signed contract. No way. Ludlum was not only adamant about it, he was furious.
I told him again, I was going. End of story. I was going. Sorry.
He appeared too stunned to answer, so I took that opportunity to leave. A few steps down the hallway I heard him open his door behind me. No way. Absolutely no way. I expected him to slam it shut, but nothing followed. I looked back. He still stood in the doorway, watching my escape. Not if I had any plans to make partner this year. No, he never actually said that, but the message was so clear he didn’t have to.
Now, I did see his point. Of course I saw his point. It was a very sweet deal and we had worked on it for, oh, well over six months, almost a year, and it was one of my main assignments. But I had postponed this trip for a lot longer than that, and I had finally had enough. I was going no matter what, and no matter what the consequences.
The buyer and their lawyers had arrived at our offices last Thursday, four o’clock. Large conference room. To sign. This was it, no more bickering, they had come actually to sign this time. We finally had a deal. No more bartering, no more drafts, no more counter proposals. They had come to sign and it was Thursday and I was leaving Friday morning for Aspen.
So far so good.
Oh, they came alright. But not to sign. No, not just yet. Just these few minor details, two or three points, all incorporated in this draft here. I had lost count. Draft number fifty, sixty? The enormous document was handed out to all present. Classy white and black stickers indicating the pages that required signatures, and the orange ones the pages with changes. Take a few minutes, look it over, and if you agree, which we’re sure you will, let’s sign.
Forget it. We are not going to sign anything before we read the entire document, again. We had to make sure. We had to know what we signed. Proper practice. Our job.
Of course, we had done the same thing to them, and more than once: added a line or two without the customary underlining to indicate the addition. Mistake. Sorry. No one’s fault really. But it was planned that way. And these little mistakes were designed to cost the other party plenty in the long run. So, of course we wouldn’t, couldn’t, didn’t sign. And up to this point, as long as we could bill at three-fifty an hour: What the hell, the more the merrier. But now they had come to sign. This was supposed to be it. The buyer was tired of the haggling and our client was tired of the haggling and both parties had begun losing money now by not closing. That’s why they were here to sign, just those little points, there by the orange labels.
The other team knew we were under pressure to close as well, and tactically they did the right thing. They just needed our approval of these tiny little orange points. Minor details.
The little orange-sticker details were no problem. Of course not. They were not meant to be problems. The problem was the hidden additions, or changes, if any, that we had to catch. The “mistakes.” So, no, sorry, we’re not going to sign now. Their client said something along the lines of what the hell is going on, but their lead attorney touched his arm, it’s all right. Trust me.
Ludlum looked at me, and I looked back at him. He wanted me to say something but I was not about to. So he said it instead: we could be ready by, say (and a brief, heads-up look at me) Monday noon, and if everything was fine we’d close then. Their lead attorney conferred with their client. Whispers back and forth. Then, fine. Monday noon. We all filed out of the conference room, said our goodbyes. I trailed Ludlum to his office.
“This gives you three days,” he said.
“I’m going to Aspen.”
He knew this was coming but he still managed to act surprised. Affronted. Really. “You have got to be kidding.”
“I told you months ago. Months. You agreed. I’m going.”
“This was supposed to be wrapped up long ago.”
“So you’re staying to read the new draft.”
“Are you telling me you’re going to jeopardize the closing to suit your God Damn personal agenda?”
“I’m not jeopardizing this deal, and you know it. Have someone else read it. You could read it. You can still close by Monday. Or you can wait until I come back. I’ll be here Tuesday, I’ll burn the midnight oil, and we can close next Thursday. What’s three days after all this time?”
“We’ll sign Monday.”
“Without me, then.”
“Look, damn it. There is no way you can leave without a signed contract. You are the point man on this. You’re the one who knows that bloody thing inside and out.”
“So wait until I get back.”
“There’s no way, no way in hell you can leave without a signed contract.”
“I’m going. End of story. I am going. Sorry.”
He appeared too stunned to answer and I took that opportunity to leave.
I left the office and took my scheduled flight out the next morning.
As usual it all boiled down to the ever-sacred bottom line and I was so tired of it, so utterly sick and tired of it. I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes. To be honest I had surprised myself, I had actually done it. I had left the draft on my desk, I had left the office, I had left town. Would I have a job when I got back? Judging by Ludlum, probably not, though I doubted they would fire me. I had brought a lot of business to the firm, and my billable hours were in the seventies each week. They could not afford to fire me.
Then I surprised myself again: I didn’t care.
Now the path bends upward again and the reprieve is over for feet and lungs. And it’s steeper, too, almost like a stairway now, each step six or so inches above the last. I look up at the summit. Closer, more immediate, but still a ways to go.
Although the eastern sky lacks any hint of dawn, I know that it’s not too far off. Monday dawn, closing day. Yes, they probably are closing today. I am sure Ludlum thought of something, had some poor associates go through their latest draft alongside its predecessor word for word over the weekend. To be done by noon today, the latest.
Twenty-three, breathe, twenty-four, breathe, twenty-five, breathe. I have to stop. The path is very steep. I take three deep breaths, then three more. After twenty more steps I have to sit down and rest.
But why is it? I ask myself. I really want to know. It strikes me, between breaths, as a crucial question: Why are we so enamored with the bottom line? And what do we do with all that extra cash? We buy time-saving machinery to improve the bottom line. We cut the thickness of the washers by three one hundredths of an inch, and over a year that’s a savings of twenty-six grand in raw materials. Right to the bottom line. And if we re-engineer the R & D department and cut its staff by, say, thirty percent we will save three hundred thousand, in the first six month. Straight to the bottom line. First to market, by eight weeks. To the bottom line. Sell three affiliates, buy two, downsize one, streamline the production lines of the others. To the bottom line. I had heard it all, aided and abetted them all. But in the end who exactly does the bottom line benefit? The bottom line—it occurs to me sitting on this rocky step halfway to the sky—really does not benefit anyone but the bottom line. We scurry the Earth, blind to our peculiar blindness, chasing, chasing, chasing the one God we can agree upon: The bottom line.
I rise and turn to face the summit and take another step, then another, then I stop again and take a deep breath, and as I turn and look out over the lesser peaks and massive shoulders of the Rocky Mountains I get a strong sense that I’m standing on top of a very large sphere (which I am), and that this sphere is suspended in a space (which it is) that indeed exists below me as well as above me (which it does), and with a laugh that I really can’t afford I shed the bottom line like a skin.
I feel lighter.
There are no trees here. Still, the wind whispers and moans. Water, a small lake to my left, glistens in the starlight. Dark, mystical. Can fish live here? I wonder. I make out ripples on the shining surface and I wonder at my eyes, that I see so clearly.
One, breathe, two, breathe, three breathe, four breathe.
So, who is my God then? What am I blindly chasing?
I discovered sex when I was in sixth grade. And “discovered” is the precise word I want. That night, I was in my bed, and I itched and itched and I rubbed and rubbed and suddenly the most wonderful feeling filled me from loins to legs to heart to head. Then I got really wet, and then I got really scared. My first notion was that I may have gone insane. May actually have. So alien, so bizarre and so vibrant was the feeling, so real. It was like nothing I had ever heard of, been told of, or read about—my mother too embarrassed about the subject to broach it, and my father too manly. But I was still in one piece, thinking. I’m still myself, I’m still coherent. So, not crazy, then.
Well, if that was the case, this was a miracle, a treasure. I tried rubbing some more and eventually I got the hang of it. And it happened again. And again. And again.
And again. And now, what, five, six, ten thousand agains later, is it still a miracle?
I think not. From eleven thousand feet, and still climbing, it looks more like a prison to me, or a cage. I’m just another mouse, blind to my own blindness, scurrying the Earth with this tiny hard-on for lady mice, hardly going an hour, or even ten minutes, ever, without on some level thinking about, planning, contemplating, or practicing, sex. And was there ever a dividend? Really? Is there any? Other than children, which if you look at it would only require sex as many times as you want children. What else is there?
From where I stand, listening to my own breathing, wondering briefly at a star that appears to grow as I look, I see none. I see no dividend at all. I see no lasting pleasure. Instead I see a long string of vacuums where I lay spent in the hollowness of it all. There is nothing on this earth that promises such riches and delivers such nothings. I see that now as I laugh and I shed sex like a skin.
I feel lighter.
I am entering the heart of the night, which beats the darkest just before dawn. I hear the wind touch the mountain now here, now over there. Now diving down into the valley below, now rising, baring its chest and claiming the sky as its own.
How come I see things so clearly?
I take another step, and another. Eighty-five, breathe, eighty-six, breathe. I no longer feel tired, my lungs seem to have gotten the hang of this, though I notice my hand glisten with sweat as I take the steps at a more even pace now, eighty-seven, breathe, eighty-eight, breathe, eighty-nine, breathe, ninety.
And out there, far below, I can see myself, my life spread across the Earth as color at first and then as painting. The world has become painting, and in the center of its vast canvas I see myself, painted too, along with everything else. And from within this painting I look up and I see good, and I look down and I see evil, and I look up and I see God, and I look down and I see the Devil. Above me are things to reach for, below me things to shun. But from here, from where I now stand, above and outside this painting, as I look at it square on I can see neither good nor bad: I see only painting.
No God, no Devil, only painting. You have to be in it, you have to be a part of it, to miss it. And so I laugh and shed my life like a skin.
And I feel very light.
That star keeps growing and growing, and now, as I reach the summit, it lands.
The door slides open and Divakar steps out. And with that it all comes rushing back to me: who I am, what I’m doing here. For I’d recognize him anywhere, his shimmer his hue. He reaches out for me. Behind him, at the controls I see Lokesh, peeking out at me with concern.
“You made it,” says Divakar.
I laugh and shed my human body like a skin.
“Yes,” I say. “I made it.”
We enter our craft. “You almost drowned,” says Lokesh, plainly relieved. “You never answered. We weren’t sure you’d make it.”
“Yes,” I say. “Yes. That was a close call.”