Bugaboo

By  |  February 26, 2015
Art by Tom Martin | www.TomMartinDesign.com Art by Tom Martin | www.TomMartinDesign.com

I first met Max on my way home from the Gulp, a bottomless whirlpool in the Everglades where people go to commit suicide. This was in 2005. You have to hike six miles along a blackwater canal dug by Andrew Jackson’s slaves, to a remote lake where you wade out until you’re sucked under to drown. Your body turns up in the Intracoastal Waterway. I don’t know the physics of it.

For hours I stood on the pier girding myself, even threw my phone into the water, but then I chickened out and didn’t squeeze between the rails. I walked back along Jackson Ditch. Twilight was fading when I reached my truck again, miles into the swamp on a road I hadn’t known was gated until I found myself locked in.

To the left the grade dropped off into the canal ditch. To the right stood a tar paper shack whose fence stretched across the path I might have driven across.

My only choice was to kill the engine, walk to the porch, and ring the bell. Almost immediately a middle-aged obese man of mixed race opened the door, holding a bottle of Johnnie Walker.

“I’m locked in,” I said to him.

“They shut that gate,” he replied, gesturing not toward it but to the night itself, which had closed in on the horizon.

“What can I do?”

“I’ll fetch the number.”

“My phone’s dead.”

“Use mine,” he said, beckoning me into his home. I followed him into a dim room where some hard drives blinked green under a long table full of computer monitors.

“You a programmer?”

“Work for the government. Name’s Max.”

“That’s my name too,” I said. “What branch?”

“Guess. And sit.”

After I lowered myself into the chair he indicated, his screens came alive with satellite feeds of cities, plains, and, in the far right, a pier poking into water. On it stood a man who looked like a skillet from overhead, his arm stretching out from a circle of black hair.

I realized he had just thrown his cell phone into the lake.

“Care to see a movie I did?” said the other Max, hitting play already as he spoke. The video feed showed a girl plunging into neck-deep water. Her shimmering hair floated behind her as she waded toward the Gulp, which swallowed her, leaving only rings of waves.

Max increased the playback speed to 8x. Hand-in-hand a decrepit white-haired couple scurried to their deaths, followed by more girls.

“What is this place?”

“I spy for the CIA on other countries,” said Max, as a parade of suicides continued dying for us under clear skies.

“So you collect deaths.”

“I monitor my surroundings. Here’s what I collect.”

He summoned up feeds where nudes sunbathed on a beach, an orgy of men sucked each other off by moonlight, and two shoeless women trudged across a desert full of flowers. I took them for refugees until one bent over to suck on the other one’s nipple.

“Get a load of this,” said Max.

I expected another video, but he poured me a scotch. “I don’t drink,” I said.

“How long?”

“Four and a half years.”

“And she still won’t take you back?”

“Who won’t?” I said, uneasy.

“The girl you love.” He pressed the drink into my hand.

I couldn’t help but close my fingers around it. “Alcohol was ruining my life.”

“It ever drive you to kill yourself?”

“Worse,” I said, breathing in the peaty smell. Already I could taste smoke on the lips of girls I’d kissed while drunk. I put the glass to my mouth. What dread I’d had was flushed out by the whiskey that flowed into me and felt right. “Worse like how?” Max said, a question it felt possible to address now that I had liquor in me, so I began by explaining that he was right about the girl, Livia, whom I had met on Coulter Mountain in my third year of sobriety.

My first year, when I got back into climbing, I didn’t plan on free-soloing. I just dreaded speaking sober. To find belaying partners, you had to talk to them. As for rope-soloing, I had too much anxiety in those days to move so slowly. One day I just left my ropes and Grigri in the car. About halfway up a 5.11, I realized I wasn’t anxious. The rock had flushed the dread right out of me, which felt supernaturally good, like I was part of the earth’s mechanics. I summited vowing to climb that way from then on. For two years, I did. By the time I hoisted myself onto the dome of Coulter Mountain with no gear but chalk, I’d forgotten I was ill.

On top of that cliff I rolled over on my back and looked around. Cross-legged toward the view sat a hot girl in a sports bra, drinking something green out of a Nalgene.

“Did you just free-solo this mountain?” she said.

“For Rock and Ice,” I answered, which was true: Rock and Ice wanted a piece on how free-soloing helped keep me sober.

“If you were writing about suicide, would you drown yourself?”

“No, I’d free-solo K2. Is that a margarita?”

“Yeah,” she said, offering it to me. I shook my head.

“Herradura Gold,” she said.

“I’m a sober alcoholic.”

“Let me guess, free-climbing’s the next best thing to drinking? A pure vertical dance? Like leaping on the moon?” She was quoting a climber named Brendan Timmins who had recently died doing it. “Think of his mother, think of his siblings.”

“Brendan was an only child.”

“Which makes his shit even more selfish.”

Without the endorphins lingering from my climb, I’d have been too timid to say, “When I chose to free-solo, I hadn’t met you.”

“So I’m saving your life?”

“Teach me to use ropes.”

“You’re asking me out?”

“Feels like a date already.”

“Will you mention me in your article?”

“If you sign an exclusivity contract.” We flirted on like that. It didn’t take me long to see her point: if I had died, I’d never have lowered her behind the summit’s cairn and kissed her. After a climb it’s so effortless to pick out what you want, and ask for it. I said so in my essay, which Livia wept over. I wrote how, when I drank, I never trusted that I deserved anyone. I’d slept with crack whores, cried when they abandoned me. Now that a smart woman who climbed fourteeners let me live with her, it felt like no small cozy miracle. I promised in print not to free-solo again. Livia is what comes of sober focus, I wrote, as if my recovery and climbing had spawned a third, better accomplishment.

I couldn’t stay away from her. I would come sit in her photography classes, help with shoots. I took up trail running so we could run the Colorado Trail together. Although my delusions came back, I assumed they were a by-product of love. Sometimes when I fell prey to daydreams where she was bludgeoned and I was the suspect, I drove to the canyon and scrambled up as far as the death line. Up there at that height I could quit fearing that Livia would leave me or die. Perched on crumb-sized knobs I felt as if all history, plate tectonics, evolution, had conspired to bring me peace that I could tap into in secret, once or twice a week, until Livia finished her MFA and got a job offer from a Miami art school.

With no idea how it would feel, I told Livia I’d go anywhere. We moved into an apartment in Hialeah beside a sixteen-lane highway, five hundred miles south of the nearest hill. The temperature was always seventy indoors, one hundred outdoors. I found a job at a rock gym, where I taught kids how to tie knots and brooded my way into a full-on mood disorder.

It began with little things, like driving over a bump, then obsessing over the idea that it had been a person. I would scour the news for evidence of a hit-and-run. At the gym some guy would fall onto the mat, and visions would plague me of a criminal investigation. I grew scared to strap kids into their harnesses lest they accuse me of touching them. The sound of any siren suggested that Livia was dead and the cops were coming. The more unlikely the idea, the harder I obsessed. I saw myself as a sex offender living under a bridge. I quit answering the phone.

“Do you ever dread stuff that will never happen?” I managed to ask Livia over coffee one morning. It was the first time I’d mentioned such a thing. No matter how she’d balked at free-soloing, she was mine because her instincts drew her to strength and daring.

“Sometimes I dream you’ve run off to free-solo Half Dome.”

“I mean things that could literally never happen.”

“Like being nice to my friends?” Some of her colleagues had taken us snorkeling in the Keys, hiking in the Everglades, which was causing her to enjoy life in Florida.

“Do you ever worry you’ve hit someone with the car?”

“I did hit a woman when I was sixteen. Why do you ask?”

“You never told me about that.”

“She was drunk. I forgot until now.”

“Did it plague you with dread?”

“She was fine after six months.”

“It must have felt horrible.”

“Road was icy. C’est la vie, you know?”

Livia took her new job to get rid of me, I thought later at the gym. By following her to Florida, I had called her bluff. The choice to relinquish mountains was an exam I’d failed. Now she wished for me to go free-solo Half Dome, except maybe I’d retained no courage to climb at all, I was thinking when I realized I could have left the stove on.

As unlikely as it seemed, I felt so certain that I couldn’t bring myself to call Livia. I had killed her along with a dozen others. No matter the worry’s insanity; it consumed me. My stomach roiled, my cheeks burned. Hours later, when I finally did call, she didn’t answer.

I was dialing a second time when Ty, the owner of the rock gym, walked in. “I’ve been ringing you for days,” he said.

“The phone was broken. I just fixed it.”

“I don’t care how good a climber you are; you’re fired.”

“Okay,” I said, nearly thanking him. With pure relief I hurried home to find an intact apartment, where Livia was drinking mimosas with a pixie-faced woman.

I hardly had time to relax before that woman came in toward me for a European-style cheek kiss.

Even during my calmest era, studying abroad in Marseille, deep-water soloing in the Calanques, I’d feared these damned gestures, because which side? How many times? Her lips were traveling toward mine as if we were to kiss like lovers—which, since it went so fast, was what I did, giving her the quickest peck.

“So lovely to see you,” she said, as if I’d done nothing wrong, but already I could hear the two of them later, cackling with their friends about it.

“Come kayaking with us,” said Livia, pouring juice into a champagne glass. I noticed that the stove was off.

“I have to get back to work.”

“I was just telling Livia we’ll offer her early tenure. We’d hate to lose you.”

My arms thrummed with the creep of mercury inside me, as heavy as on a climb. That was it, I thought, I’d fallen and this was my dying dream.

“Max, I showed Mary your magazine pieces. She thinks we can get you a spousal hire in creative nonfiction.”

Now the whole scene felt staged. “Cheers,” said Mary, clicking glasses to mine. Had they snuck champagne into my drink? I almost hoped so, but booze soothed only healthy brains; what if I drank and my fears lingered?

“Tell me how it feels.”

“How what feels?” I said, wondering if she meant anxiety, or being stupid enough to kiss her on the mouth.

“The crazy shit you used to do.”

“You stay in the flow without worrying,” I said, gripping my glass and swearing to myself that she wasn’t flirting, nor would any mothers of young rock climbers be turning me in for child molestation.

“So like yoga, but you die?”

“It gives perspective.”

“Wish I had that kind of mind control.”

“You’d be no fun if you did,” said Livia, and then they were laughing together and I pretended not to notice how it masked a deeper laughter.

“I should return to work,” I said, hurrying toward the door so as to avoid another kiss. What I really did was drive to Key West. It took five hours because I kept pulling over after bumps to verify that no bodies lay in my wake. How I yearned to stop dreading shit like that. I’d always thought going crazy meant not knowing it, not feeling it set in. On Key Largo I began brooding over the stove eye. Had I twisted it too far when I’d checked that it was off? So many people could perish: retirees, children, infants, the trial, prison, until I parked on Duval Street and walked the avenues of the village past old men sipping wine. Their little salmon-colored bungalows looked so familiar to me, but I’d never been here before. Livia had come frolicking with her friends. It struck me that deja vu was memories of the future. I had turned away from the past, which was rock climbing; the future was Florida porches because of a girl who’d never desired me to begin with. Delusion or no, I would feel this way from now on. If a mountain might help, oh well; impossible to drive so far over many bumps, farther and farther from proof of dormant stove eyes, so instead I traveled to the Everglades and hiked out to that tree-ringed lake to give myself to the Gulp.

As soon as I’d thrown my phone in, it began to ring. That’s the cops, I thought as it sank into the lake. To destroy evidence suggested guilt, but over what? Livia? Why dread the future here at the brink? If Livia was dead, shouldn’t I jump? To regain the serenity to kill myself, I sat down by the water’s edge and gazed up the ditch Andrew Jackson’s slaves had dug. Their nearest mountain a month’s journey across deadly country. All their lives laboring without knowledge of the prospect a climb offered. Had they ever climbed trees, looked down upon the river of glass? Here I was struggling for the wherewithal to breathe. To put my breakdown on hold long enough to die, I thought of all the slaves who’d had no breakdowns, along with slaves in my century. More slaves were alive now than ever. Indentured tomato pickers, miners, young virgins being smuggled out of the Third World, making it through their hardships to carry on.

“You’re too connected to your fear receptor,” said Max the spy, once I’d brought him up to the present.

Feeling sanguine under the influence, I nodded. He gave me another pour. “But sometimes my receptor shuts up.”

“Not sure what you mean.”

“I’ll show you.”

I had him load footage for such and such coordinates for a day I’d crack-climbed a wall in Utah. Suddenly there I was, scrambling ropeless up a red cliff face, the satellite orbiting at a low enough angle that we could watch me pull myself higher. I might as well have been crawling on flat ground, so quickly did I place my fingers on the holds.

“I can see how that would feel tranquil,” said Max, without apparent sarcasm.

“Really? You’re the first one who’s understood.”

“Do many die?” he asked.

I gave him another set of coordinates. Soon we could see Brendan Timmins inching up a cliff in Eldorado Canyon. He sped the playback up to 32x, so that in seconds Brendan’s grip gave out and he fell backward onto a candlestick spire.

“Spectacular,” Max said.

“If you like that, there’s plenty more.”

“What I like is naked people fucking.”

“Go to Half Dome, in Yosemite.”

“You go to Half Dome in Yosemite.”

“Are you saying kill myself?”

“Were you happy, climbing?”

“Always,” I said.

“Then go to Half Dome.”

“Will you watch me?”

“If you take your clothes off.”

“Deal,” I said, offering my hand. We shook on it, then settled back into viewing live-action porn on three screens.

“You know the stroke victims who recall everything from childhood?” he asked after a while. “Every word you’ve heard or spoken, it’s recorded.”

Unsure how this connected to the orgy we could see on an Australian beach in the light of dawn, I said, “Huh.”

“Ever jerked off to little kids?”

“No, have you?”

“Are you sure?”

“Maybe when I was a kid myself.”

“If you don’t die soon, you’ll live to see the day when they can scan our brains, take audits of our thoughts.”

“Seems like that’s a few years off.”

“It depends on your brain. If you let them freeze it when you die, they’ll never resurrect you, they’ll just hook you up to the audit machine and view a montage of your childhood crushes and shames.”

Normally I’d have been into Max’s theory, but I was getting drunk. I floated into imagining a psych student’s compare/contrast paper on two brains, my mother’s and my own. Cremate her, I told myself, specify cremation in my own will, and so on until I passed out. I came to in my truck camper, lying on the mattress I kept there for climbing trips. The gate to the Jackson Ditch spur had risen, and Max’s car was gone. I remembered nothing past the audit machine.

As I pissed into the filthy water of the swamp, my head throbbed so hard I knew I couldn’t face Livia. Instead I drove to the beach. Feeling more strung out by the minute, I walked the boardwalk until I came to the kind of wood-paneled, windowless juke joint I used to like. I ordered a double bourbon there. Drinking it, I had some thoughts that would be damning in a brain scan, thoughts about the fate I wished upon everyone. I thought of my father, who drank daily, and of my cousins on my mother’s side who still lived with their parents and hadn’t set foot outside in years. I’m not feeling paranoid, I thought by way of appeasing my mind. If I were like my relatives, I’d be paranoid even on bourbon.

At the next bar, a Joe’s Crab Shack, a girl split off from her friends to come touch my fingers. “I climb,” I said to explain their size.

“Where, Cuba?”

“Wherever there’s a mountain.”

“You looking for one?”

“You have one in mind?” I said, studying her closely now that she’d asked a smart question. She was perky, sprite-like, twenty-one or so. Already I knew I could drive drunk with her over bumps without fear of the bumps.

“There’s a rock gym up the road.”

“Pretty thing like you must be seeing someone,” I said, running a finger along her arm. It would be bliss to ride over the bumps with this girl.

“Boyfriend cheated, so I dumped him,” she said, setting us in motion to buy ourselves a room at a beachfront hotel.

I procured liquor. It was only afternoon. The hours flew by. At midnight we snuck up to the rooftop pool and took off our clothes. Before I joined her in the water, I turned on the spotlight over the diving board. “No, by moonlight,” she said, shielding her eyes.

“But I want to see your body,” I replied, which was true. More importantly, I thought Max might have been keeping track of me. I hoped to pay him back for saving my life. “Okay,” said the girl, wrapping herself around me. Even knowing I would crawl home alone in shame, I waved happily to the sky. For every moment of it I loved Livia, is the thing, wanted to grow old with Livia, take her to France to the Calanques, where even she could free-solo alongside me because a fall lands you in the sea.

I woke up alone, with enough gin still in me that I didn’t dread Livia’s verdict yet as I drove home. With mild concern I noticed bumps, laughing at myself a little. The radio news spoke of some Mexican tomato pickers enslaved near Orlando. “I lost my phone,” I repeated as I drove, rehearsing my lie until I walked into my home and Livia ran and squeezed me like a harness and said, “I thought you were dead.”

“I lost my phone,” I said, my heart plummeting into my gut.

“It’s okay, these things happen.”

“I don’t remember where.”

I waited for her to smell the other girl. Instead she said, “I want to help.”

“To what?”

“I’ll join you at meetings.”

“You hardly drink.”

“Every day I drink.”

“One margarita with your friends.”

“I love you, Max.”

I studied her inscrutable face for a sign of why she wasn’t angry. “I’ll try harder,” I said, not lying. If there’d been a way to add, “Something’s wrong and I need more help than you can give,” I’d have done it, but the shock of seeing her had sobered me up. My brain was dividing back into two parts, not hemispheres but overlapping parts, like air and the Higgs field. The Higgs field isn’t the air, but wherever there’s air, there’s the Higgs field. I yearned to explain this, but the energy was pulling me into a maze with all manner of dead ends. “Something’s wrong” was one she had predicted in a wager. I kept quiet. The next day, while she believed I was at work, I walked the beach, stopping every few miles for fifty push-ups. My mind felt less urgent if I was moving. Before continuing with fifty sit-ups, I would wave to Max. At sunset I drove home to find Livia reading about some photographer.

“Max, I have a surprise for you. Is your passport current?”

“Unless you’ve done something to it.”

“You know the Bugaboos?”

“The mountains in British Columbia?”

“You wrote them up for Rock and Ice. Mary’s cousin has a house there he’s not using, near Radium Hot Springs.”

“Why the Bugaboos?” I said, playing along.

“I told you. We can go for New Year’s.”

“So the mountain range?”

“Snowpatch Spire has routes up to 5.12.”

“It’s just weird you picked it of all places.”

“We can do intermediates together.”

“But the word bugaboo.”

“Is that a word?”

“You’re smarter than that.”

“I know it’s a stroller.”

“Why do you take pictures?”

“What?” she said, sounding like every lying woman in films.

“When you take pictures, other people are taking pictures of you taking pictures.”

“You’re sounding like your mom.”

“People watch us doing the things we do.”

“Do you wonder how I know how your mom sounds?”

“The jig is up, okay?” I said, raising my voice. Her book wasn’t a photography book. Easy enough to put a fake cover over some maps of neural pathways. But before I could levy my accusation, she cut me off.

“It was eating at me, what you said. I figured, what harm to visit? She talked about you for hours. She’s got copies of your articles. Pictures everywhere. Not that it seems pleasant to live in her head,” and so on, as it sank in that I must have killed a climber, kicked loose a rock and sent him hurtling to his death. Livia was that climber’s sister. Saying she loved me had been the giveaway. At the original ambush she’d gone on about a dead free-soloist, same as she did now about my mom. My mom knitting in a congregate apartment. My mom tearful over losing me. Somehow I lasted through it without taking the bait. Afterward she cuddled up against me in bed, an act no less cynical for her having done it for years. I waited until I heard her snoring, then gathered a sleeping bag, my climbing shoes, a tent. When I returned for a last look, she was lying on her side, an arm folded across herself. Her scent can’t be a disguise, I thought, leaning over to inhale lavender and almond, which brought memories flooding in of years condensed into one day’s fever dream. It had felt so real, yet I’d seen this movie, and summoned up the next beat, which was me in my truck driving north onto the Florida Turnpike.

To the tune of a mournful sonata I guzzled Red Bull. The sun rose near Pensacola. When my phone rang—the new one Livia got me—I threw it out. Right away I realized it could cause a wreck. If an overloaded truck ran over it, that impact could create an imbalance that could tip the truck over. The phone could be traced back. After hours of angst about this and about losing the only girl I would love, I pulled over and crawled under the camper to sleep. The next day I woke up and drove twenty more hours. The day after that, I arrived at sunset below the Yosemite climbers’ camp.

It was dark when I hiked up to some flat terrain beyond the campground. In the distance dozens of climbers clustered around their campfires while I pitched my tent. Hammering in my final stake, I heard a voice announce, “Max Rainey.”

There in the starlight stood a young climber I didn’t recognize. “Max Rainey’s in Camp 4,” he called out.

“Do I know you?” I asked, praying for him to be just some kid. After thousands of miles here I was, still stuck in my mind.

“I love your essays. What happened?”

“Have you been watching me?”

“Everyone watches you,” he said, as a crowd approached, ten or twelve men masked by the dark and saying, “Dude,” “Hey, man,” as if I knew them.

“Hey,” I replied, wishing they’d get it over with.

“Gonna free-solo Half Dome?” said someone whose voice I nearly recognized.

“Maybe El Capitan,” I said.

A few of them laughed. “Where were you?” said the original voice.

“I quit for a girl,” I said, figuring I could admit that much even to my enemies. And maybe, unlikely though it was, they weren’t enemies. They were putting a lot of effort into pretending to admire me. How I yearned to follow them to their campfire and spill my guts and be told relax, she loves you, use our phone, go back to her. I said no more. Even in my worst hours I’ve understood that abjectness fails when pitched toward minds that don’t throb.

“So if you’re back, she’s gone?”

“Correct.”

“Sorry dude.”

“Join us for S’mores,” said someone else, calling my bluff, so that I could only thank him and promise to come later. Really? Sure thing. Awesome. But surely they knew that if I could have joined them, I could have stayed in Florida. They wandered off. I un-staked my tent, moved it deeper into the woods. I lay down. I slept through myriad disturbing dreams that all vanished when I awoke at dawn into the same disquiet, more of it, it was nonsensical how much unease I felt by the time I was hiking to the base of the iconic vertical wall.

If I say I leapt onto the rock, it seems like boasting, but I wasn’t scared. Scrambling up a crack, I barely considered my grip on the holds. No, I was counting reasons to be ashamed, and everything I’d said, how each word had been misconstrued. I thought of women I’d mistreated. I could be a father by now, or some girl could have been fifteen. Too many to tally, these fears formed a solid cloud that became my mind until I recalled the other Max.

I dug in, hung back. Although the cliff edge blocked me from half the sky, Max could see me from some satellite.

“I forgot about my clothes,” I told him, angling my face up and moving my lips explicitly, and then I glanced down and saw no one below.

It would have been okay to discover someone watching. I had reached the death line, high enough that the throbbing died down. I could feel it dissipating into the valley below. That was why I pulled myself higher. Never had I felt more eager for explicit danger. Gripping the fissures, I climbed into an empty-headedness euphoric compared to earlier. At one point I rose into a swarm of flies that bit me all at once. What could I do, swat? The pain kept me focused. I thought of shouting for someone to phone Livia, tell her I’d fled for no reason. I counted stings, thinking of my body versus the rock, my energy against its inertia, until some gravel fell to either side of me followed by a body-sized stone.

If there hadn’t suddenly been a six-inch ledge to hoist myself onto, I would have died in that earthquake. The whole mountain grumbled hungrily against my belly. Rock after rock fell past me as I stood there on the brink, catching my breath. The pause calmed me enough that I became aware of my insane position hundreds of feet above the earth. So I began to gasp. Suddenly I couldn’t push air out fast enough. Shaking, I felt above me for a knob or stirrup. Nothing. I looked down. Far below, closer to the Merced River than to me, an eagle swooped. I’ll die, I thought, soaked in fearful sweat that was my body’s shot at saving me. The sweat would make the rocks slippery. In seconds I would die. And then I realized what most people find obvious: This is exactly what fear is for. This is how it feels for fear to work right.

My body had gone haywire, that was just the way it was. Fear when safe; well-being on the verge of death? Down below, no panic of mine had subsided on its own, but here was the answer, a thousand feet high. Hard to take, yet it offered a way out. My actions weren’t against the law. No one could prevent me from lifting myself onto fifty-fifty thimbles, as I did then, that is to say a thimble-sized knob with a fifty-fifty chance of holding me. It did. The next one, too. The next one, too, pitch after pitch until I summited that shark’s tooth of a mountain, pulled myself over, lay back to see a single wispy cloud drifting toward a faded moon.

“Nuh-uh,” said a woman I could have slapped, because already my chemical response was proving my theory true. I wasn’t ready for it to resume.

“Give me a minute,” I said, without turning to face her.

“USGS is reporting 4.7, but you’re insane under any circumstances.”

Now I did look up at this young, wiry climber. Like Livia she was awed, and dumb enough to perceive me as strong. “Your muscles are throbbing,” she said, imprinting on me like some turkey poult as it became obvious: Livia didn’t love me for my mind, my qualities, my personality. It was bodily instinct, nothing more.

Pushing myself up, I said, “We’re not living in caves anymore.”

“Beg pardon?” said the woman, stepping back. I towered over her now. I had had more than I could bear.

“This isn’t 100,000 B.C. You bitches have got to quit seeking out men who are tough enough to club the lions.”

“You might be hypoglycemic,” she said, offering an apple.

“I won’t eat your fruit,” I said, turning away.

“I know you,” she called out as I headed toward the trail, but what did she think she could do with that knowledge, steal another two of my years? Maybe yesterday I’d have paused, but she had come a day late. Not that I wish I’d met her sooner. Life has worked out well enough that I don’t wish to change anything. Wagers on when I’ll die no longer scare me into paranoia. The question is one of happiness versus unhappiness, as I’d failed to realize prior to Half Dome. But I’m not the first to run away from what he loves.

The trail at that height was only a set of cables to grip on your way up. I maneuvered past all manner of scared tourists clutching those cables. One old woman was whimpering aloud while her husband appeared as stricken as if death had already taken him. This brought me joy. Not schadenfreude, but pleasure at the gulf between me and them. It existed not because I’d wished to fall but because, but for a moment, I hadn’t expected to. Letting go would have been easy. In fact I’d given my all to hang on.

“Your body will work together with your mind,” I told the old woman and man, startling them so much that I doubt it helped. But in the years since, I’ve decided it was correct advice. They may have died by now anyway, in time to protect their brains’ secrets, but who can know? I’m no longer in touch with Max. His satellites, I surmise, have fallen into the sea. There are new ones, twice as powerful, whose servers hold more data, they’ll keep your death on file forever, which means I nearly killed myself in the nick of time. As things stand, I keep surviving, which is why I’ve told my story. I can’t be on the rocks twenty-four/seven. At nights and during long rains I remain paranoid, so I’m giving up my worst secrets in case I live until memory retrieval comes, and they ignore my will, and slice in to ascertain what made me famous.


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.

John McManus is the author of four books of fiction: Stop Breakin Down, Born on a Train, Bitter Milk, and his latest story collection, Fox Tooth Heart, forthcoming in November. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, American Short Fiction, The Literary Review, and Harvard Review, among other journals and anthologies. He grew up in East Tennessee and lives in Virginia, where he teaches in the creative writing program at
Old Dominion University.