Climbing Days

                        It was late, well after dark, by the time Lin and I arrived unannounced at Angie’s cabin. We had dawdled on the descent—a perfect day on the mountain, and the two of us had been in no hurry to expand our solo company. When it was just the two of us it always felt solo, which was not the same as being alone. Above the tree line Lin and I were one.

                        We were young then. Our bodies did what we asked them to do. Not even the altitude bothered us, carrying our 40-pound packs. Base camp had been at twelve thousand feet. On the way down, where we stopped for lunch, we had stripped and made love again and taken a nap, tucked together inside a sleeping bag. We seldom spoke when we were climbing. It wasn’t necessary. Whatever I knew she knew; the mountain shared its secrets equally and silently. Lin was good that way, inside my mind. A hand, a piton would be there when you needed it, a kiss, a caress. Our bodies had been made for each other. Her calluses were the same as mine. She told me once what I had dreamed; she’d had the same dream.

                        Angie’s place was in the foothills on the way out of the mountains. The plan was we would spend the night there before heading back to the city and our separate lives—Lin to her husband and job, me to my bachelor ways. We were in my old Dodge D-100 pickup truck. We had stopped at the first store we’d come to, at Chinese Camp. Lin was out of candy bars and I always savored that first can of cold beer after four or five days on the trail. Half a six-pack and two or three Almond Joys later we pulled up the dirt road to Angie’s place. Lin had to give me directions because Angie was one of her friends, not mine. Aside from that we still weren’t talking much, the peace of the mountain still on us. Angie didn’t have a phone up there, so there was no way to let her know we were coming or even to find out if she was there. “She’s in the field a lot,” Lin said. Angie was some sort of geologist or something. If she wasn’t there, we’d just break in. Lin said she knew where a key was hidden.

                        This was in the seventies. I have to mention that because already you are wondering why didn’t we just call Angie’s cell phone or text her or leave a voice mail that we were stopping by. She wouldn’t be in the field without her cell phone, would she?. Well, there weren’t such things back then. This was before a lot of such things, when stuff was simpler. But I won’t go there. The Dodge was a stick shift, and you could light up a cigarette just about anywhere. Yeah, fifty years ago.

                        It’s been that long since I’ve seen Lin. I don’t have much more now than I had then. I guess I’m not an accumulator. There’s been ten trucks since that Dodge. Thinking about Lin makes me wonder what I’ve done since. It didn’t seem like wasted time while I was using it up. Maybe a trick for getting through life is fooling yourself that you’re doing alright.  But if any of it was important, you’d think I’d remember more. Mostly it’s the sameo sameo—moving on, making ends meet, staying out of trouble. I stopped climbing after the accident. I’ve never saved things like photos or letters. They’d just have gotten left behind someplace anyway. People have passed by like towns along the Interstate. You’re lucky if you can remember their names. It’s not like you stay in touch with any of them, or them with you. No kids that I know of.

                        Maybe having a family would have made things different, but I never have had one and never saw the need. As far as I could see from the outside, having a family was little else besides trouble. That’s all I ever heard when people talked about their families—fuck-ups and expenses. I do have a sister in L.A. We two could win a contest for hating each other. Why am I thinking of Lin tonight?

                        I had met Lin’s friend Angie a couple of times before, at parties in the city. She had been hard to miss and hard to forget, a pin-up tomboy. She dressed in men’s work clothes, but with pleasing bulges and curves. Her blonde hair was an unkempt mane. She rolled her own and drank cheap bourbon. She was one of that first wave of West Coast So-fucking-what? feminists. Late at one party she’d said to me, “I’ll leave you alone because I know you’re Lin’s toy.” I suppose there are women like that still around. I just haven’t meant one in a long time. Someone—a woman—once told me that I would never understand how the women in my life could be anything more than the objects of my desire. I still don’t know what she meant by that. They were each unique. Angie was.

                        When we pulled up to Angie’s cabin, one of her vehicles was there, her company’s truck, a beat-up Bronco. Now there was a vehicle I wouldn’t mind having my hands on again, one of them early ORV Broncos. Tough as a tank. In fact, it always felt like you were going off to do battle when you rode in one. Short little boxy thing, unbreakable. You almost never saw one without a big dog in the back bed. It was like you had to have a Golden Lab in order to drive one. I once shared the open bed of a Bronco with a Black Lab bitch in a blizzard going through the Rockies. I was hitchhiking and the front seat was full. She and I just hunkered down inside my sleeping bag with my pack as a wind break and went to sleep spoon-style. Warm dog them Labs. She only woke me up when she was dreaming.

                        It’s as if memories serve a different purpose now. They’ve lost all usefulness. Sometimes they’re like entertaining little film trailers of the past, and other times it’s like being on trial with no defense. I’ve found myself talking back at them, as if a memory had ears, or cared. And they’re as random as dreams. It’s not like you’re with someone and they say, “Remember the time….” No, it’s more like you’re alone in your room and there’s a knock at the door and there is this totally unsummoned memory that wants to come in and won’t go away.

                        I forgot to mention that Lin knew Angie because Angie worked for Lin’s husband, who ran some sort of survey outfit. His company’s name was on the Bronco’s door. He was probably already a millionaire. I knew he had a lot of people on his payroll. I’d never met the man, and Lin never spoke of him. He was famous enough that I heard when he died several years ago. He’d endowed something at a university somewhere. There were no lights on inside Angie’s place, which in my pickup’s headlights looked more like an overgrown lean-to than a proper cabin. It wasn’t like there were flower beds and a porch.  The front yard was just dirt. There was a big old tractor tire rim with a piece of plywood on top of it as a table with a couple or three used wooden line-men’s wire spools as stools. You sort of expected a junk yard dog to slink out and bark, but it was just as quiet as the night.

                        Come to think of it, all my memories are silent films. I mean, I may know what’s being said, but I don’t really hear it. There are no screams. I wonder if that’s true for everybody, but I have no one to ask. I know where Lin is now. I tracked her down to an address in Connecticut, and every now and then I think about just showing up there some day and saying hello—a memory knocking at her door. Now, what would that be like? The opposite of a memory. She probably hasn’t aged much. A well-kept woman, active still, and Chinese don’t show their age like we do. Maybe some gray in her hair, but the skin still young. Having never talked much, would we have much to say? Would she invite me in? Would she even recognize me?

                        Maybe all my life I’ve gotten memories and expectations all mixed together. That night I was looking forward to a hot meal, getting stoned with Angie and Lin, finishing my six pack, and going to sleep with Lin in a real bed, with pillows—looking forward to it so much that I can almost remember it, though it never happened. I wonder how many other memories are like that, histories as a déjà vu of hope? Also all my life I’ve studied maps, any and all maps—atlases and topos, road maps and old charts. I know a lot about places I’ve never been, places I always meant to get to. See, those places are real, too, because I imagined going down that road or hiking that trail or camping on that piece of coast. Sometimes I even made it there, confirming the entire illusion. Map makers are dream masters.

                        “Well,” I said, as we sat there in front of Angie’s place. “Should I honk or what?” That’s what I would have done if it were my friend’s place.

            “No, wait,” Lin said. Inside the cabin we both saw what looked like a flashlight beam come on and flash across a room and then go out. We waited for the front door to open or for other lights to go on, but nothing happened. “Hold on,” Lin said, and she got out of the truck and walked up to the cabin. “Hey, Angie,” she called. “It’s me, Lin. You home?”

            There was no answer, but I thought I heard some movement from inside and what could have been someone whispering. Lin tried the door, but it was locked. “Angie?” she asked again. Silence. For a good minute Lin stood there, her head cocked to one side, then she came back to the truck and got in. “Let’s go,” she said.

                        I turned the truck around and went back the way we’d come. A ways down the road I asked, “She’s alright then, you think?”

                        “Angie can take care of herself,” was all Lin said.

                        I remembered an out of the way place to camp not much farther on and found it in the dark. We got our two-man Alpine tent pitched just as it started to rain. Lin crawled into her sleeping bag and went to sleep without another word.

                        What I don’t like about what’s past are unsolved mysteries, like people who just disappear on their own, leaving things unfinished. I know I’ve done my fair share of that to others. I just don’t like it when somebody does it to me, when someone just walks right off my map. Am I contradicting myself?  Well, maybe I am. It’s cool to pretend you don’t care; it’s harder not to. It’s easier to say you didn’t need them than it is to admit they were done with you. That Lone Ranger thing—“Who was that masked man?” My earliest dreams had me riding off into the sunset. Last week I had to fill in some form that asked who to contact if something happened to me, and I left that space blank. There was no one to notify. I never saw Lin again. I am still pissed at her.

                        The trip ended normal-like. The next morning, I dropped Lin and her gear at her car where it was parked in the airport long-term parking lot. It was still raining. She gave me a kiss and a hug and she paid me for the trip. We were both tired, unshowered, hungry. We went our separate ways, as usual. But then I didn’t hear back from her as usual, and after a couple of months when I tried to call her, her number no longer worked. I even wrote and mailed her a note, which came back return to sender.

            A year or so later I was back in the mountains and I ran into Angie in a Silver City saloon. She was still looking good. I asked her about that night.

“Was that you with Lin?” she asked. “I should have figured.”  I bought her a bourbon on the rocks. “There was just no way Gordon was going to let her in or let her know that he was there.”

                        “Gordon?” I asked.

                        “Her husband, you zero.” Angie gave me a disdainful look over the top of her glass. “Yeah, I fuck my boss. Don’t you?  But she must have known, figured it out, heard his voice or something, because she never went back to him, just had her lawyer have him cut her a nice big alimony check. I guess what’s good for the goose screws the gander.”

                        I spent that night at Angie’s place, finally. A comfy space, down to earth and very feminine as I recall.


At the start there is always someone watching from an upstairs window. Later, she will die in a fall down a picturesque staircase. He is not in those scenes. The cars are all 1940s models. Was that a streetcar passing? That bell? That is his tobacco-thickened voice reading the black-and-white voiceover script about his uneventful childhood. How much of history is conjecture?      A memory of nuns.  “What is black-and-white, black-and-white, black-and-white?” A nun falling down the stairs. Fourth grade.      Eighth grade, Agnes, his first classmate with breasts.

There have been more flashbacks in the script of late, more pointless backstory, characters he can’t remember. Also editing tricks, like faces in a crowd of people dead from earlier episodes. He had long hence ceased looking for a through-story; each segment was one-off. There are only so many possible plots. Sometimes his is just a supporting role. At first, he had welcomed the location shoots—new places, different food. They usually went south, palm trees and such, exotic whores. Only later did he come to prefer his familiar routines.  

Remember when the credits came first, not last? And you could walk out after only three minutes, after your name had flashed past on the big flat screen, out onto the Times Square sidewalks, where the real show, the next show was happening, the west wind wicked down the 42nd Street canyon. His anonymity came from looking like everyman. But the women all looked like themselves alone, no matter how hard they tried to hide behind their mascara and lip-rouge masks. All leading ladies, intent at some level of leading you on, back to the primal.

He had never used doubles. Even in corpse shots he played himself. The scenes where the morgue doctor pulls back the sheet so the witness, a woman who barely knew him, can nod and say, Yes, that’s him.


The book of Solomon Island stories set off my own wild escape from the now, back to almost 40 years ago, when I was still at ASCC. I had started a Samoan/Pacific Studies Program and was teaching a new course in Pacific Literature. An author from Western Samoa, Agafili Leau Tuitolova’a, had just published a 70-page chapbook collection of stories in Samoan. A first—no one had published fiction in Samoan. There were maybe a dozen students in the class, all Samoan. Together, we attempted a translation of one of his stories into English. I split them up into squads, then we worked on melding their different versions into something acceptable. Not a short process, but also not a waste of class time. Also fascinating. Agafili combined street—well, bush—Samoan with chiefly proverbial language. I dare say my students learned more about literature from that joint exercise than from my lectures.

I mailed a copy of the final translation to Agafili, whom I had never met and did not know, over in Apia. He sent the students his thanks and appreciation. At the time I was organizing a territorial arts festival, Arts Fiafia. (I got Mavis Rivers, a native Samoan, to come down from L.A. and perform.) I invited Agafili to come over to our island to give a reading. (I had NEA funding to spend.) He accepted. I invited him to stay with me at Atauloma. I was alone there in the big place at the time, Liam not yet adopted and my estranged wife, Sinavaiana, off in grad school at UH.

Opening night of the festival there was a reception on the grounds of the museum downtown in Fagatogo, at which a deceptive rum punch was served. At the reception, a good friend of mine, the poet and musician Eti Sa’aga, also from Apia, took me aside to ask what the fuck was that murderer Agafili doing there? An angry Eti gave me the story. Some years before, a village card game had erupted into an alcoholic brawl during which Agafili had been knocked over by Eti’s uncle. Agafili’s genitals had been exposed when his lavalava fell off. He left and came back with a shotgun and blew Eti’s uncle away. After which, Agafili was attacked with bush knives by Eti’s people and sliced up so well he almost died. Eti thought Agafili should still be in gaol in Apia, not feted by me.

Agafili drank a lot of rum punch. The canapes served at the reception he did not consider food. On the way home he had me stop for a six pack of beer, five of which he drank before we got to my place out near the end of the island. By now English was beyond him. I could not understand much of what he was saying, but he was not pleased and he was hungry. All I had to offer him was a loaf of local bread and a whole cold cooked slipper lobster. Agafili took off his shirt and consumed them both, washed down with the final beer. All that was left of the lobster, shell and all, was the quarter-sized thickest carapace of its back.

Agafili’s back—and front—reminded me of a baseball, the long raised seams of scar tissue stitches. He had been stitched back together. The torso of a big, brown, powerful, reassembled slayer. He was still angry. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe because I said in Samoan there was no more to drink. We were seated across from each other in the front room, a coffee table between us. Agafili stood up, getting angrier.  I stood up. It was a good thirty yards back to the guest bedroom. I did it walking backwards, Agafili following, accusing me—it seemed—of something, threatening. When we got to his room, I circled until his back was to the bed. Then I pushed him as hard as I could, and he fell back onto the bed, where he passed out.

In the morning it was as if the night before had never happened. We spent the following festival days in pleasant companionship. He helpfully corrected my broken Samoan. He gave a good reading. He did not have another drink.

It took several years for Eti and I to get close again. Connie and I were the only palagi invited to his daughter’s wedding reception. I guess ignorance is a forgivable excuse if you’re an outsider.