Rockhead, chapter one
I’m climbing on overhanging rock, the hot sky darkening with storm, and I’m almost out of rope. My last piece of pro is terrible and the gear below that even worse. If I fall it will be a 160 foot groundfall onto the brain-splitting boulders below. A groundfall for good, as my partner Dade likes to say.
He’s actually making things worse right now, shouting at me with the manic insistence of a ringing phone. He’s yelling about how I need to “Wake up!” and keep moving, because I’ve gotten stuck. I am frozen and holding my breath, unable to decide if I should launch for a huge bucket above me—probably out of reach—or down climb to a distant ledge, twenty feet below. I can’t imagine reversing the vicious moves that got me here, since just sticking to the rock feels nearly impossible.
The fingers of my left hand claw at a tiny edge, while my right hand crimps a nickel’s worth of granite at my shoulder, and I am pulling, pulling as hard as I can, my left big toe drilling into a pocket a size too small. That left toe must be in pain but I can’t really feel it except for a numbness. In fact, my whole body feels numb, especially my right foot, which flags into the thick air to counterbalance my awkward position, as stiff as if it were frozen in ice.
I could swear I’ve been here before—maybe more than once. It’s like I’m already, technically, dead, lying on the rocks below, and everything in my body has shut down except for a few erratic, neural bursts, which replay my last moment of life with the intense, inescapable brilliance of a lightning strike over a pitch-black land.
I have to focus and decide which way to go. I must decide but I can’t decide and I can’t decide and finally my valiant, blown-out fingers make the decision for me, shrugging off their holds with simple resignation. I pivot off my left toe for a millisecond and now I am falling towards the ground.
The shift from climbing to falling is so seamless it’s like I’ve always been falling but just hadn’t noticed it until now—now that the earth with its terrible gravity crosses our space to meet me. As I accelerate I see a big, burly hold shoot past, just shrieking at me to grab it. Then another. And another. And suddenly that one is in my sleep-tingly hand swinging me away from the ground and out of what was only a dream. The only dream I ever have.
I am not dead, not even hurt, and as I pull the phone to my ear—pulling myself into waking—I hear a voice. It is the voice of trouble. The voice from the dream. The voice that I’ve been waiting to hear.
"Yosemite," he said to me in the dark, "You and me and a big, bad wall. Maybe Orion or even The Seven Seas."
I could see him in my mind's eye, hulking there with his terrible posture on the other end of the phone. I could smell him, too, like I sometimes do with voices and sounds. The smell of some feral animal. Of fear and fearlessness at the same time.
I'd been holding my breath while he spoke, and then let it out as my answer.
"Look, Utlas, this is the last chance I'm going to have for a while—and the Booty just said it would be OK."
This is how Dade talks to me on the phone—always mispronouncing my name with a bad Scottish accent—though I’ve never been able to figure out why, since he's mostly Greek and I'm mostly German. He has twisted names like this for everyone. His wife, Beverly, a tenured physiology professor at the U, he calls The Booty; and their unborn baby he's christened The Crackmeister because he thinks it will climb so hard (and not, he likes to say with a wink, "Of whence it will enter the world"). Usually he would feign the Scottish thing for at least a few sentences but he cut it out this time.
"Go on, tell him you said it's OK," I heard him stage-whisper to Bev, and then, faintly, I heard her yell "Yes, Atlas, go! Get him away from me!" She was laughing and I could imagine her tiny four-month swell of belly jiggling with the Crackmeister.
"What about my job lined up in New York?" I whispered, squinting at Olive to see if she was asleep. Her breathing was even and light, but I could tell by the tense angle of her ear that she was awake. Listening, not laughing.
"They can wait or find someone else. We'll finish painting the Tudor and that'll be it. Come on—we've been talking about getting back to Yosemite since the last time we drove away from it, TWO YEARS AGO, right? It's going to be that many years before I get any time off from the Crackmeister and by then my shoulders will be trashed from diaper duty. Why have we been training three days a week if we're not going to go for it? It's like we're meant to do it and you can't offer one good reason not to go. Plus we can send Spanish Prisoner on the way out there—as a warm-up."
What he cagily didn't mention (in a kind of reverse psychology) was that it might also be the best chance for me to find my ‘rockhead’, A.K.A. 'letting the thing be the thing'. It's one of his many pet theories and in the past he's told me that this one, about how to find the right 'focus', is the thing that will let me rise to my potential and finally climb like I'm supposed to.
"Atlas? Are you there?" Dade asked. And then he said, as if it were ever a good idea, "Let me talk to Olive."
"She's asleep,” I said, still whispering, "And you mean you can send Spanish Prisoner."
This finally got the bed shaking as Olive sat up to listen better.
"Anyway, I'm not in good enough shape," I said, leaning away from her, "Plus I don't have any money."
"You're a goddamn orangutan, Atlas. C'mon—you know this is our last chance for years..."
And then, like a wave breaking inside of me, I knew I should go: "We'll talk at work," I said. Then I hung up, his 'TWO YEARS' still ringing in my head; it was how long I'd been with Olive.
She didn't have her arms crossed over her chest but that was just a trick, and I could feel the weight of her disapproval squatting there along with the dozen packed boxes that filled up the room. In two days she would leave for New York for a job at a German TV station and I was supposed to follow her as soon as I finished up the painting job with Dade. I would interview at the same station for a gig preparing weather reports if the present weatherman couldn't get his work papers straightened out. It was an "amazing opportunity," as Olive said, where I could use not just one but both of my employable skills: speaking the German I learned at my mother's lumpy shins, and applying my knowledge of physical geography learned over my seven-year tenure at the University (where I'd taken summers and several autumns off to climb).
I cleared my throat, and then, after a dozen or so heartbeats of her silence, jumped in:"Dade just wants me to go climbing. He says it's our last chance for a while. That I need to suck it up and go with him."
"What about the job? What about your debt?" She said, crossing her arms in spite of herself.
"It's not that much debt—and Dade said he'd float me," I lied.
"What about —"
"I didn't say I was going."
She sighed. Then I sighed. Then we both sighed and she got out of bed. I could hear her rustling around in the dark and turned on the light to find her putting her hair up, which is what she does whenever she has to think hard. Or win an argument.
"Why don't you want to move out there?" she asked.
"I'm not saying I don't," I said, as a feeling of rising and spinning began to uncoil in my spine—an old problem that had grown worse ever since Olive started talking about New York. I tried to focus on some breathing exercises Dade had given me but then Olive was talking again.
"I can tell you don't. I can tell that you’re not sure about us. You're such a…such a waffler. You're waffling now like you always do. It's like you need your decisions made for you, so I'm telling you that this is the right thing. That you should come to New York with me and not give away that job. Jesus, Atlas, at some point you're going to have to suck it up and work," she said.
That's when the room grew still and tight, like it had been breathing and then stopped, and then it all began to swim and I spiraled upwards so fast my thoughts were flung away from me. Before I lost all my words, too, I tossed out a few of them like little anchors: "I'm not going with Dade—I'm just telling you what he called about. Jeese."
And then the dizziness began to slow, and then it receded to the periphery.
"I’m just not sure," I should have said right then, "I’m not sure I want to work in a cube. I'm not sure about us." But I didn't—and to defend myself, it wouldn't have worked anyway; I'm not sure isn't part of Olive's vocabulary.
She's über-organized, usually embarrassed by talk of emotions, and—an incredible multi-tasker—she's super smart, super capable, super logical. The first time we ever spoke German, when we met in a German lit class, she corrected my grammar, though she’d only learned it as an adult while for me it was a Muttersprache. I lost the argument to her persuasive, canted eyebrows, and even though it turned out later that I was right, it didn’t matter; she had managed to set some kind of precedent. She even talked me into saying that I was sure I loved her after we’d been dating two or three months, when I wasn’t sure at all.
Olive finally came and sat down on the edge of the futon—the futon that would soon be heading East. Her hair was pinned in an elegant twist, with a few wild curls springing for freedom, and I reached up and tested the bounce of one with my finger, then touched her forehead. For one moment I was absolutely sure that I did love her—that I wasn't a waffler. She has the most gentle lips I have ever felt and I touched them, too, my finger a clasp on their soft flesh.
"Do you love me?" she asked, her lips moving under my finger.
"Of course I do," I said, suddenly unsure. I usually said “Olive Juice,” my nickname for her, but this night, too loud, I said, "Ich liebe Dich," as if the German would be safer.
"It's going to be a big change, but it's going to be great. It's going to be an adventure," she said, kissing me once to punctuate the sentence—as if trying to be sure herself.
We went to bed but she never got under the sheet, hugging me tighter and tighter as the night chilled, and I don’t think she even fell asleep until daybreak, when I got up for work. I think she may have been crying.
Two days later, the day she left Minneapolis, Olive scooped me with a tactical move, asking if she could take my hamsters Eenie Meany and Miney Mo "to ride shotgun" as protection for the trip east (thinking, perhaps rightly so, that if I wouldn't come for her, I'd come for them) and we packed up her car with everything she needed, including the futon and also the hamsters who were indeed riding shotgun, hanging tough.
We had made very sweet, 'in-love' kind of love earlier that morning, surprising both of us, and for some reason making us both cry afterwards, but when she left she seemed happy, cupping my face with her two hands and kissing me hard on the lips—too long—as if to impress something upon me.
"See you in two weeks! Out East!" she yelled as she drove away, her arm stuck out the window for the entire block.
I was left standing on our quiet street, holding a hand high and squeaking goodbye to my guys, already missing them but feeling, strangely, happier than I'd been in months.
That morning I moved what few possessions I had into Dade and Bev's garage as a sort of medium-term storage and then set up camp in 'The Rig'—Dade's green, 1970 Chevy Sportvan—also known as 'Makin' Bacon' because it had that faded bumper sticker on it when he bought it.
We'd been on dozens of trips in Makin' Bacon over the years, and had slowly turned it into the perfect climbing machine. There's a tiny porcelain sink and a two-burner range and an old style icebox that came with the van originally, along with a series of padded wood panels that fold down and clap together to create Dade's bed downstairs. Upstairs is a scavenged VW pop-top that we installed, which opens as a wedge surrounded by a fabric screen and zip-up canvas, making the front of the roof higher than the back. It offers more room but is also more subject to the weather and car headlights and birds pecking at the soft screen. That's where I normally sleep on trips—and where I would have slept if it hadn't rained that first night.
The Rig has mostly gray carpeting except for the faded purple shag on the dashboard, and it has mostly white cupboards except that you can't really see them for all the climbing photos and topo maps that have been put up over the years. Many of them are of routes that we had done, but some are of those that we hoped to do.
Lying downstairs in Dade's usual bed, I had a vantage of the ceiling where Dade had hung a map of U.S. climbing areas— the summer circuit through Wyoming and the winter circuit through Las Vegas, both dotted and linked together like constellations, their common pole star ourMecca, Yosemite Valley. We've been in the Valley five times, once for two months but never less than two weeks. And every time we've been on El Capitan.
Part of the attraction of El Cap is that few places in the whole wide world offer such high rock with such an easy approach. With over 3,000 feet from toe to tip, El Cap is a mountain. But, then, with the climbing stripped down to its most technical side, with no snow-slogging or glacier aprons to deal with, it is also a crag. The vertical granite touches its sandy, horizontal base with the simple ease of a living room wall to a Berber carpet. And the transition to climbing is even more bizarre: one moment you are standing on the ground, where you can walk back to your car in twenty minutes, and the next you have entered a super-vertical wonderland, so huge and so different you're an astronaut leaving the stratosphere for space—or a surfer on the Cortes Bank, dropping in on a sixty foot wave.
It's what Dade was dreaming about, and, deep down it turns out, what I was dreaming about, too. A way to find my rockhead. But with only a two-week window I didn't have the time. Or the gumption to fight it out with Olive.
But then a week and a half later came the first in a series of giant dominos: We had finished a little early on the painting gig, with Dade poised to head West, and me East. But on the third of July, when a big tornado-spawning storm hit, one of Dade's fellow teachers had a tree come down on his roof. The insurance adjuster wrote them a check for $8,000 but the teacher couldn't find any contractors to do the job. He was so desperate to get on vacation he said he'd sign the check over to us if we'd just do it. Eight thousand clams. That's about a thousand carabiners—enough to cover my debt and pay for the climbing trip, if I could have gone, and even Olive would agree that I could leave a few days late for that.
When we checked the roof that morning we found his friend just packing up his family in the driveway. He led us around to the back of the house to show us the damage (which we couldn’t see from the ground), and then we hauled our heavy 40-foot ladder back there.
"Pretty nice house for a teacher," I said after we set the ladder down, kicking one of the little storm-blown crab apples that littered the yard.
"His wife's some marketing exec," said Dade, picking up a tiny apple and taking a bite, "Sour."
"Well, they’re crabapples—and they’re just buds," I said.
He shrugged, looking back at the driveway, and bit the apple again so that his teeth, as thick and utilitarian as a tiger's, were suddenly exposed. His teeth naturally draw attention to his rough, hatchet nose and the notch on top of it; to the pair of awkwardly-taped prescription safety glasses he always wears when working or climbing; to his wildly-curly, tar-black hair. Dade, who's slightly famous in our circles for having dated over fifty women, certainly isn't what you'd call handsome in the normal sense of the word, and he never takes a good photo, part of it simply from genetics and his terrible posture and part of it from teenage years as a golden gloves boxer: that nose comes from a break during his fifth fight, when he was sixteen, and peeking out from behind the left side of his glasses there's a little scar that curls out of his eyebrow and follows his eye socket for almost an inch. None of this keeps him from being charismatic, and (stupefying to men who don't know him) irresistible to women of a certain, educated ilk.
Even Olive once admitted that she was attracted to him. She said he was like a half-tame wolf. In his cage he has too many sharp angles and looks too rangy, too awkward, too high-strung, but let him out—and let out a rabbit for him to chase (or a hard route)—and he is bursting with fluid muscle and beautiful to watch. She made me jealous when she said that, and all I could think to do (not very smart, but then this was early in our relationship) was to ask her how she'd describe me.
She'd clearly thought about this already and her eyebrows, much darker than her light brown hair, rose slightly as she spoke: "You're like some lizard that only likes it in the sun." She didn't fill in the rest, though I saw her analogy: slow to act, a hibernator, something 'lower' on the evolutionary bush. The thing she didn't know, but which I realized later this summer, when I finally saw Ruby's other tattoo, was that lizards also have something powerful in them; they can give up a part of themselves for escape, then grow that part back again for another try.
Once we got up on the roof we saw that the job was bigger than Dade's friend had told us it was, with the roof torn off to the old, broad-board sheathing, and the sheathing, which would have to be replaced, punched through by a tree limb. Still, at that money we would make out like bandits and by mid-afternoon we had already pulled off the old sheathing and repaired the joists and were back up on the steep hip-and-valley roof with the first sheet of plywood. I was straddling the roof and Dade was below me with one foot on a bare roof jack and the other stemmed into the valley, and our relative positions gave me a quick memory—like a mini déjà vu—of being in some granite corner high on a wall.
"This dough will get you out to Olive quicker," Dade said.
I thought he was actually being nice until he turned and I caught the glint of his eyetooth, as if he had just sharpened it. I set a nail in the plywood and then, as Dade started talking again, drove it home into the roof joist with a few good whacks.
"Did you say something? I couldn't hear you."
"What are you going to tell Olive at the end of the summer after we've finished the Seven Seas and you decide you're not moving out there?
"You know something I don't?"
"My grandpa, the one who was a veterinarian, always said that if you're going to shoot a horse, do it sooner rather than later—preferably in a place where you won’t have to move it."
"I guess that's better than beating a dead horse."
"So you're going to make her end it? When you've finally worn her out? That's not fair, either."
"Why are you riding me about her?" I asked. I snapped my hammer back in its loop and humped myself along the roof to the next joist before I looked down at him.
He didn't say anything more but then he unleashed the dreaded 'toxic goat eye', jumping right past the simple 'stinky goat eye', to let me have it. Dade can somehow change the shape and color of his pupil and then he makes it even worse by causing that scar that hooks beneath it to hum at a violent frequency. It's his 'don’t bullshit me' look—his boxing look—and it shut me up for a second. But then it didn’t: "The fact that you need a belay slave for Seven Seas isn't helping any, is it?"
He frowned. "Atlas, the point is that you don't love her enough and she's crazy about you." He lifted his hammer from the head, pointing the handle at me like the fastest gun in the West: "Don't even say it's not true. She's been holding back for a year and a half and you know it."
Well, I couldn't say anything to that, either. It was probably true, and I still didn’t understand how she could care for me so much. Looking at us from the outside, Olive with her drive and smarts was clearly the better catch. I was the lizard. The waffler.
"I did almost tell her a couple weeks ago," I said, giving in, "The night you called about the trip."
"And what happened?"
"I wasn't sure if it was true or not," I said, and then, trying to sound confident: "I really do love her, and sometimes I think I love her a lot."
“Sometimes isn't enough…listen, I'm not saying you've been acting badly, I'm just saying that if you don't stop it now you will be."
I set a nail and whacked it hard a few times and then I wondered: why was it that people like Dade and Bev and Olive could always be so sure about things so big, when I'd never known such surety in my whole life? Were they actually sure, or did they just decide they were? I didn’t know but I set another nail and started pounding, then pounded in another.
Later that afternoon, on my last run up the ladder with a 70 pound pack of shingles—having just run out of the nails to set them—I was caught by a rogue gust of wind and almost fell just as I reached the roof. I twisted weirdly to the side as the pack slipped from my shoulder and had to grab the gutter for balance.
"Rock!" I called instinctively—it's what you say when you're climbing and something gets dislodged—but I was too late and the pack hit the grass as the words left my mouth.
"Damn, son, pay attention!" said Dade, as he rounded the corner, "You get hurt now and you're going to ruin our trip." Then before I could repeat that I wasn't going, or even apologize for almost hitting him, he asked, "What's that your mother always says before you go on a trip, ‘pop-off’ or 'Passover' or something?"
"Yeah, Pass auf," he said with a strangely good German accent, "Passing auf is key."
Since I dropped the shingles (which tore a few of them in half), Dade said that I should be the one to have to go to the hardware store to pick up a final box of nails,but then as I was leaving he got into the passenger seat of my little Corolla station wagon anyway and we drove off with the sun already low in the sky, Dade fidgeting with the radio, hunting for a station.
When we got to the store Dade ran ahead of me, as if I wasn’t moving fast enough, and there, alone, with the sun behind me and reflecting wickedly off the glass doors, I had a strange vision.
I was squinting into the bright glass but was just able to see inside the building where my shadow blocked the sun, and as I approached my dark form in the glass I could also see a woman approaching me, as if she were caught within the frame of my own moving shadow.
When the automatic doors slid open they wiped away the strange image and revealed a simpler and even more amazing one: Ruby Li Goldberg (named by her father after her great uncle, the cartoonist Rube Goldberg). She'd been an almost-girlfriend (and an almost-lover) who I'd started dating about three years ago, just before I left on a three-month climbing trip with Dade. When I got back I found her tangled up with my housemate, Clem, back when Clem and I lived together with a few other climbers.
I'd fallen out of touch with Clem and hadn't talked to him or Ruby since Clem got a job as a climbing gear rep and they moved out to Colorado, though, I must admit, I'd thought of Ruby often even while I was with Olive. Maybe especially while I was with Olive.
Ruby swung her strong arms up and down to gain my attention—as if I could have missed her smooth, clear face or her tough, tight body—and I grinned and took two steps into the fluorescent lighting of the store.
"Hey, speak of the devil!" she said, reaching up to give me a hug, her hair fanning across my eyes so that my eyes and not my nose seemed to smell anise in the rich, black web. We hugged a little too long for a such a greeting, long enough to feel the warmth of her through her cut-off jeans and wife-beater top, and then she stepped back to look at me better, still holding my hands.
"I just looked you up in the phone book this morning but your number was out."
"I'm staying at my friend Dade's right now. But what are you doing in town?" I asked. I was surprised that she had wanted to call me.
She took her hands away to place them on an imaginary steering wheel, one sandal slapping the floor like it was hitting a gas pedal: "I'm almost done fixing up my father's old International Harvester truck—he's giving it to me. Then we're hitting the northern circuit—starting with the Needles tomorrow. Me and my friend Fran and no boys or cell phones. Fran's got a climbing trade show in San Francisco in a week and a half and I’m moving out there."
"So what are you doing here, now? And where's Clem?" I asked, looking around the lobby for his tall, lean frame.
"I just needed a hasp lock to finish up Old Yeller,” she said, patting her tech-looking shoulder bag, “And Clem…well, we kind of hit the skids a while ago. Anyway, I'm going to med school out there. Finally."
"I'm sorry—" I started to say about Clem.
"Yeah, thanks, being a doctor will really suck," she said, flashing her eyes. "No…you know, we'd been together for about three years—that's like twenty one in Clem years. And what about you? Did you finally graduate—still with Olive?"
"Yeah, yeah, this spring. And…well, Olive's moved out to New York." I said, with a complicated wave of my hand, as if it were all too much to go into. I quickly shifted gears, telling her about how we were behind on our job and how now Dade was losing a day off his climbing trip.
She frowned: "But aren't you losing a day, too?"
A weird look must have crossed my face, because she immediately said, "I mean, you're climbing, too, right?"
"Maybe…" I said, catching my balance, "I've been tempted."
Suddenly she was reaching into her shoulder bag, taking out a pad of dog-eared Post-It notes.
"Well, you should keep being tempted—in the Needles," she said.
She spun me around to use my back as a table, and feeling her write I suddenly remembered how she had kissed the back of my neck once coming home from a day of climbing at Red Wing that fall after I'd lost her. Clem was driving, with me in the front passenger seat, and she had leaned forward from the back seat and done it as a joke for some reason, but I had felt her tongue press with a special weight to let me know that she meant something more with it—that in a different time and place we might be different together. Well, now was a different time, here was a different place.
I started to say how great it was to run into her, but then she turned me back to face her and pressed the Post-It note onto my T-shirt, which caught me at the bottom of my sternum so that her fingers pressed partly into muscle, partly into bone.
"Sorry for all the numbers, it's because I cancelled my cell. But leave a message for me at my mom’s when you’re heading out there—maybe we can get together, do some climbing?"
I was reading the note as she spoke, and when I looked up I saw that she was reaching for my hand but somehow missed. I caught her eyes in mine, or vice versa, and as we got tangled up in each other I saw something then—not the dual shadows of me reflected in her dark pupils, but deeper, behind the reflections, something else: as if there was a little piece of me in them, a piece of me that I’d lost without even knowing it. I tried to look away, but my eyes kept snapping into focus on her—as if they could absorb her and expand into her simultaneously.
She was walking backwards, saying something about how I should make sure I called, that she’d meet me out there, her eyes still locked to mine as if in some conduit. Then she turned on her heel, breaking off, and I said “I will, I definitely will,” waving the note stuck to my fingertips just as the glass doors closed behind her.
I wasn’t sure if I should even mention Ruby Li to Dade, then decided, as he threw the box of nails into the backseat of the car, that I needed to defuse this potential bomb, and I tried to be nonchalant about it as I told him. He gave me a queer look as I started to drive away. He knew her a little himself and he looked around the parking lot as if he still might see her.
“Why didn’t you tell me about it at check out?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging, “Wasn’t that top of mind. She’s heading to the Needles tomorrow.” I was careful not to pause before saying the last part. Or look at him.
He stared at me while I drove: “And?”
He kept staring at me, then said, “Is she still a hottie?”
I nodded but didn’t look at him, and out of the corner of my eye I could see him nodding, as if he’d figured something out, though he didn’t say anything more about it.
Later that evening, after we'd finished the roofing job, I took a shower at Dade’s and found myself thinking about going climbing. What was the harm in coming out to New York a week or two later? The weatherman job wasn't exactly mine, anyway, and I wouldn't get to climb for a long time if I bounced right from the roofing job to that job—especially in the city. I could probably get Olive on board for that, I figured, and this was made easier by the fact that I didn't have to do it in person but on the phone. I stopped in Dade’s kitchen on my way out to the Rig to call her right then, but then, suddenly feeling a little swoony, realized how late it was for her on the East coast. And anyway, I was too tired to get into it all. I'd call tomorrow, I promised myself, when I had more gumption. And then I found myself pulling Ruby's Post-It note out of my wallet and looking at it. When I imagined calling her, as if the buttons were already beneath my fingers, I didn’t feel dizzy at all.