Saturday, July 25, 2015

Thin Air

Deep in my soul I knew that over the last seventy-two hours I’d lost significantly more that weight and inches. The shorts slipped past my hips much more easily than they should have. I settled into a squatting position and listened for the trickle splashing against the rock. The harder I concentrated the less likely a successful outcome appeared to be. I knew the process was taking too long. The confirmation came swiftly when he snatched my pony-tail and yanked me over backwards. Landing awkwardly on my tailbone, my first reaction was to reach for my shorts, but I froze when the warm breath hit the back of my neck.      

“You see this knife, Princess. Take a good, hard look at how shiny and hungry the blade is. Do whatever you need to do so the image is engrained in your head, because if you don’t quit stalling I’m going to feed it right here! Now, pick up the backpack and move”, he snarled.

A desperate part of me wanted to scream and simply take my chances when he came at me, but previously failed attempts still haunted me. He said resistance would only make things uglier. Although I couldn’t image things being worse than what I had suffered over the last few days, I also didn’t want to expose myself to another layer of madness that lurked inside of his head. There was no question he was certifiably insane, but the scarier part was that he was also very intelligent and meticulous. From the dreadful moment I let him into my hotel room he had been two steps ahead of me.

I supposed it was natural that following a traumatic event the victim would dissect every detail, questioning whether one seemingly insignificant action could have changed the entire outcome. Certainly deciding to hike the Smoky Mountain trails alone was not a perfect plan from a security standpoint, but an experienced hiker and survivalist is much more concerned about hungry bears and inclimate weather than a psychopathic encounter. I knew plenty of women whom I considered of lesser or equal abilities who had done it successfully. After twelve hours in a vehicle all I wanted was some decent pizza, a warm shower, and a good night’s rest before striking out the next morning. Even though I was exhausted I still didn’t consider my actions careless. When the knock came at my door I saw a guy holding a pizza box through the peep hole, but didn’t accept the announcement of ‘delivery’ carte blanche. I insisted he verify the order and my name before I felt justified in unlatching the chain.

Life can turn on you so very quickly. One moment I was fumbling for cash and the next I was pinned on the bed with the cold steel of a knife-blade resting against my throat. It sounds stupid, but I was less concerned with the stranger plunging a knife into my carotid than the fact that the bath towel I was wearing had spilled open. I reasoned that if he saw me naked it was a foregone conclusion he would rape me. In retrospect I wasted several precious moments flip-flopping between compliance and resistance as there was compelling evidence supporting both. I hadn’t landed squarely on a decision when he demanded silence. I nodded repeatedly up and down, until he was satisfied with my level of sincerity and withdrew the knife. He reached for the pizza box, and after lifting the lid he retrieved a red colored rag. I assumed it would serve as make-shift gag so I took the opportunity to bluff.  

“My boyfriend just went out for soda…he’ll be back any moment. If you leave right now, I swear I’ll never breathe a word about any of this.”

He laughed before lifting from over me and taking a standing position at the end of the bed. His knee-cap was out of striking distance of my foot, but I was formulating a plan to close the distance when he completely derailed my thought process.

“Put on a night shirt or something. You being completely naked makes me feel dirty.”

What type of killer/rapist was put off by seeing his victim naked? Maybe I had assumed the worst and all he wanted was cash or jewelry. After demanding clothing he turned away from me, and even stranger yet he turned again to avoid the reflection of my naked frame in the mirror. I scrambled to my suitcase and began to search. At this point my brain was swimming in a cesspool of emotions, while attempting to field and process a barrage of assumptions and possibilities. All of it was meant for internal consumption, but suddenly one of thoughts emerged out loud.  

“How does holding a knife to someone’s throat not bother you, but seeing them nude makes you feel dirty? Is that even possible?”

Once I realized the mistake, I insisted again. “My boyfriend really is on his way. He has an awful temper and a ‘conceal and carry permit’!”

I knew my expression would reveal the threat as a lie, so I maintained eye-contact with the nightshirt I had selected and took my time pulling it over my head to provide camouflage.   

“My dearest Katherine, you think I’m a fool don’t you? Let’s talk about your supposed boyfriend. As a matter of fact your only boyfriend, Jesse, died in a tragic motorcycle accident your junior year of high school. You haven’t as much as dated a single man in the last six years. Currently you make ends meet as a waitress at a small cafĂ©—very much the classical loner. You finally manage to squirrel away enough cash for a vacation and intended upon coming to the Smoky Mountains to disappear into the wilderness for a month. Note to self Katherine: leaving your social media wide open can produce dangerous circumstances. But I can help you with that”, he laughed. “Disappearing I mean.”

My skin began to crawl as he revealed every detail correctly. I grabbed my cell phone from the night stand and attempted to make it around the corner to lock myself in the bathroom and call 911, but he launched himself at me and we both tumbled onto the carpet. In one fluid motion he swept the phone under the bed, rolled me onto my back and applied the gag. He pressed his full weight against me.  

“I do rather enjoy the feisty ones; it brings out another side of me. There’s something absolutely spectacular about hungry nipples pressing against cotton—nibbling at one another. My dear Katherine, I must teach you that poor choices on your part often leave me no alternative but to counter your aggression.”

The sound of the zipper on his jeans triggered a shockwave of urgency. I summoned every bit of energy and began thrashing and bucking. Twice my size, he easily squashed the flailing when he zip tied my wrists to the furniture legs and my ankles to the bed frame.

“You have taken a piece of my trust, Katherine, and I must now take something of value from you—that’s how the game is played. But I promise to be very quick—before your ‘boyfriend’ gets back.”

He retrieved the hem of the tee, carefully pulled it away from my body, and sliced up the side. After tossing the tee open he stabbed a syringe into the fleshy part my hip. My field of vision narrowed to a small tunnel before everything faded to black.

“Wake up, princess.” Only hours old, his loathsome voice was emanating from behind me.

I blinked and stared at the floor where I last remembered lying. He had obviously moved me to the edge of the bed. I was positioned on my side with both wrists secured to a lamp that was in turn bolted to the night stand, but the gag had been removed.

“What did you do to me last night, you perverted bastard? Did you drug and rape me?”

He pressed his index finger firmly to the center of my lips, releasing the pressure as if flowed down over my chin, splitting the difference between my breasts and traveling the length of my belly.

“You really do take me for clod, don’t you Katherine? Decorating your private parts with my DNA strewn about would be pure foolishness. The mere suggestion of such a barbaric act produced the desired results. Rather uneventfully, we talked into the wee hours of the morning, but you did provide me with absolutely everything I needed.”

He reached into his rear pocket and flashed a fiendish smile before flipping an envelope down in front of me. The handwriting appeared to be mine and it was addressed to my parents.

“What’s in the envelope, you creep? If you’re asking for a ransom, they have nothing. I’m begging you not to involve my parents?”

“No ransom I promise, and quite the contrary, Princess. I am….rather you are, virtually assuring their non-involvement. The letter contains a heart-felt admission that you’ve struggled with depression since Jesse’s death. Through the years you became addicted to prescription anti-depressants, and eventually turned to whiskey and harder illegal drugs in an attempt to dull the pain. You eventually painted yourself into a corner by indulging in prostitution to support the habit. You then reveal how morbidly ashamed you are for dragging the family name through the mud, but now fear for your own, and more importantly, your parent’s safety as angry dealers and pimps have transitioned from debt collection to pure retaliation. You inform them that your debauchery has reached critical mass and you’re attempting a fresh start, but you fear many of the authorities are on the payroll of those looking to do you harm. You beg them to keep your whereabouts to themselves.”

The shock I experienced was surreal—my life was literally unraveling and dissolving into thin air, but the most frustrating aspect of it all was that this neurotic fiend would likely get away with it. Like a boiling pot of water overflows and licks at the flame, my response came in the form of a hiss.

“You’re a thoroughly disgusting human being! How can you possibly sleep at night?”

“I do pride myself on being thorough—disgusting is purely a matter of opinion and overrated. And last night I slept remarkably well, considering I shared a bed with a drug-addicted prostitute. It’s my civic duty—doing my part to clean up the streets, Princess.”

I knew I hadn’t done anything to deserve this, but I also soon realized that my captor was an extreme opportunist. My natural O.C.D inclinations made his work much easier than it should have been, and I hated myself today much more than usual for being that way. I had paid for my fuel and the hotel room in cash, leaving literally no trail. I had also foolishly mapped out the trails I intended to travel, complete with timelines, so it was easy for us to avoid those locations completely. And beyond my control was his obsessive and calculating nature; he spent the remainder of the morning wiping down the hotel room for fingerprints, and pressed my fingers to the envelope before it was mailed. This stranger was as naturally occurring as a wicked whirlpool. I was an innocent leaf caught in the undertow. At every turn he squashed or erased any glimmer of hope and as he did so I experienced another grotesque degree of suffocation.   


“As much as you’d like to, you can’t control my inner workings. I thought I needed to pee! You’re such a bad-ass—go ahead and stab me on this public trail. There are hikers less than a quarter a mile behind us!”

I purposely raised my voice just shy of a yell, but paid for my insolence on the backend when he pulled me close enough to drive his fist into my right kidney. My knees buckled and I crumpled onto the trail. In an act of defiance he stood over me, blocking out the sun long enough I had time to partially deflect the kick aimed at my ribs.     

“The punch was for directly challenging me! The boot was for dropping your driver’s license in plain view about a mile back!”

He withheld my water ration for the next several miles to prove a point. My head was spinning so severely that I barely remember leaving the main trail that first night. He provided me with enough water to survive, but never to function at one-hundred percent or to even think clearly, but I suppose that was to maintain my weakened and submissive state. To my best recollection, we spent the night off the beaten path and traveled one additional full day into the wilderness. As the sun sank low in the sky he cleared a small area, pitched a tent, and presumably felt we were far enough from civilization to allow for a small fire.

While I couldn’t compose my thoughts in a completely coherent manner they came in colorful streaks and flashes of realism. I was positive the amount of time that I remained upright and breathing was dwindling. I felt as though I’d been poured into a funnel, traveling helplessly towards an inevitable choke-point. The look in his eyes changed decidedly that night. It was as though he believed we were far enough removed from a civilized society that he no longer needed to bridle his demon-like desires.

If I could clearly identify a low point during this dismal downward spin it was in that moment when I was lying on the ground in a fetal position, racked with pain, humiliated completely with my shorts around my ankles. But even then there was a sliver of me that refused to give him the benefit of tears. Something inside me changed in that moment.

I honestly believe there is a certain type of insanity that accompanies isolation; when thoughts and actions are subjected only to an audience of one. A single person can devolve in such ways to justify almost any heinous deed. I can’t say for certain that he was under the influence of such radical impulses when he came at me in the middle of the night, but I can say with distinction that I justified many unthinkable things following the moment when I countered his attack by striking him in the forehead with blunt end of the hatchet. In my natural state I would have immediately fled once the gate of opportunity had been thrown open, but instead I verified his pulse. Once I determined he was still breathing I bound and gagged him and sat silently until he came to. I waited until he was fully aware and could appreciate his predicament before I leaned and whispered his own words back into his ear.

“You must learn that when you take something from me, then I am forced to take something of value from you—that’s how the game is played.”

One per hour, I lopped off his fingers and toes before he bled out. By nightfall I had disassembled him completely and scattered his remains about the mountain. With my nightmare finally over I enjoyed the first peaceful night’s sleep in nearly a week. I awoke to finally witness the view that had called me to these mountains. 

The valleys wandered in unison away from the rock face. Born of the same womb they were visibly troubled and anxious about traveling alone. A gentle, almost accidental separation appeared to embolden them as independent and mighty warriors, each carving a different path and direction, content to gather clusters of pines upon their backs and proudly display a diverse collection of green hues as they now sauntered along with confidence. Near the horizon one majestic peak leaned against his brother. The overarching theme of this place and the snapshot in time was seamless synchronicity—an eclectic cast of geological dancers, choreographed perfectly, gathered and scattered by a rising and setting sun. 

For most of my life I’d dreamed of standing in this very magical place, but the whole experience had become tainted in a way that could never be fully repaired.  

Sunday, June 14, 2015


“I started calling it Deja-poo—the precise moment when I realize I’ve been eye-ball deep in this exact same pile of crap before. The names and nuances vary just enough to make you believe it will be different this time, but it always hits harder than you remember—like a biker-boot to the mouth. In some indiscriminant moment he cuts out the bottom of your heart and tosses you to the curb like yesterday’s trash. You realize he’s not walking; he’s running out of your life. For months your friends tried to tell you things you didn’t want to believe, but you cut ties with them because they’re jealous—that’s what you tell yourself. You tell yourself lots of things, but then you reach a point where you no longer believe the lies you’re feeding yourself. Finally you sit back, take a hard look in the rear-view mirror, and decide there’s nothing left to do but sink both hands deep into the pile of worms.”

“Worms? Miss Jones.”

“Yep….the disgusting, tangled mess of poor decisions and regrets living inside of you that makes everyone you ever cared about run the opposite direction.”

The gentleman glanced at his watch indignantly. “Miss Jones, I feel we’re getting off topic. I truly do understand that you were distraught, but did you go looking for him that night? And if so what transpired when you found him?”

I hated jury duty, period. Call me cynical, but it seemed that somewhere along the line our justice system had been hijacked by an exclusive guild of high-paid actors posing as part-time purveyors of justice. Each side would take turns prancing before and pandering to a panel of twelve of their peers, who for the most part were moderately to severely disengaged and simply looking to end their own suffering as quickly as possible with little regard to justice.

But today there was a twist that appeared to offer the real possibility of variety. I was more than a little intrigued by the fact that the defendant insisted upon self representation. Miss Jones was an attractive brunette, middle thirties I supposed. My first inclination was that she may have saved time by slitting her own wrists rather than prolonging the inevitable by refusing representation, but as I glanced around the juror’s box I could tell that her opening words had garnered a significant amount of sympathy, while the prosecution had accomplished exactly the opposite.

From the juror’s box he was not at all what I considered to be patch-worked together; his features appeared to have been chiseled from one solid piece of granite; rather cold and unforgiving. He was well-groomed, squeaked when he walked, and had a general sheen about him—like the dark Armani suit had been painted on this morning and he rushed out the door before allowing it to dry completely. Presently, he crossed his arms high on his chest as if to disprove my theory of a painted on suit. I suspected he liked being right more than most, but the repeated tapping of his foot revealed the impatient nature that lie beneath the cool exterior he advertised. I doubt he was accustomed to delays when asking a question. He released an audible sigh. Once he exhaled fully he asked again. “Did you go looking for Mr. Mendoza, Miss Jones?”    

“Yes, I went searching for the address I’d found on his phone a week earlier. He tried making up some lame excuse about meeting a client there for a working-lunch, but that’s the thing about habitual liars—they get confused sometimes. He’d told me the previous weekend he needed a break and was taking some personal time that day. None of it added up, so I wrote the address down.”

“So would you have the court believe this was a random act of indiscretion, or are you establishing the fact that you snooped through Mr. Mendoza’s private information on a regular basis?”

For the first time the defendant fired back at the prosecutor, matching his tone. “Is looking at your boyfriend’s phone a crime, especially when it wakes you up at 2:00am, 2:15am, and then again at 2:20? His mother was sick and in the hospital.”

Seemingly rebutted and sufficiently agitated, the prosecutor attempted to propel things forward. “Proceed, Miss Jones, I believe you indicated to the jury that you’d unethically gathered an address from your boyfriend’s phone while he slept, and that you went looking for the address.”

The previously silent judge interjected himself in convincing fashion. His gavel collided with the sound block with such force that I had to check twice to make sure the percussive sound waves had not inadvertently ruptured my spleen.

“Strike the prosecutor’s last sentence from the record as it highly inflammatory and suggestive. Will the prosecuting attorney approach the bench, please?”

The ringing in my head and the discrete whispering of the judge did not allow me to hear the one-sided conversation, but the sulking manner in which the prosecutor limped from the bench led me to believe he had been reprimanded soundly.

“Miss Jones, pardon the interruption, please continue—you went looking for the address.”

“Yes, your honor, I left the apartment around 10:30pm. I found his car parked about four blocks away—trying to keep a low profile I guess. I opened the door of the bar and looked all around. Just as I was turning to leave I heard his laugh. There he was tucked back in a dark sticky corner, nearly hidden completely by the shadow of a woman sitting in his lap. She was facing him, her long legs straddling his, bouncing up and down like he was her favorite carnival ride. I don’t know…maybe he was.”

The prosecution attempted to deflect and defuse, “So what was going through your mind, Miss Jones? Give us some insight.”

“I found a seat at the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey—because it hurts and goes down like barbed-wire. How did I feel? I was immediately crushed, but the more I watched the two of them the angrier I became. After the third shot I decided I was marching over to confront him. Each step I took toward the table fueled the boiling in my gut. It wasn’t just him, but half a dozen before just like him. All those emotions whipped around inside me like a whiskey-infused tornado just looking for someplace to touch down!”

Her tone was elevated and the look in her eyes intense. I glanced at the prosecutor and he was practically drooling at the way she was eating out of his hand, but something went awry—she had stalled.

“You were swirling inside, like a tornado looking for somewhere to touch down! That’s when you physically attacked my client and cut him, right, Miss Jones?”

The defendant’s shoulders slumped noticeably. She appeared to have entered a reflective state of silence, staring through her inquisitor to the other side.           

“No, I didn’t have a knife, and I couldn’t have cut him even if I did. I knew that if I looked him in the eye I’d start making excuses for him and end up swimming circles in those milk-chocolate pools, drowning again.”

For a brief moment she’d bared her teeth and snarled like a rabid dog. Now she was a docile pile of fluff, loyal to a fault. I gathered that she was either hopelessly in love and likely had nothing to do with the crime, or significantly skilled in the art of deception and simply toying with the defense.

The prosecutor appeared to shift into a damage control mode.  “Storms of that intensity just don’t stall out, Miss Jones. You were a cyclone of emotions heading for a target and my client was sufficiently damaged. Do we look like fools to you? Do you expect this court to honestly believe you had nothing to do with the maiming of my client?”

“I said I couldn’t have cut him, even if someone had placed a knife in my hand.” She snapped. “Oh, I was still seething—enough that I helped myself to a handful of hair and yanked the woman backwards onto the floor. With the buffer removed I could see him clearly. As I stated before I needed to avoid his eyes, and in doing so immediately spotted opportunity. I used his open fly for a hand-hold, snatching him out of the chair and dragging him toward the back door. All the while he kept calling me baby, and begging me not to do anything crazy.”

The latest revelation caused the prosecutor’s eyes to twinkle with promise again. “Basically, you needed him outside in a dark alley where you could teach him a lesson. No witnesses, his word against yours! The perfect crime, isn’t it Miss Jones. Isn’t that what you were thinking?”

Her retort came hard and fast. “Actually what I was thinking is that you’re quite arrogant and manipulative for putting words in mouth, Mr. Prosecutor!” She swiveled her head. “May I continue your honor?”

With a nod of affirmation she moved forward. “Actually, I chose the back door because of the proximity of the table. Considering the circumstance it shouldn’t have mattered to me at all, but I wanted to save him the embarrassment of being dragged the full length of the bar. Even so, many of the patrons were already applauding and toasting in our direction. Once outside I turned loose of him and he immediately fell to the ground. Too drunk to stand on his own, I propped him against the wall; his knees wobbled and he slumped a bit, but remained upright. I knew at that point trying to communicate with him was a lost cause—he was a lost cause.” 

Miss Jones paused again.

“I see Miss Jones. A lost cause—hmmm.  A lost enough cause it wouldn’t really matter if you carved him up and left him in an alley to bleed out?”

She shook her head in opposition. “With all due respect, you’ve obviously not questioned your client nearly well enough, Mr. Prosecutor. I heard the door open behind us. Turns out the woman straddling him in the bar was the jealous type. She was wielding a knife and pushed me to the ground. Like a cat she was on top of me. With a wild look in her eyes she laughed and told me I wasn’t his first choice. She must have been satisfied with me knowing that because she leapt from me to him in a flash. In a fit of rage she separated your client from his manhood in one downward motion and tossed the evidence in a dumpster. She muttered something about taking out the trash before running down the alley. While waiting on the authorities’ arrival the bartender cleaned and bandages my scrapes. We had a nice conversation. As I said before Mr. Mendoza is a habitual liar. I came to understand that his assailant was also his wife of thirteen years, to whom he was still married.”       

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Touching the Sky

July 16th 1989

“The moment is as fleeting and brilliant as that of a falling star ripping through a midnight sky. For a splintered second the beleaguered mountaineer has conquered nature. His raised fist is a lightning rod. A surge of adrenaline travels through the fleshy conduit and explodes in a guttural wail. His battle cry roars down from the peak, gaining momentum as it travels. The earth shudders on its axis and even the busiest inhabitant pauses and nods in his direction. Real or imagined makes no difference; for one  luxurious moment he stands exalted, his boot weighing heavy on the throat of every obstacle that failed to turn him back.”

It sounded like something Jack London would have written, and I told him so at the time. While the ink was still wet on the page Thomas Penny read what he had written. He shared all of his journal entries with me during our journey up the mountain, but I suppose this one spoke to me more than most.

Thomas laughed when he heard his words aloud. “Doesn’t sound much like a factory worker with an eighth grade education, does it?”

I considered my reply—thinking harder than I had ever thought about words before.  

“I suspect there is something profound about touching the sky—that it will change a man forever.”

I knew Thomas Penny was different the moment I met him. He passed through the swinging stainless doors to the plant like all the others, but he had a swagger to his step, like he already knew he was going bigger places someday. I liked him plenty when he flipped off the boss behind his back. On the walk over to my machine Clarence grabbed the collar of the young man’s shirt and dragged him onto the safe side of the yellow line. The equipment wasn’t even powered up and Thomas’ boot fell only inches over the line.

Thomas told me later that he was pissed that Clarence stretched the collar of his AC/DC tee. We both laughed as the shirt had undeniably seen better days. I suspected it had more to do with Thomas’ opposition to being treated like a three-year old being yanked away from a cookie jar. Nobody liked Clarence, mostly because of nepotism. He was one of the big-wig’s sons, never worked a day on the floor, and fell comfortably into a management position. We were all just factory workers, but you have to know that sort of thing is bound to cause some bent crank-shafts.    

By first break—that’s when you can tell whether you landed a keeper or not. You were supposed to give the boss the high-sign if they’re weren’t trainable and he would pay them for a couple hours, hand them a ball cap with the company logo stamped on the front, and tell them to have a nice life. I felt rotten when that happened, but it didn’t bother Clarence. Only once did he override my recommendation and it didn’t sit well with me at all. I called him into the break room and he stuttered and stammered mostly. His only defense was a tired reminder that he wore the white hard-hat and mine was yellow. For a minute I thought we would come to blows over the disagreement, but I was smart enough to know when to cut my losses. I tugged at his bow-tie and suggested that the polka dots on one side outnumbered the other and the torque of the imbalance might be what was cutting off oxygen to his over-sized melon. The remark cost me a write-up, but some things are simply worth the price of admission. Clarence hated people touching him or his clothes—had some kind of germ phobia he claimed. That might have been at the top of his list, but in my opinion Clarence had a lot more problems than that.       

Thomas didn’t talk too much or too little; seemed capable of doing the work but not overly qualified or too highly motivated. That was important, because no one wanted to be the fool that trained his replacement. Over time I learned that you didn’t have to worry about Thomas trying to outthink or one-up you. I liked a man that would face up and punch you square in the left eye before he’d slip around the back and stick a shank in your kidney.

We both worked the graveyard shift; Thomas because he was a newbie, and me because I had a general dislike of people. I’d been there five years and managed to stay mostly to myself. I communicated when the job called for it, but never socialized outside of work. But Thomas played electric guitar and I banged on the drums a little, so from time to time we got together in my garage. There were no illusions of grandeur. We wouldn’t put the symphony orchestra out of business, but after a twelve-pack of Natty we did do justice to some Metallica and Queensryche.  

Thomas was wound tighter on the inside—more of a risk taker and an adrenaline junkie. I suppose he was naturally smarter than me too because he already knew that about himself. Thomas said he wanted to go out with a busted rib-cage, a gash across his forehead, and a few teeth missin’ instead of laying down quietly somewhere and rotting from the inside out. I guess watching the machines all those years kind of lulled my insides to sleep and Thomas Penny was the nitrous that turned this daily-driver Cavalier into a tubbed-out, Nova SS that lived to eat up pavement in quarter mile chunks.

Nobody at the factory took us seriously, said we were just two thirty-some-odds looking to re-write a chapter of decades past. It was more a recognition that life is slippery and those that sleep will wake one day staring at the tail end of days slipped past. You have to be intentional about occasionally grabbing the tail, pulling it back, and sinking your teeth into the meat of it.   

Not that I was looking for one, but Thomas was as close to a best friend as I ever had, and it was easier to step out of a corner knowing someone had your back. Within a year I trusted him completely—enough to follow him up the face of a mountain.

I don’t know exactly where the words came from; they just seemed to fit right in my mouth. The first time a man touches the sky really does change him forever. A successful climb lit a fire in both of our bellies. Over the course of a few years we completed two more challenges, upping the ante with respect to difficulty and duration.

I suppose if you’re gifted with numbers, odds can be assigned to anything. It doesn’t take a statistician to realize the numbers for a mountaineer come out in favor of the mountain, but that’s part of the reason the agony is bearable and the victories are so sweet.

In my mind’s eye I was prepared to battle against fatigue and the elements, anticipated the full frontal assault of oxygen deprivation, and was determined nothing would prevent me from placing one foot in front of the other until I reached the apex. Although it had taken fifty percent more in the tank than we had to give, if someone had been there to witness it, they would have told about two heads bobbing among the clouds.

Five days into our descent was when the wheels fell off. We should have reached a low enough elevation that the heaviest snow was behind us, but a freak squall caught us off guard. We hunkered down early and took turns throughout the night knocking the snow from the tent to prevent collapse. Despite using the rock face to our advantage the winds continued to swirl and howl like a seasoned wolf, lapping against the tent as though he could already taste our frigid flesh through the fabric. To make matters worse Thomas had aggravated an old knee injury and after days of being pinned down the joint was stiffening and swelling significantly. Once the storm passed I had my doubts about whether the knee would hold out until we reached base camp.

It is truly amazing how quickly a fatigued mind begins to unravel. Last night I woke to an awful sound I could never fully identify, but I am terribly afraid that I heard Thomas Penny’s spirit snapping in two. By morning my suspicion was all but confirmed by a notable change in his demeanor. He grumbled and moaned more often about his knee and the ugly predicament we were in. I didn’t have the heart to mention that our food supply was running low and that we had only two bottles of propane left for the heater. I was trying to conserve fuel and ration food without setting off alarms in his head, but this existence could barely be considered living. I was doing my damndest to keep the preverbal wolves at bay, but he’d already let them in.  

He cursed me for even trying to open the journal, but he needed to hear the inspirational words he’d written on that first trip—we both did. I tried for more than an hour, but my fingers were frozen nubs and over and over again refused to obey commands. You never imagine that bit by bit, piece by piece your body will betray you.

I tossed the journal aside and fell apart for a moment. I welcomed the fleeting warmth of a single tear as it left the corner of my eye. It sickened me to look at Thomas—he had lain down quietly and was rotting from the inside out.

Thomas was already asleep so it made it easier to eat his last portion of food. I placed the final bottle of propane, drew in a deep steady breath, and made preparations for our escape from this nightmarish and brutal land.   


A group of young men struggled, plodding forward up the incline.

“Looks like the remnants of an old tent ahead.”

“And look in the overhang directly above it—lodged up there between the two rocks. There’s a corner sticking out—looks like a beat up journal. Grab it and let’s check it out. We’re due for a five minute break anyhow.”

The five climbers gathered in a circle to inspect the discovery.

“This is kinda creepy, reading someone’s journal.”

The one next to him punched his arm. “They obviously left it where someone could find it.”

“Looks like a pretty detailed account of two climbing buddies that started in 1989.”

“What are you waiting on—read the last entry, will ya?”

“OK…OK, hang on a second, let me find it.”

May 15 1994

Things did not go as planned, but a mountain makes no guarantees, implied or otherwise, and she will swallow you whole if you let her. The blizzard has not let up, we are out of food and propane, but we will not leave on her terms. Please take a moment and read the entry from July 16, 1989 and marvel at my friend’s profound words.

In a few minutes I will load my friend, Thomas Penny, onto my back because I have watched him fall lower than any friend should ever witness. I will make my way to the nearest outcropping and in a final burst of energy will leap over the edge, and we will both reach out our arms and touch the sky one last time. Touching the sky will change a man forever.”

“Woah…that’s intense. From this point forward, touching the sky is our theme, fellas. Into the belly of the beast we go!”

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Silent Lucidity

She was of proud German decent and in her own words built for purpose rather than primping. Mother considered trendy clothes, stylish hair, and make-up to be frivolities in an already overly-complicated world. Her day began an hour before dawn and yet she greeted each morning with a smile, and I imagine the morning recognized her wearing the same dress as yesterday, but had manners enough not to mention it. She owned a total of six identical dresses, but she swore there were subtle differences that we were to obtuse to see. Mom was a creature of habit and as an extension gravitated toward a primary habitat. More often than not I recall her hustling about the kitchen; muted dress three-quarters covered over with a gravy-stained excuse for a white apron. She was the kind of woman who made no apologies for knee-high stockings rolled down mid-calf; the circumference of which could not be stretched any further without risk of cutting off circulation. Side to side and head to toe, my mother was stocky and thick like a good beef stew.

Where her children were concerned she exacted respect via a wooden spoon; the handle length and effective reach kept me guessing. Yet she was very much a contradiction in terms—one moment as strict and rigid as cold-formed steel and the next brimming with compassion and wisdom. From a very young age she impressed upon me that all people, no matter their circumstance, will choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution. In matters both large and small, choices were black and white and the mythical middle ground of gray only existed when those filled with indecision dragged their feet and muddied the water. God rest her soul; I loved her unbreakable spirit and simple interpretations of life and humanity.

I don’t suspect the memories of my mother differ much from any young boy’s recollections of the woman who brought him into existence. Like most boys I arrived unfinished; edges as rough as torch-cut steel, wielding a disposition that fluctuated radically, but even the mean of which fell too near mischievous for her liking. She molded my mind, bent my will, and polished the exterior. I suppose from her perspective she tucked me into bed one night and in the morning she awoke to an altogether different creature. I presume there is no greater sense of loss than when a mother finally considers her son generally presentable and suitable company only to realize that she must release him into the wild again.    

In my early twenties I worked the night shift at the Maryville Asylum for the Insane. Still wet behind the ears, I suppose they assigned me a position they figured couldn’t be screwed up. My duties consisted primary of transporting patients to and from their rooms, the dining hall, the activity center, and the infirmary. I told my friends and relatives that I worked in transportation.
Arnold was a vibrant and adventurous ten-year old boy trapped in the crippled frame of a fifty year old man, so it only seemed appropriate that his wheel-chair become an Indy-racer. He had enough command of his motor-skills to grip an imaginary steer-wheel while I provided the sound effects of a roaring engine and squealing tires as we streaked down the straight-aways. Arnold was unable to verbally express himself, but I learned quickly to gauge the level of his pleasure by the intensity and frequency of his choppy and awkward bursts of laughter.

Phyllis barely stood five feet tall and weighed less than ninety pounds. She was adept in the art of cursing, and prone to streaking down the hallway at all hours of the night. In the blink of an eye she would disrobe completely and sprint down the hallway. Her nick-name was ‘Hell-Cat’ and she verbally and often physically accosted anyone that tried to get clothes back on her.  Even in a sea of abnormality, teaming with unusual behavior, her actions struck me as odd, until one night one of the doctors pulled me aside. He explained that as a young girl she was the only member of her family to escape a house fire and that she honestly believed her garments were ablaze. As with all my patients, to one extent or another, I eventually discovered a connecting-point. Phyllis’ constant state of agitation and paranoia melted away if you sang to her in a low voice while stroking her head. Sometimes I stumbled over words or replaced entire stanzas with nonsensical gibberish, but none of it mattered as long as she believed we were riding on a magic carpet that floated high above the flames.

So between the Indy racer and the magic carpet, I truly did specialize in transportation. During my time at Maryville I learned a great many things about people, but there was one mystery I could never quite unravel. Circling in the back of my mind I continued to wonder if the patients had the capacity to recognize their shortcomings compared to societal norms, or if they considered themselves on an equal plane and somehow felt punished unjustly.

After four years at Maryville I left my position for a higher paying job several towns away in an entirely different field. As so many do, I became consumed with the course and advancement of my own life and am ashamed to admit I am uncertain of the outcome of Arnold and Phyllis’ lives. I am embarrassed that it has taken my life being turned upside down for me to reconsider the plight of those I cared for so long ago.

It was last Thursday afternoon or perhaps it was Friday, or even a Monday a month or more ago; that I found myself seated at a large dining table with a group of strangers. The decor of the room was tastefully artsy, but certainly nothing I would have chosen for myself. I gauged the behemoth of a chandelier alone to have cost upwards of three month’s wages. I recognized the pieces of art adorning the walls as renditions of famous paintings, but rather than breathing life into the room they appeared as if they had had been sentenced to death by hanging.

The female seated closest to me was quite attractive and full of life. I decided quickly that if I could determine she was not already committed I might introduce myself over a glass of wine following dinner. Everyone was seated with the exception of two blurry figures rushing to and from the kitchen. The servants were operating in such a harried state my fear was that they might soon cut a rut in the hardwood floor and then be reprimanded for doing so.

There were multiple conversations taking place and it occurred to me that if I eavesdropped long enough I might ascertain the host’s name or even the identity of those whom I had been seated with. The names and topics of conversations being tossed about were completely and utterly unfamiliar. The entire situation made me feel as though I was an understudy for a play—a foolish and irresponsible one who hadn’t taken seriously the real possibly of being asked to step in. 

Even as I attempted to shake off this awkward awareness of not belonging somewhere, it intensified ten-fold when the attractive woman next to me placed her hand on mine. Without as much as a glance in my directions she cleared her throat, commanding the attention of everyone in the room. 

“Welcome home, everyone. Frank and I are truly blessed.”

She raised her hand between us, dragging mine with it. “Not only are we celebrating forty years of wedded bliss, but in the company of such a wonderful family. Michael, can you say the blessing before we eat?”

My head began to swim in disbelief. Was it possible that she and I were married, for forty years no less, that we shared a home I found distasteful, and that we had grown children and grandchildren?
I gathered myself and used the reprieve of bowed heads and closed eyes to scrutinize them more thoroughly, but racking my brain for even the slightest remembrance or trace of a memory only perpetuated the rumbling in the pit of my stomach. I wasn’t physically ill, but it was rather a sickness in my soul to think that somehow I misplaced forty years of existence.

At the conclusion of the prayer she leaned and whispered in my ear.

“Frank dear, are you not feeling well?

The sickness in my belly boiled to the extent it backed up into my throat. I wanted to rush to the china cabinet, withdrawing, and smashing every item onto the floor until I remembered something—until the name Frank sounded familiar. I swallowed hard and accepted the opportunity of escape she had provided.    

“Suddenly I’m not feeling well at all—I’m going to lie down in the bedroom for a few minutes.”        

I pushed away from the table and was on my feet before it dawned on me that I had no clue which direction to head. She allowed me to plod only a few steps down the hallway before catching my arm, turning me around, and escorting me there.

“Frank, you seem terribly disoriented. Maybe we should go see a doctor?”

“Don’t be silly” I snapped. “We have a house-full of hungry guests. Go back to them, please. I’ll be fine with an hour’s rest.”

In my current condition there wasn’t an ounce of me that believed I resided on the same continent as okay, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that. She really did seem like the type of woman I would have married.  

There were occasions when I had forgotten where I placed the newspaper or my reading glasses, but nothing approaching this magnitude. I tried to recall an occasion where I had bumped my head in the last few days, but then chuckled out loud as a moment of reason finally prevailed. With a blow significant enough to cause memory loss, how should the victim have the ability to recall it? Unless of course there was a delay in the onset of symptoms, but if there were a delay they would have thought nothing of the accident until the onset of symptoms, which would in and of itself prevent the remembrance. My private moment of levity was short-lived.

What if this ‘thing’ accosting my mind was some type of chemical imbalance associated with sleep? That with every hour I slept another month was erased—what if a minute’s rest equaled a year of lost recollection? “Then I must stay awake!” The words tumbled from my lips and echoed around the empty room.

What if conversely, rest was my only hope? Maybe some type of advanced parasite had entered my brain and learned to mimic my movements—he rested when I was still and used periods of physical activity to gobble up huge tracts of recorded data, and to disguise the gurgling sound of my memories rattling through his digestive tract. “Nonsense”! I bellowed.

Perhaps nothing could be done to slow the decay. What if I had unknowingly wandered through of the gates of insanity and all that remained was to discover my only option was moving forward through a wicked maze of entanglement designed with no exit?

The icy talons of the unknown took hold of me, ushering in a chill that ran the length of my spine. Lying on my side I stared holes in the wedding picture on the nightstand. The glint in her eyes was unmistakably the reflection of a promising and fulfilling life with a man she truly loved. How would she react to being shackled to him now—his mind as empty as a hollow tomb where silent cries of desperation echoed back at him like daggers.   

It was early evening when I awoke to same nightmare. Nothing had changed for the better, and I supposed nothing for the worse, but how could I determine the latter? Each of the guests filtered into and out of my bedroom single file, reminiscent of a funeral visitation. I managed a wry grin and insisted on placing a kiss on each of their foreheads. I supposed it was good practice. If I remained a prisoner to this condition then I’d need to learn read people—to do what was expected based on other’s perceptions, unable to trust my own.


In the early stages you believe that you can learn to outthink this thing—that you can provide the answers or responses the requester is probing for. I adopted and immediately abandoned such a foolish philosophy in practically the same cloudy moment. I felt as though I was doing the right thing when I proposed cutting my wife loose from the obligation of marriage so that she might deservedly enjoy her golden years. In hindsight, I see that she interpreted it a murderous and merciless act—better I would have physically carved her heart from her chest with a butter-knife. She stayed with me round the clock for a month straight, weeping uncontrollably. I learned that trying to say the right thing is very often worse than remaining silent.

From that point forward when she arrived to my room with a cake, I no longer attempt to guess the occasion and instead simply enjoyed the flickering candles in silence. I understood that withdrawing into silence gave the impression I was more disconnected than I truly was, but incorrect guesses and untimely responses days or weeks later hurt her more than I could bear. I began to think Abraham Lincoln was speaking specifically of my condition when he stated “Better to remain silent and be though a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Although I am certain they have passed, I think of Arnold and Phyllis often. It is my sincerest hope that their final resting place fills them with a peace that eluded them on earth.  I also pray that their interpretation of my gestures and actions toward them were ones of acceptance and understanding. Thinking of my former patients always leads me back to the question that I wish now I’d never considered. I’m dreadfully certain that they believed themselves normal while the world sees us in an entirely different light.

The error of arrogance was mine; I foolishly mistook the perceived differences between my patients and myself as eternal, but the gap is narrowing and on a collision course of ironic proportions. I used to pride myself on punctuality and believed that it was a prime indicator of a man’s character, but I must now add the perceived passage of time to a growing list of things I am no longer capable of tracking. It is as though the keeper of time has tossed my hours, days and weeks together in a mixing bowl. Although it seems a cruel twist of fate, perhaps it is an act of mercy—not knowing how many have passed or remain.

Words alone cannot begin to describe such an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. It seems the more desperately I attempt to cling to my remaining mental capacity the more quickly the gray matter turns to soup and slips through my fingers. Whatever small purpose she once had, this ship has undeniably lost her captain and is traveling in perilous waters. It is not within my power to change the angry skies above or the churning sea below. It pains me in unspeakable ways to admit this once proud vessel is rudderless and adrift, tossed against the jagged rocks again and again—I fear she cannot take much more. It is a broken process, from which there seems no escape. Yet she is asked repeatedly by doctors, orderlies, and even her loved ones to find the courage to sail again. Perhaps once I have convinced myself that I am capable of one final moment of lucidity, I shall ask them the question burning in my mind. “What is your definition of compassion and dignity, and why can’t both be served by allowing an old tired ship to simply slip beneath the surface”?