My dad thought it would be an excellent idea to introduce his two sons to mountaineering and each other on the same day. From his stories I had gathered that the mountain and Steven both would be a challenge, but neither too difficult. My brother was some kind of child genius, not quite a savant but something close. At age eleven he was already playing piano recitals, building computers, and had advanced past algebra. The mountain, for its part, a brown bulge kitty–corner to a taco shop, rose some nine hundred feet above rooftops and represented the city’s most esteemed minor protuberance. After a series of mild switchbacks, the trail culminated in a bench beside a radio tower with a view of the surrounding smog. I didn’t know that before the hike. I was in second grade and Steven in sixth.
I stood behind my father and watched him dig through the back of his van. The fog, dense in the sycamores, swallowed the mountain beside us. People kept materializing out of the mist—college students, spandex moms, and couples with dogs—everyone satisfied, exercised, a restful, celebratory mood dominating the parking lot; folks shaking hands, heading home to watch soaps operas and eat ham sandwiches, saying, “Bye, Trish!” “See you Monday, Tom!” Within minutes, they were gone.
“This is boring,” Steven called from the front seat.
My father and I had been talking about climbing the mountain for some time, ever since he helped my mom and me move into the new house. I thought it would be just the two of us, but I guess he had decided it was an opportunity no son should miss. He had taken me on a few prior adventures, once to a beach in Tijuana and another time to one of the schools where he installed the drapes he sold for a living. His company’s name, which consisted of his own first and last names plus the words “And Associates,” had a peculiar ghostly appeal since the company consisted only of him. At his office, I used to hunt around the building for the secretaries and construction workers hiding behind doors, but there was never anyone there. The busted van he had purchased from a catering company still had their yellow logo fading on its side. There were no seats in the back, just piles of metal rigging, booklets of fabric samples, and boxes of sweaty clothes; everywhere the smell of spilled coffee and spicy peanut dust.
Dad pulled his black weather radio from the box of dirty workout clothes and set it on the van’s back bumper, then handed me an empty bag of McDonald’s. “I think we beat the heat,” he said. I crossed the lot and crushed the burger containers down in a metal trashcan. In the bathroom, I washed my hands and stared at the mirror carved dark by a thousand overlapping graffiti signatures.
When I came outside, my father had pulled two badly beaten shoes out from the box. He stood holding them at arm’s length, examining them like a pair of rotten fish, long tongues dangling laceless. “Always carry a spare,” he said, slipping them on his feet and covering them in duct tape. I tried the drinking fountain that stood in the planter beside the van, but it didn’t work, so I sucked my tongue and drank spit. Steven, up until now buried in a book, finally looked up, and our eyes met for the first time. In deference to the mysterious boy three years my senior, I looked away.
The map at the base of the trailhead said 1.5 miles to the summit, panoramic views of San Diego County, sensitive habitat, stay on the trail, no camping, no firearms, carry plenty of water. Up the hill there were more signs, brown warnings we stood eyeing, each advertising an increasingly gory demise: “Beware of rattlesnakes and mountain lions.” “Do not touch unexploded ordnance. Call the county hotline.”
“I think we’re good to go,” Dad said.
The empty ranges around where I grew up were designated a regional park, but before that, up until the ’60s, the navy used the land for infantry, tank, and artillery training. Leftover shells were all over the place. Kids would dig up the vintage projectiles and drag them home thinking they were some kind of Indian artifact. Only a few people got blown up. It was an actual problem, more serious after it rained, but we had had none of that for months. So we started climbing—my father playing point man while Steven held the middle and I drew up the rear.
My father was not a military man, not a bad ass or a hard ass, not one of those dads who would beat their kids after they struck out at a baseball game. I only once saw him yell. He was vaguely religious, but I don’t think he went to church much. The only thing he seemed truly faithful to was his five–mile morning run. It was the one task he could accomplish each day without fail, and it kept his body toned, his arms tan, his trunk strong. I suppose he was vain. He had a full head of hair, but it went gray early, and sometimes he dyed it. His prickly mustache never shrank or grew but clung tight to the edge of his lip like some kind of stubborn weed. I don’t think I ever saw him wear a jacket. Each day he dressed in khaki pants and a navy blue polo. He was wearing shorts the day I met Steven, though. Shorts meant something special was happening. That day he was introducing us to each other and, in a way, to himself. It was his dream to climb mountains, and to raise two boys.
Once a week he would pick me up from my mom’s, and we would get burritos, and he would construct crazy scenes of death and survival and extreme weather phenomenon. Hurricanes, earthquakes, avalanches, grizzly bears, and gunshots. Everything a struggle, a life–or–death scenario. He told me about his friend who got his leg trapped under a tree skiing and had to saw it off with a Swiss Army knife. Steak burritos tasted exceptional during these talks when my father fascinated me with tales of terror and freed my mind from the future, five minutes away. He felt like a dad then, and I would forget that soon he would have to go home to his real family. When his gruesome store of death began to wane, he would gather his bags and move on to the last stop: Mount Everest. Here he exhausted his energy, and his tone became wistful. Everest was not just another lurid anecdote to stuff down my throat. It meant something to him. He knew he would never climb her, but still he wasn’t ashamed to call it his dream. “Qomolangma,” he used to say, “in Tibetan, means ‘mother goddess of the universe.’ ”
That morning on Cowles Mountain, hurrying through the fog after my father’s khaki shorts, a strange hum began to filter down through the sky’s whiteness, cutting across the ashen chaparral. Was it the cicadas beginning to tune their copper cellos, or a helicopter just audible beyond the fog banks? I wasn’t sure, but I kept climbing. Then there was a voice, “Dad, are we going to Computer USA after this?” and suddenly we were swallowed, walled in by tall stickers and sagebrush, trampling the damp black dirt. I could barely see Steven plowing ahead of me, his arms like pale fins paddling through the thick fog.
I had never met him before, but I had seen him a thousand times. In a way, we were always right next to each other. We sat facing one another in the two credit–card foldouts in my father’s wallet. He would open the billfold and hand it to me, and I would stare down fascinated at the two boys juxtaposed. Between the foggy plastic walls separating us, there existed a distance I both thrilled and feared to cross. Preserved in plastic was the picture of a person who might have lived once, an olive–colored boy with a black mushroom cap of hair. Above a maroon–and–navy striped sweater, he met the camera with small pale–green eyes and a toothless smile. A happy child. My flesh and blood. But it was always an image framed in weird light, a photocopied dream, only partly there, partially real—a half brother. Though he was always right beside me, I could never quite reach him. I might have had trouble believing he was real, but my father’s van had only two seats: sitting beside my father in the shabby mustard–colored cushion at the front of the van, I could often feel my brother’s warmth and weight—picked up from school, driven through the drive–through, and dropped off at church only moments before. He lived with our father and his mother in a suburb twenty minutes north. I lived with my mother just a mile west of the mountain.
I hurried after my brother’s shape, my lungs scooping up the white fog, swallowing globs full like cold cotton. Below, the parking lot was gone. The bushes down the slope looked like anemones, weeds in a skeleton reef below the lake of white water. A rabbit dove in front of Steven, then another, and while we kept climbing, more cicadas joined in chorus, as if they could summon the sunlight, the peculiar hum rising all around us, a million bugs with their dead batteries beeping, and soon the birdsongs started, little laser–beam screams of hummingbirds and house sparrows crisscrossing the hillside, while, up ahead, God rays shot through the fog, illuminating the shredded bills of monarch wings as they flapped black and yellow through the bright projection, growing in numbers until the rocks became galvanized, steamed, and glistened with dew. Every molecule on the mountain throbbed through the frenzy of chemical change. Not immune to the charge, we thrilled along faster. Then at once, the fog lay below us like a tide subsiding on the shore banks. We stood as if on an island looking out while the sun tore down, unraveling the sheets of fog. Steven was laughing. I stood transfixed. Forever I had been told never to look at the sun, but it would have been blasphemy not to—such bright, burning radiance showering everything—so I stared at it. It looked like water and fire fucking.
It was a Wednesday, and we were both supposed to be in school. That morning my father had called, and my mom spoke to him in the kitchen. “Your dad is coming,” she said, “with Steven.” Against her better judgment she phoned the office and called me in sick. “I hate lying,” she said.
Looking down the mountain, still blinking through the sun’s red afterimage, I could see my school up the road. In the center of the gray buildings, the lines stood waiting for recess. I felt happy being so far away from them. It all looked different up here. I remember my father used to say that it was every American’s right to die in the wilderness. Nobody should save your ass or come looking for you. It took me a long time to understand what he meant, but I think it had something to do with the feeling that day. His words were a strange way of expressing an even minor relief at the sudden taking leave of the city, of abandoning its everyday safety.
His hard legs kept driving up the trail. “Are you guys pumped?”
“I’m hot,” Steven yelled.
“It’s not so bad,” my father said.
I had never truly seen the wilderness he spoke of, but I played a lot of video games. On hot afternoons my Nintendo would overheat and the games freeze. There was nothing to do about it. The screen would turn pink, and then little green fissures would open up in the corners, and every couple minutes something clicked, and a cluster of yellow pixels would flash and pop like a plague boil. My mom used to tell me that if I didn’t stop biting my nails I was going to get a flesh–eating bacterium, necrotizing fasciitis. I would sit there chewing and waiting, watching the pink screen decompose. The only way to make it stop was to unplug the console from the wall. I thought it would be better to die from electrocution than necrotizing fasciitis because it would be immediate. A light would turn on, and I would be gone. Mostly though, on such days, I longed for someone to play with outside.
“Are we going to Computer USA after this?” Steven asked again.
The half–filled two–gallon jug at my father’s side swung, gleaming clear in the sun. It was too large to carry on the trail, a bulky vessel more a gasoline canteen than a water bottle, and the way he held it with his arm away from his body made it seem like we were on some industrial charge, like we were out there not for a hike but to help refuel a helicopter hidden in the hillside somewhere. We were the only people out there. It was ominous, strange looking toward the summit a mile away, the outlines of each bush pinned in so stark a light.
“I don’t see why not,” Dad said.
All around us, the dead tips of manzanita kept lighting like filaments. Pyrite pebbles glittered beneath our sneakers.
“You see that?” Dad pointed.
Faraway the Coronado Islands off the coast of Mexico were swimming in gold. He had land in Baja. That was another dream I guess, but money was short. We went down there once and looked at it. It was a flat patch of dirt beside the ocean. I found a long rib bone in the rocks by the water and asked him if it was human, but he didn’t know. I wanted to take it home, but he said we should leave it. When I told my mom I had picked up the bone, she was disgusted and made me strip down naked and scrub. I got giardia after that. Months later at the Miramar Air Show, I missed all the Blue Angels and wasp copter tricks because I opened a Popsicle wrapper with my mouth. “That man might have had poop on his hands!” my mother said of the Mexican vendor. Inculcated since my birth was the insidious concept of germs, ubiquitous, infinitesimal stalking demons that waited in silence, infesting every fingertip, doorknob, and shadow with their death. She hated them, plain and simple, and by default, I did too. I often wanted to find flaws in my mother’s reasoning, to shirk her omnipotence, but her arguments always seemed sensible. The contradiction inherent in all her thinking didn’t occur to me until years later when it was no longer of use.
The trail curved inland toward some boulders. I watched Steven scuttle up over the rocks toward the next rise.
“Barret, did I tell you Steven is building a computer?” my father asked.
Whenever I thought of Steven without the aid of the credit–card fold out, I always saw him in pieces—an over–the–shoulder shot of swift elf hands sweeping across white piano keys, dark eyes moving over a math book, the chords in his throat pulsing as he gobbled a glass of milk, and upstairs, his hair hanging down as he sat hunched over a desk, tinkering. The close–up revealed ten fingers gripping two pairs of tweezers as he patiently pieced the computer’s impossible brain together. Then there was a rustle in the hallway. An audible hum. A tension behind the images, between the walls. Something hidden in the adjacent bedroom. An extra body. A person I could not picture and hoped never to find. His mother.
“My dad’s taking me to get the motherboard,” Steven said. He stood, dusting his hands on his navy blue cargo shorts and staring down at me from the top of the rock rise.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It’s like the computer’s heart and lungs. It’s really expensive,” Steven said.
He spoke in a compact nasal tone. Between the quick bursts, I could hear the hard boogers dried in his head. His mother never taught him how to blow, but his black hair, greasy and long neglected, looked beautiful as it bounced beneath the burning sun, gleaming in short phosphorescent waves.
“My last computer had a virus,” he said.
My father had told me all about Steven’s peculiar nerd pastime, the LAN party. Some of the older kids at his church arranged sleepovers during which they slaughtered one another in all–night Doom death matches. To keep me from complaining too much about frozen Nintendo cartridges, my father had explained that he was already saving money for Steven’s new computer. The old one, he had said, had picked up a virus at a LAN party. Later, however, he admitted that Steven’s mother had smashed the machine when she found out he was playing murderous games.
Barbara was a devout Christian. At least one night out of the week, usually after my father dropped me off, she devoted to charity. The phone would ring several times, and no one would be there. It was frustrating because my mother and I loved to watch late–night shows about serial killers and extraterrestrials, and if the calls continued, one of us would have to go unplug the kitchen phone. I never wanted to be left alone or to miss anything. One night after my father dropped me off, my mother realized she was out of cigarettes. It was a difficult decision, but while the X–Files synth theme started, she bowed to addiction and drove up to the gas station. The phone rang shortly after she left, and I answered it. There was a pause, then Barbara generously volunteered three new words for my vocabulary. I had never heard her voice before. “You’re just a bastard, just a little, fucking, putrid bastard and that’s all you’ll ever be,” she said. Later I asked my mother whom she hated more, Saddam Hussein or Barbara, but she said she didn’t hate anyone. “Hate is a terrible word.” She did say, however, that if Barbara were on fire, she wouldn’t cross the street to piss on her.
The morning of the hike, before my mother left for work, I was watching The Price Is Right, about to bid on a trip to Bermuda, when she looked at me severely. “I hope that if everything doesn’t turn out the way you want that you’re not too disappointed,” she said. I fought for something to say to her, something to scream at her car as she backed out of the driveway, but nothing came to mind.
For years I had longed for a playmate, a brother, a companion to run with outside, but from the circumstances of my own life, I already knew that a mere hike couldn’t guarantee these dreams. Even if Steven and I enjoyed each other, larger forces were at play beyond our own affection. My mother didn’t need to tell me not to expect anything. Yet after she spoke I felt determined at all costs to contradict her, to prove that we were both brothers, and soon, that we would be best friends. “Be sure to drink plenty of water,” she had said before she left, “and don’t share with Steven.”
I had already imagined it innumerable times: my father pulling into the driveway, Steven opening the door, and the two of us scrunching together in the mustard–colored passenger seat, banded together for the first time beneath a single seat belt. There were some things we could share. But when my father drove up two hours late, I crawled in the back of the van. He had to prompt Steven to acknowledge me, but I didn’t mind. And at the McDonald’s drive–through, I didn’t care either. Steven ordered a Chicken McNugget Happy Meal with a vanilla shake; and balanced in the back of the van on the boxes and broken rigging, I called out a Cheeseburger Happy Meal, Dr. Pepper. And when the sodas came, and Steven took a sip of mine, saying, “Ew,” and set it down in the cup holder without handing it back, I still didn’t care. The drinking fountains at my school were covered in boogers, and the water always tasted like blood. I seldom drank out of them. I went the whole day without any water. After recess, running on the asphalt for thirty–five minutes, my knees cut and hands coated black, I often thought I would throw up. Then I made the discovery. In social studies they taught us the Indian tricks, how they learned to get water from a cactus. San Diego was a desert, Ms. Benesche said. We got our water from the Colorado River. And later that week, when a man showed a video during a science assembly that said our bodies—our spit and blood—were nothing else but H2O, I felt like Einstein. It was a solution so elegant and simple. Everyone had overlooked it. How easy it was to survive swishing your spit, drawing up your own water from the tongue’s soil. I confided my discovery to no one and survived this way for months, skipping the lines at the fountains and going straight back to the cool classroom.
With my mouth parched, the dirt sticking to my teeth, tasting sweetly of smoke and metal, I sucked calmly. My father had slowed ahead, waiting for us to round out the next switchback. The sun kept stabbing down; each footfall seemed to confirm a further step up the thermometer’s ladder.
“When we come down we’ll go swimming,” Dad said.
“At home?” Steven asked.
“I was thinking the lake,” he said.
They had a pool where they lived. The air–conditioning was broken. Grass green. Trim painted yellow. There was a pine tree. They had to sweep the needles and keep the garage closed during the day. They had bottled water delivered. My father told me all of this. I never went to his house.
“We’re almost to the top,” he said. As often as he lied, I don’t think it ever brought him any pleasure. Sometimes he would say in a promising voice, “It’s only eight miles to the top,” meaning either a figurative “Yes, it can be done!” or a literal reminder that only eight miles elapsed in the passage from base camp to the summit of Everest. He bought me a picture once, one of few surprises. It was an intimidating splatter of snowcapped geology, all the terrible gray triangles jutting up into the blue, fighting for space in a long frame. He wanted me to guess which peak was the highest in the world. I guessed wrong: it was the tiniest sliver back behind all of them. Qomolangma.
After a few minutes, we entered a clearing. There was a yucca palm in the middle. All the spikes were gray and dead. We sat in the tiny bit of shade it allowed, and no one spoke. All the cicadas seemed to have baked away. The mountain was silent. Mute black bees kept crossing overhead, blowing from the east like tiny balloons cut loose from a rabbit’s birthday party. After some time, my father pointed out the convenient benches of flat, smoothed stone strewn about the clearing. He said the Indians used them to pound things, then he opened a packet of peanuts and poured them in his hand. Contented, I watched the red peanut dust fill the cracks in his palm and then swallowed the pool of spit I had been working on. It didn’t taste wonderful, but it was preferable to all the water around me. I could see the river below now, a sad trickle that originated in real mountains invisible to the east through the El Cajon valley smog. A little bit of it made it to the ocean in a marsh where there were a lot of plastic bags and abandoned shopping carts. Some of my best memories were fishing for crawdads with my father in that river after school before the sun went down. We would stick raw bacon on a piece of line and lower it by hand into the pipes at the Old Mission Dam. The crawdads would pinch, and we would pull them out. It wasn’t a real river though.
“Hotter than hell,” my father said, chewing. He said it was forecasted to be much cooler, that the marine layer wasn’t supposed to burn off until two. I ate a few peanuts and looked around. There was a blue–belly lizard doing pushups on the ground beside my foot, oblivious to everything except its own joy at burning alive. The sun kept sending down endless burning plates shattering in the dirt around us. It felt good. Steven ate some peanuts and licked his palms. I wiped the dust on my shorts then stared at the half–full water bottle between my father’s legs. Earlier that morning, before he picked me up, I had pictured it just a couple times: the water bottle being passed to me, the invisible microscopic maggot germs boiling at its mouth, their brutal impossibility barring me from family and refreshment. Before we stepped on the trail, I had decided that I wouldn’t drink after him or my brother. I had absolute faith in the precious pools of saliva buried in my frenulum. Yet, pinned in the burning light of the clearing, sitting on those Indian stones in the scraps of that dead palm tree, staring at the peanuts in my hand, and breathing softly while the bees floated overhead, I felt far from home. I didn’t have to be my mother’s son—nor did Steven necessarily belong to Barbara. Alone on the mountain, we were our father’s boys now. Steven looked a little taller than me, his hair darker, but we both had Dad’s big nostrils, his bright eyes. We were family. I drank after my mother, why couldn’t I drink after my father? A thin strand of saliva stretched from his lip to the bottle, shining briefly before it tore, quickening something wild within me. He handed the bottle to Steven. He took a short drink. I could hear the flagella flapping, swarms writhing on the bottle’s mouth, and I decided then to imbibe lovingly all the disaster this day could offer, not to defeat dehydration but the distance between us. Some wall within me collapsed, and I felt the only way to live was to let go of fear, to hold nothing back and dive into the messy warmth and mucus of anyone I loved or might one day hope to.
Steven lifted the bottle again. Did he have prior knowledge of my education, or was it his own that he was thinking of? With his head tilted back, the bottle held high, he glanced at me sadly and commenced a gulp that didn’t finish. At first the water drizzled down his cheeks, but then he lifted the bottle higher, dumping the contents down his chest, while my father stared on in a sort of daze, only grabbing at the jug after the water had splashed firmly at his feet, spraying mud all over his legs, and dying Steven’s navy shorts a deep black. Steven coughed.
“Why did you do that?” My father grabbed him by the arm. “Steven, why did you do that?”
Steven was laughing. He handed me the jug.
“I was thirsty,” he said.
“Apologize to your brother.” My father shook him again. “Apologize!” he said. But it didn’t matter. I resumed swishing the spit, gazing at the lake far below—Lake Murray, a nominal man–made entity, the river’s inborn brother, quarantined in a sink beside a golf course where no one played. You could take a steel skiff out on it. My father and I did it once, maybe a year later, paddled around until we caught a bluegill and got bored. When I was seventeen a girl and I stole a boat and drank a bottle of wine. We sunk it out in moonlight, swam in naked, and picked bugs off each other in the car before the cops came. But it wasn’t a real lake. “You think this is funny?” they said when they fined us for breaking curfew.
Steven looked at the ground, giggling uncomfortably. “He’s not my real brother,” he said. I stared down at the red mud drying beneath his sneakers. Programmed since birth had been the principle of the alien offspring, the heinous half brother his father had created to destroy him and her, his mother. On this principle he had decided before he started on the mountain not to share anything with me.
“Apologize,” my father said firmly.
“He has germs,” Steven protested.
Hereditary and personal, his fear eclipsed hygiene. My germs were of another order, a different species with origins in another galaxy.
“You have germs,” I said.
I didn’t discriminate. I feared my brother’s germs the same as anyone else’s—that was the difference between us that made me better. At least that was what I told myself. But it was possible we were both the same self–righteous creature. We were at war, two halves competing for scarce resources, for water and a father’s affection.
Sitting there with nothing more to do, we finally stood. Steven and I both wanted to keep going. The trail curved up around more rocks then sank down into a flat wash of sand. At some point there had been a creek. Except for the soft squashing beneath us, everything was silent. A slight breeze ruffled the bushes and cooled our faces. Reconciled to my initial wisdom, I continued sucking my tongue, drawing up water from all the dank depths inside me. We left the wash and started zigzagging up a hillside. “Tell me if you start to hurt,” Dad said. The sun kept stabbing down, but I felt fine just dragging up the rear, the sound of crunching gravel mixing with my frothing spit. Over the ridge, I saw the radio tower. We weren’t far from the top as it turned out. Swallowing my spit, I stared down the mountain and found the blacktop playgrounds at my school empty, the drinking–fountain lines deserted. I used to get excited looking up toward the mountain radio tower during recess. We said the walls were cold shards of glaciers. The floor an endless, breathing control board. A disembodied voice sometimes spoke in emerald light, the glacial pillars glowing like Gatorade. A wizard’s castle.
“What does the radio tower do?” Steven asked.
“I couldn’t tell you,” my father said. “They broadcast everything in Mexico now.”
I swallowed another thimbleful of spit and noticed another hiker ahead, an elderly man, shirtless, with shriveled leather skin, sitting upright in Indian style, perhaps dead or meditating. His eyes were closed. We passed by respectfully, leaving his shape to melt peacefully into the heat haze. My father started telling stories then about his days in Boy Scouts. Stories about the army. Although he was some sort of standard Christian—not a Quaker or Anabaptist—during Vietnam’s prolonged death throes, he had escaped deployment through some dubious appeal to religious pacifism. In his stories though, he was always determinedly brave. “This is just an anthill,” he said, encouragingly. The wind gusted from the east. “At least we got a breeze now,” he said. “On Everest it’s below freezing but the sun’s reflection on the snow makes it feel like one fifty.” He said when he was sixteen he had been climbing in the Sierras, and a mountain lion had followed him on the ridge for three days. “You remember that girl got eaten on Mount Laguna last year?” He had told me how the girl’s eye had popped out while her boyfriend fought in vain to beat the cat away. “Should we practice?” he asked.
Ahead there was a brown sign in the trail. It read 1.25. We stopped.
“Pretend that’s a mountain lion,” Dad said, pointing to the sign. “What do you do?”
Steven smiled and looked at him, excited but hesitating, evidently preprepared for a similar battle.
“It’s looking at you like filet mignon.”
Steven picked up a rock and threw it at the sign. He missed and threw another. I stood on my toes, raised my arms, and screamed. We threw rocks together.
“Okay, she’s gone.”
Leaning against a boulder, Dad pulled off one of his duct–taped shoes. Dried blood had painted his foot brown. He found the broken blister on his big toe, squeezed, and a drop of red fell to the dirt. “How are you doing?” he asked me. “Fine,” I said. Steven leaned in, lip curled, and stared at the raw flesh. I liked it when my father asked me how I was doing, and he must have enjoyed it as well because I always lied. I always said I felt great. He didn’t like it when I asked him questions though. He told me once to quit asking, that he would like to leave Barbara but couldn’t. “Why not?” I had asked. But he couldn’t answer. My mother said he was afraid of Barbara. She kicked Steven once, and his face hit the bed frame. The teeth pierced through the lip, and he spit them on the carpet. It was right before picture day at school. Barbara sold Mary Kay cosmetics and volunteered at the church, so she had plenty of people to tell about his fall, the accident, and enough makeup to doctor the bruising. Someone notified Child Protective Services anyway. My father started driving Steven around more then, trying to get him out from under her reign, eventually bringing him to meet me. But who did Steven hate more, his mother or father? Of a handful of determined steps in his father’s life, one had been his abandonment to create me and live with my mother. A decision he in turn recanted.
“This is more fun than school isn’t it?”
My father—armchair mountaineer, meteorology just a halfway hobby, family a pebble he turned over in his mind like a philosopher, something transcendental he longed to instantiate—never arrived on time and seldom surprised anyone, but I loved him and was excited to play any part in his impassioned but feckless attempts at fatherhood. I watched while he held up the mutilated shoe again and examined it carefully, plucking a pebble from the duct tape. “I can’t believe I forgot my shoes,” he said. “I’m losing my mind.”
“I’m sorry, Dad,” I said.
“It’s my fault,” he said. He looked at me. “Are you okay?”
Even then, during that one–hundred–degree day, I knew there was no danger. The parking lot was only a mile away, and my father could have easily carried me down. But I wanted to impress him. I wanted him, and Steven, to know that I was tough, that whatever happened, I was happy, that I could take care of myself, and I would survive. The only thing I feared was making my father feel guilty.
“I know how to drink my spit,” I said.
Steven and my father both looked at me surprised.
“I’m not thirsty,” I said. “I’m okay.”
My father slid the shoe back on his foot. “You know how to drink your spit?” he asked.
“You just swish it around until there’s enough and then you drink it.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“At school,” I said.
He looked unhappy. Steven laughed, and we started walking.
I tried to open my mouth and show them all the liquid under my tongue, but they were focused on the trail. “Try it,” I said. Steven said that was gross, and my father said nothing. I kept waiting for him to turn around, but when he didn’t I began to feel ashamed. I scraped for another thimbleful of spit, swallowed, and realized for the first time truly how empty it was. I swished more and felt it turn to chalk inside me and dematerialize out the pores in my armpit.
Something uncertain came into the air then, like the high–frequency whine of my mother’s television left flickering on mute all night; a strange hum resonating, haunting the hillside. For the first time ever, I thought that perhaps my father did not mean well and that perhaps he was trying to hurt us. I gazed over the metropolis spread beneath us. As far as I could see west and to the north and south spanned the city of stucco—brown–and–green hills studded with pastel boxes, the suburbs of Southern California like one monolithic, interconnected microchip pressed into the land.
Was it a voice? Did someone speak to my father in the night; could he hear it now? “Take your two sons, your only two sons, whom you love, take them to the mountain and burn them.” Was the end of the world incumbent? Were aliens returning to carry the devout from the mountaintop? Or had he known about the day’s heat after all, the collective trial of suffering a calculated attempt to meld us together, a little time on purgatory to make a family of us? The wind picked up, and the hum morphed into a dry electric sizzle. It circled in the air around us. I thought it was the cicadas, but then it turned piercing, and the ground shook. It hurt to listen. It was like one of those air conditioners you see crying in the alleys behind shopping centers, fans whirling, the motor whining like some grief–stricken donkey, while cooks dump grease out their back doors, and the delivery trucks rumble, and the happy people, indoors under cool conditions, flip through jackets on sale racks, unmoved. I tried not to think about it and just followed my father’s khaki shorts, marching further into the blinding heat.
Then he spoke. His mouth wasn’t moving though. I couldn’t understand the words. Then I realized it was Steven trying to talk to me. Steven was brilliant, a recognized savant. While our father trudged on, I could feel him struggling to establish the telepathic connection, brittle wires boring into my exposed brain. He was scared too. Hold on, I heard. We weren’t far from the top, but I knew I wouldn’t make it. Cold, poison nausea spread to my extremities. Tongue leather deaf to the summons of sweat and speech. Game–hen brain dangling out of the back of the skull, tied with twine, pulling my head heavenward. I tried not to look at the sun. I could feel the vomit rising within me. There was a smell of burning in the air, and I realized then that the hum was just the din of my brain cells dying. Like the overheated Nintendo, childhood was a video game where you weren’t sure how to win or if you could die. But something horrible was happening to us. Hold on. All at once, the roaring hum gave way to booming rapid blasts. Steven’s black, half–Chaldean hair was flapping everywhere. His lips were locked. I heard the calm command again—Hold on.
“They’re not supposed to be out here,” my father yelled.
It rose up from the cliff beside us like a prehistoric cicada reclaiming dominion. A woman with blonde hair dangled beneath the craft like a tumbler in a heavy–metal circus, while a man floated beside her, fitting her harness. The helicopter was painted black and had huge guns lashed to its sides. The others in the cockpit, dressed like flies, waved to us. “Hold on,” the amplified command continued. I inhaled the choking black kerosene smoke and stared as the helicopter blades turned slowly in the blue. The world was spinning. Small transparent peas of light floated in my vision, each following its own figure–eight track through the capillaries in my eyes. There was nothing left to do but tell the truth—I was sick. Staring at the spinning blades, I felt the chunks of cheeseburger boiling in my stomach, rising up my esophagus on a wave of sticky white spittle. I couldn’t swallow fast enough. My father saw my face and rushed over only to jump back. Steven covered his ears. I managed to say sorry and then released a flood of vomit. It exploded in the dirt like an excised rotten bladder. Flies bounced between the brown chunks and my ankles, and I hurled again, burying them in magnificent thunder. When I looked up with eyes watering, Steven was staring at me frightened. Barf is like laughter, only more contagious. Before he could apologize, he tilted his head, opened his mouth wide, and the vomit projected upward, as if out of the throat of a fountain, a little yellow tongue leaping and arching that didn’t come back. For some reason my father picked him up, and he hurled again, splattering the navy polo. In the dirt the two pools mixed to perfect paint, an expensive semigloss to add a pinch of class, a surprising nuance to any home. It was the first time we touched. Steven was supposed to come over for pizza and a movie after the hike, but I knew he wouldn’t now. I didn’t know that I would never see him again.
Beyond the radio tower, the woman finally secure, the man gave the signal, and the helicopter lifted on the viscous air—training complete&mdashand cut a beeline toward Miramar. Wiping my mouth, I wondered if my father was mad. He stood, empty jug in hand, staring at the vomit mixed to mustard, the same color as his passenger–seat cushion. A strong but maladroit man, I think he felt it then, the limits of his life laid bare. We were so close, only a few hundred feet from the top, when we turned around.
Barret Baumgart has work appearing in Camera Obscura, the Literary Review, and the Seneca Review. He is currently working on a book that weaves memoir and reportage into a narrative history of attempted weather control.
The Mountain appears in our Autumn 2015 issue.