A Story in Pieces

It wouldn't matter that much, whether we lived or died. It mattered to us, sure, but in general, I mean. We would be just one more frozen corpse on a mountain. Like ornaments on a tree. This tree happened to be twenty-nine thousand feet tall, with us almost at the top. Almost.

It helped to think like that, I found. I put one foot in front of the other, eyes down, chanting It doesn't matter under my breath. Not the best mantra I've ever heard, but it did the trick. My feet kept moving, didn't they? So, you tell me what works and what doesn't.

The top of the mountain, once there, was a little like a landfill. But colder. Maybe more colorful. I hadn't been to many landfills. What I mean is there was trash everywhere. We added some trash and stood around feeling quite proud.

Breathing was the hardest part. That's what I told people when I got back. I was telling someone at the store the other day, actually. She was scanning the cans of black beans and the dry pasta and asked me what the hardest part was. I told her. I didn't mind talking about it generally.

When Janie asked that when I got back, I didn't say the breathing. I got off the plane and down the hallway and straight into her arms, tears flowing and all. She didn't ask right away, but when she did, I told her. It was the how I thought he was still alive, until they dragged me away.

His face was still, ice caught in his beard. I shook him—hard, too. But he didn't move. They said let's go, we got to go. But I went on shaking, like he had a loose bolt missing and I was trying to find out where. If I could just find it I could fix it and he would open his eyes.

Air is thin up that high, in case you didn't know. And dropped oxygen canisters don't just sit still in the snow, not for us they didn't. They slide, and tumble, and disappear. It's like watching the last bit of wick burn out on a candle. Nothing to do but watch.

His wife wanted to know why I hadn't brought him down. I don't know if she meant his body or just him, alive and all. I didn't have an answer either way. I told her I tried. Janie held my hand. I think it made her mad, to see us as two and her now as one.

Because it's there. He had said that when I asked him why. Just because. Some mountain guy had said that once; he told me all about it and I had kind of listened. But I went. And because I went, he went.

It doesn't matter. Those words don't help as much on the way down like they did the way up. It mattered. It mattered more than anything else. It still does.