Climb The Highest Mountain
by JP Vallières
When I was on earth I was a pretty good kid. I only got drunk when I needed to get drunk. We’d have these big teenage parties in the woods. We’d stack dead logs on the fire and pass a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps around and tell stories about our lives. My life wasn’t that exciting so I lied most of the time. I said I could bench press three-hundred and once told everyone I wasn’t a virgin.
Now, here I am bagging groceries for people like me, people who thought somehow it’d be better to die than go through life with a broken heart. Truth is, as soon as I arrived I totally lost my love for Stacy Wagner. I’m not bragging or anything, there’s just a realization that happens after you kill yourself. It’s like all that teen-confusion evaporates and what you’re left with is a solid understanding of the basics: Eat, drink, and find someone that loves you back. Not even sure what I saw in her in the first place. My sister warned me, she said, “Brother, Stacy Wagner will hurt you. Brother, she barely knows you’re alive.”
Well, maybe Stacy didn’t know I was alive when I was alive, but she sure as hell noticed when I died. Because, get this, a little after I killed myself she did the same. She must have sucked the end of her exhaust pipe because she was all blue and her eyes were glazed over.
I didn’t recognize her at first. I was bagging canned goods, watching them fall through the holes in the bags. That was my job. I took the outdated beets and green beans and dropped them to the floor. No one bothered to tell me I wasn’t doing it right because we were all defeated and when you’ve lost this bad there’s no point in arguing.
Except Stacy Wagner. She said, “Hey, can’t you find a bag without a hole?”
I looked up. “Stacy?” I said. “When did you get here?” This was the first time I felt self-conscious about the hole in my head. It’s not an uncommon look here by any means, but Stacy was new to our land and probably a little grossed out.
“When I heard about you killing yourself, I just couldn’t go on,” she said.
“Really?” I said. Sure, I was dead and way beyond ever caring about her anymore, but I was also flattered.
“Actually, no, that’s not the truth,” she said. “You just got so much attention. All those people at your funeral. No one even looked at me.”
“We all make mistakes, Stacy,” I said. There she was again, in my afterlife.
“I always thought I’d be murdered,” she said, all wispy. “A crime of passion.”
“Yeah, passion can really fuck you up,” I said, scratching the edge of the hole in my head.
“Listen, I don’t like this place. Everyone has bed bugs!”
I looked at the trail of bed bugs crawling up my arm. “You get used to it,” I said.
“No,” she said grabbing my arm. “I don’t belong here.”
I could tell she was desperate. It nearly restored my heart to its broken condition. It’s true, I lost my love for Stacy Wagner, but there was something about seeing her in the afterlife, all blue and frantic, that made me consider giving her a second chance. Who knew, maybe she even needed me.
“Meet me at Burt’s for dinner,” I said. “We’ll talk about it then.”
* * *
So, there I was, in my apartment getting washed up for Stacy Wagner. Never in my wildest dead dreams did I imagine I’d be trying to impress her again. Of course, I had a lot to overcome. There’s only sulfur water running through the faucet, and my roommate said he needed our best shirt. Roommates in the suicide afterlife have to share clothes. He said, “I’m going on a date with a wrist cutter.”
“Damn,” I said. I knew I had lost that battle. Fact is, the ones that slit their wrists are the most attractive. They can hide their scars and always seem to laugh and have a good time, as if the blood that drained also drained out the loneliness and torment.
“You can wear the tank top,” he said and threw me an old ratty Bugle Boy sleeveless. The problem was the right shoulder strap had to be tied together.
“Whatever,” I said. I put the shirt on and looked into the mirror. I got up close, in a place between the cracks, where I could really see the opening in my head. What a hole, I thought. I grabbed a flashlight and placed it where the bullet exited my skull. The light shined through, making me look like a bright shining star. I also felt the warmth of the light. It reminded me of the time my mother laid the family quilt on my sick feverish body.
* * *
When I got to Burt’s it was buzzing with dead people. The air conditioner was making a rude guttural racket. Stacy Wagner wore a green frumpy sweater and a pair of corduroys that were too big for her. She used baling wire wrapped around her waist to keep them from falling down.
“Why the fuck am I wearing these hideous clothes?” she asked.
“You look great!” I said, thrilled to be near her.
“I’m not getting used to anything,” she said, determined.
“Maybe we should order,” I said.
I ordered breaded calamari and she ordered ravioli. The waiter, a guy with a swollen rope line around his neck, dumped a pile of frozen ravioli onto Stacy’s plate and another pile of calamari on mine. Without thinking I dove in.
“What the hell is this?” she asked.
“Food,” I said with a mouthful.
“They don’t heat it?”
“Oh, sorry, forgot to mention. Impossible to start a flame down here. No fire available. You’ll get used to that, too.”
The night went on. She talked about all her old lovers, most of whom were my friends: Reardon, Bruins, Fuller, two of the five Worden brothers.
“You were always so sweet. Picking flowers for me on my birthdays and half-birthdays. Stealing beer for me and my friends. Wait! Wasn’t it you I kissed that one time after Van Waldick’s prom party?”
“No, that was Ramsey,” I said. Ramsey grew a full beard when he was thirteen.
“Oh,” she said. “He was cute.”
* * *
The jukebox at Burt’s only played one song on loop: Kurt Cobain’s acoustic cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
I didn’t have anything more to say and was getting more depressed about the way things had turned out for me. So, I decided to just go ahead and ask Stacy if she would dance. There’s nothing to lose when you’ve already lost. And losing at this level means you’re one step away from being invisible.
She took a moment to look at the hole in my head. You could tell she was debating whether or not to touch me. “Okay, might as well.”
Her blue skin was loose and cold in my arms. I couldn’t get enough of it.
At some point when we were dancing I felt her relax. She laid her head on my shoulder as if she was accepting this strange new world. Of course, I wasn’t exactly sure if it was a sign of defeat or exhaustion.
Then she whispered in my ear, “Sorry we never kissed.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” I said. “Those days are over.”
“Why don’t you kiss me now?” she asked.
“Right now, in front of everybody?”
Before I knew it her lips were on mine. She was icy and full of fumes. With this kiss, sensations of the living realm flooded me: morning grass under my shoes, my father’s rusty Camaro in the driveway, hot sun reflecting off the lake, a fresh apple on a tree, and telling lies around a fire with friends. Right then I wanted Stacy Wagner more than ever.
“Was that your first kiss?” she asked as she pulled away.
“How’d you know?”
“I always know.” Then she went on her tippy toes and put her lips over the hole in my head and blew into it. Her air was all cold and damp. The fumes stung the tender sections at the back. Then she put her fingers on it and said, “You poor, poor thing.”
“It’s nothing, really. Just a hole,” I said.
She took her pinky and slid it in. It felt good. I didn’t want her to take it out. It felt as if it was made to go in and stay there. “Should I tell you why I did it?” she asked.
“We don’t talk about why we’re here,” I said.
She kissed me again. The sweet fumes of exhaust enveloped me. The fumes filled my lungs and traveled up the length of my spine, making me shiver.
* * *
Over the next month I couldn’t have been happier, really. I felt as if I were dreaming one of those sunny dreams. We didn’t make love, we didn’t kiss on the lips again, but she let me nuzzle her neck, buy her groceries, and pick the bed bugs off her back.
One day she said she wanted to move to the desert.
“I’ll move to the moon,” I said.
“You’d do that for me?”
“Just name it,” I said.
We spent the remainder of the day holding hands and walking alongside a murky canal.
“I can’t wait to get out of this humidity,” she said.
“All that space, maybe we could get us some roosters.”
The only chickens available are roosters.
“How do they procreate?” she asked.
“Beats me,” I said.
There was a towering apartment complex on the other side of the canal. While walking and talking about the desert I looked up, way up, and noticed a woman wearing a red head wrap. She was hanging her clothes to dry over the railing of her balcony. I’m not sure but I thought I saw her stop to watch us. Now there’s true love, she thought, or rather I imagined that’s what her thoughts would be. If I were her I’d know true love when I saw it.
“All right, well, there is one more thing I want,” said Stacy, all smiles and cheer.
I waited, smiling back at her perfect blue lips.
“Do you think you could talk to the person in charge?”
“Person in charge?” I said.
“You know, the guy who makes the decisions. I heard he lives in the desert. Maybe you could convince him to, you know, put me where the murdered people go.”
“Murdered people?” I said. “You weren’t murdered, Stacy.”
“Of course I wasn’t murdered. That’s not really the point. I mean, we talked about this.”
“Right, like, you know. I always thought I’d be murdered and that could have happened if I didn’t,” she said as she placed an imaginary exhaust pipe to her lips, her tongue slithering like a snake’s.
“I get it,” I said. “Thanks for the theatrics.”
“Don’t be mad,” she said, putting her arms around my waist and squeezing. “I just thought if there was anyone I could ask for help it’d be you.”
I sat down on a rotten chunk of wood. The person in charge?
* * *
That night I went out and bought a bottle of Canadian Club. The only booze available is Canadian Club. I was planning on drinking enough to forget about my disappointments.
But once again, I was out of luck. My roommate and his wrist cutter girlfriend hogged the couch. All they said to each other was, “No, you’re cuter.”
“No, I swear. You’re way cuter.”
I sat on the kitchen floor and listened to them.
“But you are cuter. It’s true!”
I arranged myself on the floor and snuggled with Canadian Club.
I held the bottle and kissed the label. “You’re pretty cute for a bottle,” I said. Truth is, I never even opened it.
* * *
The next morning I made some phone calls and learned about a guy, Russell Reed, who lived in the desert and had some weight with the authorities. He was a short man with an ax blade stuck into his bald head. He said it, the ax blade, was a metaphor or something about the way life used to be. He also wore socks with red stripes.
“Socks?” I said.
“It’s all I wear these days.”
I thought about what it meant to walk the desert in socks.
We approached a red boulder the size of a castle with a door and a golden handle. The boulder was Russell Reed’s home.
“Let’s make this quick,” he said. “I’m not really supposed to help people out, but I heard you were a good grocery man.”
“Yes, was, but Stacy wanted to move to the desert.”
“She sounds like she wants more than the desert.”
“She wants you to move her up.”
“To where the murdered go.”
“Can’t do that, Captain.”
“I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Impossible,” he said.
“Then what can be done?”
He stood looking at the boulder, rubbing his chin. “You love her, don’t you?”
I don’t know why I hesitated. I did love her.
“I’ve never loved anyone but her,” I said, feeling the weight hit my gut like lead.
“Tell me, is she the reason you’re here?”
“You could say that.”
“And now you’re trying to get her to leave you?”
I didn’t know what to say. Maybe she’d stay. If only I could show her the extent of my love, then she’d never leave.
“All right, this is what you can do,” he said pointing to the east. “If you can swim through that sea and then climb that mountain and retrieve the summit journal and hand me the journal to sign and then swim back and climb to the top and place the journal back where you found it, then I will let her move to where the murdered go.”
“A swim? A hike?”
“Salt water,” he said, itching the ax wound on his bald head.
“Is it the deepest sea?”
“Is it the highest mountain?”
Swim the deepest sea. Climb the highest mountain. I thought about doing it twice. Every muscle in me tightened, every nerve stood on tippy toes.
“I’m old and that’s the last peak I haven’t summited,” said Russell Reed. “If I can just sign my name in the journal, then I will be able to join the club.”
“The Alpinists. I’ll get free dirty martinis for a year.”
Without giving it another thought, I agreed.
* * *
Thick traces of salt lined the shore. There were piles of dead brine shrimp lying limp on the salt. It smelled like the departed were taking ten times longer to decompose. I was never a good swimmer so Russell Reed let me borrow an extra floaty. I wore goggles and a snorkel. I went to the old standby – the breastroke, for most of the journey. The shrimp and some eels swam with me.
The salt burned the hole on my head, but the pain only made me smile. I was happy to prove my love for Stacy Wagner. She will know my suffering, I thought, and she will have no choice but to love me in return.
“Free dirty martinis,” I told the eels and brine shrimp as I swam.
The eels squealed and the brine shrimp blew bubbles in the water. They were telling me something about this world, the afterlife. Or at least that’s what I thought when I heard their strange noises, like words. Sometimes their bodies rubbed against my skin. The eels were long and slimy, but had a gentle friendly touch. The brine shrimp’s exoskeletons scratched the places on me that itched; how they knew I needed the relief, I have no clue. We travelled through the thick salty waters, and I was grateful for the floaty on my right arm. It helped me save strength for the climb ahead.
When we were close to completing the swim, the eels and brine shrimp tickled my toes, making me laugh and swallow throatfuls of sea.
“Stop!” I gurgled. “That tickles!”
* * *
When I got to the opposite shore I walked the shallows. The shore was salty and reeked of rot, but when I breathed deeply I sensed in myself a potential for success. I’d swum all that way. Now I must climb. I am full of love, I told myself, there is nothing that can stop me.
I looked back at my companions, the eels and brine shrimp. Their eyes were just above water, watching me.
“I’ll return,” I said, reassuring them. “I’ve barely begun.”
* * *
At the base of the mountain I looked to see the summit. But most of the mountain was covered by a thick gray cloud. I started to climb, but the mountain was made mostly of sand and three steps up meant one step back.
Sand slipped through the holes in my shoes. Soon I realized that shoes were no use, so I took them off and went barefoot. As I hiked higher I thought about Stacy, the way she danced in my arms. Her lips over the hole in my head, that cold air pressing through, and that kiss. There’s no way she’s gonna leave me, I thought. With every step I felt my lungs expand to breathe in the high air. It was slow going, but when you’re in love you have access to unseen energies. Even some memories began to emerge. I remembered the days when I had to go to summer school for math. I rode the bus all the way to Watertown, the big town. There was a teacher, teaching in the summer, trying to make us understand algebra. We, the unsuccessful ones, sat there, listening, doing our best to get it, but knowing there was nothing we could do about our past failures.
“Now do you understand?” asked Summer Teacher.
“Do you understand, now?” said Summer Teacher again and again and again.
We were different than the other kids. We could only think about being liked. There was no room for anything else.
* * *
When the rain came it fell straight down, making the mountain a heap of mud. I was completely soaked. The floaty on my arm lost all its air. My shirt weighed me down, my pants caked in sludge.
I took off the floaty and my shirt. I dropped my pants. Underwear isn’t for sale in the afterlife so I was naked, the water sliding down my body, cleansing me. I felt it gather in my ears and lifted my head to catch rain in my mouth. The taste was cool and restorative.
However, the higher I climbed the colder the air became. It began to snow. Little flakes, light at first, almost pleasant. But soon it came down heavy and wet. I caught a flake in my hand. The pattern on the flake resembled what I thought Stacy Wagner’s body might look like if I could ever see her naked: curved, mysterious, and its outer edges lined in blue.
As the sky darkened I searched for a resting place. I found an opening in the sand, a small shallow cave. I dug in deeper, searching for warmth, until I found what felt like new material, unnatural things in the sand. Soon I realized it was garbage. The further in I dug the more junk I found: crushed Pepsi cans, empty bags of potato chips, candy wrappers, soggy newspapers, and even a few dirty diapers. After finding a moldy mattress I crashed, but right before falling asleep, I realized that this was no mountain, but a landfill that reached to the clouds.
* * *
In morning light I crawled out and stood in a dark cloud. I turned around, trying to see where I was, trying to find the peak. The cloud disorientated me. When I stepped forward I wasn’t sure if I was stepping up or down. Even stepping felt strange to my foot, as if I were not just surrounded by the cloud, but in it. I touched the hole in my head. There was cloud in the hole. I touched my eyes. I put my fingers in my ears. My breaths were heavy and wet. I decided to sit and squeeze my cold knees.
The cloud was damp and cold like Stacy Wagner’s breath.
I sat, shivered, and waited for the cloud to release me.
* * *
Maybe it took an hour, maybe it took a day and a night, maybe the cloud never left me. I really don’t know for sure, but eventually I found the peak, way up high, covered in snow.
Before I knew it I was walking in deep snow, up to my knees. When I looked down I saw a black bird soaring. It is rare to see a bird in this afterlife, but there it was, below me, flying with ease, as if it had nothing better to do. I was feeling good because I knew I would make it. The snow was up to my waist and there were times I had to dig with my hands to make it through, but the summit was just ahead, a small wooden structure. I was sure it had the journal.
The structure was a lean-to, built on a big boulder. I climbed the boulder and entered the shelter. There was a bench to sit on. I sat. I looked out over the mountain. I saw other mountains. Other landfills? I wondered what was out there past the place I couldn’t see.
The journal was in a plastic Ziploc bag. It was at the end of the bench. I took out the journal and found the names of past climbers. There were three names: Willi Unsold, Mugs Stump, and Nanda Devi. I had a hunch they were famous mountaineers. Those names could mean nothing else.
I placed the book back in the bag and carried it down the mountain.
* * *
I swam across the salt sea on my back with the journal in my clenched teeth. When I got to the middle the brine shrimp jumped onto my belly.
“You guys again!” I was happy to have such company. Their little bodies tickled my belly.
The eels came too!
“Friends!” I cried. “You made it.”
Looking up I could see the small gray sun in the sky. It’s okay to look directly into the sun in the suicide afterlife, it’s actually encouraged by the People in Charge. The sun here is a small gray sphere with a urine like halo around it that sends out enough light to see what is needed to see.
“God, what life!” I said. “What a death!”
The eels made their electric sounds in the water, like muffled sirens, as they dragged me through the sea. We coasted along, laughing, rejoicing, and thinking about the triumph that lay just ahead. Can you believe it? Those generous creatures, those animals of the sea, pulled me, encouraged me, making sure I would finish the journey back to my One True Love.
* * *
“You look like hell,” said Russell Reed as he signed his name. He was left-handed and his letters were loopy and effeminate.
I did feel like hell, blisters covered my feet, and the ends of my fingers and toes were black with frostbite. A few of them had fallen right off. When? I hadn’t even noticed. But I was certain I would complete the journey, no matter what. I’d do anything for Stacy Wagner.
“Where’s Stacy?” I asked.
“Taking a nap,” said Russell Reed with a grin. “She’s real tuckered out.”
Russell Reed closed the journal and handed it to me. “Don’t worry about Stacy,” he said. “She’s in good hands. Ha!” And then slapped me on the back and gave a shove. “Go get em, and make sure you put that journal back where it belongs.”
* * *
As I trudged up the mountain for the second time all I heard was Russell Reed’s greedy voice saying, She’s in good hands. Ha!
Good? Hands? I kept asking myself. Ha?
* * *
After two more days of suffering on the mountain, I succeeded in returning the journal to the summit and fulfilling my end of the deal. I looked at my hands and feet. Along the way I had lost more fingers. My big toes on both feet were completely black and wooden. My limbs were numb. I never was one who could grow facial hair, but I noticed thin strands curling off my neck.
I rubbed the new growth on my Adam’s apple as I gazed out over the great salted sea.
Now all there was to do was swim back.
I collapsed in the water and floated on my back. I was nothing, the adventure was over. I would fail. Like ninth grade algebra, I would once again fail. I let the thick salt collect in the hole in my head. I was already dead, but I thought, no I hoped, to die again.
When I tried to conjure the voice of Stacy Wagner all I could hear was, “Put me where the murdered people go.”
“Where the murdered people go.”
I decided to give in. To not return. To not swim back to the other side. But the suicide gods would not have it. They must have awakened the eels and instructed them to come to my aid, because they wrapped their tails around my wrists and yanked me all the way to the opposite shore.
* * *
Face down on the salt, I breathed the briny stench. I could see Stacy’s hair in the distance blowing sideways in the wind. Blue vapor steamed off her head. I crawled breathless towards her, imagining her embrace, her accepting me and never letting go. How could she leave me now, now that I’d twice swum the deepest sea and climbed the highest mountain?
She hadn’t left! She was waiting, standing next to Russell Reed. I felt myself enliven once more. I stood and walked towards them, unashamed of my nakedness.
I noticed Russell Reed’s arm around her waist. They were smiling, smiling as if no one could ever do them harm. I also noticed that Stacy only wore socks on her feet. Socks with red stripes.
“Socks?” I said, exhausted.
“Russell has turned me on to them!” she said as she rubbed his bald head.
“She really knows how to take off her boots!” laughed Russell.
“Looks like someone else lost his boots!” laughed Stacy, pointing at my private parts.
They kept laughing. They hunched over and slapped each other’s butts.
What are they saying? I thought. What do they mean?
Once the laughter subsided, she stood straight and forced herself to act respectful. She said, “I knew I could count on you.” Then she gave me a peck on the cheek. “I just couldn’t leave without saying goodbye.”
“Looks like you’re all packed,” I said pointing at her suitcase, there was a bra strap sticking out of the zipper.
“I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me,” she said.
We stood there. I tried not to look at her. Even though I knew it hurt like hell, I wanted to put a bullet crossway through my temple.
“What if I came with you?” I said.
“Well, oh. Baby, no. I don’t think so. No one ever thought to murder you. I mean, you were made for this place. This is your home.”
“You don’t want me, do you?”
She gave me a light hug. I could tell she didn’t want to touch me. She patted my bare back two times, her fingers cold and dry.
Stacy Wagner picked up her luggage. “Don’t worry about what I want. Just know you will be remembered,” she said.
* * *
A big blue bus arrived. The driver wore a cowboy hat and waved at me as he pulled away. There was something about that driver that made me want to hop a ride and take everyone hostage. I’d make him my personal chauffeur, and he’d do everything I asked him to do. If I asked him to follow Stacy Wagner into the next world, he’d oblige without question. As he drove away he looked into his long side mirror. It seemed to me he was taking a moment to regard me. There he was and there I was. I don’t know if there are different rules in the afterlife but I felt like I was seeing myself through the bus driver’s eyes—like I was the bus driver, pulling away. Like I was looking back, and considering this naked, foolish boy, still on his knees. There he is, the old me, shrinking as I shift the gears higher, he’s dripping wet, scratching at that deep dark hole in his head. What a pitiful child! I was once a child, too. There are times I can still remember the old days of my past. But this one, back there, now almost too small to see, I’ll never even know his name.