by Don Stockard
Couples crowded the dance floor as strobe lights flashed in time with the music. Rob could not take his eyes off his partner, who wore a short, low-cut red dress with fringe across the top which shook suggestively at the edges of her large breasts as she danced. She smiled, obviously enjoying herself. Rob stopped dancing and stepped close to her.
"You know what I'd like to do?" he said.
"What's that?" she asked, her eyes bright with anticipation.
"I want to learn how to climb."
"Climb?" she said, frowning slightly.
"Yeah, climb. I saw an ad in the paper about a mountain-climbing school."
"You must be kidding."
"No, not at all."
"Nice dancing with you." He turned and walked off the dance floor. The woman took several steps after him and then halted, her hands on her hips.
Outside, Rob hopped in his car. When the sun rose six hours later, he was driving through the foothills of the Rockies. It was almost noon when he walked into the office of the climbing school, which was nothing more than a small room with a battered government-surplus desk in the center. The director, a middle-aged man with thinning hair and spreading midriff, sat with his feet on the desk, reading an old issue of Playboy.
"Excuse me," Rob said, "I'd like to learn how to climb."
The man continued reading for almost a minute before he looked up.
"I want to learn how to climb," Rob said again, a note of irritation in his voice.
The man stretched and sat up. "Five hundred up front and another five hundred when you finish."
Rob took out his billfold and counted out five one-hundred-dollar bills.
"Jeff!" the man shouted over his shoulder as he stuffed the money into his pocket.
"Yeah?" An old man in tattered knickers and a ragged red sweater entered from a door in the back.
"Take this guy climbing."
Jeff nodded. "Come on," he said to Rob.
"Don't I need some equipment?" Rob asked, as he followed Jeff out the door.
Jeff stopped, considering what Rob had said. "Not a bad idea; it'd probably make it easier on you." He led Rob back into the office.
"He wants equipment," Jeff said.
The man slammed the magazine down on the desk. "For Christ's sakes, why didn't you tell me!" he shouted at Rob. "That'll be another three hundred."
"Is it refundable?"
The director laughed. "Are you kidding?"
Rob shelled out three more bills.
"Take him in the back."
Jeff led Rob into an unlit room behind the office. "Over there."
"Where?" Rob asked, squinting into the darkness.
"Over there, in the bin."
Jeff groped his way to the back corner, where he found a large wooden bin. "In here?"
"Yeah, and hurry up. We don't have all day."
Rob's eyes adjusted to the dim light, and he found a pair of shoes that more or less fit, a sweater that didn't, knickers which fit but were worn and a fluorescent-pink wool cap. "Do I need one of these?" He held up an ice ax.
"How would I know."
Rob looked at Jeff in surprise and resumed rummaging. Eventually he found a sweater that fit and a rucksack. He took the ice ax just in case. "How about a rope?" he asked.
"Ain't there one in there?"
Rob shook his head.
Jeff looked around the room. "Used to be one around here someplace. . . . Look behind the bin."
Rob leaned over the bin. "Yeah, here's one." He pulled out a frayed rope.
"Let's go." Jeff picked up a dirty knapsack and led him quickly through the office -- the director didn't look up from his magazine -- and into the street. At the edge of town, they followed a steep trail for several hours as it switched back and forth through the forest. The trees suddenly terminated at a talus slope. The two stopped at the edge of the forest and stared at the rock wall towering above them.
"That it?" Rob asked.
"Good as any," Jeff said.
"But isn't it a little too much for a beginner?"
"You want to learn how to climb or not?"
Rob stared at the face. "Yeah, but --"
"Come on," Jeff said, starting. They picked their way through the boulders to the base of the rock wall.
"Okay," Jeff said when they had arrived, "you lead."
Rob looked at Jeff in shock. "You don't expect me to lead that thing, do you?" -- Rob swept an arm toward the rock face -- "I don't know the first thing about climbing."
"Well, I'm sure as hell not going to lead it," Jeff said. He tied himself into a boulder and handed Rob the other end of the rope. "Tie in; it's safer that way. And here," -- he handed Rob a sling loaded with hardware -- "use these."
"I wedge these things into cracks and clip the rope to them with these, right?" He clicked the gate on a carabiner. He had seen a TV show on rock climbing which had explained the procedures. He remembered clearly the show advertised Oreos.
"Yeah, yeah. Will you get on with it?"
Rob looked at the rock face. He could see a network of cracks that he presumed he was to follow. He took a deep breath and tentatively put his hand in a crack.
"Hurry up!" Jeff shouted. "It's getting late!" The sun was indeed setting.
"Maybe we should wait until tomorrow," Rob said.
"Move your ass! I've got something planned for tomorrow."
Rob tentatively tried a few moves; much to his surprise, he was successful. Encouraged, he continued. Although he was slow and awkward, he did manage to make progress. Jeff complained frequently about Rob's slow pace. It was almost totally dark when Rob managed to haul himself onto the ledge at the top of the first pitch.
"You can come up," Rob shouted to Jeff.
"Are you kidding? A person could get killed climbing with an idiot like you; I'm going home!"
"You can't leave me here!" Rob shouted. "I don't even know how to get down!"
Jeff laughed. "Jump!"
Rob called out but Jeff did not respond. He tugged on the rope; there was no resistance. He pulled on it frantically and soon had the other end in his hand. He shouted again, but only the silence answered him. Rob considered his options, of which there were three: continue climbing, stay where he was or descend. Climbing further was out of the question; that left staying or descending. Although he had once watched a demonstration of rappelling, the thought of sliding down the rope in the darkness terrified him. That left staying where he was. He sighed and sat down. It was a clear night with no moon, and the stars stood out brilliantly. There was a bitingly cold wind, and Rob was poorly prepared to face it; in addition, he was tired and hungry. By midnight, it had clouded over and started to sprinkle. His fear of rappelling diminished as the misery of the bivouac increased. After several tries, he managed to wrap the rope around himself in a way that approximated what he could remember from the demonstration. Much to his surprise, it worked and he rappelled down the face. Once at the bottom, he stumbled across the talus slope and into the forest. He missed the trail completely and had to fight his way downhill through thick brush. By the time he reached the bottom, it was raining heavily.
It was three in the morning when Rob reached the town. He found the climbing school; the director and Jeff were playing dominoes at the desk. The two looked up in surprise when Rob walked in.
"What the hell are you doing here?" the director demanded.
"Yeah, what is this shit? Can't you see were busy?"
"I paid a lot of money to learn how to climb," Rob said indignantly, "and all I get is stranded on --"
"You're damned straight!" shouted the director. "Now, get your ass up there. As long as you're in this school, you'll do what you're told! Get out of here!"
The director jumped to his feet, his face purple with rage. "Get out of here before I personally beat you to a bloody pulp!" He stepped around the desk.
The door suddenly burst open. "There you are!" The woman still wore her red dress. "God, I had to read five papers before I found that stupid ad and then I had to drive all night to get here."
"Get back on the climb!" the director shouted, ignoring the woman.
Rob looked from the woman to the director and back to the woman. Jeff was laughing so hard he was in danger of falling off the rickety stool on which he was perched.
"I'll take care of him," the woman said.
"Someone should," the director replied. He sat down and resumed the game. Jeff abruptly ceased laughing and watched the director's move.
"Come on," the woman said.
A blast of wind-driven rain hit them as they stepped outside.
"It'd be crazy to go up there now," Rob said.
"Don't worry, I'll take you. Get in."
She jumped into a VW bus on the driver's side. Rob hesitated and then got in on the passenger's side.
"Won't be a problem," she said as she backed the van into the street.
Rob peered through the water running down the windshield.
"It's just a matter of equipment." He grunted.
She pulled off at the trailhead and crawled into the back of the van. "Come on," she said, switching on a utility light. "There's plenty of equipment for both of us. Here, try these." She tossed him a pair of climbing boots. "There're decent clothes for you too." She stripped and began to dress.
Rob watched the proceedings with interest.
"Be sure and put on a shell," she said. "It's waterproof and breathes as well."
"You carry the red pack; I'll take the blue one."
"Do you have herpes?"
"Do you have herpes, or anything else for that matter?"
"I don't think so."
"Well if you're not sure, put these in your pack." She tossed him a box of Trojans.
He stuffed them in a side pocket.
Using headlamps, they found their way to the base of the climb. She hesitated at the bottom only long enough to attach her ascenders to the rope Rob had left in place. Once she was at the ledge, she jiggled the rope and he followed. By the time he arrived, she had set up a small bivouac shelter. The storm raged unabated for three days. When the weather cleared, they proceeded to the summit. They arrived with little food and water and no prophylactics.
About the author:
Since starting to write full time in 1989, Don Stockard has over 180 credits, 140 of which are short stories in literary magazines. His stories have appeared in The MacGuffin, Rockford Review, The Vincent Brothers Review, Grasslands Review and Armchair Aesthete, among others. He has had two books published -- one a collection of short stories and the other an e-book.