I found an Irish pub, called Kitty O’Sheas, and went in. There were a lot of people in here as well, but it was a bit less crowded than 720 had been, so I walked up to the bar, and ordered.
“Beer.” I flashed my climber’s badge. The bartender sprang from the other customers and poured me a pint. He tried to strike up a conversation, but I was done with interviews for the day, so I thanked him, and started looking for a place to sit down and relax.
The long bar and tables opposite were filled with guests and a few climbers, so I made my way to the small room at the end of the bar: Kitty’s Parlour. I could see an empty table in the corner, and I started to head that way, when I heard a familiar voice behind me.
“Hey Rock,” Guttenberg was definitely more drunk than he had been at the party. There was a bottle of whiskey and a small ice bucket on his table, and he poured a glass. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“I think mine are all free.” I smiled.
“I know that!” He held up a finger as if trying to make a point. “I was being facetious.” Well, he tried to say facetious. It actually came out sounding more like ‘fasheeshus’. But he smiled when he said it. It was the first time I had seen an actual smile on his face, so I sat down.
“Thanks for the beer.” We both sat there in silence for a few moments not knowing what to say to each other. He held up the glass he had offered me a moment ago and drank it in one gulp.
“Can we get another glass over here?” He looked at the bucket. “And some more ice!” When nobody seemed to move, he added, “It’s for a climber!”
I didn’t really need a glass or more ice, as I was happy with my beer, but it was pretty evident that Guttenberg was not as drunk as he wanted to be yet, so I thanked the waitress kindly when she brought them.
“You been doing this long?” I figured it would have to be me to break the silence during which, it seemed, Guttenberg would continue to pour himself drink after drink.
“Eleven years.” He looked up from his glass, held the glass up in a half-hearted gesture, and toasted. “To the climb.” Then he looked over at me, did something between a toast and a shrug, and added, “And the climbers.”
“Can I ask you?” My curiosity had gotten the better of me. “You don’t seem to like me very much.”
“Well, I doubt that you really like me all that much either, Rock, but no. I don’t dislike you.” He fumbled with the tongs, trying to put some ice into his glass, gave up, and used his fingers. “I just don’t want to get to know you.”
He poured himself some more whiskey, and held the bottle up, offering me a drink. I shook my head.
“Eleven years. That’s eleven climbers.” He started making me a glass of whiskey anyway. “And do you know what that makes?” He put the glass in front of me, sloshing a bit on the table as he did. “Ten dead climbers so far.”
“I didn’t even want to be a guide after the second year, “He took another drink. “But it’s a job. It’s my job. I’d rather be a citizen with a job than...” He paused and looked at me, making another shrugging toast. “Number eleven.”
“I’m sorry.” I actually did feel a bit sorry for him.
“You’re not sorry.” He tried to make a doubtful face, but in his worsening condition it looked more like a grimace. “I know what you think of me. I know what all of you think of me. I’m a jerk.”
“But, NO!” He slammed his glass down on the table. A few other guests and climbers looked at us for a moment, but turned back to their own conversations as he calmed.
“I’m not a jerk. I’m not some asshole who doesn’t care about anybody.” He cupped his face in his hands and let out a long sigh. “I’m the asshole who just thinks it’s better to keep my distance from dead men walking.” He picked his glass. “No offense.”
“I get it.” I went to take a sip of my beer, and realizing it was empty, I took the whiskey. I hadn’t drank much whiskey in my lifetime, and it burned on the down. “It’s like with me and Buffy.” I half coughed.
“Could we get a chaser over here!” Guttenberg called out. He laughed at me and shook his head. “Who’s Buffy?”
“When I was eleven, and my dad was still alive, we owned a small farm. We had 28 acres. Grew most of our own vegetables and had turkeys and chickens. But mainly, my dad raised steers for beef.
“That year, one of the steers born had been a runt, and my dad was going to put it down. I was just a little boy, and I begged my dad not to kill it. So he told me we could keep it if I took care of it. He thought it would make me a better farmer, I guess.
“So I named the cow Buffy.”
“Buffy’s a girl’s name.”
“I was eleven.”
“Still, stupid name for a boy cow.” He chuckled.
“Anyway. I had to take care of Buffy. And so I kept him in his own area, and I had to decide what feed to supplement his grazing with and everything. So I was out there in the fields with him almost every day.
“It got to where I could walk right up to him and feed him or pet him. With most other people he was a pretty ornery little steer, but he knew I was the one who brought his food, and I think he liked me.
“I dunno, though.” I shook my head. “He was just a cow.”
“But anyway, a couple of summers later, I went to stay at my aunt and uncle’s house over in Lake Geneva for a week to help detassel their corn. Nothing more mind numbingly boring than walking back and forth through corn all day, picking the tassels off the top. But they were family, so I had to help out.
“So I went back home on my birthday. I was dead tired, and headed straight upstairs to take a nice long bath. When I came downstairs, my aunt and uncle were still there, and the entire family was waiting around the table. There was a big cake, presents, and Mom had made my favorite: steak and potatoes.
“I can still remember taking that first bite of steak. It was tender, juicy, grilled to perfection. ‘This is delicious.’ I told my mother.
“‘It’s Buffy.’ My father told me. I think a piece of steak fell out of my mouth as I ran from the table to the back window to look at the field and check. I kept thinking to myself, ‘He’s only joking.’ over and over, but Buffy wasn’t in his pen.
“I started crying at first, but a quick stare from my father dried those tears up pretty quickly. ‘Rock, we’ve been raising steers since you were knee high to a grasshopper. You knew this was coming.’
“He was right, of course. And I sat down and finished my steak. But I’ll tell you. I never named another steer again.”
Guttenberg’s head was nodding. It stayed downturned for so long that I worried he might have fallen asleep while I was talking, but he turned with a jerk and looked up at me. His eyes were red.
“Not the same thing, though.” he waved a finger. “It’s harder with people.” He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. He finished what was in his glass and began to pour another.
“Well, I’ll try hard to stay alive for you.” I raised my glass in the same cheer-shrug we had been doing since I sat down.
“Do you think that’s FUNNY?” He slammed his glass on the table. About half the whiskey in it sloshed out of the glass. “Of course you’re going to TRY! They ALL TRY!”
The bartender looked over at me and seemed to be asking if everything was ok with his eyes. I shrugged. But before things got any worse, Guttenberg calmed down.
“Yes.... No... Definitely not... don’t want to know you. Not my friend...” His voice started trailing off.
“Then get the fuck out.” He waved his hand in front of his face as if he were trying to brush cobwebs out of his face. I decided it was time for me to leave.
I had some time to kill before I could head back to the room, so I checked out the tower exhibition in the lobby. Looking at the list of previous winners by year, it seemed like Kris was right. There never seemed to be more than 3 or 4 winners in any given year. Part of me wanted to run from the hotel and run away, but I knew the soldiers stationed by the door and outside would catch me before I could even get to the curb. Once you signed up to climb the tower, the only way out was to reach the top.
A sudden stream of guests being paraded through the lobby to the exit let me know that it was now eleven o’clock. Time to head back to the room and listen to Owen’s glorious tale.
Except there was no glorious tale. Upon opening the door, I saw Owen. He wasn’t standing there with the big shitfaced grin I had expected to see. He was curled up and sitting at the head of his bed holding a pillow and crying.
“Owen, what hap-
“I couldn’t do it! Ok?” He threw the pillow to the foot of his bed and sat up straight. His face seemed steeled for an argument, as if he was expecting me to make fun of him. I figured that just about anything I said would only upset him more, so I waited.
“I mean, everything was fine at first. We were kissing, and I was as hard as a rock. But then she starts talking about how exciting the climb is going to be, and how she’s so excited to be the last woman I’ll have been with before the climb.” He looked up at me. The tears had stopped, but there were definite tracks from where quite a few had flowed from his swollen red eyes. “Then I started thinking, what if she’s the last woman I’ll be with ever. What if I die?”
Owen got up from the bed, and went to wash his face. He was still wiping it with a towel when he reappeared.
“Have you really thought about it, Rock?” He sat down on the edge of the bed. “I mean, we all know that dying is a possibility when we sign up, but as much as we want to think that we’re going to be one of the ones who makes it, because we want it more, everybody else is thinking the same thing.”
In Owen’s fragile state, I couldn’t tell him that I had just spent the past hour thinking about the statistical probabilities of our deaths and wondering not whether I would make it to the top, but how high I would be able to get, and would that reward be enough to help Jenny with the baby. I did the only I thing I could think to do; I lied.
“No, I guess I haven’t.” I sat down on my bed facing him. “I guess I was always one of the strongest guys. I figured I had a shot. Now that I’m here, I’m not sure.”
Owen got up from the bed and walked to the window. By design, every climber had a clear view of the tower. I stood beside him, and we looked in silence for a few minutes.
“It doesn’t look that tall.” He tried to sound confident. “I mean, yeah, it’s tall, but it doesn’t seem that tall.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“So why do you think so few make it? Do you think it’s the mental thing, or do you think the game is rigged?”
“If I painted a foot-wide mile-long path down the sidewalk, do you think you’d have any trouble walking it?”
“No.” he chortled.
“Of course not.” I closed the curtains. “You could probably sprint it, walk it backwards, or even do cartwheels without worrying at all. But If I put that path even 20 to 30 feet off the ground you’d damn sure walk slow and careful, right?”
Owen nodded. The point was pretty obvious, but I thought he needed to hear a bit more.
“Well, we’re going to be 1700 feet off the ground. It’s going to be freezing cold and windy. You’d better believe there’s a mental aspect.”
Owen nodded. It seemed he wanted me to say more, but I didn’t really know what else to say. I didn’t know if the climb was rigged. For all I knew, it probably was. I was beginning to think that life was rigged, but that’s not what Owen needed to hear right now.
“You know what I think.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “I think most guys get tired halfway up because they didn’t get much sleep in the days before the climb.”
When sleep finally came, it wasn’t the welcoming friend I had been expecting. I was haunted by dreams.
I dreamt that I died before climbing the tower. I didn’t see myself dying, or how I died, but I saw images of soldiers at my mother’s house, demanding the return of the signup pay for the tower. My mother watched helplessly as they began taking away all of her possessions.
In another dream, I saw Jennifer walking down on soldier road in her dress from the fair. “We can do it at my house. My husband is never coming home.” The soldier took a few twenty dollar bills from his wallet. “Welcome to Hicksville.” She said, kissing the soldier as they walked together.
I had a dream where I was at the climb, but Duchesne was my guide instead of Guttenberg.
“You’re just not climbing material, Haversham. You’re too much like your mother.” He pointed to a bloody corpse at the foot of the ladder. The fall had mangled her features, but it was her. “She wasn’t a good climber either,” he laughed. Suddenly I was at dinner. Jeff and Andy were sitting at the table with me, showing me how they had tied for the number one slot. I looked over and saw Ed sitting with the convicts. A soldier stood over him with a plastic water bottle, and squeezed it until it burst. Only instead of water, it rained blood down on his head.
“It tastes like your mother’s blood!” Ed laughed and splashed a bit at me. Horrified I ran from the room, only to find myself in the reception. I looked and saw that next to every climber was a different Jenny. I wanted to run up to every one of them and ask her how she could do this to me, but I was surrounded by penguins, all asking me how much I weighed, and what floor I thought I’d die at.
I felt so trapped and scared, and that’s when I noticed Sherri across the room. The penguins and Jennys disappeared, and I walked effortlessly over to her. We started to kiss, and the rest of the room seemed to fade away, as I started to take off her dress, I noticed that her nametag said ‘Buffy’.
Suddenly I felt myself being pulled away. “Eat up, you’ll need your strength for the climb.” Guttenberg sneered as he pulled a chair out and sat me at the dinner table again. He removed the lid from a tray sitting on the table in front of me. There was a delicious looking steak on the plate in front of me. “It’s Buffy.” As I looked around the room for Sherri, he laughed. The table was suddenly full of people again. I dug into the steak, pushing small tufts of red hair and singed dress out of the way with my knife.
“To the suicide climber!” Kris raised his glass and everyone at the table, myself included, joined in the toast. I laughed along with them as I took another bite of steak.
Working on a farm, I’ve always been up with the sun. The next morning was no exception. I noticed immediately upon wakening that Owen had been up for quite some time after I had fallen into my restless and disturbing dreams. He had worked his way through most of the mini-bar in the room, which was quite a feat. Even as young as he was, I wondered if it would take its toll on him throughout the day.
Not wanting to disturb him, I decided to take a shower and rinse the remnants of the dream the night before from my mind. I hadn’t really taken the time to examine the bathroom the night before. But was amazed at the beauty of it. At home, everything was designed more for function than beauty. Mom’s bathroom was more beautiful, but it had been built over fifty years ago, so even that paled in comparison with the stone countertop and giant mirror that faced me.
The bathtub was pristine, and while it smelled clean, it had a much different odor than the bleach we would use at home. It wasn’t until I turned the shower on, however, that I truly appreciated the luxury of the shower. While you could take a shower at home in the winter, the water was cold enough that it would be a very short one. Here the water was hot and pounded on my shoulders with so much pressure that it felt like a massage.
After taking what must have been the longest shower of my life, I decided to get dressed. Jenny had packed a number of my nicer things for me, but they seemed second rate when compared with the complimentary outfits that they had laid out for each of us. I put on a tan pair of pants and a t-shirt.
At six-thirty, the telephone rang. I was a bit nervous answering it.
“Hello?” We weren’t scheduled to meet our guides for another hour, so I didn’t know who would be calling us.
“Good morning, sir.” The voice at the end of the line seemed strange.
“This is your morning wakeup call.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know we had ordered a wakeup call. “Thank-
“Today’s weather calls for sunny skies with a low of twenty-eight and a high of forty-two.” I suddenly realized that I was not talking to a person. “Why not begin your day with a nice hot breakfast at 720 South.” I hung up the phone.
Owen was sitting up in bed. He looked a little tired, but was in better condition than I had feared he would be. He stumbled into the shower and looked normal by the time he finished dressing.
“You sure you’re OK?” I was worried as much about his mood the night before as I was about his hangover.
“I’m good.” He shook it off. “Thanks for last night, man.”