Story — From the November 2014 issue

Climbers

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“The thing you have to understand is that I really don’t understand people.”

Gil sat on a squashy old sofa, legs akimbo, forearms on thighs. He was wearing a dark-green polo shirt with a small red turtle in the place where a more fashionable polo shirt sports a crocodile. It had the trusting incomprehension of a presidential dog.

“I mean for instance. Peter Dijkstra. There are these people, they totally say Dude, Peter Dijkstra, I love Peter Dijkstra, what a genius, but then they say Oh, but he’s impossible, we met him for drinks in Amsterdam and he spent the whole night talking to the bartender’s dog! And then he walked off with Jason’s brand-new Moleskine!”

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

It is not new information that he wore a dark-green polo shirt with a turtle on the left breast, but sometimes we can’t be rational. If a garment quietly clothes its owner while he speaks, this cannot be uncomplaining loyalty, it cannot be touching, because this is what garments do. (What else would it do? Walk off in a huff?) And yet there was a touching loyalty in the quiet uncomplaining persistence of the turtle on the dark-green breast. It had been there and it was still there.

“But see, this is what I don’t understand. Because see. Say Peter Dijkstra comes to New York and needs a place to stay, he can come to my place and stay as long as he wants and I’ll just go off and couch surf with friends to get out of his way.”

The friendly crowd let him talk uninterruptedly on. They filled the loft that would be placed so gladhandedly at the disposal of Peter Dijkstra.

“Okay, now let’s say I’m off the premises and Peter Dijkstra rents a van and loads it up with everything I own. I go back and everything is gone. Books, CDs, DVDs, TV, computer, baseball cards. Gone. And it’s not just the stuff, Peter Dijkstra went through my papers, my personal papers, and he took my diaries, and my notebooks, and my photo albums, all this incredibly personal, irreplaceable paraphernalia, he just took it. The place is empty. All I’ve got is the clothes I’m standing in, my laptop, and my iPhone. So I’m standing in this empty apartment, and I’m looking around, and the point is, I’m happy. I’m ecstatic. Peter Dijkstra — Peter Dijkstra! — has appropriated this stuff, in some mysterious way my stuff is going to contribute to a book by Peter Dijkstra! I feel honored. I mean, the stuff is not contributing to a work of genius just sitting there in my apartment.”

What could anyone do but smile and feel shamefaced, crass? It was as if he was the only one in the room unconscious of the reviews, the prizes, the sales. With a little luck someone might compete for the reviews, the prizes, the sales, but who could compete for the absence of consciousness?

(The unpretentiousness of the humble turtle — it’s hard to explain how this contributed to making people feel shamefaced and crass, but it did.)

“So the thing of it is, is that Peter Dijkstra does not have it in his power to betray me, if he thinks something of mine can help with his new book he can just have it. Not only is he not letting me down, this has been a fantasy ever since I was a kid. I don’t care about the things, it just makes me happy to be part of this. So when I say a writer is a genius, what I mean is, there is nothing I won’t do for him. It’s really simple. Same thing with friends. When I use the word friend what I mean is, ‘What’s mine is yours.’ It’s really really really really simple.”

People were laughing, smiling, drinking their beers. It was kind of upbeat to hear except that presumably, then, no one in the room was even a friend?

Rachel sat cross-legged at the other end of the squashy sofa. Silky black hair drifted over her shoulders; glass-green eyes, a bittersweet mouth endorsed uncalculating simplicity with their beauty. She wore a black T-shirt with white stick figures who said:

MAKE ME A SANDWICH

WHAT? MAKE IT YOURSELF.

SUDO MAKE ME A SANDWICH.

OKAY.

This T-shirt too had the lovable cuteness of the First Dog.

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is the author of the novels The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods.

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