Peak Performance, by Catherine Lacey

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From “Man Mountain,” a short story, which was published last month in the inaugural issue of Astra Magazine.

I cannot say I fully understood where it came from, but I think we all understood, in a way, where it came from. Not physically—I mean, no one could really explain that—but the mountain’s sudden appearance was at least understandable from a metaphoric, philosophical, and/or emotional perspective, which is to say it made sense astrologically, even if it did not make sense logically.

Logic and reason (remember reason?) had long ago fallen out of fashion. The calm among us kept saying there was no need to worry, that history was cyclical and we had simply entered a recurrent era of abject chaos. This was the “Goodnight Mush” part of the century, time for the chrysalis to turn soupy. This was the year a mountain spontaneously materialized in rural Kansas, one kilometer high, composed entirely of semiconscious adult men.

When I heard about the Man Mountain, I was, of course, at the gym. Those of us not comforted by the historical view of the contemporary moment—a nagging sense of being prewar—had taken matters into our own hands in the only way we could—that is, symbolically—and began training for the figurative and literal wars that were both imminent and present. Most of the women I knew kept strict training schedules in Muay Thai, jujitsu, boxing, or semi-acrobatic styles of weight lifting. In idle moments, we imagined perfecting our pull-ups, our push-ups, our jabs and our jump squats, and we pitied the women who still did yoga, except the ones who did that torturous heated variety with their tongues sticking out, contorted and menacing and psychospiritually weaponized. We felt they had not yet realized that inner peace was a patricapitalist fantasy, and the only reasonable thing a woman could do now was amass an anti-estrogenic cluster of meat around her controversial guts and train for battle.

So when the news broke about the Man Mountain, I just thought, uh, what? Then, like so many unbelievable things, it became completely believable, and all there was left to do was to climb it. I spent a lot of time at my local climbing gym, then went rogue and started climbing buildings, trees, gates, traffic lights, anything. Maybe I didn’t have time to eat solid food anymore, and maybe I wasn’t being an effective employee, and perhaps I didn’t have actual human-on-human relationships in my day-to-day, but none of that mattered anymore because I was no longer exactly human, but something closer to a spider.

So I drove straight to Kansas and, uh, whoa. The pictures and videos and three-dimensional animated renderings of the Man Mountain had not really conveyed the thingness of this thing. It was a real stumper. It was, I don’t know, a feat? But whose feat? A feat of what? Several news trucks were there, but none of the reporters could look away for long enough to read their teleprompters. Policemen and national guardsmen and SWAT teams idled in dark hordes, but there seemed to be no agreement on how to proceed—which way to point the guns, whether it was a crime scene or not, whether it needed protection from the people or the other way around. The Man Mountain was not contingent or theoretical. It was not a think piece. It was here and large and undeniable. It was the only event for many years that lacked an obvious political narrative or conspiracy or apocrypha.

The base was exceptionally easy to scale, almost as if it had been designed that way. Holds were plentiful and well spaced. I grabbed a foot, an elbow. Thighs and buttocks gave gently beneath my feet. Up close, none of the men seemed to be asleep, exactly, yet none were quite awake. Most of their eyes were shut or fluttering, and all of them held slight grins. They seemed to understand and accept the strange enormity of their predicament. Every limb I held as I scaled seemed to teem with itself, forcefully occupying its place in the pile. There was no passivity here, no victimization. The Man Mountain was, I inferred, a wonder of sheer will.

About thirty feet up, I came across Justin.

Justin? What are you doing here? Whoa! Justin!

His eyes shocked open like a corpse in a horror film, which would have startled me if I hadn’t been engaged in military-grade stress training for several years. Justin began to move his mouth, the muscles as loose and uncontrolled as an infant’s.

Hey.

Yeah, I said. Hey.

A broad man sandwiched sideways in the mountain created a ledge I rested on to talk to Justin.

It’s been a while, I said.

Yeah, he said.

Are you all right? Do you want me to, uh, help get you out of here or ...?

Nah.

Cool. Okay. Well. Maybe I’ll see you around?

Justin didn’t reply, so I kept moving upward, but what did I even mean? Maybe I’ll see you around? Around what? Around when? And when, exactly, had I even met Justin? I was pretty sure we’d met at a party hosted in a town house owned and renovated by a tech startup. A large fiberglass horse took up much of one living room. It seemed several young men lived there, and several maids would appear and start cleaning whenever one of those young men summoned them through one of the apps that had been developed by the startup they’d started. Justin had been playing with a vintage pinball machine under a black crystal chandelier while explaining some complex opinion to another man, or maybe Justin was the one listening instead of speaking, or maybe Justin and I observed these two men by the pinball machine, or perhaps Justin was someone else entirely. In fact, I am less sure how I first came across Justin, and now that I think of it, I am less sure about his name being Justin. It is likely that half or more of the men in that town house were named Justin.

At the time I thought an important part of being a human was appearing before other humans and demonstrating the facts of your humanity—your name, age, origin, collegiate affiliations, career, ambitions, social standing, and whether you slept in a bed with another person, and if so, what sort of genitalia that person had. But then I joined a gym and realized it is totally possible to commit to a life lived primarily within one’s legal, corporeal limits, and of pushing one’s living corpse to the outskirts of its abilities. There was nothing, it sometimes seemed, that I couldn’t lift and set down again, nothing I couldn’t climb, nothing I couldn’t put below me.

Anyway, I soon realized my ascent of the Man Mountain was going a little too easily—it just wasn’t the challenge I’d been hoping for as I wasted all those hours driving to Kansas. In boredom, I stopped on another man situated horizontally in the pile, and in fact this man looked so much like that last man that it might have been the same man. And turning to my right I found, again, Justin’s face, his eyes just as wide as before.

Hey, Justin 2 said, but I could not bring myself to reply. Had I somehow climbed in a circle? I had, I thought, been climbing straight up. I leaned back against the chest of a man in a pale-green polo. Hey, Justin 2 said again, but I didn’t have any desire to speak to Justin 2 for the first or second time. Something was not right. Something, maybe, was very wrong. But here on this heap of men, everything seemed closer than ever to ending, and all at once I was engulfed by a great arbitrary vortex that goes by the name of God.

All those heights I had climbed, all my strength, all my effort and torn muscle rebuilt and rebuilt: not even God could see them, and I knew that then, or I felt that I knew it, or maybe I just felt a breeze and knew it to be the cool and apathetic gaze of God. I was in a race against my own potential weakness and I was winning and I was losing.

Hey! Justin 2 said again.

No, I thought, that’s quite enough. I simply cannot tolerate being so social anymore, not today, not in this crisis. Then, as if this world had spontaneously begun to understand my trouble, a rope ladder dropped from a helicopter. I leaped to and ascended it, and how strange it was to realize that climbing something as unusual as a pile of men could be so boring while climbing something as unremarkable as a rope could be so thrilling. The wind whipped up by the blades rushed through my four actual and my four invisible limbs, and for a few moments everything I’d ever done seemed worth the hassle. God could take me or leave me.

In the helicopter, several reporters were huddled, and one of them held a large microphone to my mouth as she shouted questions over the deafening whir: What were the Men of the Man Mountain like and what were they doing there in a pile like that and what did I think it meant and did I think the federal government should intervene or should they leave it up to the state of Kansas and what would I like to tell the American People and did any of the Men in the Mountain say anything to me and did I say anything to them and did I suspect foul play or divinity and yes, most importantly, did I think the Man Mountain was an Act of God?

I wanted to answer the reporter, but I didn’t want to answer her questions. I shook my head, so she re-shouted her questions, all of them the same, just louder, meaner. How could she have known that I, a human spider, can hear very precisely through both my ears and the extremely tiny and biologically complex hairs that cover my body and limbs? She couldn’t have known. The truth is that spiders and humans know very little about each other, and human spiders know even less about themselves. I tried to answer her questions, but my ears were bleeding. I’m simply too sensitive. I just want to climb on everything, keep climbing on everything, up and always up, to reach the top or die trying. I tried to speak; I may have spoken. Perhaps I should have kept quiet. Below us everyone kept struggling and failing to understand how the world had come to this, and above us no one even bothered to ask the question.


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