Aftershocks

from Ascent

Cray had no need to pedal this direction of the Burkhart trail, which ran, without switchbacks, down along one side of the canyon. On this groove, Cray felt himself pulled at a clip that blurred everything wide of the trail: rock, air, and his thoughts. His fingers flinched over the brakes. Behind him, he could hear the clang of pebbles tumbling between the spokes of Murphy’s bike.

Cray and Murphy both worked for the gas company in L.A. Murphy, like Cray, was married, but fat, a year younger, and recently promoted. He was also a first time father-to-be. With all that momentum, Cray expected Murphy to pass him at any moment. He could only attribute his present lead to how he dealt with fear: to be aware as he crossed his threshold and to know when to pull himself back. Cray had been trying to avoid hindrances, like the long sandy ruts in the trail, that slowed him down and turned the rumble of his tires into a heavy forceless hiss. A couple miles back, rounding a turn in the canyon wall, he’d almost plowed into a line of hikers. A man in back swung a thermos in one hand and a bible in the other. Cray’s rims squealed as he slowed and rode around them on the inside of the trail. They called him brother. “Morning, Brother.” He had thought it funny that the group was headed in the direction of Devil’s Punchbowl, where, with only a single thermos among them, they would definitely be tested. Cray himself had two water bottles clasped to the bike frame.

Since the near collision, Cray had taken to shouting “Hallelujah” around every turn; partly as a moment’s warning, partly for the way he could draw the word out depending on how well the lay of the trail ahead matched his expectations. So far, the ride had been pure Baptist.

Cray glanced over his shoulder at where Murphy was muttering to himself. Murphy’s sweatshirt was already stained from the morning’s effort. Wait till we ride uphill, Cray thought.

“I need shock absorbers!” Murphy shouted at Cray. “Or it’s eunuchdom.”

Cray laughed, thinking it funny that Murphy was in a situation he hadn’t completely prepared himself for.


A few hours earlier, Cray, Murphy and Murphy’s wife Clair had been in Murphy’s bedroom discussing the bed’s canopy of half inch-thick steel. Clair sat on the covers, cradling a cup of coffee with both hands. Around her were enough pillows for a harem. Cray had never seen their bedroom before, and the sight of the metal posts and protective canopy made him feel like he was in the bedroom of a shop teacher, or in some tropical country where termites consumed anything not constructed of metal.

“It was expensive,” Clair said.

“But worth it,” Murphy added. He was retying the drawstring on his sweat pants. He also wore a matching sweatshirt that was less faded, and a lot of sleep in his face. He’d only just woken up when Cray had driven up a half-hour earlier, ready to throw Murphy’s bike in his van and head up into the San Gabriel Mountains. Murphy still wasn’t ready. Murphy rapped his ring finger against one of the black metal posts.

“We can sleep knowing we’ll get up again the next morning,” he said to Cray. He sat beside his wife and began lacing up a pair of wide sneakers. “No matter how bad it shakes, even if a whole floor comes down on us, we’ll crawl out in the same shape we crawled in.”

“We don’t have time to run down the stairs,” Clair said. “Besides, it seems all the earthquakes come at night, you know?”

Cray nodded. “Seems that way.”

Murphy and Clair lived in Northridge. Their TV had shot out a window during the quake, and since then, Murphy had grown a goatee to cover a scar left by flying glass. Cray tried to understand their fear. The earthquake had been bad, sure, but the bed seemed an extreme reaction. Perhaps they were concerned for more than their safety, Cray thought. Maybe they feared change, or maybe they were just content.

Cray thought of his own bed. The mattress needed to be replaced—the couch, where Cray had slept a couple nights in the last month, had more spring. He and his wife Dee and their two kids lived in a house bordering undeveloped land. Their bed was unprotected from the plaster above them, or the two-by-fours and Spanish tile, or the night. But Cray didn’t fear those things crushing him, except, perhaps, the last one. Dee worked nights as an anesthesiologist and he had trouble, sometimes, sleeping. Cray had begun to harbor the suspicion that all the pain Dee numbed at work she somehow kept as a reserve from which she could shoot down his best arguments for moving. True, they hadn’t lived in this house very long, but he was growing tired of the heat and density and his job. He had mentioned several towns in northern California—Redding, Yreka, Ukiah—somewhere where there was a hospital and a utility company nearby where they could find work. Or he could even switch jobs. He didn’t care one way or another, really. Their kids could have plenty of space in places like these. But Dee was steadfast against any idea of moving. That he even thought these things scared her, she told him. Murphy and Dee should have married each other, Cray thought. They were both loud and big and opposed to change. But Cray knew things would be changing soon, at least for Murphy. Cray looked at Murphy’s wife and at the swell in her terry cloth robe.

“What about when junior comes along?” Cray asked. “Going to fortify the crib?”

Murphy snapped his fingers. “Now there’s something to think about.”

Cray didn’t doubt the implementation of what, to him, had been a jest. Everything else in the condo was earthquake proofed. He could see wads of Velcro sticking out under the feet of porcelain dolls on the dresser. A new TV hung up in a corner like those in hospitals, with the remote velcroed to a night stand. But all this meant little, because Murphy’s life would change when he became a father, and Cray had told him that and used it as bait to get him to go into the mountains for the weekend. Now or never, he had said, or at least for a long long while. And you’ll be even fatter then, he’d joked, even though it would probably be true. Cray thought they were getting old for mountain biking, which was why he’d been so adamant about the weekend.

Murphy finished lacing up his shoes. He slapped both knees and then stood up.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m ready.”

“Good,” Cray said. “The man is ready.”

Clair stood up and shook her head at them.

Cray knew she thought mountain biking was juvenile and reckless and it felt good to feel younger.

Cray followed Murphy into the kitchen and took up the handle on one end of a cooler stocked with food. They were ready.


“Hellaluyeah!”

Cray was caught off guard as Murphy’s yell shot ahead of him on the trail. He finally got the mixture of fear and momentum right, Cray thought, putting the weight of his own body into the toe clips and making sure the chain was stabbed on the largest gears. Water from a spring softened the ground ahead and Cray felt cold mud splatter up his spine as he rode through it, trying to catch up. Bits of dark earth spit free from the tire tread as the trail cut a more rocky and narrow descent. The bike came upon a turn and Cray tried taking it with his knee pointed out and jabbed above the flowing rocks. It was too much. Cray gripped the brakes. The shock of the ride seized his wrists, the unforgiving ground threatening to snap something in him, making even his sight quiver. In pain, he let up on the levers and loosened his clasp on the handlebars. The grips shuddered in his hands as the bike continued on its own, uncertain and jumpy. Like a rodeo rider, he held on and pretended he could continue this way forever.

But the edge of the canyon trail came closer and the bike refused to turn. Cray again seized the brakes, but by then there was nothing for the tires to grab. He yelled. He had crossed the border into air.

As he fell, the upper limbs of a pine tree seemed to reach upward, finally brushing against his right leg, wrenching him from the mountain bike and twisting him in midair. The branches slapped off dust. He heard a crack and imagined it was his leg. He saw his bike fall toward the stream and as he himself rushed toward the ground, he felt like another person. Or, rather, he felt as though he was confronting who he was, like a dream recollected for the first time. Here was a whole other world. And hitting a slide of sharp hot rock, tumbling and scraping down the side of the canyon, made the rest of what he called his life seem mere filler between these moments of clear pain.


Three weeks before, Cray had gone out onto his backyard patio for a smoke. Motion detecting flood lamps clicked on as he walked to a chair and sat. The light was hard yellow, but soon flickered with the shadows of moths colliding in the heat. It was after two in the morning, but the patio concrete still gave off warmth. The air-conditioning in the house dried out the air and kept him from sleeping—this was not the first night he’d sat outside in his backyard. He did it often on the nights his wife worked at the hospital. Something else was keeping him awake, though. It wasn’t his kids. They were at the age where they slept quietly, like dogs.

For a while, Cray had been expecting to see a ghost. He and his wife had bought their hillside house for less than the going rate. The previous owner, the wife, had hanged herself from a ceiling light fixture. The chandelier had been taken down and the ceiling repaired long before Cray and his wife had even come upon the house, but in the right light he could see the patch job in the ceiling—the texture a little rougher, the hue a little lighter than the rest. It hadn’t bothered them. “We’re not their relatives,” his wife had said. “We don’t inherit their bad luck.” He had believed that then. But lately, when he walked under that patch of ceiling, he half-expected the least bit of resistance or a column of cold air to chill his body. He’d begun to feel that something was watching him.

Sitting in the backyard, Cray saw two discs flash at the edge of the flood lights. They blinked off, sidestepped in the darkness, and then reappeared. Cray froze. He knew it was a mountain lion without having to see the body. His neighbor had spotted one last week in the hills. Cray realized that the border between the wilderness and his own life was not made of slats of wood. It was somewhere in the stare that took up the length of the garden. Past the patio table and his kids’ swing set. Past the squares of sod that ran like furrows along the edge of the yard, where he’d begun to lay PVC pipe for a sprinkler system. There. He felt the door behind him. He could be inside in two seconds. Perhaps he should throw something, he thought, or call the police or animal department. He’d heard that in some areas, where new homes were cutting off pockets of wild land, coyotes had begun inbreeding and going crazy. What about mountain lions? Did they change, too? A quarter hour passed without any break in the stare.

During the recent restless nights and since, Cray had come to realize that he wasn’t remotely the person he’d envisioned himself to one day be. There wasn’t anything wrong with that, he reasoned. His life wasn’t bad. But it meant, for example, that he wouldn’t travel on the Trans-Siberian Railroad with a group of friends, or rent a beach house on the east coast and paint fabulously large canvases during the day while spending nights in an affair with the woman next door. He couldn’t speak Russian, he couldn’t paint well. He knew that—revelation, realization, those things did not come into it. But there had always seemed to be plenty of time to learn something and be good at it, enough of an intangible future in which to fulfill plans, to find open space and make it his own.

Cray wondered if he would ever tell his kids what he was thinking now. Or would his thoughts become the stories that fathers don’t tell and that die in the heart. The one about how he’d met their mother in the check-out line of a supermarket and fallen in love, but that it was going out of him now. That sometimes he wished the events of his life had gone differently, that he could be a twelve items or less guy, again.

The flood lights clicked off, taking the two discs with it. Cray felt something creep stealthily toward him and felt that if he didn’t move, now, he would be devoured. But what could he do? He was in no position, he thought. He stood abruptly and waved his arms about, tripping the lights. There was nothing there. He was alone. Not even the faintest glimmer from where the lion had stared. Only PVC pipe lying in all directions like a long scramble of bones.

The next afternoon, after having killed a neighbor’s terrier and not reacted to tranquilizers, a mountain lion took a shot in the head from the Fish and Game Department. Cray hadn’t told anybody about his own encounter the night before. It had seemed a private revelation of how close he was to a border. After the eyes had disappeared, Cray’d gone back to bed where he tried to think of nothing philosophical, letting his consciousness turn animal so he could sleep. But more than once that night, the flood lamps caught motion and clicked on, bringing Cray out from his dark contentment and agitating his mind into pacing back and forth, as though he, too, were on the outside of something, wanting to get in.


It took a moment for Cray to realize that he wasn’t looking at a water moccasin but at his bicycle chain. Past the rocks upon which the chain was snapped to its full serpentine length, lay a pool fed by a sluice of water. Cray’s bike rested on brown rocks in the pool. It wasn’t far, but the surface effect flattened his bike and skewed it away from where he lay in pain. His neck felt odd. A gash ran down his right leg, but the throbbing came from lower. He’d sprained his ankle once as a kid and knew that this was nothing less than a fracture. Blood ran down from his elbows and over one hand that felt numb, like his funny bone had gotten stuck and which made it painful to remove his helmet. The Styrofoam was split down the middle. He laughed at his luck at having survived, but the laugh hurt where it rubbed against his ribs.

“Cray!” he heard. It was Murphy.

Cray looked up for the voice and thought it incredible that there could be a trail in the side of the canyon. Incredible, too, that he’d fallen down that slope. He saw one of his water bottles lying halfway up.

“You alive?” Murphy shouted.

“Yeah,” Cray said. His voice broke and he doubted it even carried over the sound of the water. He lifted an arm into the air to show he had heard Murphy.

“I’m going for help,” Murphy yelled. “Don’t move, okay?”

Cray raised his hand again and watched Murphy’s head and sweatshirt pop in and out of view as Murphy stood, pedaling. After a half hour, Murphy would pedal into their campsite, Cray thought. There’d be a good ten, fifteen minute drive to the ranger station at Chilao for help. But Cray remembered that his car keys were in the pouch beneath his bike seat, underwater. There was no reason trying to figure things out for Murphy, he thought. He was his own person and could figure things out for himself. As he waited, Cray felt his heart beat the seconds in his head and echo throughout his body. A few times, his heart hesitated. Cray threw up.

After that, he looked to the stream, which would be cold and numbing and where he could rinse out his mouth. He moved himself into the pool with his arms, imagining, as he did so, that he was confined to a wheelchair and was now climbing into a bath. It made it easier. There were people who had to face this every day.

The pool was deeper than it looked, stealing the heat from his groin and armpits as he lowered himself in. Where he was cut up, it felt like alcohol. He took a mouthful of water. He almost swallowed, but began spitting downstream until the only thing he spit was blood. There was a time when this water could be gulped down, when Giardia was not something to be concerned about. The blood, too, worried him. He lay on his back and floated and for the first time, it occurred to him that he might not make it.

He heard voices from above—the group of hikers. He couldn’t believe time had passed so quickly. Perhaps he had passed out. He felt too weak to call for help. He wanted one of them to say “Morning, Brother,” to him and he wanted to be riding past them, now, saying sincerely, “Amen to that.” As he watched the line of white shirts bouncing in stride far above, Cray tried to remember everything that had happened, but felt as though something had dropped out from his recollection. So, he thought about how help would get him out from this canyon, instead. He was too far from the road and besides, he thought, it would be impossible to carry him up the way he’d fallen. Perhaps they could lug him downstream.

Lying there, trying to figure out the logistics in order to distance himself from the pain, Cray began to wonder where all this water flowed. He imagined it joining up with other streams, maybe running beside a trail lower down, pooling beside a campground, filtering through a meadow. He felt as though he, too, were drifting. But then the water would have to fall, steeply, eating down six or seven thousand feet of canyons and arroyos before bottoming out into the concrete banks of the L.A. River. His stomach tightened. Finally, the feeling of nausea passed and he could once again imagine what the river once looked like. He pictured it winding calmly through hills of scrub grass with banks of green reed and white herons. It had been that way, too, he thought. And then he considered what else had changed. How he’d read there were grizzly bears in these mountains just a hundred years ago—grizzlies above Los Angeles! He thought of how his own home had once been wilderness. Where he slept every night, where he poured milk on his cereal—wilderness. He felt dizziness overtake him.


Cray found himself sitting out on his patio. A grizzly bear lumbered into the flood light. It was lean and, with its eyes close together, looked a bit dim. It was not one of those Kodiak grizzlies. It pulled out a patio chair and squeezed into it, its still significant bulk snapping off the armrests with a bang. The bear took a cigarette from the table and lit up.

“You don’t look surprised,” the grizzly said.

Cray felt that he must not seem unnerved. “I didn’t know bears smoked,” he said. “At least I haven’t met any that do.”

The grizzly blew smoke through its nostrils.

“That’s because I’m the last of this native species,” it said. “At least this far south.” The bear looked around into the night, as if to make sure no other grizzlies were around to disprove his claim. “I’d migrate north, if I could.”

“What’s there?” Cray asked.

“Company,” the bear said. “And salmon rivers everywhere.”

“I think they’re mostly damned up. You’d need to go to Alaska.”

“It doesn’t matter. There’s still that Mojave desert in the way.” The bear pointed at its coat. “I can’t take this off, if it gets too hot.”

“I suppose not,” Cray said, beginning to feel he should change the subject. “Seen what I’m working on?” He pointed to the yard. “When it’s hooked up, I’ll put on a timer and set it so the lawn gets watered in the middle of the night. Less evaporation that way. Sprinkle some fertilizer and in a week you won’t know there’s a drought.”

The bear slouched, resting its muzzle on the patio table. It looked listless, like a bear in the zoo.

“How about a drink?” Cray asked.

The bear’s eyes locked on to Cray. “You read my mind, hairless.”

Cray walked inside and brought out a beer for himself and three for the grizzly. The bear could spit the bottle caps clear to the fence. When they’d finished, Cray brought out another round. They sat there, Cray and the grizzly, drinking and blowing notes off the bottles, the sound going off like fog horns into the darkness.

The grizzly yawned.

“You’ll sleep good tonight,” Cray said.

The bear nodded. “I think that’s my problem, really. It’s been too goddamn long since I hibernated, you know.” The grizzly pounded its stomach. “I don’t think I got enough fat to last through a winter, though, but I’d sure as hell give one night of solid, unbroken sleep for the world.”

Cray empathized with the bear. Perhaps it was only a matter of sleep. True, these troubles, these glimpses of other lives, came mostly at night. When was the last time he’d ever woken, feeling bad? That he had to get up and go to work, sure. But about his life? Hardly ever.

“I’ve got a big bed if you want it for the night,” Cray said. “I think I’ll just wait for the sunrise out here.”

“You’re a fine man,” the grizzly said, getting up. It put its paw on Cray’s shoulder as they walked inside. “I mean that.”

Cray led the bear to his bedroom and flipped on the lights.

But there, instead of his own mattress, sat Murphy’s own, surrounded by steel tubing, nuts and bolts. And atop the mattress stood Cray’s wife Dee, with their kids behind her. Dee looked through the sight of a rifle at the grizzly, but pointed her mouth at Cray.

“I’ve had all a person can take,” she said. “We work hard for this place and now you go inviting wild animals in. The kids could be mauled in our own backyard. On our own premises! Have you lost your mind? Do you know how many people would die for what we have?”

Cray’s kids were sticking their tongues out at the bear. The grizzly belched.

Dee fired a shot. A dart bristled in the grizzly’s fur.

“Ah, Lady, why’d you have to do that for?” the bear asked. “I was gonna sleep, anyways.”

Cray had never seen the tranquilizer gun before.

“Put that away,” he said, moving towards his wife.

But she was adamant and prodded the two of them down the hall toward the kitchen, where she fired again. A toaster rang out. Another dart stuck in a cabinet.

“Get out!” she shouted at the bear. She glared at Cray. “You too. Out. Come back when you’ve thought things through, if ever.”

It was light outside, but it had also begun to rain and the raindrops stung his eyes and burned against his arms and legs. He was soaked. Cray looked up the street and saw several men from the Fish and Game department loading their rifles. Dee was among them, shooting darts. Cray took one in the arm. The bear took another and slumped onto a neighbor’s yard, asleep. Cray found it difficult to keep alert and realized he had to fight for his life. Before him, on the sidewalk, Cray saw his bicycle. He grabbed it by the handlebars but couldn’t pedal. Instead, he seemed to float above the seat, like he’d just taken a jump and his body was still in the air, still rising. As though he had set out to clear a distance and was waiting, now, to land on the other side.


Cray felt himself break the surface of the stream and as he passed through, he heard the chop of a helicopter’s blades. He felt his bicycle sink from his clasp. Then, he found himself lying flat on the floor of a cage. Cray could see a metal line dangling down from a helicopter to a hook on an overhead bar. The line quivered and then grew taut as the helicopter plucked them upward. Images flashed in his mind: setting up tents, the ride, going over the edge, the water. Something else skirted the edge of his consciousness, but then fell to one side and was gone. Cray tried to move, but was wrapped in blankets. He felt a neck brace with his jaw.

“It’s okay,” he heard a voice say from his feet. He looked down as far as his eyes would go. A man in an orange vest and helmet crouched at the end of the basket, holding on with his gloves. Murphy had come through, Cray thought. It seemed almost unfair to Cray that he could be airlifted from the middle of the mountains, just like that, and brought back. Cray tried to say something, tried to find a part of himself that moved.

“Easy now. Stay still,” Cray heard the rescuer say.

He obeyed, because the truth was that he was afraid to move. He was afraid that if he looked over the side of the stretcher and searched below, he’d find nothing there—the creeks, the canyons, the person he’d thought he’d be—all dried up, empty, dangerous illusions, as they had always been, there in that wilderness where he’d believed anything was possible. It was this pain he felt most, even over his physical injuries; pain that left a kind of emptiness, like terrain without wilderness.

The rescuer shouted something at Cray but the helicopter’s rotors mangled the words. He said it again and Cray tried, this time, to read the rescuer’s lips. It looked like something important. Something by which Cray could restock this emptiness in which he and the basket dangled. He’d have to remember to ask the rescuer to repeat it when the helicopter set them down, wherever it set them down.