“I want you to read this. Read this, please. Will you?”
The papers slid, rustling, across a countertop, dry already, after being wiped clean for closing, which happened, even in high season, earlier than any patron ever expected, as it was now five o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun was dim and disappeared over the range of mountains facing the town, across the valley, all shrouded now in dark and desultory cloud, and Robert, feeling himself to be of a like mind, stood aimlessly when the server offered no response, not even a turn of the head, and stumbled slightly, his legs tired and warm, his breath coated with beer and iced tea, nearly slipping on the road, remembering how cold it could still become at night, even when late March had been melting, all afternoon, the season’s snow for the permanence of another season’s dry grasses and pasturage, extending all the way through trees, above the trees, echoing across distant slopes, where he walked now, letting his pace take him strangely beyond his studio residence, where the stale rental carpeting, the kitchen implements he could not imagine purchasing, the pictures that felt a misrepresentation of a world that had never been real anyway, waited for him, and reminded him, even as he walked, that this was not home, but preciously away, an elsewhere extending across the entire plateau on which the resort was scattered, had been planned for over a century, until it resembled a museum of former plans, some outgrowth of which still served the leisure of busloads of Belgian tourists unaccustomed to elevation, and others of which, wires and pylons and hanging motionless frames of chairs, served nothing but the melodic whistling of air as retired couples gracefully processed beneath them on skis, taking afternoon air, taking daily exercise, becoming, despite their neon synthetic fibers and chilled cosmetic appliques, another instance of creatures who could be said to fly, probably not even hearing as they moved the air cutting metallic notes above their heads, and now surely resting before meals, in apartments like his own, but less empty, and probably more their own, since they had long ceased to occupy life elsewhere than here, everywhere on the plateau, and above, but only here, all the way to its dullest limits that he sought now, suddenly, without asking why, to find, knowing that it would be dark soon, but trusting that some even of the older lifts would be sufficiently illuminated to show enough of the way along the flat paths that took skiers around the longer way, without strain on knees, legs or back, curving across the breast of the mountain, opening outwards, rarely frequented, and even then near silent but for the shushing susurrus of skis on snow, which by now would have stopped, leaving only a few, if any, who would be walking away, somewhere that he could not fathom as a destination.
He gripped the papers in his hand and folded them into a thick matted wad and thrust them deep into his pocket, and thought he ought not, after all, have asked help from man, surly throughout the afternoon especially when he requested more sugar, because the iced tea had been so bitter after the beer, the taste still stuck in the wiry loose ends of his mustache and he lapped at them slightly, removing it, tasting also the cool of the dusk, and comfortable that another would take care, which is the only thing he had asked, since the pages, not a poem, but effecting what Robert believed a poem would effect, concerned taking care and were addressed to any reader who would have them, “Sir or Madam,” he had written,
I understand the unusual circumstances in which you have received my words, my standing before you and looking at you, if you will glance up to observe, with imploring eyes, and trembling hair in a shaggy brow on forehead and lip alike, not unlike the recent American war monger John Bolton, but without the terrible lust for power of that man, sharing only with him what I assume to be a deep fear of the failure of a life, but wanting my own notion of failure and success to hang less on the preservation of security for some as a consequence of blistered corpses of many others, whose thoughts of their ends, whose ends and means I know nothing of, as you know nothing of mine except for the words you are now reading, and which I ask you to consider enough, because of what is happening now, if you are still here, if you have made it this far, this, our shared moment in time, and which I ask you to consider, even as it happens, to be nothing short of the miracle of for a moment attending, really giving attention to a life entirely strange to yourself, and beyond yourself, and in so attending, caring, not because you want to help, but because you are taking care to continue, with me and my words, receiving them, and receiving my presence, probably irritating or distracting by now, since I have a tendency to breathe through my mouth, it being in part owing to the obstruction of air flowing into my nostrils through the virile bushiness of my mustache, and in part owing to hereditary physiology, my father and brother, both deceased, being likewise heavy mouth breathers, to the point that my mother would sleep on a couch, with earplugs, and scold them in the morning for what they could not control, and which I am similarly unable to control, now, especially as I am excited that you are reading my words, and learning already more of me than I imagined possible when I started out writing them, and maybe thinking to yourself that you do not care at all, in fact, and that you, in fact, despise me for standing here and watching, wondering whether you might not suspend your gaze over the page just long enough for me to believe you to have read what I’ve written, in which case I put the word before you, that terrible and sublime word to which we owe all of our mistaken notions of responsibility but also all of our most penitent apologies and most gracious absolutions, Why, that is to say why you feel it to be more of a burden to read, to follow the words with me as I write, or as I stand before you knowing what I have written, and less of a burden to offer, with sufficient verisimilitude, the appearance of reading, as if I couldn’t tell the difference, your worrying all the while that I could not, and your anxiously dwelling on when to say you have finished, and what I might ask of you when you say it, knowing you might be held to account for an act that you did not perform and which you will at that moment wish you had performed, so that, if you are still with me, still here reading, I implore you not to stop now, and suggest to you that you in fact do care or else would not feel it to be a burden at all to read my words, and really attend to them, and that such caring is the most exhausting but most essential answer to the worry that life has been a failure, because failure would only be in not caring beyond oneself, so that the intensity of the care to which we can give something that is other than ourselves, our genetic code, our immediate reward, is a measure of success, even if it is caring for the means of care, for that without which care would be empty, evacuated, thin, feeble, or as exhausted as you perhaps feel right now, being told that in reading about care you are caring, as if care could be a word sufficient to measure or describe itself, which it, as you have no doubt realized by now, it cannot be, for which reason you should not bother yourself one way or another with the question of whether you care or are caring, just know that it is there, like it or not, along with the rest of metaphysics, without which we do not properly live as ourselves, but knowing which makes no difference to life, which passes, in time, as these minutes of yours have passed in my company, possibly in a crowded space so that others around us are curious as to what you are reading and what story might explain the slack-jawed instinct for joy my face betrays now, or possibly quite alone, so that any response I have, tears of joy or tears of sorrow, both of which I warn you are not entirely out of the question, will be unchecked by shame or social awareness, or possibly in the cold, so that your hands are by now tingling with numbness, pin-pricks of pain, and I apologize and offer you a deep thanks for the time you have given me and for what we have shared now together.
The letter was signed, “Your friend, Robert,” since Robert felt that he would by then have earned the friendship of whomever it was who would read the letter, and he was glad, recalling the valediction, that the server in the café had not read the letter at all, since to have him as a friend would be, thought Robert, a duty rather than a pleasure, and he sighed relief at the thought, noticing as he did so that he was beyond the last large apartment complexes, now where chalets spread up and down the slopes at great space from each other, mostly dark, though along some of the remote and small roads leading to them a few figures could be seen walking, skis over shoulders, or scuttling over patches of snow, silhouettes though the sky was bright still, or maybe because of the sky’s brightness, sheer and not yet star-specked, with clouds gray against the deepening azure, blue peaks against blue air, all exuberantly open to his exuberance, which welled up now, the path extending outwards, and his walking, thinking that the day was extending further than it usually did into the night, the minutes passing with remnants of song unfolded between his teeth, held within his breaths, and soon he had his gloves on again, the air so cold, and a hat, in the evening, his eyes blinking as the wind rose, and now a star and another and the sky salted with them, the ice beneath his feet hard now, in black patches, and then the darkness dawned on him like a flash, and he shivered, unsure of how far he had come, seeing now that he had climbed already some way up the hill, and yet still he continued to walk, trees thickening and thinning again around him, until in one of the clearing moments, he saw in the distance a hut, the base of a chairlift, dead now, but not abandoned, for in the lights of the hut a man’s shape moved.
“Are you lost?”
“No, no, but the darkness came on very suddenly. I’m glad to find you are still here. I don’t know, or I didn’t know how far I’d come.”
“Lucky. Most days, I’ve done hours ago. But today, I had work here, this thing acting up, but I think I have it now.”
“Ah, that’s good to hear. High season now. No good if a lift breaks. Even on these trails out here. Not as many people on this side of the mountain.”
“Well normally the snow isn’t as good here, but we were fortunate this year and now it’s some of the best snow in the place. I don’t think people have caught on yet, but some of the lessons have started to make their way. A bit more work to do, helping the little children onto the seats.”
“So it broke today? Nobody stuck up there for too long. Though it wouldn’t be too bad a day to be on there.”
“No no, nothing like that. Just wasn’t going right. Could hear it in the gears and the wheels, but we got everybody off it. Paul, at the top of the slope, is going to be heading down soon. We will use that as the test run for tomorrow.”
“Ah that’s very well, very good, I mean.”
Robert’s breath flung up warmth into his mustache, a sudden grand exhalation into the night, even towards the stranger, who stepped back slightly, caught aback, or perhaps shifting his weight, tired from the day, no doubt, and Robert saw the forms of the chairs, still, smooth, metal that had caught the air and cold years now, and whose rhythm of existence he felt to be much like his own, though he shook his head as soon as he had the thought, feeling it was foolish, presumptuous, the sort of folly that he had once offered as conversation, but no longer, not for some time even having had the sort of thought, and instead, since he could not rid himself of the fancy or whimsy or stupidity of his jittery mind, imagined instead that the chairs were angels, mangled, trapped, and consigned, punishment for rebellion, to a lifetime of service, not between god and man, but between man and earth, vehicles where passengers, even those whose conversation rarely flagged, those most childish, hilarious, or drunk, were taken into stillness and quiet gazing into shapes of rocks, grays of clouds, shadows on sun-smelted snow, jagged tree lines, hearing, in their quiet, voices dispersed and reclaimed by shapes, then lost again, and the air moving or being moved always, then a creak, a tired groan of metal, so that they were as good as the angels had once been, and the thought delighted him, so that he smiled, grinning visibly and moving his mouth as if to talk but instead his teeth tensing at the cold he sucked the air through them and made a peculiar clucking noise.
“Would you like to try?”
“If you haven’t anything else to do, it’s quite beautiful this time of night. You could ride up, test the lift, and then return down along with Paul.”
“I’m not sure…I…”
“It’s no trouble, but of course you needn’t if you don’t like—I’m certainly not trying to make you a guinea pig. If you would like then you can have some schnapps with Paul and me when you get back down. We will ride down the slope after. Room there for you too.”
“But it’s so kind—and of course, of course”
Feeling into his pocket, he clutched the letter, not knowing what it was, but comforted by its pulpy warmth and, positioning himself, waited for the chair to swing around, which it did, reliably catching the back of his legs, and taking him aloft, startling him even though he would have barely registered the movement had it been earlier in the day and he wearing skis, and the memory of that made him swing his legs, so light, like he was half his own body merely, and moving far faster, far more thrillingly than he was, so that he felt like his old self, the distant youngest self, when he turned back to wave at the man whose name he did not recall hearing, and who waved back, laughing audibly, a guffaw that nearly repulsed Robert, but that, wonderfully, did not, and that instead led him to draw out the letter onto his lap, thinking of whether it would be a suitable gift with which to pay thanks, and squinting at the writing, unable to make out the words in the dark.