“I don’t care about anyone else but me.” – Drowning Pool
I’m having trouble sleeping, and when I do sleep, I dream of flying. Tonight my arms are around his shoulders, clinging. I don’t have a chute. There’s a river coming up fast below us. My shoes are slipping off my feet. We’re up high, probably came off a bridge…he pulls the cord. It’s a loud whoosh, we go up & up and I can’t do it, almost fall, but hold on, one, two seconds, and then its fast across the sky above the trees with the wind against us, the deep green valley stretched out soft, like a cotton blanket waiting for the picnic basket of a god. Avoid the hillside’s jutting rocks, find a landing, the dots on the ground, the telephone lines….as though we would always be so, or ever be, that young again, fast and falling.
May 2. Coffee. Get dressed. Drive. It’s 6 a.m. and it’s bleak. Try not to regret anything. The everydayness is killing me.
Two years ago Basejumper jumped the Half Dome at Yosemite. Rising nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley…the jump, the decision to, rested in his voice. He said he didn’t prepare right, he thought it was a four-hour climb and it was eight hours to the top.
“I had to hide my rig. The park rangers would’ve arrested me for trespassing. I kept asking people on the way up for water.”
He had crushed his feet a few years before jumping a casino in Vegas, 580 feet up. A jump from that height with his parachute half-way open left him in a wheelchair for a year. His toes sit on his right foot like tiny riders on horseback.
“The last few miles up the mountain, a few people turned around, followed me back up the trail. It had rained, and I was cold. When I got to the top I wanted to sit in on hot rocks and let my clothes dry a little. I wanted to stay and look out at the view.”
But some dickhead of a guy, and I think they’re everywhere, said to him “Bet you won’t do it.”
Giving a base jumper a challenge is like offering wind to a kite. Nothing to think about. Basejumper gave his camera girl a nod, walked away from the cliff, looked Mr. Dickhead in the eye.
“Yeah, I don’t think I’m gonna do it.”
He walked back toward the trail as if to leave, and stopped. As easy as a kid doing a cannonball from a diving board, he turned, ran hard and fast and jumped over the side into the sky.
He said there weren’t many places to land: the campgrounds, the stream, the roads far away. He aimed for the roads, but dropped that plan because of weekend traffic. The redwoods were close, but as you got below the trees the air would change and give you less cushion to keep you up. He headed for the stream, and said when he hit, his feet hit the bottom and he bounced back up. The water was ice cold.
“I felt my chute grab the rocks and I pulled myself to the bank, reeled it in. I should’ve cut it away. The water pulled me down and I had to fight it. I stuffed my rig in a bag you keep lawn chairs in, still looking around to make sure the rangers didn’t see me land. When I got on the road, a tourist bus pulled up. I tried to act normal, like I’d just been hiking.”
The driver assessed his situation as he boarded, wet, alone, from nowhere, adrenalin dripping from his body.
“How does it feel to base jump Half Dome?” the driver asked.
“How’d you know?“
His voice…the jump is in his voice. I don’t want to believe him, it feels like it’s all made up, but I hear the jump. His voice has it every once in a while, an absolute calm, an irrevocable decision. A craving. His friends are either dead or they’ve had accidents. Serious accidents. He tells me about the rods in their spines, the guy who flew into a bridge.
“So, did you see the gruesome stuff?”
“Some of it. I didn’t see it, but there was a helmet, I remember seeing a helmet. The helmet was smashed in one side…”
He tells me about the bad landings, the tree limbs or fence posts that can go through you, the guy wires, the falls while climbing, the hours until rescue, the pain.
April 30. I startle awake. Coffee. Get dressed. Drive. The sun is somber. I wake up with a list in my head. Things I need to do. It’s a long list. There is a shorter list too of things I want to do; the list of costly passions. There is an in house poker game at Savannah’s bar tonight. Most of the things I love are bad for me.
On Fridays, the dealer is waiting by the sign-up sheet, advertising some shot specials for a big chip stack. It’s a good crowd. I met Basejumper when we were the last two left at the table. He thinks he’s a better player, so he bought me a beer. The dealer shook his head at me, silently mouthed the word “no.” I know you should always listen to the dealer.
May 1. Tonight I’ve been asking Basejumper questions, trying to figure out why he jumped off buildings.
“You know what it is, right? Building. Antenna. Span. Earth. I jumped all four. A span is a bridge. Earth is a mountain or place. “
He jumped Earth and there is a tattoo on his back. He tells me about Half-Dome, a stunt woman who fell to her death. She had a borrowed rig. She was looking for the pull cord in the wrong place. She was reaching for her shoulder, the cord was on her leg.
“Were you there?”
“I saw her fall below the trees. It was loud.” “Did people run to …help…. her?” “Some people. I walked over to where the cars were parked. I didn’t want to see.”
I make a checklist :
The twisted lines,
the world records off the bridge,
the skydiving formations,
May 3. Memories again, like a shot of pepper vodka in a red glass. It isn’t what I’m supposed to do. I’m in front of this computer monitor all day. I’m clever, so I do this. Most of the time I’m trying not to think of what got me here. Sometimes, I don’t think about the past. Sometimes, I can let it go; I’m like a snake sliding out of its skin. Some people though, make you who you are, and it can be hard to forget.
After the poker game, the night I met Basejumper, he walked me to my car. He told me about the jumps, the way it was with him. It isn’t like I didn’t know. He made me feel reckless. It crossed my mind that I wanted to kiss him.
About twenty years ago I felt like that about a guy, crazy and reckless the minute I saw him. We were at a party and he was leaving. On his way out, he introduced himself saying, “Do you mind if I kiss you?” I lived with him for a couple years, before it went bad. He was the most handsome man for miles and miles. John Berryman and Bukowski. Brilliance and blackouts. At one party, he jumped naked into a swimming pool from a balcony. I left him so my life wouldn’t be destroyed, because watching him slowly die would’ve killed me. I walked away, cutting away that part of my life and stuffing it in a box in the basement.
Base is telling the story about the TV antenna jump, fields of corn down below, stillness in the wind. Facing the object when he jumped. He says “Everything has to be right, it has to feel right. It’s the free fall, not the part after you pull. I jumped it so many times, but that time I pulled too early.” Of a dream of being drawn like endless moonlight to the harvest soil with the delaying, dumfounding ease Of a dream of being drawn
The mountains in the distance, the same mountains, but different every time.
“I’d listen to music as I was climbing. You need a countdown. A three…two…one…..”
“So you spent some time alone, on top of that antenna?”
“It’s quiet up there. Birds don’t fly and it’s too low for airplanes.” “And then you’d just jump?”
I dream of a poker chip spinning, the colors, red, black, the bet, the randomness, and the lights. It pulls me in, the spokes of a sunset, mountains like numbers, wind blowing, sound of wind rushing, parachute spinning out of control, holding on, holding on.
May 4. It’s not going well for me, the dreams, lack of sleep. Living every day in a cubicle, peeking through the window blinds to make sure the outside world is still there. And then there are the dickheads. Petty power struggles, sexism, boredom. I keep going, the morning alarm pounding like a chisel against a tombstone. The joy at sunrise reduced to blackness, chains hanging on a black skirt, red pumps are shackles I know I should be grateful to wear.
“Do people want learn from you, or do they want to be you?”
I want to tell him, my friends have started dying too. Two from cancer, one fell off the edge of a volcano, one from drinking, one heart attack, two from loneliness. I can see how it’s going to be then, the planet turns silently, the politicians lie, the nations are at war, the poor starve, and one-by-one the people I’ve loved turn into the dust we come from. Elections, gardens of spring, the ever-growing human population, epidemics, the schism between the rich and the poor continuing long after my name will be forgotten. Richard Pryor is Chris Rock, Craig Ferguson is Bob Hope, Chris Hedges is Abbie Hoffman, Michael Buble is Frank Sinatra, and we evolve not into chaos but into chain restaurants and Walmart, a homogeny where difference is squashed like a spider, with haste and oblivion, guts rubbed in the sidewalk.
“You have less than two seconds to act. Take a breath. Pull low. “
May 5. I search the internet and find a list of all the fallen base jumpers. I find videos. I find him, Basejumper, jumping off someone’s shoulders before they pull, his long hair streaming into the wind. I find somersaults in the air, gymnasts performing before gods made of cloud and mist.
Maybe I asked him when we first met.
“So you’re an adrenaline junkie.”
May 6. Coffee. Get dressed. Drive. The answers should be obvious, but they’re not. I have a mortgage, responsibilities, laundry, a dog. I avoid being frivolous.
The sun stares glumly through the window, but the mountains, shadowed and deep, deep and pure, standing with cliffs, mesas, precipice, peaks, abundant pines, bluffs, rock outcroppings, crags, ridges and colossal leviathan selves, collect in a summit that the clouds circle and circle and guard with reverent longing. Green sky holds the cloud, the cloud that holds the earth, the earth that takes us back.
“Did you ever worry about dying?” “It’s not a death wish. It was like a science. We were trying to be safe, to stay alive.” “What about after the accident…when you knew you could die?” “No one has asked me that before. I think I was mad. Just really mad.” “So this accident happened and cheated you, and you got mad.” “Yeah. And then after a couple jumps, it wasn’t the same. For one thing, I wasn’t as strong.” Of a dream of being drawn like endless moonlight to the harvest soil with the delaying, dumfounding ease Of a dream of being drawn
In the next dream, an old lady claws at me, apparently dying. She’s spinning, the ground closer and closer; her shoes began to slip off her feet as the wind rushes around her. She holds her hand wrist toward me. If I grabbed her fingers they would break.
May 7. I make a checklist for poker:
Headphones Hat Sunglasses Card cover Battery charger
“So it was more than just the jump, wasn’t it?” “It was the whole experience. Finding a way to get into a building. Getting home.”
May 8. The stories are one-sided and I don’t want to hear them anymore. I want to talk about me, about 1991. The famous writers I met, the Gang Lu shooting, the bonfires by the river, the way I grew up, fishing, my family, my life. The time I interviewed the winner of the National Book Award. My publications.
May 9. I think I was with Basejumper when I heard. Actually I was at work, doing something stupid on the computer. Something meaningless to me. Uploading fitness reports, moving files. I hadn’t seen him for twenty years, but they called me. The phone call I knew would come. It was about three or four days before they found a number for me, or maybe it was that long before they decided it was ok to call me.
A red light was blinking. A message to call New York. I went down the elevator, went for a walk, took my cell phone. When I called back, it was as though the air had changed. I was outside talking on the phone, but the light was different, and the air, it had corners. The sidewalk was made of cardboard. The buildings looked small and the air had stillness. But Base & me, we went to Savannah’s bar that night. We played a little poker, drank some beer.