Abbey Gorge is no Mount Everest. The Escarpment, anyway, is not the place to live near if you want a difficult climb. Abbey has a small overhang around thirty-five feet, some scree, and nothing more. But, as I explained to everyone, you don’t want a difficult slope for the first climb of the season.
I reached the conservation area around five. Just before the road dipped into the gorge, I could see a thin red band against the horizon. The parking lot, though, was steeped in a musky darkness. A solitary lamppost put down a small circle of light in the lot’s center. The air was chill, and slightly damp.
The forecast that morning had said mostly cloudy with some sun, high of fifty-four, P of P sixty-two percent. Not great climbing weather, but you don’t have much choice in April. Thirty-eight percent chance of no rain is good enough for me.
I parked my truck over in the corner and set up our registration table in that little pool of light. I laid out the signup sheet, and a few indemnity forms, just in case.
It’s always like this for the first climb of the season.
We run a rock wall every year at the winter Sports Show. The wall is one of the most popular events. From it we get a couple dozen sign-ups at least. Then they just fade away. I suppose kids these days want their climbing all laid out for them, with colorful markers for where to put your feet and a slip rope to grab you. They don’t climb on real rock. Between February and April, we sent out maybe five emails and got no response.
Only ten new people showed up for our pre-climb safety session. If it hadn’t been for the regulars we wouldn’t have been able to cover the cost of the room.
Still, it is ten new ones. If they could stay it would be great. But, every year, it seems, they come for a few climbs and then just fade away. By the Annual Banquet, we’re back to the same old regulars making the same old speeches about how next year will be our breakthrough year.
I really need this year to be our breakthrough year. It’s my first year as President.
Nathan stepped down last banquet, after eight years. His wife Marianne, at least, stayed on as secretary. She kept the email list going and sent out the regular reminders. Up until last Tuesday.
Since then I haven’t been unable to reach her. I phoned, several times. No response. My voice messages were getting quite desperate by Friday.
I’m an optimistic guy, but, sitting at the table in the small pool of light, in an empty parking lot, unable to see even the gorge wall in the dark, I wondered if this year we wouldn’t have anyone left to make speeches at the Annual Banquet.
Then I heard the scratch of wheel on gravel, somewhere above. A new Ford truck pulled into the lot. Cochran Addams, one of the regulars, with his son Neil. Neil drove. When I’d come for my first climb he’d been a toddler.
“Where’s the gang?”
I glanced at my sheet. “Eighteen today, plus some possibles. I’m sure they’ll show up.”
“Don’t be so damn optimistic, Ian. I told you. Abbey Gorge is a horrible climb. And a bugger to get to. Your directions sucked, by the way. Where’s Marianne?”
“Hi, Uncle Ian.” Neil had finished locking the truck and unloading the gear. “Anyone new this climb? Like anyone my age?”
I looked over my sheet again. “I got a couple of names from Thornhill I think were from the rock climb.”
“Hope they’re girls. We need more rock-climbing girls.”
“That’s all that boy thinks about these days, is girls.”
Light had started to separate the sky from the cliff, and to paint the lot a purplish gray. People showed up in ones and twos. Neil was right: we needed more girls. Looking at the clumps of people standing around, it struck me how much we’re the same: men, hair turning to silver or shaved clean, fitness-club toned. We all sported new gear, all in yellow and black.
We need new blood.
By five forty-five I began to have trouble breathing. We’d have to start soon. Only eight. All regulars. Our worst showing since that year it snowed.
Then I heard the particular kind of spur a car makes when it’s been driven too quickly over gravel. A few moments later, Marianne pulled up. “Hi guys.” She waved at everyone. She jumped out with a clutch of sheets in her hand. “Sorry I’m late. Oh, hi, Ian. You put the table out already.” She flopped her papers down, held them there with her palm, and began cross-referencing my scribbles.
She seemed to lean awfully close to my head as she did that. “Here, Marianne,” I said. “Have a seat.” From somewhere, she had purchased a set of fashionable, form-fitting gear in burgundy and olive. Even though she was in her forties like the rest of us, she had slimmed down and toned up since the safety training. She’d even given her hair a new color.
“Ben and Mercy are coming,” she said, a bit breathlessly. “I passed them at the coffee shop in Rockton. They got lost looking for ‘Harley’s Lane’. Why didn’t you say, ‘Concession Nine’? Greg Gigson I don’t know, but I think-”
“I tried calling you last night.”
“Oh. Oh! I forgot to give you my new cell.”
“What happened to the old one?” In the last few years, changing one’s cell number has become like, well, changing your name.
“I smashed it. Listen, don’t tell anyone, Ian. I’ve left Nathan. Ah! Julian did show.”
I didn’t know what to say. Julian was just lumbering up to the table. He really shouldn’t be rock climbing, not with his weight and his heart condition, but he’s our most regular member. Marianne registered his consent form with a grin and a coquettish shake of her now russet hair. He grinned back. Perhaps I was still digesting what she had said, but, somehow, I found her actions a bit too vivacious. A bit too... available.
“Listen Ian,” she said, as soon as Julian had gone off. She turned to me with her face slightly uplifted, which accentuated her elegant cheekbones. She smiled warmly. I couldn’t help smiling back, though it made me nervous. “Can I ask you a favor? I didn’t take my gear when I left. I really need some cams and stuff, and, you know, you always have your spare set...”
“Oh. I... I don’t think it’s in the truck anymore. I’ll check. Maybe you can ask Neil, Cochran just bought him a whole new rig. Maybe he brought his old one.”
Later, I went back to the truck. I reached my arm behind the seat and was surprised to feel the knapsack still there. I held it on my lap, and just sat. From the cab I could see Marianne standing under the lamppost, in the circle of light that had almost lost its effect. She was talking to Neil and waving her hands in small circles. I could see she had tipped one foot, in its new climbing boot, up on its toe. Like that, from this distance, she really did look more his age than mine.
I don’t know why I didn’t call her over and tell her about the pack. I flipped my thumb across the catch, back and forth. Eight years I’ve known Marianne, and Nathan. She’s the best secretary we’ve ever had. Nathan adored her, but he was the kind of guy who would phone in the middle of an executive committee meeting to say he’d accidentally burnt the kids’ dinner. Or locked himself out of the house.
I put the pack back behind the seat. Not because of Nathan. Not because of the way Marianne was talking to Neil. The gear isn’t mine to give.
The lawyers won’t tell me where Beth is. All they’ll say is that she’s taken Iris out of the country. Their hands are tied. I’m going to have to accept I won’t get visitation. And that she doesn’t want the gear.
But I’m keeping it anyway. And, I decided, I’ll keep it a little longer.
(C) D.M. Kerr