On My Way To You
Pokhara – April 22nd, 2014
John Patterson woke up in a fog. Putting his hands to his temples, he pushed away shoulder length hair as his stomach churned. He’d managed to crawl in off the porch last night and find his way to the couch. After the banging between his ears eased, he opened his eyes. Yellow sunlight bathed the tiny Spartan living room. Take-out containers, empty soda cans, and crumpled-up food wrappers were scattered on the threadbare carpet. An open pizza box sat on a wooden crate that filled in for a coffee table. A lingering odor of cold fried chicken, garlic potatoes and curry permeated the room.
He blinked and pushed himself upright and bent forward, causing his bladder to bear down on him. He sighed, went to stand and almost fell. He sat back looking for his prosthetic limb, which he kept nearby when he went to sleep, but it wasn’t there. He frowned.
“Shit! God damn it,” he muttered. He slid down the couch away from the crate, rocked forward and got up. The journey down the hall to the bathroom would be like hopping through a minefield. The last thing he needed was to trip and plant his face on the floor. He palmed the wall as he went. Behind him, his cell phone rang out. Whoever it was would have to wait. With a grunt, he shut the bathroom door behind him and navigated to the toilet. He needed something for his headache and the gnawing pain in his leg. Without looking up, he reached beside him and pawed through the collection of razors, tangled hair ties, and wadded tissues on the vanity. After knocking most of them in the sink or on the floor, he found his bottle of goodies. He tipped it, expecting to see a little, white, hand-pressed pill drop into his palm, but nothing rolled out. He stared down into the empty blue tube as his brain spun.
Suddenly, the ache in his leg exploded into a rage. He flung the bottle at the wall in front of him and groped for the Tylenol, which, of course, tipped over, spilling its contents on the floor.
He swept the remaining toiletries away, scattering them around the room.
Get it together.
He reached down beside him and picked up the scattered pills and hair ties within arm’s length. An hour later he had his leg on, bed made and things picked up – maybe not shining clean, but presentable enough for his own tastes. He brushed the mud off the boots that were living in the kitchen sink, put them on and opened the tiny refrigerator. There wasn’t much in it: a few forgotten leftovers, a carton of milk and a carton of eggs. He frowned.
“Okay, eggs it is,” he muttered, and took them out along with the milk. As he scrambled up his breakfast in a cereal bowl, his phone went off again. He dug it out of his pocket and stared at the number flashing on the screen. Putting it on speakerphone, he forced a smile.
“What’s up?” John said, crossing his arms and leaning back against the stove. The last time they’d spoken had been in October right after Andersen had assigned him to run the Annapurna Circuit. Frank had shown up on his doorstep out of the blue, proposing that he run Khum Jung Mountaineering. Told him he could get back in the game. Run things as he saw fit.
It had all sounded good until Frank said it was the least he could do to show his thanks for saving his life, as if he was trying to even the score. As if!
“So, how you doing, John?”
“I’m doing. You?”
Frank paused. “Been better.”
“I bet. I heard what happened up on the Fall. God-awful thing. I assume you were there?” John said, grabbing the carton of milk beside him. He popped it open and caught an unpleasant whiff.
“Unfortunately, yes.” There was a long pause as John dumped the spoiled milk down the drain. Finally, Frank lowered his voice. “John, Da-wa was roping the course at the time.”
John blinked as the words rammed into him. He and Da-wa went back a ways, and although they’d parted on less than friendly terms, he still had high regard for the sherpa. He leaned back against the stove and cleared his throat.
“Damn. That sucks.”
“Yeah, it does,” Frank said and paused before going on. “You probably heard about the meeting of the minds up on the mountain?”
“A little. I guess things got a bit hot up there,” John said. He pulled out a battered frying pan and greased it up.
“To say the least. You know as well as I the Sherpa are getting screwed. A death bennie of a million and a half rupees and a measly comp of forty thousand – are you kidding me? It’s next to nothing.”
“Right,” John said, having a distinct feeling Frank was going to hit him up for something. He turned the knob on the stove, struck a match and put it to the burner. When a flame popped up, he set the pan over it and sucked a lip.
Wait for it.
“Anyway, I’m trying to put together a fundraiser in Kat, so I’m hitting up all the outfits on the mountain. I called Terry, but I was directed to a Brandon Carson. Is Terry still at Andersen?”
“Yeah, he’s there, but he’s not as involved as he used to be,” John said.
“Family issues, or so I’ve heard,” John said.
“I guess that explains the run-around I got. So this Carson guy…he’s running things in Nepal, I take it?”
“Something like that. Terry brought him on to evaluate our expeditions.” And screw with my life. “Another bean counter who only looks at the bottom line.”
“Hence the lukewarm response I got,” Frank said. He paused then went on, “I know we haven’t always gotten along, but could you get me connected with Terry?”
John rolled his eyes. “I’m not exactly on his speed-dial list, Frank. I’ve only seen him a few times over the last three years.”
“Whatever you can do, I would really appreciate,” Frank said and paused again. “I’ve missed you on the mountain the last two years. Things aren’t the same without you stalking around up there.”
“I bet,” John said, grabbing a spatula and folding the eggs in the skillet. “I’ll be back there soon enough.”
“I’m sure you will. So, they’re keeping ya busy?”
“Yep. They got me straightening things out on the Circuit now.”
“That’s a two-hundred K hike.”
“From what I hear,” John said, understanding the gist of Frank’s comment. But his leg could handle it. He turned off the stove and took a bowl out of the dish drainer. After he set it on the counter, he dumped his breakfast into it. “Hey, look, gotta get at the paperwork here. You know how it is – everyone wants to get paid. Anyway, I’ll do my best with Terry.”
“Okay, and thanks. In any case, whether Andersen ponies up or not, I’ll save you a table at the event.”
“You do that,” John said. “Later.”
John pulled his beaten, gray 2002 Santo sedan into the torrent of weaving motorbikes, cars, buses, and trucks heading east along the crumbling macadam road. As he drove past the shores of Phewa Tal, he was mindful of the surging crowds gathered around the end of the lake that reflected the white-capped mountains to the north. He rolled his window down and turned his radio on as he negotiated the madness of weaving traffic that obeyed only one law: keep moving.
Fifteen minutes later, he parked outside a rundown, whitewashed stucco building with a ragged blue canvas canopy over the front entry. Overlooking the Seti Gandaki River, Sanjay’s Internet café was a regular haunt for local guides, offering up decent Nepalese food and wireless internet connections, all at reasonable prices. When he opened the front door, he was met with a ubiquitous balsamic fragrance. He waved to one of the regulars and walked past a bank of desktop computers to the back of the room. There, he took a table near the sit-down dining bar.
Unlike the touristy restaurants of Pokhara that were flush with hanging swag lamps, mandala tapestries and Brahma and Vishnu golden statuettes, Sanjay’s was understated - a few pictures of the mountains and Phewa Tal on the walls, solid hardwood tables and chairs, hardwood floors and a few large planters bearing leafy jade and philodendron in the corners.
This was his office, so to speak. He spread out a map of the Annapurna region and opened his laptop while he waited for his sherpa assistant guides, Orson and Kembe, to arrive. As he went over the Circuit Trail map, Nabin came rushing up to take his order. The rail-thin, coffee-skinned kid really didn’t need to ask what he wanted. John had been coming there almost daily for the better part of a year. But that was how the Nepalese were: never leaving anything to chance.
Nabin pulled out his pad and pencil. “Namaste, Mr. Patterson! Same as always?”
John nodded. “Same as always. Is the man around?”
“Hō, he in kitchen. You want me to get him for you?”
“Yes, please.” John dug two one-thousand-rupee notes out of his wallet and tucked them into Nabin’s shirt pocket. “For your piggy bank,” he said, knowing the boy was saving every penny he could to attend the Nepalese Mountain Guide School.
Nabin’s dark eyes lit and a broad smile flashed across his face. “Thank you, Mr. Patterson, thank you, thank you!”
John put his hand up. “Nabin, how many times I got to tell you? There’s no need to thank me. And for God’s sake, you need to stop with the ‘Mr. Patterson’ bullshit. John works just fine, okay?”
The boy nodded. “Okay, whatever you say, Mr. Patterson.”
John rolled his eyes and turned back to his computer, scrolling through his email. As usual, his mother had sent him her weekly note about the goings-on at home in Oak Creek, Colorado, land of the snow bunnies. He made a mental note to email her before he went to bed tonight then sorted through the rest of the unsolicited spam. As he deleted the last of it, Sanjay showed up with his order.
Besides owning the café, Sanjay had a side business in pharmaceuticals – homemade pharmaceuticals – some of which were herbals he sold openly and others that were sold more discretely. The latter consisted of opiates, which was John’s primary interest at that moment. He eyed the short, dark man who had a warm, friendly smile. Over the last year, the two of them had struck up more than a passing business relationship. They were friends, and John never saw Sanjay as anything less than an herbalist trying to provide for his family as well as for the locals who couldn’t afford the government-approved drugs.
“Namaste, John. What can I do for you?” Sanjay said as he put a basket of roti with a bowl of lassi on the table.
“Hey, Sanjay,” John said. Nabin hustled over with his Masala tea. The boy set it on the table and dashed away. John waited until Nabin was out of earshot then leaned forward. “My leg is killing me.”
Sanjay wiped his hands on his apron. “John, you must be careful…”
John put his hand up. “I know, I know, and I am. It’s just bothering me more than usual. Help me out, okay?”
“I sorry, I have none to give just now. You come back later, maybe?
John gritted his teeth. “Yeah, sure,” he said, feeling his body tighten up. He sat back, tore off a piece of roti and dunked it in the yogurt and apricot-blended parfait.
When John looked up from his notes a couple hours later, Mick Hanson stood in front of him with a thick Pendaflex folder stuffed with paperwork pinned under his arm. John grinned at the man who worked for High Trails Adventures and motioned to Orson and Kembe, who had joined him an hour ago to hold off on filling him in on the logistics of the Circuit. He’d known Mick since he’d come to Nepal, and counted him as the closest thing he had to a friend.
Mick pulled a chair back, set his laptop and Penda-flex on the table. “Hey Nabin,” Mick called out sitting down, “a Thermos of butter tea and a plate of Kaju Katli.”
John shook his head. How Mick could stomach the combination of the gagging bitter brew and coma-inducing sweet-cakes was beyond him. Then again, not too many things were out of the burly man’s diet.
“I see you’re doing your homework on the Circuit,” Mick said, nodding toward the maps.
“Yeah. My punishment for being a Good Samaritan,” John said, and called Nabin over for a refill on his tea. “What happened to you last night?”
“What do you mean?” Mick said.
“You wimped out on me.”
“Had a fire to put out,” Mick said as Nabin brought his order over. “You want a piece?” He pointed to one of the small diamond shaped cakes on the plate.
“Umm…no,” John said, clearing away a stack of papers in front of him. “This here is Sherpa Orson and Sherpa Kembe.”
Mick put his hand out to the two men. “Hey.”
They shook his hand but said nothing.
“So what’cha think?” Mick said, nodding toward the Circuit map.
“I think I’m being screwed up the a-hole, is what I think,” John said.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get back to Everest,” Mick said. “Just have to give it time.”
“My leg works just fine,” John said.
“They just want to make sure you’re ready.”