This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (at 30K!). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.
I didn’t know anybody who’d committed suicide really. There was my girlfriend Shana’s brother, his friend Pat. We’d gone to the funeral near Boston and our car broke down, got a 200-mile tow across three states and the driver said that tow is worth more than your car. Didn’t know Pat well, only met once, a week before he died: we were in Pittsburgh at some park and he was down by the river, gestured us over, looked like he was holding a mouse or a baby bird in his hand by the way he was cradling it. But it was his bandaged thumb, he undid the gauze: said he just cut it with an X-ACTO, to see what would happen. Like Shana’s brother, Pat was in the Marines so they gave him a 21-gun salute. And his girlfriend made everyone at the funeral uncomfortable, how she kept touching Pat’s face, talking to him at the viewing. It was a hard thing to confront, nobody knew how.
There was my friend Peel from college, who overdosed in some hotel in New York, probably planned it. But I didn’t feel as much for that as I should have, I’d gone cold on him. When I wrote about the loss of Peel it was more about me. Seemed sometimes death like that just makes us mourn for ourselves, like we died. Like that theory in dreams, everyone you see is really a version of you.
Eberhard wasn’t that way, though. On that last day in the Alps we went to his friend Paul’s gravesite, at the back of a small, Austrian church: there was a small plot outside for Paul, and Eberhard kneeled down and wept for his old friend. He kissed his hand and then touched the stone. He wasn’t religious, but he was deep. He seemed to feel more for others than he did, himself. In his decent English, still thick with German accent, he said Paul suicided himself. No one knew why. Paul was the reason they all came to this village in the Austrian Alps, and now it was part of my life, too. In a way, so was Paul.
Eberhard and I made a routine of hanging outside by the farmhouse around dusk each night smoking cigarettes, drinking beer. It was early August, some Catholic holiday. It was a big deal in this part of Austria, all the stores had signs saying they’d be closed. Eberhard told me the name of the place but I never could remember it, had to write it down. He said Hemingway had been there; Eberhard’s friends owned a place in the same village they rented out. We could get a room for me and Lily, and Eberhard and my mom would stay in the other. It was a three-hour drive from my mom’s house in Germany. Eberhard had a pair of mountaineering boots that fit me well enough; they were from his dead brother-in-law, the guy who ran Leki trekking poles, who died in a plane crash doing stunts. Eberhard got all his clothes and offered me some and I thought it odd, but didn’t mind. I liked Leki a lot. The name was a truncated version of his brother-in-law’s surname, the town they were from.
Eberhard was on the phone with his son Chris, who lived in Sweden near Eberhard’s ex-wife. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but could tell it was tense. When he was done I asked if Chris was okay and Eberhard winced, not really. Was he asking for help, I asked—and Eberhard said yes, but not directly.
The climb we were doing was an annual thing for Eberhard, his ex-girlfriend, a couple of their friends, all in their deep 60s. Eberhard was the youngest of the bunch, just 60. They used to guide and lead expeditions with their friend Paul—going back every August was a way of honoring him, reliving those old days.
It was going up that first day with mom and my daughter Lily, mom let me know she only had one lung, that’s why she was taking it slow. She didn’t like to talk about it, didn’t want to make a big deal, but the other one got taken out while she was under, having some cancer removed from another part of her body, and the surgeon didn’t ask permission, just took it on himself, and she was surprised when he told her, but glad it was all out now.
The hike was pretty mellow but we were at good altitude, had to take a gondola to the trailhead, and there was some fog and threatening clouds, green hillsides dotted with patches of snow, slanted villages in the distance, the sound of yak bells. Coming down, Lily wasn’t paying attention and tripped over her trekking poles, scraped her knees pretty badly but held it back, tried not to cry in front of me. Back at the farmhouse, Eberhard cleaned it out with a toothbrush and some schnapps and Lily screamed, and I couldn’t watch, didn’t have the nerve to, was glad Eberhard did.
Eberhard’s friends spoke OK English, better than my German: said even though the tread was shot on their boots, it didn’t make sense to buy another pair at their age. They were about 70, still rode motorcycles, still smoked: climbed as well as I did, scrambling over rocks that second day at some high mountain pass, stopping for schnapps offered by the Austrian Mountain Rescue—they were doing that for their annual fundraiser, for the Catholic holiday, and I thought how ironic and different it was here: Mountain Rescue, offering shots to climbers. Enter at your own risk.
Above the doorways at the restaurants and farmhouses were chalk etchings, Roman numerals like a date, with the serif on the number one in that old-style, Euro manner, drawn all the way down to the base. I asked Eberhard if he knew what it meant and he shook it off, some Catholic holiday, ‘three kings day’ or something. His ex-girlfriend admonished him, explained it was a blessing they did each January, after Christmas. That holiday was as big a deal as Christmas in some ways. And one of the houses had a boar’s leg nailed to the door, drawing flies. I wondered what that meant, but didn’t ask. Some things were better left unknown.
It was time to go, we’d packed up the car and Eberhard wanted to take us up the pass above the village, but said I should come with him first, to the old church. We went inside and I took some pictures with my phone. It was like so many Catholic churches I’d seen in the south of France or Italy: those lurid relics and statues, pretty, but macabre. You were surrounded by suffering, that was the theme. There was no one there, it had the weight of a church, all those walls had absorbed, all those years. You wanted to think that place was safe, like you could go there and get healed or make amends, but I felt better in the fresh air out back, though it was cloudy and cold, for August: and Eberhard walked the rows of grave sites and I realized why we were really there, he hadn’t said, to see his friend Paul. I didn’t ask if it was OK for the suicide, they buried him here: I thought the church didn’t recognize that, or something.
There was a picture of Paul in plastic, bleached out and pink/peach from the sun, a thick white beard with jet black eyes like Hemingway, I thought. I didn’t dare take a picture. I put my hand on Eberhard’s shoulder and we had a brief hug; he was deep inside himself, or somewhere very far away, and we shared a cigarette, walked back to the car, drove back up the mountain.