Friday, September 27, 2019

Kansas City Ganges by Henri Colt

Henri Colt's character has run an outdoor gear shop in Boulder Colorado for a year, when his benefactor dies in a climbing accident.

Loren died last week. He was hiking to the summit of Pyramid Peak, a fourteen-thousand-foot climb in the Elk Mountains about 12 miles west of Aspen, Colorado. According to friends, a rock gave way under his feet, and he plummeted down a vertical slope into an inaccessible gully. When I heard the news, I closed the shop and contacted my colleagues at Search and Rescue. A helicopter had spotted his mangled body at the bottom of a cliff, but there was nothing they could do to save him. I loaded my gear and left Boulder immediately.

It's been a year to the day since Loren invited me to dinner in Kansas City. Remembering the evening better than a sports commentator remembers the blow-by-blow of a heavyweight prizefight, I ran our conversation through my head as I drove past fields carpeted with wildflowers on my way to Pitkin County.

He'd taken a phone call from his doctor.

"Finally," he said that evening, "an explanation for my nausea."

I had graduated from college and was spending time with my maternal grandparents in The Walnuts, an upscale apartment complex near The Country Club Plaza, not far from Loren's hotel. They knew him since his teenage years when he and my father aggressively courted my mother. My grandmother didn't like him.

We didn't see Loren much while I was growing up, but my parents spoke of him often. My mom told me stories about his travels, his mountain climbing, and his catastrophic amorous adventures. "He'll never settle down," she'd say, but she looked happy when he was around.

My father was killed in a car accident when I was sixteen. Loren stepped in like a godsend to help us settle into a small apartment my mother could afford. He lived in Colorado, but he visited us in Kansas City almost every month. Sometimes, he spent the weekend in our spare bedroom. I hoped my mother would marry him, but that wasn't on the cards, and six years later, just before college graduation, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and died. It happened pretty fast.

I was caressing the pink ribbon on my jacket's collar when Loren picked me up in front of the sports store window on Ward Parkway. It was an early summer evening, so we skipped a meal at Zoë's Kitchen and hopped a cab to the River Market, an area of shops and eateries south of the banks of the Missouri.

Loren beckoned me into an Indian restaurant with beige stucco walls and a dozen tables covered with immaculate white linens. A dark-skinned man wearing tuxedo pants and an embroidered shirt smiled and bowed. His teeth were white as the table coverings.

"It is good to see you again, sir," the maître d' said to Loren.

"Thank you. It is good to be back."

"You were traveling, sir?"

"Yes," said Loren. "The Himalayas again, and Colorado." He put his arm around my shoulder. "This is my young friend and business partner," he said. "He'll soon be joining me in Boulder."

The man bowed his head and clasped his palms across the front of his chest in a typical south Asian greeting. "Good evening, sir." His eyes lingered on my face.

"Good evening," I said. I turned uncomfortably to Loren. "Business partner... Boulder? What do you mean?"

"I mean that you can leave Kansas City now. You're good with numbers. You could manage my outdoor gear shop in Boulder and still have plenty of time to climb. Don't think about it. Just say yes."

I was flattered. Loren had one of the most successful mountaineering shops in Colorado, but I didn't think I could leave Kansas, yet. After all, I had just finished school, my grandparents were aging, and my mother died only months before.

Besides, he said he was ill. A chill went down my spine as I thought about it. Other than my grandparents, I was closer to him than to anyone. For a moment, I felt like an orphan. I restrained a melancholy smile - like an orphan with a gear shop.

The maître d' floated on the balls of his feet as he led us to a small table in the corner of the restaurant, far from other diners. He pulled a chair from under the table and motioned me to sit.

"We are blessed that Mr. Loren brings his son to our humble establishment," he said in a muffled voice.

"What?" I said.

But he had already made his way around the table to Loren. He draped a large white napkin over his knees and returned to my side wanting to do the same. I ignored him and spread my napkin on my lap. A busboy filled my glass to the brim.

"Your father is a good man," he said, tilting his head toward Loren.

"He's not my father," I whispered.

The busboy smiled as the maître d' discreetly backed away to greet other guests. A waiter wearing a turban appeared at our table.

"Good evening, sir." He offered me a choice of leather-embossed menus written in Devanagari or English.

"Good evening," I answered. "I'll take the menu in English please - thank you."

"You are very welcome, sir. Thank you, sir." He clasped his hands in front of his chest and lowered his eyes. He turned to Loren. "Good evening, Mr. Loren, sir. Would you like the usual?"

Loren seemed captivated by a corpulent blond with overdone make-up and a garish dress complaining about overly spiced food at a table nearby. He took his eyes off her for a moment and nodded. His long gray hair was unkempt, barely covering a bald spot on the crown of his head. He shuffled his chair to make room for the busboy who replaced our white china plates with two finely crafted wooden bowls. The waiter centered mine in front of me, its rim perfectly aligned with the round edge of the dining table. I pushed it away from the edge, closer to my silverware.

"Loren's son should visit his father more often," the waiter murmured. His head bobbed side to side after he leaned forward to speak into my ear.

"I'm not his son."

"But a father should not be alone," he whispered. "Only a son can spread his father's ashes in the holy river."

"Holy river?" I wasn't sure I heard correctly. I turned to look at him. "We're in Missouri... You mean the Ganges, in India?"

He leaned toward me again, but I could barely hear him. "Yes, of course, sir. Only a son spreads his father's ashes in the Ganges. It is a man's duty."

I stirred in my chair and looked at my host. "Loren," I said, "I don't mean to be rude, but could you please tell this man I'm not your son?"

Loren chuckled.

"You really should visit your father more often," the waiter insisted, his voice slightly louder now. He repositioned my bowl against the edge of the table directly in front of me. I pushed it back a few inches to where I had placed it before.

The man stretched his long fingers to delicately put the bowl at the edge of the table again. He cupped his other hand to his mouth as if he wanted to share a secret.

"Nothing is more sacred," he said.

"My father died when I was sixteen," I said. I wanted to tell him my mother was dead too, but I feared the tension in my voice. I pushed the wooden bowl away from the edge of the table one more time and took a sip of water.

The busboy appeared from nowhere. The waiter pushed the bowl in front of me. I felt like a guest on a comedy sitcom.

"You are very blessed," the busboy said.

I looked across the table. Loren seemed lost in thought, but the waiter was showing him something on the menu.

"Loren?" My voice broke. Why did I feel like crying?

"Yes, son, what is it?" Loren lifted his eyes.

The waiter's head wobbled side to side as if the reply had justified his every word.

And it did.

4 comments:

  1. Poignant story. Very clearly told every line gives a subtle addition to the character of Loren and the relationship between Loren and his son.

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  2. Did the narrator make it to the Ganges? Was Loren satisfied with the way that he went, if he was about to die? Questions, questions.

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  3. Yes, it left me with questions as well. It started slowly but was building up nicely. But then ended abruptly.

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  4. Short and emotional. I really connected with the narrator's confusion over the situation.

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