‘Look over there, Wesley. It just takes your breath away. Why don’t you take a picture? You’ll never see anything like this in New Jersey.”
Wesley’s mother pointed out the window of the rented Subaru Forester, at the snow-peaked Rockies looming ahead.
“Is that Mt. Whitney?” Wesley asked from the back seat, knowing it wasn’t.
“No, Wesley. We can’t go to Mt. Whitney. I told you that.”
“Then I’m not taking any pictures of your stupid little hills here. Mt. Whitney’s the highest mountain in the country — except for Alaska.”
Wesley’s mother sighed. “Abe, how do we get to Mt. Whitney from here?”
Wesley’s father kept driving.
Finally he spoke. “Anna, it would be dark before we got there. Absolutely, positively, no.”
Anna turned around. “You heard your father, Wesley. By now you should have learned that you can’t do everything you want to do. You’re 25 years old.”
Wesley pushed his lower lip forward and slouched down. His bare knees pressed against his mother’s seat.
“Abe, do you think we might…?”
The Subaru turned around.
Wesley’s father was Abraham Lowenstein — author of You Devil, You; Hit the Road, Mack; The Sex Machine; The Rabbi’s Cabbage Patch; and sixteen other novels — none of which remained in print after 1990. His career was on the skids, Princeton University refused to renew his contract to teach creative writing, and the rent on the used bookstore he opened on Nassau Street was killing him. And after he had spent seventy thousand dollars for his son to attend Goddard College in Vermont, Wesley got two professors’ daughters pregnant, and then dropped out and was back sitting around the house lifting weights and drinking protein shakes all day. Even the meager windfall from renting Wesley’s room out to a Princeton graduate student had gone down the tubes. The whole family was living off Anna’s income as a nurse practitioner.
Finally, however, Abe was getting a break. A few years ago he had discovered that there were more writers in this country than readers, and it seemed like most of them were young, nubile women who would give anything to get published. So Abe Lowenstein was now in business to relieve them of their money — and whatever else they might care to part with — in return for his critiques of their work and his alleged connections to editors and agents.
Abe was organizing writers’ retreats. He still had something of a literary reputation to fall back on, his years teaching at Princeton were a definite plus, and with his flowing white hair and aquiline profile, he fit the image of a literary lion nicely. The first Abe Lowenstein Summer Weekend Rocky Mountain Writers’ Retreat would begin in two days at a campground in Yosemite National Park. Eight women and two guys had signed up; and, as he went over their applications on his laptop, the writing samples from two of the women looked promising in more ways than one. But unfortunately Abe couldn’t shake Wesley and Anna, who insisted he take them on a sightseeing tour of California the week before the retreat.
With about an hour of daylight to spare, Wesley was furiously taking pictures of Mount Whitney. As the Subaru approached the mountain’s foot, he had no idea that someone was watching the car with at least as much interest as he focused on the mountain. Socrates hadn’t had a substantial meal since he found a Styrofoam cooler that included some excellent tuna sandwiches a couple of days ago.
The park rangers had named the large black bear after the ancient Greek philosopher because he would often stand up on his hind legs and stare into the distance as if deep in thought. Despite his philosophical demeanor, however, food and sleep constituted the pivotal points of Socrates’ life.
As Socrates eyed the approaching vehicle, Wesley took a break from his picture taking to ask a question: “Ma, can we get a sticker saying ‘This car climbed Mt. Whitney’?”
“I don’t know, dear. Do they have a road going all the way up to the top, Abe, like Mt. Washington?”
“You couldn’t get anywhere near driving up to the peak. These aren’t the round, soft Appalachians. These are giant spikes. Look at that thing.”
As it turned out, there were no roads at all winding up to the peak of Mt. Whitney. To even climb up, you had to apply for a special permit in advance. And the National Park Rangers were adamant against letting anyone start climbing the trail to the peak this close to sunset.
A ranger in his wide-brimmed hat regaled Abe and Wesley with stories of mountain climbing disasters. He had thick lips and a bit of a beer belly. “I’ll tell you, my friends, you don’t want to fool with Mt. Whitney — not on your life.” He spat and pointed up to the peak. “You treat that sucker with respect, or you’ll be mighty sorry. A couple of months ago, some young whippersnapper went up late in the day, and next morning we carried him down in a bag. The weather down here can be nice and balmy, but up there? Snow? Avalanche? You never know till you’re there. You gotta prepare yourself months ahead of time.”
Abe pontificated to the mountain. “You hear that, Wesley? The man is speaking from experience.”
But when Abe turned around, his son wasn’t there.
“Wesley? Wesley? Anna, where did Wesley go?”
Anna, engrossed in conversation with a handsome young ranger, didn’t hear a word he said.
“Anna, Wesley’s missing.”
“Missing? Where could he have gone?”
“I don’t know. He probably went back to the car to get sunglasses. I’ll go check.”
Abe walked toward the Subaru. And Anna kept listening to her ranger, showing him her shapely thighs as she stood on her right leg and supported her left heel on the lower rung of the guardrail. Behind them a magnificent sunset was developing.
“Ah, look at that,” said the handsome ranger, pointing to the huge ball of red descending toward the jagged landscape. Anna turned to look but slipped and began to teeter over the edge.
“Oh, my God.”
The ranger’s hand caught the small of her back, and he pulled her to safety.
“I’ve got you, ma’am.”
She clung to him for dear life. They looked as if they were a pair of lovers embracing in front of a picture postcard sunset.
“I thought I was going to fall over the edge. You saved my life.”
“Next time wear sneakers when you go mountain climbing, ma’am.”
Abe came bounding up the road, crunching the gravel and panting.
“I can’t find him anywhere. And knowing him, he’s headed straight for the peak.”
“Oh, my God. My baby.”
Anna got a pair of sneakers and her jacket from the car, Abe switched his sandals for boots and got his backpack, and all four of them started up the trail that led toward the peak. The ranger with the thick lips led the way at a brisk pace. Darkness approached fast.
Socrates knew where Wesley was. Scratching for a gnat behind his ear with his powerful claws, he had watched the Lowensteins leave the Subaru, and paid most attention to Wesley because of the bag of Oats ‘n Honey granola Wesley was sticking his fingers into. From Socrates’ vantage point above the approaching humans, he could see that Wesley had taken a side trail to Lone Pine Lake, at whose shores another human — this one had long hair — was already sitting. Unfortunately, the other human had no food. But Wesley sat down next to this human anyway.
The view on the main trail proved more interesting. One of the humans had been rushing up furiously, but he staggered, put down his backpack, and sat down. Socrates’ nose served as an excellent Geiger counter to ferret out choice human morsels. And it was getting strong signals from Abe’s backpack. He moved to the edge of the trees and charged.
In four seconds, Socrates had his paws on the backpack. He nuzzled it with his snout, pulled it off the trail, and a few seconds later had it ripped open and was enjoying Abe Lowenstein’s apple, the avocado and portabella mushroom sandwich Anna had put together at the Holiday Inn in Hanford, a cupful of macaroni salad, and a bunch of grapes. And he also pulled out a bottle of Dr. Pepper. Socrates pawed around the bag for more, but those were the only good things he found. There was a much larger item, hard and flat, but it didn’t smell good, and neither did Abe’s socks, sweatpants, and sweatshirt, or the icepacks. So Socrates tossed the backpack into the air and it flew over the guardrail and down into the Badwater Basin, which lay below sea level, as the bear ambled into the shelter of the trees.
The hard, flat item was Abe Lowenstein’s laptop, and it contained all the records and materials he needed to teach his writing seminar, as well as more than 10 years’ worth of notes and handouts from his writing course at Princeton.
The last seconds of Abe’s laptop’s life as it fell out of his mangled backpack toward oblivion were captured on Wesley’s long-lens Nikon. Wesley had returned to the main trail just in time to get in some great shots of the laptop floating through the air as Socrates sauntered away with the Dr. Pepper bottle in his mouth. And Wesley did not return alone. He was holding hands with a new-found nature-loving companion, a tall, slim young lady — a holdover from ancient hippiedom, her flower-bedecked blonde hair flowing down to her waist and multiple beaded necklaces looping down around her loose-fitting embroidered turquoise blouse.
Watching his son take the pictures, Abe rose up from the ground — just as Anna, assisted by her ranger, came around a bend.
“Wesley, thank God. My boy is safe. He’s alright, Abe. Our boy is safe.”
She ran straight for Wesley — ignoring his companion — and hugged him around the shoulders, and kissed him all over his pale, boyish face.
Between his mother’s kisses, Wesley introduced his new friend. “Ma, this is Jennifer.”
Jennifer gave Anna a silent “hello” with a sideways wave of her hand.
Abe limped to his son’s side and nudged Anna off just enough to lift the strap holding the Nikon around his son’s neck and pull the camera away. He smiled at Jennifer, who gave him a silent wave, and then he turned to his son.
“My life’s work and my new career were in that laptop, Wesley. But I suppose it’s worth it to get all those snapshots from Mt. Whitney — especially those last ones of a piece of wildlife tossing my career down the tubes.”
With all the strength that remained to him, Abe pitched the camera over the guardrail. “Too bad you can’t take a picture of that.”
As Wesley, his new-found flower child, his mother, and her ranger gaped at the flying camera, Abe curled his large hands around his son’s throat, and the two struggled and stumbled over the sloping ground toward the guardrail.
The ranger with the thick lips must have heard the commotion. He came bounding back down the trail, and as father and son hit the guardrail, he grabbed Abe from behind. Anna ran toward them. The handsome ranger held Jennifer back from getting anywhere near the rail.
Socrates stood on his hind legs and watched the mayhem from the edge of the trees, sipping on the Dr. Pepper and shaking his head as if to bemoan the irrationality of these wild creatures.
A native of Linden, Suretsky earned a bachelor’s degree at Columbia, master’s, law, and library science degrees from Rutgers, and a PhD in German and comparative literature at Stanford. After 25 years as a librarian, he retired to Highland Park. He has published eight short stories and has just completed his first novel. He regularly attends writers’ groups at Princeton Public Library.