The hospital staff are all friendly, and before long I’m reclining on a gurney, in a gown that exposes my backsides, and they’ve hooked me up to this inflatable blanket attached to a blower that’s keeping me warm. The ache in my gut comes and goes again, and I imagine that hours from now it’ll be gone for good, or different at least. And I’m anxious, sure—about how it will feel afterward, and what the news will be. My hunch already is that it won’t be too good. You pick up a certain vibe when the doctors talk to you, when they’re going over the scans, pointing out the gray knot behind your stomach that looks like a smear of television static, or just looking through your files for the first time. You can feel them get a bit tense, put a layer of friendliness on top of everything, like they’re sorry for you, but won’t come out and say so. Which, for a fraction of a second, makes me angry. Level with me, I want to say, let me have it, even though I know that they’ve already told me everything. And then I try to imagine myself in their shoes, with ten old guys like me coming in here each day, having to tell each one that his number’s up, and having to carry all of that with them when they pack up for the night, with no one outside to explain it to (who’d understand anyway), nowhere to put it, and I want to put my arm around each one of them then and say, don’t worry, it’s all right, it’s no one’s fault, a thing like this. Because I imagine that—in their shoes—I’d do just about the same.

The anesthesiologist looks like he could be nineteen, though I suspect he’s in his thirties—my son’s age. He’s a bit quiet, but seems confident. It’s easy to imagine him studying in the library, hunched over his books late into the night. When did you last eat or drink, he asks. Any loose teeth? He’s clicking away at things on his computer. Can I give you something to help you relax? he asks me, like a margarita, but through the IV, he says. And I tell him, hell yes, though Jim Beam would be better if they have it, and he laughs and tells me, sure thing.

And then the medicine is doing its work, and it is like a stiff drink or two, which is welcome, and we’re wheeling down the hallway and he says, I’ll give you plenty of pain medicine before you wake up, but if you need more in recovery, just ask, and I thank him. Let me tell you about pain, I say, and I suspect that maybe I’m talking too much now, with the drugs, but it doesn’t matter. You spend much time in the mountains? I ask him, and he says, sure. He skis, he tells me. He’s camped up there before. We used to go twice every year, I tell him, a group of friends, and I tell him about the time that Mike LeFiebre, Will Stevens, Bud Cooley, and I backpacked through the Desolation Wilderness years ago: four days in, four out. Dawn, I tell him, our first morning, climbing up over the first steep ridge, and Mike starts rubbing at his jaw. We were twenty-five or thereabouts, all of us recently married or engaged, no kids yet except for Mike, whose wife was expecting their first. And we’re joking with him—about the lack of dental hygiene where he was raised, or that he’s gone and bitten off more than he can chew with his wife, Maria—and he’s walking out front and laughing good-naturedly with us as we climb. But come late afternoon, he doesn’t look so good, wincing when he takes a rough step, and poking a finger in at one of his molars. Just a cavity, he says when he catches us watching. No sweat, he says and smiles, and we keep going. Near sunset we unhitch our packs by this tree-sheltered bed of flat lava rock next to a stream to make camp, and now Mike is breaking into sweats and starting to shiver.

The anesthesiologist makes a sound and clicks his tongue like he can guess what’s coming, like he knows full well how bad those cases can get. We’re turning the corner into a white corridor that must lead to the operating rooms. The air is cooler down here. I can feel it on my bare arms and my face, but it’s not unpleasant. Yeah, I say, and now Will, always the practical one of us, says to Mike that maybe we should head back, drive into town and get him checked out. And Mike says, nah, he’s OK. Then he makes this sort of gesture up toward the hills, as if to say, look at that. The sun is still bright on top of the mountains where it hits the last pockets of snow. The air is dry and bright. It’s September. We’ve been looking forward to this trip all year. Mike, Will says, as if to talk some sense into him, and Mike frowns like he’s angry, which is not like him, and he snaps that we ain’t leaving. The rest of us look at each other, then we back off to set up tents and gather firewood. And then I’m working—worried about Mike, but happy to be in nature, in the quiet, happy to be breathing that air as the sun goes red on the mountains, then purple, and sinks down into the trees.

We’re rolling into the operating room now, where there are a few others waiting: a nurse and another young man to assist with the surgery—all in blue caps and masks. I slide over onto another table, and someone puts a blood pressure cuff around my arm and stickers on my chest. The anesthesiologist is standing in front of me again, looking at me over his mask. Waiting.

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