It’s quiet in the operating room, like you can still hear that shot ringing in the air or off of those white walls, and the staff are all staring at me and nodding or shaking their heads over their masks. What happened to him, the anesthesiologist asks. He did all right, I tell him. We wake up the next morning and already he looks better—a little slow, but the shaking’s stopped and he says it doesn’t hurt so bad. He wants to keep hiking. So we pack up and go, take it easy at first, but we climb higher. Come late afternoon, Mike is about like his old self—laughing and naming all of the trees and rock formations, though his voice is a little rough. He’s walking up ahead, and not long after, he leads us through this valley and down to an unmapped but pretty good-sized lake. We drop our packs and clothes and jump in, and the water sucks the wind right out of you it’s so cold, but clean, like fresh-melted snow. You can see clear down to the bottom. And it’s like being wrapped up in warmth to come out again and feel that mountain air on your skin.

The anesthesiologist is looking down at me, listening, and it occurs to me that I’ve talked too long now. Anyway, I tell him, thank you. And he tells me, anytime; that if I ever want to start up a combo wilderness-tour/dental-surgery clinic, he has some outdoor-enthusiast dentist colleagues who might be interested, and we laugh.

And then I’m breathing through this plastic mask. The air feels dry and cool in my chest, and I’m thinking about the last time that I saw Mike, years ago now, when his daughter’d just had his first grandchild. We’re sharing a bottle on his front porch to celebrate. It’s sunset. He’d be killed—Mike—a few months later by a big rig, blindsided a mile up the road from where we were sitting. But, of course, we didn’t know that then, and Mike’s joking about that trip up to the mountains and his tooth. Thought I might die, he says, and he thanks me. I tell him, no sweat. He’s never said it before. Just don’t you pull that gun on me again, I say, and he laughs. He was a bit of a hothead in those days, he tells me. The sky is going hazy, with the sun almost gone and the liquor in our blood. I’m glad it was you, he says. You won’t remember it, but before you pulled it, you put a hand on me, he says, like this, he says, and he demonstrates with his hand on my collarbone. And it kept me calm, Mike says. It was like it all hurt less—I know that won’t make any sense. I knew you didn’t have a clue what you were doing, but I could feel that you knew it would be all right, he says. I don’t tell him that I remember it, too, that I didn’t mean anything by it—my hand on him like that, that it was an accident, or that I didn’t know it would be all right at all, that I was afraid. In the end, I suppose, none of that mattered. I like his version of it. We pass the bottle and it gets dark.

And now the anesthesiologist tells me that I’ll be going off to sleep in a minute, and that the next medication can sometimes sting a little in the IV. Take two deep breaths if it does, he says, and it’ll go away. I want to thank them all again, but I don’t think they’ll hear me through the mask. And then I feel it—a pinch in my hand where the IV’s taped. It grows into a burning that spreads past my wrist and my forearm, then up into my elbow and my shoulder. It’s not a bad pain, if that makes any sense. There’s a kindness about it, like it’s there for a purpose. But it gets hotter, like a fire in my blood, and it occurs to me that I’m still awake, that maybe something’s wrong, and I want to sit up and pull the mask off. And then there’s a hand on my arm, above the IV in the place where that pain starts. It draws the heat from that fire, and then I’m beginning to feel cold, like sinking down deep into water. You pull me back up now, I want to tell him, but the words won’t come out, and I can feel by his hand, wrapped tight on my arm, that he will.

<< 1 2 3