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Ansel Trager did his pullups on the bathroom door frame. Up-down. He had done them every day of the trip, in airports, on roadside trees, in the bungalows of Kashmir, and now at Hotel Julay. He had done them to stay in shape for the mountains. Now he did them as an act of faith. Up-down.


Up, and he could see to the pool, where members a British expedition were lounging and admiring a clutch of Swedish girls across the water. Trager had talked to the Brits long enough to find they were going to the Brahma Peaks, which he gathered were east of Kishtwar, one of the places he had not reached. He wished them luck, they wished him better luck, and he retreated to his room. Down, and he looked up into the white-hot sky, where new thunderheads were forming for the next storm. There were vultures circling the pool. Their shadows flitted across the window when they passed close to the building.

Up. It would already be too hot in Yosemite Valley for serious climbing, and he did not have his camping equipment anymore. Down. Which meant he would be going back to his mother’s house in Portland.


Up. Strange, for someone so anchored to her house, that she had married a travelling sales rep. The evening his father left for the last time, just before he came upstairs to his son's room to say good-bye, Trager had heard him say the house in Portland had never really been his home.


Down. Trager had been twelve. His father had been a distant and tentative parent, but even so Trager wondered, if it wasn’t his father's home, how could it be his own? Up. When Trager chinned as high as possible on his bedroom closet door, he could just see the white tips of the Cascades over the neighbor’s house. That was the farthest horizon a person could see from Portland, Oregon.


The telephone rang, and Trager dropped to the floor. He was expecting the call. It was past check-out. Once he handed in his key, there would be nothing for him to do but start the trip back. The hotel, with its refrigerated air and sealed windows, already had the claustrophobic self-sufficiency of a huge aircraft. He picked up the receiver with cramped fingers.


“Hello? Mr. Trager?” It was a young woman's voice, with a slight Indian accent.


“Give me just a few minutes, I'll be packed up.”


“Excuse me? This is Pratima Busco. I’m inquiring after my father. Michael Busco? Sundown?”


“Oh,” said Trager, still catching his breath, trying to assimilate the new information. “I didn't know he had a daughter.”


“He might have forgotten,” the voice said without humor. “Have you seen him?”


“Not since yesterday. He gave me a ride from the airport—but not to here. I don't think he knows where I'm staying.”


“Oh, he does. At Synergism they said he had left for The Julay to see Mr. Trager. I'm calling from the lobby.”


“He hasn't shown up yet,” Trager said. “Do you know what he wants to talk to me about?”


“I have no idea. If you do see him, would you tell him Pratima was here?”


“Sure. But why don't you stick around, if you're sure he's coming? In fact, let me get dressed, and I'll come down.”


“That's quite all right. They are expecting me at home. But thank you.”


So Sundown had an Indian daughter, Trager thought as he hung up. It somehow fit his image, although it was hard to reconcile with Sundown's remark that he had never been to India before. What was “home” for the girl, and who were “they” who expected her?


There was a knock at the door. Trager had forgotten about the maids. He was wearing only the running shorts he had used as swim trunks in the hotel pool. His skin and hair still smelled of the heavily chlorinated water. “Give me just five minutes!” he called through the door.


“No hassle, Ans. I just wanted to shoot the shit.”


“Sundown!” Trager opened the door, and Sundown ambled in. He had changed his wooly jacket for a long shirt, and had his hair pulled back in a neat pony tail. He still carried the embroidered bag.


“Hey, what's happening?” he said. “I called HOTS to find where you were staying. I wanted to ask you about your trek.”


“Did you just come through the lobby?” Trager asked.


“Yeah, they sent me out to the pool, but you had already left.”


“Did you see your daughter?”


A wave seemed to pass through Sundown's body. “How‘d you know about her?”


“She's here. She just called from the lobby.”


“You sure it was her?”


“I don't know—her name's Fatima, Pratima, something like that, right? Speaks really good English . . . .” Trager stopped, realizing how strange that sounded. “I mean, she talks with an accent. She's Indian, right?”


Sundown slouched into a chair. “Maybe so, now. Her mom’s from Delhi. Pratima came over after we split up. That was four years ago. Last thing I remember, she wore cutoffs, and talked like any other kid in Santa Cruz.”


“Anyway, you need to run downstairs if you want to catch her.”


“I tried to call her last night,” Sundown said. “I got some guy I couldn't understand. I never thought about her Mom being with a guy who didn't speak English. That'd be weird.”


“Sundown! You're going to miss her if you don't get going.”


“Maybe she's gone already,” Sundown said.


“Well you'd better find out. Go on, and I'll meet you down there.”


“I'll wait for you,” Sundown said. “I want to talk to you about your trek.”


Another knock on the door. “I've got to pack,” Trager said. “Tell them I'm in the bathroom.”


Trager‘s climbing clothes from Kawapatri were still hanging in the shower where he had put them to dry. He tossed them out onto the floor and turned on the water. “Give me five minutes!” he called. There was no answer. Trager listened for a moment, then pulled his shorts back on, and stepped to the bathroom door. A small, dark girl in a green sari stood just inside Trager’s room, breathing as if she had just run up the stairs. Her hair was pulled back in a severe bun. Her arms were folded protectively in front of her. She was staring up at Sundown, who towered over her with his hand still on the knob.


“Hey, babe,” Sundown said.


The girl just looked up with bright, questioning eyes.


“Never seen you dressed like that,” he said. “Looks good.” The tail of the sari had slipped off the girl's shoulder, but she made no move to replace it.


“Tried to call you,” said Sundown.


“And hung up on our cook,” she said, and strode into the room.


“Hey, the guy who answered the phone didn't speak English, okay? I thought I had the wrong number.”


“When the man was calling for me by name? Did you forget our names, too?” Her voice had the musical, rising intonation of India, combined with a flat American pronunciation.


“Give me a break, Babe,” Sundown said, closing the door. “I wrote I was coming.”


“Without telling us when. If I hadn't called your office when I did, I wouldn't have even known you were here. And if I hadn’t seen you walk through the lobby . . . . They say you're leaving tomorrow. Tomorrow!”


She suddenly caught sight of Trager, and gave a start. “Excuse me,” she said. “I'm Pratima. Are you Mr. Trager?”


“We talked on the phone,” Trager said. He hesitated, feeling naked in his gym shorts. But Pratima crossed confidently to him and offered her hand, light but firm. Then she turned back to her father.


“Sundown, we have to go. I have to call Mother and tell her where I am.”


“Wait a sec, babe. Ansel, I wanted to ask you about that trek.”


“Oh, right. What is it?”


“Well, like, I thought I might go along.”


It struck Trager that Max's first impression of Sundown had been correct after all. Whatever his technological skills, he was still in outer space, too disorganized to meet his own daughter, too naive to think that a mountain trek might call for a minimum of experience and equipment.


“Sorry,” Trager said. “It's been cancelled. The whole thing’s off. I'm on my way home.”


Sundown looked at him for a long moment. His face sagged on his cheekbones. “Bummer,” he said. He turned and followed his daughter out of the room, past the great bulk of a muscular cleaning woman waiting in the hall.

















The desk clerk gave him the message when he turned in his key. He read it a dozen times, although he knew it changed nothing. Freya did not know what had happened to Springtime in Kashmir. The telegram was just an ironic footnote to a trip that was already over. He walked among the potted palms of the Julay lobby, watching the taxis come and go in the circular drive outside. Another thunderstorm was approaching. The pipal trees thrashed about. Lightning flashed. The rain fell suddenly like a grey shroud across the drive and the street beyond. All this in silence; even the thunder was only a faint murmur over the sound of the air conditioning, and the small cries of computers at the main desk.


Trager found Sundown sitting on a couch near the windows. He eased himself into the upholstery of an adjoining chair. Sundown greeted him with a slight nod. “So you're heading out,” he said.


“Pretty soon,” said Trager. “Just killing time right now, waiting for a plane. What happened to Pratima?”


“She's trying to call her Mom.” They sat watching the rain for a minute, and then Sundown asked, “How come they cancelled the trek?”


“A bunch of clients dropped out at the last minute. The people who hired me in Kashmir didn't know. Still don't know, I guess. It was because of the accident, the one you told me about. Have you thought of calling up another trekking company?”


“Like that asshole on the plane?” Sundown asked. “I don’t know, man. I think it's important that this isn't just a job to you, going to the mountains. It's just something you have to do. Something I have to do. I don't really want to be shown around and told what I'm seeing. I've had all kinds of jerks doing that to me the last couple of years. Anyway, I don't know any other trekking companies. At least I know yours was good enough for our old friend Ferndecker.”


“Maybe not,” Trager said. “Look what happened to him.”


At the other end of the room, Pratima emerged from the shop arcade. She scowled around the lobby, saw her father, and strode forward, practically upsetting a palm too close to her path.


“I can't believe you just ran away like that,” she said. “Mother was right there, on the phone.”


“I didn't know you'd get through so fast,” Sundown said. “I just ran into Ansel here.”


“At the other end of the building? Don't lie to me! You're afraid! You're afraid to talk to her! Or else you hate us. What else am I supposed to think when you show up after four years, and the first thing you do is want to run away to Kashmir with some man you met on the plane?”


Sundown said to Trager, “I told her about the trek.”


Pratima acknowledged Trager for the first time. “Excuse me,” she said. “I was rude. Our family problems aren't your fault.”


“Don't worry about it,” Trager said. “My parents are divorced.”


“Mine aren't,” Pratima said. “That's what makes this all so stupid.”


“Mellow out, will you?” said Sundown. “It's not like I wasn’t going to be around. I just wanted to take some time to get to know the country.”


“Do you think you're doing me a favor just by being on the Indian subcontinent? If you wanted to visit, you could walk up to the house and ring the bell. If you wanted to go to the mountains, you could stay in California and go up to Yosemite.


“You remember those trips?” Sundown asked.


“There were mosquitos,” Pratima said. “You never had all the parts to the tent. And we were always going on these stupid walks where we got lost. Mother hated them.”


“I know,” said Sundown. “That's why I didn't plan to take her with us.”


“Didn't plan to! Did you think for a moment that my mother would even consider going on a trek in Kashmir?”


“No, but I thought you might.”


Pratima opened her mouth, and then closed it again without speaking.


“Well, sure,” said Sundown. “That was the point. I thought it’d be a gas. We could talk.”


Pratima sat down violently. “That's the stupidest thing I ever heard. You can talk to me right here. You could come home with me right now.”


“I don't think so, babe. I'm sorry, but the whole thing with your mom is still really heavy.”


“‘Really heavy!’” Pratima said. “‘It'd be a gas!” You've been using these same stupid expressions as long as I can remember. Why would I want to walk around in Kashmir listening to that garbage? Anyway, do you have any idea how she would act?”


“She’d let you go, babe, if you asked. She’d go for it.”


“I'm not sure I would ‘go for it.’ This isn't the Sierra Nevada. You can't just throw some things in the car and take off.”


“Yeah, but you see, Ansel was going to lead the thing, so it would be all set up.”


Sundown took the crumpled catalog out of his shoulder bag, and offered it to Pratima. She read it intently, holding the paper tight with both hands. “Did you see how much this costs? Almost four thousand dollars for two of us! That's more than thirty-five thousand rupees!”


Trager sat up, gripping-the arm of the couch.


“It's obscene!” Pratima said. “You could feed an entire family for a year. For years! Is it worth that much to you to avoid her?”


“It's worth that much for me to see you,” Sundown said. “Away from her. Someplace where we don't have to dig up all that old crap.”


“So why don't we take a car down to Agra and see the Taj?”


“That's not far enough. It's not long enough. It's been four years, babe. I can't work everything out in a few minutes. I want to spend some time. Anyway, I don't care about the Taj Mahal.”


“Wait a minute,” Trager said, and stood up.


“So because you can't have it exactly your way you're just going to go home,” Pratima said.


Sundown looked out at the rain. “I guess so.”


“Wait!” Trager said again.


They looked up at him. So did several other people in the lobby. Trager was himself startled by the assertion in his own voice, but it was something he thought he might get used to.




Bagchee himself opened the door. “Bloody hell! What do you think you are doing?”


“Vasant! We can run the trek!”


“Where is your driver going? Hold him!”


Bagchee skipped off the porch and rushed to the gate. He shouted down the road, and a moment later the cab backed into view again.


“No, listen,” Trager said. “I've found some people to go on Springtime in Kashmir. And they can pay in cash. So two more people, more than thirty thousand rupees. You said all we were short was twenty-something. The girl has to get permission from her mom, but we should know by tonight if she can go. I reserved another room for myself at the hotel. Do we have any extra clothing in Srinagar they can borrow?”


Bagchee seemed to try out several answers in his mind, before he finally said, “Of course. But you see, but it is now quite impossible. I have already sent a wire to Lakpa at Kawapatri advising him to cancel all arrangements.”


“So wire him again,” Trager said. “Tell him we're on the way.”


“This is also not possible. Lakpa has certainly set out for Ladakh soonest on knowing the trek is not coming. We have not given the poor chap any furlough in six months, and I know he is keen on going home. As it happens, I myself am about to make a short holiday out of Delhi.”


“Maybe Lakpa hasn't left yet. Can't you call?”


“Not on a disconnected telephone.”


“Disconnected? But Sundown called you. . . “


Trager realized the house looked different. “You took down the HOTS sign.”


“It no longer served a purpose.”


“What the hell—did you plan this trip to fail?”


“That question is quite moot, in a company run by Max Holz.”


Trager threw up his arms. “But it doesn't have to fail. We've got the clients now!”


“Nevertheless,” Bagchee said.


“You mean, nevertheless, you're tired of the trekking business, so you're just closing up shop. I don't care how out of it you think Max is, he'll fire you for this.”


Bagchee abruptly lost his civil reserve. His voice rose and broke. “It is not for Max to fire me! Who are you to be lecturing on things you know nothing about? HOTS/India is fully fifty-one per cent mine. So do not tell me about my duty to Max. Because you see I am not his bloody employee. And I am telling you that this trek cannot run.”


Trager was mute. It had not occurred to him that Bagchee was more than an agent for Max.


“It is really not too soon for you to proceed to the airport,” Bagchee said. “Where are your things?” His voice was calm again, almost sympathetic. He seemed to understand Trager's embarrassment, and was taking advantage of it.


“I left my pack at the Julay,” Trager said. “I thought I'd be staying there. Look, if it's partly your company, why don't you just work things out with Max? Why do you have to sabotage the whole operation? Why can't you let me take this one trek? And what about Freya, and Lakpa? What about their jobs?”


“Do you think we haven't tried to talk to Max? But I have no control over his affairs in the States, and to any suggestion, we get only his usual ‘fuck’ and ‘bullshit.’ And so then, yes, what about Freya, and Lakpa? They are left waiting in hill stations like Kawapatri for clients who will not arrive. They are left standing by a nala in Ladakh, knowing they will be questioned for a death that is not their fault. Mr. Ferndecker’s drowning is only extraordinary in that such a thing has not happened before. So I say, enough. It is time for Max to quit India and go back to his university.”


“I've got to talk to Sundown,” Trager said. “I can't just ditch these people. It’s a father and daughter. It’s important to them.”


“As you wish,” said Bagchee. “Let me only point out I have gone to some trouble to get you onto this flight tonight. I should not be able to do it again if you miss the plane. Max would not worry about this fellow and his daughter.


“I'm not Max.”


“No,” Bagchee said, and smiled. “This brings up last night's discussion. Max Holz is not all there is to this business, and we may well need your services again. I take your strength and skill on Freya's recommendation. Tonight is a test of your discretion.”


“Whose test? Who is ‘we?’ Are you saying Freya is in this thing with you?”


Bagchee held his hands up defensively. “All I am saying is that Freya has her own resources and would be the first to take advantage of an opportunity to make her mark in this business. I believe she would hope that you would do the same.”




A small, desultory jazz band played in the center of the dimly-lit dining room at Hotel Julay. In the shadows at the edge of the room, Sundown circled around toward Trager's seat. “I was beginning to think you weren't coming,” Trager said, as Sundown pulled out a chair. He had been waiting for an hour and a half, dawdling over the one beer he could afford, watching the door. Sundown folded his legs under the table, and slumped on his elbows.


“I saw her,” he said. “Pratima's mom. I wasn't going to. I put Pratima in one cab, and then I thought, this is chickenshit. She shouldn't have to take all the crap by herself. So I got one of these little scooter rickshaws, and followed her. It was ugly, real ugly. I got there just as the shit came down. I had almost forgotten why we couldn't make it in California.”


“Sorry,” Trager said. “But she went for it? She let Pratima go?”


“Oh, yeah. She'll make us pay for it the rest of our lives, but she went for it. I guess we got to talk about equipment and stuff.”


A waiter approached, but Sundown waved him away. Trager watched him go with regret. He had hoped for a few minutes reprieve. “There are some other things we have to go over first,” Trager said. “You know Vasant Bagchee, the man you called at the office? It looks like there's some kind of feud between him and the other owner of the company. He wants to scrap Springtime in Kashmir, just to screw the guy who hired me. He said it doesn’t make any difference whether you come up with the money or not, because he cancelled all the arrangements.”


Sundown melted down into his chair. “Oh, fuck, man, don’t give me this!”


“At least that was the story he told me.”


“What do you mean? Like he's bullshitting you?”


“Maybe—yes. I do. He said he sent a telegram to Kawapatri telling the sirdar—the guy who takes care of all the logistics—to go home to Ladakh. But the sirdar isn’t in Kawapatri. He rode down to Srinagar with the rest of us in that jeep, and he’s staying in town to meet our plane.”


“What about your lady, the one in the jeep? Where’s she at in all this?”


“I'd give anything to ask,” Trager said. “I got a telegram from her a few hours ago saying, have a nice trek, so I don't think she knows anything about it.”


“Well, shit, what do you want to do?”


“I want to go to Kashmir,” said Trager. “Just as if everything was all set, which I think it is. If it isn’t, I give your thirty thousand rupees back, and then I'd have to borrow enough to get home on.” He turned his coffee cup full circle on its saucer. “Or else we could wing it.”


“Like how?”


“We could go into the mountains on our own. It wouldn't be guided trip. Just as if you and Pratima and I had bumped into each other in Kashmir and decided to have an adventure.”


Sundown gave him an intense stare. Slowly, starting with the eyes, the lines on his face moved, inverted, and a moment later Sundown smiled for the first time Trager could remember.


“Why didn't we think of that before?” he said.


Trager let out the breath he had been holding. “How will it play with Pratima and her mom?”


“Why do they have to know? I mean, if the guy meets the plane, what do they have to know about this jerk in Delhi?”


“Because I don't want to pretend to be something I'm not.”


Sundown nodded. “I hear you. You just want to take care of your own thing, and that's okay. That's the way I like it myself. It's the way it ought to be. And I’m afraid it's bullshit, man. You’re the guide. You are what people need you to be.”


In the main lobby, Trager said, “There's something else. Bagchee wouldn't pay for another night on my room. Can I borrow some money against the trek fee?”


“Not a problem” Sundown said. “You can put up with me. I'm sitting a guy's house while he's in the States. Let's get you checked out of here for good.”


There was only one clerk at the main desk, and he was engaged in a dispute with a middle aged couple dressed in matching suits of tailored khaki. Porters were piling their luggage inside the door—duffels, packs, and an aluminum camera case. The bags were tagged by the airline that Trager was to have left on, an hour before.


The woman was doing the talking. She was taller than the clerk and used her height to advantage, leaning over him. Her curly red hair shook above his face. Her breasts rested on the counter, and the young man seemed to be having trouble keeping his eyes off of them.


“I don't care what they told you,” the woman said in a tight, controlled voice. “We paid for this room six months ago in L.A.”


Her husband, a large man with two cameras on his neck, moved to the side to take pictures.


“Stand a little closer to him, would you, Les?” he asked.


“Would you put those damned things away? Listen, I haven’t flown halfway around the world to find out you've lost our room.”


The clerk wagged his head back and forth. “But the note that is being sent from the agent is clearly saying you are not coming.”


“Do we look like we're not coming? If we roll out sleeping bags in your lobby, will you believe we're here? We can't go running all over Delhi looking for a hotel tonight. We’ve been flying for two days, and we've got to get up in the morning to take another plane to Kashmir. If we're not in a room in half an hour, someone's going to be pretty damned sorry.”


“Yes,” the clerk said, looking quickly over her shoulder. “Excuse me—Mr. Trager?”


“Take your time,” Trager said. “We're in no hurry.”


“But you are Mr. Trager? Of Holz Overseas Trekking?” The woman wheeled around.


“Ah—sort of,” Trager said.


“Oh, good,” said the clerk with relief. “Your clients are here.”

Springtime in Kashmir ©Talbot Bielefeldt 2020.

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