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A Fool and His Money


 

by John Long

December 29, 2001

... and when a drop-dead gorgeous girl
at once abets and staves you off, ax
murderers and priests are born.

Luckily, I had the Roubidoux bouldering
circuit to vent my frustrations upon.

John Long is a familiar figure in climbing circles. Well enough known for his long list of pioneering rock ascents, a prodigious outpouring of essays, articles, and short fiction has accompanied that career and his transition from climbing to peripatetic adventurer. Long's new book, Gorilla Monsoon is being published by Chockstone Press this fall and contains many examples of his self-described, and very distinctive, "holographic" writing style. In A Fool and His Money, Long replays the classic passions of the young, hot-blooded rock jock: climbing, and macho, pride-plagued sex.

"The silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a clever woman to manage a tool."
--Rudyard Kipling,
Plain Tales from the Hills

The first time I saw her face I realized the Romans were all wrong about Venus. It was day one, in Philosophy 101, when all the guys were drawing a bead on the babe situation. I was a freshman in college, when girls were Africa and I was Stanley; and any thoughts of following Dr. Willoughby's syllogisms were lost when I saw that face, the face of Rafaella Consuelo Portifino de Platta, niece of the Duchess of Alba, and heir to a dozen titles, blue-blooded and ravishing. After class, as she strode through the foyer, it was clear she carried herself superbly and that she didn't give a damn about you so long as you stared. Mine were not the only eyes undressing Senorita de Platta as she broke across the lawn towards Hanawalt Hall, the dorm for the monied girls.

My dorm, recently converted from a garage for farm machinery, was reserved for Eskimos, the deaf-mute, basketball players -- anyone on a scholarship. No doorman, no carpet, no heaters, and two toilets for 20 guys. We called it "Little Calcutta." The University was strictly for brainy aristocrats. They doled out a few scholarships to appear generous; then they moved a couple tractors, strung twenty hammocks, called it a dorm and told us to get straight A's or get the hell out.
My roommate was a Jamaican math whiz named Juke. When I mentioned Rafaella, he smiled wide and tugged at his woolen Rasta beret. Oh, Juke had seen Rafaella alright -- the one with the shocking figure and the "Sorry Charlie" face. Juke reckoned it'd take a G-note and a tuxedo to get her out the door. I had three pairs of Levis and a big-wall rack. And I had to get acquainted with this Rafaella.

To call Dr. Willoughby dry" is to call hell warm," but it took a compound fracture to keep a male from his class. Few eyes strayed to the podium, however--not when we could study the Truth in Rafaella's face. Fawned, small-talked, begged and bothered, she spurned the lot of us. Finally, I took to sitting right next to her, ignoring her altogether -- a strategy that won me an invitation to a dance in Hanawalt Hall -- from Rafaella! A waste of time, Juke promised.

I cut my afternoon bouldering session short, threw on a clean pair of Levi's and a splash of Juke's Old Spice, then sprinted for Hanawalt Hall.

Her room was resplendent for it's maple furniture and lace pillows and pricey trinkets from her homeland. The faint aroma of Malaga perfume lofted about and Rafaella was preened and ready to tango. Alarm stole over her face as she eyeballed my garb. and -- in her thick Granada accent -- she directed me onto a wicker chair. This was followed by a scowl that Proust would have spent 60 pages on. Briefly, she found my choice of dress coarse, and said so. My hair was mussed and my shoes were untied-- and she mentioned this. I hadn't bothered with the roses, and this was touched upon also. But her tone was warm and all would be forgiven if I'd just go "fetch" her a beverage." There would be no dancing, for she couldn't accompany someone so shoddily clad.

That night, squirming in the wicker chair, I learned how the belt is to match the shoes, how to combine plaids and pastels. Several hours later. she motioned me onto the bed, where we studied various Spanish fashion rags; but my eyes kept wandering over Rafaella's maco curves. She really looked divine, shockingly so, plus she had that contained mien that could make boys swim to Botswana to light her cigarette -- and feel honored that they had. Some offhand remark set her chuckling and when she placed her hand on my shoulder my ears rang, and I thought, "Shit howdy! I'm on my way to the royal brisket." Not so, for the next moment I was summarily dismissed. Walking back to Little Calcutta, I considered it vastly fine that I should know so much about waistcoats, and silks, and stuff I hadn't given a rat's ass about three hours before. Such was the girl's spell.

The die was cast that first night -- that Rafaella would play me "like castanets," as Juke maintained, and that I didn't have a chance of ever gettin' down to it. Initially, I found it baffling that other boys weren't bashing Rafaella's door down; but I quickly learned she was unapproachable -- period. She wasn't an island, however, and for whatever reason, she singled me out as the victim of her wiles. When I'd flag from snubs or neglect, she'd grant me a minute honeyed enough to keep me pressing on through a gauntlet of humiliation I would carry into middle age.

We embarked on a series of outings devised to bring me some much needed culture. First was the opera. I borrowed a tuxedo from my cousin. He's roughly my size so l didn't bother donning the tux until half an hour before I would pick up Rafaella. To my horror, I discovered the pants and jacket fit fine, but the shirt was cut for a skeleton. The only guy in Calcutta with a white shirt was a Senegalese national who worked moonlight in a meat packing joint. Aside from a few stains not worth mentioning, the shirt looked fine, though wrinkled. Juke fixed that: he heated a frying pan over the communal hotplate, then ironed it. Perfect.

The few stains were apparently very much worth mentioning and Rafaella dressed me down for a solid hour about my complete lack of decorum, what despair I had caused her, and all the rest. But she would not be defeated and swore to redouble her efforts to bring me around. Then she kissed my forehead and called me her "little gafo" and I felt magnificent that she'd given me another chance. Still, something was starting to worm in me.

An 18-year-old boy, if he's properly formed, is ruled by the cruise missile in his pants. The taut heartstrings and the fanciful talk -- they're all just formalities to getting laid; and when a drop-dead-gorgeous girl at once abets and staves you off, ax murderers and priests are born. Luckily, I had the Roubidoux bouldering circuit to vent my frustrations upon--probably the only thing that kept me sane.

Later came lawn bowling, croquet, equestrian epics, and ballroom dancing lessons. I was always judged on my worst showings and the few times I shined, Rafaella took all the credit. On the whole, I gnashed and fretted because whatever I did was all wrong. Anything I said was twisted to make me feel ashamed and inferior. What I didn't do was a point of great humiliation to her highness. She questioned if even her royal tutelage was enough to conquer my many failings and had I accepted her evaluation of me at face value, I'd have had no choice but to go behind the shed and blow my brains out, doing all humanity a favor. Why she pestered, harped, and yet was fiendishly possessive of me--this was all fuel for insanity.

Naturally, I never got so much as a decent kiss out of the whole debacle, but not for lack of trying. The girl simply couldn't be won, as she was immune to charm and cleverness; and if ever they took even momentary hold, she'd maneuver the moment to a physical affair, where under the sorcery of her carnal splendor both the strong and the crafty played her game and not their own. The mind that could peg her motivations could solve the riddle of fusion in a couple minutes. Whatever, something had to give.

None too soon I met Sheila Westmorland, who'd squandered her teens holed up in Catholic boarding schools. I blew off the weekend's cragging for a stint of wenching that canceled Sheila's 18 years of pious living. When I finally fled Sheila's pad, I pitched a case of empty Coor's cans, and Rafaella's spell, into the dumpster.

A few days later I got a note from Rafaella, saying that she needed to see me, immediately. I waffled. I'd picked up the pieces over the last few days and wasn't eager to clack like castanets once again. I went anyway, curious to learn my reaction if nothing else. I'd laugh in her face if she started in again. I promised myself that much.

Rafaella bid me onto the wicker chair, then started grilling me about my whereabouts over the past few days. And why hadn't I come to visit her? And why hadn't I shaved ? And she kept on until she saw that I just wasn't buying it anymore. She no longer seemed stately and dignified, rather cold and hard; and her royal airs smelled like silly arrogance, and I said as much. But she still made Raphael's frescoes look monstrous so I knew not to hang around too long lest she get her mojo working on me once again.

She suddenly broke into tears, and a pall fell over the room. She'd somehow learned of my weekend's rakery and made no effort to hide her devastation. How could I betray her trust, she begged, covering her face. The words love and respect were sputtered through a running sob. I felt small and mean, and when the heat welled in my chest, I discovered my true feelings--that I'd ford the Ganges in flood just to please this girl.

I tried explaining that her constant denials had left me in a typhoon and that I'd dropped anchor at the first port to avoid sinking. She called that a cheap stunt, and whimpered. I nearly begged her to forgive me. She sobbed. I begged her to forgive me, and nearly wept myself for guilt and shame. She looked up, big eyes streaming, lower lip quivering. Then she threw herself at me, clutched me with her hot embrace, and dragged me onto the bed. She virtually tore my shirt off and my traveling hands had her stripped to the quick in a heartbeat .

I thought I might perish when I first laid eyes on the royal torso. God had worked the Sabbath to forge this masterpiece, and said "Bravo!" once done. My stomach raced and when her lips met mine, I thought: Alas, the royal brisket is mine! Any youth exposed to the triumphs of a Newton or a Milton yearns to do a great thing, and here was my chance. Limb in limb, heart to heart, she clawed, I gripped, and life was a glorious sunset just then. The forest fire in my loins spread over the bed, licked across the mohair rug, screamed up the walls, and fogged the windows over. I flashed on a poster Juke had hanging in Little Calcutta illustrating the Zodiac sexual positions and I vowed to try them all, right then and there.

Nada! One move shy of the crux, Rafaella suddenly shoved me aside, bolted upright, exhaled hard, daubed her brow, clutched her ample breasts, then sprung off the bed and into a silk robe. As I lay in turgid grief, she explained how we'd have to stop before we did something rash, something we really didn't want to do, something we'd later regret.

I could have killed a man just then. She'd played me like castanets, again! Rafaella drew a soft drag off her cigarette, ducking her coy grin into the smoke. I jumped into my clothes and bolted without a word.

Outside, I looked for a dog to punt. Something had to give! I could either go over to Sheila's pad, crack the Gideon, or go buy an ax. I went to Sheila's.

I didn't think about Rafaella for several days, until note after note kept turning up in Little Calcutta. I ignored them all. Rafaella finally summoned the nerve to personally come to my room. Her tone was conciliatory so I knew she was spinning her web again.

She said she never meant to torture me, and that she had a plan which would set everything straight. Her cousin, Jose Armando Robles de Platta, the Grandee of Gerona himself, was taking his spring break form U.C. Berkeley and would be staying at the de Platta's Villa in Riverside. Rafaella knew about my climbing, always mentioning Jose Armando whenever the topic came up. She claimed that-- per rock climbing-- there was none better than the Grandee, and that if the chance ever arose, she'd see that he gave me a few pointers. My opportunity was the coming weekend when the Grandee would ply his magic on the boulders at Roubidoux, no less.

I instantly saw the whole scenario. Rafaella no doubt thought my climbing was on par with my croquet or backgammon, and that the Grandee would show me what a hack I was while Rafaella chuckled from the scree. Another victory for Espana.

At 18, a broken heart mends fast; but when your pride takes a licking you've got to get even or live with the mantle of a chump. And there's nothing a chump wants more than the chance to prove he's not one. Rafaella was giving me that chance on a silver platter, and I seized it.

On the drive to Roubidoux Rafaella kept asking how good a climber I was, hoping I'd claim star status so the Grandee could demolish me . That was my first clue they were conspiring a sandbag. I said she'd just have to wait and see, and draw her own conclusions.

I pulled my old Fiat alongside a stretch Lincoln Limo in the Roubidoux parking lot. As if on cue, out sprung the Grandee; and I thought my eyes were fooling me. The crisp blue Robbins boots, the white knee socks, the saber sharp crease in his corduroy knickers, the starched white rugby shirt. But the clincher was the saffron ascot. "Jeeeesus!" I said out loud. Here was the most dashing hombre to ever touch stone! He kissed Rafaella on both cheeks then curtly shook my hand, informing me that, typically, he only taught monied friends -- in exchange for polo lessons and the like. Clearly I had nothing to offer His Royal Highness, but he'd instruct me anyway, out of deference to Rafaella. The whole thing smacked of charades, and I planned to deliver an Oscar performance .

The Grandee scowled when I laced up a pair of size 15 high-top tennis shoes. How could he humiliate someone who didn't know enough to even buy a pair of boots? He strung a line over a 5.5 hand crack, probably hoping I'd burn out and he'd be done with it. I made it, barely, so the Grandee flipped the rope left -- over a 5.7 face. He floated it with ease as Rafaella cheered from below. I made that climb too, making sure my sneakers skated on every hold. We marched to another boulder during which the Grandee mentioned his recent ascents of Washington Column's South Face and the East Buttress of El Capitan. Rafaella beamed at her cousin's accomplishments. Surely I hadn't done these climbs. I assured them I had not.

The rope now hung over a steep 5.9 crack which the Grandee climbed first -- as a guide should do. Oddly enough, he could actually climb. He had a certain grace on the rock, and his fingers had a little zip to boot. I made that climb as well, even cracked off the direct finish -- a route I'd climbed about 10,000 times. The Grandee looked concerned. We volleyed around the easier circuit for another hour or so--the routes getting tougher, the Grandee getting more and more pumped. And the harder things got, the smoother I became. "A natural," the Grandee deadpanned. Rafaella wasn't impressed.

Each time we changed locations the Grandee's climbing record grew more impressive. Eventually, he claimed ascents of the North American Wall and the Direct on Half Dome. Flat lies, I was sure. Rafaella looked somber and the Grandee started to smell a rat when I cranked off a long 5.11 problem, not bothering with my feet. He couldn't pull his boots off the ground on this one and I thought his juggler would burst from the dishonor of it all. I suggested resting up a tad, then giving it another shot. I pointed out left, where a line of chalked holds dotted a bulging 40-foot wall. The Grandee appraised the wall unclimbable, said the chalk marks were a gaff. I thought somebody could climb it, and said so. Rafaella told me to shut up and to listen to someone who knew better. I stuck to my opinion.

To prove me wrong the Grandee asked if I'd care to place a wager on the wall's impossibility. He said $100 was a gentleman's bet, knowing I didn't have that kind of coin on me. What he didn't know was that I had my boots and chalk bag in a paper bag I'd been toting around, and that those chalk marks were mine. We shook, I laced up, and alarm played across the Grandee's face.

As I chalked, I told His Royal Highness that, while I had nothing against him, or Spain, it was high time someone called bullshit on his claims; and that someone was me. "Watch and weep, amigo." And I winked at Rafaella.

I had only recently mastered this wall, a finger-shredding B2 I could rarely dick on my first try. Two moves up, my right hand popped and I slammed onto the deck. Rafaella howled. I bit two nasty flappers off my knuckles asking the Grandee if he cared to up the ante. He just smiled and I cranked the wall next try.

I shortly ran into a couple buddies who greeted me with the standard abuse. As a final jab, I introduced them to the Grandee, who surprised me by laughing at himself over the attempted sandbag. A good sport, the Grandee. Rafaella, however, was sulfuric, saying they'd been hustled, which nullified the wager. The Grandee laughed again, said a gentleman's bet always stands, but just then he didn't have the cash. Was an l.O.U. OK ? Absolutely not, I said. And when the Grandee made Rafaella cover him, I was grateful she wasn't armed. I snatched the C-note, chuckled. and said I couldn't be bothered to give her a lift back to the University. Her eye's burned and the little muscles in her jaw flexed.

A week or so passed before my mom called, saying I had done a horrible thing, taking advantage of poor Rafaella -- taking her money and all. My mom's from Argentina, and Rafaella enjoyed talking to her in Spanish; and judging from my mom's testimony, she'd painted it on pretty thick. I promised to go set things right with Rafaella, but didn't until mom called back and said Rafaella had called again, and she was heartbroken and why hadn't I gone to visit her and what a heel I was for putting a princess through such torment. I finally gave in and went to Rafaella's; and luke laughed .

Rafaella looked like I had executed her family to the man. But even in her gloom she was exquisite. maybe more so, and I found myself considering croquet and suede loafers and Rafaella. I told her how wretched I felt, and that I wanted her to take the $100 back. She wouldn't take it, just sulked. I said that I'd acted mean, but that I wasn't actually mean, and that It bothered me greatly--I nearly begged her to take the money back. She wouldn't take it. More sulking. I begged her to take the $100 back. She took it.

Then, quite unexpectedly, she broke into tears, and fairly threw herself on me. I was momentarily torn; but one whiff of that Malaga perfume, one caress of that olive skin, and my spirit soared and my legs went numb. Oh, the splendor, the glory! We rolled, we clawed. And her body -- comprised of all the most fabulous lies, all true. We were one, or were soon to be. But when the room reached about 200 centigrade, she slinked from my embrace, daubed her royal brow, exhaled hard, and said that lest we do something rash, something we didn't really want to do, she'd best open the windows while I "fetched" her a soda.



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