It was a grand ball, a great cocktail party - chilled white wines from South Africa, Warm reds from Bordeaux, fois gras, Champagne from Champagne, and assorted other delicacies all in celebration of one of their own - a neighbor, friend, colleague, client, destined to climb the tallest mountain on Earth - Mount Everest.
He was a tall, handsome man, black hair combed back fashionably, a stubble of black and hints of gray beard, and posture that beckoned the image of NFL quarterback dropping back to pass.
The chatter was a din over which it was hard to hear the music, provided by a trio playing piano jazz.
The mood waxed importance, for the setting was the city's illustrious art museum, the cocktail party clustered at one end amongst the European oils, private, but not so private that other museum goers could not sneak an hors' d'oeuvre or a glass of wine, if they mocked an air of importance.
The questions were boundless: How did you get interested in climbing such a mountain? Aren't you afraid? Will you be on your own? We're all behind you and your bravery!
The man reveled in this, for this was his big moment of big moments. He was in the news media constantly, known for his business acumen as well as his charity. People in the city who didn't know him knew of him.
The party was now in its eleventh hour. His wife cozied up to him and said. "You hold it down, dear, while I go to the ladies room."
He nodded and took hold of her wine glass. "Don't touch the bowl or you'll warm up the wine," she winked. He grinned before realizing that he was now standing by himself. Hey, not a bad situation after you have talked and talked and talked yourself out about your big adventure. So he slipped around the corner of a wall, dividing himself from the cluster of patrons still enjoying the party.
A man appeared before him, a short man, dark in complexion, a lineage that seemed unfamiliar to him. The man bore down on him with his stare.
"You are going to die on Mount Everest."
He felt himself swallow a gulp of air. But he took note of the man. The shortness, the friendly face, the complexion that seemed seared by the high sun, clothes not ragged but homespun on a spinning wheel appearance, maybe of sheep's wool, shoes that were thick and heavy.
The short man's eyes did not blink, nor did they waver from their stare.
"You are going to die on Mount Everest."
He felt a quiver, something his self-assured manner did not recognize.
"Who are you? What do you want?
"You are going to die on Mount Everest."
The message, in its simplicity, was striking its target.
The man backed away from the shorter man, slipped around the edge of the wall, and rejoined the party.
His wife returned.
"You didn't warm up that Chardonnay, did you, honey?" There was a laugh, but none returned.
"Are you alright. You look pale. My goodness, you've had too much to drink!"
He did feel wobbly, and reached out to the edge of the wall for support. He peered around the edge where the shorter man had been standing. There was no one there.
"Maybe you're right," he sighed to his wife. "I've had too much to drink. I'm ready to go."
On the way home she said: "You've turned quiet. What's wrong?"
"I guess it's sinking in, the hike up Everest and all. I don't know, the party was like a send-off...A send off into the unknown."
She turned the radio down. "The whole family, the entire community supports your goal - to climb Everest, the world's tallest mountain, the peak in the jet stream, the ultimate of ultimates. C'mon!"
Past climbs came into his head. The small hill he climbed as a child with his father; the big mound at college; the peaks in North America; then Mount Blanc; Kilimanjaro. He reached the peak of all of them, now he was looking at a mountain 29,029 feet above sea level. Commercial jets flew at that altitude. The thought was breathtaking. The small man he met at the museum halting.
You are going to die on Mount Everest. Those words chilled his mind, put it into a deep freeze, numbed it from the encouraging words of his wife.
"The children are counting on you. Your parents are excited. The entire community just gave you a send-off bash. What's with the chill I feel?"
Three days later she drove him to the airport for his flight to Nepal. She was sunny, and maybe she should have been apprehensive, but he was so accomplished in his career, as a father, as a mountaineer, she could only bubble with optimism.
After she returned home from the airport she settled in with the two children, took a call from her mother, a call from a friend wishing her well, and her optimism gradually gave way for foreboding.
She had not given it much thought: What could go wrong. Most climbers reach the peak of Everest; fatalities number only five percent. She belatedly did some research. There are more than 200 corpses still on the mountain, some dating back decades. Then there is the green boots cave, a small shoulder of rock covering a frozen body wearing green hiking boots that has been there for almost a decade.
A week later there was a satellite call from her husband. All is well, he said, The hiking begins at four o'clock in the morning Nepal time. She made a mental note to check the internet for a conversion to eastern standard time. It is about 14 hours.
What he didn't tell her is that the guides on Everest, the local Sherpas, struck a striking resemblance to the small dark-skinned man in the museum, the one who told him "You are going to die on Mount Everest."
As the Sherpas went about their business, he found himself looking for that man among them. They all seemed so familiar to that short man in the museum, but none were actually him.
This was late April and early May, the window that opened for climbing the giant mountain, the weather at its weakest and most predictable. There was the base camp, then camps one through four on the way up and down. And there were the oxygen tanks to help the climbers overcome the lack of oxygen in the rarefied air.
The wife went about her duties, getting the kids to school, working in the public library during the day, preparing dinner, sometimes inviting her parents or friends over. The goal was to keep a sense of normality until husband arrived safely back home.
One day, three weeks into his departure, the wall phone started ringing. Then almost at the same time her cell phone went off. The children were in front of the TV and they cried: "There's daddy!" She turned to see a photo of her husband on the TV screen with this headline: Local Man Dies Climbing Mount Everest."
Her mind started screaming. The TV station turned to a local street reporter who was standing in front of her house. She ran to the window to see a TV crew on the sidewalk. The phones were still ringing. Her mind was screaming for help, then the words followed. The children cried and screamed, she screamed at the TV - "No! No! No!."
She picked up the wall phone. It was her mother. She cradled her cell phone. It was a friend. The message was the same. She had lost her husband to a mountain of rock and dirt and snow that she had no feelings for. A mountain of rock and dirt and snow that had some kind of allure to people that made them risk their lives to climb it.
As he lay dying in the blizzard on the South Col of Everest, no cap, snow suit torn to shreds, one hand bare to the freezing temperature, an oxygen tank frozen, he wondered how he got into a position to die alone, on a majestic mountain, in a helpless and weak position that he never encountered in life, with a power larger and more ferocious than his, gradually and determinately drawing the life out of his cold body. He thought of his wife, his children, his colleagues at the office, his friends, then as his life was ebbing he thought of the going-away cocktail party at the museum, the celebration, the euphoria, the hubris that man in his desire can overcome nature. Finally, he thought of the small dark-complexioned man who zeroed in on him and the pointed words he said and repeated: "You are going to die on Mount Everest." And finally, he did, succumbing to exposure.
Life back home would go on, sadder, but it would go on as life tends to do.
But the question remains for you, the reader of this tale: who was that short dark-complexioned man?
And if you decide to climb Mount Everest, will he appear at your going-away party?