Tin man

by Kathleen De Grave

I know about the pigeons before I start climbing the water tower. That’s why I take along different tips for the pressure gun—some for spraying, some for a swath of water, one for pinpoint scrubbing; I also take an LED flashlight and my multi-tool. Who knows what troubles I’m going to run into up there? When the city lets a water tower go that long without checking—maybe three years, maybe fifteen—I can find raccoons or albino squirrels or even a dead cat waiting for me.

Pete stays on the ground below because it’s my turn to go up, and he’s happy about it.

“I hear tell pigeon shit smells like caramel,” he says, and then he laughs that squeaky way he has and lifts his shoulders. “That’ll be some goo!”

I’ve got nothing to say to that. For the last three hours I’ve been sitting on the grass next to the truck doing nothing, because the city didn’t start draining the water tank till too late. My phone is the military plain style, which is good for throwing at rats or losing in a pool of water but isn’t good for wasting time. So I had nothing to keep my mind occupied. Bad business. I started thinking about things. Not like on purpose, but because you can only think about nothing for so long. My mind kept going to the day when I was nine and I played with my matchbox car in my mother’s bedroom, sneaking in and staying there while she was watching one of her shows. The car was a yellow Corvette. And the doors on that thing! And the door handles! For three hours this morning, I couldn’t think of anything but that car. Saw the windshield in my mind, remembered how the metal felt in my hand.

At least now the wait is over. Pete sits in the truck with the door open and watches me strap on my safety harness—with its buckles and nylon belts. He has one skinny leg bent, his boot resting on the running board, so he can balance his can of cream soda on his knee. I’m drinking nothing till the job’s done, and Pete makes a big deal about taking a swig and smacking his lips. Then he tells me his wife Fatima told him that my girlfriend Janie isn’t too happy with me.

“When you don’t know anything,” I say to him, “you can just shut the hell up,” and he laughs again. I snap-to the final lanyard buckle and go to the trailer to hunt for the paint pole. I’m going to want something to poke with at the nest, the salesman said when he told me about the pigeons, but I need my two hands for climbing, so I’ll have to rig some way to carry the pole across my back, on the outside of the safety gear. Pete’ll have to help me tie it on. 

He watches me line the three-foot pole straight up my back, then slant it this way or that.  It’s not as if we have to do this every day. Then he puts his soda can down and comes over to fit the pole so it lets me put my head back and still doesn’t get in the way of my knee. He ties it so I can get the pole loose by myself up top.  

“You think I don’t know much,” he says, “but I know a lot. Maybe more than you do.  Janie and Fatima talk all the time. I got ears.”

My bag is already clipped to my belt, and I put my walkie-talkie in last, on top of the tips and everything else. Then I secure the lead end of the rope. Pete goes back to the truck and sits there, with his hands on his knees. His face is lit up with the news he wants to tell me. He’s a funny guy to look at, with his cheeks sunk in, because of the missing teeth, and his hair gelled so it stands up straight. His nose is off-center, too. I turn my back on him to start my climb.

The pole doesn’t cause any trouble as I go up the lattice leg, and the rope trails behind like it should, draping from me to the ground. My feet don’t fit in the holes too well, so I’m glad when I reach the ladder that runs up the rest of the way. I give it a good shake to see if the old bolts rattle, but they don’t. I wouldn’t climb if they did. The ladder starts about ten feet above the ground, attached to the leg, and the whole tower is only 120 feet high. It’s one of those old “witch’s hat” water towers, with the point on top. Some guys call this kind a “tin man” because it looks like the sorry fellow from the Wizard of Oz, with his oil can cap. The tower’s been here who knows how long. 120 feet doesn’t give you much water pressure, but the town put the tower on a hill to make up the difference. 

The lattice legs are like the maze I created that day in my mother’s room, where I wasn’t supposed to be, sitting on the bench in front of my mother’s vanity. This was after the divorce, when it was just her and me. I set her lipstick tube on end, piled her flat containers of eye shadow to make a pyramid, angled the hair brush one way and her makeup brush another. Eyeliner, eyebrow pencil, tweezers. It made a good obstacle course for my Corvette.

I’m hanging on the ladder, lost in memories of that little car, when I hear the truck door slam and Pete yelling up to me from the bottom of the lattice leg. “She says . . .” He doesn’t have to shout that way. I can hear him just fine. “She says you got intimacy issues!” And he gives his squeaking laugh. “How you like that?”

I shake my head and start climbing again. It’s hot out, even at eleven a.m. Pete and I have been here since eight. Pete could’ve brought this up anytime in those three hours, but he waits till now. I’m sweating before I’m half way up the ladder, and my t-shirt sticks to my back. The rope dragging behind me gets heavier the higher I get, as if I’m lugging a stone that grows bigger with every step. I always hook off the safety gear the way I should, too, so it’s slow going. Better that than slipping on something and falling backwards a hundred feet to land on the ground with that pole busting my spine.

I don’t like Janie throwing words around, even if Fatima’s her friend. What’s intimate is intimate; what’s between Janie and me should stay the hell that way. 

For a minute I stop climbing again to settle down. What Fatima knows, I don’t really care about. But Pete—.  I shake my head and reach up to hook the lanyard a couple of rungs above me. It doesn’t want to go on right; I’m not concentrating the way I should. My mind slips over to an image of my mom finding me in her room. I’d stayed too long. Why I kept wanting to go in there, I don’t know. Looking for something she was never going to give me, I suppose. Right now on the ladder it’s as if I can see her face—disgust, repulsion. “Why are you in here,” she said. “Why are you touching my things?” It’s the same look she used to give my dad.

Pete doesn’t have the trouble I do with down time. He solves the too much thinking problem by playing with his phone. I used to figure he was a popular guy with all the texting he did while he was driving seventy-five miles an hour, one-handed and only one eye on the road, and pulling a twelve-foot trailer behind the truck. Turns out he’s been surfing all along, and that’s what he does every night at the hotel—reading truck specs online, looking at pictures of four-wheelers and dirt bikes. That’s what he was doing all morning before the tank ran dry. He didn’t bring up that intimacy crap till I couldn’t do anything about it.

Janie’s always talking that way. “Sammy,” she says, “If you don’t start talking to me I might just walk out.” That’s what she said last night. I was in the living room watching a re-run of Cops, trying to enjoy the goofy drunk guy running away from the car he’d slammed into a tree. Taking some zone-out time in my last hours home before I had to start another week on the road. And then she came out of the bedroom in her favorite pjs. They have floppy shoulder caps like overlapping flower petals, and on the pink shirt and shorts some white bunnies scamper around. She looked about twelve. But she wanted me to have a serious talk.

“Why won’t you say anything to me? You just watch that stupid TV.”

I knew what she was talking about, but if I could’ve said something I would have. When she comes at me like that I go blank.

“Oh!” she said, “I don’t know what to do about you!” and she flapped out of the room; then I heard the bedroom door slam.

I sat there feeling like she’d hit me—in my chest, in my gut. The TV was a buzz, that’s all. And my mind didn’t go anywhere.

           

That’s why I like cleaning water towers. Climbing straight up higher than a ten-story building, hauling my rope and my tools all the way, wearing that harness that must weigh fifteen pounds—it takes muscle and it takes concentration. Clicking the lanyard on above my head, pulling myself up rung after rung till that lanyard’s at my knee, and then clicking on another above my head again before I undo the one below. Hooking and unhooking. It’s slow work—healthy work, I’d say—just getting up to the bowl. It was a lot harder sitting around waiting. My stomach that morning had been cramped and I was sweating even in the shade. And it wasn’t about any frigging climb. It was that damn Corvette sneaking into my thoughts, and it was Janie.  What if she wasn’t there when I got back.

 

When they built these tin men they didn’t have any OSHA codes. Some’ve been around since the 1930s, and one tower I climbed a while back was built in 1906. This one, though, can’t be more than eighty years old. All the way up the leg, the ladder’s at a slant, and climbing that’s easy. But at the bowl, I got to climb along under the bottom. So for a while I’m hanging upside down like a possum on the underside of a tree branch. Then when I get to the edge of the bowl I’m upright again and in another couple of feet I’m stepping over the railing onto the catwalk.  Concentration and a little bit of a thrill if it’s raining out or the wind is blowing, though the wind rods that run from leg to leg in giant X’s hold the tower steady.

When a town has our company on contract, the water tower gets checked every year or two—painted, washed out, re-welded if it needs it. If there’s no contract, then each washout or painting has to be negotiated—our salesmen do that. The salesman for this area was up here last week—looking to see how bad the situation was so he could convince the town it needed us—and he found the hatch on the cone wide open. Maybe the hatch blew back a couple of months ago. Maybe it’s been years. Nobody’s been up here since last century for sure.

“You should’ve seen the pigeons,” he said to me this morning. “Pigeons are weird.  I went up there and they came whooshing out—a whole army of them.”

“You mean five?” I said to him.

“At least ten, I swear.”

He’s always clean cut, a brown polo shirt and a pair of jeans that aren’t stained like mine and Pete’s. A businessman.

 “And when I looked in,” he said, “I saw more of them flying around or sitting on the inside ladder. You don’t want to know where their poop goes.”

Straight down, I’d guess.

“You’re going to have to knock that nest off.”

 

“Eggs?” I said.

“I saw a couple.”

That made me sigh.

 

***

Janie got me to take her out to a high-class restaurant last Saturday, and she asked me why I wanted to stay in this lousy job.

“It’s not lousy. It’s a lot better than chasing after twenty-five first graders every day, like you do.”

She was wearing a dress that was some crazy blue with a pink swipe down one side. It fit her real nice. But I liked the way she looked no matter what she had on. She rolled her eyes when she asked me if I admired the dress and I said, “It’s fine.” It was fine. What more did she want? We sat outside under a canopy, with tiki torches to keep the bugs away. Janie said it was more romantic there, when I suggested that air conditioning had been invented for days like this, when it was 110 degrees in the sun. She pointed to the huge fans shaped like elephant ears, made out of some island plant fiber. I didn’t have to wear a tie, but Janie made me put on the silk shirt she bought me. She said the color brought out my eyes. But wash-and-wear silk doesn’t take heat well.

 

“I know you like scrambling around a thousand feet in the air and spraying water all over yourself.” Now I rolled my eyes. “But you’re hardly ever home. Sure we get the weekends, but you’re hundreds of miles away all week long. How do you expect me to marry you if I almost never see you? We don’t get to talk.”

During the school year, she didn’t complain—school all day and then projects all night.  And I was around over Christmas because it was too icy to climb. But this was August.

“I know something is going on, Sammy. It happened last summer too. You walk around like you’re carrying a sack of cement on your back. And you don’t shave and your hair gets oily because you don’t take showers like you should.”

“I took a shower.”

“You’ve got to talk to me.” She reached her hand across the table, her face serious. And with her long hair braided into a pretty circle on her head, she made me feel like I wouldn’t be able to say no. My stomach seized up.

The waiter came and I took a long time choosing my chicken fingers and mashed potatoes. Janie ordered a filet mignon—her last celebration before school started, she said.

Even though all this didn’t distract her, it gave me time. “Okay,” I said.  “I guess you’re right about me being weird lately. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“It’s your mom, isn’t it?”

I held myself steady a moment. Then I said, “Yeah. I told you she died.”

“So your grandma had to raise you.”

“Yeah. Well, it was August. I was ten.”

“The car accident. Oh, honey. I’m so sorry.”

She gave my hand a squeeze.

“Burnt so bad we couldn’t have a funeral. And Dad just disappeared.”

Her hand stayed on mine for a while, but the pressure let up, and then she drew her hand away completely and she sat back. “I thought you said there was a big funeral and everybody came, your dad too.”

“Did I?”

***

 

Now the sun is beating on my head and my shoulders. Below me, Pete is looking up to see what I want. The answer is always simple and clear: “Tie on the big wrench,” I say, or “Send me the rope ladder,” if I need one. No trying to second guess a person. No lying either.

To get to the hatch, I have to climb the ladder straight up the outside wall of the tank, maybe thirty feet. Again, to make sure, I give the ladder a tug. The metal is hot, and when I bump the tank with my arm I get scorched. Calluses protect my palms, though, so the climb hasn’t been bad. Gloves make my hands sweat—anyway, I like to feel what I’m gripping. I survey the ladder and the tank to see what’s coming. At the top of this stretch, I’ll hitch myself onto a rolling ladder that can move all the way around the tank if need be. In my case, it will inch me over to the hatch, a couple of feet away. I can see the rolling ladder up there, neatly chained to the straight ladder I’m on. The salesman did the chaining to make it easier for me. Once I’m up there, I can look inside and see what I need.

 Janie thinks this job is lonely.  Maybe compared to a whole school full of teachers and kids it seems that way. But I’ll bet she’s lonelier than any of us guys are. We all work together—have roles, like a circus team. I depend on Pete, and he depends on me when it’s his turn to climb. We both need the salesman and the city water people. And then at night, Pete and I get something to eat and we’re both so worn out we don’t spend more than a couple of hours on our computers or watching TV and then it’s time to get enough sleep to be able to do it again the next day. I think if I spent too much time with Janie we’d get on each other’s nerves. This way the weekends are something to look forward to. On Friday nights, when I walk through the door of the little house we rent, and Janie is in the kitchen or reading a book, and she jumps up or comes running to give me a hug and I kiss her like I haven’t seen her for a year and she laughs and says I stink, I’m so happy and grateful I could almost cry. Each time I’m surprised she’s actually there.

All the way up the ladder I’m shaky. There’s no good reason for August to do this to me.  It was seventeen years ago, for God’s sake. I wouldn’t be feeling this way if Janie hadn’t got me worried last night. Time to get my head on straight.  I manoeuver myself to the hatch, which the salesman has closed but not locked, and I wrestle the heavy door open. A nest, right enough.  Three eggs from where I’m looking and piles of pigeon shit on the disk at the center of the roof rods. But the nest itself is clean. It’s sitting right in the middle, surrounded by a couple of inches of crap. All the pigeons are gone.

“What do you see?” Pete yells up to me.

“A bunch of pigeon do. And it doesn’t smell like caramel, I can tell you that!”

Pete laughs and I can hear him all the way up here. “I’m going in,” I say.

           

I don’t get any joy in ruining a nest, especially not one in use. But I don’t like the thought of pigeons doing stuff to people’s water, either. This is an emergency washout, and I’m the EMT. To get at the nest, I have to hang onto the rolling ladder and put one foot on the edge of the hatch so I can see inside to poke. Once I begin, I can’t help myself. I start slashing at the nest with the pole, as if I’m hacking with a three-foot sword, cutting the heads off my enemy even though it’s really sticks and mud that I send flying. I don’t want to see what happens to the eggs, but they get mashed right off. Not just yolks but blood, veins, and I think I see a bald chick stuck to the side of one shell in the moment before the twigs and the egg shells fly off the disk and drop thirty feet to the bottom of the tank. My knuckles keep hitting the outside wall of the tower because I’m going at the nest so wild, and with the sun straight up, the metal burns my skin.

You know how a smell can bring back a thought of something? No connection to anything, just a flash. The way the metal smells with the sun on it gives me a flash like that. One minute I’m thinking about birds, the next I’m remembering my old Chevy and the way it smelled the day Janie and I got together. It was over a year ago in June, maybe 95 degrees out, the sun burning down. I felt the heat scorch me through my shirt when I leaned back against the Chevy’s fender. Janie and I had been pretending not to be interested in each other for maybe two months before this. I’d been waiting for her to make a move, and she’d been waiting for me. On this Saturday, Janie came over to where I was standing against the car. She had this look in her eye, like she’d made up her mind and I’d soon be finding out about it. Her hair was in braids so it wasn’t flying around like usual even though it was windy. And she came at me real slow. I could’ve gotten away if I wanted to, but instead I pressed myself against the hot fender, until, when she didn’t stop but stood shoe to shoe with me, looking at me that way, I laid my hand behind me on the metal and pushed myself forward to meet her. I wanted her so bad, had been dreaming about her for months, but I never thought she could want me. I guess I surprised her when I kissed her like that. She pulled away, her hand on my chest, and said, “Sammy!”  And I said, “That’s me.”

She’s been with me ever since. I do things for her—fix her car, build shelves for her school books, help her with her projects when school is on. In bed, I do anything she asks. And I listen to her talk, about her childhood and her friends. Lately she’s been noticing that I don’t say much back, and she’s been getting mad. I don’t talk about my childhood because there’s nothing to tell. I lived with my grandma, and that was all. Now I’m the one who’s mad, just thinking about it. I nearly break the paint pole I whap the disk so hard.

 

When I can’t get anymore of the nest off from outside where I’m standing, I haul the rope up, hand over hand, and hook the tag end to my lanyard so I can unhook the head of the line and feed it through the hatch into the tank. Then I go through the opening without much trouble. It’s a tombstone hatch, the shape of an arch, and I have to go through it feet frontwards so I’m facing the poop-covered disk and what’s left of the nest I’ve been chopping at. I’m more careful now, getting the last bits off. No more sword-slinging.  

Being inside a tank isn’t so bad. It’s like a friggin sauna, of course, because we started so late. But there’s plenty of light to see around everywhere, with the white walls and the light coming through the hatch. Like I told Pete, he’s wrong about the caramel smell. It smells like shit. And mud and musk. 

When I finish clearing the disk, I let the pole drop into the tank, and it sinks into the muck that covers the bottom of the bowl. Then I climb on down the interior ladder, which has some rust but is still strong, slowly lowering myself into the stench. I let the stink come. It gets on my skin—my arms, my cheeks, my neck. I breathe it. On the walls are feathers stuck in the damp. They are tiny—gray with flecks of white. I feel bad, but the pigeons had to go. I’ve heard that if you’re not careful, if you breathe in what the pigeons leave behind, parasites can get inside you, settle in your heart.

For a minute, and then another minute, I hang there on the ladder, my body layered in sweat. I don’t want to think. Each breath is hard.

I couldn’t talk to Janie last night. It wasn’t me misunderstanding, it was me without any words to say. But the thought that she might leave me—that I might go home at the end of the week to an empty house, an empty bed—it’s like ground glass in my chest. 

Then I start coughing—from the smell and the damp air. Time to get on with it. 

The riser pipe comes flush with the bottom of the bowl, right in the middle. I don’t like that. A man could slide down it—the pipe is big enough. Most pipes that are flush have a grate across the top. If this one ever did, it doesn’t now. A guy over in Georgia wasn’t careful and went over the lip and right down the riser a few years back. They say he was drunk, though. I study the hole for a while to figure out what I’m going to do about it. Pete will send what I need—pressure wash hose, respirator, tie off rope, and chlorine bottle—up through the riser once I feed my rope down to him. I’ll have to step into a good four inches of mud, three feet below the bottom of the ladder I’m on, and walk through it to get to the pipe. Not bad, except for the bird crap in it. It’ll be slippery. 

At the mouth of the pipe, three square hasps stick up, probably where the mesh used to be connected. I can butt my foot against one of them if I need to. And across opposite sides of the hole are two angle irons. They don’t look rusty.

Both the tag end of the rope and my lanyards are hooked on the bottom rung of the ladder, and I’m hanging on to the rung just above that, so I go ahead and stretch one leg down to try to get a solid base on the floor. The ladder stops right at the point where the straight walls end and the curve of the bowl begins, so there’s no flat floor for me. Mud always settles at the bottom of a tank, but this time, the pigeons have gone out of their way to add their bit and cover every inch of the wall and bowl beneath the ladder. I’m hanging on right where they liked to perch, and as my boot sinks in past the sole up to where the ties would have been if the boots weren’t rubber, I figure the birds liked to perch there a lot. I test the grip, and it seems okay, so I lean further away from the ladder, ready to bring the other boot to the floor.

And then my foot skids and I’m doing the splits—I know now why they call them that, because my muscles are splitting at the inside of my thigh.  I pull myself back before my other foot slips off the ladder and now I hang on like hell. 

Well, that was a thrill.

 

The hole isn’t going anywhere, though, and neither is this shit, not till I can get the pressure washer going. And I have to stand at the edge of that hole with both hands free to get the washer up here. I would’ve felt a whole lot better if I could be hanging onto the rope at this end with at least one hand, given that the only things between me and the ground a hundred feet below are those two angle irons, each about one and a half inch thick, with enough room between them for a guy my size to slip through pretty damn easy.

Maybe I should call this off. It’s not my job to risk my life to clean out some lousy water tank.

But I want to work, that’s all. When I’m working, everything else fades away and I can feel good no matter how messed up my life is. As soon as I think this, I feel glass in my chest again. I don’t want to be sitting in a hotel for hours with nothing to do and not tired enough to sleep. So I go ahead and give it another try. This time I’m concentrating on keeping my foot solid.  If I’m steady and then shuffle from the ladder to the hole, I should be fine. 

The first foot is down, and I go real slow with the second. I stand there, perfectly still, then unsnap my bag and take out the walkie-talkie.

“Be ready to tie on the pressure washer, Pete.  I’m sending the rope down.” I say that as a promise to him and to myself, since I’m still at the ladder, six feet from the pipe.

Just in case, I keep the talkie in my hand as I do my shuffle walk, like Pete can make a difference that far away. I’m holding onto the rope with my other hand, trying to keep it tight between me and the ladder. As I move along the rope it starts getting slippery with the gunk it’s been sitting in. I kick the bulk of the rope forward ahead of me toward the hole. The man-sized hole. I’m still hooked off, and the lanyard will stretch, like a bungee cord, from the ladder to the pipe, so I really will be okay. I tell myself that a couple of times. Janie would be mad if she knew—my job is one of the things I don’t much talk about. But it’s what she keeps pestering me for. My job and my mother. She won’t leave them alone. What caused that car accident?  Was anyone with her? How exactly did she die?  “She just did!” I’d say. “Now leave it.”

But she’s leaving me. 

My feet go right then. Boots off the floor, my body slamming into the muck and sliding down the slope toward the hole, legs first.  

I drop the talkie and I’m trying to get a grip on the rope but my weight is too much. “Shit!” I yell. Pete doesn’t answer. And my left leg goes right over the lip of the pipe. At the last minute, I grab for an angle iron, praying to God and all the saints and devils that it doesn’t snap in two. I wedge my shoulder against it and bring up my right knee to stop myself against one of the hasps. My left leg is down the hole, dangling in air. The rope slides on past me and I hear it banging against the sides of the riser as it falls. When the lead end hits bottom the rope will coil and this end will be taut. Good. I can try to use that. Then, if the angle irons break, I still have my lanyards. They’ll jerk me to a stop before I fall more than ten feet, fifteen. Maybe.

My heart is beating so fast it hurts. This is what dying is. And my mom—. If my chest had ground glass before, now whatever is in it is so big I can’t breathe at all. 

“Goddam shit!” I say. “Cut it out!”

I try like hell not to think but even yelling at myself I can’t stop the images from coming.  If this is my life flashing in front of my mind, then I’m one sorry soul. All I keep seeing is the living room at my grandma’s house and the big windows that look on the street. Grandma pulling at my arm and me standing in front of the door for hours and hours. Grandma keeps tugging at me, but me I’m always going back to the door, and the door never opens, my mother never comes through it. I goddam wish she had died. Better than what she really did—telling me, “I’m going to the grocery store, I’ll be right back,” and then never coming home, that door shut and closed and locked forever.

 She’s probably in some crappy condo in Arizona. My own mother didn’t love me enough to stay.

It’s like the splits all over again, but inside. I’m at the edge of something and if I let myself go over it, there won’t be any bottom. A grown man isn’t supposed to cry, but I’m sobbing—can’t help myself there, either. It echoes, and part of me knows I’ve got to stop, but I don’t. My mother walked out on me, and my dad might as well have not been there since the divorce, given how little he came to visit—he didn’t want me either.

I mean, I wasn’t alone—Grandma tried. I drove her to drink she used to say, sitting at the kitchen table with her ashtray full of cigarette butts and a glass of brandy and water in her hand. But she did try.

The walkie-talkie crackles and Pete’s saying, “Sam, what’s going on? If you don’t say something pretty quick, I’m coming up there. It sounds like a herd of cows mooing.”

That makes me laugh. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounded like.

“Sam?”

The walkie-talkie is maybe a foot away. I can shout down the riser, but all he’ll hear is more noise because of the echo. On the other hand, I don’t like letting go of the angle iron, or the rope, with my leg still down the hole. So I wipe my face on my shoulder and work myself around right through the mud and the bird shit till I can pull my leg up. By mistake, I take a big breath, and God it stinks! I laugh again, kind of shaky.

I can reach the talkie, now, and I tell Pete to hang on, I’m all right.

“What the hell were you doing? Why didn’t you tell me what was going on? I was crapping my pants down here with the rope falling like that and then all that noise.”

I tell him there would’ve been a whole lot more noise if I’d gone down that pipe, and he says, “Christ.”

“I’m taking the rope back,” I say.

Carefully, with my boots planted against two hasps, I sit straight and pull the grimy rope all the way up again, so I can tie the paint pole on and send it down—slowly this time.  All around me in the mud are the bones of pigeons who didn’t make it. I bet there’s a pile of them at the bottom of the pipe, too. Pete will have to send things up right past them.

My arms and legs are trembling. I’m getting over that shock, that’s all. But something in my mind has broken, and I’m saying over and over “I wish she was dead.” I pull up the pressure washer so hard that over the talkie Pete says “Whoa!” The respirator I’m more careful with—telling Pete I need the mask now till I can get the smell out of there. I’ll get the chlorine later.

Hauling myself back through the mud, hand over hand on the rope, I drag the washer with me to the ladder.  Then I choose the biggest tip I have and tell Pete to turn the water on full blast.  One arm hooked over the ladder, I slash water against the walls, against the mud and crud in the bowl, against the rust and stains and years this tower has been neglected. I’m breathing through the respirator at first, the air clean but too warm and heavy. My whole body reeks with the filth I’ve crawled through. The muck clings to my sweat. I blast the bones, the mud, the bird shit, the feathers till they flood down that hole. Then, backing the pressure off some, I turn the water on myself, like Janie accused me of doing, to wash it all away. And when I think of Janie, the thought comes to me, that if she leaves me, it’ll be because of something I’ve done, not because of who I am. When she looks at me there’s no blame, no shame, no disgust. She just sees me.

 

I can stand on the floor, now, and I take the respirator off. No, I don’t really want anyone to die, least of all my mother. But I’m feeling like something has left me. Some darkness.  And I’ve done a good job in the tower, too. The white walls and the brilliant sunlight flashing through the hatch tell me this tower is cleaner than it has been since forever.

Where my chest had been tight, now it’s wide and full. I do the chlorine wash and send everything back down to Pete, dropping the rope last. Then I swing myself onto the ladder, the safety gear seeming lighter than before even though I know it isn’t, and I climb up and out of the hatch.

A gust of wind as I crawl out convinces me to stand there for a minute with one foot on the interior ladder, one on the rolling ladder outside. The wind against my wet skin is sweet and cool. I raise my face into it. All around me the town spreads out—a hundred or so houses, a corner gas pump, a church with its steeple—and miles of trees. I imagine the tower filling with cold, clear water and then the water spouting out of faucets in house after house, the people lifting their eyes in amazement toward this eighty-year-old tank, this witch’s hat, this tin man tower standing tall on top of the hill. They wonder where all the fine, pure water comes from, because they don’t know anything about those gleaming walls.

And as I step out and lock the hatch behind me, as I slowly descend one ladder to the other, clicking the lanyards on and off as I go, being methodical, my t-shirt and shorts dripping wet, I decide that if Janie wants me to talk, I’ll talk. I have a whole world of things to say.     

Kathleen De Grave

 

Kathleen De Grave is the author of the novels Company Woman  (See Sharp Press, 1995) and The Hour of Lead with Earl Lee (See Sharp Press, 2012), as well as Swindler, Spy, Rebel: The Confidence Woman in Nineteenth-Century America  (University of Missouri Press, 1995), which was selected by MS. Magazine as a book to take into the 21st century.  Her short stories have been published in such journals and anthologies as Margin and Our Working Lives.  In 2004 her novel In Real Life Women Don’t Play Jazz was a semi-finalist for the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Award. De Grave lives and writes in Pittsburg, Kansas. She formerly taught fiction at Pittsburg State University.

— Sarah Rose Cadorette

“Oh, so NO ONE has ever gotten DRUNK at a WEDDING before?” I asked, flinging my arms out to indicate that I was a very, very big presence.

            The EMT sighed, pushed the stretcher up against a wall, and came around to face me. “Do you know why we picked you up, Sarah? Hmm?” I shook my head defiantly. “You were laughing in the bushes.”

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