A short story by Kerry Nenn
(Original posting: 5/19/14; Revised 5/19/21)
Dedicated to Edward Lee Jones 11/14/43 – 5/19/10
He had laced up his shoes extra tight that morning. When you work hundreds of stories up, sure footing is essential. Double-knotted bows ensure no tripping hazards. Right now he wished he had not done so. If they were just a little looser, he might be able to slip one boot off and let it fall to the sidewalk below, signaling someone of his plight.
How did this even happen? Who had such luck? What are the odds that a bird would fly by, just as dust particles entered his nostrils, triggering a sneeze, which frightened the bird, which startled him, the combination of which caused him to flail too wildly for his current stance, resulting in his loss of footing, causing him to grasp at the ropes, tilting the scaffold, adding momentum to his trip, tumbling him over the side…but not to his death, because his jacket snagged as he tumbled, ripping and unwrapping off him as he fell, the added twisting gifting him with a dislocated right shoulder. Sliding, slipping, to the point where his left hand was the only body part still inside the jacket, a hand that frantically grabbed hold of the sleeve as it slipped out. The other sleeve still stuck fast to whatever piece of metal had gripped it.
That jagged piece was now his lifeline. His left hand stretched above his head, grasping the jacket sleeve. His torso stretched out below his arm, filled with thunderclaps of a heart in overdrive. His body hung one jacket’s wing-span below the platform. His legs dangled in the air, feet far from anything on which to step. His grip now held him onto life itself.
If only…if only this section of the building were currently occupied, he’d have a chance of being seen through the window. If only he weren’t so high up that no one seemed to hear his cries. If only people ever looked up! Not that any of those things mattered much, considering he was hearing deadly ripping sounds emitting from the tired shoulder of his jacket – a noise that told him there wouldn’t be time for anyone to get to him even if he were spotted.
Each tiny movement resulted in the dreaded noise of threads loosening and giving way. Somehow he had time to think about who might have made the jacket. Was it hand-sewn or assembled by machine? How are jackets usually crafted? Was it American made? Did his wife, who had given him the windbreaker with his daily cool heights in mind, choose one with strong enough materials to save his life?
Sandra. His mind filled with her face. He didn’t want her to get the call that her clumsy husband had died in such a ridiculous way. Who could live with such an awful ending to their 14 years? They hadn’t been perfect, but the good times had far out-weighed the bad. She deserved better than this.
He had wondered over the years about their decision not to have children. Now he felt reassured it was best. At least he would not leave anyone fatherless if his grip didn’t hold.
They had considered having children, but after several years of the DINK lifestyle, they realized they wanted to maintain that freedom. Kids were not for them. Besides, Sandra’s job as a school photographer gave her all the time she wanted with children. Plus, they had their friends’ kids that they treated like nieces and nephews. Heck, they loved Amy and Joe’s three little guys as if they were their own.
And where was Joe, anyway? He guessed it was wrong to hope that a deadly illness or even death itself was the reason his partner had not come to work that morning. Any other reason seemed a bit insignificant at the moment, considering his current predicament. Still, wishing ill will on his life-long friend was probably wrong. Joe had never abandoned him before, even after that fallout over Jennifer Hutchinson in 12th grade. No, Joe had only ever let him down once, but you can’t blame a best man for being late for the ceremony if it’s because he’s getting stitched up at the ER. Who knew putting on a tuxedo could be so dangerous? Apparently only if you’re Joe, and in a hurry, and trying to straighten a cummerbund while putting on a cufflink and walking at the same time. Those variables plus a slippery staircase added up to six stitches above Joe’s left eye. The bandage and swelling made for interesting bridal party photos. The pirate jokes abounded, but Joe had managed to stick it out for the groom’s sake. If only he were up top now, monitoring his safety, or on another scaffold, or even sharing his platform, the situation would be more hopeful. As it was, he was up here with only birds as company, and they weren’t helping.
In fact, what happened to that blasted bird, anyway? Why did it have to take an interest in him? Why fly so close? Why startle him? He silently cursed it for causing all this then flying merrily away, safe at any height, oblivious to the impact its flight pattern had on his small life. Oh, for wings of his own at this moment!
Broken wing was more like it. He could not get his right arm to cooperate. He wanted to reach up and grab that lifeline sleeve and pull himself up to the platform. But his arm wasn’t listening. It hung there, lifeless—yet not painless. Even if it would not receive communication from his brain, it was definitely spitting it out. All too loud and clear. Excruciating jolts shot through his body with every attempt at movement. Each shift of his body was a costly endeavor. Careful, he thought, a man can pass out from huge amounts of pain, and unconscious men do not have very strong grips.
A good grip. Now he was thinking about handshakes. Really? This is what men facing their possible extinction die pondering? Nonetheless, his thoughts were filled with a memory of his dad, standing in the living room, lecturing him on the proper handshake. “You only get one chance to make a first impression, son, and your handshake is that first impression. A strong grip, firm, confident – that’s a good handshake.” As a carpenter, his father had always had great upper body strength, and was probably one of the best hand-shakers around. Dad would be proud today. His left hand’s grip had never been firmer.
At least, it was firm. A combination of pain, sweat, and his ever-present enemy, gravity, were working together to loosen that grip with every passing millisecond. How long had he been hanging here? Hours? Days? Some part deep within him knew it had only been seconds, but it was hard to believe that rational side.
His drive to work this morning seemed like a lifetime ago. He had stopped in Kruta’s Bakery for a quick breakfast. Was that going to be his last meal? A chocolate-covered long john and some ice cold milk, snagged on his way to work. A rare indulgence, but one of his favorites. It wouldn’t make the top ten healthiest choices of his lifetime, but at least he’d had one last treat.
No, he could not think that way. Would not think that way. He didn’t want that to be his last meal. Besides, they had been out of chocolate milk, so he had gulped down the white 2% happily enough, but it wasn’t what he had wanted. He stiffened his resolve to get out of this mess and get that glass of chocolate milk. A man deserves a glass of chocolate milk before he dies, for goodness sake!
This shook loose the memory of his dad’s plea for a popsicle. This wasn’t a helpful route for his mind to trace right now, but it went right down that road anyway.
The request was made on what would turn out to be his dad’s last Saturday.
Popsicles had always been one of his dad’s favorites. Popsicles…and Pepsi. Not together, of course, but both had topped his most-wanted list. At that moment, he had been craving a popsicle. Such a simple request. Of course, in his condition at the time, the hospital staff forbid his having either Pepsi or popsicles. It had been heartbreaking to be unable to fulfill such a simple wish. A man doesn’t deserve to be denied that final little pleasure.
And a man doesn’t deserve to be dangling by a jacket sleeve, wondering if the last two sounds he will hear are ripping threads and rushing wind! He couldn’t believe how ridiculously helpless he felt.
But what was he supposed to do? He had only lasted two years in Cub Scouts. Maybe he should have stayed the course and would now be more prepared. Not that there was a Window Washer Rescue Badge he could have earned.
So, what other advice had his dad given him? Anything that would actually help in this circumstance? They had worked together to earn a survival badge one weekend of that two-year scouting stint. The skills learned were designed for surviving in the wild, but surely there was something in those lessons to utilize for survival here. He remembered starting to cry that weekend when he realized he had forgotten something. The flashlight maybe? Or was it the matches? He had sat down on a rock, completely deflated. His dad would have none of that. He began barking orders and ticking off the survival mantra, which was required memorization for the badge earner. “On your feet, son! Do not give up. Do not panic. Assess the situation. Take stock of your assets.”
On your feet. Feet. Yes, feet. Those were his other assets here. His useless arm would not cooperate, so he would have to use those two klutzy appendages that always betrayed him on the dance floor. He hoped their coordination would be better today than when he had tried ballroom dance lessons. What a mess that had been. Sandra’s toes had suffered greatly for the venture.
He tried to picture first what he wanted to accomplish. Just raise those feet up to the platform. Get at least one toe hooked over, so he could hoist himself up. That sounded simple enough.
Eenie meenie miney mo, catch a tiger by its toe. The old recess chant echoed through his mind. He wondered what kids used these days to decide who was “it.” There was probably an app for that.
Where was his phone, anyway? Ah, yes. He had taken it out of his pocket and placed it in the tool caddy on the scaffold. He didn’t want it falling out of his pants while he was moving around. What a brilliant idea. He supposed it had worked. The phone did not fall out of his pocket. Hoo-ray. He didn’t know if his injured arm would cooperate enough to dig it out of a pocket and then hit those three little numbers anyway.
Forget the phone, then. Focus on the feet. Take it slow. Inch by inch. Bend those knees. Up we go. Now stretch up…out…over a bit more. Reach. Almost there.
Who was he kidding? He wasn’t even close to reaching the scaffold. Maybe gymnastics would have been a more rewarding route than soccer for his high school career. His capacity for flexibility was simply not up to this task. There would be no more mocking Phil Peterson, whose regular backyard yoga was an endless source of jabs from every man in the neighborhood. He bet Phil could get out of this. Sandra had asked to see Cirque du Soleil for their anniversary a few years back. He had been reluctant to go, but the show had turned out to be pretty impressive. He was sure those guys could get out of this. He figured they did have a bit of an advantage over him, though, with two arms to use.
Maybe he could get that broken wing to cooperate. If he could just reach up and…
Hot. Searing hot pain. Spots. Black spots. His arm had not approved of that move. He must not pass out. Everything becoming fuzzy, blurry, furry…stop! Get a grip! What were you supposed to do when you were about to faint? Put your head between your knees. No help there. His first bloody nose had been fairly traumatic. What had Mrs. Fletsky done when he had almost passed out on the playground? Close your eyes, she said. Slow, deep breaths. One. Two. Three. Yes, he was doing better. Four. Five. The moment passed. His hand held. That was too close.
Back to focusing on the feet situation. Clearly, slow wasn’t going to work. He needed more momentum. Pull back, then one swift movement to hoist his toes up to the edge. Like a pendulum. He supposed the Pit was below. Stop it. Poe was not where his mind needed to be right now. Be more positive. Think more…Seuss. Swing it back, then up you go. Catch the platform, with your toe. That was better. Miss it, even by a bit, wonder just how hard you’ll hit? This wasn’t helping. He did not like this, not at all, he hoped he’d swing up, and not fall. Stop it!
He couldn’t help wondering what he would he hit if he fell. A car? He thought about all the vehicles zipping by on the street below.
The car game. He hadn’t thought of that in years.
He was suddenly taken back to lazy summer afternoons sitting on the front porch with his dad.
It was more of a stoop really, forming the entrance to his childhood home. No elegant wrap-around porch with a swing like he always dreamed of having. Just five concrete steps leading up to the front entrance. Room enough at the top for a white pillar on each side of the hunter-green door. No pretty potted plants. Simple. No frills, yet welcoming in its simplicity. Like his dad. The only decoration was a thermometer attached to one pillar. In winter, a snow shovel could always be found leaning against the back of the other pillar.
But, it was not winter he was remembering now. It was warm sun-filled days that invited front-porch sitting. They would play a game. They would try to guess what color car would drive down their St. Clair Avenue and pass by next. Sometimes it would be a prediction of the type of vehicle. Truck, motorcycle, car. He had always been so thrilled when he got it right. His dad had been thrilled for him. His dad had always delighted in seeing his son happy.
The game he played now was a bit darker. If he fell now, what color hood would he dent? Would it be a taxi? Would he ruin someone’s shiny new Beamer? Would he total some blue-collar beater? This game wasn’t very fun. Maybe he should play a different one.
How about the get-home-to-your-wife-and-stop-giving-in-to-these-morbid-thoughts game? Yes, that’s a good proposal.
A good proposal. That was something better, more positive, to focus on. Sandra had been thrilled with his marriage proposal. It had been one of his most brilliant creative moments.
Sandra loved the outdoors. She also loved games of all kinds. She particularly enjoyed scavenger hunts. Combining these enjoyments, he invited her to go geocaching with him. She was excited about the idea, and they set aside a Saturday afternoon to try this adventure together.
Of course, he also set aside the morning, and he went alone to the cache first thing that day. He found it easily enough, pocketed the matchbox cars he discovered, and stashed the ring box. That certainly fulfilled the trade-up rule of the game, he had thought with a grin. He had a slight concern that someone else would come along and nab it before they returned, or that an animal would find quite the prize to bring home, but he went with the odds that neither of those things would happen.
The day was perfect. The weather was sunny and warm, but not too hot. They had the trail to themselves. Sandra was super psyched the whole time, enjoying herself immensely, and he was delighting in her delight. They reached the spot exactly when he had wanted. The trail ended at a gorgeous pond tucked away from civilization. A small cul de sac of trees formed the trailhead at the water’s border. Large boulders between the trees provided perfect perches above the water to sit and watch the sunset that was starting when they arrived. It was a beautiful scene, with his soon-to-be fiancé surrounded by the nature that she so loved, the perfectly-timed sunset reflecting in her shining brown eyes. The GPS said they had reached their destination, and Sandra began searching the site. He wandered around a bit, pretending to look for the cache, trying to play it cool, while his heart ran a marathon.
With a triumphant shout, Sandra discovered the fake rock nestled in with the boulders and opened it. She pulled out the heart-shaped box with the solitaire nestled inside. Her jaw dropped. He positioned himself behind her. She turned to show him the unexpected prize.
One knee on the dirt-paved path, he told her all he had been rehearsing in his mind for days. His search was over. He had found his treasure. If she would have him, he would love and protect that treasure for the rest of his days.
Did those days end now?
He wasn’t ready for that. He wondered if anyone ever was. Was his dad prepared to die that Wednesday afternoon?
Get to it, then. Do something to make it to tomorrow.
Swing back, rock forward. Try not to think about the likelihood that the jacket won’t hold. Try not to move your dumb arm. Try not to think of words that rhyme with splat. Back, forward, back, forward. So far, there were no ominous ripping noises. Momentum building. Almost there. One more big push, and, swing up!
This is not exactly what he had visualized. His feet were now in contact with the platform, and held fast. That was the good news. The bad news was ridiculous. It was those tightly tied shoelaces that were holding him there, snagged on the corner of the scaffold. He was in a tangled mess. He couldn’t shift his feet to a better position or pull them back from the platform. He also couldn’t get a good angle to position firmly enough to pull himself up with his feet. This could not be happening.
He realized quickly what he would have to do. He was running out of options. His arm was just…so…tired. At least he was a south paw. If the arms had been reversed, he might not have lasted this long. Even with his dominant hand, he was fading fast. Besides, in this new predicament, there was only one thing left to do.
He would have to let go of the jacket. He needed his hand to pull himself up onto the platform. His feet were now attached to the rig, so he could pull himself upward somewhat, but, with the use of only one arm, he would need that hand free to complete the hoist to safety. He could see no other way. Of course, that meant the shoelaces had to hold for that instant in which they were his only support. If his feet slipped right when he released the sleeve…
He couldn’t believe his life now depended on what amounted to one small piece of string. Maybe it was crafted by the same manufacturer as the jacket. He hoped the laces gave as strong a performance.
Don’t delay. “Get ‘er done,” as his dad used to say. Quick bend up. Lightning-fast transfer of hand. And he would be back to Sandra before he knew it.
He wondered about ever getting up here again. After all his hard work, would he be too traumatized to continue building ClearView, Inc?
The business hadn’t really taken off until two years ago. One year too late for his dad to witness his success. One year too late to hear his dad say he was proud of him. Giving Sandra her first tour of the new office space had been exhilarating. Though it was nothing like the luxurious surroundings he peered into each day up here on the job, it was such a big step up from two cramped desks in his basement that he felt on top of the world. Still, it would have been better if his dad had gotten that tour, too. His dad’s unwavering support and encouragement had been a huge part of his not giving up on the business. He wished he could share it now; tell his dad all about the enterprise he was enjoying. See, Dad? It happened. It finally happened. It’s just too late to show you.
He couldn’t let go. Just like that? Let go?
But, he would have to let go of the jacket. Loosen his grip. It felt insane. That was his lifeline. Let go? He felt his grip slip, but it wasn’t his fingers. His grip on life. His grip on reality. His grip on sanity. Why was this happening to him? He didn’t think he could do it. When his dad had gotten sick, he was forced to make some tough decisions regarding “life-sustaining measures.” He had thought that was the hardest thing he’d ever have to do. Now he wasn’t so sure. This was at least a pretty close second. Loosen my grip, dad? Is that really best?
What else was he to do? He didn’t see any choppers whirling up to save him. No sounds of sirens below. No firemen scrambling with a nice soft pillow to bounce down on.
Yes, soft pillows could make a huge difference. The pillows at Lewis Memorial had been surprisingly comfortable. He hadn’t wanted to leave his dad alone. After so many nights spent curled up on a chair or small sofa next to a hospital bed, one became very grateful for soft pillows. Not that the sleep was ever great, even when the kindhearted nurse brought you an extra blanket. Why was it always so cold in there, anyway? Were they trying to freeze away any germs that might have found their way in? Was it too warm for the hospital staff to keep it above arctic temperatures while working? There must have been some beneficial reason. Whatever it was, it hadn’t helped enough. His dad had still died.
Wasn’t he supposed to be done grieving by now? Why was he still thinking about all this? He supposed his own eminent demise made thinking of death and loss a natural thing, but it still seemed odd that of all things it was his dad he couldn’t get off his mind.
He closed his eyes. The scene he had played hundreds of times aired again on his mental screen. Sending his dad off to surgery. The last time he would look into his eyes. His last chance to tell his dad how much he loved him—a chance that he thankfully took. One last hug. He hadn’t wanted to let go. He knew the odds were not good that his dad would come back from the OR. Still, he had held out hope. He had held on.
Hours later, he had held onto a hand that no longer possessed the firm grip of a carpenter’s handshake. It lay motionless in his own, as he listened to the beeping that signaled the end of his father’s life. He tried to say goodbye as the machine’s digital readout slowly descended. Zero simply came too soon. He wasn’t ready to let go. He still held on. He still didn’t want to let go. He missed him so much. Why did he have to let go?
But, it was time. His hand couldn’t take any more strain. Neither could his heart. He had to let go of this pain.
Most days he was fine. Then, there were moments that hit him out of nowhere. It might be a phrase uttered by a friend, or a scene in a movie. However it happened, the result was the same. His emotions were hijacked, and his thoughts were transported back to the rutted road his mind had travelled often in the past three years. This route was paved with questions.
Should he have told the doctors to keep trying? Should he have sought better care at a different hospital? Should he have done something, anything, differently in those last four weeks? Was there anything he could have done to make the outcome different? Doubt, guilt, and regret formed the three-pronged vice that showed no mercy in its grip on his heart.
He could take no more. The grip would have to go. No more What Ifs. No more weight on his shoulders. No more focus on those four weeks rather than the other 33 years of good memories. No more remorse. Let it go.
But, could he?
Focus. Three deep breaths. Be strong. Be quick. His nerves reached their maximum potential, granting him the necessary resolve to let go of that sleeve.
It was really goodbye.
There would be no new fatherly advice. No more front porch games. But he had the memories. No more projects together that took five times longer than planned. But he had learned so much. No more swapping stories at the dining room table until they were laughing so hard they were spilling tears and their coffee, until they could barely breathe and couldn’t even remember what was so funny in the first place. But those had been good times. The memories…the knowledge…the good. These he would hold onto. Let go of the rest.
Instead of satin sleeve, he felt the roughened fingers of a hand hardened by years of hammering, lifting, cutting, hauling. A good hand. Strong but gentle too. But a hand with no grip left.
I’m sorry, Dad. I’m sorry my grip was all wrong for so long. Forgive me. I have to finally let go. I still love you. I always will. But I have to do this. I must let go. Goodbye, Dad.
He felt…not terror, not despair…but, surprisingly, release. He had been able to let go. Loss was still present, and some sorrow, but also…peace. A new peace he had not known before. The tension released from his arm was also free from his heart. It was such a new feeling. So different. So still. So quiet.
Then…one small pop. Such a tiny noise with such great significance. Perhaps if the thread count had been a bit higher for that brand of laces, things would have turned out differently. He tried to reach for the jacket, but it was too late. The satin sleeve slid smoothly away as his feet tumbled down, dragging the rest of his weary body with them.
Weightless. Time slowed. Odd floating sensation. Drifting down, feeling nothing. So this is how I am to end? His only wish now was to have more time to rest in this new-found peace. To share it with Sandra. To truly go on living. To have just a little more time…
I’m sorry Sandra. I’m sorry there will be no more. No more wedding anniversaries. No more road trips. No more summer walks to get ice cream and racing you for the only good swing at the park. But, you’re strong. And you will have the memories. He hoped she could hang on to those and let go of him.
Strangely, he thought he could hear his wife, calling to him as the crushing cement drew quickly nearer, waiting to make a widow of the owner of that sweet voice. He closed his eyes to fill his mind with the image of her face. Time slowed even more.
His eyes flew open as his head hit the carpet. His right arm – a tangled mess in the satin sheets. His left hand – a vice grip on the comforter. His feet – making a crushed mess of his memory-foam pillow.
Sandra’s voice – calling to him from the hallway. “Honey, you just missed a call from Joe. He won’t be coming to work today.”
Entering the room, she froze at the sight of his peculiar position. “Are you ok, sweetie?”
His soccer coach had once unleashed a six-minute “be a man” diatribe on a teammate who had dared to tear up when they lost the state championship. He was glad Coach Mills was not here now. As sweet relief drenched his soul, he could not stop the flood overflowing to his cheeks.
This brought Sandra quickly to his side. Her soft hand touched his forehead. Her ginger locks framed her face as she knelt on the floor beside him. Concern etched her features. She had never looked more beautiful.
“Maybe you should call in today, too.” Her suggestion echoed his sentiments exactly. He simply nodded agreement.
Reaching for his hand, Sandra asked if she could get him anything.
He gripped her hand in his.
“Yes. A glass of chocolate milk.”