The World Drops Beneath You
© 2016 | Fiction by Sonny Bohanan
The red lights of the television tower pulsed on and off in the distance, a constellation of dying stars lined up single file, like good soldiers, to wink out in unison. Jake stared at the glowing embers and drifted along the edge of sleep as his father drove through the early-morning dark. His mind snapped to attention when Pop turned up the radio for news of the war: Nixon had announced he was bringing home 25,000 troops over the next year. A momentary tingle of hope raised goose bumps on Jake’s arms and the back of his neck, but he realized a heartbeat later that the decision wouldn’t affect the draft notice folded in his back pocket.
Riding to and from work each day, Jake had silently rehearsed how to tell Pop that his lottery number had come up. But when the time came to say the words, his throat grew thick, and he choked on the bitterness he felt at having invited the war into his life by dropping out of school the year before. Words were useless now. They couldn’t stop the chaos that seeped nightly from the television like poison gas — riots and political assassinations erupting across the nation, the latest wave of troop replacements disappearing into a jungle no one had heard of until it arrived in their living rooms.
As Pop drove, the darkness slipped away imperceptibly, leaving traces in the corners and shadows of things, like spies behind enemy lines. He turned the pickup in at the job site, and the headlights picked out three men drinking from Thermos cups at the concrete base of the tower. Pop and Jake usually arrived fifteen minutes early to drink coffee, but it was already five-thirty.
“Couldn’t get Shorty out of bed?” Stony said as they stepped out of the truck.
“You can see the boy needs his beauty rest,” Pop said.
Wally, the boss, tapped his watch once with his shortened right index finger; the end had been sliced off at the knuckle twenty years earlier. “All right, let’s get up there.” When Jake was a kid, Wally had made him laugh by inserting the finger into his nostril so it appeared to be planted three inches deep.
They cinched on their tool belts, and Pop turned to Jake. “I want you to go up top this morning and attach these brackets for the co-ax cable.” He opened a box to check that the brackets inside were the right size, and handed the box to Jake.
“Did you get the elevator running again?” Pop asked Wally.
“Yeah, but you’ve got to control it from the ground,” Wally said. “The wiring’s crossed somewhere, and I couldn’t get the damn thing straightened out. We need to get an electrician out here.”
It was July 20 and already hot at sunrise. The men were working on a Sunday because a series of spring tornadoes had damaged the crane and knocked out the electric power for more than a week, putting them behind schedule. It cost money when they finished a job late, and they had less than a month to complete the tower, which rose nearly 2,000 feet above the High Plains to transmit the signal for the ABC affiliate in Amarillo.
Jake started to sweat — he had never been all the way to the top of the tower. The men had finished installing the elevator two days earlier. Until then, getting to the top meant climbing the ladder hand over hand for 180 stories. It took Pop and Wally, the most experienced of the crew, thirty to forty minutes to climb it wearing their tools. The elevator’s steel mesh cage ascended the tower in two or three minutes, but only two men could fit inside it.
“You want to ride on top?” Pop asked.
“I don’t think so.” Jake had seen Stony and Gilvin ride on the roof of the elevator several times. They were the youngest of the crew except for Jake and were given the shit jobs.
“It’s safe,” Pop said.
Jake glanced inside the elevator at the loose wires sticking out of the control box but said nothing.
“Hell, he’s scared,” Stony said. “Me and Gilvin will do it.” They climbed onto the roof of the elevator, and Jake carried the box into the cage underneath them. Wally stepped in beside Jake.
Pop stayed on the ground to run the controls. He lifted a walkie-talkie to his mouth, and the one on Wally’s belt squawked, “You got me?”
“Yep, we got you.”
“Going up.” Pop punched a button and the elevator lurched, rising slowly at first, then faster through the center of the alternating red and white sections. Jake’s stomach tightened as the world dropped beneath him. Seen from below, the guy-wires tethered to massive concrete footings were taut, inch-thick cables that cut a straight line from ground to tower. But from above, Jake could see that the cables in fact drooped in tremendous arcs, the tensile force that held the tower in place unequal to gravity’s ghastly power. The sight gave Jake a sick feeling. The laws of physics, so straightforward on the ground, were warped and unreliable at this height. He reached behind him and secretly laced his fingertips through the steel mesh.
The rush of the elevator cooled the sweat on his forehead. A thick morning haze permitted him to look directly at the sun, deliciously pink like a scoop of neon ice cream sizzling and melting along the bottom where it sat on the horizon. Wally spoke into the walkie-talkie and the elevator stopped. Wally stepped out of the cage and Jake’s stomach swam as he followed. He held tightly to the steel beside him and stepped cautiously off the small elevator platform onto an I-beam two feet wide.
Wally lowered himself into a sitting position on the beam, his legs dangling on either side. Showing Jake what to do, he marked the steel with chalk, drilled four holes, and quickly attached one of the brackets with metal screws. He finished in a couple of minutes and handed the drill to Jake.
“We need one every ten feet,” he said. “Just work your way down. Go ahead and do one, and I’ll watch you.”
Jake attached the drill to his belt and stepped down the ladder to a spot he judged to be about ten feet. He was sweating profusely, soaking his T-shirt as he worked the tape measure awkwardly.
“Take you all day to do one,” Stony said, amused, from atop the elevator.
Jake avoided looking at the ground while he measured ten feet and marked the holes. He clamped his legs to the beam and held on with his left hand while drilling with his right, barely gaining the leverage he needed to pierce the steel. He took a socket wrench from his tool belt but fumbled it, made a swipe for it and missed, nearly losing his balance and sending a flood of adrenaline coursing through his nervous system. Wally cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Headache!” The wrench clanged twice against the steel as it fell, then, seconds later, a third time. The tiny dot on the ground that was Pop dove for cover under his pickup truck.
Jake looked up quickly to see if Wally would berate him.
“Here, you can use mine,” Wally said, handing a wrench down to Jake. “Looks like you got the hang of this. We’re going down to 1,500 — we’ll come get you at lunch.” He stepped back into the cage, put the radio to his mouth, and the elevator started down.
Jake felt better with no one watching, but he was deadly slow. When he looked at his watch, an hour had passed and he had attached five brackets. His body had never produced such volumes of sweat, which soaked through his clothes, including his jeans, which sagged and chafed his skin under the added weight. He rolled his neck and shoulders to unkink the muscles and wondered how he would be able to keep at this for eight hours.
He had carried the draft notice in his pocket for weeks because he didn’t want Pop or anyone else finding it at home. Mom already knew. She had studied the envelope the day it arrived in the mailbox, and she handed it to Jake, unopened, while Pop was getting cleaned up after work. Jake asked her not to tell him.
“I want to be the one to do it,” he said.
He had rarely seen Mom lose her composure, but she did then, after worrying about the letter all day.
“I told you not to quit school,” she cried in a small voice that cut him to the bone. Sobbing, she gritted her teeth and hissed, “I told you, I told you, I told you.”
As he worked slowly down the tower, Jake came to an understanding that the worst had already happened — he would be in Vietnam by the end of the year — and the thought made him feel reckless. He imagined simply leaning forward and allowing himself to tip over the edge of the tower, spinning downward, battered against the steel like his socket wrench.
How would he react in the face of death? He had avoided thinking about it, but at this moment, a week before he was due to report for his physical in Oklahoma City, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. When Mom had handed him the letter, his first thought had been to run, or simply to refuse to go. He’d heard of conscientious objectors who refused on religious grounds. Either way would result in prison time. Jake decided at that moment not to tell Pop about the draft letter because he would be unable to conceal the depth of his fear, and his weakness.
About eleven o’clock, the elevator climbed to the spot where Jake was working. He took pleasure in the perversity of walking across the beam to the cage without holding on.
“Damn, boy,” Stony said. “Looks like you been swimming in them clothes.”
Wally said, “You want to ride down with me?” He was standing on top of the elevator, and Stony and Gilvin were inside it.
“Sure.” Jake climbed to the top of the cage. He held onto the cable that lifted and lowered the elevator and it jolted into motion.
Jake relaxed while the elevator gained speed. To the north he could see the Canadian River breaks, canyons with dark red and brown striated walls cut into the vast mesaland of the Llano Estacado. At that moment, the elevator jolted to a hard stop and Jake grabbed reflexively onto the cable with both hands, and his knees buckled. In the stunned silence, Jake opened his eyes and tried to understand what had happened. Wind whistled through the steelwork, the loneliest sound Jake had ever heard.
After a couple of seconds, Wally lifted the radio to his mouth. “Pop, what the h — ”
He didn’t have time to finish. The world blurred as the elevator cage dropped, free falling. It stopped abruptly again, leaving Jake and Wally crumpled to their knees, clinging to the cable.
When he opened his eyes this time, Jake was surprised that they were still hundreds of feet above the ground, unharmed. “You OK?” Wally asked and stood up just as the elevator started down again, and Jake cringed, fearing another free-fall. He tried to stand as the elevator accelerated to regular speed, but his legs were shaking too badly. When they reached the bottom, Pop watched him get unsteadily to his feet. Stony and Gilvin stepped out of the elevator and followed Pop’s gaze as Jake lowered himself, trembling, down the ladder.
“You all right, son?” Pop asked, stifling a smile. When the other men laughed, Jake became furious, certain that they had rigged the elevator to scare him. He grabbed his lunch sack out of the truck and sat by himself under a tree, trying to ignore their chuckling.
Jake had refused to go to school when they moved to Texas after Christmas, about seven months ago. For five years, he had worked full time during the summers and part time during school in each place they’d lived. But he was unable to find a job in Amarillo, and Pop suggested he help out on the tower crew. It was familiar work. When he was too young to get a paying job and his sisters were still little, Jake had gone to work with his dad several times each summer, usually when he proved too much of a handful for his mother, who, in addition to caring for his twin sisters, also cut and styled hair inside their tiny travel trailer to earn extra money.
They’d lived in so many places Jake couldn’t remember all of them, and he was two years behind in school — eighteen years old and yet to start his junior year. He had started lying about his age to classmates. When his family had moved to Amarillo, Jake had wanted nothing more than to get a job and get the hell away from Mom and Pop, away from the trailer they’d hauled behind the pickup to a new city every six months for a decade. He was sick of being the new kid at school, of sleeping on the living room floor with his sisters, and of the shame of waking to find his underwear encrusted with the sex he knew only in his dreams. He considered morosely that he had gotten his wish and would soon be gone.
The previous Sunday, Pop had let Jake take the pickup for the day. He drove it north of the Canadian River into the vast nothingness of the plains. During the spring, he had been mesmerized by the thunderheads that approached from the west and slid down the front slope of the Rocky Mountains, anvils on the horizon that built to mushroom cloud explosions he could see from 200 miles away. The storms arrived hours later, fast and violent, tearing off roofs and driving cattle into the pasture corners, crushed against barbed wire. His trip north of the Canadian was the farthest Jake had ventured since arriving in Texas, and he drove the back roads until he lost his way. Ahead he saw a windmill by the side of the road; it had been erected on top of a dirt mound about eight feet tall. He stopped the truck and climbed the little hill to read the historical marker. It explained that the area had been called no-man’s land until the 1870s because the first white explorers had been routinely wiped out by thirst, Comanches, blizzards, and their own panic at becoming lost in a featureless moonscape untouched by human reckoning. Jake stood on the man-made hill and turned in a slow circle, scanning the horizon for 360 degrees. Not a single tree or landmark. Not a building. The creases in the land, the canyons and river breaks that cut through the Caprock, were hidden until you stumbled upon them. A sea of dry grass flowed wave after wave in the wind, speaking in a ceaseless dry whisper that spooked him, telling him he was alone in a world that had always been here and always would be, long after he was gone.
When the sun went down that Sunday evening after work, the men and their wives sat in lawn chairs on the little square of concrete outside Mom and Pop’s trailer. Several pickup trucks were squeezed into the tight space between the patio and road. After everyone had eaten hamburgers, Pop carried the television outside and tuned it so they could watch the moonwalk. The little kids were nearby, the boys driving toy cars and trucks through the dirt, and the girls playing inside. Jake sat with the adults, drinking beer and ignoring their conversation so he wouldn’t miss Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.
Jake glanced from the television to the crescent moon suspended in the night sky and squinted, focusing intensely and hoping to see a tiny dot where the moon lander was. On TV, Armstrong was waiting for the cabin pressure to stabilize so he could open the hatch of the module. He talked to the controllers in Houston, and they hurried him, urging him on. Static roared through the television, punctuated by electronic beeps. At last the module opened, and Armstrong began his descent, stepping backward down the ladder, observing aloud about the fineness of the moon dust and comparing it to talcum powder. A wrinkle in the audio wavelength sent a ghostly moan across the universe, causing the hairs on Jake’s body to stand on end and a chill to run through him, until finally, in an instant of faith, Armstrong stepped off the bottom rung, and his left foot touched the moon.
He must have planned what he was going to say, Jake thought when Armstrong’s voice emerged from 238,000 miles of the pitch-black void that loomed behind him on the TV screen. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Moments later he left the first footprints in this new world, unchanged for four billion years until being colonized in America’s relentless race against the Soviet Union. When Armstrong planted a flag on the moon’s surface, Jake understood that he and the spaceman, anonymous behind the mirrored glass of his helmet, were pawns in the same game. But unlike in Vietnam, there was no one to wrest the moon from, no race of aliens to eradicate. The flag staked America’s claim for any future contest, an implied warning that belied the message on the plaque they left behind:
Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.
Armstrong bounced in the lesser gravity, and stumbled once but didn’t fall. Jake was mesmerized by the utter blackness of the sky behind him, stark against the daytime side of the moon. Later, Armstrong pointed the camera toward Earth, and Jake saw it from the astronauts’ vantage, large and colored with blue, green, white, and brown swirls, suspended in infinite night. Jake felt for the first time the darkness that enveloped everything, and he wondered how the astronauts didn’t crack up. That was the fascination, wasn’t it? To see whether they could find their way back home and, if they did, whether they retained a shred of sanity?
He imagined standing where Armstrong was on the dead satellite, gazing homeward as his air expired, or being driven mad when a jammed thruster set him spinning, weightless, tumbling away forever in slow-motion. The futility struck Jake — it’s lonely whether you go to the moon or don’t go to the moon, so what’s the point?
He looked away from the TV as Stony’s wife, Winette, explained drunkenly that the landing and the moonwalk were a hoax.
“They’re doing it in a movie studio. See, you can tell from the shadows. Look how fake they are.” She pointed to the television, where Armstrong was in fact making long shadows, doing bunny hops in one-sixth gravity.
“It’s not fake,” Jake said. “Why would they bother to fake a moon landing?”
“To stick our thumb in Russia’s eye, why do you think, dummy?” Winette said. Stony became interested when Jake piped up.
“What’s the matter, Pee Wee? You have a rough day?” Stony said in a baby voice.
“He nearly died, you know,” Stony continued to the others on the patio. That got Mom’s attention.
“He didn’t nearly die,” Pop said in a voice weary at the insinuation. “There was a short in the wiring, and the elevator dropped a couple of inches, that’s all. The brake kicked in, just like it’s supposed to.”
Anger brought Jake out of his shell. “It wasn’t two inches that it fell.” His voice was shaking. “And it wasn’t a fucking short. You did that on purpose.” He’d never cussed Pop before.
“The hell I did,” Pop said.
“You made the elevator drop while Jake was in it?” Mom said, frowning at her husband. “I can’t believe you.”
“I just told you I didn’t.” His menacing tone was meant to end the discussion.
“He wasn’t in the elevator, he was on top of it,” Stony said, drunk and oblivious to the effect of his words. “You should have seen him shaking when we got to the ground.”
Stony stood up as he warmed to his story, made his legs quiver and strutted like a chicken, eliciting giggles and a quiet ripple of laughter from the others. “Couldn’t hardly even walk! I don’t think you’re going to make no ironworker, boy.”
“Like I want to be a fucking ironworker,” Jake shot back, shouting now.
“That’s good, ’cause we don’t take pussies like you,” Stony said. He laughed and made his legs shake again.
Jake stood and crossed the patio. Without thinking, he lowered his right shoulder and drove it into the older man’s gut and wrapped his arms behind Stony’s legs, taking him to the ground. Stony landed flat on his back, forcing the air out of his lungs, and Jake was on top of him. He grabbed Jake’s face and gouged it, trying to blind him. They rolled in the dirt and wound up underneath Pop’s pickup truck. Jake was on top and seized Stony around the throat, shaking him furiously and emitting a loud moan that grew into something like a roar. Years of frustration poured out, and he shook Stony like a rag doll, bouncing his head between the ground and the transmission case of Pop’s pickup truck until he realized Stony was no longer resisting.
Jake scrambled from beneath the truck and stood next to it, ready to go again. When Stony crawled out his nose was pouring blood, and he lifted his arm up to protect his head and to ward off Jake. “Hey, we’re cool, we’re cool.”
The men laughed unmercifully when they noticed his nose was broken.
Jake walked away quickly. He turned toward the trailer park exit and walked until he’d stopped sweating and his breathing had returned to normal. His shirt was ripped, and his face and elbow were bleeding. The knee was torn out of his jeans, which were stained with dirt and blood. He brushed off his clothes and looked into the sky to find the moon, but it was hidden now, swallowed by a thick stand of oak trees that wound around and through the trailer park. Nothing but black sky. He started moving again, quickly. He had no idea where he was going. Outside the park gate he left the road and disappeared into the trees.
Sonny Bohanan of Fort Worth, Texas, writes and edits fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 20+ years and earned a master of arts degree in creative writing-fiction at the University of North Texas in Denton. Click the links below to read more of his work or to follow him on Twitter: