This is an excerpt of my short story “The World Drops Beneath You,” published in the anthology Stories from Texas College Students (2016, Lamar University Press, editor Gretchen Johnson). Get the anthology to read the story in its entirety.
The World Drops Beneath You
An excerpt of short 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. 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. “All right, let’s get up there.” The finger had been sliced off at the knuckle twenty years earlier. When Jake was a kid, Wally had made him laugh by inserting it 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 it 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, and that meant money. 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, half an hour 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 elevator roof several times. They were the youngest of the crew except for Jake, and they 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, and Jake carried the box into the elevator 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?”
“We got you.”
“Let’s go.” 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 inserted his fingertips through the steel mesh, gripping it to steady himself.
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 stepped out of the case when the elevator stopped. He lowered himself into a sitting position on the beam, his legs dangling on either side.
Jake’s stomach swam as he followed. He set the box on the small elevator platform and stuffed as many brackets as he could fit into his tool belt. He tightly gripped the steel next to him with his right hand before stepping cautiously off the platform onto the I-beam, which was about two feet wide. Showing Jake what to do, Wally 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.
“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, almost losing his balance. 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.