Daniel Wade is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. In 2017, his play 'The Collector' opened the 20th anniversary season of the New Theatre, Dublin. His radio drama 'Crossing the Red Line' was broadcast on RTE Radio 1 Extra, and later won a silver award at the 2020 New York Festivals Radio Awards for Best Digital Drama. Daniel’s debut collection ‘Rapids’ will be published by Finishing Line Press in August of 2021, whilst his novel 'A Land Without Wolves' will be published by Temple Dark Books in October of the same year.
Hounds New York City, 2009
Of Chambers as the Cedars – Impregnable of eye – And for an everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky – - Emily Dickinson, ‘I dwell in Possibility’ Caleb wakes in his work-gear, still stinking of booze. He knows he won’t be the worst when he gets on the morning R. And he’ll be damned if he ever shows up on site shit-faced; it’s more than most of his co-workers can say. He decides against shaving his stubble-tinged jaw and, armed with keys, wallet, I.D. card, hip flask filled with Jack and travel mug full of coffe and a kitbag, trudges out into the dawn’s black slush. In an hour, he’ll make it to the intersection of Versey St and West, for the seven-to-three shift. If he’s lucky. Steam swirls up from a manhole into the sky’s murky blue-black that’s lurking, like a bruise. Caleb winces at the light, a blinding glow which seeps over rooftops to flood down onto the sidewalks like lava. He slurps his coffee, winces at the booze-laced flavour. The calm will come on soon. Sardined on the R, between the straphangers and bums, Caleb rides the fifty delicious blocks across town to Cortlandt. As per his routine, he’ll walk the rest of the way, blood pumping. For the entire journey he stands, sandwiched between an unwashed lowlife, and a sullen-looking brunette blessed with a double D cleavage to which his eyes are glued. She’s wearing M, the same perfume Emma wore. Even hungover, Caleb knows that bracing, regal scent anywhere. He kills time by taking in her black coat, her stockings and converse shoes, the scarlet pout and how her hair, still wet from the shower, tumbles down her back, brushing her ribs. Shutting his eyes, he basks in her nearness, until he feels a hard-on coming on in zero leg-room, so there’s no shifting aside the sizable bulge uncoiling in his crotch. Their crowded car whooshes and screeches as the train shunts under tunnels and whizzes past stations without stopping. The doors slide open and thud back together again, after hives of people get on and off. With two DUIs under his belt, Caleb’s not eager to clock a third. Since his last one, however, he doesn’t miss midtown gridlock. But he doesn’t belong underground either, squeezed into early morning mass, fumigated by the reek of humanity. Caleb’s place is in the sky. The brunette alights at City Hall, the last of her obliterated by a rush of incoming suits that colonize the car. In a shuffling exodus, most of the bums migrate at Grand Central and Canal Street, prowling for leftover McDonalds’ wrappers, or fruits and vegetables tossed off the stands after market day. At Cortlandt, Caleb emerges into the biting air and heads west. Some Wall Street wolf hurries past, yacking into his cell, with an air that his need for speed depends as much on distancing himself as getting to the office on time. Not that Caleb cares. Already, over the city’s waking din, he hears the bobcat’s bleep, a rig’s metallic purr as it hoists 50-ton steel lumps to the decking’s topmost level. A mag drill rasps, boring holes into plywood. These are the only noises capable of drowning out the now constant thud that thunders in his ears. * Weird to think how he once helped Emma hang a painting, her framed copy of Laura Alma-Tadema’s “A Knock at the Door,” up in their foyer. For her benefit, he wondered aloud if the girl in the painting charged by the hour. Going by the grin on her face, she took cash up-front. Hitting him, Emma demanded if all Irish guys shared his innate capacity for vulgarity. To which he’d leaned forward, and, planting a kiss on her neck, whispered, “You know it, babe.” Knowing jack-shit about art didn’t stop him from accompanying her to Giacometti exhibits, MOMA, or the Frick. Their place heaved with books on the history of painting and framed fine art reproductions, all of them hers. Posters and prints by Klimt and Gauguin decorated the hall, Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait hung over him in their bedroom (“gonna be weird goin’ down on ya while some dead Mexican broad with one eyebrow gets a front-row seat, babe,”); Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream” had pride of place in the living room while their kitchen was dominated by Modiglianis. Titian’s “Equestrian Portrait of Charles V,” she hung in the dry room. The dude, old as he was, seemed to be such a world-class badass; it was the sole piece Caleb could honestly claim to appreciate. Lately, his art appreciation was confined to the myriad tattoos on his own rippling torso. The inky markings overrunning his flesh include a Fightin’ Irish insignia on his shoulder blade, a Celtic Cross with a red heart emblazoned on his right bicep, and his Local 361 badge rode his spine. The fiery skull, on his wrist, snaked all the way up to his elbow. And the words ‘Never Forget 9/11’ were inked, under a silhouette of the Twin Towers, across his sternum. Emma would brush her lips over them, usually after a bout of make-up sex. Seeing the Towers got her down way more than they did him; her uncle was working on the 96th floor when the plane hit. * Turning the corner at Fulton, Caleb sees a sight so knotted and gnarled as to be impassable. The steel jungle sinks into a crater of crumbling concrete which marks where the Towers once stood. Port Authority tried rechristening this hole, ‘The Freedom Tower’, but that fell flat, so now it goes by ‘One World Trade Centre’. To Caleb and the guys, it remains Ground Zero. Construction’s been underway for years on the scaffold-trussed ribcage, conspicuous for how it hovers, amid the surrounding sleek towers. Each week ends, and it’s another storey taller, closer to its claim on the horizon, and fruition. Eventually it’ll resemble a stainless-steel Popsicle stick, honed to puncture the sky’s cloudless belly. But for now, Jersey barriers run the length of the street, fences linked like iron centurions, corrugated prefabs stacked above one another, keeping the citizens cordoned off. Mud-coloured girders stand tall as pillars, and pipe racks hover motionless in the wind. Backhoes shuffle at the crater’s edge. A blood-red Manitowoc crane shifts on its base. Mixers spill cement, iron joints are screwed in, and the roar of drills reverberates on reinforced concrete. Caleb pauses, taking it all in before he heads down the block, toward a rusty freight container converted into the contractor’s shed. Anywhere else, the long line of men gathered outside it would make you to cross the street real quick. Connectors, scaffolders, lathers, welders, busters, bolters, knockers, drywall repairmen; in total, a couple hundred on-site carry spud wrenches, sporting stubble that can’t recall a razor’s dry scrape. The raising gang, in hard hats inscribed with the red, white and blue, ready for the 6:30 shift, spitting nicotine on the curb. Just another Monday. Ignoring Moron, Caleb nods to Joey and Zach, high-fives Marty. The only guy able to shoot the shit at this hour. Which is remarkable, given the layers of scar tissue on his neck and arms, courtesy of a roadside bomb out in the great sandbox known as the Iraqi desert, where he’d served for two years. How, after all that, he manages to smile and joke is perhaps why he’s still here. “Hey, kiddo,” he grins, chipper as the dawn. “Hey, Marty.” “Yo, what’s up with you? Rough night?” “Yeah.” “Too much pussy, or too little?” “What if I said both?” Marty smirks. “I’d say you’re in the wrong line of work.” “Dollars over life, bro. Get in line.” Leaning against the shed, in all his ball-busting glory, Ray “Mad Dog” Hunter listens to his fellow connector, Bernie, explain something in excruciating detail. Despite the sun being barely up, he wears shades, from behind which his ice-blue eyes jackknife everything in sight. Somewhere north of forty-five, he’s worked construction in the city since ’89, but traces of his native Bostonese still break through. Like the skin he was born in, he wears the uniform of his profession: steel-soled boots, and safety cables slung down a Day-Glo waistcoat, over dust-caked denim, and a tool belt laden with: half a ton’s worth of tape measures, a pry bar, a bater, and a hip pouch filled with drift pins. His hard hat is plastered with stickers shouting “We Support Our Troops,” “Danger: Stupid Kills,” Red Sox and Bruins insignias. When construction began, Mad Dog put in an uninterrupted fifty days of work, often sleeping in his car, or in the shanty between shifts. He’s the one guy you don’t talk smack to, not to his face. But he’s good people. And right now, in a state of jovial piss-off, mainly from having to drive all the way from his home upstate to work, he’s smoking a Pall Mall and slurping coffee, while the others sign in. “Hey, Ray,” Caleb says, scribbling his name. “Howya doin’, kid?” Mad Dog exhales, teeth clenched. “I’m good, Man. Same shit, different day.” “You sure look like the last shit I took.” Mad Dog sniffs the air, asks: “Been drinkin’?” “Fuck, no!” bristles Caleb, regretting the breathmints he’d forgotten to pop on the way in. “Sure ’bout dat?” “Sure as we’re both standin’ here. Look, I didn’t have time to shower, alright?” “Yeah. Well, what I don’t need is you slackin’ off just ’cos yer head hurts. You got that? Better bust your soft ass up there today kid, insteada, ya know, jus’ standin’ around with your dick hangin’ out.” Even from behind his shades, The Dog’s glare is deadly. “Ray, I’m lookin’ ya in the eye. I. Have. Not. Been. Drinkin’.” Caleb hopes he’s squeezed enough self-righteous indignation to throw Mad Dog off the scent. “Sure hope so. Christ,” growls Mad Dog, turning away. Either the nightmare’s getting worse or Caleb remembers it clearer. Each time, it’s the same hellish flurry of cop cars and fire trucks, sirens wailing and barrelling toward the smoke that belches skyward. As the second plane hits, a scorching fireball mushrooms in the air. The South Tower collapses in on itself as an upsurge of dust and soot steamrolls toward Caleb, engulfing the streets and skyscrapers in its path. His own feet seem bolted to the sidewalk as people plummet, through the heavy debris hurtling past him. An entire city screams, runs, dives for cover. A noxious fog festers, its hot stink swelling, only to swirl and condense further into smaller and smaller crevice. The smoke hasn’t settled when a chemical stench of singed metal pervades the air. His eyes water, not with tears of sorrow, but because the tower still roars with what sounds like the voice of God. Mad Dog’s eyes are vodka-clear, as he barks, “Okay motherfuckers. Get your asses in that elevator! We’re goin’ up!” Led by Mad Dog and Bernie, the guys chuck coffee cups, snuff out last smokes and step into the hoist. The doors clatter shut, and, as if shaken by unseen hands, the hoist clatters, churns to life and begins its ascension by pulley. Packed like pit bulls in a cage, with no room to move, the guys yawn, chew gum,spit through the bars. Now is the crucial time when a baggie of Percocet or OcyContins will wordlessly trade hands for a cool $80: the necessity of staving off the lingering pain of past injuries and the withdrawal symptoms that are sure to follow. They know the drill, and their eyes betray no awe or exhilaration. Harnesses jingle with each rock and sway, while the sinuous shadow of each rising floor sweeps every face. Quiet conversations include the odd joke or wisdom shared preferably on a popular topic: the pursuit of pussy. Further and further below nestles Manhattan, a web of pavements wrapped around a morass of steel-grey steeples. Skyscrapers spike with a kind of arrogant pride in their unsightliness. The Hudson glimmers, spilling for the ocean. Tankers and tugs dot the harbor, their wakes streaming behind like snail slime. New Jersey seems avid for all the attention Staten Island aims to avoid, Lady Liberty looks no bigger than a novelty bottle opener and the Brooklyn Bridge is but a smidge. Each man can pick out which building he, his father or for that matter his grandfather, put up. They are from iron-working families; second, third, fourth and even fifth generation to a man. Titanium and unalloyed metal seasons their blood. Caleb’s no different. He’s left fingerprints are all over the Tristate area. The guys form a solid unit, unified by windburn, tattoos, opioid cravings, tattoos and a tacit wariness of outsiders. A sweating, cussing cluster of bloodhounds boozehounds, pussyhounds, and gloryhounds. Some with criminal records, unshakeable booze or coke or perkie habits, or little-to-no education. Some of them are crazy enough to run across I-beams without a safety harness, though Mad Dog is guaranteed to bust their balls if they do. Bernie’s the biggest, but he’s too kind to talk smack; retirement could be any day now. Zach never seems to remove his visor, and Joey can’t stop talking about Iraq to Marty, who’ll tell him to shut the fuck up by midday. Mad Dog’s eyes are shut, behind his shades, but if under his breath, he’s praying, it’s hard to tell. Caleb knows them all by name. And temperament. Like brothers. It’s a weird validation, being one of them. Though lately, he feels more alone among them than ever. He figures that, for the most part, they like him, even if he likes his booze a bit too much. And that he’s quiet. As one of the younger ones, he’s had to prove himself. He’ll never be a connector like Ray or Bernie, but he no longer merits a ball-busting. He knows his way around a girder and rebar. But going in every day like clockwork, he’s numbed by the symmetry of routine, and doesn’t even feel the old rush of rising above the city anymore. When he first started walking the steel, every time he looked down, it was a real possibility that he’d piss his pants. Now, it occurs to him on the daily that he’s among the first to see that view since the planes hit. And while he prefers the city from far above than at street level, he has no time to be transfixed. He’s become immune to vertigo. Immune to it all. Caleb’s no alcoholic. He likes a couple beers as much as the next guy, especially when he’s off work. Hell, in his family, it’s a cardinal sin to not hold your liquor. If his old friend and colleague Jack Daniels had anything to say about it, excess is normal. He only spazzed out on some douchebag looking at him funny in a bar, when and only when the prick deserved it. Nights he came home shit-faced was never an issue. He’d his ups and downs, but he held a job, right? And didn’t wake up next to some girl whose name he didn’t know, right? The missed calls from Emma were no surprise. Sometimes twenty or thirty in a single night. The half-worried, half-pissed-off voicemails. Only when he got stopped at the door of the Irish bar on 11th, did he think he might have a problem. Because he didn’t remember starting a fight with the bouncer the week before. He’d thrown a punch; now he was barred. As the elevator rumbles, adrenaline kicks in slowly, deepening breaths and furrowing brows. This is as quiet as they’ll be all day. To break that silence, you can always count Sean Moran. Moron, as the guys call him, is a long-time Long Island resident and everyone’s favourite conspiracy freak. His theories vary from plausible (“I’m tellin’ ya, 9/11 was an inside job, man,”) to ridiculous (“Bush is really a lizard man, dude”). Only he doesn’t know it’s way too early for his bullshit. “Hey asshole,” he smirks. “Where’s ya hard hat?” It’s clipped to Caleb’s belt, and bouncing off his thigh. As per usual, he’ll put it on when they reach the decking, not before. Staring straight ahead, he snarls back, “Your mother wanted a souvenir,” to chuckles all around. Only heaven is higher as they pass 10-ton girders suspended mid-air and cross beams slung low in ruled, russet mesh. With altitude, the air turns icier, its velocity more forceful. The men’s breaths condense in silvery plumes of carbon dioxide that coil like cigarette smoke. Every morning for the last six months, they’ve beaten the sun to the punch, and today’s no different. Already the tower’s strange sway hits them underfoot. The doors rattle open and the guys shuffle out across the deck, right to where they left off last week. Only Mad Dog and Bernie remain in the hoist. They’ll continue further up to the derrick floor, the highest level, where, unharnessed, they’ll walk top beams, steering yet more girders into place as the Manitowocs haul them up from the street. Of all the ironworkers, Mad Dog’s by far the best. A model of seasoned poise, he’ll walk across the girder, with a thirty-foot rod of rebar balanced on his shoulder and nary a fuck given. He’s deft as a tightrope walker, traversing the web of laid-out steel, staring down that open sky all the while. Joining straight out of high school, Caleb was on the job nearly three years when 9/11 happened, and when he first met Emma. He felt something approaching pride, when he was straight-up with her. He’d be away on a job-site for weeks. Would only see her on weekends. No telling how the work would go from one end of the year to the next. But the money was good. Emma was a planner. She had her life fully ordered and structured to the letter: graduate high school, ace NYU with a first in Law, then marry some Wall Streeter with a SoHo loft, a weekend place in Montauk and a McMansion out in the suburbs. If all else failed, grad school was a fall-back. And that’s exactly how her life would have panned out, had Caleb not shown up one drunken night in the Boom Boom Room, where she was celebrating her birthday with some college friends. How he’d gone from the Coalyard Bar to that fancy-ass cocktail place was anyone’s guess, but with Zach and Marty as wingmen, he’d barrelled in, eager for shots. He saw her watching him, pink-glossed lips poised to smile. She didn’t flounce off back to her friends in the VIP section. No, she stayed. It was her eyes that got him. Caleb always noticed the eyes first. Later, he insisted he wasn’t looking to get laid; Emma pretended to believe him. She was out of his league, but she didn’t care. Compared to the preppy assholes she usually dated, he looked and spoke like everything she’d never even considered. He was an Irish loudmouth from the Baruch projects. He could be hit by a falling hammer the same day she was destined to earn six figures. Her dad said she’d ring that bell before she turned thirty. Her dad was a hedge fund manager, so he knew what he was talking about. But she wanted Caleb. And Emma Sullivan always got what she wanted. Guys who don’t dare make a move usually die alone. Caleb was never much good at getting pussy, but he envied those who did. Rejection had made him cautious around girls. So he forced himself… steady… to walk… cool… to the bar, where Emma waited to be served. He leaned in so she could hear him over the music’s amplified throb. Even then, he still had to shout, praying she wouldn’t spot his accent. “Heya doin’? I seen you here before?” Shaking her head, she replied, “Come up with that all by yourself?” He held up his hands in mock-surrender. “You got me. It’s my first time here and I’m surrounded by all these hotshots. Don’t think I fit in.” Without facing him, she assured, “Your secret’s safe with me.” “Good to know. So whatcha havin’?” As if on cue, her cocktails arrived, and as she paid by card, he noticed the outline of a tattoo on her bare collarbone. Caleb watched the way her hair wound past her shoulder, and wondered how long she took to get ready before heading out for the night. Had she studied her reflection in a mirror, eyelashes fluttering, biting her lower lip? Most girls seemed to go for broke and end up looking like high-end prostitutes. The way this girl carried herself? Mesmeric. “Ask me later? We’re considering shots. Who knows, we might still be here when that happens.” “I just might hold you to that.” “Don’t doubt you will. Anyway, my friends are waiting for me.” Emma’s eyes were already finding the path of least resistance back to her table, when Caleb ventured: “Would it be a stupid question to ask if we can join you?” “Sorry. Girls’ night. You know how it is.” “Not really, but I’ll pretend to. So hey, rain-check?” To his relief, this was met with a smile of agreement, before Emma joined her friends at one of the rear booths. Watching her walk away, Caleb ordered three beers. Something told him she wanted him to approach her again, but he settled for cooling it. It didn’t help to get aggressive when girls said no. But then, she hadn’t exactly said no, had she? Forcing himself not to look in her direction, he located the guys. He’d no idea if she was watching him as he passed. Out in the beer garden, he bumped into Emma again. It was an hour later and they were both tipsy. When he repeated his offer, she agreed. Walking him to the bar, giggling at some stupid joke he made, she took his hand into the warmth of hers. Friends forgotten, Caleb revealed he’d done maintenance work at the law firm where she interned. She teased him that the Wi-Fi still needed repairs. That third beer had loosened him up and he laughed at her jabs. It was good to flirt with a girl who seemed into it. For once. Downing their shots, he told her stories about the guys. He wouldn’t have mentioned his friends sober, but coming on to her made him work harder for a smile. “Greatest guys I know,” he shouted over Corona’s ‘Rhythm of the Night’ pumping through the speakers. “We break each other’s balls daily, but when the chips are down, we got each other’s backs. No problem.” “I like how you call them your brothers,” she’d said. “Well, we keep each other in line,” he replied. “No one gets a free pass. Ever.” “Not even you?” “’Specially not me.” “You’re sweet. You’re not such a tough guy, really.” “Yeh, but don’t tell anyone. I gotta rep to keep.” “I’ll try not to.” “Best part is, I don’t even need to work out. All my cardio comes from walkin’ the steel.” “That I can believe.” Feigning outrage, he said: “Hey! Trust me, it is. Look!” He flexed his arm, and grin in place, said: “Feel that. I ain’t kiddin’. I’m ripped like Rambo, baby.” He was too tipsy to cringe internally at that one. Without breaking her gaze, Emma put her drink down. Leaning toward him, she pressed her thumbs into his bicep, then closed her palm around it. Her perfume rolled over him, and he heard her exhale as her grip tightened. “Fuck…” “You should be more careful around boys you don’t know, baby,” he murmured. Without warning, she kissed him. The deck is an open-air vestibule of concrete, shear studs, nail guns and rotary hammer drills; bundles of rebar lie at their feet like firewood. The corner columns, where the structure’s core walls and windows will be, are wrapped in blue netting. Gauze-like, it’s the only thing that keeps Caleb from falling to the sidewalk far below. The beams are awash in graffiti. ‘Never Forget’ must be scribbled or spray-painted several dozen times. There are short poems dedicated to loved ones, union names and numbers like Local 46, and Local 433. “Top of the World!!”, “God bless this Mess”, and WTC 1 - IN MEMORY OF OUR FALLEN BROTHERS 9-11-01, followed by the FDNY logo in red, white and blue. Poignant dates of birth and death. When no one was looking, Caleb scribbled Emma’s name on one of the crossbeams. Soon, it’ll be buried forever in concrete, just another high rogue glyph. The operatics of drills and acetylene-spewing blowtorches start up. Far above is the corrugated rebar cage, dense as all hell. Caleb can’t see the point of thinking of anything but the work now. It’s hard and habit-forming. Staves off the misery. Like booze. He straps on his hard hat, spins it ’round, and ambles over to the giant steel web at the far edge. Here, Moron and several rodbusters fasten rebar together with tie wire. Marty and Zach fire their blowtorches up. Despite, or perhaps even because of his burns, Marty handles his flame without hesitation. Their lanyards are clipped at random all over the mesh. Caleb lassoes his own safety harness around a joist and gets to work. There isn’t a man in the crew who works without a lanyard. Even with gauze stretched taut over the bolts, the golden rule is to wear them. Any more than thirty feet above street level, and everyone’s got to be harnessed up. Everyone except Mad Dog. Caleb often feels like a rabid Rottweiler leashed to a pole. Like a tentacle, it tugs from behind, and as he moves, it extends. Ready to snap in the event of a loose turn; a tumble off the side meant dangling several thousand feet in the air. Moron’s clearly been thinking of a comeback since the hoist. “Heyo, my mother says she misses you,” he shouts over. The last thing he needs today is Moron’s dumb jokes (“9/11 was an inside job, 7/11’s a part-time job. Allah snack bar!”). But snarking comes easy to Caleb. “And fuck you too,” he grins. “Nervous?” “If I wasn’t so goddamn hungover, then yeah, sure, I’d be shakin’ in my boots.” “Keepin’ that boozehound charm goin’, I see.” “Fuck you, buddy.” They shacked up in a small sublet, living mostly on ramen and chow mein from the local delivery place. Emma interned at Giordiano Law; Caleb earned on skyscrapers. Would she have stuck around if he hadn’t? Nervous, in the apartment on her own, she made her plans. Tried to make things work. It wasn’t hard. At first. On Second Avenue was a monolith of luxury condos and yuppie bars designed to bait anyone with pockets deeper than theirs, where Caleb had poured concrete. He joked the job would pay for their wedding, and before she knew it, she’d have that loft on Perry Street. Right around the time Caleb got roped into working on the Kips Bay Towers, Emma was promoted to trainee. She grew to despise that accent. And how every second word out of his mouth was ‘fuck’, ‘shit’ or ‘goddamn’. Yet nothing turned her on more than the reek of sweat and machinery on him as walked in from work, exhausted from the day’s exertions. The journey home finished, he’d open the door to their place. She’d be there, on the couch with paperwork covering the coffee table. Leaping up, she’d wrap her arms around him, her lips planted firmly on his. This was the guarantee that kept him going, the highlight after countless dawn-to-dusk shifts. Emma would still be smarting from yoga class. Her high heels traded in for bare feet, she’d be surrounded by legal documents. With something like the 1992 version of Wuthering Heights paused on her laptop screen, featuring that Fiennes guy in mid-scowl. Emma was all over anything involving corsets, crumbling mansions, foggy moors and British accents. But before he knew it, her legs were clinched around his ass as she tore off his t-shirt and unzipped his fly. Her lips sucked and licked their way down his jaw, throat and torso. She wouldn’t wait for him to shower, or kill a few hours playing Grand Theft Auto. Not that Caleb was complaining. He hates seeing photos of her now. Doesn’t even carry one in his wallet. None of them ever did her any justice. A year after the Kips Bay job, he was furloughed. The planes hit lower Manhattan, and the nightmares started soon after that. People often ask about the height. Truth is, this high up, the air smelling of iron, he feels at a safe remove. His feet are steady. They have to be. Up here the city’s noise and stink can’t reach him. Only an occasional siren or thrum of a helicopter inbound from New Jersey reaches his ears. Someday, he’ll see the curvature of the earth and yell out: “’Scuse me while I kiss the sky!” With assloads of overtime, he’ll remember this job for decades to come. He’s not worried about lay-off, and that’s a good thing. Winter sets in, but work continues and the paychecks keep coming. Every night since Emma left him, he’s crushing a six-pack of Miller. And then two more for good measure. As always, the guys work in sync. Not a single movement can be out of place. Even with the harnesses, risk and trust have to go hand in hand. The worry that someone’ll lose their footing and fall is constant. Moron walks back over, grinning with his version of compassion. He shoots a sidelong glance at Marty, whose visor is raised. “Look, Moron, I’m not in the mood for your bullshit today, fuck outta here!” But Moron’s tenacious. “Hey, ya ever think if Marty scars himself with that blowtorch, he’ll suddenly think he’s back shootin’ sand monkeys in the desert and fall off?” “Shut the fuck up. ’Least he fought to protect your deadbeat ass.” Moron’s eyes dart around the deck. Out of nowhere, he announces, “Can’t wait for all this to be finished. I’ll step back and take a good, long look at it. Fuck yeah, that’ll be a proud day for me.” “You gonna jerk off like there’s no tomorrow, too?” Caleb’s gloved grip tightens around the bundle of rods left off by the tower cranes, and he strains to lift them onto his shoulder. Moron hauls them from behind, and they both turn into the rebar’s absurd weight. It prods down deep into their shoulders as they walk. Caleb grits his teeth. “Jesus, bro. Who pissed in your cereal?” To Moron’s credit, he’s also grimacing under the weight. “No-one. I just think you’re talkin’ out your ass. Like always.” “Yeah? And I just think you need a goddamn blow-job. How long’s it been since your last one?” “Is that an offer?’ I’m kinda outta your league, Moron.” Caleb grins to himself. Getting a rise out can be fun. “Hey, did I piss you off?” “No. Why?” “So why all the goddamn hostility?” “Ain’t hostility. I just pity you, Moron. Whenever you walk the steel, you talk ’bout nothin’ but this conspiracy garbage. Grown man needs a super villain to destroy. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic.” “So what, I should be more like you? Head in the sand? I just wanna know what happened, is all.” “Yeah, yeah. Is that why every time we rebar you bring this bullshit up?” “Hey, when I saw ’em fall, my first reaction was, that ain’t how towers fall. I should know. My dad worked on ’em.” “So did mine.” “’Zactly, so why the hell ain’t you more concerned? We put up the tower so’s they can demolish it again? Purely for their own shits and giggles?” “Say shits and giggles one more time, I’ll kick ya right in the fuckin’ nuts.” But Moron’s on a roll. “No coincidence this structure has an Illuminati design. I mean, we got a black guy for President, but smokin’ weed’s still a crime? Shit’s fucked up, dude. I see it. Why can’t you?” They lower the rebar down, tie it together. “Lemme tell ya somethin’. You don’t need a conspiracy to know how fucked up the world is. Think we all gotta see the light, huh? I saw it long ago, Moron. Good ol’ U-S-of-A, fuckin’ over the citizens.” Moron looks down. “How do you figure?” “It’s pretty obvious. Ever see two dogs fuck on the intersection between Lake and Fifth? They fuck you out in the open, not in private. Why? ’Cause they can. They make the rules, and they fuck you accordingly. No conspiracy, pal. Just the system doin’ its job. Rich cocksuckers sittin’ on top, laughin’ their asses off at us, the douchebags gettin’ paycheques off ’em every week. Don’t believe me? Ya see it on TV, the news. No revelation, Moron. Just the way things as they are.” “I still think you need to get your head out your ass, man.” “That’s hilarious, comin’ from you. Though sometimes, I wish you were right, I wish there was a conspiracy. One just waiting to be exposed. Life’d make much more sense then.” Moron fastens the bars. “You done? Got anything else to say? ‘We’re rebuildin’ America,’ maybe?” “America my ass. Don’t tell me you believe that crock too? New York ain’t America, bro. Goddamn city oughta sign its own Declaration of Independence from the resta the universe.” They work away but Moron’s no good with silence. “Hey, ya think it’s funny how you never see any actual drunks in beer commercials? It’s like what, are Bud Lite ashameda their customers or somethin’?” As his drinking got worse, so did their fights. If he wanted her in his life, he had to stop. Months blurred into years, and living for the job was his new normal. There was always another skyscraper to work on, another rod to bust. On the virgin voyage, by cab, to meet his prospective in-laws, Emma warned him to watch his language. He remembered sitting in the pews of St. Joseph’s, where inevitably he’d make up for his weekly sins, stumbling over his cuss words. Then he would apologize profusely to Fr. Costello between every spontaneous fuck, shit and goddamn he had. Pretending he had some manners would be tough, but hey, Caleb welcomed a challenge. Emma was stunning in her black cocktail dress, but that was par for the course. At her insistence, he wore khakis, a blazer and the only presentable shirt he owned. He kept a straight face as the cab pulled up to the restaurant on Ninth Avenue. He’d only ever seen places like this in movies. Apparently her father secured a prime reservation, and hell, if he had to, he’d stick to ginger-ale all night. The last thing anyone needed, Emma least of all, was for him to fuck up. He told himself it was no big deal, but her father, mother and brother Joseph (“Never call him Joe”) were all way better dressed than Caleb. “Everyone, this is Caleb. Caleb, this is everyone.” “Lovely to finally meet you, Caleb.” “Hi, heya doin’.” Handshakes, smiling nods, and pleasantries were all exchanged as the maitre’d took their coats and led them through the lobby to the main dining space. The second they entered he wished he’d had a smoke before going in. Seeing the sheer size of the room, Caleb was sure someone he knew worked on this building. Once seated, cocktails were ordered before he could even skim the menu that somehow appeared in his hands. In a panic, he ordered a light beer. “Caleb’s recently been commissioned to help build the New World Trade Centre,” said Emma, out of left field. “So he’ll be extremely busy over the next few years.” “Good for you, scout,” her father beamed. “That must be a tremendous honor.” “Uh, oh, yeah, you bet,” Caleb agreed. “And ya know, they keep sayin’ the economy’s ’bout to tank, so, I gotta take the work wherever I can get it. I mean, here’s to a steady paycheck, am I right?” That didn’t quite gerner the laugh he was gunning for. Emma blushed slightly and Joseph raised an eyebrow, his smile glacial. Definitely a fag, Caleb surmised. “So do you ever, like, get afraid being that far up, or . . . ?' Emma’s mother struggled to supply curious conversation. “Uh, sure, lotta the time. You get used to it after a while …” Caleb cleared his throat. “It’s, uh, just a part of the job, ya know?” Puzzled nods and smiles met this. “I remember exactly where I was when the planes hit,” her father said. “In fact, like it was yesterday. I was in a meeting. No doubt you’re familiar with the MetLife Building on Fifth, Caleb?” “Uh, sure, who isn’t? I did some renovation work on the lobby just a couple months ago.” “Yes. Well, as I said, I was in the middle of finalizing some contracts with our shareholders there, when the copy girl ran in, demanding we turn on a radio. Now, ordinarily, interrupting a meeting of that nature is grounds for termination, but she was in hysterics, you see. She said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre. So the nearest radio was brought in and we turned it up. Sure enough, the second tower had been hit, there and then. A most tragic day for the nation.” His wife added: “We lost my brother in the attacks.” Her eyes were averted to the wine she swirled in her glass. “Emma’s Uncle George. Perhaps she told you about him?” “Mom, please,” said Emma. “He was on the 96th floor, if I recall.” “Mom?” Caleb knew that edge in Emma’s voice all too well. By some fluke, he’d happened to see the towers fall, too. It was a Tuesday, and he was on his way to a job. This is before his first DUI, and he was driving over the Brooklyn Bridge when the planes hit. But somehow it didn’t seem right to bring up right now. “I remember that day, too,” Joseph chimed in. “I started keeping score of all the mass shootings afterward. Still do. I came to believe safety is an illusion. Wouldn’t you agree that safety is an illusion, Caleb?” Caleb waited for his beer to settle before answering. “Uh, yeah. I mean, I work on skyscrapers every day. I gotta wear a lanyard so’s I don’t fall. I mean, all the guys I work with do. My job, hell, my entire life’s about safety bein’ a fuckin’ illusion. ’Scuse my language.” He avoided Emma’s evil eye as she quietly fumed beside him. What the hell did she expect? These people were completely foreign to him. Irish, but not like him. They were rich. And he hadn’t even known it was possible to be Irish and rich at the same time. That is, unless you were a Kennedy. Emma often said he was a difficult guy to know. He saw himself as simple – what you saw was what you got. She countered that, all-too-often, even during the worst of their fights, there wasn’t even anything to see. He admitted she had a point, but for now, if he could get through this meal without causing more than minimal upset, he’d consider the night a homerun. Though, when he was in the can, he hissed to himself: “Don’t give her a reason to doubt you.” Lunch means Mad Dog and the connectors jump down the ladders to the deck, where they sit with the rodbusters. Clouds darken overhead as Howard Stern rants about something or other on a portable radio. They’re too high up to see the sidewalk, so no ogling and catcalls at the broads sauntering by. The Wall Street interns, or sweet waitresses from bars and coffee shops around them, are all too far down to admire. The guys settle in. Zach gulps up coffee from his thermos, Moron gobbles a snack from Trader Joe’s. Marty gawks at his phone, while discreetly pocketing a small baggie of perkies off Joey, who grunts about girls, Iraq, and the weekend, even though it’s Monday. Caleb sits off on his own, next to a crate of unused cinder blocks, which is as solitary as it gets up here. He surrepitiously savours the Jack in his coffee. Aloof as ever, Mad Dog’s keeps his shades on despite the lack of sun, but he hears everything. Amid the guys’ growls and snarls, he keeps silent. Only Bernie can engage him in conversation with any success. Caleb keeps an ear out. “Heard you was puttin’ in for early retirement. Once this job’s done. That true?” Mad Dog doesn’t look at him. “No, man, I ain’t.” “It’s what they’re sayin’ down at headquarters.” The connector eyed him. “Who is?” “Trabuco. Same old, same old. But he sounded for real this time.” Mad Dog seems to ponder this, staring out over the ledge. “News to me.” “Sure. I just thought you’d like to know, is all.” “Trabuco’s wanted me off this crew for years. Ain’t gonna happen. Not now, not ever. No way. I don’t even know why you take that little prick seriously. I really don’t.” “How do you figure?” “What I just said. And the way you let him speak to you? Goddamn shameful.” Bernie squirms. “Hey, it’s just the way he talks. He talks that way to all of us. Marty, back me up here.” “Not to me he don’t. Ain’t got the balls. But you, you let him speak to you like you’re his goddamn stepson, and he’s five years younger than you! Whatsa matter, your dad ever tell ya to not to let a grown man speak to ya that way? ’Less he’s your fuckin’ contractor? Which Trabuco ain’t, I might add?” “I know, it’s just… He’s high up. Gotta watch my tongue if I can help it. I need the work.” “Fine, be a pussy if you really wanna. Me, I saw through Trabuco’s bullshit years ago. Back when he was suckin’ union cock to get ahead.” As Mad Dog chucks his coffee, Bernie’s jaw tightens. “It’s just that, uh, lately, I’ve been kinda thinkin’ ’bout puttin’ in for early retirement myself.” “Yeah? Good luck with that. Be a couple decades before you ever see a dime of pension. But, you already know that, don’t ya?” “Yeah. I just been thinkin’ ’bout it, is all. Put some plans together for... when I go.” “Well, I dunno whatta tell ya. Me, I got plans already. Things I’d like to do. Like write a book about all youse.” “It’s getting closer, though. Lay-offs again. Some of us may never walk the steel after this.” “You think?” “Let’s say Osama gets shot to all hell out there. Obama succeeds where Bush failed, yada yada yada. Celebrations all over the city, hell, all across the country. You think all this’ll just... grind to a halt? Troops outta Iraq, mission accomplished, God bless my ass?” “And that’s got what to do with us? There’ll always be work here. What makes you think there won’t be? Fuck Trabuco and his rumours. Man ain’t walked the steel in a decade.” “I dunno. I guess you’re right. I mean, I hope you are. If you quit, I sure hope it’s a good retirement package you got set up.” “Yeah, maybe I’ll trade in my bater for a chisel plow and a John Deere, move someplace where there’s no steel. Like New Hampshire. Work as a farmhand, or somethin’.” “So it’s for real, then? You’re actually quittin’?” Mad Dog’s brow furrows. “No, numbnuts. ’Course I ain’t quittin’ the steel. Ever seen me walk out?” “You disappoint me,” said Emma, whenever his latest fuck-up made itself plain. “Everything you say and do is just to protect your own feelings. So you can keep avoiding the inevitable. Why can’t you just learn to take it as it happens?” Anyone else gave him crap like this, and he’d gladly left-hook them in the mouth. He prided himself on spitting the contents of his bilious mind at anyone who’d listen. Always give back twice or better to whatever was flung at him. But not with her. It was a hell of a double bind. Fire some piss and vinegar back at her and probably get his ass kicked out of the apartment. Or else keep quiet. Act meek and be accepting of her forked tongue. Let whatever morsel of respect she still had for him dissolve to ash. Maybe she had a point. He could be an asshole when he drank. He didn’t know how she did it. How she moved through life with such purpose, such certainty. Often around her, he felt he was wearing concrete boots. Sluggish. Gauche. And far too many steps behind her. No matter what he said or did. She’d tell him about friends from work. Friends he’d never meet, nor cared to. Rarely did he mention the guys on the site, because he knew she felt the same way. It blew his mind how much the miniscule things ruled his life. All she had to do was grab his hand, and he’d be happy again. All rage, all remorse washed away. How easily he allowed himself to be moved by the temperature of her emotions. “Must suck being as smart as you,” he said once. “Surrounded by morons like me 24/7.” Problem was, she was so often right about his fuck-ups. Calling bullshit on her was futile because she gave such a good counter argument. The bottom line was this. Emma was a trainee lawyer, who dealt with arguments, week in, week out. Telling him he smelt like a brewery was, most of the time, justified. Lunch over, the guys pack up and return to work. Mad Dog and the connectors head for the topmost decking, scaling the ladder like sailors going aloft. Caleb shifts more rebar with Moron, who thankfully keeps his mouth shut. Nearby, Zach and Marty lower their visors. Zach hunkers down, rotary saw in hand, and grinds through the iron trusses. Sparks spurt out in a coppery jet all around him. Marty’s blow-torch burns steadily, to sear holes into a top beam for rivets to be clenched. The late sun burns the clouds away. Caleb’ll survive until he doesn’t. The Jack settles welcomingly in his gut. His eye lowers to the naked flame, mesmerized by how it kisses and slices through iron. A combined reek of dust, gas, grease and burnt metal slithers across the deck, to jab his nostrils. Or was it just the sensation of his nostrils being burnt? He could never tell. That smell could cure amnesia. Bring back a thousand and one things forgotten. It wafted through the front door whenever his dad arrived home, carrying the lure of steel, the tingle of a city splayed beneath him. It was the smell he now carried. It once made Emma want to jump his bones every time he got in from work. He wonders what she’s doing now. If she ever thinks of him. It’s nothing like the way he obsesses over her, that’s for damn sure. She’s probably at Lake and Fifth, typing out reports in some fancy office cubicle. Planning a conference presentation, or booking tickets for an upcoming de Chirico exhibit at CIMA, or a leadership seminar at some fancy-ass hotel. Flirting by text with her latest boyfriend, maybe. The way she used to him. Maybe, just maybe, she’s already moved on, the bitch. He was sure of it. She’s that kind of girl. Always gunning forward. Never encumbered by human crap like regret. Guilt. Shame. Self-loathing. Heartbreak. The way Caleb always fucking does. Breath quickening, he looks away, ignoring the smell as it swirls closer. In reality it’s been with him day in, day out, for the last eight years, though he’s loath to admit it. Billowing and hissing up from the iron, stronger than truck fumes at rush hour, with its sparks tossed up by some unholy fire. More than any other, that smell is angry. Worse than whatever shit they dumped in the sewers. Worse even than what Caleb couldn’t rid himself of, scrubbing compulsively in the shower. The reek of his own sweat. As the wind picks up, his heart’s at full gallop. He’s bolted to the deck, and for a moment, he possesses a balance worthy of Mad Dog. Images of Emma rush in and crash off of each other in his mind. The sound of her voice. Then Moron’s voice. Zach’s visor. Marty’s blowtorch, spewing flame. Now he’s staring down a tunnel. Like the ones in the subway. Dim lights flicker, urging him to run. No matter how he strains, his eyes can’t adjust. Then it hits, as it often does, out of nowhere. There’s no way of stopping the terror, and like a wave it breaks over him. It moves in slow motion, but there’s no escape. Once more, Caleb hears the roar of towers collapsing. Sirens blare in his eardrums as the voice of God whispers his name through the smoke. He’d bet his left ball that God’s whisper is louder than any jet engine. The almighty thud of beams, like meteorites, crumbling the sidewalk. Carcinogen dust clouds swirl to strafe his lungs in a cocktail of asbestos. Mercury and lead clogs his throat, piss-yellow smoke stings his eyes. Debris stacks higher than funeral pyres. The sheer fucking weight of a hundred and ten floors crush his bones to a fine powder, taking his name, his address, his entire existence with them. Beams, glass and gnarled steel swim in bubbling jet fuel. He tastes blood, smells iron. Iron that’s been dredged from the earth’s core ever since people first crawled out of the sea. Iron to be and milled and hammered, reinforced into monoliths with chrome and blast-resistant glass, only to be toppled. How many lives were poured into steel, just to build these fucking towers that fall? “Hey Caleb! The fuck ya doin’?” The smoke clears, his breath returns, and he’s flat on his back. Hands hold him down, rebar jabs into his ribs while Marty bellows: “Caleb! Buddy! Can you hear me?” Caleb gasps, wincing at the sun’s glare bouncing off steel. Zach and Moron loom over him. Marty’s burnt face forms slowly, as his hands pin him by the shoulder. “Whu… the hell just happened?” he splutters. “Fuck ya mean, what just happened?! You were about to hurl yaself off the goddamn roof!” More guys crowd around. But Caleb only sees their hard hats silhouetted against the glare. “What… where’s my fuckin’ lanyard?” Caleb croaks, racked by a cough, as he feels for it without success. Moron holds it up, jangles it. “Came loose. You were walkin’ like you was in a trance or somethin’. Thought you was just kiddin’ around, ’til I saw it draggin’ behind ya.” Caleb puts his head in his hands. “Someone up there still likes ya, buddy. Marty grabbed ya just in time.”
“Are you drunk right now?” Emma’s voice was mangled by static on the phone-line. “No, Baby, look, I’m sorry it’s so late. Just thought I’d, ya know, hitcha up. See how you’re doin’.” He didn’t even realise he’s called her that, as if they were still together. “It’s two in the fucking morning, for Chrissake,” she snarled. “Shit, was you sleepin’ just now?” “No, I was doing my damn nails.” No-one did sarcasm like Emma, even at this hour. But fuck, was it was worth it hearing her voice again. “Look, I guess I just wanna talk to ya. I been thinkin’ ’bout shit, y’know, and us, and I thought, if you wanna meet up some time …” “Caleb?” “What? What, babe?” “It’s over. You and me. We’re over, okay? I really need you to stop calling me like this.” “Aw, c’mon baby, you knew it was me and you still answered. What does that tell ya?” “Stop calling me. Now.” That’s when he snapped. He was that kind of drunk. “Look, Emma, I’ll level with ya. You’re a goddamn bitch on wheels, but I still wanna fuck your brains out one last time, if you’ll have m-” She’d hung up before he was done. When he blearily checked his phone the next morning, the redial button showed her number, which he’d memorized. He didn’t have the heart to text an apology. He just put his throbbing head in his hands and judged last night’s escapade for what it was: one more piece of bloodshot-eyed proof of what a raging dumbfuck he was. “Okay kid, no bullshit, now. Why the fuck was your lanyard loose?” Caleb could really skip a ball-busting session. At least it wasn’t a heart-to-heart, which are better off in movies, where they belong. Mad Dog’s face is creased, and his teeth bared. Any second now he’ll growl some bullshit about ‘no man left behind.’ “Look, Ray, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinkin’ - ” “When you said hadn’t been drinkin’, I pretended to believe you, ya know dat?” “Well, I wasn’t …” “You’re a shitty liar, kid. If I’d known you were this fuckin’ bad I’d never have let you into that damn elevator!” Mad Dog’s ears are poking back. “I was doin’ okay up ’til after lunch – ” “That’s not the point!!” “Then I dunno whatta tell ya, pal! I’ve been comin’ in here, day in, day out for the last three years, doin all this overtime and ya know what? I’m a walkin’ dead man, Ray, you hear me? I’m a fuckin zombie out on the steel! You think I like seein’ this building? All those assholes sellin’ goddamn firefighter cookies down below! Every mornin’ when I get on the subway, I pray to God it fuckin’ crashes and takes me with it!” Mad Dog gives him the jack-knife eyes. “I got news for you kid. All these fuckin’ mutts are held back by their lanyards. I’ve held at least three men in my arms as they died on-site. Don’t let the next one be you.” On the day she finally kicked him to the curb, the alarm sliced through his stupor, loud and piercing, like it did all the days after and on that September morning. September 11. His eyes opened to their apartment’s dead calm. On the coffee table, his abandoned game of solitaire lay in a jumble next to a Black Bush bottle, more than half-empty. His watch read 4:27. The booze wore off at just the right time. Only a few hours left before work and first light. He’d gotten lucky. Again. Flopped on the couch, he chugged bottom shelf whiskey like it was water. What with the ant hill of Camel butts left in the ashtray, it was a miracle the building hadn’t burnt down. Emma never stopped breaking his balls about it. But then, before kicking him to the curb, she broke his balls about everything. His swearing. His drinking. His lateness getting in from work. In those last few months, she was looking for any excuse to dump him. And he was sure of that. Less sure though about how a sudsy puddle had formed in the corner. He’d come in from walking the steel all day, still sweating bullets. All he wanted was a drink and a screw. Though he’d have settled for a blow-job, with some semblance of affection. Only she’d turned away from him to lay stiff in their bed. Stomping into the kitchen, Caleb grabbed a Miller, cold from the fridge, and cracked it open loud. Slurping it down, he saw Emma now glaring at him from the doorway. That look had lost its power to shame him; now he was enraged by it. Without thinking, he lobbed the mostly-full bottle in her direction. In a burst of suds and glass, it smashed off the door frame, instead of hitting her. Emma didn’t even flinch. Not even a blink, as the beer pooled frothily around her feet. Just kept staring at him. All Caleb could think was, Thank Christ for my lousy aim. Emma was still glaring at him as he wobbled toward her. But that was before he fell face down on the linoleum, where he woke up in the morning, to find his bags packed, by the door.
After work, Caleb takes an occasional detour through Riverside Park. He walks and finally sits on one of the promenade benches, to watch the water rippling out by the pier. He does this with a bottle of Jack wrapped in a paper bag he picked up at a liquor store on the way. His hard hat and boots set him apart from the usual crowd of joggers, dog-walkers, park service crew and businessmen also headed home. Many of whom quicken their pace as they pass. They probably take him for a bum, and he doesn’t blame them. Mistaking him for a kindred spirit, a passing hobo solicits a dollar off him. But thinking back to the crack vials and syringes bums left, littering the asphalt, for him to trample, Caleb snarls: “Fuck off.” From his bench, he spots smoke. The black contrails of a plane. They blaze behind it. Across the sky, now turning red, over the harbor. If he keeps having these visions, Caleb tells himself, soon he’ll be among those that stand on any one of a million city intersections, wearing a sandwich board smudged with the words “The End is Nigh.” Across the river, New Jersey hunkers, silhouetted and sawtoothed, against dusk’s hazy inroad. Caleb’s worked on some of those structures; he takes in their height, their sturdiness, the way their steel and aluminium glints even as the day subsides. All his work to survey, as far as the naked eye could see, from horizon to horizon, from Hoboken to Union City. Soon the tower at Ground Zero will stand tall again, taller than any other, the sun’s fleeting light caught in its silver. Out of nowhere, Caleb’s face creases into a smile and all that’s broken in his life is, for one peaceful moment, forgotten. He leaves the bottle of Jack unfinished.