When he fell, Frank Wetherell became the sixty-first worker to die in the construction of the tower. It would be another year and three weeks before the building topped out, but it was already the tallest structure in history by the time Frank misjudged his step and slipped into the first airy inches of his forever fall. Those initial moments were filled with confusion, the sensation of mind and body refusing to believe. He heard Marco’s shouted, Don’t do it, fade away as the wind rushed past him. He asked the strange question of where the pressure of the beam beneath his feet had gone and why the whole thing felt for a brief instant like how he had always imagined flying. It did not take him long, less than three stories, to come to grips with what was happening.
He thought about the brotherhood he was leaving, his crew on the floors above, and the one he was joining, the workers throughout time who had died in the building of monumental projects such as the tower. About ten seconds into his fall, he narrowed this idea even further and thought of those like him, who fell to their deaths from the height of human reach. He thought of Notre-Dame and the Empire State Building, of the Baikonur Tether and the Pyramids. With nearly four thousand meters to travel, there was time enough for fear and resignation, acceptance and calm.
Frank had known for a while now that he would never see the tower finished. He had been on unsure footing for weeks but did not see his situation clearly. Now he thought he should have.
Five days before the fall, Frank was called into the supervisor’s office and told that the project schedule had been moved up and his crew would be working double-time for the foreseeable future. Frank felt he should protest but he neither made the schedule nor had influence over it. To fight the process that determined his allocated time would be pointless. Besides, his crew would want the extra pay. Then Grissom told him the reason for the change.
If we finish ahead of schedule, he said, they save a bundle on interest and insurance. Even if they pay extra time for the next six months.
There’s safety, Frank said.
Grissom held out a handful of thick fingers. I’m not saying cut corners, he said.
Sixty dead already.
Grissom had been leaning back in his chair. Now he straightened up and arched his eyebrows. What we’re doing, he said, we’re all surprised it’s not more. No one’s ever built anything like this, Frank. No one’s ever worked in these conditions, with this equipment or material or these techniques. Sixty’s a miracle.
Frank wanted to object or walk away. Then he asked himself what, if anything, he would do without the work and found that there was nothing else. Everything surrounding it, including his crew, was tainted by this understanding. The days would slide by, the tower would rise, the crew would disperse when it was done. But if he was not driven, if his heart was not committed, then it had no meaning.
I can’t keep doing this, Frank said to Marco the day after his talk with Grissom. They were riding to the top of the site in the final elevator of a staggered succession of elevators. Soon they would have to attach the masks and turn on their supplemental oxygen tanks. Frank’s oxygen rested against the small of his back. Its straps hugged his environmental jacket tightly and its hose drooped over his right shoulder. Already they were past the last floor with a full working crew and partial walls.
As his fall took him past the beginnings of these same walls between floors two-hundred eleven and one hundred ninety-nine, Frank searched for something more definite. He calculated his terminal velocity, making approximations for increased air density at decreasing altitude, his projected area including the expanded environmental jacket, and his mass. He determined, roughly, how long it would take him to fall. And then he despaired over precious instants wasted.
How’s that? Marco asked. He was kneeling on the grated floor of the elevator, straining at the stuck valve of his tank. This. Fucking. Thing, he said. Frank watched Marco twist harder, his face dark with exertion and anger. You. Fucking. Bitch.
It doesn’t seem worth the effort, Frank said as the valve finally moved and Marco stood up. Lately, Frank had been reading accounts of Baikonur out of an interest originally built on the similarities of the two endeavors, his and that of the low-orbit cargo elevator. The construction techniques were alike, the challenges of weather, materials, manpower. The workers, too. Frank was drawn to the individual stories, the dramas political and personal that unfolded during the work on the banks of the Syr.
Nearly one hundred people had died as the great needle of the tether rose from the plains of Kazakhstan to receive the thread of the cable lowered from its platform above the mesosphere. One of the last of these, Gennady Karamanov, fell as Frank would fall, though not from as great a height. Gennady’s wife objected to his taking the job but work was scarce. In the end, she was left to weep before the simple stone where Gennady was memorialized along with the others who died at Baikonur.
At first he took odd comfort in the deep and historic fraternity, but Frank knew how little attention was paid to these things over time. Twenty-two days before Frank’s end, a falling rivet drove itself through an electrician on the one hundred eighteenth floor. The man’s name was written down but would be forgotten. Only the tower would remain, the architect or the company that had rushed them to finish ahead of schedule recalled vaguely and the workers not at all. After his talk with Grissom, it became clear to Frank that he was just one more face in an endless progression stretching back into the past and on into the future. Whatever significance the project had came from within him and its merit was not inherent.
Is everything and everyone in this world out to get me? Marco asked. He checked the flow through his mask and then seemed to realize Frank was waiting on him to say something. He scratched his head by reaching his first two fingers up under his helmet. The helmet tilted then dropped back down when he was done. What was that? he asked.
It is, Frank continued, a matter of expected returns.
You mean they’re not paying us enough? You don’t have to tell me. I got my girls to feed.
Sure, Frank said. He stretched the straps of his mask out with a spread hand. The elevator jarred to a halt. They stepped out onto the short platform that led across the otherwise open floor to the steps they would climb the rest of the way. From their vantage this far above the ground, the sun had already risen above the curve of the horizon. Its soft rays lay level along an unfinished floor of gold and beckoned the faithful.
Is this what it’s about? Frank asked, looking past the plane of future walls before slipping the mask over his mouth and nose. Does working up here mean something?
Yeah, said Marco and looked at Frank with brown eyes rimmed by red as he adjusted his own mask. Hazard pay.
Early in the project, when the building was still largely formless and therefore perfect, any progress was met with hope by everyone on site including Frank. Each time they laid a new floor, they rose higher than anyone before and they savored the knowledge, allowed themselves pride. For Frank, it had seemed the reason for living. It gave him a feeling like no other to experience something unprecedented and to know that he had a hand in its creation. It was godlike, the rush of being the first witness to a future long coming. Every day there were tiny shifts that proved nothing repeated. If the day appeared too similar, Frank would alter it himself. He would scar the head of a bolt, scratch his initials into a beam. Anything to manifestly mark the difference.
But as the frame rose the monotony of the work took over and the distance to their goal seemed to recede even as the workers climbed higher. Even so, it was enough that he was present as the building began to soar, that he had some part in it. He relished the hard, devoted work. Solidity where before there was air. The difficulty of it all – working at altitude, the balance, the stress – assured him of purpose.
Others on the site invented ways to break the monotony of their labor. They told tales, complained, competed, insulted each other and anyone connected to the project. They chanted obscenities as they slung rivets, addressed the girders with the private affections of lovers. They told stories about the figures moving on the ground far below and entertained clairvoyant visions of the finished product.
Tallest in the world. Tallest in history, Grissom said, leaning back again. Like the others, he was taken in by the size of the project in his imagination as much as in reality.
Frank cocked his head. What about Baikonur? he asked.
Baikonur isn’t free-standing. We’re in a different category.
Shit, Frank, Grissom said and rubbed a palm over his close-cut hair. Have some pride. This thing is bigger than any of us. You need to have ambition to see this through. If you don’t want to make something that people take notice of, something that lasts, you should go build subdivisions.
Housing isn’t nothing, Frank said. What’s the difference between a perfect weld in an ordinary building, a five-story office that no one will ever really notice, and a perfect weld on a project like this? He walked to the door of the supervisor’s trailer and opened it.
Scale, said Grissom.
Two welders. One here, one in Peoria or wherever. They do the same work, same level of expertise and execution.
You’re an engineer, not a welder. You’ve been doing this twenty years. Don’t tell me you never imagined a job like this.
Frank watched the activity outside. It was twilight and floodlights controlled the shadows of men and equipment. He thought that Grissom was right, that scale was part of the answer. Outside, where the light from their endeavor lit the faces of nearby buildings in the still-dark city, everything seemed poised beneath the tower. And it all seemed poised to fall. Frank knew they sought something monumental out of pride, sought to carve their names into air.
The night before, Frank had dreamt of falling. The crew all dreamed their deaths, using sleep to sort out the daily possibility. They rarely talked about them, bringing the dreams up only when compelled by the specificity or intensity of experience. But Frank remembered that the death in his dream had not been his own, or at least not him as he was now.
In the dream, he was a stonemason, another member of the brotherhood he was soon to join. He was neither the first nor the last person to die in the two-hundred-year effort to complete Notre-Dame, but his fall was the highest, starting as he toppled, chisel and hammer still in-hand, from the northern tower on the cathedral’s western side and ending as both he and the massive stone block that fell with him thudded to the ground below.
In his actual fall, time slowed as Frank passed from sky into city, below the peak of the next tallest building and into the warren of windows and avenues. The material gray of the labor that created the scene re-asserted its dominance, wrapping his future in hard concrete terms tracing the fate of all human endeavor. The sun hid behind it and Frank felt suddenly removed and distanced from his life and death. The wind roared past him and underneath the roar his heart pounded in his ears. He marveled at how simply a life could be undone.
In the dream, Frank had virtually no time to consider his fate. The shouts that rose up were not those of his fellow workers but of peasants below. For his part, Frank, or the stonemason he was in the dream, was quiet and unprotesting. He was devout and saw no tragedy in his death at work on a project he believed would stand for eternity in testament to the eternal love of God. During his short flight, he thought not of what he was leaving behind but what he believed he was approaching. In his reckoning the object of that approach was God, eternal life, heaven. Not the ground.
During this fully-dreamed life, the work was his religion. He-who-was-Frank labored for his own pride, to find some manner of communicating the devotion and aspiration of his time, to be one who helped construct a modern wonder, to know that hundreds, perhaps thousands of years hence the stones he laid into place would remain and testify to his presence. It motivated the dreamed and the dreamer to precision in his work. Each stone had to fit perfectly and smoothly, be of the finest quality and present no cracks in its surface. Yet, it did not prevent him and the others on his small team from carving their names onto the hidden face of one of the stones of the tower where their crude signatures would remain, protected from the elements for all time.
He had dreamt with anticipation for his future reward, the peace of heaven. He was, he admitted in those final seconds of the dream, prideful and striving. There was confusion: a boulangerie, oxcarts, and what he realized far too late was a visage not at all benevolent but maleficent and terrible. For the stonemason had neglected his rituals, had invested his time and piety in the work he undertook rather than in the demands of liturgy or confession. He recognized his sin only at the end, understood only at the last moment when he was afforded no time to repent that the face before him smiled because it recognized the fraternal link between them. The final vision was shocking to Frank even now in Grissom’s office.
A perfect weld in a basement, Frank said to the scene outside the trailer. A perfect weld in a high school shop class.
No one sees it, said Grissom. It can’t be perfect if it can’t be appreciated. The visibility of this project is phenomenal.
So it’s about being noticed.
Grissom said nothing and watched while Frank stood at the door. How’s Chavez doing anyway?
Frank turned to look at Grissom and shrugged. Okay I guess.
You’ve never been married, Grissom said. A thing like that. Suddenly having to raise two girls yourself.
He’ll be fine.
I’m saying, you work up top there and problems down here seem awfully far away. Sometimes far enough away that a guy in a spot thinks one step can keep them away forever.
Frank shook his head. Not Marco. He loves his girls.
The tone of Grissom’s voice changed, grew reflective. I’ve seen it happen, he said.
Frank stepped halfway through the door of the trailer and looked out and up. Less than five hundred feet from the ground, the building’s exterior was nearly finished. Its glass and polished steel reflected the growing light of the day just as it reflected Frank in his fall five days later. In his ultimate moments, he saw a stranger, an unfamiliar face with eyes wide and mouth open, perhaps screaming, windline trailing like a marionette’s cut string. He appeared suspended, a steady object on a speeding background of buildings and patches of sky, as though he was holding still while the world and all of time zipped past him.
I wonder what it’s like, he said from the doorway.
For Chavez? asked Grissom. Tough as hell, I’d guess.
Is it like flying?
Grissom frowned. Knock it off with that. Just keep an eye on him. He doesn’t come around, we’ll move him down to the walls. I don’t want sixty-one.
In the days after he talked with Grissom, Frank saw only the sameness of the project, found its variations only superficial. The tower no longer seemed singular. Both he and his efforts were indistinct from the thousands of others toiling away on the same project and on similar projects in other cities. Particulars varied, but that was all. The visions they conjured repeated in a dozen languages in a dozen identical places by identical men and women all dreaming identical dreams. It was no longer an achievement he was chasing but an unreachable idea.
Twice in the days after his own confession on the elevator, Frank saw Marco staring off into space from the edge of the tower. They all did it, Frank more than others. They took a break, a few moments alone, and they stood and looked out to the sky to become lost in it. Marco looked down.
The second time it happened Frank insisted on buying Marco a beer after their shift. He waited while Marco called his mother, asking her if she could watch her grandbabies a few hours longer, maybe cook some dinner. They did not go to the usual place. Marco insisted on going somewhere the rest of the crew would not find them. The bar they chose was narrow, long and dark, with only two windows on the front wall and a few dim lights hanging from a low ceiling. They sat in the back, looking at the surface in front of them, two men caught in their thoughts and circumstances, casting only occasional glances up.
Two hours into their vigil, Frank asked aloud whether the tower’s current count of sixty should be troubling. He told Marco that only five workers had died during construction of the Empire State Building. He thought for a second that he shouldn’t have brought the topic up then drunkenly remembered Marco’s earlier joke about a man falling out an open window.
He yells back, Marco had said with cupped hands around his mouth to mimic a shout, So far so good.
It wasn’t much of a joke but Marco needed to tell it. A month before, his wife had left him for a fellow teacher at the same elementary that Marco’s kids attended. When he learned about the affair, Marco told Frank, the anger came from the fact his kids spent as much of their time around this man as they did Marco. In some paternal way, he felt as though she had already replaced him. She destroyed that notion by moving across the country with her lover, abandoning Marco and the kids to a single-parent lifestyle.
The joke would have made their more superstitious co-workers leave but Marco was not the superstitious type. He laughed at his own punch line. Frank laughed with him.
Five seems a little low, Marco said in response to Frank’s fact.
Official records, said Frank, state that one was hit by a truck, another fell down a shaft, one got hit by a hoist, one was in a blast area.
Boom, said Marco.
And a fifth fell off a scaffold. Frank went on to say that the litany he’d just recited was repeated nearly verbatim by any website he could find. None of them gave the names of the workers who fell, a frustration that continued to gnaw at Frank.
Official records, Marco said and lifted his beer, are bullshit. And official records quoted on the internet are double-bullshit. He paused to empty his glass and stare at its emptiness. What about the Hoover Dam? Or the Pyramids. Fuck. You want to talk about number of deaths on a project, what about the Pyramids?
Frank considered the idea. They wouldn’t experience freefall, he said. They’d probably just tumble, slide right down the side.
Or bounce off it, said Marco.
The day of the fall, Marco was again kneeling and struggling with his oxygen valve as they rode up. They were both hung over and desperate.
Goddamn. Bitch, Marco cursed at his tank. Why? Why does it have to be so. Fucking. Hard.
The valve gave and Marco collapsed and sat on the floor of the elevator, his head in his hands. He stared at the tank and his shoulders shook quietly. Frank watched him and said nothing until the elevator stopped.
Do you ever think, Frank asked as he stepped onto the platform and started walking toward the staircase, about how much we take on faith up here? He checked to be sure Marco was behind him and started climbing. When he reached the top of the stairs and stepped away so that Marco could follow, he continued his thought. We put our faith in the guys who designed the environmental suits and these lines. He held up his windline and shook its end over his shoulder. Even the weather guy, he said, telling us if today is clear to work.
He looked out across the unfinished floor. Interior scaffolding and the boom of the kangaroo crane were the only things around them other than the upward reaching beams. We take it on faith that there’s a need for this project, he said, that people will fill this space and complete our work. That there’s a purpose behind all of this. Faith.
Frank turned and saw that Marco had walked away from the staircase and was leaning out over the edge, his windline unhooked, one hand in a fingertip grip on an upright.
Frank called out and rushed forward. He reached the edge, saw Marco turning toward him.
Don’t try to stop me, Frank, Marco shouted. Don’t do it.
Frank’s steps seemed, as he fell, to have lasted much longer than this. They seemed to stretch on forever, every step leading to this last.
Where did that last step land?
His arms out, his eyes up. Marco above him, kneeling, reaching.
He would be okay.
Photo by Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa on Unsplash