Fiction

Phreak

Colum McCann

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortland. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke—stand around and point upwards until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upwards at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper.

Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.

He could only be seen at certain angles. The watchers had to pause at street corners, find a gap between buildings, or meander from the shadows to get a view unobstructed by cornicework, gargoyles, balustrades, roof edges. None of them had yet made sense of the line strung at his feet from one tower to the other. Rather, it was the manshape that held them there, their necks craned, torn between the promise of doom and the disappointment of the ordinary.

It was the dilemma of the watcher: they didn’t want to wait around for nothing at all, some idiot standing on the precipice of the towers, but they didn’t want to miss the moment either, if he slipped, or got arrested, or dove, arms stretched.

Around the watchers, the city still made its everyday noises. Car horns. Garbage trucks. Ferry whistles. The thrum of the subway. The M22 bus pulled in against the sidewalk, braked, sighed down into a pothole. A flying candy wrapper touched against a fire hydrant. Taxi doors slammed. Bits of trash sparred in the darkest reaches of the alleyways. Sneakers found their sweet spots. The leather of briefcases rubbed against trouser legs. A few umbrella tips clinked against the pavement. Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street. But the watchers could have taken all the sounds and smashed them down into a single noise and still they wouldn’t have heard much at all: even when they cursed, it was done quietly, reverently.

They found themselves in small groups together beside the traffic lights on the corner of Church and Dey, gathered under the awning of Sam’s Barbershop, in the doorway of Charlie’s Audio—a tight little theater of men and women against the railings of St. Paul’s chapel, elbowing for space at the windows of the Woolworth Building. Lawyers. Elevator operators. Doctors. Cleaners. Prep chefs. Diamond merchants. Fish sellers. Sad-jeaned whores. All of them reassured by the presence of each other. Stenographers. Traders. Delivery boys. Sandwich-board men. Cardsharps. Con Ed. Ma Bell. Wall Street. A locksmith in his van on the corner of Dey and Broadway. A bike messenger lounging against a lamppost on West. A red-faced rummy out looking for an early morning pour.

From the Staten Island Ferry they glimpsed him. From the meatpacking warehouses on the West Side. From the new high-rises in Battery Park. From the breakfast carts down on Broadway. From the plaza below. From the towers themselves.

Sure, there were some who ignored the fuss, who didn’t want to be bothered. It was 7:47 in the morning and they were too jacked up for anything but a desk, a pen, a telephone. Up they came from the subway stations, out from limousines, off city buses, crossing the street at a clip, refusing the prospect of a gawk. Another day, another dolor. But as they passed the little clumps of commotion they began to slow down. Some stopped altogether, shrugged, turned nonchalantly, walked to the corner, bumped up against the watchers, went to the tips of their toes, gazed over the crowd, and then introduced themselves with a Wow or a Gee whiz or a Jesus H. Christ.

The man above remained rigid and yet his mystery was mobile. He stood beyond the railing of the observation deck of the south tower—at any moment he might just take off.

Below him, a single pigeon swooped down from the top floor of the Federal Office Building, as if anticipating the fall. The movement caught the eyes of some watchers and they followed the gray flap against the small of the standing man. The bird shot from one eave to another, and it was then the watchers noticed that they had been joined by others at the windows of offices, where blinds were being lifted and a few glass panes labored upwards. In the windows of nearby skyscrapers, figures came to look out—men in shirtsleeves and women in bright blouses, wavering in the glass like fun-house apparitions.

Higher still, a helicopter executed a dipping turn over the Hudson—a curtsy to the fact that the summer day was going to be cloudy and cool anyway—and the rotors beat a rhythm over the warehouses of the West Side. At first the helicopter looked lopsided in its advance and a small side window was slid open as if the machine were looking for air. A lens appeared in the open window. It caught a brief flash of light. After a moment the helicopter corrected beautifully and spun across the expanse.

Some cops on the West Side Highway switched on their misery lights and swerved fast off the exit ramps, making the morning all the more magnetic.

A charge entered the air all around the watchers and—now that the day had been made official by sirens—there was a chatter among them, their balance set on edge, their calm fading, and they turned to each other and began to speculate: would he jump, would he fall, would he tiptoe along the ledge, did he work there, was he solitary, was he a decoy, was he wearing a uniform, did anyone have binoculars? Perfect strangers touched one another on the elbows. Swear words went between them, and whispers that there’d been a botched robbery, that he was some sort of cat burglar, that he’d taken hostages, he was an Arab, a Jew, a Cypriot, an IRA man, that he was really just a publicity stunt, a corporate scam: DRINK MORE COCA-COLA, EAT MORE FRITOS, SMOKE MORE PARLIAMENTS, SPRAY MORE LYSOL, LOVE MORE JESUS. Or that he was a protestor and he was going to hang a slogan, he would slide it from the tower ledge, leave it there to flutter in the breeze, like some giant piece of sky laundry—NIXON OUT NOW! REMEMBER NAM, SAM! INDEPENDENCE FOR INDOCHINA!—and then someone said that maybe he was a hang glider or a parachutist and all the others laughed, but they were perplexed by the cable at his feet—there were still work elevators sliding along the flanks of the towers; maybe he was just a simple construction worker—and the rumors began again, a collision of curse and whisper, augmented by an increase in sirens, which got their hearts pumping even more, and the helicopter found a purchase near the west side of the towers, while down in the foyer of the World Trade Center the cops were sprinting across the marble floor, and the undercovers were whipping out badges from beneath their shirts, and the fire brigades were pulling into the plaza, and the red and blue of the truck lights dazzled the glass, and a flatbed truck arrived with a cherry picker, its fat wheels bouncing over the curb, and someone laughed as the picker kiltered sideways, the driver looking up, as if the basket might reach all that sad huge way, and the security guards were shouting into their walkie-talkies, and the whole August morning was blown wide open, and the watchers were rooted, there was no going anywhere for a while, the voices rose to a crescendo, all sorts of accents, a Babel, until a small red-headed man in the Home Title Guarantee Company on Church Street lifted the sash of his office window, placed his elbows on the sill, took a deep breath, leaned out, and roared into the distance: Do it, asshole!

There was a dip before the laughter, a second before it sank in among the watchers, a reverence for the man’s irreverence, because secretly that’s what so many of them felt—Do it, for chrissake! Do it!—and then a torrent of chatter was released, a call-and-response, and it seemed to ripple all the way from the windowsill down to the sidewalk and along the cracked pavement to the corner of Fulton, down the block along Broadway, where it zigzagged down John, hooked around to Nassau, and went on, falling dominoes of laughter, but with an edge to it, a longing, an awe, and many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said they really wanted to witness a great fall, to see someone arc downwards all that distance, to disappear from the sight line, flail, smash to the ground, and give the Wednesday an electricity, a meaning, that all they needed to become a family was one millisecond of slippage, while the others—those who wanted him to stay, to hold the line, to become the brink—felt viable now with disgust for the shouters: they wanted the man to save himself, step backwards into the arms of the cops instead of the sky.

They were jazzed now.

Pumped.

The lines were drawn.

Do it, asshole!

Don’t do it!

Way above there was a movement. in the dark clothing his every twitch counted. he folded over, a half-thing, bent, as if examining his shoes, like a pencil mark most of which had been erased. The posture of a diver. The watchers stood silent. They drew back, clenched their fists. Another riffle of whispers went among them. A bristling of the hair on their arms. even the cops who had made it to the rim of the observation deck were floored by what they saw. it was like having a knife blade at the tip of their thumbs—sooner or later the blade would flick and the blood would rush. There was nothing to do, no way to catch him, no chance to prevent the leap. Some blessed themselves. Waited for the thump. But then, to their amazement, the man unfolded upwards from his crouch and a new hush settled over the cops above and the watchers below, a rush of emotion rippling between them, because the man had arisen from the bend holding a long thin bar in his hands, jiggling it, testing its weight, bobbing it up and down in the air, a long black bar, so pliable that the ends swayed, and his gaze was fixed on the far tower, still wrapped in scaffolding, like a wounded thing waiting to be reached, and now the cable at his feet made sense to everyone. There would be no chance they could pull away now, no morning coffee, no conference-room cigarette, no nonchalant carpet shuffle. The waiting had been made magical, and they watched him as he stepped out: one dark foot slippered, like a man about to enter warm, gray water.

He held his foot in the air.

The watchers pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared. The man above them was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before.

Out he went.

 

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