It’s not true that people who wash skyscraper windows have a death wish. My cousin, Matt, keeps saying that during Christmas dinner at Grandpa’s farmhouse, the house where I spent the majority of my childhood. “You must have a death wish,” he says to me for the third time as I shovel another bite of ham into my mouth.
Later, after the ham is gone, and my grandpa begins telling everyone how he caught the coyote that kept killing his chickens with a piece of string, a paperclip, and a ten gallon bucket, my cousin corners me in the kitchen. “Seriously though, are you nuts?” he asks. “I mean, you’re a pretty girl. You could get other jobs. A nice teaching job. Or something in an office.” He pauses, taking another swig of his rum and coke.
“I like it. And I’m not really looking to change jobs right now,” I say and leave the room. He can’t figure it out. He can’t figure out why I would want to be suspended so high in the air on nothing more than, what my grandpa described as “a few planks of wood and a few pieces of rope held together by a couple of granny knots.”
I go to the porch to smoke a cigarette. Matt follows me. The rest of the family is gathered around Grandpa, still listening to the coyote story.
Every building is like a self-contained little world, a microcosm of humanity. I peer through windows into offices with people sitting in cubicles, some sleeping, some taking sips from flasks hidden in desk drawers, some staring out the windows daydreaming of a new lover. Others cry as bosses berate them. Office workers sit around meeting tables pretending to listen to boring presentations from new hires half their age, while two people in the meeting let their feet relax against each other, secret smiles crossing their faces. Sometimes I see people in intimate moments—it’s bound to happen—on hard plastic furniture in modern, minimalistic-styled living rooms (this seems to be the trend lately), unaware that I have just lowered myself to their windows. I pretend like I can’t see in, of course, because of the glare. I squint then dig around in my bag looking for sunglasses, which gives them time to run out of the room. Some people don’t care and finish right there in front of me. But my favorite thing is lowering the scaffold and coming face-to-face with a baby standing up against the glass, peering back at me in wide-eyed amazement, her hands leaving sticky fingerprints on the opposite side. I figure I have just about the perfect view of humanity, all contained in cement and glass.
“But, man, isn’t it lonely up there?” he asks.
“I’m not up there alone. Safety regulations require two people on the scaffold at all times,” I reply briskly, hoping to end the conversation.
But, truthfully, I rarely talk to my partner. We are assigned different partners for different buildings. Some are better at the standard skyscraper. Some specialize in buildings with curves or unique architectural features. I am a standard skyscraper kind of girl, and I am usually paired up with a veteran standard skyscraper guy. Regardless of who it is, we prefer silence.
“Regulations? Huh. I didn’t realize that was a thing,” Matt says. He looks out toward the barns. The chickens are loud and obnoxious. I hate the sound of them. It reminds me of the times I had to collect eggs as a child, their squawking protest lingering in my head long after I was done. “What about this: Do you ever think about falling? he asks. “Like if a granny knot came apart and the whole thing just came crashing down?”
“You know the last recorded fatality in this business was in 1992,” I reply.
“Ok, great, but what would you do? Just tell me.”
“I guess I’d die.”
“Whoa, that’s heavy,” he says. He looks at me thoughtfully. “Unless of course you could be like, like, Spiderwoman or something. Like you’d just shoot a web to the building beside it and swing over there as you were falling. Shit, that’s cool!” he shouts, amused with himself.
My next job is a fifty-story right on the river. I love the highest floors because at certain angles all you can see is the open blue sky and occasional passing clouds reflected in the glass. I feel like I am in space, hovering over the earth, alone and small, but able to take in the vast expanse of life in one solitary breath. It’s peaceful. Then I can turn back to the building, lower the scaffold, and watch people going about their daily lives. A silent, temporary intrusion.
Matt empties the red Solo cup with a long gulp. “Well, anyway. You got balls. You’re an idiot, but you got balls,” he says again and retreats to the house.
I stand a while longer on the porch trying to block out the raucous conversation that has begun now that Matt is sharing his own story of the time his prize bull got out, and he coaxed it back in the pen with a Budweiser and his son’s stuffed monkey. Something about the bull thinking he was going to get lucky.
I smile, take one last drag from my cigarette, and throw it over the porch railing.
Robin Littell is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University. She lives with her daughter in Yellow Springs, Ohio where she teaches writing courses at Antioch College. Her work has appeared in Gravel Magazine, NoiseMedium, Literary Mama, Visual Verse, and Found Polaroids.