Roderick heard them talking in the bar the night before, the reactionaries, the young upstarts and unionists, the drunk Marxists with bright and noble phrases. The tower was an abomination, blasphemy against rational minds. The undertaking was nothing but exploitive bread and circuses, that since it was classified an art project union labor would not be enforced.
That part was true. It was why Roderick had the job.
At the work site in the morning he saw posters glued to the base of the tower that sat where an entire neighborhood had, emptied by cholera and typhus. The posters said the same as the reactionaries, most of whom were queued up with Roderick. A job was a job. Poverty was killing more than the war had, peace was good for the soul but hard on the belly. They were given lights, tools. One by one they disappeared into the black iron guts, as a group they built and climbed. There was so much to learn, so much to recognize and see: ships had been torn apart, fences, anything made of iron had been repurposed and Roderick heard horror stories about the workers in the iron mines. They carted it in, shipped it in, flew it in by plane, and by pipe and girder they build level on top of level.
One day it seemed Roderick saw the roofs of the nearby buildings, the next he could see into the skyscraper windows and the day after that the edges of the city. They slept in the tower, ate in the tower, bathed in the tower.
People fell in love in the tower, died in the tower, their marriages and funerals were held on the tiers they’d worked. Nervous stories circulated of murders and deaths, hauntings and accidents. Accidents were blamed on incompetence, God and big boss greed, hauntings were dismissed as height sickness. At the base of the tower people worked for the bosses, the originators of the project, but the higher one climbed, the loftier the ideals. At the top you worked for the people, for the glory of each other and wasn’t the air sweet and the view grand? Messages traveled up and were interpreted accordingly by operators. Architects and planners far below breathed in the smoke and walked through the puddles of runoff chemicals, foul water and oil that came down from the many levels of the tower. They noticed deviations in their design. For every ten levels of the tower, a detail was lost or changed. There would be accidents, said the architects, it would get out of control. They offered lines on paper as evidence, shook their crumpled blueprints and chanted synergy, communication breakdown and structural integrity like the words were incantations.
Roderick’s hair had gone gray, the view from his perch high in the tower had gone blue with the occasional cloud. Thunderstorms were grand events and they caught the water in buckets, rigged slings over the side so the daring could dance with the lightning. The supervisors of the upper floors told them the big bosses were pleased with their dedication to this project that was saving the nation, the grand work. Roderick was proud and the air was sweet, if his knuckles ached most mornings and his back throughout the day it hardly seemed worth his notice.
There was always so much activity from the radio room, so much activity around him. Never had he felt so much a part of something. To go from standing on ration line to being able to look the clouds in the eye, this was a life to live, he decided.
Then the water pumps broke down.
It’s a technical problem soon to be remedied, said the supervisors. We have rainwater saved, though it must be rationed until the crisis passes. A day after that he went to the supplier to get a replacement for a broken wrench and was told there’d been a communication breakdown with below and there’d been no deliveries of new tools. He began to see hand-written posters, graffiti scratched into the pipes and metal walls, trust the supervisor, the base must belong to us, as above so below, only to hawks does the sky belong.
Work stuttered. Food ran low.
The graffiti increased, so did panic.
What is going on, they asked, why isn’t the base of the tower sending up supplies anymore?
It’s just a communication breakdown they were told.
The lifts stopped working.
Roderick heard rumors. Men banged out Morse code on the pipes hoping to reach floors below and above, there was a war, there was a rebellion, the base was unhappy and making their displeasure felt with deprivation and blockades. Roderick didn’t believe it. The supervisors smiled and told them it would all be resolved soon.
The next day when Roderick went to pick up his tools he was handed a gun. He stared at the object in confusion and tried to hand it back. Instead the supply man handed him an extra clip, showed him how to chamber a round and told him it was a .45 caliber. Roderick wanted to ask how it was that they had guns but not bread, but he walked away from the supply window in a haze staring at the heavy little machine. A supervisor slapped him on the shoulder and told him to stand by the door to the lift and point the gun at it.
Roderick stood watching the seam of the lift doors and begged them never to open.
Justin Porter was born and raised in New York City. His writing has appeared in various publications, both online and in print.