Skyscraping, by Maui Holcomb

“You know,” I said to Gwen between the snores of some guy I didn’t know, “I wasn’t always a literary celebrity.”

She sat next to me on the balcony painting her nails for the fourth time that night. Well, morning now—we’d been awake all night again. Staccato, destructive sounds echoed from a game console inside, and the unknown guy shifted on the faded beach chaise the other side of Gwen, rubbing his nose.

“I nearly went into finance.”

This came to mind as I followed the commuters streaming into the Morgan Stanley building across the street.

Gwen snorted.

“Yeah, right. From what I see you can barely write a check.”

Spite rose in my gut, and I lashed a kick at her chair. Rusted metal screeched, and her brush went awry.

“Hey!”

“Yeah, well that is really hurtful, bitch.”

She returned my dirty look and shifted the chair back, rubbing errant paint from her palm, and gave my shin a light smack of its own with her foot.

“Jerk.”

My annoyance faded, and I turned to the smoke twisting away from my trembling cigarette into the breeze just beyond the railing. Watched the drones emerge from underground and troop into the building with their briefcases and coffee cups. Luxury cars waited at the light before disappearing into a subterranean garage.

Gwen and I have a place on the third floor of The Piedmont, the last ratty building here on the edge of the financial district. Thrown up decades ago, it had long since fallen apart. As the city revitalized the neighborhood block by block, The Piedmont had dropped further down the list for one reason or another, but its time would come. The invisible wall dividing it from the funky new developments with their colorful ground-floor shops and quirky lines, their expensive upper-level condos, and their compact, benchless greenways, was already showing cracks—in the form of men and women in shades and breezy suits snapping photos of the building’s facade. In fact, there was a guy on the street now, looking up at us, an island among the passers-by who hurried along without a glance at our grungy old Piedmont. So we were marking time, but in the meantime, the under-employed, the fixed-income, the dopers and panhandlers, parolees and do-nothings still had a foothold.

Anyway, we live on the third floor, as I said. We’d hooked up while taking classes at the Art Institute a couple years ago. I’d dropped out of the program, and she’d dropped me, but we still shared a place. Our habits suited each other, I guess. She had a sarcastic sense of humor, smoked Merits nonstop and paid most of the rent from her trust fund. I made a passable manhattan, held down a job at a magazine stand, and cleaned up after her. A regular stream of friends, acquaintances, and near strangers, other lost people, streamed through to keep us company, keep us high, and keep us fooled.

“Want some more?” Gwen asked after a minute.

With effort I broke the rigor mortis that had settled in my body. I liked that stiffness, every pore and fiber silent, and leaned forward with a tinge of regret.

“Sure.”

I picked up a bent, tarnished spoon from the dusty folding table between us and tipped some powder from a bit of cellophane onto it. Sparked a flame underneath. Felt dirty and pathetic, but as the warm milky smoke curled into the air, I caught it with a plastic straw, routed it down to my lungs. A metallic taste slid across my tongue, the hair on my arms shimmered, and waves pulsed across my scalp. My shame melted away and comforting imperviousness settled in. As usual it felt like it was there to stay, and I pushed that part of me that knew otherwise down deep inside and smothered it with a filthy, stinking rag.

Gwen huddled forward and took it from me, and I shuddered with contentment, brain buzzing inside my skull. Leaned back with my eyes closed, drifting a few inches above the chair, and felt the early sun on my cheeks, the rumble of a passing truck, the percussive mortars and bomb blasts from the game inside. I was tired but alert, wired in again. We’d been talking nonstop for hours as we depleted our supply—every topic was fascinating on uppers, and every fool’s opinion held some fleetingly elegant new angle.

“So,” she said from a distance.

“Huh? So what?” I opened my lids.

She exhaled a thin stream of vapor, her grey eyes peering at nothing.

“So, what happened, butthead? Why didn’t you become a big, you know,” she waved her cigarette hand and scattered ash all over herself. “Big time moneyman or…whatever.”

She brushed the ashes to the floor, and I edged a bottle full of butts across the table towards her.

“Well, what’s the story, Mr. Celebrity?”

Her teeth chattered and she gripped her sides, shook a chill through as a cloud passed in front of the sun. Speed heightens your sensitivity to every little thing. I savored the bitter aftertaste blooming in my throat and looked down at the office workers through the railing. Thought about those brief days when to be amongst them had been my halfhearted ambition. And I thought about what she hadn’t said but I saw flutter across her glance—how’d I end up such a drugged-out schmuck?

* * * *

When I left for college I planned to study literature but eventually bombed out when I found I’d rather party than keep up with all the reading. My wealthy roommates, meanwhile, were studying economics to become bankers like their fathers, and, taking macro to fulfill a requirement, I found it made sense to me. So I stocked up on statistics and finance, did passably, and through an alumni internship program landed a summer gig at a Smith Barney brokerage house back in Seattle following my sophomore year. Seemed as if it was all going to make sense.

But my old buddy Derek put an end to all of that, five years before it happened.

That summer, though, I was jazzed to be interning downtown. Rode the bus in my tie and windbreaker—my hair was shorter than it is now, and I left my earring at home—with a brown bag lunch packed by Mom. Brought a little anxiety with me, too, like anyone the first day of a new job.

I hopped off in the bus tunnel, Seattle’s twist on the subway, and hiked up the stairs with the rest of the commuters, carrying a backpack in place of a briefcase. Looking up at the street signs, I half-noticed the blue sky peeking through the towers, a green hill full of condos off to the left. Got jostled as I fumbled with the scrap I wrote the address on. Eight-fifty Lincoln Avenue sounded familiar for some reason. I found the street, turned towards the hill, and after a short walk came to Two Lincoln Square, a blue and white skyscraper rising higher than the others nearby. Clamminess immediately crept across my forehead. Now I realized where I was, though I hadn’t been inside the building for years.

In the late 80s, you see, the city had undergone a building boom that transformed much of the downtown skyline. One after another angular or curvy, tall and distinctive towers reached into the sky, in earthy tones of granite, in washed-out blues and reds, sporting spires with decorative balls perched atop, multiple staggered turrets, prominent flagpoles, bold diagonals buttressing the facades. Some approached the height of the black glass and steel Columbia Tower, long the dominant structure in the area, counterpoint to the Space Needle at the other end of the low apron that spread down to the water between Queen Anne and Capitol Hill. Two Lincoln Square emerged as one of the most celebrated, its height making it the second or third tallest, appearing even higher in its location up the slope from the bay at the foot of the hill, hard up against the interstate, with its angled top resembling a captain of industry gazing out to the water, its tall flagpoles whipping the Stars and Stripes and George Washington, beckoning HERE I AM to all of the skyline’s admirers.

The boom had slowed by 1995, the time of my nascent finance career. Most of the new towers were full of upwardly mobile workers busily engaged in the trade and commerce of late 20th century urban life and the supporting businesses that surrounded the financial industry. Law firms, accountants, gyms, coffee shops. The national economy hummed along, and the Emerald City smugly reveled in its pristine reputation.

But I had been inside this building five years before, following my freshman year of high school, when it was still in the midst of construction. The frame had been finished, but many upper floors were still just skeletons of what they would come to be.

After one year in town I had made two good friends, Derek and Jesse. We weren’t members of the popular crowd at Fremont High and spent most of our free time renting videos and going out for pizza and root beer. Both Jesse and I looked up to Derek for his greater ease speaking to girls, most of whom, it’s true, he’d known for years through his parents’ social engagements. Jesse, though more awkward at school, at least had sisters. Girls, and really all social situations, made me break out in a sweat – anything that involved people’s eyes on me, waiting for me to speak up.

We were non-rebellious dorks, with watchful parents and older siblings to emulate. No smoking or drinking, though we may have harbored the desire to do both if given the chance. Least I did, anyway, and Jesse grinned when I hinted about getting buzzed. Derek inevitably wagged his finger in a good-natured way. He had great respect for his stern, successful father and his older brother, an athlete and a brilliant student with a hot girlfriend to boot. Derek, then, was nervous under his calm, polite veneer, and was always focused on reaching a similar level of achievement. Actually, I suppose in reality he despaired of ever living up to their example.

The building boom was in full swing that summer and lured us for our only defiant pastime. We called it “skyscraping”, and it consisted of little more than going as high as we could in these new buildings, and penetrating as many off-limit areas as possible. We weren’t punks. We broke no locks and defied no warning signs. Simply sought the rush of standing high above ground and sneaking through unfinished floors. Touching the tools was even taboo, being terrified of getting injured and having our scheme exposed. We just wanted to get as far up as possible, then return past the oblivious security guards. Weekends were preferable, when enough people were around to blend in with, but the work crews were not.

So that afternoon the three of us hurried up to the lobby’s revolving doors. The grounds crew had begun work on the landscaping at the building’s base, large spaces of dark moist soil dotted with seedlings. Here and there irrigation pipes poked through. Fresh green paint coated tables and benches, and the flocks of sparrows and pigeons had yet to move in.

“Alright,” one of us said. “Stealth mode.”

“Engaged.”

A few casually dressed employees crossed the lobby towards the elevators, and several sightseers lingered at the development’s scale model, which included a shorter companion building, One Lincoln Square, as well as an urban park that sprawled over the partially tunneled freeway. The visitors marveled at the model and the huge modernist sculpture suspended from the three-story high ceiling. We did the same till we sensed that the guards’ attention had shifted, then crossed to the elevator bay.

A balding man stood to one side of the elevator with a folded newspaper. Derek wore an exaggerated look of solemn concentration, trying to make us laugh, as he studied our reflection in the polished metal walls. I pressed the button for the highest floor that didn’t require an access key, and up we sped. When the man got off at floor 35, Derek released his breath and slumped against the wall with relief. I grinned, and Jesse’s lanky frame shook with nervous laughter. We continued up to floor 48. Everything above it was restricted, but we hoped to find a way up by stair.

* * * *

 

The day of my internship the lobby looked the same, and the security guards still kept watch at the information desk. I swallowed my anxiety and headed for the elevators.

I’d seen the building from a distance many times since last entering, when holiday shopping and traveling to and from the airport. I figured I’d gotten over that day in 1990 and looked forward to getting a taste of the brokerage business.

“Ah, those were good years,” said Paul Brewer a few minutes later. He had graduated from my college, and we found we had lived in the same hall ten years apart.

I listened from a padded chair in front of his desk, windows behind him showing the view from the 30th floor.

“I partied too much,” he continued ruefully. “But you’ve got to at that age, you know. It’s your only chance. Just remember to straighten up for the last couple years, so you make it worthwhile.”

I grinned and looked down and away at the floor, feeling abashed.

“Well, you’ve made a good start,” he went on, waving my embarrassment away. “Econ is the way to go. You’ll find this work is chill, very straightforward, and if you put in the time, you can earn a fair penny. Just as long as you don’t mind getting up at four.”

My jaw dropped before I could stop it.

“Yeah,” he said, grinning. “New York hours. But early in, early out. Markets close at 1.”

I was definitely not a morning person.

“This summer you don’t have to be in until 10. So don’t worry,” he chuckled and stood. “Come on. You’ll mostly be working with the ladies.”

He introduced me to a few of the ladies, who turned out to be brokers assistants. Their desks took up the space between the file and conference rooms and the glass-walled offices of the brokers, all of whom seemed to be on the phone. I observed that with a sense of foreboding, since I wasn’t much of a gabber.

The company occupied two floors, and Paul took me up through the stairwell to the managing partner’s office. The echoey metal stairs immediately brought back my previous visit to the building, and I started to feel tiny bugs scurrying up and down the back of my neck.

In 1990, the 48th floor (there were 55 in all) had been quiet and unfinished. Brown paper ran down the length of the floor and doorframes stood empty all along the hall. I glanced in an office and saw bare studs and framing. It smelled of glue and wood and metal. Our feet left tracks through the sawdust, and we scanned for any sign of security cameras. A door marked Emergency Exit stood ajar, propped by a block of wood.

“Bingo,” said Derek. “Methinks we have found the way.”

Jesse sniggered and glanced nervously around, catching my eye and covering his face. Derek boldly strode through in mock seriousness. The stairwell smelled of paint and reverberated under our feet. We hurried up to the top and found another propped door.

Derek pushed, and sunlight burst in. Fresh air smacked my face, and I blinked as the light swallowed Derek’s silhouette. Jesse huffed up behind me. Outside, the sky hung close, clear blue except for one wispy cloud on the run, and the neighboring buildings leaned aside for us to view the bay a mile or two down the hill. To the left rose the scaffold of a newer tower, flanked by construction cranes, and directly above and behind us the huge flags thundered in the breeze. I could taste sea salt on the wind, and gulls wheeled above, turning as they crested the hill behind us and headed toward the sun-dappled bay. In the water rose distant humps of green islands and beyond them in the haze stood jagged snowcapped peaks. It was a gorgeous day, and the future felt as expansive as that view, limitless, sparkling and bright.

“Man,” said Derek, leaning on the railing. “Look at that.”

“Not bad,” I said, but didn’t get too close. It was nice up there, but I preferred to be behind glass. Jesse collapsed into a folding chair against the wall. A coffee can beside him brimmed with cigarette butts.

“Beautiful day, guys,” continued Derek. “Thanks for coming. Really.”

Derek had been insistent on skyscraping today. He’d wanted to check this view out since the building’s shell had taken shape months before. Truth be told, I was getting kind of tired of these expeditions, but the next day he was leaving on a family trip to Egypt, and he’d wanted to do this first. He said he wanted a good memory to take with him on the trip, which he didn’t seem enthusiastic about. I didn’t get that; my family only had money for camping trips, and a trip halfway around the world was just a dream. And Jesse’s parents were each remarried and preoccupied with toddlers. But, we actually hadn’t hung out much the past few weeks, for one reason or another, and Derek had insisted.

“It’s beautiful,” he said again.

Something in his voice drew my eye and I saw what looked like a tear sliding down his cheek. He was looking not out to the water but at me. Well, not at me exactly—through me. I’d have thought the wind was just making his eyes water, except for that note in his voice.

Derek was a strange bird. Friendly and polite like the Eagle Scout he was, but he really didn’t like being around people. They made him nervous, but he told me he felt he had to be courteous—again, he took the Scouting Law to heart. He was not one to hang and shoot the shit in general, except during those times designated for that purpose, as when we got together for pizza and movies. If work had to be done, he focused on it, always aware of the ease with which everything came for his older brother. It put him on edge, an edge that he navigated with disciplined focus on whatever he “should be doing”. Which is why two months earlier he’d somehow missed hearing about Claire’s death.

Claire died from an asthma attack in a swimming pool, sank to the bottom before anyone noticed. The next morning there was an announcement in first period, and everyone spoke in hushed tones the rest of the day. The mood hadn’t lifted after lunch when I saw Derek in American Government. This was ordinarily a relaxed class.
Mr. Richards was one of those hip young teachers who wore a tweed sport coat over his polo shirt and encouraged banter and joking as we debated current events. Ten minutes into a very quiet class, Derek, who unlike me was never shy about speaking up, considering it important to keep the conversation going, suddenly burst out.

“How come everyone’s so solemn today?” he said with a chuckle. “It’s like someone DIED.”

My jaw dropped, you could feel the entire class freeze, and after a beat one of the girls sobbed. Mr. Richards just stared at him with a confused expression.

“Yes, someone did,” I mouthed, eyes wide.

After he realized his mistake, he stammered an apology, his face blotchy. How he could go the entire day without hearing about the death was mystifying and also so very typical. Stuck in his own world, adamantly refusing to be involved in conversation with anyone when there was class work or studying to do. I felt pity and stupendous irritation, and, of course, being a little jerk, I had to rub it in, telling Jesse about it later and ribbing Derek. He hadn’t reacted well.

“It’s not. FUCKING. Funny,” he drilled into me over his coal-black eyes.

After that he’d been subdued for weeks, not interested in getting together. I’d hoped the experience would chill him out a bit, but if anything he became more bottled-up, and his unfailing cheerfulness came off as plastic and brittle.

Paul Brewer left me in the conference room with another intern named Susan, who had started a week earlier and already knew the scoop on the place. Our first task was to sort through leads to determine who to cold-call with stock offers. I was bored within thirty seconds and read the faded cards with distaste. They’d been printed out a long time ago, and notations in the corners indicated that these people had been solicited several times. Mrs. Ethel Starling. Ms. Velma Pierce. Clara Stoddard. They had the ring of elderly widows. My collar itched, and my leg bounced constantly. Susan, a sharp-eyed blonde in a business suit, rattled on about the people in the office and the “packages” they were offering to clients. I began to suspect I had no hope of outshining her this summer. I was surprised, though, both at how little I cared and how quickly the time passed.

“Well, we can break for lunch now,” Susan said after awhile. “Want to join me in the park downstairs?”

I swallowed but, never quick, could think of no reason to decline. She was cute, after all.

The garden park had fully grown in since the last time I’d entered it. It hugged the side of the building in a series of terraces. A row of benches and tables were arranged along a leaded pebble walk, mossy ground cover crept neatly along the border, and lush rhododendron spilled from planters. A stream flowed along river rocks leading from a waterfall at the far end, obscuring the sound of the freeway beyond an ivy-covered wall.

I began to feel some trepidation as we entered the glade, sprinklers running among the greenery, overflowing rivulets of water meandering towards small drains. Several people occupied tables shaded by bright red canvas umbrellas. The sides of the skyscraper vaulted into the air next to us. The water, the muffled traffic, a jet passing overhead, all converged to a deafening roar. Birds twittered obnoxiously above us; a tightness in my chest hemmed me in. Susan seemed a little ridiculous out here, lips flapping and expelling crumbs, talking about life at her small Oregon school, shyly mentioning some boy. I chewed a rubbery turkey sandwich and tried to follow the thread of their romance.

A pool of water between the stones caught my eye, sprinkler runoff dammed up by some stray clippings. A reflection from the red umbrellas shimmered at me, like a slowly creeping pool of blood. And then I saw Derek face down, limbs twisted absurdly, sprawled across the tiny stones, the sounds of traffic and gurgling water merging with sirens and thundering chopper blades.

* * * *

 

Jesse had already turned back and made the first flight down when I realized Derek wasn’t following. I had that funny feeling again, something caught in my throat. I hesitated and turned back.

“Hold up, Jess.”

I pushed the door back open and there he went, this half smile on his face, hands in the air as if he was holding up the clouds. Then his face disappeared and I was looking at Elliot Bay again, off in the distance. Sunshine glinting off wave crests, a ferry chugging into the harbor. I took one step towards the edge but then threw myself backwards, stumbling down the first flight of stairs. Jesse’s fuzzy face, his mouth moving, a roaring in my ears, our footsteps reverberating as we hurtled down the stairs.

* * * *

 

My head reeled, and my food lurched back up and splattered the table between us.

“Oh!” went Susan.

Temples throbbing, I wiped at my mouth, and stumbled backwards just as I had at the top five years earlier. Steadied myself on the side of the building. Walked down to the sidewalk and didn’t look back, Susan already far away.

And that was the end of my storied career in finance.

* * * *

 

I glanced at Gwen. Eyebrows raised, lips parted, her smoke tipped by an inch of ash, she stared into the middle distance. The guy on the other side of her had woken at some point and was roasting some crystal while slowly shaking his head.

“That is some fucked up shit, dude.”

I had no idea who this guy was. Doubted Gwen did either. My feeling of invincibility had worn off, my jaw ached, and the morning had grown cold and grey. I felt like an insect again, my speed-fed urge to prattle on and on completely spent. Gwen broke out of her trance and waved her hands vaguely, and ashes scattered.

I know Derek’s not the only reason I’m chasing the dragon on a Wednesday morning, killing time till my dead-end job. I had no taste for the camaraderie, the competitiveness of the business world, no urge to climb the ladder, basically no respect for bosses. I’m here because I want to be. But you see, that day, afterward, I couldn’t face anyone. The paramedics, the police, Derek’s folks. Couldn’t handle all the attention, the questions, the heartache. As soon as possible I left Jesse to deal with it. And I still see Derek’s eyes as he dropped out of sight, in my sleep, among crowds at parties. At the edge of my vision, just around the corner. When I look again, he’s vanished.

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