Foreverfallby Steven Volynets
Forget Brian, I thought and I stepped onto the scaffold. Buckets ready, cables hoisted, mi novia nestled high in the clouds. Hoy es mi dia. Fuck his blue eyes and his balding head, his ex-wife and their stupid kid, and his stories about how the Irishmen were the first ones up on the highest perch. Chrysler, Rock, Empire State. Irishmen this, Irishmen that. Carajo. Those old-school window ledges are wide enough to have a picnic. So don't believe the hype. All those gabachos were nothing but pigeons. Stick your ass out the window, strap yourself to the frame, squeak-squack and dip right back inside to safety. No. It's not a real climb if you take the elevator. Besides, if those Irishmen with their suspenders and pork pie hats saw a Costas—forty-five floors, all windows and glass and not one ledge to give a foothold—they'd stay down in the coal mines or subway tunnels, or whatever other shit jobs they did back in their day.
“I bet she's up there, Paco,” our skybox tipped and groaned under Brian's bulk. “Just sitting around, waiting for you to sweep her off her feet with your squeegee.”
“My name is not Paco,” I said and checked the truss joints, already sticky with August sun.
“Let me tell you something, Paco,” he clicked his safety line. “One day all this pussy chasing is gonna give you a good shake.”
“Shake this,” I pointed to my crotch.
Fucking Brian. Always blabbing bullshit, making me forget—once my lunch, another time my hardhat—always fucking with my routine. But we sparrows don't get to choose our wingmen. Last time I worked this Costas, he worked it with me. I'll never forget that December, cold and gusty with snow, the sharp smell of winter in the air cutting our breath. We both felt the pellet-hits of sand grains, rye and dead insects through our ski masks, all raised into the air by wind storms and hurricanes and carried across the states to sting us like a cloud of wasps. Same midtown street, same Costas, same offices, where the first few floors are the only ones where you'll spot prietos. From ten and up, it starts to slowly turn whiter and blonder, like some giant glass Polaroid. By the time you reach the top, everybody looks like Brian—bald and pink like salmon meat. But not my beautiful mujer. She must've heard the scuffing of our ice scrapers and—un milagro! We were at the forty-fifth floor, but when she turned her skin was as dark and shiny as Arbequina olives. She looked at me and smiled and nothing was the same. The snow soared all around us, falling up instead of down. I've seen that before—something about the way skyscrapers disturb the air above. But on that day it was like magic. Mi novia, making the winter sky dance. I pulled my mask off and I forgot that I was thick and stubby. And Mexican. But Brian, he remembered. So he hit the lift switch and our scaffold revved again, pulling me up and away from her.
But, like my papá always says, that's life in this country—each day a double take of yesterday. "Let’s go," I called and thumbed my chest tag: CityClean: We Make Speed. "It doesn't say that for nothing." That's what we do. Strap, click and lift. Spic ‘n Span all the way up to the sky, all forty-five floors by no later than 4:30. But Brian was in no hurry. Like a fat tortuga too big for its own shell, he stomped about, checking truss spools, making the deck creak and float under our feet. Fucking Brian. Ten years ago they'd hire mostly ilegales. At eight hundred feet there was no need for papers or good English—just enough huevos to swing a squeegee without passing out. But in 2007, after the cables on Alcides Moreno's skybox snapped, things changed for us sparrows. Vato wasn't strapped and fell forty-seven stories to the wooden fence. Un hombre caído del cielo, they sang, un héroe! and started checking everybody's papers. Except he actually survived. Broke every bone in his body, but lived to tell the tale. Un milargo! they cried, and started hiring fat old gabachos like Brian. All it takes is one moreno. Dead or living, no one wanted ilegales to start raining out of the sky. But I wasn't scared. When I read about it the paper I thought, real sparrows don't fall unless they die in the sky first. Besides, I was an ilegale too until I turned fourteen and got my papers. We all did. Except papá, he never got his. Mexicans must do everything twice, he laughed when the INS threatened to deport him. Fist time for practice. Second time for real. I know what he means too, because even though I finished school in Brooklyn, whenever I call to order Lo Mein noodles I still double-check my English while the phone rings. Which is funny since those Chinos can't speak English for shit. But that's America, papá says, la nación de oportunidades segundas. You always do something before you do it again—like me and my mujer. Last time for practice. This time for real.
"Yo, hurry up," I almost shouted. But Brian just pulled his nose like he was the tired Mexican and I a lazy gabacho. I wish I wasn't stuck with him in a scaffold. I wish I could strap onto my own lift line and hoist myself up with a suction pump. But, like papá says, Mexicans are always stuck somewhere—somewhere between Puebla and Manhattan, between street and sky, between sleep and work. So I flipped the switch—a jolt, a ripple of water in our buckets—and up we went, gears grunting, pulling slowly up and away from the antsy sidewalk. We always started at the roof and made our way down. But this Costas was a new one, with a helicopter pad. And believe me when I tell you, those spinning rotors are bad news for us sparrows. So we used a set of rooftop swings and started from the bottom. Went at it fast and hard—first, second, third—our squeegees gliding across the windows, making that glass sweat. Passing the fifth floor, the mailroom, Brian stopped, tipped his hardhat, wiped the forehead with his sleeve, reached for water. Behind the glass jóvenes, prietos like me and maybe a few blanquitas were teaming around a big machine, hitting buttons, sorting mail, all slacks and blue shirts, no ties. Our skybox rose and the higher it went the more of them we could count. I smiled and waved to them. But when they saw us across their windows—something new stuck to the sky—only their eyes stopped and noticed while the rest of their bodies kept going, pushing wheel-carts in and out of the room. They didn't smile or frown—just blinked once or twice and kept working, floating past each other like human goldfish in a giant glass bowl.
Brian scuffed their windows and squinted. “Hey, Paco. Did you know we were the first niggers?”
“I mean us, Irishmen," he explained. "We were the first niggers in New York.”
“I am Mexican,” I said.
“Hijo de puta," I let my head wobble. "If you're gonna talk shit, you may as well get your niggers right.”
“But it's true. Look around,” he picked bunched overalls out of his ass crack. “The subways, the bridges, this Costas we are cleaning. Who do you think built all this?”
“You mean the Costas I'm cleaning,” I spritzed water off my squeegee at him. “You just stand around picking your ass.”
“I’m telling you, Paco,” he smelled his hand. “We built this Costas, this city and everything in it.”
"You didn't build shit," I said. "Costas built this Costas"
He must've thought I was speaking Spanish, because he looked as lost as the last island of hairs shaking in the wind over his bald cabeza.
“Costas Kondylis," I said again. "The architect."
Brian scratched his head. “Is he some kind of Jew?”
“He is an immigrant, you fool,” I said. "From Greece."
"Oh yeah?" he let his arms drop. "If he is so smart, how come he couldn't put some ledges on these windows?”
“Maybe he hates fat Irishmen who have culo for a face.”
He waved me off and blurted something out.
Brian was forty-something, going on sixty, and I was twenty-five. He lived in Staten Island. I roomed in Sunset Park. His father ran a plumbing business and mine was from Puebla. For twenty years, to support me and my two baby sisters, papá worked jobs that didn't ask for papers. And while Brian was busy working on his Staten Island house, papá bused dishes and sold water bottles and oranges on the side of Fourth Avenue while my mother cleaned offices for CityClean overnight. I wanted to go to college, but her manager needed window cleaners. The pay wasn't great, but it wasn't bad either—fools with enough heart to climb the towers are hard to come by. That's how I got to be a sparrow. And that's the only thing that connected me and Brian—this job, this Costas. And the Verrazano Bridge.
By the time we passed lucky thirteen, we could actually see it, a spiky cable towing Staten Island, keeping it from floating into the sea. And then the spires of Chrysler Building and Empire State, veiled by thin smog, started to peek from behind the brick lowrises and rooftop water tanks. That's when the wind swirled in, light and breezy at first, to hush the world below. This city moves too fast for me. But the higher we went, the more things slowed down, an occasional car horn fading into a distant hum. Soon all I heard was the sound of glass weeping under my squeegee—dip, wipe, lift, repeat. Once at fifteen, the city was hardly there at all, frozen into a postcard. That's what the people down below, smart as they come, never get. If you want some calm in New York City, there ain't nowhere to go but up.
“Hey, Paco. Did you know Columbus was a Jew?”
But there ain't no calm if you are up there with Brian.
“It's true,” he said, playing with window dirt. “I read about it in the paper. They did some digging, right?" he stopped. "And you know what they came up with?”
“Who, the New York Post?”
“Yeah. They worked it all out. All the dates and numbers and everything.”
“Sounds like the sports section.”
“Except it's true,” he pleaded. “He ran away to America, they say, to hide from your people, them Spaniards.”
“I am Mexican.”
“Yeah, I know,” he made that duh face again. “That's what they say, that he was some kind of fucked-up secret Jew who ran away to America to hide.”
“He was hiding alright," I laughed at him. "Hiding all the shit he stole from the Indians."
“But think about it,” he lowered his squeegee and looked at me. “What if it's true? What if America was discovered by a runaway Jew? What does that make us?”
“Window cleaners,” I said.
He looked out over the city and scratched his naked head. It left a soapy trace across the freckles.
“Hey, wait a minute,” he stopped like he saw something. “What if your girl is a Jew?”
“You know, your girl on forty-five,” he pointed with his squeegee, specks of soap dripping on him again. “What if she is a Jew? What are you gonna do about that?”
“I don't know. Maybe I'll ask her to circumcise your tongue so you stop talking so much.”
“You don't know anything, Paco,” he shook his head at me. “You are young, dumb and full of cum.”
“My name is not Paco,” I said to him. “And you are old, fat and full of shit.”
You know how you always want your kid to take over the family business? I don't think that's what Brian's father wanted for him. Fixing broken sinks, toilets, digging in other people's shit. He served in the Army and wanted Brian to be a pilot, to fly jets off carriers. A stupid doughy loco that he was, Brian must've figured that washing windows was the next best thing. Hell, maybe it was. We brave the heights too, Brian always brags, we just don't get laid as much. That's not all we don't get. Those fighter pilots sit in a cockpit, warm in January, cool in July. They've also got all kinds of parachutes and ejection buttons. All we get is a couple hard hats and a flimsy safety line. And even that thing gets hooked to our own scaffold, not the roof. So if our skybox fails, we fail. And that's all there is to it. No trumpets, no medals, no neatly folded flags. No heroes. Just a couple of sparrows dead on the sidewalk.
The higher you climb, the more you think about that. By the time we got to twenty-five I was hungry. So we docked right outside the private office of this hombre, big and serio, hunched over his computer, with photos of toothy kids nearby. Like last time, Brian brought a thermos with coffee and his tuna sandwich in a brown bag. And me? I packed a square tub of pork-fried rice from the night before. We sat and ate with our backs to the city, watching the hombre, rail bars pressing into our spines.
"That's some job, Paco," Brian bit into his smelly tuna melt. "Getting paid to sit on your ass all day."
"Maybe you should apply," I joked. "See if they're hiring."
Brian belched, que cerdo, and pulled himself up by the railing.
"I like working outside," he put his hands over his culo and cracked his back.
"You call that work?" I dragged my finger against his side of the window and held it up to show him the grime. That's when the hombre behind the glass turned in his seat and looked at me and Brian. He raised his hand, pointing to the same smudge I just fingered, saying something to us with his hands.
"What the fuck?" Brian flanked his face with both hands and pressed it to the window.
"Conjo," I laughed so hard I almost pissed my calzoncillos. "I think he is saying you missed a spot."
Brian flipped his middle finger, but by then the hombre turned his back on us and went back to work.
"Hey, asshole!" he yelled and breathed hot air on the glass. He then tried to write 'Fuck You!' on it. But this was still August and the steam didn't stick. The 'F' quickly melted and the 'U' never had a chance.
"Fat fuck!" he shouted, still chewing his tuna. "Thinking he is on top of the world."
"Remind you of somebody?" I caught my breath.
“Fuck'm. I aint losing my job over that scumbag," he huffed. "He ain't the only one with kids.”
He pulled a wallet from his back pocket and pinched out a picture—a stained crumpled three-by-four, its edges yellow with age. The wind was flapping it in his hand, but I could still make out two soldiers, arms wrapped around each other, wearing spotty uniforms the color of sand. It looked like they were on another planet, because there was nothing around but dirt, rocks and shadows of their own bodies. The one on the right smiled real wide, wearing a helmet with thick goggles over it.
“That's my boy, Chrissie,” Brian beamed. "In Iraq."
But all I saw was a couple of Brians, fixing toilets, laying brick, scrubbing windows and bragging about being Irish to a bunch of Mexicans.
“Thank god he looks nothing like you,” I snorted, not knowing what else to say.
We were coming to the thirty-floor mark and I was in no mood for jokes. This was the place where the winds picked up and all the city birds would start to thin out— the invisible line in the sky, the point of no return for us sparrows. I was starting to feel it. A few more floors and we would pass through the clouds. And then they'd swarm the building like prey, close under us, blanketing our view of the world below. It wasn't about the heights—anything above the third floor, fourth tops, is a certain killer. It was the calm hollowness of the sky, the confusion of not seeing the city under the clouds, like migrating birds flying blind. It was about not knowing how far you've come, how high you are, how long the fall would last. Foreverfall. That's what we sparrows call it. Only we don't talk about it much. It's bad luck.
I won't lie, though. It was nice to have Brian shut up for a while. It was almost 3:30 and we were working our way up nice and steady. So I kept swinging my squeegee, scrubbing and wiping, swatting the dirt away until all of Manhattan could be seen in that glass, all without blemish. But then our skybox suddenly halted and I saw Brian perk up. I should've known. His hand was at the lift switch and there was a pair of legs on the other side of the window, smooth, fair skinned, crossed at the knee.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I said.
“Check out those stems,” he whispered.
We were just below her, between the floors, but she couldn't see us. She uncrossed her thighs and pulled her skirt.
“Look, Paco!” he grinned and groaned, holding his breath.
“How about you play with your little polla at home,” I said and pushed the lift switch.
"Come on, she wanted us to look," Brian flailed his squeegee, sending soap water flying over the rail, “Why else do you think they wear mini-this and mini-that?”
I threw a glance at the blanquita, but she was gone, sinking below our deck.
“I mean, do you even know why women wear lipstick?”
“Que maricón,” I sighed.
“They put it on their lips to make us think of their pussies,” he instructed.
I cupped my forehead. “Are you reading the style section now?”
“No,” he gave me that stupid ‘duh' face again. “It was in one of them glossy beauty magazines my wife used to get.”
“You mean your ex-wife.”
He didn't look at me, but I saw his face redden.
“But it's true," he kept on. "It all goes back to Egypt and pyramids and pharaohs. And what's her face, the pharaoh's wife, Afrotity.”
“Afro-tity," he broke it down. "She was the one who started the whole thing.”
“I gotta tell you, vato. You more fucked up than I thought.”
“Just trying to school you in the way of ladies, Paco,” he kept smearing dirty water all over the glass I just cleaned.
I hit the stop switch. It was almost four o'clock and I was stalling. Stalling because of Brian's bullshit, his gabacho jokes, his miserable life.
“I thought you were in a hurry,” he arched his eyebrows.
“Stop calling me Paco.”
“What's wrong with Paco?”
“So what's your problem?”
“That's not my name.”
“Paco, Fucko, what's the difference?” he shrugged.
"Just leave me alone and do your work," I said.
"Thinking about your girl, eh Paco?" he cackled. “What do you think will happen when you get up there?”
“I am not sure," I scratched my chin like I was thinking. "Maybe you'll get a mouthful of bird shit and stay quiet for a while.”
“Come on,” he whined. “She probably doesn't even remember you. And even if she does, she can have anybody in this whole damn Costas, all them rich stock brokers and lawyer types. You are just a boy who cleans her office windows.”
“At least I clean them,” I said. “All you do is pick your ass and crack your mouth.”
“You think she'll blow on the glass and smudge little hearts on it for you?” he giggled. “Press her titties to the window, blow you kisses?”
I turned away from him.
“Not that I mind,” he grinned and grabbed his crotch. “She has a nice set of lips on her, if you get my meaning."
His filthy smile washed all over me, his teeth small and stained with coffee, tickling my pride, teasing my most secret places like in one of those uncontrollable dreams. I felt like she was there, like she could hear the stink out of Brian's mouth, standing there and looking at me, waiting.
He saw me tense up and pouted, "Are you sore because I called your girl a Jew?”
My eyes went up to his head and back down to his feet. I saw him for everything he was: his balding head, a droopy sack of face between his ears, a five-foot-seven stump of mierda—all tuna fish, soda and bullshit. I clasped my jaw and squeezed the handle of the squeegee until I felt wood bend in my fist.
“So how're things with your ex-wife, ah cabrón?”
His face turned red. “Watch it there, Paco.”
“You send your carajo kid to some carajo war?” I laughed so hard I heard my echo. “No wonder she left you.”
I saw a thick blue vein bubble on his temple.
“Fuck you!” he screamed and threw his squeegee in the bucket. It made a soapy splash. “What the fuck do you know about family?”
“I know you're not good at it,” I said.
“Keep talking, Paco,” he started rolling up his sleeves. “Keep talking. And you'll see what happens.”
Brian was a fat fuck, but I was bigger and stronger than him. I knew I could easily cut his cord and push him over the railing. Call it an accident. Watch him fade into foreverfall. And then splat! His gooey fat, guts and bile splashed all over Midtown.
I put the squeegee on the platform and stepped right up to him. “You ain't got the heart.”
“What?” he flinched.
“I say you got no heart!” I shouted.
A gust of air ruffled our scaffold.
“No heart,” went my echo.
He took a step back. Then another. He knew I was for real. I stared him down all the way back to his side of the scaffold. He turned his head, but my eyes were still on him. I saw fear in his face for the first time and hit the up switch.
The grunt of gears sounded louder and the trusses above tightened and screeched under pressure. Our skybox was inching toward the top of the building. I was so close. In my mind I was already with her, my head not my own. The brush still moved across the glass, my hands kept working, but the rest of my body felt numb with emptiness and love. Our scaffold was rising slowly past the floor line between forty-four and forty-five. This was it. But I couldn't be sure. It's been almost a year since I was last up here. Her office could've been on a different side of the building. So I kept looking, turning my head from side to side. And then I saw it. I hit the stop switch to mute the scaffold. It was just off to the right side of the deck. Brian's side. So I pushed right past him and he moved out of my way. That's when the sun painted the room and I squinted—beige walls, wooden table tops, framed diplomas—lines up and across, light everywhere. There was a woman at the desk, her back to me. Alone. And I knew. I knew it was her. It had to be. Mi novia!
I pressed my palms to the window.
“Remember me?” I banged against the glass.
She shifted in her chair.
“It's me!” I cried into the Costas. “Remember me!”
...And that's when the whole world shook.
The water sloshed inside the buckets. Some of it spilled over the rims and oozed down the scaffold. The truss joints overhead let out a strange moan. Everything around us moved. No height ever bothered me. I've worked buildings taller than this Costas and caught some serious gusts. But this was the first time I felt a clutch of vertigo inside. My feet were on the deck, but I felt like I was falling. Somehow everything was wrong. We were 800 feet in the sky, right in the throat of wind alley. But this was no wind. It was the Costas. It swayed and we were swaying with it. It was an earthquake. An earthquake in New York.
It started somewhere in Virginia and spread all over the map: D.C., Maine, Maryland, Midtown. For folks down below those few tremors were nothing, a little shake, a ripple in your coffee, a broken vase—an interruption—a morning story that died by afternoon. But on that August day, up in the sky, things were different for us sparrows.
The second tremor rocked the buildings so hard it shivered—a giant glass monster trying to shake us off like a couple of fleas. Our skybox was dangling just under the roof, only a few feet below the flat of it. The cables between our scaffold and the roof's edge tightened and the sound of warping metal escaped from the swings and pulleys that kept us suspended. Then came another jolt and our whole skybox, all of its crackling plywood and nails, jerked from side to side like it caught a seizure. Brian grabbed and pulled the cables—our only lifelines—to steady the deck. The echo of his “fuck” crossed the air and he looked like he was trying to tame a wild horse. I couldn't tell how many more tremors came after that. My body made no sense of all the trembling—if it was us swaying or the Costas lurching. So when the building shook again, swinging our skybox up toward the edge of the roof, it felt it all at once: us rising, mi novia fading somewhere below my feet, the cables clapping up against the glass, and all the left-to-right lines separating the floors suddenly tilting up like clock hands going from three back to high noon. We kept sailing upward, all the way past the edge of the roof, until the earth finally remembered to pull and the scaffold stopped rising. Like the skeleton of a dead rain cloud, it froze in the air just above the roofline. I threw a crooked glance over the rail. Everything was wrong, off center, suspended. And for a moment I saw the skyline kneel.
Another squeeze in my stomach and back down we went, wind and dust lashing against my face, my eyes lost in the blur of the city. I knew we'd sway again before we stop and it was hard to see or feel anything but fear. That's when a distant shape flashed against the glass—a curved line, then another, a flicker, a face, smeared but there, getting closer and closer as we fell. Mi novia. The wind grew louder, whipping water from my eyes, rushing into my ears, nose, mouth, seizing me inside. And just as our scaffold sailed past the forty fifth floor our faces flashed past one another. And for a quick second she was right in front of me. Her lips moved like she wanted to say something. She looked at me, her eyes two frozen gems of mercury and honey. She knew! And my mouth cracked in a smile—she saw me! She knew it was me. She remembered. …And ran. Ran for her life. And just like that, I felt it under me, a tinge of soapy wetness on the wooden deck, the carwash smell of liquid cleaner, the chill under my boots—my feet slipping—and I remembered what it was I forgot. The click. My safety line. I was unfastened. And free.
I remember the rest only in smudges. The crazy tumble of the world—sky, glass, city, sky—the way I slipped and rolled down the scaffold, the numb grasp of my fingers on the rail, our squeegees cartwheeling off the wooden boards and fading into the open maw of the city, its New York breath under my feet, my papá, his face still so young, the sound of his laughter, the way he tossed me up, rough hands stretched to the sky, the grip of joy deep in my belly when I was in the air, the tug of Midtown down below and how it wanted me, like papá, as I was falling back, Alcides Moreno's picture in the paper, the happy tears in his esposa's eyes, the bounce of the sun against the glass, making me blind with reds and yellows, and then a big doughy hand covered in freckles, its grasp on mine, my body rising, a voice screaming Paco!, beating gravity, pulling me out of foreverfall.
He propped me under my arm with his whole body and we climbed over the edge plopping down on the rooftop resin, still hot and sticky from the sun.
“I told you, Paco,” he puffed, all out of breath. “One day all this pussy chasing is gonna give you a good shake.”
“My name is not Paco,” I gasped, swallowing air, my hand still holding his.
I looked through the water in my eyes and the whole city sprawled out around us like god's own doormat.
"Some view," he said, his hand still holding mine.
Él me salvó, I thought. Él me salvó, aunque no salvó mi día.
We sat awhile and coughed and laughed— two sparrows at the rooftop of Manhattan.