By a quarter to six they’ve begun pulling into the parking lot. It being summer, the rooftop will be smoldering by nine, so they’ve pulled their cars sleepily in at this hellish hour to beat the worst of the sun. In the intervening moments between the staggered arrivals and the official start of the day’s work, some of the men lean back in their driver seats and rest their eyes, but the majority congregate in the vicinity of the company truck, milling vaguely and muttering greetings, smoking cigarettes in semi-sociable silence. At approximately six, without any sort of centralized command or factory steam whistle, the crowd coalesces into a functioning labor force. They unload boxes from the company truck and place the boxes onto hand carts. They push the handcarts through a series of doors and hallways, strap on belts of battered tools, and grumble amiable bitternesses about the various possible complications likely to be awaiting them there, above, on the hot, flat roof.
A delicate and precarious balance between the predictable and unpredictable aspects of the job functions, for Nate Joyner, as a prophylactic against the creeping misery of a regimented life. One requires, of course, the occasional dose of the unpredictable, for this is the domain in which one proves oneself, adapting to and overcoming challenges and feeling the satisfaction of fulfilling one’s potential. Less often heralded, however, are the predictable and general aspects of worklife, which play, in fact, an equally important role in the maintenance of Joyner’s mental hygiene.
The dreary repetition pulls the unpredictable facets together into a cohesive whole. Done right, there is a comforting rhythm to this sort of monotony. The sort of thing which might serve as a foundation upon which to erect the superstructures of one’s life. Dark mornings, hungover showers, clear highways, sour-stomached cigarettes smoked in semi-sociable silence with everybody leaned up against the company truck. That familiar crackling as you roll out your shoulders’ cuffs. Murmured groans of male voices as stiff bodies bend to hoist the first of that day’s many burdens. A shared jargon of products, brands, and company nomenclature, in addition to the industry standard terminology: volts, amps, municipal codes, OSHA regulations and the like. The familiarity of the verbal idiosyncrasies of each individual crewmate and the even less consciously perceptible familiarity and stability of seeing, every day, the same set of faces display the same general set of expressions, chosen from within that already circumscribed repertoire of facial attitudes deemed appropriate for the work persona to don. The familiarity of Nate’s weathered Toyota, its distinctive and alarming rattle at certain speeds, its faint but persistent smell of former meals consumed in a reclined driver’s seat, its eclectic and syncretic collection of pirated CDs.
A silent elevator ride, Nate Joyner’s body squeezed in behind handcarts piled high with toolbags, cardboard boxes containing the floodlights that are to be installed that day, 10 ft. bundles of half-inch conduit, the elevator smelling faintly of showered male bodies and the odd accreted smells of an electrician’s toolbag—the dusts of a thousand ceilings, each dust contributing its own particular scent of, like, splattered restaurant grease or sterile, office AC, or brake particulates and engine oil, all combined and sort of burnt smelling due to the heat produced by the whirring motors of the various power tools, by the friction of metal against metal, of furious screws burrowing inexorably inward, all this in combination with that peculiar, uniquely electrical smell of blown fuses and sparking wires.
They reach the top floor where they shuffle out of the elevator, down the hall, and up the ladder to the hatch to the roof, passing up boxes and tools and carts and water to Pete, the first man up, who’s been pacing around the parking lot since like 5:40, basically just rearing to get the shift going. He’s an older guy, tall, broad, and gregarious, emitting an unceasing and affable stream of greetings, remembrances of other days spent repairing and installing similarly electrical components, and little raised-eyebrowed exclamations rendered in an outdated vulgate idiom of the working class Chicago White—things like “That one up there’ll be a real pistol,” gesturing simultaneously up at a precipitously dangling floodlight at the building’s northwest corner; a trained eye could indeed surmise the degree of intestinal fortitude required to lean out over the roof’s edge and down, loosen the bolts, and haul the whole ensemble back up onto the roof. All of which commentary occurs at a time of day when Nate is chiefly concerned with keeping his eyes open, forcing down his first cigarette without retching, and attempting surreptitiously to time his noxious, hungover farts to coincide with that morning’s intermittent gusts of wind.
However much he may suffer throughout the commute, a deftness of fingers and quietness of mind can be relied upon to descend upon him after the first hour of work, dispelling all but the most tenacious and well-deserved hangovers. It’s as if each iteration of a work process enlarges that process’ presence in Nate’s mind.
The iterated process is thus: haul up the rusty old light casing, inevitably filled with old stagnant rainwater, as well as those sorts of creatures who thrive in old stagnant rainwater. Rip the thing apart with a combination of impact driver, hand tools, and brute force. Set the old screws and brackets off to the side for future use, leave the transformers in a cart for whoever is willing to schlep them off and haggle with the guys at the junkyard, and put the rest of the scrap in a heavy-duty plastic trash bag for somebody to eventually huck over the side of the building onto an unoccupied section of lawn. Then the somewhat creative sub-process of fitting the alien-looking LED retrofit kit and AC-DC driver into the empty husk of the former light, which, since none of the former lights seem to be of the same make, model, or even dimensions, requires that higher-order mental processes be invoked at each recurrence of this stage of the process, which is much to Nate’s annoyance for he relishes the odd, yogic clarity of robotically repeating an almost mechanical process. And so then you splice wires, close it up with the screws you’ve set aside from the beginning, and bolt the thing back where it came from.
With time, the lighting installation process crowds out the interior voice that drums constantly against Nate Joyner’s skull, gnawing implacably at the psycho-spiritual, immaterial stuff of which emotional wellbeing is composed. The momentary respite of work allows the gnawed-upon bits to clot up and regenerate, psycho-spiritual antibodies whizzing around like a troop of selfless, finger-brandishing little Dutch boys.
This clarity of mind and attendant deftness of fingers coincides roughly with the first drops of sweat.
This is all to say that Joyner rather likes his job, all things considered. That he finds its combination of familiarity and unpredictability to be the sort of combination that did not often produce vertiginous dread and questioning of self-worth.
* * *
The morning’s light ripens into the brutal near-white of the fully risen sun. Four dripping men kneel, hunched, at the four corners of the building, seemingly unaware of their proximity to the precipice, the evolutionarily programmed fear of the edge submerged by their sense of mission. Nate twists and caps wires, his intent so possessive of his very being that he disappears into it. It’s like, if some internal motivation or drive is magnified to the point where no conflicting motivation possesses sufficient power to check it, the compulsive nature of the drive will sort of disappear from view. Nate becomes the task. He extends a fair bit of torso out over the 9-story drop, reaching down and around to bolt the fixture back to the building. He feels something in his back that is not quite pain but portends pain to come, a signal of his muscles’ displeasure with his contortions.
At around 10:30, Nate removes his left, rubber-gripped glove so as to more effectively pick at an irritating facial abnormality. He gulps water, rolls out his crackling shoulders, tracks the progress of an airplane descending into O’Hare International. He returns to work without replacing the glove. He leans out into the morning air to loosen the next light’s rusted bolts, the roof’s grit digging into his exposed knees. His left hand clutches white-knuckled at the fixture’s casing, ready to take its weight when the last bolt comes free. When the final bolt’s rusted head snaps off in his drill’s socket, the 20 lb. weight lurches suddenly downward. Nate’s assiduous attention to his left hand’s vise-like grip notwithstanding, the sudden descent, sweat-slippery palm, and the slice of sharp-edged metal casing against bare skin coincide to simultaneously compromise both balance and grip. That evolutionary panic of feeling your body impelled perilously downward from a great height. The animal self-preservation of reflex. He steadies himself and feels the light’s wires elude his desperate grasp as the light plummets to the sidewalk below.
* * *
They’d let him go, of course. Hadn’t even taken him to the station. He’d stared at his shoes, exhibited his sliced palm, repeatedly mumbled the same inadequate responses through a thick throat. They’d taken it all down on their little cop notepads.
Surely there’d been some conversation with sympathetic comrades. Something of the “don’t blame yourself, could have happened to anyone” genus of sympathetic comments. Surely. He had the definite impression of having had Pete’s sweat-slippery upper arm wrapped hotly around his guilt-sloped shoulders.
Certain transformative memories are so deeply and permanently impressed into whatever matter memories are molded of that the surrounding moments, minutes, hours are more or less obliterated, or at least rendered pale and shadowy, overshadowed by the impact of the event. The wet thunk of plummeting metal impacting animal matter. The watermelon-ish explosion emanating from the point of impact. The unspeakable splatter. The ghastly silence before the screams. The seemingly endless instant before reflex, the guilty party, the murderer, intervened too late, forcing his eyes from the spectacle, his body back from the edge.
That ghastly silence, the instant before the screams, continued interminably to echo in a deep region of Nate’s soul. It echoed as his comrades dropped their tools and rushed over to the roof’s precipice to bear witness, drawing back in horror with expletives and prayers. It echoed as Pete’s arm’s sweat soaked through his shirt’s back, Pete’s smoke-roughened voice dispensing what had presumably been a series of could’ve-happened-to-anyones, riddled no doubt with the idioms of his particular outdated, White, working class vulgate. It echoed as he mumbled and displayed his palm to uniformed authority figures, as he watched his comrades stow their tools and head off to their private lives, where they would relate that day’s terrible spectacle to loved ones in hushed tones, as the Crew Chief valiantly fended off the furious attempts of the building’s administrative staff to approach him where he limply sat, the sun beating down on his forearms and the nape of his bent neck, his skin perceptibly burning, “look at the kid for Chrissakes, leave him alone, this is my job site and—well of course we feel awful about it, Christ, I feel like trash, it happened on my watch, my responsibility…call OSHA then, I’ll be calling them myself,” the Crew Chief leafing manically through a tattered copy of the Municipal Code without looking at its contents, brandishing it for emphasis.
This “echoing silence of the soul” is, of course, merely a metaphor for an entirely non-auditory phenomenon which lacks a sufficiently precise and evocative title. “Echoing silence” does, however, seem to be an effective means of communicating that common experience of a silence being rendered conspicuous through juxtaposition with the constant auditory input endemic to (modern) life. And a “silence of the soul” certainly seems to adequately encapsulate the flattening of affect that follows in the wake of trauma. The echoing quality of this interior silence refers, be it known, to a felt pulsation, a periodic oscillation occurring as a result of the kindly and protective silence’s recurring struggle to submerge the rising bubbles of overwhelming affect, of bitter, unassuageable guilt, bubbles cruelly seeking to puncture the silence and insinuate themselves into the sufferer’s conscious mental landscape.
Not that the internal silence had been entirely successful in its attempts to interdict the rising bubbles of sentiment. Not that Joyner hadn’t been racked, that is, by the ascendant winds of coming emotional storms. He had. He’d sobbed abjectly in the reclined front seat of the car, amidst its familiar smells of previously eaten food and previously smoked squares. What’d done it, what’d pushed him over into utter woe, had been the car’s CD player, which had sprung dutifully to life as he’d turned the key, had resumed the very same Hendrix track at the very same moment at which he, as a different man, his soul clean of the eternal stain of blood-guilt, had cut it short that morning. He’d shrunk into himself to absorb the physical weight of it all. He’d folded himself about the center of his pain and wept, abjectly, in an exurban gas station parking lot. He’d exhausted his capacity for tears. He’d waited for the numb silence to insinuate itself into whatever layer of soul-stuff it inhabited, to perform its analgesic but ultimately time-buying labor. Then he’d pulled onto the Expressway to sit in silence in the midst of the procession of mass-produced metal boxes making their humble pilgrimage into the glittering metal forest of Chicago.
Back in the city, he’d circled his block twice. Each glimpse of the yellow brick of his two-flat apartment had elicited a cascade of upward bubbles, which had sliced deftly through the thick viscosity of the echoing, palliative silence. Mercifully, the silence remained effective in its submersion of those most soul-rending bubbles of all, for Nate did not once consciously consider the torrent that would have been called forth by the thought of the woman with whom he shared an apartment. He did not once allow any such thoughts to enter his mind—or, rather, it was the kind and merciful silence that denied them access, rather than any sort of effort on Joyner’s part.
He’d pulled up to the curb down the block, opened the driver’s side door, and smoked a long cigarette with his feet dangling in the gutter, letting it burn out several times in his mouth. Here, he allowed himself to consider a rather abstract representation of the woman, a conception consisting of discrete sums of characteristics, denuded of emotional resonance. He mused, distantly, on the possibility that the woman existed, to him, more real-ly as a phenomenon within the confines of his soul and emotional life, as a sort of nexus of memories, than as a material agent. The conclusion emerged, unbidden, that the contamination of his guilt ought not be visited upon the innocent. This conclusion seemed (at the time) remarkably uninflected by emotion, and thus reliable.
So Nate drove absentmindedly off and ended up prowling along the lakeshore, picking his way along the graffitied blocks at the steely water’s edge, sitting for a moment now and then to watch the water lap at the eroded concrete. Occasional bubbles riled the silence. Once or twice he broke into dry, choking sobs which subsided as quickly as they’d come on. He feared, in a moment of clarity, that the silence’s dissipation was inevitable, that the circling emotional winds portended a psychic shitstorm of formidable proportions. To the south rose the sleek metal idols of the Chicago Loop, Faustianly vertical against the horizon. To the north, older idols of stone and concrete, decrepit old Uptown and Edgewater. He did not know how to address his dread of the silence’s dissipation, much less his yearning for the expiation of the guilt itself.
He felt that there had to be someone, somewhere who could tell him something more than ‘it could’ve happened to anyone.’ Though God knows he wouldn’t have had much else to say if it’d been someone else who’d done it. He feared the stain would be permanent. Even if absolution were somehow possible, what could he confess to? Without malice, without negligence, he had been forever tainted. With it, his work had been tainted, for how could he look down from a rooftop without imagining the sickening impact of…and only now did he realize that his labor had formed the very foundation of his existence. To face the woman, to see her contaminated by the leaking putridity of his soul—for he felt he could not be relied upon to contain the pollution—to hear her join the ranks of the could’ve-been-anybody crowd, eventually to father children and see them made impure with his sin…no, it could not be.
Though his spirit had occasionally raged against its tethered existence, Nate Joyner realized that he had thrived within the secure, regimented, assiduously curated confines of his day-to-day life. He thought of his work, with its delicate balance of novelty and routine, its ability to grant him emotional clarity as a reward for physical exertion, its orientation toward a definite, attainable, yet sufficiently demanding objective, its easy camaraderie devoid of the complexities and obligations of extracurricular friendships—this work had built a steady, reliable man out of a being innately canted towards self-destructive chaos. He thought of Eleanor—not the 2-dimensional abstraction denuded of emotional resonance, nor the summation of a list of discrete personal characteristics, nor even the human creature of flesh and blood, no—he thought instead of an entity composed of memory, of years of emotional enmeshment, of a past where ‘nothing is irretrievably lost but everything irrevocably stored.’ With that, the world-flattening, echoing, analgesic cushion of internal silence was dispelled and sentiment came roaring up to fill its place. His overwhelming and inexpiable guilt was utterly submerged in a deluge of the deepest self-revulsion, a shame that swamped his guilt and rendered it paltry—for shame is the greater of these two monsters, an abhorrence for the self itself, a feeling that eclipses the mere horror one may feel at one’s actions. The childish, puerile nature of Nathaniel Joyner’s periodic dissatisfaction with his un-free existence, of his previous resentment of the truly infinite responsibilities of his life—all this was revealed in a blinding flash, and he felt himself to be an abject specimen indeed.
* * *
The old man seemed to be in his late fifties or thereabouts, bespectacled and wearing a rumpled grey suit and tie. He eased himself down the concrete blocks at the water’s edge and sat gingerly down on a block adjacent to Joyner’s. Glitters of the scattered reflections of the dying sun against the glass and steel of the city played complexly along the crests of the gently undulating water of Lake Michigan. The wisps of cloud were starting to glow red.
“Perhaps in wishing for that which cannot be, you are pursuing a faulty strategy.” The voice was noticeably accented, European, mild in tone but tinged with an undercurrent of charged urgency. Nate looked up mutely, his face contorted. “I’m speaking, of course, of the expiation of one’s sins. Forgiveness, yes, can serve as a substitute of sorts—those to whom you have at some previous time done harm may indeed ease your pain, though the sin itself remains indelible. But in your case, yes, it is, I think, more complex; what confession can be made for inadvertent action? And what forgiveness exists but for the ‘it could’ve happened to anyone’ variety. It is quite a conundrum.” Nate composed his best get-the-fuck-up-out-my-face-bruh expression, but the man just pushed his archaic spectacles up his nose and ran a hand through salt and pepper hair combed straight back.
“Like, who are you even?” he muttered.
“No longer are there oracles and seers to consult, in these troubled times—Tiresias has long since made his exit. The Road to Damascus is now, it seems, devoid of revelation. Our beleaguered deity appears to have lowered his scepter, forsaken his punitive thunderbolts, to play what one might call an advisory role. A ‘hands-off’ approach, in the American dialect, no?”
“I said, who are you?”
“In these troubled times, Nathaniel, it is considered most acceptable to consider the likes of me as evidence of psychological abnormality—or if you are sensitive of being judged psychologically abnormal, you may acceptably consider me a figment of imagination. To me, this is not significant. The significant aspect is the conundrum itself.”
A silence as Nate glared and the mild old foreigner shrugged slightly and turned away, looking out over the water. A long moment followed, in which Joyner’s glare dissolved into pensiveness.
“It’s not just…that. I mean yes. I’m stained. With blood. And that sort of thing don’t go away. Maybe it’ll fade, but to be erased…never. And I’m so afraid,” his voice thickens, “that it’ll, like, leak out of me. That it’ll contaminate others. The stain.”
“What I wish to say is not, perhaps, of immediate comfort to you, but is nonetheless true: each of us is, in the very realest sense, alone in our suffering. But your fear is coming from a truth, for one’s suffering may often lead to this person causing others much additional suffering. Just so. Is this not your fear? But, Nathaniel, do you not see that this is a small hint at a solution?” Joyner shook his head. “You, Nathaniel, must be worthy of your suffering—for suffering is the only certainty. There is a dangerous misconception that ravages your U S of Modern A, and it is this—that to achieve a worthwhile existence, one must be made first free from suffering, from all tension. An utter falsehood. To live without yearning, this is death in life, utter lack of meaning—it is in itself to suffer a bleak and meaningless existence, a life without a worthy why to redeem the difficulty and pain of realizing its how. To yearn, Nathaniel, is itself a type of suffering—a felt lack, no? And so, we must conclude that to live without suffering is to remove all yearning which, as I have previously stated, is a miserable fate. But in contrast, any suitably beautiful pursuit, any yearning worth pursuit, is bound to be frustrated by circumstances and, eventually, death.”
“Ok. So there’s nothing on offer but fucking pain is what you’re saying?”
“The inevitability of suffering does not imply that suffering is the totality of being. Gar nicht! Neither does your utter aloneness in your suffering imply meaninglessness. You, Nathaniel, have a unique opportunity to orient yourself to the Good, to bear the burden of Being without allowing your soul to be corrupted. ‘Even as the stone of the fruit must break that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain,’ as a poet once said”
A long moment.
“But it’s not just, like, corruption. It’s not just…what I did today. I mean, it is that. And I’m afraid of what it’ll do to me. The guilt. But I realized, today, what it could make me lose, the guilt, if it corrupts me. Yesterday I had a job and a person to care about, and now if I even think about…climbing around on a roof…or, God, I’m just so afraid I’ll hate her when she can’t understand, when she tells me ‘it could have happened to anyone,’ that it was an accident, that I did nothing wrong. Nothing happened to me—I did it, I will always have done it. I fell short. How can I face her without leaking resentment, fury. And to think that yesterday I drank in front of the TV and dreamed of a life without…God I almost just called her a burden. It’s not guilt, it’s shame. It’s a recognition that I’m garbage and always will be.”
“Aha, but yes! Just so. Here, you see, you betray yourself! You reveal your acceptance of this oh-so-dangerous misconception—that if only your burden were lifted, then could you begin, at last, to live. A great falsehood widely believed among your people, though I know not why. No. ‘If architects wish to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together’.” The man spoke haltingly, closing his eyes between phrases, tapping at his jaw as he searched methodically for words to convey what is better described as honesty or authenticity than truth. The two had not made eye contact for some time, gazing instead over the still-glittering water. The clouds’ glow had passed through pink and crimson to a deep purple. Nate rolled his crackling shoulders, wincing.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Call me Viktor.”
“Viktor, man, what if I’m not that strong—like, I know I’m not. Sometimes a weight’ll just crush you. What if I can’t do it? I was a sad excuse for a man anyway…and now…”
“I would ask you to consider your worry regarding the contamination of guilt, your fear that your pain will somehow harm your relationships…and now to consider your method of addressing this concern—to sit alone by the water conversing with a figment, a wraith? To isolate? To withdraw from the very relationship? ‘It is characteristic of this fear that it produces precisely that of which the patient is afraid.’
“Listen. There is an old story I have heard. One day, a Persian nobleman is accosted by his terrified servant who, it emerges, has been visited by Death. Feeling rather threatened by this visitor—understandably so, I might add—the servant begs his master for the use of one of his horses so as to flee to the capital, Tehran. A compassionate man, the master agrees, and the servant takes flight, thinking no doubt that he has eluded his foe for the moment. In the meantime, however, the master himself comes across Death and proceeds to question him, asking ‘why is it that you see fit to threaten my servant?’ Death responds, ‘I did not threaten him—I merely expressed my surprise at our meeting in your garden when it has been written that tonight I would be meeting him in Tehran.’”