The Tower

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Chapter 4

I pulled the truck as close to the barn as I felt comfortable and turned off the engine. It was after four o’clock in the afternoon, and it had already started getting dark. As I closed and locked the door to the truck, I saw Mr. Duchesne walking out to meet me.

“Everything go all right?” He seemed to be looking at both me and the truck, checking to see if it was damaged or I was injured.

“Yes, sir.” I handed him the keys to the truck and the receipt from the army office showing that we had delivered our quota of milk. “No problems at all.”

“Why so late?” I had hoped to avoid having this discussion today, but it seemed inevitable.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the other slip of paper that I had received from the captain. Wordlessly, I handed it to Mr. Duchesne. He seemed to read it twice, as if not believing it the first time through.

“This isn’t exactly what I meant by taking risks.” He handed the paper back to me. “You sure this is what you want to do, son?”

Since I’d already signed up, there was no way out of the climb even if I changed my mind. I nodded my head and placed my copy of the signup form back in my pocket. Like it or not, I was a climber now.

“I had to make a hard decision, Mr. Duchesne. Jenny and I have a baby on the way.”

I could tell that he didn’t approve, and wanted to say more, but Duchesne was not a man known for voicing his opinion on things. He held out his hand for me to shake. I grasped it, and he returned the grasp and held firm.

“I can’t say as I think you made the right decision, Rock, but that’s not for me to decide. Each man has to choose his own road and then walk it the best he knows how.” Letting go of my hand, he reached up and patted me on the shoulder. “Don’t know what you expect to get out of this, but I hope you get all of it.”

“Thank you, sir.” I turned to go home.

“Rock.” he called out as I was leaving.

“Yes, sir?”

“Tell your mother first.”

“Yes, sir.”

When I told my mother I had signed up to climb the tower, she cried. Well there were a lot more hysterics involved than just crying. She stood up from her chair at the wobbly old kitchen table so quickly that it flew backward and stayed propped at a 45 degree angle against the unfinished wood cabinets that my father had painstakingly made by hand.

“You can’t!” She tried to leave the room. “It’s madness!” I held her tight and tried to explain.

“Mom, we need the money.” I pulled the chair back to the table and got her a glass of water from the pitcher on the counter before sitting down again myself. “We have a baby on the way, and I can’t raise a family like this.”

“There’s no shame in being poor,” she started. She had given this speech countless times as I was growing up. “Your grandma Blume always used to say, that as long as you kept a clean house, there was no shame. The only shame was in not taking care of what little you had.” She started crying again, and removed an old, but immaculately clean handkerchief from her pocket. “I kept things clean, didn’t I?

“Of course you did, Mom.” I hugged her as tightly as I had ever hugged her in my life. “And you gave me pride, and self-worth. But I want something better for my family, especially with the baby coming. I don’t want to have to worry about childbirth.” My voice quieted, and I realized that I, too, was crying. “Not like last time.

We looked into each other’s eyes, both crying. After a few seconds, her face took on a resigned look.

“You’ve already signed up.” She shook her head. “Nothing can be done to change that now. It just breaks my heart. Maybe if your father had still been here-”

“No, Mom, it’s nothing you did wrong.” I wished so much that my words could have been more consoling. “It’s everything that you did right that’s making me do this. Even if I don’t make it all the way to the top, there’s money for you and Jennifer and the baby.” I showed her the awards charts. “Even if I dropped out at the twentieth floor, there’d be enough money to get a real doctor for the childbirth! Isn’t that worth it?”

She didn’t answer. She just stood, came over to me, and hugged me from behind as I sat in the chair.

Sonny, Thank you for the joy you brought my way,” she started singing. She had told me many times how she had sung that song to me when I was a baby. It was a song that she had heard when she was young, back when most houses had electricity all day long, and you could watch whatever videos you wanted on something called YouTube. “Sonn..” She stopped singing and began crying again, threatening to squeeze the life out of me.

“When do you leave?” She stood up straight. Mom was never afraid to show her emotions, but she didn’t cry and linger on a problem either. Even on the day my father died she cried for a few minutes and then went right back to work. I heard her crying in her room that night, but never again in front of people.

“There’s a train leaving for Chicago on Tuesday,” I told her. “I still haven’t told Jennifer yet…”

“Well, then, you’d best be getting home. Don’t envy the night you’re going to have.” She wiped her eyes and looked into the yard. “You’ll come for dinner tomorrow.” It wasn’t a request. I nodded.

“I’ll need your help killing one of the chickens before you go.”

“Mom, you don’t have to do that.” Those chickens provided the eggs with which she bartered for other goods in the community.

“Damn fool or not, I won’t have my son go off to the tower without a good meal in his stomach. Now off with you, I’ve got work to do.”

As I left, I was pretty sure that she cried herself through the rest of her housework, and to sleep that night, but she never showed it the next day, when we gathered as a family.

Resentment can feel like a powerful tool at times, but it wasn’t helping to alleviate my guilt. I dragged my feet all the way home, not wanting to face Jenny. The cold wind had made my face flush, and it did a better job covering my shame than my anger and resentment did as I opened the door.

“Rock, where have you been?” She put down her sewing and came to the door. Jenny didn’t usually worry, but the way things had been left this morning, it was understandable. I searched for the words to explain to her what I had done, but my mind was blank. I wrapped my arms around her.

She started to pull back to look at my face, but I held her tight. I started to cry.

“Rock, what’s wrong?

“I signed up. Oh God, Jenny, I’m so sorry, I signed up.”

“Signed up? Signed up for what?” She pushed hard this time, hard enough to back away and look at my face.

“The tower.” Her face went rapidly from one of confusion to bewilderment and then something that was either anger or horror. She stood there for a second, looking up at me, slapped me across the face, and ran to the bathroom, locking the door behind her.

While the slap had been a first, locking herself in a room was one of Jenny’s most common reactions in an argument. She would isolate herself and think until she either calmed down or came out thirsty for blood. Usually she would lock herself in the bedroom, but the reason for the change was pretty obvious. I could hear the sound of vomiting through the door.

Experience had taught me that the worst thing I could do at a time like this was to stand by the door and talk to her or try to talk her into coming out, but the reason I had so much experience with the results was because it was my natural response. I couldn’t just leave her crying in the bedroom, or the bathroom in this case.

“Honey, can we talk about this?”

“Talk!” She coughed a few times and made a sound like she was going to be sick again. “Talk is what we should have done before you signed up.”

“Hon, try to stay calm.” I leaned my head against the door. “Too much excitement probably isn’t good for the baby.”

“Good for the baby? What the-

I could hear the sound of the toilet flushing and her standing up. I hoped she would come and open the door, but she sat down on the other side of it.

“Good for the baby? Seriously? And you think that being raised without a father would be good for the baby?”

“No, but none of that matters if it doesn’t survive long enough to grow up at all.” I knocked on the door softly. “Please open the door so we can talk about this like normal people.”

“Normal people wouldn’t be having this conversation, Rock. Normal people don’t sign up for a suicide climb when they find out they’ve got a baby on the way. Normal people tell their wives what’s bothering them instead of running off and doing something they’ll regret, but can’t take back!”

“Well I guess that means that neither of us is normal then! Because a normal wife wouldn’t have whored herself out down on soldier road and lied about making dresses!” I wanted to stop, but my emotions had found a vent, and there was no stopping until the pressure was released. “Do you regret it? Do you wish you could take it back, Jenny?” As I was saying it, I felt the power of righteous indignation, but regretted it the instant I finished. And like signing up for the tower, there was no taking this back.

The room went quiet for a few seconds. My heart was racing and I was breathing like I had just run a mile. The silence was shattered by a broken sob coming from the other side of the door. I heard her move away from the door. She tried to apologize, but got sick again before she could finish. Of all the ways I could have told her I knew, this was possibly the worst. I felt like crap. I turned around, and sat with my back to the door, crying.

“I’m sorry I signed up for the tower.” Jenny didn’t respond, but I could hear her moving back to the door. “I’m sorry that I didn’t talk to you. I was so messed up: angry at you for selling yourself, hating myself thinking that you did what you did because I couldn’t provide for you, wondering how many times it happened, worrying if the baby was even mine, or just an accident that happened because we needed to eat.” I banged the back of my head against the door in frustration. “And there was nothing I could do to change any of that. But by doing this, I can make sure that you and your baby have a good life.”

“Our baby.” I heard a shuffling sound, and turned to face the door. As it opened, I saw Jenny’s red eyes, swollen from crying and filled with sadness and guilt. My face must have been a mirror of hers, because we both moved forward and held each other. “It’s your baby, Rock, I promise.”

I didn’t really need to hear any more at this point, but she seemed to need to tell me.

“It only ever happened one time, and it was in the early summer, and he wore a condom.” She looked down at the floor. “He said he didn’t want to catch poor.” She started crying again. “And I know I shouldn’t have done it, and I’m sorry, and I wanted to tell you, but I couldn’t, and I’m sorr…” She sobbed again and buried her face in my shirt.

“I’m so sorry, Jenny.” I stroked her hair and rocked gently back and forth. We sat there on the floor holding each other for what seemed like forever.

Neither of us had any appetite, so we went to bed early. We held each other tight. Part of me wanted so much to make love to her, but all I could do was lay there, holding her in my arms until we fell asleep.

“Rock,” she mumbled, mostly asleep now. “Promise me you’ll try to make it to the top.”

I kissed her forehead and let her drift off to sleep. I wanted to reassure her, but I didn’t really know if I wanted to or not.

I woke pretty early the next morning. Jenny was still asleep, and I had no idea what to say to her if she woke, so I slipped quietly from bed and headed to the kitchen to make myself some toast. The house was unusually cold. We’d both been so tired from our argument that neither of us had added wood to the stove before going to bed. There weren’t even any coals.

It took me a few minutes to get a fire started, so I ended up eating the bread while I was working on it. I had hoped to stop by Ed’s house on my way in and talk to him before work, but just as I had finished the fire and was getting ready to leave, Jenny came into the kitchen.

“Thank you.” She pointed at the newly started fire, crackling in the stove as I closed the door. “Coffee?”

I nodded my head and sat at the table. We drank our coffee in relative silence, neither knowing what to say. For a moment I wondered how long this divide between us would continue, but then realized that in all likelihood, it wouldn’t be an issue. I decided that the best thing I could do for both Jenny and myself was to be a loving husband in the time I had left. Finishing my coffee, I told her that Mom was expecting us for dinner, and that I would head there after work.

Kissing her on the cheek, I headed for the door. After opening it, I paused and looked back.

“Jenny…”

“I know,” she said. I was so glad she did because I had no idea what I was thinking.

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