The Tower

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Chapter 5

I left the house and Jenny as quickly as I could and went to work at the farm. As I showed up, all of the other workers started whispering to each other. At first I wondered how they could already know I had signed up, but I soon realized that they were talking to each other about how I had beaten the Ducesnes at the festival. It was strange how far in the past that all suddenly seemed. Somebody rang the bell hanging by the barn door, and Mr. Duchesne came down from his loft office, and ushered me up to the landing from which he gave his daily encouragement speeches.

“Mr. Richard Haversham, folks!” My co-workers below started clapping. “Now Where’s Ed Brown?” Ed stepped forward and Mr. Duchesne waved him up as well. “Well, boys, you beat my sons in the annual bale stacking contest.”

There was more clapping. Ed and I stood there, wondering how to react.

“Don’t worry boys, you’re not fired.” He patted us both on the back. “These are some of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen on the farm, and I’m just as proud of these two as I would be if it had been Jeff and Andy.” He actually looked proud at that moment, and he seemed to get chocked up for a second. “Ed, go on back down there, now.”

“Now, Rock has gotten himself a taste of victory.” There was a bit more clapping, but everybody seemed to be curious as to what was coming next. “And he wants more!”

He turned and pointed at the faded poster on the wall behind him, of Scott Diedrich, the only person from Wisconsin to have ever reached the top of the tower. Scott was now a citizen, and had moved to Chicago with his family.

“Rock has set his sights on the highest goal there is, and he’s going to face a challenge a lot tougher than stacking some hay.”

There was no clapping this time. The other workers were trying to put the poster and Mr. Duchesne’s comments together, but seemed unable to make the connection - except for Ed.

I could tell that Ed was more hurt than surprised. I had hoped to tell him before heard it from other people, but I hadn’t gotten the chance. He closed his eyes and shook his head. I knew that we had an overdue conversation coming later in the day.

“So you signed up to climb the tower.” Duchesne said what everybody was thinking but not believing.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Well, Rock…” He looked down at the workers below and then turned to look at me. His eyes were sad for a moment, but sprang back to life as he faced the crowd. “Your fellow workers and I have every confidence that we’ll be cheering you as a champion again this time next week!” Everyone cheered again. He reached down and felt my upper arm. “I mean, if this arm can outperform Jeff and Andy, what’s 108 floors?” he spread his arms wide, and the crowd below began cheering again.

It was this arm that dropped the bale and almost lost it for us. I thought, but smiled and accepted the applause. For so many years I had wanted the admiration of Mr. Duchesne and my co-workers, but standing there, I felt empty. I just wanted to work - to get out of my head and just keep moving - but it wasn’t going to happen.

I wasn’t allowed to do any real work that day. Mr. Duchesne grabbed the keys to the truck and told me to come along. He kept me pretty busy all day, taking me around to various other businesses and letting them know that ‘Rock’ Haversham would be representing Wisconsin at the tower. I smiled and tried to show confidence, but with each speech he gave, I felt hollower.

When we finally finished and pulled back into the farm, I was mentally exhausted. I didn’t know if I would have the energy to face Mom and Jenny.

“Rock.” Duchesne stopped me before I got out of the truck.

“Yes, sir?”

“I know this was hard for you today. But I think you’ll be happy we did it later on.”

“Thank you, sir.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant at that moment, but I understood soon enough. By the time I had gotten home, there were presents and care packages from a dozen local businesses, and Mom had gotten two 5 pound sacks of flour, a sack of cornmeal, and 3 new hens.

I had expected to find Mom and Jenny preparing our dinner, but what I saw when I opened the door was incredible. The dining room table had the extension put in and there were eight place settings. The small table in the living room that my father used to use as his desk had been cleared and moved, and it was set for four.

People that I hadn’t spent time with in ages were bustling around, cleaning and trying to find places to put more place settings. Upon seeing me walk through the door, my Aunt Carrie stopped what she was doing and rushed up to give me a hug.

“Rock’s home!” she shouted into the kitchen. She hugged me again as I stood there bewildered. She hadn’t visited us in more than three years, even though her house was only a mile away.

Other family members and friends rushed up to greet me, some congratulating me on winning the harvest festival - as if that were the reason for their visit- and the braver ones wishing me luck at the climb. I looked up to see Jenny standing at the doorway to the kitchen. She was obviously as overwhelmed as I, and was doing her best to ride the wave of people who had invaded what was supposed to be a quiet family dinner.

The kitchen was a symphony of smells. Mom was busy taking the chicken out of the oven, and the counters were loaded with food that others had brought. I tried to say hello, but was ushered out of the kitchen by one of the ladies who was there ‘helping’. I was led to the dining room and seated at the head of the table.

Dinner was like no Christmas or Thanksgiving we had ever had. While Mom had spent all day cleaning and cooking a succulent roast chicken, the others who had heard I was competing had brought over other foods to wish me luck. There were mashed potatoes (mom had the foresight to make gravy with the drippings from the chicken and her newly acquired flour), green beans, a salad with fresh lettuce, corn on the cob, and fresh baked bread.

There was an amazing assortment of desserts from the ladies who had participated in the harvest festival a few days before, and none of them were shy about telling me why their pie should have gotten the first place ribbon.

A few of the men had brought over bottles of alcohol. I’ve never been a big drinker, but luckily, both the men and the women were more than willing to help consume what had been brought.

It was the biggest gathering we’d had at the house since my father’s death. Part of me was happy and excited to have this many people gathered in celebration, even if what they were celebrating was my likely death in a few days. Another part of me wondered where these people had been for the past eighteen years. Still, it was a grand occasion. The only thing that was really missing was Ed.

Ed was four years younger than me, so we weren’t old friends from high school or anything like that, but he was the closest thing to a best friend that I had. Working side by side with somebody, you get pretty close. And the time we had spent together after work each day preparing for the harvest festival had made us closer. Jenny and Rayne had become friends as well.

I kept hoping for Ed to show up during the meal, but each knock at the door was just another townsperson who had heard the gossip and came to see me one last time before I left for the climb. I wasn’t close to most of these people, and really couldn’t understand why they felt the need to stop by. At least most of them brought presents. Mom and jenny wouldn’t have to worry about food this winter thanks to all the dry foods, and would probably be dieting for a while thanks to all the cakes and pies.

One by one the guests started to leave. There was a plethora of handshakes, kisses, and hugs before we finally had the house back to ourselves. Much of the cleanup had been done by aunts and friends as the evening went along, but there was still a lot left to do.

“What can I do?” I started rolling up my sleeves.

“Go see him.” Jenny kissed my cheek. “We’ve got this handled.” My mom agreed, and I was out the door before they could change their minds.

Hurt and a bit angry that he hadn’t come over or talked to me since the announcement that morning, I walked to Ed’s house. I was sorry that he had found out the way he had, but I still couldn’t understand why he would avoid me like this. I knew that he was hurting, too, but I would be leaving for Chicago on Tuesday, and this would likely be the last chance we ever got to talk.

The more I thought about it, the more nervous I became about seeing Ed, and I understood why he hadn’t come. I realized that I had no idea what I was going to say to him. Still, I had to go. I couldn’t leave here with things the way they were. Even if neither of us found the words and what we were thinking remained unsaid, we would be able to say goodbye.

Rayne answered the door when I knocked.

“Rock, what were you thinking?” She leaned forward and hugged me.

“I don’t think I was thinking.” She nodded in agreement. “Is Ed home?”

“Out back.” She moved out of the way and let me past. “Whatever he says, he’ll be glad you came.”

Ed’s backyard was a modest fenced in area that was almost entirely taken up by the garden and a chicken coop. He kept one corner open for a fire pit, and we spent a good part of the spring making a set of four chairs to go around it. We had sat around the fire countless times at night, after a hard day’s work and practice for the harvest festival was done. Ed was sitting there now, watching the fire.

“Hey.” I sat down in the chair next to him.

“Hey.” He didn’t turn and face me directly. He stared at the fire as if contemplating what to say.

“I’m sorry.” We both sat there for a few moments. I had expected him to ask if I was apologizing for signing up or for not telling him first, but he didn’t. He picked up a long stick and poked the fire. Red sparks danced in the air around the fire for a few seconds before settling back down. Ed sighed and threw the stick into the fire.

“You’re going to get yourself killed.” He kept looking straight forward into the fire. Now it was my turn to stare silently into the fire. My mind was racing with things that I couldn’t say. Ed didn’t need for me to explain my reasons for signing up, he knew them better than anyone. He didn’t have to wish me good luck, because we both knew what my chances were. And he didn’t have to say he’d miss me, because we both understood.

“You should get home to Jenny.” He didn’t look at me and say all was forgiven - or at least understood- but it was the best he could manage at the time, so I stood.

“Thanks, Ed.” Without another word, I left.

It was getting pretty late by the time I got back to Mom’s. As I approached, I noticed an army truck parked in front. The kitchen light was on, which was unusual because Mom typically used oil lamps, preferring to save the electricity she could afford for the well pump. Not knowing why there would be soldiers visiting at this time of night, I picked up my pace.

“Mr. Haversham.” Captain Milton addressed me as I entered the house. I was immediately apprehensive. I’d never heard a story that started with soldiers at somebody’s house that had ended well.

“Yes.” I waited for him to tell me why he was here. For a split second I allowed myself to imagine that he was bringing me news that the climb had been cancelled, or that my application was too late and that I would not be climbing after all.

“I’m sorry for bothering you at night.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a folder. It was held shut with a big bulldog clip that also held what seemed to be a letter on the outside of the folder. The captain handed me the folder. “I was instructed to make sure you received this today.”

“Thank you.” I was disappointed that he hadn’t come to deliver some miraculous reprieve. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Not long. Your wife and mother were kind enough to offer me some coffee and a delicious piece of pie while I waited.”

We exchanged a few pleasantries, and the captain left.

Handwritten in a barely legible scrawl, the note on the outside of the thick manila envelope caught my eye. I hoped that the contents of the packet weren’t all written in this manner.

Mr. Haversham,

My apologies for the lateness of this packet, but you signed up for the climb pretty late. My name is Jeremy Guttenberg, and I will be your guide for the annual tower climb. There is a lot of information in this packet that will be essential if you hope to successfully complete this endeavor. Please read this all thoroughly before coming to Chicago. We won’t have a lot of time, but I will try and answer any questions you may have when you get to Chicago on Tuesday.

Thank you and good luck,

J. Guttenberg

Removing the clip and the letter, I opened the folder. The contents of the packet seemed to be a manual for climbing the tower. A quick look at the contents showed me that most of what was in here was either common sense or somebody’s dark sense of humor. The title of the first chapter was, “What to expect.” Unless it said something to the effect of most of you should expect to drop to your death, I doubted that it held much useful information. Still, I thought that I had better read it.

Exhausted, I opened the folder and sat at the same table where my father had once sat, poring over the books of the farm. I didn’t have a bottle of whiskey with me, but I was thinking that a hot cup of coffee might be beneficial. This all looked like pretty dry reading. I glanced at the contents of the folder. There seemed to be information in here about every part of the tower climb except for the climb itself, which only had a one page summary showing the course of the parade, starting time, and goal, which was pretty obvious, getting to the top of the tower.

Mom and Jenny were also obviously tired from the day’s events, and I decided that reading the packet could wait. I had a three hour train ride to the city tomorrow afternoon. I decided that it would be better to read the packet on the train, rather than ignore Mom and Jenny during my last night at home.

I awoke in the morning to find Jenny’s side of the bed empty. I guess I couldn’t blame her, I had spent a few nights avoiding her as well. It seemed to strange to me how quickly life could change. Only a few nights before I hadn’t wanted to share a bed with her, and there I was, wondering why she wasn’t next to me and wishing she were. I suddenly realized that we had quite possibly already spent our last night together in bed as husband and wife.

Since I was shaving and showering, I was glad that we had stayed at mom’s house. Hot water pipes were circulated through the wood stove, so even in November, we had warm water without having to pay for extra electricity use.

Satisfied with my clean shaven face, I wrapped a towel around myself and went to get changed. As I walked into the bedroom, I saw Jennifer sitting at the foot of the bed. She was still wearing the same clothes from the night before. The dark circles under her eyes told me that she had been up all night, and the redness of them told me that she had cried for a great deal of it.

“Jenny…” I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to tell her I was sorry for what I had said, sorry for signing up to climb the tower, but the words wouldn’t come. I just looked at her, hoping she already knew.

As I approached, I noticed a bundle on the bed beside her. She had spent the night making me new clothes. The shirt was a very light denim - almost white.

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