The Tower

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Chapter 8

My first interview was such a strange experience for me both because it was a completely new experience and because of the man who approached. To call him heavyset or portly would not have done him justice. This was possibly the fattest man that I had ever met. He carried a bottle of scotch in his left hand.

The fact that he was wearing a tuxedo made him seem so much like a penguin as he waddled up to my table that I had to stifle a laugh.

“Rock? Rock Haversham?” He said my name like we were old friends who hadn’t met in years. He took two glasses, added some ice, and poured the scotch.

“Richard.” I accepted the glass of scotch and obligingly took a sip. I had never tasted scotch that smooth. Obviously the penguin had good taste in alcohol as well as food. I wondered how many days, weeks, or maybe months I would have had to work to but the bottle that he was holding.

“Of course.” He pulled a small notebook from his jacket and opened it to a page with the words RICHARD ‘ROCK’ HAVERSHAM written at the top. He circle Richard and continued.

“So how much do you weigh?” The question and the way he seemed to be examining my body caught me off guard. I wondered how he would have responded to the same question, but I knew better than to think of asking.

“Uhh.. About 190 I guess.” He scribbled won everything I said in his little notebook.

“And you’re 5′11"... hmmm.” He looked up from his scribbling. “Do you play any sports?”

We hadn’t really had enough students or time for organized sports when I was in high school. Working on the farm, most of us were too tired by the end of the day to think about sports much. There were the occasional baseball games. I thought about telling him about the hay bale stacking contest, but I doubted that really qualified as a sport.

“A little, here and there. I don’t know.” Since I didn’t have any real sports stories to tell him about, I decided to have a little fun. “Do you consider cow-tipping a sport?”

“Cow tipping.” He scribbled it down, oblivious to the joke. “Great, great.” He looked up from his notepad. “And you’re 28 years old...”

He obviously knew quite a bit about me before he came over for the interview. Sometimes he would ask questions, but for the most part, he muttered facts about my life and waited for confirmation. After a few more minutes of his writing all of this down, he waddled off to interview a climber who had taken off his shirt to show his muscles, and was posing for pictures with guests in his tank top.

“How are the interviews going?” Kris tapped me on the shoulder from behind. There seemed to be a natural lull in the interviews, and most of us from our original table had gravitated back and were comparing notes. “So have you hooked up with anybody, yet?” He pointed to a voluptuous blonde woman in a red dress. “I think I’m going with that one.”

“I can’t just hook up with somebody.” I put my hands up in protest. “I’m married.”

“Well, these ladies don’t care,” he laughed, “For them, it’s a chance to be with a climber who’ll fuck her like he’s only got two days to live. And for us, it’s a chance to be with women the likes of which we’d almost never have a chance to meet back home.”

“Not to mention it pays well,” Owen piped in, “And my family could use the money.”

“Aren’t they going to wonder what that extra money is for?” I couldn’t imagine what Jennifer would say if she got a cash delivery for ‘services rendered’, especially considering how much we had been through in the past few days and my having been so judgmental towards her having sold herself at a time when we really did need the money.

“They know what it’s for,” Owen continued unabashed, “That’s one of the perks of being a climber.” He smiled and chortled. “Everybody knows that.”

“Not everybody, Owen.” Kris slapped me on the shoulder. “Rock here doesn’t know much about the climb. He didn’t know about the physical test or the sponsors, and he certainly didn’t know about the women, because he’s a suicide climber.”

“I’m not a suicide climber,” I protested. Although I had to admit that I had signed up not caring whether I lived or died.

“See,” he said, “People join the climb for one of three reasons. You’ve got guys like me, Alex, and probably you who have been planning the climb for a few years. We train and prepare, and hope that we’ve done a good enough job to beat the odds. For us, the climb is the ultimate gamble.”

Owen nodded in agreement. I could see that the three of them were definitely in a different class of climber than I was. There didn’t seem to be anything about the climb that Kris didn’t know.

“Then you’ve got the convicts who signed up, and would rather take their chances on the tower than face their sentence.” A few more climbers and guests had gathered to listen. “They don’t care if they beat the odds, because even if they don’t make it, they die free with a clean record. The climb is about redemption for them.”

“Then we have people like our friend Rock, here, who suddenly up and join the climb for no apparent reason.” The attention of the ever growing crowd was now focused on me.

“I wouldn’t say for no reason. I have a family to support and a child on the way.” I don’t know why felt a need to justify my being there, since we were all in the same boat.

“Yeah, but there are lots of ways a man can support his family that don’t end in almost certain death.” He looked around at the people gathering. “No, guys, Rock here is a different type of climber than us. While we’re all focused on the goal and where we want to end up, he’s running away from something.” The other members of the group were nodding as if what he said made perfect sense. “And he’d rather face death than continue with his sorry life.”

“Shut up, Kris!” I stepped back. I wanted to hit him, but so many people were watching. Also, part of what he said rang true. I suddenly joining the climb looked as much like suicide as it did anything else. But I wanted to tell them that he was wrong. I wasn’t planning on dying. I was planning on my baby living. I just didn’t care if I lived or died to make that happen. In my mind there was a world of difference.

“You don’t know anything about me.” I couldn’t tell if I was red in the face, but a lot of people had turned to look, so I did my best to calm down.

“Hey man.” Kris’ smile was fading. “I didn’t mean anything by it.” He looked at the climbers who had gathered. “I mean, most of us will probably die on the tower, anyway. That makes all of us crazy, right?” There was a murmur of agreement by the other climbers. “So Rock is no more crazy or suicidal than any other man here. Just more realistic.”

He turned to the table and picked up one of the half empty glasses of beer left from an earlier interview. He motioned for the rest of us from the table to do so, and we joined him as he made a toast.

“So I say,” He raised his glass. “Let’s get fucked up!" Owen and Alex raised their glasses. “And let’s get fucked!” He gestured toward the crowd and the women who were waiting for us. Drew and a quiet boy in a denim shirt who had been sitting at our table joined in the toast. “Because, come Thanksgiving, gentlemen,” He paused, looked at me and made a grand gesture of toasting, “We’re ALL fucked!"

I found myself raising my glass and toasting along with everyone. And I guess that moment really started the festivities for us. This was our one night of reckless abandon. Tomorrow we would all go to bed early worrying about the climb, but not tonight. Tonight we were all alive. Tonight we were brothers.

I imagined that this is what soldiers must have felt like before a big campaign. I looked at Kris, our eyes met, and we communicated more in a glance than I ever have with a person. He was sorry he had said what he did, and I was sorry to have overreacted. But neither of us was going to waste any of the time we had left worrying about it now.

There was no time talk about what had just happened. As soon as the cheering subsided we were all drawn into conversations with other guests.

A young woman handed me a glass of beer. I politely accepted it and placed the one that I had been holding on the table behind me. It suddenly occurred to me that I was throwing away more alcohol in one night than I would normally drink in a month.

“Dairy farmer.” I couldn’t tell by the look on her face or the tone of her voice if this had been a comment or a question.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re a dairy farmer.” I was still unsure how to respond, so I waited for her to continue. “What does a dairy farmer do exactly?”

It was hard for me to know where to begin. I could tell by her light complexion and the smoothness of her skin that she was unaccustomed to labor of any kind. Her hands were pristine. She had probably never washed dishes by hand, let alone scrubbed bare wooden floors with vinegar and rottenstone to make them shine. How could I explain to her what it was like working all day in the hot sun or in a barn?

“Well, it’s a lot of work.” I explained that there were a number of jobs on a dairy farm, and that for the past few months I had been stocking up hay and feed to keep the cows fed through the winter.

“So you lift heavy things all day long?”

“Most of the time, yes.” I started to describe milk production, but it didn’t seem to interest her.

“Do you rope cows? Wrestle them to the ground? Things like that?”

“No ma’am. Not usually.”

“Oh.” It seemed I had lost her interest. Without another word she turned and left.

Most of the conversations with the VIP members were similar to those I had with the penguin. They asked a few questions about my height and weight. Some asked how much I could lift, and I didn’t know what to tell them because I didn’t really lift weights. Telling them that I could lift a hundred pounds all day long didn’t seem to be impressing any of them, but most of them seemed at least satisfied with the answer. Most of them.

There was one guest who seemed to be about my age and was in much better shape than the other VIPs. He approached me with a glass of whiskey, which I accepted politely. I could tell that he had drank quite a few himself, but he didn’t seem incapacitated at all. He started off with the same questions as the others, but wouldn’t accept my answers about how strong I was. He tried to challenge me to an arm wrestling contest.

I tried to politely refuse a few times, but he began becoming insistent, asking me what I was afraid of. I was beginning to worry that this would develop into a scene, when Guttenberg approached the table.

“I’m told that Alex over there is the strongest of this year’s group.” He pointed to Alex and waved. Alex seemed a bit confused, but waved back, and arm-wrestling man left my table to go see Alex. For the first time, I was thankful to have Guttenberg with me.

Guttenberg was always close at hand during the reception. He hadn’t really done much else that day other than lead me to the hotel, but he stood, drinking his martini, and watching. In situations that threatened to get out of control, like the one with the arm wrestling man, he intervened swiftly and skillfully. I was impressed with his ability to speak with such diplomacy, since he had seemed to completely lack these skills when he was addressing me directly. Occasionally, he would approach me during the brief pause between conversations.

“You seem to be doing very well.” He didn’t appear to be drunk, but there was definitely a bit of a slur developing. “The people seem to like you.” He didn’t seem to include himself among those people.

“That’s good, right?” I hadn’t read his packet, and had already messed up the physical test, so I hoped that was I was doing now was ok.

“Well, it’s definitely better than having people hate you.” He chuckled. “I mean you wouldn’t want them betting large amounts against you and trying to fix the results.” As soon as he had spoken, his face lost all hints of drunkenness and was so serious as to look slightly alarmed.

I tried to ask him what he meant by that, but he brushed it off as if it had been nothing. Obviously it had been something, but I doubted he would ever tell me.

“You need to mingle more,” he said as he hurried me away before I could ask again.

The chances to ‘hook up’ with beautiful women were as abundant as Kris and Owen had said. I was polite with them, but told them all I was married, and that I couldn’t do that to my wife. I was only tempted once.

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