The Man Who Couldn't Fly
The Man Who Couldn't Fly
by Harry Buschman
Frank Walker balanced himself as gracefully as a dancer on the four inch wide flange of the spandrel beam. His yellow hard-hat was tilted rakishly to one side and pulled low over his right eye.
He opened a package of Granger, took out a pinch and wedged it between his gum and cheek, far enough back so it wouldn't interfere with his whistling. To make sure, he piped a series of shrill blasts with and without his fingers to make sure everything was in working order. The office girls in the Trump Tower next door would be along soon and he wanted to be ready.
Frank and his friends started the whistling ritual every day about nine when the girls arrived; ever since the foundations were set and the steel was delivered. But in spite of his swagger, his crotch hitching and his macho whistle, Frank Walker was not as secure in his masculinity as he would have you think. He was a tiger whistling down from the thirteenth floor, but he rarely got any closer than that. The closer he got to a woman the more insecure he was. He justified his insecurity by telling his friends, "The girls ain't so pretty when y'get them up close. Whistlin' close is as close as I wanna be."
The younger they were, the louder and more piercing was his whistle – insistent – authoritative. As though the girls were candidates in his personal beauty contest – a model’s runway, walking the street just for him. He scored them from one to ten according to their sexiness and sizzle.
"Hey, Al!" He called. "Check it out! A number 8 comin' your way!" In return the girl cringed in embarrassment or disgust, and tried to ignore him – a few of the bolder ones gave him the finger. As they passed from Frank's field of view, the other men took over and the whistling followed the girls until they disappeared through the revolving doors of Trump Tower. Then, and only then could the steel worker's work day begin.
Some of the girls complained of the harassment to the construction superintendent and the police, but it only encouraged the heroes of the high steel.
As every young secretary in mid-town Manhattan knows, steel workers are yahoos, the loudest and lustiest of the boys in the building trade. They might be compared to bullfighters or World War I fighter pilots romanticizing the risk of their profession. The electricians are older – so are the plumbers, their jobs are not as romantic or dangerous as the hard hats of the high steel. The steel workers live their lives to the fullest. Frank and his crew drank, smoked and gambled as though there was no tomorrow, and as small boys will nervously whistle as they walk past a cemetery, Frank and his crew whistled at the girls as they flounced in and out of the revolving doors of Trump Tower.
Frank Walker's masculinity guttered out like a penny candle when he picked up his lunch pail and went home. He was not master of the Walker household. Far from it. His wife, Lucinda, and his step-daughter, Tammy, were numbers one and two. Frank was a distant third. He frequently found himself warming yesterday's Chinese take-out dinner while Tammy took ballet lessons at the studio and Lucinda entertained wealthy dilettantes in her art gallery at the mall. He would often ask himself, "What goes? Where is everybody? This ain't the way it's s'posed to be. What the hell is this?"
A few years ago Lucinda's former husband asked himself the same question for the last time. Frank met him at a cocktail party a few months after he and Lucinda were married. Both men had enough drank enough that night to be able to discuss Lucinda man to man straight from the shoulder. The former husband, an account executive for a Madison Avenue advertising company confided to Frank that she was "some piece of work," and he frankly confessed he wasn't sure he was Tammy's father. "But, to tell you the truth, Frank," he said, "numbers confuse me. Counting back from the time Tammy was born, I'm not sure where I was – or where Lucinda was, for that matter."
Hell of a thing, Frank thought at the time – but as much as he was tempted, he didn't have the nerve to bring the subject up with Lucinda. She had an acid tongue. All he was sure of was that things at home weren't as simple as they were on the high steel. He couldn't remember the last time he stood up to Lucinda and told her off. Whenever the thought crossed his mind (like when she got the mink coat without even telling him) ... one withering stare made him back off. It wasn't that he was afraid of her, it was just that she always knew what to say to make him look like a backward fool. Tammy was just as bad. Thirteen years old and she had her own cell phone!
"How come she needs a cell phone? She's only thirteen years old! Why can't she wait 'til she gets home to use the phone like I do? I don't even have a cell phone."
"She needs it," Lucinda said. "All her friends have cell phones Frank. Besides, you wouldn't know how to use a cell phone if you had one."
Money was not a problem with Frank and Lucinda. Steel workers are better paid than account executives. The union was good to steel workers. When the weather was inclement, (rain, wind, snow or sleet) they were paid in full to take the day off. It provided low cost, generous insurance and great job benefits. If Frank met with disaster on the job, Lucinda would be a wealthy woman. Frank and Lucinda lived well by any standard. They had television sets galore, they could watch television in any room of their apartment in Forest Hills. Frank had a Camaro and Lucinda had a BMW. In four years Tammy would have a Honda which she would probably drive with one hand while talking into her cell phone with the other. The Walkers paid more in garage rent than many people spend for housing. Lucinda rarely cooked, even Frank's warmed-over Chinese take-out came from Mandarin's Gourmet To Go. They had a financial advisor, an Irish cleaning lady and a bedroom with floor to ceiling mirrors.
Frank was a steel worker because his father had been a steel worker. That's the way it goes in the building trade – pass it along father to son. Frank's father slipped and fell 27 stories from the four inch flange of a 36 inch beam when it was knocked askew by the building crane. A fellow worker confided to Frank at the funeral that, "He wuz whistlin' at some broad sun-bathin' on the roof next door. I don't think he ever knew what hit him. That's the way it goes.”
Frank was not a literate man. His mind wandered when he got past the headlines and he would find himself reading the same words over and over, getting bored he would turn the page and look at the underwear ads. He hadn't read a book since high school, and even the work manual for welders provided by the union lay unopened on his bedside table. He had difficulty reading directional signs along the highway. He couldn't operate a VCR or set up the push buttons on the radio in his Camaro.
In spite of his posturing, he was ill at ease with women. He met Lucinda at a west side spa shortly after her divorce, and it was she, not he, who struck up a conversation. Before he knew it, he was persuaded to take her and Tammy to the Four Seasons for brunch. Her theatrical description of the break-up with her husband reminded Frank of an old movie he had seen on television.
Lucinda was a fine looking woman. A natural honey blond, in her mid thirties, well toned and possessed of a walk calculated to provoke an involuntary whistle in any male animal. Although she would never admit it, 'the walk,' and the preservation of it, was her main reason for working out at the spa. The male customers would stop whatever they were doing and marvel at 'the walk' as she did her fifteen minutes on the treadmill. Frank would stand spellbound and look at her as a small boy would look at a new ten-speed bicycle.
It didn't take her long to nail Frank. She was well acquainted with his type and knew how to play to his vanity. Before Frank knew what hit him, the three of them were living together in Forest Hills. Marriage quickly followed ...
"Frank, we can't go on like this, Tammy is ten ... she's beginning to ask questions."
"Y'mean you wanna get married?"
She looked at him more in astonishment than affection. "How did you ever get this far without falling off a building?" She asked.
Having sex with Lucinda was like opening the hood of his Camaro and trying to understand its complicated mechanism. He found her to be a very complex, multi-jointed machine where every movement was carefully planned and executed ... if it wasn't, severe and expensive damage would follow. In addition, there were curlers, greases, oils and undergarments which, in Frank's calloused and stubby fingers, were impossible to manipulate. Frank, clumsy and frustrated, would curse in despair, throw up his hands and find something else to do.
It is pitiful how fragile a man can be – any man. For all his swagger and posturing, for all the bravado and sexual boasting it takes very little to bring a man – any man, to his knees. A mote of dust in his eye. A grain of sand in his teeth. A wrinkled sock inside his shoe, and suddenly the man is a helpless boy.
A harsh word from Lucinda would often render Frank speechless and undo him completely. He would replay her harsh words and rebukes in his mind like a frustrated schoolboy. He was forced to admit to himself that he was not the man he used to be, or thought he used to be. He shared these concerns with no one, but at lunch he would look around him and secretly wonder if other men had the same problem.
But up on the high steel, walking the four inch flanges of the beams and girders with his buddies, he is himself again, and in a voice deeper and louder than it has to be, he bellows, "Damn broads! It's nothin' like I thought it was gonna be – marriage I mean. I been lucky at cards. Lucky with the horses, but I ain't been so friggin lucky with the broads! They're okay from a distance –whistlin' distance. Y'can put a move on 'em from up here. But once you get 'em up close they're different." He turns to Al the morning of the last day. "Y'with me on that, Al?" Then he walks off a step or two, stops, turns and looks out at the city spread below him. "Did'ja ever stop to think how quiet and clean it is up here, Al ... up here away from the noise and the dirt? Healthy like, y'know what I mean?"
Out on the knee braces that will support the thirty seventh floor, Frank is beyond the safety of the outrigger nets below.
"Wait for the nets, Frank. They ain't put the nets up on this side yet. We got all day, Frank. The foreman will give you hell if he sees you out there without a net."
"That's okay, I don't need no net ... " You get careless when you know there's a net down there. Once in a while I look down, that's all I gotta do. It straightens me right out. Thing y'gotta remember is, don't look up. 'Cause when yer up here you're closer to the sky than you are to the street ... and you forget"
"Forget what, Frank?"
"You forget you can't fly. It would be great to fly, wouldn't it Al?"
Sea gulls often cross Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River in search of food. In loose and undisciplined formation they fly no higher than they have to, often stopping to sit on window ledges. There, they will check out the street below or watch the busy people through the windows of the office buildings.
With unerring grace they will glide through the steel framework of a building under construction, startling the workers. With quiet superiority they will perch on the steel and watch the clumsy, wingless men working there. Then as if to show them how simple it is, they will spread their wings, launch themselves to the mercy of the air and drift away. Why not, Frank thinks – It looks so easy to him. It looks like the most natural thing in the world. You almost forget you can't fly.
"It was the damnedest thing," Al said later. "There he wuz, sorta wedged between the knee brace and the corner column. The gulls come over and set down, like they sometimes do. Kinda lookin' him over, y'know? Pretty soon they get tired of it and take off towards the east. Frank turns and looks at me ... gives me a silly grin. Then he spreads his arms out wide and kicks himself free of the column. I get the shivers even now when I think of it ... arms out wide-like, he just went down. Down like a stone. I could hear him whistlin' all the way down."