Don't Come Any Closer
About the Writer
Mike Nagel's writing has appeared in The Awl, Hobart, Salt Hill and the Paris Review Daily.
I've spent a lot of time ten stories up. Nine hours a day, five days a week, for the past two and a half years. I work up here. I sit by the window. My company is a small marketing agency that sells hammocks and beard oil and, sometimes, US presidential candidates. There are snacks in the cupboards. Free beer on tap. One of the first things we noticed when we moved in was that the windows opened.
Our building, the Hartford building in Downtown Dallas, is old and run down. The lobby smells slightly septic, like a recently cleaned bathroom. The elevators usually don't work. When they do work, they shimmy and shake. Sometimes they bounce. You can feel the cables stretch. We worry about falling into the basement. The ten story plunge. "Be advised," John warns me. "The old Otis elevator plant in Indianapolis was a sprawling one-floor complex." I once calculated how long I would have to realize that I was falling before I hit the ground. About two seconds.
The Hartford Building is next to the Saint Paul DART station. We listen to the train bells all day. Sometimes they blast the air horn to scare away the birds.
A lot of things happen at a train station during the day. We got in the habit of opening the windows to watch. We didn't want to miss anything. One day in April we watched two high school students play trombones. It was clear they'd never played trombones before. They had a case open for tips. There were a few dollars in it. Maybe they put those in themselves. We leaned out the windows, suspending ourselves over the sidewalk. Ten stories is higher than you think. High enough to make you dizzy at the thought of your glasses falling off your face. Nobody ever seems to notice we're up here, hovering above them.
I had a vague sense that the world outside was not entirely real. Not as real as it could be, I mean. When Brielle went to lunch, I waited at the window to see if she really would appear down below. It seemed like there was a chance she wouldn't.
To test whether the 10th floor was actually connected to the ground, we threw a balloon out the window. In retrospect it was a bad choice. The balloon floated down Bryan Street and made a left on Ervay, headed toward the library. We'd drawn a smiley face on the balloon and a shock of black hair. It never came back down. Next we threw a decorative pine cone and watched it shatter against the sidewalk. "Well," we said. "That settles that."
The windows were caked in years-worth of dust. They'd never been cleaned. When they were closed, they glowed like lamp shades. Sometimes you couldn't see through them. There were slight imperfections in the glass. If you moved your head to different angles, the world outside warped and warbled. It bent a little.
In October, we saw a fist fight. A group of teenagers on the train platform against a group of teenagers on the train. They took off their shirts. The groups moved toward each other and then back again, oscillating like a sub woofer. From up here the fight looked strange. Diminished somehow. Almost silly. We watched the two groups move back and forth and waited for the violence to erupt. Eventually both groups just dispersed back into the crowd.
A God's eye view of a situation is not always the best way to understand what's happening on the ground.
Six months after we moved into our office, they completed construction of the high-rise luxury apartments across the street. They opened the pool. A big blue rectangle with arcing fountains. We watched people our age swim at ten o'clock in the morning, two o'clock in the afternoon, six o'clock at night. We made our ads and they did their swimming. We wore our pants and they wore their bikinis. We drank our free beer and they drank their $10 Manhattans, old fashioneds, whiskey sours.
More and more it seemed like it was our job to watch what was happening on the ground. Open windows is a rare feature for a downtown midrise. (And a clear safety hazard considering the amount ping pong balls we've accidentally lost, and the amount of paper airplanes we've purposefully sent sailing down St. Paul.) "We're like Gargoyles up here," Tuna said one day as we watched two homeless men wrestled each other onto the train tracks.
In December the Christmas lights went up. The ground crew moved from tree to tree. By five o'clock the city was glowing. I stayed late, drinking from the keg, looking out the windows. At nine o'clock a stampede of Santa Clauses went sprinting down Saint Paul street chanting ho, ho, ho. They bounced up and down, filled with helium. A Santa in the back did a perfect cart wheel. When they got to the next intersection, half the group took a left on Pacific and the other half took a right.
Things happened on the ground but we weren't part of them. We watched but we couldn't interfere. In February, a group of children beat up a teenager. They kicked him into the ground. One of them had a hammer. He spun it around. The sunlight flashed off its shiny head like a strobe. We shouted down at them but they didn't look up. Maybe they couldn't hear us. We called the police, but by the time the police came the children had already gone. There was nothing but the bloody lump of a teenager on the ground, rolling back and forth.
We became desensitized. The threshold for opening a window grew. We listened to madman shouts and screams while we made advertisements on our laptops, unfazed.
Brielle saw the jumper first. The soon-to-be jumper. It was April. The Thursday before good Friday. A cool, blue day. He was standing on the edge of the building next to ours, on top of a ten story parking garage. We opened the window and talked to him for awhile. It felt like awhile. Maybe it was five minutes. He was young. I remember thinking his teeth were small. Like baby teeth. Later I found out he was my age, twenty-seven. He said his name was Birdman. Later his mom told me that it was David. We called the police but by the time they came he was already on the ground. I watched him back up a hundred yards and then sprint off the edge. He hung in the air for a second after he jumped, suspended by Wile E. Coyote physics and my own disbelief in what I was seeing. I seem to remember him giving me a wink (bing!) before disappearing over the edge. A two second drop. And I still might not believe what I had seen if I hadn't taken the elevators down and stood next to his body. I stood there and looked up at our office, shocked that what I had seen through the window was the same thing I found here on the ground. It turns out that, sometimes, the things that happen really do happen. I could see the brand of boxers he was wearing, but I've forgotten it now.
We kept the windows closed for a while after that. The glass frosted over with dust. We bought a new keg. A local keg. Blood and Honey. It's an unfiltered beer with a bunch of junk that floats around at the bottom of your glass. You can drink the junk if you want. That's up to you. When we opened the windows again it was one hundred degrees outside. Wavy lines were rising off the sidewalk. Visible heat. A wibbly wobbly funhouse image everywhere you looked. We watched the luxury high rise tenants float around in their pool all summer, the sun glistening off their wet skin like they were covered in glitter.