by Kelly Magee and Carol Guess
I was 143 feet in the air when I felt the blade. The first swipe missed, but the second drew blood. Someone was squatting in the cab of my crane, aiming to stab me as I climbed up the ladder. A few summers ago ecoterrorists burned down rows of condos in Fremont and Wallingford. If they set fire to my crane I’d be burned alive.
My foot slipped on a rung, and I swung from my harness until my feet found metal. Glancing up I saw two giant raccoons peering out of the cab. They’d made a nest in my L&I sweatshirt. I wondered if worker’s comp covered rabies shots.
When my feet touched dirt my supervisor glared. “Early lunch? You just clocked in.”
“Tell that to the raccoons hanging out in my cab.”
After that, forget getting anything done. Someone called wildlife rescue; someone else called the news. Reporters showed up, hustling for footage. Our union rep sent everyone home.
When I got to the apartment, my wife was cleaning the kitchen. She looked pretty, gray hair falling out of a clip. Her mouth had that determined set.
“Chrissy’s learning to tell time. Little hand first.”
I kissed her forehead. “Time’s important.”
People live in rooms I’ve lifted. Walk on beams I’ve flown through air. Every day I climb 150 feet above concrete and steel, all the lights of my city. Alone in my crane I’m pregnant with buildings. But sometimes the view seems to beckon me down. When Chrissy died, I thought about jumping. My depression was gravity; I knew it could kill me. Raising buildings was part of staying alive. If I could bring buildings up to meet me, there’d be no jumping and nowhere to fall.
My wife just disappeared inside. She’d quit her job to homeschool our daughter. When Chrissy got cancer they lived together, just the two of them, in an apartment close to the best hospital in Seattle. After Chrissy died, Cora kept the apartment, everything just as Chrissy left it. She spoke to our daughter, read her stories at bedtime. Every morning she sat at the table and taught lessons to an empty chair.
So I sold our house, moved in with Cora and our daughter’s ghost. Into a building I’d built with my crane. The doctors said I needed to be gentle but firm. They suggested pills to numb and distort. But I loved Cora, and we loved Chrissy, and who am I to say what’s real?
Take the raccoons, for instance. The day after I spotted them I climbed up the ladder, two crewmembers behind me. We carried cages and we carried bait. The raccoons were gone. They left nothing but the nest they’d made out of my sweatshirt and my chair’s torn cushion. I wondered if they dreamed of jumping, if the view was seductive, if they wished they could fly. The crewmember behind me said, “Goddamn vermin. You see them things? Big as dogs.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I saw them.”
They were gone, but all day I felt them. Like that tingling in your spine you get when you’re being watched. I’d seen raccoons waddling through the crosswalk at night, trailing babies, daring oncoming traffic not to stop. Some pests you got the feeling were too dumb to be scared, but not raccoons. “Go ahead and try,” they said, fat lolling. “You can’t get rid of us.”
The inside of my crane smelled like their piss, their love. They were watching me, waiting. For their babies to be born. For me to tip backward on the ladder. “Do it,” they said. “It don’t take nothing but letting go.”
“Chrissy’s acting out today,” Cora told me. “She got three X’s on her chart.”
She pointed at the refrigerator. There was a behavior chart under a couple magnets. It hadn’t been there yesterday. The magnets were all of animal rear ends. They’d been a gift for Chrissy.
“She’s going to need a talking to,” my wife said.
I kissed her forehead. “I’ll take care of it.”
I was in the news footage. I had a sneer and sunken eyes. Hat head. I pounded on the crane. “They almost took me out,” I’d said, but the news cut that part. Left just the image of me, pounding my machine. The drizzle made my shirt look stained. Everything about it was wrong. I looked exactly like I was supposed to.
It was the thing that bothered me most these days: being the parent of dead girl meant I was not a parent at all. Other moms and dads put on the patient voice they used for childless people when they talked to me about their kids. If I said, “My daughter used to do that,” they’d smile and ask how old she was now. So I didn’t talk about her. I figured I got enough talking about her at home with Cora anyway.
But it weighed me down, those conversations. Made climbing the ladder to my crane difficult. Made looking at that picture of me on the news, pounding my crane like an animal, especially hard. I didn’t know who that guy was. I didn’t know why it mattered.
If I ever saw those raccoons again, I would bring them down.
Cora hadn’t left the apartment in years. “Honey?” I said when I got home. “Sweetheart?” No answer.
She returned a few hours later, her coat unzipped. Hair windblown. “Chrissy took off. I chased her all the way across town.”
I kissed her forehead. “It’s good to get out.”
She looked up at me. I mean right in my eyes. “I saw you on TV.”
“Oh, yeah? The raccoon thing?”
“Watch out,” she said. “I hear most of them have rabies.”
“I think these ones are okay.”
“That’s what they think, too.”
I got her point. What did raccoons know of illness? They move their nests away from danger and let that be enough.
Except they came back. The next morning, climbing the ladder, I noticed a flutter of movement above. The kind of thing where when you look, it’s gone. But I knew enough to brace myself, and when I got to the top, I edged inside real quietly. Didn’t breathe a word of it to the crew below. I thought maybe it would be nice to have company up there, like a pet or something. But these weren’t pets. They hissed at me, lunged again with those razor claws. Then they took off out the window. It took me a full ten minutes to realize they’d left the babies on the floor next to me. They still had their eyes shut.
The parents hadn’t gone far and were now watching me from a hemlock across the way. I went about my business lifting beams, swinging them past the raccoon couple and into place. The raccoon babies shivered and mewed like kittens.
Three of them. I was so mad at the parents for leaving that I wanted to throw the babies over the edge.
“Learn how to watch your kids,” I yelled to the parents. “And stay out of my damn cab.”
By the end of the day, they were gone. The parents had retreated into the branches. I hated them. I knew how tough vigilance was. I’d wished for relief. I’d wished for relief in whatever shape it took and later beat myself up for thinking that way. But you didn’t just give up.
Then I noticed that the babies were gone, too. I ransacked the cab, but there was no trace of them. I even looked over the edge for evidence of my own carelessness. A sharp turn that’d flung them out? An unconscious kick? They were just gone, and I got the feeling I sometimes got after Chrissy died, this disturbing sense of having made the whole thing up.
Cora didn’t return until the middle of the night this time.
“I lost her,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I said. “Chrissy’s gone?”
She kissed my forehead. “Don’t worry. I’ll find her again.”
You hear stories of kids crawling up cranes. Getting stuck like kittens. It seems impossible, but the news stories don’t lie. They show us exactly what is possible.
When they called me about Cora, I didn’t believe them at first.
“She refuses to come down,” they said. “She said she’s looking for someone.”
They had the squads, the news, the fire trucks. I thought that was it, she was going to jump. I was almost jealous. It was hell to lose a kid. She had an out, a real one, and it proved to me that mine had been fake all along.
I climbed the ladder to Cora. I told the EMTs to wait on the ground. “Give me fifteen minutes with her,” I said. “If I can’t get her down, you can do it.” They listened to me. She was my wife.
There were things I thought might happen when I got to the cab. Like that we might symbolically throw Chrissy out the window. Or that we would decide to divorce. Big things; irrevocable things. I thought we might join hands and jump together. I thought I might tell Cora she needed more help than I could give her.
But when I got up there, she smiled at me like she used to when I came home from work, and for a moment it sent my heart soaring. I climbed over her, and she took my hand, and we sat there, like we were waiting for the fireworks to begin. We sat for a long time, not talking, pregnant with these things that plagued us: raccoons and buildings and grief. Maybe pregnant is the wrong word. We were infested with them. Infected.
After fifteen minutes, the EMTs climbed back up.
Cora and I sat tight. There was nowhere else in the world we needed to be.
About the Authors
Kelly Magee’s first collection of stories, Body Language (University of North Texas Press) won the Katherine Ann Porter Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Literary Mama, The Nashville Review, The Tampa Review, Diagram, Black Warrior Review, Indiana Review, Crab Orchard Review, Colorado Review, and others. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.
Carol Guess is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose, including Tinderbox Lawn, Darling Endangered, and Doll Studies: Forensics. She teaches Creative Writing and Queer Studies at Western Washington University, where she is Professor of English.