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Surfacing
By Thomas Genevieve


The first time I saw the guy on the ledge, I had just popped out my earbuds and was rubbing my eyes from screen fatigue. It always takes me a few seconds to get acclimated again. It’s as if I’ve surfaced from the benthic depths of a subterranean, digital world, returning to a place I’ve become less and less familiar with.

Actually, before I saw the guy out there, I was thinking about how the syncopated patter on the keyboards in the room reminded me of rain. But unlike the soothing “Tropical Rain” setting on a sound machine, it felt more like an aural form of Chinese water torture. 

I leaned back in my chair and wondered if the sound of indiscriminate falling water could be considered torture, when I noticed the guy moving around on the building across the street. I do that sometimes when I resurface—distract myself with anything other than the screen—so it wasn’t as if I started watching him because I knew something wasn’t right. It might have been his movements—his range—that made me more attentive and curious. I got out of my chair and inched closer to the window. 

The guy dipped his squeegee into a bucket that dangled from his left hand and spread the water from the spongy side all over the windowpane. He flipped over the squeegee and gathered the wet film with the blade, pulling it into the middle before dragging it to the bottom. As he moved to the next window, the water in the bucket sloshed back and forth, slapping over the brim.

A harness, I thought. He didn’t have a harness. There was no rope or cord or carabiner hooked to the building either.

He turned sideways—the squeegee stuck out of the bucket, which was now suspended over the sidewalk—and wiped his hand on his pants, while gazing down the street. 

He had erratic salt and pepper hair. His white T-shirt stretched across a pregnant gut that hung over the waist of his dark blue work pants. Although he was eye level with my floor—the 14th—his mannerisms were that of someone on the ground, exercising no discernible prudence. 

A sliver of ledge bordered his left foot. I tried to get a good look at his shoes but couldn’t tell what he had on. I realized that was a ridiculous thought, though. It didn’t matter if he wore Jordan’s or patent leather wingtips, only feet that were webbed, hooved, or clawed could permit such confidence. 

“Look at this,” I said. 

No one heard. The team worked sequestered in our own audio-cubicles because we chatted online, cutting out the need to verbally communicate even though we sat less than 20 feet from each other. I looked toward Melinda.

“Melinda.” I waved. Nothing. “Melinda!” I sat back down and messaged her. Her head shot up so fast I thought she’d get the bends. 

“What?”

“Check this out.” I pointed across the street. It took a few seconds before she understood. 

“Oh my god.” She grabbed her phone and scurried to the window. “This is so thrilling!”

“What do you think we should do?” I asked. 

“Shit, this sucks,” she said. “My phone’s getting too much glare. You can’t tell he’s not strapped to anything.” 

“Seriously, what do we do?” 

She rapped on the window.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Maybe I can get him to spin around to show nothing’s holding him up.” She thought this was some sort of high-wire stunt or magic act. She saw Chad getting up to leave the room and called for him. 

The last one on the team I wanted over there was Chad. He saw himself as a Randian hero—a twenty-first century chimera of Howard Roark and John Galt—but really, he was just a douche. 

“What do you want?” he said. 

“Take a look at that.” 

Chad leaned over my space. 

“Big deal. Some fat schlub’s cleaning windows.” 

“He has no harness!”

“No fucking way.” 

He knocked on the window. “Hey buddy!”

“Don’t do that,” I said. 

“Crazy shit,” he said. “This city never ceases to amaze me.” 

Melinda looked away from her phone. “I know, right?” 

A moment later Chad had seen enough. “Let me know if he falls or something.” 

“Don’t jinx him!” Melinda said. 

“If you’re cleaning windows on a high rise with no gear you must have a death wish. Hell, if I had to clean windows for a living, I wouldn’t give two-shits if I fell or not.” Chad laughed as he left the room. 

“Come on, move!” Melinda still wasn’t satisfied with her video, so she rapped the windowpane again. I didn’t think the guy could hear her, but I told her to stop anyway. “Why?”

“You’ll distract him.” She had a blank look on her face. “And then it will be on your conscience,” I said. “You’ll have nightmares about it for the rest of your life.” 

“Oh, you’re right!”

The guy placed the bucket on the ledge and went back inside, ducking under the open window. 

“He’s got that Spiderman complex, you know?” Melinda said. 

I didn’t think there was such a thing, so I didn’t respond. 

Protected by a waist high barrier, he faced us and leaned out the window. His meaty hands lacked a gentle grasp, so water splashed up against the sides, escaping all over the ledge. I wondered if anyone felt the droplets below. 

*

Later in the evening, I sat in a pub with my friends near my apartment. 

“I doubt he’d do it if it really were that dangerous,” Rohan said. 

“What do you mean?” I said.

“The ledge is probably wide enough.” 

I assured him that wasn’t the case, but he shrugged and glanced at the TV behind the bar. I now regretted not taking a picture. There was a time I snapped and posted everything I saw, until one day while scrolling through a ton of my photos, I realized I couldn’t remember taking many of them. 

“Maybe he’s from a long line of window washers,” Alicia said, “and each generation becomes more impervious to the fear of heights.” 

“No,” Rohan said. “The circus. He was a circus performer as a kid. The window business is cake after that.” 

I texted Melinda and asked her to post the footage, but by the time she did, everyone had moved on to other topics or returned to their phones. Before we left for the night, I showed them, but they treated it no differently than anything else they would see online. 

“There’s too much glare,” Alicia said. “Your friend should have made him spin around or something to prove it wasn’t a trick.” 

*

I had no idea when, or if ever, he’d be out there again. The room the guy came from was usually dark, and when the lights were on, it looked vacant. Instead of exploring YouTube or surfing the web to take a break from the numbers, I found myself ledge-watching, studying the building’s ornate stone façade. 

Little gargoyles hid under the ledge. Telemons of angelic children with their hands folded in prayer divided the windows every dozen feet. Below them, a bare-chested man in a priapic mold guarded the thirteenth floor. I had been working in the same building for over four years, sitting in the same seat, with the same view, and never noticed any of this. 

Once I spotted him on the ledge again, I clutched the arm of my chair like there were a chance I’d plummet 14 stories with him. He didn’t share the same fear as me though. But he just yawned and stretched out an arm and pulled it behind his head, like he was limbering up for the gym. I couldn’t fathom why he wouldn’t have done that inside. He reached down and grabbed the bucket, but before he started on the windows, he coughed. His upper body jolted each time, and with it the bucket—its water spastically splashing over the edge. I felt seasick, as if the bucket were an aquatic diorama in which I was confined. When the coughing bout ended, he wiped his face with his T-shirt, his gut hanging out. 

I looked across at Melinda. Her earbuds were in and she sang to herself. I decided not to tell her or anyone else he was back out there. Though it made me sick, I couldn’t turn away or go back to my screen. I wanted to comprehend what compelled him to do it. He didn’t look crazy, but maybe he was. 

I tried to justify what he was doing. Perhaps he had no choice but to take this job; he needed it—his family needed to eat. His employer was simply too cheap to get him a harness and this was an egregious labor violation. But that couldn’t be true. With a belly like his, he looked well fed. If he had a family, or at least one he loved, I assumed he’d be more circumspect in the way he moved about up there. And although I wouldn’t doubt a company to skimp on safety equipment, they would be dumb not to see this guy’s inevitable plunge as a pricey lawsuit waiting to happen. Maybe he actually was the scion of a great circus family or a descendant from a clan of window washers genetically immune to vertigo. 

He reached into his front pocket and something fell out, disappearing over the ledge. I had no idea if it was a wallet or a tool, but it must not have been important because he turned, looked down, and shook his head before resuming his work. Moments later he peered down again and expressed another half-hearted look of disapproval. 

Since this guy didn’t care about his own safety, I started worrying about the people on the ground. He’d land on a person or two and they’d be goners. But even if he didn’t flatten someone, the witnesses would be traumatized by the mangled Guernica-like body parts twisted about the sidewalk. And of course, someone would be kind enough to record it and post it to sate the sickos and scar the innocent. 

In the name of protecting the lives of pedestrians on the street and denizens of the cyber world, I heroically turned to Google. There had to be a phone number to report window-washing violations. I found nothing but , ads for window cleaning supplies and companies. My search lasted no more than a minute, so when I picked up my head and the guy was gone, I was pretty shaken. I looked along the ledge that stretched the width of the building. There was nothing. If he went down, the bucket and squeegee went with him.

The first day I had seen him, he closed the window behind him once he was done; now it remained open. I pressed my forehead against the glass to check the sidewalk, but my angle got me no farther than the fourth or fifth floor. I didn’t want to be the person who overreacts—I normally wasn’t—but I started to breathe heavily. I whispered reassurances to myself about him going in for a bathroom break or to fix his squeegee, but as his absence grew longer, the sick feeling in my stomach could not be assuaged. 

An hour passed. The faint sounds of sirens cried everyday, so the ones I heard didn’t necessarily mean they were for him. As I was about to leave the room and head down to the street, Chad intercepted me and asked about our summaries. Then, as I was about to step into the elevator, one of my managers caught me.

“I need your opinion on something,” she said. 

Her questions went right by me, but she seemed happy with my nods and acquiescent “sounds good”s tossed out every so often. After she was satisfied that I agreed with her, I rode the elevator to the lobby. 

Once outside, I tried to judge where the body fell. The sidewalk had the usual flow of pedestrians. There was no trace of carnage or the remains of a horrific spectacle. But it wouldn’t have surprised me if, immediately after people had taken their pictures and the body had been scraped off the ground, human traffic washed over the scene as if nothing happened,. For the rest of the afternoon, I checked the ledge every few minutes. Melinda sent me a link with clips of animals getting jars stuck on their heads. The team voted on which animal was the funniest. A beaver trapped by an econo-sized tub of peanut butter won. I packed my bag to leave at 5:30 and looked once more. The window to the ledge was closed. 

That night, I surfed online for stories about a window washer plummeting to his death and found nothing. I closed my laptop, walked into the kitchen and grabbed a bucket from under my sink. I filled the bucket half way with water. Two square widths of linoleum tile marked my imagined ledge. I took a few sidesteps in each direction and leaned back to test my body’s ability to maintain balance. I left the bucket on the floor and returned with the toilet bowl scrubber. This didn’t make my simulation much more authentic. The gusts of wind, the grainy particles under the soles of my shoes, and the reality of a 14-story drop inches from my heels could not be replicated. Hell, I didn’t even know how to open the window in our office. A guy who no longer works there opened one the previous spring, saying he was claustrophobic and needed some air. It was a big to-do and maintenance had to come and shut it. 

*

The following morning I was relieved to see him not on the ledge but through the window, climbing a ladder, tinkering with the fluorescent ceiling lights. He spent most of the day walking in and out of the room. He wasn’t back on the ledge until the next morning, but instead of the bucket and squeegee, he had a can of paint and a brush. Taking generous dunks of red paint, he spread it leisurely around the frame, working his brush along the side of the window, up and down. 

His fully extended arm couldn’t reach the far corner of the frame, so he pushed up on his tippy toes, stretching as tall as he could. It looked fine to me, but his implacable eye caught a spot I didn’t see. He hopped up once, and then twice. Finally satisfied, he rested the brush in the can. But suddenly, his head jerked as if something across the street distracted him. For the first time, he lost his footing. 

His torso swayed, forward and back, until he steadied himself, only to be thrown off balance once again. Still holding onto the paint, he raised his arms and bent his knees, focusing on his center, hoping to tame a wave that would pass. 

I closed my eyes. 

Whatever voyeuristic compulsion I possessed up to that point departed. I didn’t want to see his last moment, an undoubtedly clumsy and undignified panic, while reaching for what wasn’t there, and the instant acknowledgement his life would soon be over, and the realization that anyone he cared to embrace and tell that he loved one last time would never get his final goodbye.  

However, when I opened my eyes, he was cautiously negotiating his feet around the narrow base of the pillar farther down the ledge—his free hand palming a holy kid’s head. But he did not lose his balance and decapitate the kid. And neither did he a few minutes later, when he passed the kid on his way back to the window he came out of. 

The rest of the week went by, and I didn’t see him on the ledge again. The subsequent Monday, the last time I ever saw him, he carried furniture and boxes into the room with an additional crew. He hugged a large potted plant into his chest—its fat, primitive leaves disappeared as he placed it below the window. 

Starting the following morning, men and women in familiar attire occupied the room from then on, sitting at their computers, surfacing from time to time to stretch their legs, attempting a return to what exists outside the screen. 

Across the street, management demanded data from my team in more spreadsheets, presentations, and charts than I ever imagined possible. I maintained indifference toward the numbers, disconnected from their meaning—not that I should have held another position. Submerged inside the screen, I hopscotched around the netted grid, thinking in a language spoken by the sclerotic lords of Excel. 

I closed my eyes and floated safely to the surface. I pushed my chair away from the desk, stepped up on the vents below the windows, and pressed my cheek against the pane. I knew no one would be watching.
Thomas Genevieve is a teacher living in New Jersey. He has been writing fiction, with a specific focus on short stories, for about six years. His work appears or is forthcoming in the Broadkill ReviewGenre: Urban ArtsAdelaide Literary Magazine and the Sierra Nevada Review, among others. When he is not writing, he maintains a steady diet of the cultural arts.