EXCERPT: City So Bright — Dale Bailey

So Joe fell the other day.

One minute he’s hanging on the wall, maybe twenty feet away from me, and we’re shouting back and forth, razzing each other the way you do—polish polish polish, till your arms feel so numb they could fall off and you wouldn’t even notice and just razzing each other: your wife is so heinous you get a mouthful of fur when you give her a hickey, and your mom is so fat she gets mistaken for a dirigible. The kind of thing you do, and nobody’s feelings get hurt. My wife says guys do this because they’re so emotionally stunted that they can’t express their real feelings. But I know this to be bullshit of the most preposterous variety, because when Joe fell I cried like a baby, and that’s not emotionally stunted if you know what I mean.

But I’ve always been a little bit on the sensitive side, even for a Munchkin.

So here’s what happens. We’re on the wall, maybe seventy feet up, razzing each other, when two of Joe’s lines snap. Not one but two, is what I’m saying. His bucket goes clattering down the side of the wall, spraying polish everywhere—it smells like an ammonia bomb has exploded—and his platform swings down on one side, hanging vertically. His safety harness engages, and he’s suddenly dangling below the platform, still holding on to his rag. He’s just kind of swinging there, this panicky expression on his face, and I say in this very calming voice, the kind of voice you use with your kids when they scrape a knee or something, I say, “Everything’s cool, hang tight,” you know what I mean, only not thinking till later that hang tight is not the best thing I could have said under these particular circumstances. But still, the safety harness is engaged, and the guys up top are going to winch him up—that’s the way it always happens—and we’ll all go out for a cold one somewhere after our shift. We’ll clap Joe on the back and say things like You looked pretty scared up there, pal and Did you shit your britches or what? I can fucking smell you, man, and we’ll have a few laughs, and then we’ll go home to do it all over again, another day on the wall, polish polish polish. That’s the way it always goes down, no pun intended. I wouldn’t disrespect Joe’s memory that way, not for all the world with a cherry on top.

Not even for the Wizard’s head on a spike, which is something I shouldn’t have written, but hell, sometimes you have to tell the truth or you can’t look at yourself in the mirror the next morning.

Then this next thing happens, which is Joe’s safety harness snaps, and down he goes like the bucket, bouncing off the wall, which has this gentle slope to it. Thump thump thumpity-thump crunch kersplat—this meaty sound like a squadron of monkeys has just dropped a side of beef from a hundred feet up just to see what will happen. Fucking monkeys. Anyway, that’s what I remember most is that sound, crunch kersplat, blood and bones, you know, blood and fucking bones. Looking down, it’s like a kid has dropped a jar of strawberry jelly. Joe’s just exploded like a meat bag full of blood, and what I’m thinking is, some poor son of a bitch is going to have to scrape him off the pavement, and some other poor son of a bitch is going to have to wipe down the wall and polish polish polish till it’s like it never happened. I’m hoping it’s not me, too, which makes me feel kind of guilty, because even though he’s a Winkie, Joe’s my best friend, you know.

That’s what got us thinking—me, Dizzy, and Hops. We go out for a cold one, this little hole-in-the-wall in the tunnels, Frankie’s, where we go sometimes after a shift. There are two overlapping shifts, fourteen hours each, six and a half days a week with half a day Sunday, which you’re supposed to spend with your wife and kids tossing the old Frisbee around and grilling burgers, but you can’t ever do that because you’re just so fucking tired—you know what I mean. You’re just so tired. Calixta always complains about it, prodding me with her foot and saying Get up lazy bones. Don’t you wanna see your kids? And I do, but I’m just so tired. My arms feel like they’re not connected to the rest of me, my hands are clenched into these hooks or claws. It takes me all afternoon and evening to work them back into hands again, and I’m supposed to throw a Frisbee? Besides, where we gonna throw it? You can’t do it in the tunnels, with all these sad little holes-in-the-walls that we rent as “apartments,” if you know what I’m saying, these one-room little dens with a couple of stinking straw pallets, all infested with lice and bedbugs, one for Calixta and me and one for the kids. We usually end up screwing Sunday night once my hands uncramp, but there’s no real pleasure in it. All the time I’m worried about my snot-nosed little apes—are they awake or are they asleep, and what kind of psychological damage is it doing to them to watch their parents humping away on that stinking mess of straw.

[End Excerpt]