The glass was slippery in his hand, the amber liquid sloshing around made the condensation dense and troublesome. Dave didn’t bother with the stale brown pieces of scrap Mikey brought with him. The napkins shouldn’t pass as napkins. Anything from the gas station on the corner of Manson and Manson was just a poor imitation of something better. The linen would stick to the wet bottle, get soggy and tear, make his hand an even bigger mess than what it was.
“Would I die?” He asked Mikey, getting the drink off his mind despite it flooding every wrinkle of his hand. Both men glanced over the roof’s edge. There was a five-inch barrier outlining the buildings perimeter. The two men stood just a step away.
“Probably.” Mikey took another swallow of his own brown bottle. “That’s cement down there.”
“Cement is the wet stuff. That’s concrete.” Dave said.
The barren, cracked sidewalk was concrete, if one could tell beyond the trash, dried tar and old gum deposits. There was no one around except for a woman one block over, living inside a similar apartment complex, airing an old rug out the window.
“You’d die.” Mikey drawled. “That’s the point.”
“Would I feel it? You think? Or would it be quick?”
“Quick if your head opens. Or slow. Maybe you’d just bleed out. Depends on how you’d fall, I guess.”
“I should dive then. Go head first.” Dave replied.
Both men stood on the rooftop for the better part of the afternoon. There were no regulations for the roof’s access, as long as one was a tenant and not upsetting the top floor neighbors. Both men always took their time on the rooftop, talking and drinking, although what they had come up there to do would only take a split second.
“Yeah. I’d say so.”
“Would jumping help? You think? If I jumped over the ledge?” With the bottle in his hand, Dave mocked the starting position of what he thought Olympic swimmers performed, hands coming together at a point over his head.
Mikey only shrugged. “Yeah. I’d say so.”
Dave stepped closer so the front of his sneaker hit the barrier. He bent over slightly, trying to see the building’s side. He tried counting the row of windows, but at number eight he felt dizzy and stopped. It was a nice day, the kind that brought even the most elusive crook outside despite the wail of sirens. The kind of nice day that he didn’t think the bad part of town was allowed to have. He shook the wet bottle in his hand, judging the amount, and tipped the mouth over the roof. A few drops fell. He couldn’t see where they landed.
“What does free-falling feel like?”
“Would you free-fall?” Mikey asked. “How high up do you need to be for that?”
Their apartment complex had 15 stories to it. He wondered if they were technically on the 16th. The clear sky, vast as it was deep, made the young man feel nauseous for a moment. A fleeting dizzy spell of vertigo before it quickly passed. He looked over at Mikey, face scrunching up.
“When you fall anywhere, isn’t that free-falling?” Dave considered.
“I don’t think so. Why is there a distinction between falling and free-falling then?”
Dave shrugged. “Maybe the wind affects it?”
“I think it’s the height.”
Dave poured a little more of the liquid, trying to see where it landed. “Maybe I should wear a jacket. If I do it.”
It was Mikey’s turn to look confused.
“I don’t wanna be cold when I die.”
“Well, you might not.”
“I’ll make sure to dive.” Dave said.
“You better. If you chicken out halfway through, you’ll be paralyzed forever.”
“That’s common sense.”
“There was a guy?” Dave paused. “There was a guy from Norway who lost his balance rock climbing. Fell 400 feet. I read that he survived. Wasn’t paralyzed.”
“Well, that’s Norway and rock climbing, isn’t it? This is Chicago. And that’s cement.” Mikey pointed down.”
Dave turned his back to the cityscape and made a show of sucking in a breath. He took another swallow of his beer but didn’t know why. It was warm in his mouth but he managed to get it down. The rooftop was barren save for the access door, a rusted up antenna a kid could grab and draw blood, and a paved floor that was littered with old trash from a disappointing party. What image should he drum up to keep him company on his way out? Certainly not anything from Red Maple Apartments. Maybe his parents watching him leave from the front door, their faces as he told them he’d “make it” in New York. Or should he think about Emma’s face when she told him the diagnosis. “Six months” she said. Maybe he’d settle on his brother giving him a five-dollar bill after kicking him out of his house when he lost everything. Which one would sting the deepest? Which one would go well with a splat?
Dave looked back at Mikey.
It was the same conversation each month. Every week. Sometimes every other day. The roof was Mikey’s hangout, but it was something more for him. A solace, a secret garden, his pocket of universe where he could pretend he wasn’t a cook at a chain restaurant for a few hours. He looked behind Mikey at the city stretched before them. Proud skyscrapers stood every which way, the bustle of cars and bike rings enveloping the air, graffiti covering the bottom half of every building for three blocks. He always wanted to know who “Stingray” was, the purple letters large as they were vibrant. Dave didn’t feel that kind of passion anymore.
He took another sip of the beer and grimaced.
“Moms’ still sick.” Mikey said.
“Long time coming.” The man spoke in a flat voice. “Glad I have time to grieve with her. They don’t think she’ll get better this time.”
Mikey squatted down, his gaze elsewhere. He picked at dried bird shit on the ground. He flicked the remnants off his fingertips. Mikey was a big guy, shoulders as broad as a school bus and thighs as wide as tree trunks. He was fired from Sun Kiss a week ago by getting into a physical altercation with a customer. Dave knew he had no money to purchase their case of beer. He had yet to ask for help and Dave had yet to offer any.
“She isn’t sure about dying.”
“She wanted to die in California like dad.”
“She still can.”
Mikey stood and finished his bottle. He grabbed another warm one. “You’re pretty optimistic.”
“Not really.” The open air was so close. Just a step away. Dave sighed. All of this was not what he wanted to do. Not all of him. There was something inside, subtle and pulsing, and all it wanted to do was to go somewhere with a nice, soft bed. It wanted to lie in it and sleep. Wake up, eat breakfast, go about his day.
Mikey nodded, standing back up. He took a few steps and leaned over the building like Dave had a minute before. “How long do you think you’d fall for?”
“A handful of seconds? Maybe three, two?”
“Nah,” he shook his head, looking back at Dave. “This high? Maybe one. One and a half, tops.”
“Well, that’s good right? I won’t have much time to regret it.”
“You think you would?”
“Sure. Doesn’t everyone who jumps?”
Mikey scratched at his beard. “Those who fuck it up and end up surviving, maybe. If they aren’t paralyzed and wishin’ for death.”
Dave threw his beer bottle over the roof and both men followed the brown flash with their eyes as it crushed on an empty sidewalk and split into thousand small, bouncing glass pieces. The noise was jarring against the normal bustle of the block. If the car driving by noticed, it didn’t slow down. Dave wondered if that’d be the same reaction to a body.
For just a moment, his stomach growled. Hm. Dave sensed a trace of hunger despite the vertigo from looking over the side. He was still alive. His body continued to send him signals that it wanted to keep itself alive, moving.
Dave held his foot out over the edge. He decided to follow the bottle, but now he wanted to consider if he had said everything he ever wanted to in life. Was there a string of words he had never said before? Probably. Maybe something like ‘airplanes have feelings too’ or ‘Emma was a peachy keen gal’. The second thought made him smile. He looked up.
It really was a beautiful day. He was glad to take advantage of it. All he could see was pure blue; an endless plane of spring color. There wasn’t a single wisp of white or grey across the canvas. Sometimes, when the sky was open like this, Dave imagined the pull of gravity reversing and he’d be able to fly up into the heavens. Just falling upwards with the wind roaring in his ears, plummeting away from the rooftop, Red Maple Apartments growing smaller and smaller, cities swallowed up by states, states disappearing into countries until finally he’d just see a big ball of blue and green.
“Maybe an angel will pick me up before I hit the ground.” Dave stepped up on the barrier, now swaying the foot and kicking at the air. “Maybe she’ll take me back to Iowa.”
“Tell her to take my mom to California.” Mikey held up his drink to Dave, as though giving a toast.
The strident screech behind both men told them the door to the roof was in dire trouble of coming off its rusted hinges, but it also gave way to an impending visitor. Mikey looked at Dave, curious to know if the other realized the consequences of their visitor being the building’s owner. But it wasn’t. An older man with crooked glasses and a worn button-down held the door above his head, more than half of his body still submerged in the hidden darkness of the stairwell. He looked at both men sheepishly, surprised as they were to discover company. The man’s eyes were bloodshot, but no tears were left.
“Didn’t know this roof was taken. Sorry.”
“Hey,” Mikey called out just as the man began to shut the door on his head. “Maybe you can help us out.”
The man held the door still, but said nothing.
Mikey looked over at Dave.
“We got beer.” Dave offered.
The man opened the door wider and slipped through, movements heavy. Both men noticed the stranger’s collared shirt and dark colored trousers. Despite the scruff and wrinkles, his clothes were otherwise pristine. Odd for a tenant in Red Maple.
“You live here?” Dave asked, handing the man a bottle. He declined the drink, favoring to look out at the view.
“I was going to.”
“What stopped you?” Mikey laughed. If one ignored the location, the rotting ceilings, the peeling wallpaper, and the crying and shouting neighbors, Red Maple was almost sufferable.
“Ah. Well.” The man shrugged. He continued to look out over the ledge. “What can I help you with?”
“Would I free fall?” David asked. “From this height?”
“You mean if you-” The man paused, looking at both men. He blew air through his nose. “Well, you seem to be about 140 pounds, yeah?”
“From this height, about 150 feet, I’d say so. You’d fall regardless. And die.”
Dave didn’t have the boldness to imply this man did his research, so he asked the next best question. “What made you come up here?”
The man laughed. Next week, Mikey and Dave would see Neil again on the rooftop. But only in three months would they learn Neil’s daughter had died when they were caught in a car accident. It would be another two weeks until the man would reveal how the child’s death consumed him. Another month before he would say how he retired from his medical profession and came to Red Maple to die. For now, the man answered with “Life, I guess.”
“I’d toast to that. The beer is shitty though.” Dave said.
“Have you ever tried something different?” Neil asked.
“Tried different. That’s why we’re up here.”
Neil nodded, and took a few steps closer to the roof’s edge and propped his foot on it. He leaned down, eyeing the spot he imagined hitting. He stepped back down.
“Hey, maybe one day one of us will just give a little push to the other.” Mikey said. “Before we have enough members for a club.”
“I like that.” Dave sat down on the ledge, rocking slightly. “We could get matching jackets. Hey, mister, you think you get cold when you fall? With all that air rushing past you?”
“I honestly didn’t think about that.” He paused for a moment. It was a warm day. “I guess the mind would be on other things than cold toes.”
“Since they will be cold toes.” Mikey said.
Dave absorbed the thought. He nodded and looked vaguely elsewhere. “Yeah. I guess.”
*Originally published 2016, Fiction Break