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Steve Sherrill is an assistant professor of English at Penn State Altoona. He earned an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Fiction in 2002. His poems and stories have appeared in The Best American Poetry, The Kenyon Review, River Styx, and The Georgia Review, among others. He is the author of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. He lives in Pennsylvania.
The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break: A Novel (2002)
Visits from the Drowned Girl: A Novel (2004)
Chapter 1 (from Visits from the Drowned Girl, by Steven Sherrill)
Benny Poteat has seen a lot of THINGS.
Benny PO-teat has seen a lot of things.
Benny Poteat has seen a LOT of things.
Almost NOTHING would surprise him.
Almost nothing would SURPRISE him.
Emphasis is negotiable, and emphasis is everything.
Of the vast array of things Benny Poteat would claim to have seen in his life, the ones he’d consider formative, the handful, or less, of those experiences one tends to have while hurtling blindly through the banalities of day-to-day existence, moments that leap so suddenly, so forcefully into your path that you careen off them two or three degrees into a different sort of future than before—for better or worse, who can say—most of those things he’s witnessed from above. That day, as with countless days before it, from two hundred feet up, the Carolina Piedmont spread out 360 degrees around him, county bleeding into county: dogwood, pitch pine, and red-dirt hills for mile after mile. It was spring, wet and fecund. Benny Poteat had been climbing towers, legally, since he was fifteen years old, and fifteen years later he still loved the struggle between the late-March winds and the rigid metal framework he buckled himself to Monday through Thursday, weather permitting, well into winter. So, while it’s true that Benny Poteat had seen a lot of things from up there, mostly he just did his job and bore witness to hour upon mundane hour in sometimes vertiginous solitude. He was rarely prepared for the extraordinary. In fact, he’d be hard pressed to come up with anything that could have prepared him, truly prepared him, for what he saw that day.
Off in the distance, the perimeters of Buffalo Shoals were defined on one end by the harsh silver dome of the water tower Benny painted just last summer and at the other by the tall rusting hoppers and conveyors at the defunct Purina factory. Goat, swine, and other small-mammal foods. Counting the drivers, almost eighty jobs lost. Somewhere behind him, Benny knew that the pitted quartzite crags of Crowder’s Mountain jutted skyward, in places six hundred feet higher than the surrounding hills. It was a tired and crumbling relic of some ancient grand range of mountains that made its tectonic march across the land long before any humans ever trod there. Now, Crowder’s Mountain, with its token of a name, claimed its position of power in smaller, more provincial ways. At least three times a year some fool fell to his death. A cocky climber, too cool for ropes and other safety equipment. Drunken frat boys from Piedmont College. The occasional depressive. Mostly men; boys, really. The worn-out little mountain seemed to eat them. Depending on who you asked, Crowder’s may or may not be the starting point of the Blue Ridge foothills.
Between him and the town, maybe two miles away, Benny could see a gouge in the pine-and-poplar forests; the hills and gullies stripped of all usable wood for pulp. What remained was ravaged red-clay earth, stripped limbs and the shattered trunks of the trees too small or gnarled to be of any value. Acres and acres of this wasteland, cut by ’dozer tracks and deep muddy ruts left by the logging trucks when they chuffed and chugged out for the last time. Like a war zone, Benny thought. Not that he’d ever seen one. But, because he was prone to lapses into fantasy, he kept thinking in that vein. War zone.
This would be a good vantage spot. He could see enemy movement for miles in every direction. Planes. Tanks. Ground troops. He’d radio headquarters. He’d stay in position as long as it took. Purple Heart. Medal of Honor. Taps. Every girl he ever fantasized over weeping by his grave.
Boredom was one of the more benign hazards of the job.
It took an adamant gust of that March wind to bring Benny back to the task at hand, a gust that roared through the tower’s metal frame with the pitch of a jet engine, and sung in the guy wires Benny was checking for Bard’s Communications. Notwithstanding its anchoring guys, the tower succumbed, just a little, to the wind. It swayed. Despite his years of experience, and despite the leather harness and carabiners holding him in place, Benny nearly dropped a wrench as he grabbed for the rungs at his chest.
On a guyed tower, “masts” they’re called, the vertical structure is often less than two feet across. Square or triangular, the entire apparatus, made of channel iron or tubing, is held erect by a series of woven metal guy wires equally spaced up each side of the tower and angling off down to the ground, where they terminate in massive concrete pillars sunk deep in the earth. From tower to guy to pillar to earth. The number of guys depends on the height of the tower. There were mornings, rare and sweet, when he came to the job site early and saw the tower rising up out of a silent, reluctant fog; it looked for all the world like the guy wires and chunks of concrete were all that kept the towers from lifting, no, hurtling, skyward, rocketlike, through our own shallow atmosphere and beyond. Propelled by what? The sheer beauty of their construction.
Other mornings, less rare, Benny was acutely aware that the masts he perched on came to an impossibly small triangulated point at the base; the precarious balance at the mercy of properly maintained guy wires.
More wind. Benny held to a rung with his gloved left hand, while the right hand checked the turnbuckles of the uppermost guy, north side, for correct tension. Each time the wrench clanked against the metal frame, the note rang up and down the tower and out through the sky for miles.
Benny Poteat had seen a lot of things. As a kid, mostly unsupervised, though not out of apathy or unconcern, he’d regularly climb the water towers in Buffalo Shoals and the surrounding towns. By the time he was a teen, the communications industry had gained momentum, so the type and number of towers available for climbing was dizzying. Every time the police called him down off the towers, put him in the backseat of their cruisers, and took him back to his Uncle Nub’s, Benny got the lecture about—the threat of—Jackson Training School.
Judging by the sun rolling doggedly overhead, it was almost lunchtime. Benny clipped the wrench to his tool belt then took a long gulping pull from the water bottle he kept holstered at his back. Benny was a lean but well-hydrated man. He took a minute to gauge his hunger. He took another minute to gauge the wind’s direction before unzipping his jeans and wrestling his penis around the leg strap of the harness. He pissed. East side. Sometimes he urinated out into the air, marveling at the fluid geometry that caught and toyed with sunlight as the stream fell earthward. That morning his pumpkin-colored van was parked just below, and Squat, his decrepit dachshund, was asleep in the shade of its wheels. The likelihood of his urine actually reaching the ground two hundred feet immediately below him was, given the wind, slim at best. And both the van and the dog would suffer little, possibly even benefit, from a bath of any kind. Nevertheless, Benny Poteat wasn’t taking chances. He aimed his stream down the east-side guy wire, where, in the protective runnels of the taut woven wire, some of it would no doubt reach the terminus and pool at the top of the concrete pylon embedded near the bank of the Big Toe River.
This particular tower, the first and tallest of all Bard’s towers, was Benny’s favorite for a number of reasons. It was forty-five minutes from town, even with good traffic; the gravel access road snaked almost two miles into the woods, so while the tower was a popular drinking spot on Friday and Saturday nights, through the week Benny Poteat could work in peace; he could take a leak without having to climb all the way down. But the thing he liked most was the water. The tower stood on the wide wedge of land at the confluence of the Big and Little Toe Rivers. Benny could hear the water, even from the top of the tower. The access road paralleled the straighter path of the Big Toe from just past the bridge on Plank Road, sweeping around the big willows that grew along the banks. Fifty yards beyond, where the gravel road ended abruptly in an irregular circle that collared the tower’s base and the sagging chain-link fence that pretended to secure it, the Little Toe River spilled out of a stone-choked gully, slowed in a loblolly of pines and cattails before feeding into its sibling. It was spring, a very rainy one. The whole earth seemed soggy. The water in both rivers, swift and muddy, was so high that the banks seemed absent. Mere notions. The transition from land to water was seamless.
Benny Poteat shook himself off, but not enough to prevent wet fingers when he reconfigured his package behind the harness. Calculating the time it would take to finish the job against the time it would take to climb down and eat his tomato sandwich, he decided to keep working. Using two hooked fingers, he whistled for Squat. When the old dog waddled from beneath the van, Benny said, “Good dog,” though not loud enough for anything to hear. After a few minutes, Squat waddled back to the shade. Benny spat twice, but the dual tastes of line grease and urine lingered in his mouth.
Funny how memory works. Benny recalled another spring day, the last year he attended high school. It was Mrs. Dishman’s English class, and they were studying mythology. He remembered some god impregnated a lady through a shower of golden rain. Benny said it aloud, because he liked the way it sounded. A shower of golden rain. Then Debbie Cranks rubbed her belly and said, “That’s exactly what happened to me,” and everybody laughed. Even Mrs. Dishman. Benny remembered it clearly, and he remembered that Debbie’s baby was stillborn, but he couldn’t remember the god’s name. Maybe he’d stop by the library on the way home.
A lot of people would be surprised that Benny knew anything like this. Benny Poteat was a closet thinker. Sometimes, when he was in a thinking mood, he speculated that there were only a handful of pure things that happened on the earth, sort of a distillate of experience, and over and over again, through generations and time, they get repeated in different variations. He tried to write the idea down one time, but on paper it didn’t make any sense. Up there, though, two, three, five, seven hundred feet in the air, with nothing but jute rope or a thin leather harness and a couple of carabiners to hold him in case of a slip, in case of a missed step at a steel rung while re-lamping a radio tower, or stretching just one inch too far for balance while painting the hot dome top of a water tank, up there you got a clarity of perspective unlike anything to be found at ground level.
Sometimes it took a lot to surprise Benny Poteat.
Just last week he was repositioning a satellite dish on a low tower across the interstate from one of those strip malls that seem to be proliferating along every four-lane road in the country, particularly where the stink of money is high. “New South,” they call it. Benny could clearly see the backs of the stores: the Dumpsters, the busted pallets, the Styrofoam packing peanuts strewn everywhere. He could see all this stuff so clearly because it was new to him. He didn’t look at it every day. On the other hand, the people who came and went on the loading docks and through the back doors of the stores were so certain of the presence of the radio tower across the road that it became invisible. It and anybody clinging to the top of it. Benny Poteat watched two guys come out of the back of the Container Store. Both wore jeans, white shirts, and ridiculously colorful ties.
The men immediately began to fight, a fistfight with serious intent. He couldn’t hear the men speaking, maybe they weren’t, but he heard flesh and bone connect. Before long the smaller of the two men landed a solid two-punch to the chest and jaw of the other. And when the bigger, defeated man fell into a stack of cardboard boxes, gasping for breath, the little guy helped him stand, then knelt down and fellated him. Right there in front of God and everybody. Took about two minutes, and Benny watched as the big man’s hands came around to cradle the giver’s head as he finished. Then they both went back inside. But, while entertaining, none of that really surprised Benny.
“What a big old goofy world,” he said to no one.
Nor was Benny surprised, on this day, by the distant appearance, across the Big Toe River, of a person making his or her slow way out of the woods and down the opposite access road toward the water. Probably some yahoo coming to fish for channel catfish where the rivers met. As long as Benny could remember, people talked of catfish big as Volkswagens cruising the riverbed there, lurking and stealthy in the muddy flow; waiting for cats, small dogs, or toddlers, but way too smart for ham hocks tied to meat hooks. Nobody he knew ever caught one. Probably some third-shift linthead from the mill, coming to fish, but Benny couldn’t see, and didn’t care anyway.
Tower work is rife with horror stories. During construction, a snapped guy wire can send a tower crashing down, can wreak apocalyptic havoc on the job site and the crew. It doesn’t happen often, not with professional crews, anyway. Benny had only witnessed it once. But sometimes catastrophe is bound and determined to happen. A more likely occurrence is some tower jockey—hungover, distracted, or just plain stupid—doesn’t pay attention to his safety harness. How messy the whole affair is depends on how many rungs and guy wires he bounces off on the way to the ground, and then what he lands on. Benny had seen that happen a couple times, too. He’d known at least one man to jump. It crosses everybody’s mind, but not all of them would admit it.
Benny wouldn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea, however; there’s ample beauty in his line of work. He’d seen baptisms, outdoor wed- dings, and dogfights. Sunsets and sunrises you couldn’t beat. A partial eclipse. Once, he watched a red-winged hawk drop out of the top of a poplar tree, hit the ground a hundred yards away, and come up with a field mouse in its talons. But before the hawk reached the safety of its perch, an audacious little mockingbird angled in and landed on its back, right between those powerful outstretched wings. Then the whole lot flew so close to Benny on the tower that he heard the mouse squealing in terror; saw its absurd pink feet clawing the sky; he felt the stir of wind whipped by the hawk’s wings; and he saw the malice in the mockingbird’s black eye.
A couple years ago, Benny watched a field of broom straw catch fire. It was early fall, still hot and dry. Benny was re-lamping a radio tower near the state line. To one side a hilly apple orchard rolled over the horizon; to the other, farther away and beyond a copse of pines, acres of waist-high broom straw, already yellowing into the season, genuflected to the slightest breeze. There was no visible road to the field. There were no people around. It was afternoon and blue saturated the sky. Benny saw the smoke first, stuttering tentatively near the field’s center. Then the conflagration leapt, more orange than anything had ever been, toward heaven. Benny watched the fire spread in an uneven circle through the grass. Its core grew, smoldering and black, to eventually consume most of the field. Benny felt real close to God then.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Visits from the Drowned Girl by Steven Sherrill Copyright© 2004 by Steven Sherrill. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.