In the months after that, Santini and I worked side by side, a team almost. He still talked little, and he would never agree to go to the bars with me at the end of the day. Yet. I could tell my presence there in the spill of steel and mist above Manhattan was important to him.
The pattern of days stretched out in a weave of hours stitched together by death and weather. Cold and heat reddened us, branded us as riders of the clouds, and from time to time storms threatened, great wheeling monsters climbing each other’s backs to get to us, gradually settling down over the skyline in a thick mass of fibrous smoke, ready to let loose and destroy or even pass over as they so chose. Ironically, it was often on those tempest-stirred days that we felt most secluded and almost secure, as if we inhabited a burrow beneath the earth, snugly walled in by vapor and rain. On days like that, it seemed as if there had been a kind of inversion of all our knowing. We knew our world backwards.
The pattern of days stretched out in a weave of hours stitched together by death and weather. Cold and heat reddened us, branded us as riders of the clouds…
And then a clearing front would come sweeping in from the Atlantic, and time would begin its slow roll forward once more.
I still remember the rattle of the elevator shaft that August morning when I knew I would not return the following week. The sound was like the sledging of anvils near my ears, and when I climbed the strapped ladders, behind the moving legs of other workers, up into the nest of steel and plank, I felt I was arriving there for the first time. The sun flared beneath the rim of the city, fulminating and hissing red and orange in the steam of the horizon.
I told Santini I had saved enough to pay my way through my first year of college, that I was finished with all of this. He froze, silhouetted against the sunrise, and I saw him turn to one side as if to deflect a blow. When he looked back, he had regained composure, and he nodded. Just as he had done on that day that Millhouse died, he reached out a hand and touched me, this time on the back of my bare arm. It was the same feather touch but briefer, and then he began to move away from me.
It was just then that the photographer arrived, with three of the supervisors in tow. The man was a sallow little fellow, but you had to hand it to him; he had guts. You could see his face was the color of apple peel left in the sun for days, almost transparent, and yet he came out on the joists despite his obvious terror. And within minutes, he became all business. Sit this way on the beam. Open your lunch boxes. Turn your heads to the left. To the right.
We sat precariously, nervous. The supervisors told us to relax, look casual. I was glad to be near the end of the beam, with only Santini beside me. He leaned into me slightly, and I looked at him, his beautiful sad eyes beneath the peaked cap. I wanted to tell him I’d stay, and then felt foolish for having such a thought.
The weather intervened then again. No storm this time, just a bank of hazy nebula, a blemishing of light that would pass. A supervisor said to leave the beam, to remember our positions, and the photographer would take the shot in a few minutes. When I had moved some equipment for one of the bosses, I went to put my lunch box on the plank reserved for that purpose. Something fluttered in the breeze where Santini’s lunch box usually sat, right beside where I put mine: a scrap of paper weighted in place by a bolt. Beneath the paper was a gold chain, a delicate necklace attached to a filigreed heart. I read the words on the paper: “For Sharp, because of what is not. Thanks. S.”
Later Barker said he saw Santini step off the edge of the building, did it as if he were going for a stroll. He said he had smiled that way he always did and then was gone.
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