IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PLAIN, as though hewn from a mountain of crystalline quartz, rose the city’s sun-dazzled facets of towering glass. From the top of the tallest came a sound, a sparkling cascade of notes. The window washers were preparing their scaffolding for the day’s descent. One was whistling a symphony. The other two engaged in conversation.
“First day, huh, kid? What’s your name again?”
“Walt. So what did you do to deserve this? Parents finally kick you out of the house?”
“No, I’m saving money for school next fall. Besides, I like the view.”
“School? Ha. I’ve got a degree in psychology, and look where it got me.”
From the other end of the scaffolding, the whistler nodded a greeting while continuing to check the cables and connections.
“Who’s he?” Bobby asked.
“You don’t recognize that face?” Walt lowered his voice. “Well, it’s been a while, I guess. See that gold-colored building over there?” He tilted his head toward the city’s second tallest tower. “He used to sit in a plush corner office on the top floor. That man was once the president of his own bank – and now he’s washing the windows on one. He’s the biggest failure this side of the Mississippi.”
As the platform lowered over the edge, the symphony segued into a melody that had once serenaded cattle on the rolling prairie below, the notes lofting into blue space.
“So, what happened to him?” Bobby asked.
“He made a bad decision, ran into some bad luck. The bank went under.”
Three floors lower, a mockingbird landed on the platform’s railing. It cocked its head at a Viennese waltz and flew off in search of less formidable competition.
“Why didn’t he start over or go into some other line of business?”
“With what? Every penny he had was backing that bank. His credit is shot. Up there on the north side, he had a twenty-room mansion, four cars, a yacht, a summer home in the mountains. Now he rents a room down near that factory by the rail yard; he walks to work, doesn’t have so much as a bathtub to play in, and he hasn’t taken a day’s vacation in the two years he’s worked here.”
The waltz shifted into a lilting ragtime tune, the first of a dozen that carried them down the next seven floors.
“Does he have family?”
“His wife took the kids. The relatives who once basked in his glow now cross the street to avoid his shadow. One of his brothers even changed his last name.”
A series of Baroque canons and fugues accompanied them down to the building’s halfway point, where they paused for lunch. After eating his sandwich and tucking away the brown bag, the biggest failure this side of the Mississippi laid back on the platform to watch the clouds, whistling a soulful slave hymn.
“Surely he still has a friend or two,” Bobby ventured. “If the decision was just an honest mistake and the circumstances were unforeseeable, he would still have the respect of his peers. Somebody would give him a chance at something. . . .”
“People want him around like they want a black cat named Thirteen. If whoever is in charge of this place ever bothered to read the applications for window washer and discovered that bad luck incarnate is hanging on the side of their bank, they’d probably cut the cables we’re dangling from rather than waiting for us to come down.”
As the afternoon passed, a lively march reverberated from the surrounding buildings, followed by an operatic aria and a program of buoyant show tunes. The sidewalks began filling with people on their way home. A sweet lullaby floated down. A few glanced up appreciatively.
“Well, at least he seems happy,” Bobby said.
“At first I thought he’d taken this job just to have a convenient place to jump from, but then he started with that infernal whistling and I knew he’d lost his mind. The only future the man has is the hope of being back up on top of this godforsaken pile of glass tomorrow morning.”
An Irish ballad set them gently on the sidewalk.
“Hey, you – the whistler.” A man in a business suit beckoned from a bench next to the taxi stand.
“Here, this is for the music,” he said, holding out a five-dollar bill and patting the spot beside him. “Sit down, sit down. . . . Nobody whistles like that anymore, you know. My father was a whistler though. God, could he whistle. When I asked him to teach me how, he said, ‘Son, you have to start with a clean conscience.’ It took me a long time to understand that, but he was right. He was the most indomitable man I’ve ever known. I’ll never forget, when I was seven years old a tornado destroyed our house and the farm. My father led us up from the cellar, took a long look around, and as he tossed a twisted piece of our plow aside, he started whistling. I only remember a little of the tune. It went – La, dah dee dee, la dah, dah dee la . . .”
The whistler’s whistle picked up the melody and carried it high into the glass canyon.
“Yes! . . . Yes, that’s it. . . .”
* * *
The next morning, on the top floor, there were only the two window washers cleaning the panes.
Walt exclaimed, “Come here, kid, look at this!” His face was plastered to the glass. “Now I know what happened to him – he got himself fired. That man, the one he was talking to, he’s the bank president!”
Bobby went and looked, and returned to his own side in a thoughtful melancholy. He wiped a swath through the dust on a window and stopped, peering into the office next to the president’s. The well-dressed man sitting at the desk was cleaning a smudge off of the glass top with his handkerchief. On the front of the office door, someone was lettering a name in the space above the words, “Vice President.” The only sound outside was the wind, but the man at the desk was undoubtedly whistling. Recognizing Bobby, he waved. Bobby waved back and finished cleaning the window.
As the scaffolding lowered to the next floor, Bobby shaped his mouth in the form of an “O” – and blew.
* * *
First published in 1994 by the Atlantean Press, The Atlantean Press Review.
Copyright 1994, Quent Cordair. All rights reserved.
“The Whistler” is included in the Lunch Break collection of short stories and poems, available through Amazon in paperback and for Kindle @ http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008B0KXFI .