"Heavens! I couldn't do it, Jack. The twentieth floor, you say? Now, there's a thing."
Ma started shaking her head slowly in bewilderment and wiped some very greasy hands on her even greasier apron.
"The twentieth floor..." she was muttering again, as she turned back towards the pan.
"Ain't that bad, Ma. Lots of tall buildings springing up now. Why, in New York City, they have skyscrapers four or five times as tall."
"There ain't nothin' they do in New York we need round here."
"Sure, Ma. But it's progress. And it's not like I've never been up high. I was shootin' off of the roof of Belmont's when I was what? Five years old? Maybe six?"
"Jack, my boy."
Ma came and sat beside me at the table. Through the lines and the sloppily applied make-up, I could see a glimpse of the 38-year-old underneath.
"Belmont's. That ain't no more than 50 feet high."
"Look, Ma. I'll be indoors. In an office. And they say the views from the Rockline Center are something else. When you're up there, you can see as far as the county line out East and way out to the mountains when you look the other way. And all the city too, of course."
She was shaking her head again, but she was listening. And I reckon she understood. It was important to me that she was happy, so I tried again.
"Imagine seeing the people walking around on the ground below. Or the automobiles moving along. They'd look like toys from up there. It'll be like I was up in an airplane."
Ma smiled in the way a mother smiles at her only son. With warm eyes and a residual, in-built sense of trust that she just can't shake off.
"Well, I'm sure glad you landed that job. It's not like we don't need the money. You go to town and you make your fortune. And then you come back and you treat your poor old mama to a new dress!"
I held her hand tight.
"You bet, Ma."
And when the next morning came, it came hot.
I had turned my pillow and thrown off my sheet during the night and had struggled to catch much sleep. My cough was worse than usual. I could already feel the temperature building, even though it was barely six.
As I shaved in the mirror, small droplets of sweat were forming on my brow. I mopped them with a flannel and then ran it under the tap. I scrubbed my torso with soap and water and grabbed a little of Ma's Stopette to spray under my arms.
My shirt had been pressed by Ma and it looked real smart. But as I did up the buttons, I could feel it already beginning to cling to me. The tie was made of dark wool. It had been one of Pa's. I'd made up my mind that I'd buy one of my own from my first pay check.
Breakfast was just a biscuit and some egg, but I had to force it down. Ma had got up extra early to prepare it for me. And to give me all the advice a boy could ever need.
"You stay clear of trouble in the city, Jack."
"Don't go talkin' to no one you don't know."
"Sure thing, Ma."
"And you make a good impression in that office of yours."
"Aw, come on, Ma! You think I'd be rude?"
"Well, I'm just sayin'. I'm dependin' on ya."
She kissed me on the cheek and sent me out the door, carrying an apple and a bus fare into town. A quarter each way.
The sultry air didn't do much for my appearance. By the time I'd walked the half mile to the road, I was sweating profusely.
If it had been an hour later, there would have been a line of people waiting, but I was determined to be in the city with plenty of time to spare on my first day. So my only companions were a middle-aged colored lady and very old man with whiskers, who chewed tobacco vigorously and tapped his stick rhythmically in the sand at the side of the road.
Nothing was said. The other two riders barely acknowledged my existence.
The bus was early by around three minutes, I reckoned, which meant I'd be even earlier into town than I'd imagined. The depot was close to the Rockline. Maybe only two minutes away. So I envisioned myself killing time by strolling the streets, peering in shop windows and acting every bit the man. Maybe there would be a sweet-smelling beauty walking past, willing to give me a smile.
When I was good and ready, I'd make my way to the reception of the Rockline and announce myself.
"Why, my name is Mr Jack Lewis. Are you not expecting me? I'm working on the twentieth floor at Kirkham McCready."
"Ah, of course. Mr Lewis. Yes, please take the elevator over there. Mr Kirkham left a note here that you'd be arriving today."
My reverie was interrupted by the screech of the bus doors.
The colored seats were full, but thankfully there was plenty of room up front. I let the old tobacco man get himself settled and I found myself a seat nearby.
The air was stifling and half the windows seemed to be glued shut. I tried to move the one above me, but it wouldn't budge. I gave it a second go. No dice. If I tried again and failed, people would start laughing. I could see a couple of colored girls at the back looking as if they might giggle.
I sat down and ran the backs of my fingers over my Adam's apple and up towards the underside of my chin. They picked up a thick layer of sweat, which I wiped on the side of my pants.
The journey took around 45 minutes in total. We stopped a couple of other times, but it was still early and there was no rush of new passengers. The heat and the rattling rhythm were getting to me, perhaps because I hadn't slept too good the night before. I could feel myself nodding and drifting.
I woke to the clatter and noise of the station, as people started to disembark. Everyone knew where they were going and seemed to be acting much like a robot. Straight out the door and down the street, left and right.
When I exited, I stood stock still and took in the view.
There it was. Just off beyond the line of trees. The 23-story Rockline. Opened in 1952 and still looking as new as it had two years before.
To me, it represented progress, although there was no doubt it had changed the character of the town. On our fairly infrequent trips in the past, the pace had felt lazy and provincial, but now, there was an air of modernity. All because of one building.
My cousin had said to me that only half the floors were occupied. Maybe that was so. But it would take time for business to be attracted from other parts of the state.
Another bus had pulled up and more people were heading to work. I was in the way now as people started to spill towards the destinations. I stepped backwards to clear a path and knocked into a lady I hadn't seen behind me. If truth be told, I only brushed her, but she had to make a big deal of it.
"Can you look what you're doing, young man?"
Her irritation was out of proportion to the incident. But I guess she was hot and bothered, same as the rest of us.
"Sorry, ma'am. I didn't see you there."
"Well just have a look out. You ain't in the country here."
That remark did hurt, I have to admit. Did I really look so obviously out of place? In my best shirt, freshly pressed?
I caught a glimpse of myself in the window of the bus, which was cast in shadow from the station wall. I appeared slightly awkward perhaps. And maybe the shirt was just a half size too small. But was I truly so different from the other boys of my age in the city?
I had in mind a stroll which would take me three blocks south. I'd then take a left and a left again and, if my memory - and reading of the station map was correct - I'd circle around four blocks north and arrive right at the door of the Rockline.
I'd still be early, but not too early. Not embarrassingly early. It would maybe be twenty of nine for a nine o'clock start. Enough time for me to announce myself at the desk downstairs, ride the elevator, meet the receptionist on the twentieth floor and wait a few minutes for someone to come out and greet me.
"Mr Lewis? You're very punctual. Come on in and I'll show you to where you'll be working. Welcome to Kirkham McCready."
It was hotter in the city, of course, than it had been at home. It was an hour later and the buildings and bustle seemed to magnify the heat and make it that much more oppressive. If it felt like this now, what would the temperature be like at noon?
I didn't seem to have quite the energy I'd imagined. Maybe it was the gas fumes from the cars, slightly irritating my chest. Or the sweat that seemed to be collecting around my collar. The noise was intense too. Horns shouting at each other, a guy yelling the news from a stand, the screeching of brakes and the clatter of a hundred feet in front of me on the sidewalk.
One little store sold cakes. Nothing but cakes. But, my, were these cakes beautiful. They had been decorated with icing sugar and were kept refrigerated and looked like a picture you'd see in a magazine. If only I could afford one for Ma. The prices though. One of the bigger ones was nearly two dollars. Maybe the small ones were more affordable? I started to do some calculations.
I'd be earning nearly $40 a week before taxes. So that was $8 a day. 50 cents for the bus, left me with $7.50. But the debt. Ma owed over eight hundred dollars and her savings had been eaten up long ago.
And I knew exactly how much food cost in the store, because I'd oftentimes accompanied her on shopping expeditions. We had our own chickens, thank God, so we always had eggs. But you can't live on eggs.
Maybe for a treat. For her birthday, I'd save and buy her a cake. And I could picture her face lighting up.
"Jack, that cake sure is beautiful," she'd say. "How did you get to afford it?"
And I'd say that I'd saved for it and that it was my treat to her, to thank her for the way she'd looked after me. Yes, that's what I'd do. I'd save for it.
Time ticked by, as I stopped and gazed in the windows of numerous other stores. A fancy shoe store. A haberdasher's. A department store which seemed to stretch nearly half a block. I looked longingly at the girls sipping shakes in the window of a bar and couldn't be sure which I hankered after the most - the attractive young women or the cool drinks they were savoring before work.
Eventually, I sat myself down on a bench and collected my thoughts. I was just a block away from the Rockline now and I could see it up ahead of me. I could do with a drink and with using the rest room, all at one and the same time. Probably nerves.
I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the traffic and the people around me. When you sat still, the noise was kind of peaceful.
It was more like a hum. It almost had a rhythm to it. A natural ebb and flow like folks said you got at the sea.
This time, I woke with a start.
I felt disorientated and unsure where I was.
The traffic, the stores, the bench.
I was in the city, by the Rockline.
I looked over at the department store and saw the clock by the front entrance. I swear to God that it showed two minutes after nine. I jumped up in fright and looked at Pa's watch.
I looked up the street towards the office building and it seemed to sway. Like it was waving at me.
"You're late, Jack," the skyscraper was saying. "You set off with time-a-plenty, but now they're wondering where you are."
I ran then like I hadn't run in three years. Not since before Pa died and we used to race each other around the field. I ran like my future depended on it.
I pushed my way past a couple of elderly ladies and almost tripped as I flung myself down the sidewalk. If you've seen those movies where zombies or spacemen land and the people in the streets start running in terror, that's exactly how I must have appeared to the passers-by.
My breathing was real heavy and the sweat was pouring now. From my back, from my armpits, from my neck and from my forehead. Sweat everywhere. My heart was pumping, my chest was tight and I felt nauseous.
Two minutes later and I was approaching the Rockline. I glanced upwards as I ran and I saw it looming high, way too high, above me. It seemed to sway more violently than ever and for a split second I felt as if it were toppling towards me.
And then I was the one toppling. Literally within feet of the revolving doors at the front of the building, a buzzing sound exploded in my ears and a spinning sensation whirled within my head. I broke my fall with my elbow and felt an excruciating pain.
Within a few seconds, a little crowd had gathered around me. Although I tried to sit up, the nausea overcame me and I vomited right by the feet of a lady in high heels, who gave a little squeal.
"Did you see what happened?" a man in a smart business suit asked.
"The boy was running like a lunatic," replied the high heels. "And then he fell."
"We should get him inside," said another woman. "He needs some water. Maybe we should call for a doctor? Are you alright, young man?"
I wasn't yet at a stage I could muster a response.
It was the man's voice again.
"There's someone I know up on twenty. I'll get the desk to call him. Bob Kirkham. He was a medic out in Korea."