The Body in the Clouds
Into the Blue
FROM ABOVE, from some angles, it looked like a dance. There were men, machines, and great lengths of steel, and they moved in together, taking hold of each other and fanning out in a particular series of steps and gestures. The painters swept their grey brushes across red surfaces. The cookers tossed the bright sparks of hot rivets across the air in underarm arcs. The boilermakers bent to the force of their air guns, rivets pounding into holes, and sprang back with the release of each one. The riggers stepped wide across the structure’s frame, trailing a web of fixtures and sure points behind them.
From above, from some angles, it looked like a waltz, and a man might count sometimes in his head to keep his mind on the width of the steel cord on which he stood, on the kick of the air gun on which he leaned, on the strength of the join created by each hot point of metal. To keep his mind off how far he stood above the earth’s surface. One, two, three; one, two, three—there was a rhythm to it, and a grace. They were dancing a bridge into being, counting it out across the air.
Halfway through a day; brace, two, three; punch, two, three; ease, two, three; bend, two, three; and it was coming up to midday.
It was one way to keep your concentration. Here was the rivet, into the hole, a mate holding it in position, the gun ready, the rivet fixed, the job marked off. And again.
Brace, punch, ease, bend—the triple beat beneath each action tapped itself out through your feet into the steel sometimes, and other times it faded under the percussive noise of the rest of the site.
Perhaps that was all that happened; perhaps there was a great surge of staccato from another part of the bridge and he lost his place in the rhythm. Lost his beat, lost his time. Because although he bent easily, certain of what he was doing, when he went to straighten up, his feet were no longer where they should have been, his back was no longer against the cable of rope the riggers had strung into place. When he straightened up, he was in the air, the sky above him, heavy with steel clouds, the water below, an inky blue.
He was falling towards the harbor—one, two, three.
And it was the strangest thing. Time seemed to stutter, the curl of his somersault stretched into elegance, and then the short sharp line of his plunge cut into the water. The space too, between the sky and the small push and pull of the waves: you could almost hear its emptiness ringing, vast and elastic.
On the piece of land he liked best, the land near the bridge’s southeastern footprint, Ted Parker looked up from patting the foreman’s dog and saw—so fast, it was extraordinary—a man turn half a somersault and drop down, down, down into the blue. The surprise of witnessing it, of turning at just the right time, of catching it, and then his head jarred back, following the water’s splash almost up to the point where the fall had begun. All around, men were diving in—from the northern side, from the barge where Ted should have been working, from the southern side where he stood.
In they went, and down, and here was the fallen man, coming up between their splashing and diving. The top of his head broke through the water and the miracle of it: he was alive.
Along the site, men had stopped and turned, staring and waiting. On the water, people bunched at the bow rails of ferries and boats; a flutter of white caught Ted’s eye and was a woman’s white-gloved hands coming up to her mouth, dropping down to clutch the rail, coming up to her mouth again. He could almost hear her gasp. And it seemed that he could see clear across the neck of the harbor too, and into the fellow’s eyes—so blue; Ted was sure he could see them—blue and clear and wide, as if they’d seen a different world of time and place.
He thought: What is this? He thought: What is happening here? And he felt his chest tighten in a strange knot of exhilaration, and wonder, and something oddly calm—like satisfaction, like familiarity.
At his knee, he felt the butt of a furry head as the dog he’d been patting pushed hard against him.
“You’re all right, Jacko,” he said, turning the softness of its ears between his fingers. “Just a bit of a slip somewhere.”