A Clean Slate

by Sandy Knight

Dusk’s murky aura outlined the water tower while the sun glared defiantly at the horizon. Cornfields bereft of their cobbled bounty waved mournfully back to the southerly breeze.

While most the residents of Eternity, Illinois cleaned up dinner dishes, the shadowy silhouette of a man climbed unnoticed toward the top of the water tower, east of Highway 72, behind old Jerry Stumps place. Stumps, a recent widower, had a clear view of the tower from his porch, but he hadn’t been seen outside in weeks. Newspapers and neighbors’ empty casserole dishes littered the stoop.

It felt to Thomas like he was outside himself watching while his body carried out the plan. This kind of altered mental state seemed to bend time over backwards and slow it to a crawl.

Cicadas conferred with each other to tease forth the reluctant night while light clung to the indigo expanse overhead. It seemed the stars were colluding with the moon to illuminate something far beyond the normal rhythms of heaven and earth.

Thomas cursed himself for choosing the longest day of the year, he could not afford to be seen climbing the tower in the lingering daylight.

Releasing his grip on the ladder, gaunt and disheveled, he swiped his left palm down the front of his best pair of Levi’s, permanently branding the faded patch of cotton covering his thigh.

The orange streaks jarred him from the kinetic trance of climbing and he looked at his russet stained palm as if it belonged to someone else. Alarm faintly tugged at his mind. He tried to ignore the warning.

Rust meant the access ladder up to the top of the abandoned water tower was more rickety than he remembered, but he had only been thirteen the last time he’d been up here. Risk shouldn’t be a concern, not now, anyway.

Rusting metal, thick, prickly grains of it, the result of countless storms that had whipped sheets of water, ice and snow at the town landmark since the last time he’d decided he’d had enough, burrowed under his skin.

Apparently, a lot of damage can accrue when objects and people are left to their own devices for too many years.

Why do we lie to kids? They promised it would get better, but it never did, and Daddy still died.

He gripped the rung again and swiped the brown dust from his other hand onto the opposite thigh.

Now his jeans were truly ruined. Why should he care?

Rust, like betrayal, never comes out in the wash.

Looking up, he resumed climbing the sketchy maintenance ladder, certain it could buckle with his weight. But the ladder held, offering to haul his six foot frame to the top one more time.

He casually wondered why the climb was making him so jumpy, wasn’t he leaping off when he got to the top?

Maybe it was about finishing something, making a plan, seeing it through, doing it ‘right’ for goddam once in my life, he thought to himself, bitterness forcing his jaw to tighten until he grimaced.

Merle, his drunken, good for nothing, stepfather, had been right about him. He couldn’t keep a job, a woman, or a promise. Not for long anyway, and certainly not ‘forever’.

Step. Pull. Creak.

Thomas looked up along the inside run of brown steel toward the top of the tank. Almost there.

A solitary blackbird lifted off the rounded edge of the tower and bent its head. It swooped down toward him so close he could hear the air yield to the stroke of powerful wings.

Thomas locked sight with the bird’s dark, marble-like eye, it took his presence in with short jerky movements before it turned abruptly toward the horizon, leaving him with a vague sense of something familiar.

He looked down at the orange streaks on his jeans. The hopelessness he felt was just like that, like rust eating away at a soul. Resignation, mechanical and lifeless, lifted his arm up. He gripped the next rung.

Step. Pull. Creak.

Thomas pushed himself over the last rung on to the sun-warmed steel of the tower. He lay on his back and studied the sky while he caught his breath.

The last of the day traced the outline of a billowy cloud anonymously pinned to the coming dark like a nightlight.

Thomas sat up and scooted to the edge letting his quivering legs drape over.

His heart galloped as if he were standing behind a flimsy wooden door while it splintered and heaved under the force of a battering ram. His old friends, fear and doubt, had come calling again.

He tried to quell the panic rising in his chest. He laid back and gulped the humid air like a guppy that had accidentally flung itself onto the bank to escape a hungry catfish.

He’d be damned if he’d chicken out this time. He gathered his courage and tried to stand but vertigo kept him riveted to the steel while the dallying nightfall finally descended with a certain thud.

Dawn had just begun to unravel the cloak of darkness, plucking free the stars embroidered there when Thomas opened his eyes to sounds of squawking.

Surprised by the weight of his limbs, he sat himself upright. The source of the clatter, a blackbird, clung to the top rung of the ladder. The same black beady eye he’d briefly engaged the night before watched him intently.

It took Thomas a moment before the full memory of the previous night flooded his awareness. Tears stung his eyes.

He sat on the edge of the water tower and watched the morning sun set fire to the night sky. He could not remember a time before when he’d been so affected by a sunrise or colors so exquisite. His heart ached with unrecognizable joy.

The blackbird clucked softly.

In the weird calm of this phantasmagorical moment, Thomas made a decision and a pact with himself that must be irrevocable, he decided.

Thomas would have to change since the world would not.

He would learn to accept himself and his losses and let go of his true failures as well as the ones he’d simply been made a scapegoat for, and he would start today. He rose and took to the tower ladder, clinging to it like his life depended on it.

Safely home, he removed his favorite Levi’s and t-shirt and placed them in the wash, then made himself a cup of strong instant coffee, two spoonsful. He sat down at the table covered in yellow formica, branded with coffee rings and cigarette burns.

He ran his palms lightly over the top where he’d played countless hands of gin rummy with his dad while he suffered through another round of chemo. Thomas sat still like that, palms down, fingers splayed and stared out the dirty window.

On the gate post half a dozen yards off, a blackbird quietly watched the man in the window.

A piercing buzz from the dryer signalled his clothes were dry. He pushed himself away from the table and turned toward the alcove where the washer and dryer sat.

He yanked his blue jeans from the warm maw to inspect them. The reddish brown stains, any evidence of the night before was gone, as if it never happened.

The faded blue jeans were as soft and clean as when he’d shrugged them on yesterday morning, not a trace of the desperate hands that had defiled them the night before.

Still holding his jeans up in front of him, Thomas realized he had been given a clean slate.

He neatly folded the rest of his laundry and set it on his bed, then grabbed a roll of paper towels, some Windex and went outside to clean the windows.

©2021, Sk, All rights retained.

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