Falling Sky [excerpt] – Jeff Vande Zande
August 27, 2020
After five years of strictly writing and making short films, I found myself wanting to write fiction again in the early spring of 2020. I had a new collection of short stories coming out from Whistling Shade Press called The Neighborhood Division, and it struck me that one of the stories entitled “Load” had the potential to be expanded into a novel.
On a lark, I started writing during our college’s spring break. I knew I was onto something when I hit 7,000 words fairly quickly. My plan was to work on the novel here and there and maybe have 20,000 words by the end of April. That would give me a solid start and allow me to finish a draft by the end of the summer.
Then, quarantine hit.
Our school, like many, switched to finish out the semester online. In between teaching my students and answering their emails, I wrote. I found large blocks of time where I could just write. Some days I was having 3,000 and 4,000-word days. I probably also using the writing to cope with the overwhelming fear associated with the virus.
In short, I finished my new novel, Falling Sky, in three and a half weeks. Then, I spent another two weeks editing. I wasn’t certain if I had something good or if I’d just burned through a lot of quarantine time doing what Truman Capote might dismiss as “typing, not writing.”
Some early beta readers, however, told me I really had something with this new novel.
I’m thrilled that Expat has chosen to excerpt the first chapter of Falling Sky.
Harvey Crowe blinked his eyes open into the dim light of his bedroom. More often than not, it was nightmares that woke him lately—prophetic hallucinations of the impending collapse. Black and white visions from his subconscious haunted his deepest sleep. They were images he fought to keep at bay during his waking hours. If he didn’t, they could leave him nearly paralyzed for hours.
In the dreams, the towering building he lived in—they all lived in—stood momentarily but then, as if pressed from above by a giant, invisible hand, it began to disintegrate. The unseen palm pushed as though on a collapsible telescope, but with such determined force as to drive the lenses shattering into each other. Plumes of debris spread outward from random floors, like the rings of a planet. And then the building was gone… nothing but dust and death dissolving seamlessly into the gray, lifeless landscape around it.
But he recalled no such dream. He wasn’t entangled in chilled, sweat-soaked sheets. His heartbeat and breathing were normal. None of the metallic taste of adrenaline in his mouth.
No, something else had woken him.
The building’s pipes hummed in the walls and echoed with the sound of water and waste moving up and down the multitude of copper and PVC lengths. A loud groan signaled what the building’s Board of Directors had come to call a Settling Sequence. Harmless, they said, not unlike when people get older and lose height, a natural consequence of aging. “Good bones,” they said. The building has good bones.
The thump and churn of water in the pipes, the haunted moans of the building settling… his sleep had been soundtracked by them for so long that he knew that’s not what had woken him either. It couldn’t have been. They were like white noise to him. Even distant shouting in the hallway or the screams of an assault hardly made him stir. Not for indifference, but for familiarity.
On his wall, a reflection from the night light’s glow highlighted the translucent reinforcing epoxy that filled a five-foot long crack in the concrete. He could see where the fissure had already grown a few inches past the epoxy’s reach. Cracks had become so epidemic that for the last six months members of the maintenance crew could be seen lugging huge caulking guns and pounding on the doors of the lower floors. The expense had become enough that the Board had implemented an Epoxy Tithe. The new tax fell on tenants who lived on the 20th floor and lower. Reassuring letters from the Board explained that, more than a filler the epoxy, once fully cured, was actually stronger than the concrete, like a healed broken bone.
Crowe’s mother had worked as a nurse in the building’s sub-level infirmary. She’d told him that the idea that a fractured bone healed stronger than before was just a myth. “It’s true,” she’d said, “that a cuff of strong new bone forms around the break site to protect it. So, for a short time the fracture is stronger, but the cuff goes away over time. You just get a regular old bone.”
He smiled into the darkness, remembering her. His mother had always taken the time to explain the world to him. As an only child, he was treated by his mother and father almost as a third adult in their home, even from a young age. They didn’t talk in code around him, and when he asked questions, they gave honest answers. Being raised that way had not made for an easy childhood when his school years started. To him, his peers lacked curiosity and seemed woefully uninformed. To them, he was a know-it-all and teacher’s pet.
One of Dagmar’s experts had looked into the claims about the epoxy, and they too were dishonest. “More god-damn lies from the Board,” she’d said, throwing a knife that stuck into the baseboard of Crowe’s kitchen.
He winced at the memory of her seething anger. Her combat boots. Her sneer.
Her lips. Her passion. Her lithe body.
Stop it, he thought.
Her language, more and more, suggested that drastic measures were needed, even if it meant violence. He couldn’t let his own loneliness keep him from seeing the danger she could be to the cause. She could ruin everything if he let his guard down.
“Waiting for the other shoe to drop… that’s all this is,” she’d hissed. “Except it won’t be a shoe.”
Sparked by an impulse, a desire for words, something in the face of Dagmar’s ominous ranting, Crowe had told her the history of the old saying.
“Waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said. “In tenement buildings in New York, the construction was so shoddy, people could hear the slightest movements of their neighbors.” He looked, but her face registered little interest. “The bedrooms were built one above the other.”
“Well, at night,” he continued, “people would sit on the edge of their beds, slowly unlacing their shoes. Removing one, they’d let it drop to the floor, startling awake their neighbor below.” He studied her short spiked hair, wondering if it could puncture a palm.
Dagmar bent forward and retrieved her knife.
“Are you listening?” he asked.
“Yes,” she’d said, taking her seat again. She ran the tip of her blade under a fingernail. “Just hurry up.”
“Well, that’s it. The neighbor below would then lie awake, staring into the dark ceiling, unable to go back to sleep… waiting—”
“For the other shoe to drop. I get it,” she said. “Fascinating, Crowe.”
He looked at the floor, then up at her again. “It’s a metaphor, too. The way we are all connected. The way our thoughtless actions can have ripples into the lives of others. The way—”
“That’s your problem,” she’d said, standing and sheathing her knife. “I mean, you’re good… you’re good with words. Your newsletter, talking to people on the upper floors… it’s a gift. But your belief in words seems naive. Stories. Speeches. Electronic posts. They aren’t enough sometimes.” She had walked then to his door, opened it, and finally, before it fully closed behind her, said, “And when their usefulness has ended, it’s time for action.” The last he saw of her was the sheath strapped to her belt.
The sound of the latch clicking into the strike plate seemed to echo in the room long after she’d left, as though some bigger door had closed.
Crowe threw off his blanket and turned on his lamp. He sat on his bed in the jaundiced light. He thought of Dagmar more than he wanted. She was the closest thing to female companionship he’d known in years. Proximity had grown into fondness, even if she was so different from him, so angry and fierce. He forced himself to remember that she was the de facto leader of the Anti-Collapse Trust or ACT, and the cause worked best if he kept his thoughts for her professional. He had to keep his wits if he was going to be there to temper her rage.
Startling him, the voices of the building’s superintendent and his wife echoed in the vents. He shook his head, guessing it was their bickering that had woken him. By some cruel twist of duct work, his bedroom vent was like a phone receiver eavesdropping on their heated exchanges in the basement-level apartment.
“Anya, I’m putting tape down the middle of the living room,” the super’s voice yelled in tinny resonance. “The kitchen and bathroom will be neutral territory. Otherwise, stay on your side.”
Crowe rolled his eyes. It sounded like something from a bad comedy.
“I hate you, Sam,” she yelled. “All you’ve ever done is lie to me. From the beginning, you were the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
“Venom! That’s all you have, woman. You’re like a snake.”
Crowe went to his bathroom. Standing in front of the mirror, propping himself with his palms against the edge of the sink, he examined his bloodshot eyes and ashen skin. He was too young for so much gray hair. How long had it been since he’d had a full night’s sleep? Eaten a decent meal? Did anything other than worry about the fate of the building? Days had become years. And yet what, if anything, had changed? Most tenants carried on as though nothing were happening.
He grabbed a towel from the metal rack that dangled from loose drywall anchors. Back in the bedroom, he covered the vent with the towel, muffling the arguing coming from the super’s apartment.
He fell into bed again, feeling the exhaustion from another fruitless day on the upper floors, knocking on doors, imploring tenants to consider the weight of their things. There were rumors of new hot tubs, gas fireplaces with stone mantles, new deep freezers. Few cared to listen to him. Some slammed their doors. Others opened their doors only as wide as their chain locks would allow. They admitted to having heard the rumors and load warnings too, but what could be done? Others confronted him. They’d earned their money and it was their right to spend it however they wanted. They didn’t want to hear about the size of the cracks in the lower level apartments. Air pockets, they countered, when he explained that one part of the building had sunk two inches in six years. “Buildings settle into soft soil. It’s perfectly natural.” It was as though they had memorized the Board’s letters of assurance.
Predictions of a complete building collapse made most laugh or shake their heads. Doom and gloom, they said, pointing out their frosted windows towards the hazy shadow of the building’s buttressing exoskeleton. They spoke confidently of the Board’s plan to install twenty new steel pilings to brace the foundation. For most of the day, the pilings were the biggest counter argument he heard. Twenty new steel pilings. The Board planned to move on Operation Steel in the next weeks. After that there would be nothing to worry about, they said. Sometimes, standing in a tenant’s doorway, he felt even himself being convinced of the foresight and wisdom of the Board.
He tried to counter with the arguments that he and Dagmar had laid out. The foundation had never been constructed for so many residents, their excessive belongings, or the addition of more floors. His arguments felt worn and out of date compared to the progressive talk of the steel pilings. A handful of tenants did listen and admitted their doubts about the pilings or anything to do with the Board’s promises. “I don’t trust Burke,” they said of the Board’s chairman. Crowe gave such tenants his name and his phone number in addition to his pamphlets, which also included his contact information.
He snapped open his dozing eyes to a blaring sound. After a moment, the telephone rang a second time. His thoughts immediately went to his parents – something wrong with his mother or father. Then, as he always did, he remembered that they had passed away nearly two years ago. A gas line had fractured in their apartment, asphyxiating both of them in their sleep. The Board’s Tenant Liaison member had called him with the news and condolences, naming it an “unfortunate and freak accident.”
It was then that Dagmar had first approached him, explaining that the building had experienced a major load-related shift that had cracked the gas line. “Your parents are dead due to negligence and greed-induced blindness,” she’d said. Then she said more, all of it related to the inevitable collapse of the building. For Crowe, their meeting was an awakening. Quitting his job writing marketing copy for Just Like Water, he soon after joined ACT and their efforts to save the building. As his parents only child, he was the beneficiary of a meager life insurance policy that allowed him to eke out a subsistence living while messaging for the cause.
He picked up the ringing phone receiver. Even its lightness felt like a brick in his hand. “Hello?”
For a moment, he only heard labored breathing coming through the small speaker against his ear. Then: “Can you help me?” an old and raspy voice asked.
“I fell trying to get water. I can’t get off of the floor.”
Crowe sat up. “Why are you calling me?”
“Your number was on a flier under my door.”
He rubbed his itchy eyes. “We’re just trying to inform tenants—”
“Can you help me?”
Crowe lingered for a moment with the cold of the phone against his ear. “I’m so tired. Isn’t there anybody else you could call?”
The voice sounded ready to crack into sobbing. “I don’t have anybody else. Just my aide, but she won’t come again for two days. I’d call her, but the agency doesn’t share the aides’ phone numbers.” He explained that the agency line itself went directly to an automated answering service.
Crowe listened to his stomach rumbling from having skipped both lunch and dinner.
“It’s okay,” the voice said. “I’ll be okay.”
“No,” Crowe said. “I’ll come. What apartment?”
The voice gave him a room number nine floors above him.
He exhaled. His thighs still ached from the flights he’d been up and down earlier in the day. “Just give me a few minutes.”
The deadened voices of the super and his wife continued their endless squabbling under the towel.
“I’ll slide the key under my door,” the voice said.
Crowe imagined the frail body belonging to the voice lying on a door mat, shivering, waiting for his arrival. “I’m on my way now,” he said, hanging up.
He dressed quickly and then stepped out into the flickering, dim light of the hallway. The smell of cooked cabbage filled his nostrils. In the darker sections, where the sconces were burned out altogether, he felt his hand along the wall. Peeling paint fell to the floor in his wake. He couldn’t remember how many work orders he’d sent to the maintenance department regarding the lighting on his floor. Each request was met with a reminder that the Board had made Operation Epoxy a priority over all other maintenance issues. His request would be addressed in the order in which it was received.
Crowe pressed his shoulder into the rusty fire door at the end of the hallway that lead into the stairwell. Because they’d stopped working years ago, the locksets and latchsets had been removed. The door swung open easily and then closed itself again behind him. He started up the stairwell counting the floors as he went. His legs burned. At least there were no security gates on the lower landings to deal with. When he was only two flights from his destination, he saw a silhouette descending toward him.
“I don’t have anything of value,” Crowe said as naturally as saying hello.
“That’s fine, I don’t want anything.”
He immediately recognized the deep voice as belonging to Gerald LaMark, one of the newest and youngest board members. He’d watched the open board meeting when LaMark had been voted in and then confirmed. Where most members of the Board focused their public speeches towards the desires of those on the upper floors, LaMark had seemed to be trying to address the needs of everyone. He had his own concerns about the building’s living conditions on the lower floors. Rumor had it that he was not popular with the older board members and would likely be voted out in the next cycle. They would run a candidate against him aggressively.
The trim silhouette stopped on a landing several steps above. Crowe continued until he stood on the landing next to him.
“What are you doing down here, sir?”
LaMark’s face was a Rorschach of shadows in the flickering glow of the landing’s light fixture. “Just taking a look. I’ve been told that sometimes what I’m being told about the condition of the lower floors isn’t entirely true.”
Crowe smiled and nodded. “It’s late, though, sir.”
“How?” LaMark asked, smiling. “In this light?”
Crowe confirmed that lighting had been an issue for some time.
LaMark crossed his arms. “Well, you know me apparently. Who are you?”
Crowe reached out to shake his hand. “Harvey Crowe. I’m with the Anti-Collapse Trust,” he said, but then immediately wished he hadn’t.
LaMark bristled and then walked past Crowe’s extended hand. “Well, good evening then.” He stepped briskly down the stairs toward the next landing, his silhouette slowly blending into the darkness.
LaMark turned swiftly and pointed a finger at Crowe. “I’m already seen as a fly in the ointment, Crowe. It wouldn’t do for me to be seen talking to a thug.”
“A thug? Sir—”
“Confronting delivery people in the hallways? The shoving? Shouting threats at tenants? No, I won’t be seen with you. I have work to do. Real work. Good evening.” He turned and disappeared toward the blackness of the stairs below.
A cold sweat beaded across Crowe’s forehead. “But I haven’t done those things!”
LaMark’s voice echoed in the stairwell. “If you belong to a group, you are as bad as the actions of the least disciplined member—” The rest of what he said cut out in the closing of a fire door some three or four flights below.
A sudden chill shivered Crowe’s body. “Be careful, sir,” he called down into the darkness.
He leaned against the wall. Damn it, Dagmar. She and the others were going further almost every week. Theirs was supposed to be a campaign of information… of truth. Simply inform tenants of the consequences of ignoring the unenforced load infractions. Change the narrative of the half-truths and outright fabrications of the Board. Provide evidence from experts about the instability of the exoskeleton, the band aid effectiveness of the epoxy, the longshot possibilities of Operation Steel. Edit and publish STORIES, their newsletter, Crowe’s passion project, to make a pipeline of truth available for understanding the actual structural conditions of the building. Work the minds and hearts of the very people affected by the negligence and ignorance of the Board.
Confronting delivery people? Protesting directly to tenants? It was exactly the direction he feared that ACT would take under the unstable leadership of Dagmar.
He trudged up the remaining flights, feeling none of the fatigue in his legs – his brain on fire. Why was she like this?
When he opened the door to the old man’s apartment, Crowe found him with the door mat draped over his shivering torso. His body had a yellowish hue… some sickness wicking to the surface.
“You’re here,” he murmured as Crowe picked him up and carried him through the sparsely furnished living room to the bedroom. His thin arms wrapped around Crowe’s neck. The skin of his forearms was dry and cold. Crowe’s fingers slipped into the pockets between the old man’s ribs. He couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
Crowe set him on the rickety bed and then pulled the blankets up over him. A patchy sprouting of beard grew from his sallow cheeks. The crown of his head was overgrown with a thinned shock of white, greasy hair.
He smiled weakly. “I’m a sight, aren’t I?”
Crowe touched the old man’s frail shoulder. “You’re fine. Just fine.” He smiled, looking into the pale blue eyes. “Let me get you that water.”
He stayed at the faucet with one of the two glasses that he’d found in the cupboard, dumping out the cloudy water again and again. He let the faucet run for a minute and was able to get a glassful that was only slightly discolored.
He handed the glass to the old man who drank it dry.
“No, this is good.”
Crowe took the glass, filled it again, and set it on the bedside table. “In case you get thirsty later.”
The old man thanked him, but covered his hand over his yellowed teeth. Reaching up, he smoothed his thin fingers over his head attempting to press his wild hair into place.
Crowe watched his self-consciousness. “What does your aide even do?”
“She checks my medications, takes vitals… it’s all I can afford.”
“How do you—”
“I have a walker,” he said, pointing to it in the corner. “I was just stubborn. Wanted to see if I could go to the kitchen and back on my own. Stupid, really. Just… a man wants a little dignity sometimes at this age. Something.” He said he wouldn’t do it again. “Walker or no, I get dizzy if I stand too long.”
Crowe crossed his arms. “You have no family?”
He shook his head. “Never married. Never had children.”
He wondered if he was getting a preview of his own old age. “I’ll be right back. Are you sleepy?”
The man shook his head. “No, I’ll be up for a while yet.”
Crowe descended back to his own apartment and returned fifteen minutes later. Taking a pot filled with warm water from the old man’s kitchen, he went back into the bedroom and draped a towel around his neck and shoulders. “Barbershop treatment,” he said.
The old man smiled. “I’m game.”
Working carefully, Crowe used a dishrag to wet the white hair and then lathered it lightly with shampoo before rinsing it out with the rag. Pulling strands up between his fingers and snipping with scissors, he took two inches off and then combed the hair back over the age-spotted scalp. When he finished, he collected two handfuls of the trimmings, like thatch, and dropped them fluttering into the room’s garbage can.
“Let me see the mirror.”
Crowe smiled. “Hold on, I’m not finished yet.”
He sprayed shaving cream into his palm and then spread it over the cheeks, under the nose, and over the chin. Soon after, he began slowly and carefully with a disposable razor, swishing it clean in the pot of water after each stroke.
“My name is Leo.”
He smiled. “Harvey Crowe. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Leo.” He lifted the towel from the thin shoulders and rubbed away the residue of the shaving cream.
“Can you refill that pot with warm water?” Leo asked.
He nodded. When he returned from the kitchen, Leo was looking at himself in the handheld mirror Crowe had brought.
“I look pretty okay.”
“You do indeed.”
Leo put the dishrag into the warm water and then rubbed it into each of his armpits and across his chest protruding with ribs. “I feel ready.”
Crowe smiled. “Not bad treatment from a thug, right?”
Leo set the rag back into the browned water. “Excuse me?”
“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head. He smiled. “You look dignified.”
Leo asked that Crowe go into the bathroom for his toothbrush and dental powder. The bristles of the brush were nearly flat.
Finishing running the brush over his teeth, Leo smiled. “I have one more favor to ask of you, if I may.”
He asked Crowe to go to his closet and retrieve a suit of clothes. Then he sat on the edge of the bed, slowly working his arthritis-swollen fingers through the task of buttoning a dress shirt. He asked that Crowe help him only with the topmost button. Tucking the shirt into his pants, he then jump-roped a tie over the back of his neck and began the task of tying it. Crowe helped him cinch the knot up snug just under his bump of Adam’s apple.
Standing steadily, he put his arms back and let Crowe slide the sleeves of the threadbare jacket up over his hands to the shoulders.
“Ah, a valet.”
“Yes, my lord,” Crowe said, smiling. He walked around to the front of him. “I don’t know, Leo, looking like you do, you might find a wife yet.”
Leo laughed and then asked him to walk near him as he made his way to the bathroom.
“Are you sure?”
He nodded. “I feel twenty years younger,” he said, though he gripped Crowe’s arm from time to time for support.
Standing in front of the mirror, he admired himself, smoothing his hand back over his fresh haircut. “Yes, this is how one should look.”
Crowe took him by the elbow and lead him back into the bedroom and then to the bed. Leo pulled up the comforter and then lay on top of it.
“Do you want me to put your clothes away?”
He shook his head. “I’ll be fine. I’d like to stay this way for a while.” He laughed. “In the space of an hour, you’ve seen me wearing an entry rug and now my best suit.”
“I prefer this look.” Crowe gathered the toiletries. “I’m going to be back again to check on you tomorrow, okay? Sleep well, Leo.”
“I believe I will. And thank you… for everything.”
Crowe reached down and squeezed his knobby hand. Leo squeezed back weakly.
Returning to his own apartment, Crowe put everything back into its place. The memory of Leo’s grateful face kept a small smile on his own. It had been a good night. He could still feel the wisps of hair between his fingers as though they were still there. Pulling up his blankets, he shut off his bedside lamp and closed his eyes. He would sleep, he was sure of it.
“You’re a cheating whore, Anya!”
“Sam, I will never feel safe around you. Never!”
He had forgotten that he’d taken the towel from the vent up to Leo’s apartment. Just by hearing their hateful, subterranean voices, he felt his exhaustion returned, and the idea of retrieving the towel from the hamper was overwhelming. He turned one ear into the mattress and pressed his pillow over the other, smothering their endless stream of arguing down to a niggling murmur.
Order Jeff Vande Zande’s earlier book The Neighborhood Division
Jeff Vande Zande teaches fiction writing, screenwriting, and film production at Delta College in Michigan. His award-winning short films have been accepted over 200 times in national and international film festivals. His books of fiction include the story collections Emergency Stopping (Bottom Dog Press) and Threatened Species (Whistling Shade Press). His novels include Into the Desperate Country (March Street Press), Landscape with Fragmented Figures (Bottom Dog Press), American Poet (Bottom Dog Press) and Detroit Muscle (Whistling Shade Press). In 2012, American Poet won a Michigan Notable Book Award from the Library of Michigan. In 2020, Whistling Shade Press released his new collection, The Neighborhood Division: Stories. He maintains a blog at www.authorjeffvandezande.blogspot.com.