Learning to Live – Caleb Caudell
April 30, 2020
Baldy Williams grew up in the suburbs. He went to a private grade school, a private high school and a private university. His parents gave him an allowance and he worked as an assistant manager at a McChuckles family restaurant.
After he graduated from Wilmington he interned at Sackman and Brickby. After his internship he got a job at Turkelton. He carried a laminated card and wore collared shirts, nylon slacks and long stretchy socks. Two pairs of shiny black shoes that pinched his big toes. He sucked his dinners through plastic tubes from a company called tubefood.
His hair fell out in clumps, clogging the shower drain. By his third year at Turkelton he was bald except for a few scattered wisps that shimmered in the sunlight. Baldy wasn’t called Baldy until he lost his hair; as a child he was called Barry or William. The rest of his body looked as if it were collapsing in on itself; his stick arms stuck to his sides, his shoulders rolled forward, his head small and round like a sucked lollipop. His nose narrow and his eyes like still puddles in a dirt path the day after a rain.
Baldy got promoted to auxiliary facilitator and then he shaved his head with a straight razor. He bought a kit from a company called Warwick’s; it came with an aftershave lotion, scalp oil and towel. After shaving and rubbing in the oil his head was shinier than his shoes.
He was 30 and still had time to find a wife. Some of the women in his company looked good; they wore tight skirts and smelled like fruit. They used lewd language, especially when others could hear them. But they liked Jud Crulow. He was a senior coordinator of team building and development.
Jud lifted weights and wore suits from Portugal. He’d been divorced and saw his three kids every other weekend. He had tanned skin, a blinding white smile and lacquered black hair. Jud spread his arms and legs on the train. He massaged shoulders and slapped backs and laughed with his mouth wide open and his head rolled back. There were rumors about his relationships with some of the women at the company.
“We gotta loosen you up!” he’d say to Baldy.
Some days Jud would take Baldy aside and lean into him, lower his head a little and, with his eyes scanning the room, drop his voice and whisper something suggestive about a nearby woman. Baldy would laugh and say,
“Oh yeah, for sure.”
Baldy had always listened to his parents. He studied, worked and saved money; he denied himself many pleasures. When Jud talked about his adventures, when he made comments about not getting enough sleep the night before and then winked, Baldy wondered what it was like.
One day Jud looked at Baldy and said “you know what you need to do?” He put his hand on Baldy’s shoulder and shook it.
“I don’t know.”
“I’m telling you, there’s just about nothing more freeing than jumping out of a plane. You’ll be a different man when you land.”
Baldy bought a house in the shape of a cylinder. His house was the only one with that shape on his street and it was made of energy efficient materials. Construction workers put it up in a week. Baldy would come by and check on the house. Swarthy men caked with plaster and dust stared back at him in silence and went back to sawing and hammering. When the house was ready Baldy had another team of men move his furniture. He bought surveillance equipment that talked to him.
Baldy’s house was narrow but it had five floors. He slept lightly in his temperature-controlled bed. His androgynous computer assistant woke him up every morning. He traveled to the bottom of his house in a cylindrical elevator which let out a whooshing sound as it moved up and down.
One weekend morning Baldy woke up in a dour mood. The dismal grey sky stretched over him like a suffocating lid. He thought about Jud and supposed he was doing something adventurous or interesting, like bungee jumping or cooking breakfast for a woman he’d met the night before. Baldy assumed Jud never woke up on a weekend morning and let a grey sky bring him down.
“How was your weekend?”
“Pretty low-key, really. Just took my bike a hundred miles up I-66 to Grizzly’s Ridge. I woke up and I knew I had to get away.”
“Haha, yeah. I’ve never been up to Grizzly’s Ridge. I hear it’s beautiful.”
“Oh man, you have no idea. I know the perfect spot for catching the sun. It’s really high up there.”
Baldy told Jud of the time when he was six years old and rode a ferris wheel at the county fair. They had to shut it down and let him off because he wouldn’t stop crying. Baldy’s dad screamed obscenities at the carney who pulled a big lever and the Ferris wheel made a harsh metallic sound; the families stuck at the top yelled with excitement.
“Poor guy,” Jud said. “That’s the problem right there, ya know?” You were scarred when you were a kid.”
“I never really liked amusement parks,” Baldy said.
“Amusement parks are alright. You got nothing to worry about on those rides, ya know?”
“It’s that feeling in my stomach…..”
“I’m going to get you to skydive. You’re going to jump out of a plane.”
“You’ve done it before, right?” Baldy asked.
“Oh yeah, I do it at least once a year.”
Baldy said he might do it and then excused himself for a meeting. Jud walked off saying he was going to set it all up; his voice booming through the lobby.
“Today will be sunny and warm, with a high of 84, light winds and clear skies,” said the device.
“Thank you, Kendell,” said Baldy.
He couldn’t believe he’d agreed to do it. He was skydiving with Jud. When he we woke up that morning the atmosphere was dense and alien. The world had a pale green sickly tint, like a show playing on an old television after a kid twiddles the knobs on the control panel.
Baldy shook on the plane but tried to hold it in. Jud told stories about himself. He talked of his drug use and how he never got addicted. Baldy asked about the odds of a parachute failure.
The instructor with a small mustache and razor burns on his neck unlatched the door and slid it open.
“Okay guys, it’s time to fly,” he said as the air rushed in and thrashed their clothes.
One man jumped. Then another. Now it was Baldy’s turn. Jud grabbed his shoulders and shook them.
“You’re going to be fine.”
Baldy plummeted and felt reborn. He grabbed his cord and tugged on it. He heard a snapping sound and he saw the cord out in front of him. In a blink his body had fallen beneath it.
He might have described it as the most real and unreal moment of his life, the only thing that had happened and something that could not happen ever. He had time to think. His lifetime of obedience had come to nothing, swiftly and necessarily and without justification.
Baldy’s cheeks flapped, the air blasted his gums. He slid out of his backpack and looked over it. There had to be a way to open the parachute without the cord. He fumbled over belts, straps, pouches and buttons. Why were there so many pockets and flaps? They’d gone over it on the ground. First Jud and then the instructor pointing to colored illustrations. Baldy read articles and pamphlets and had practiced pulling the cord.
He’d fallen for what seemed like hours and he could see green and brown patches below. The patterns of man made earth. Suburban streets and apartment complexes, power lines and telephone towers. The backpack slipped out of his hands; it made a zipping noise. Baldy wondered how the ground would feel. By now Jud had jumped and opened his parachute.