“Apprentice” Part IV


Robby drove the crew truck and Lester sat in the passenger seat. I sat in the back seat with spare jackets and muddy coveralls pulled over my lap, watching the headlights flash over highway reflectors and road signs and listening to the hum of tires on snow. I thought about black ice on the highway and how it was invisible. I wondered if the ice on the tower would be that way too.

The liquor store was closed, but Robby pulled into a convenience store and Lester bought cigarettes and a twelve pack. At the powerline right of way Robby pulled off the highway and stopped. Lester turned around in his seat and stared at me until I piled out to lock in the front hubs for four wheel drive. The hubs were frozen and I had to use a spud wrench to bang them loose.

Robby slipped the truck through muddy ruts to the base of the tower where Baughman had fell and cut off the headlights. It stretched above us, a lean miniature of the Eiffel tower disappearing in the dark. Clouds moved slowly across the moon, throwing shadows over the snow.

Lester stopped at the front of the truck to piss. Robby opened the tool box on the side of the crew truck and handed my tool belt to me, then put on his own.

“No belts,” Lester said, coming back to where Robby and I stood. He was holding the twelve pack under his arm. “I don’t have one so you can’t either.” He rooted around the back seat until he found a denim jacket and put that on, then pulled a ball cap from under the front seat.

Robby unbuckled his belt and tossed it into the truck, then started for the tower.

Lester pulled a foot long spud wrench out of my belt.

“Take it off,” he said.

I pulled the belt off and followed him to the tower.

Lester handed Robby and me two beers each and took two for himself, which he stuck in his jacket pockets. We did the same. Lester jumped for the first horizontal piece of the tower and pulled himself up. Then he started up the step bolt leg, breaking ice with the spud wrench as he climbed.

For a man over fifty, and drunk at that, Lester moved like a squirrel. About thirty feet up he stopped long enough to yell at me and Robby, then kept going.

“We should leave his ass out here to freeze,” Robby said. “Jump in the truck and go.”

I nodded, but instead of leaving, Robby smiled at me and started up the tower after Lester. I came behind, grabbing the step bolts so hard my hands hurt, climbing through a fine shower of ice particles and snow knocked loose by Robby’s feet.

About halfway up Robby stepped to one side to make room for me. My lungs were scorched from the cold. Lester was hammering on something with his wrench. The metal on metal vibrated through the tower and echoed off the hills on either side.

“How about a cigarette?” Robby said.

“No thanks.”

“No. I mean give me one,” Robby said.

Holding to the steel with one hand, I reached inside my jacket and came out with a pack of Marlboro’s, shook one out for Robby and took one myself. Robby lit the cigarettes and we smoked while we caught our breath. The tobacco was tasteless in the cold.

Something whistled by my head, bounced off the steel below us, and exploded. A can of beer.

“Damn it,” Lester said.

I looked up. Lester was directly above us–maybe twenty feet, maybe fifty, it was hard to tell in the dark–holding to the steel with one hand, the spud wrench dangling in the other. He leaned away from the tower and looked at us through the space between his legs.

“You guys coming up,” Lester yelled. “I need another beer if you’re not going to drink yours.”

Robby thumped his cigarette away. It fell in an orange arc.

“This is crazy,” he said. “I should be in bed.”

Robby started up again. I followed for a little way, but stopped short of the top. In the dark there was no perspective. I felt dizzy. I stared through the middle of the tower at the ground, pressing my cheek against the steel and feeling my face go numb.

Lester and Robby’s voices came from above.

“You’ve never seen anything like this before, have you Coal miner?”

“No sir,” Robby said. “It’s something.”

The tab of a beer can popped. I smelled cigarette smoke and marijuana. The breeze shifted direction and made a wind noise in my ear. I thought about Baughman, how quick it all happened.

“Where are you Frank,” Lester yelled. “You coming up?”

I didn’t answer. Lester said something else I couldn’t make out and he and Robby laughed.

I started down the tower, but then stopped to take one last look. The moon had come out from behind the clouds. The mountains glowed and the valley was blanketed in white. Everything stood out clearer than it ever would in any other light, night or day. The tower cast a perfect T-shaped shadow on the snow, falling across the crew truck. My shadow was lost in the body of the tower, but at the top of the T I could make out Robby and Lester. Lester’s shadow moved along the top of the T, his arms spread out to either side for balance like a tightrope walker.

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