Poor Joe Riggs. Time has slowed to a deceptive taffy-stretch for him while he waits for rescue, and any subtle shifts in him or in the crane could worsen the mishap. He had been looking forward to finishing the recent job for his company Franzen Bros. Heavy Equipment, LLC, Let Us Do The Lifting For You, the company name and motto emblazoned in puffy yellow letters on the sides of the cherry-red cab that he is trapped in.
After kissing his wife goodbye, he climbed into his crane’s cab as he had on any other day, knowing that the project manager scheduled the lift for the early morning hours of a spring day, a time of day when Joe loves working because of the sunrise’s oranges and pinks seeping into the blue sky, and waiting, coffee on the dashboard, radio humming, for the “Raise boom” thumbs-up signal from his long-time colleague and best friend Dave Roberts, a Cherokee who nicknamed Joe “Smoke,” partly because of Joe’s hair color turning grey before the age of thirty and partly because Joe has always done something involving the air for the company—in it while operating a tower crane or through it while driving a crane truck and moving objects, with surgeon-like precision, as he did this morning. Dave figured that a guy like Joe, having earned two Employee of the Year awards in his twenty-five years with the company and known for his good attitude, hard work, and insistence on being a team player, needed one, a short one so that Dave, who stays on and is in charge of the ground (always has been, handling the radio, directions, and crew when Joe needs them) can call out to him. The two men laughed and thought that nickname was much better than Joe “Two Mortgages” Riggs. Sometimes Joe has worried that people on the com channel will hear the word smoke and worry that real smoke is emitting somewhere. This has not happened yet, and Joe has hoped this does not happen. He does not want to be accused of causing confusion.
As a vendor, Franzen Bros. is one of the area’s major recipients for contracts to big and small projects, and as a long-serving veteran, Joe has worked at some of the most popular attractions and properties, such as the Historical Society and its famous domed top, which Joe and company updated by adding sheets of all-weather siding and improved flashing underneath, and points of interest considered “hidden secrets and obscure gems” by travelogues and the Internet, such as the Bill and Ruth Hansen Museum of Historic Drought, with its collection of scientific research and artifacts of the century-ago drought that ravaged the area, where Joe helped hoist several key infrastructure supports from ground to the multi-level building. He has taken civic and personal pride in helping out anyway he could with these projects, mainly as Smoke lifting things in the air, and today’s project—installing the giant sculpture of twisted metal for a new museum of art slated to open on Memorial Day—was a welcome task. But the morning has not turned out the way that Joe expected.
Were he able to reach his phone, which, like him, is pinned between his jacket pockets and seat and, like him, won’t be going anywhere until help arrives, his status update on social media would be Help trapped, written so quickly, were he not in shock and able to calm his fingers over the keyboard, and written without concern for grammar or clear directions to anyone monitoring his social-media feed, which, at this time of day, would be his younger brother stationed in Germany, that he would have to rely on auto-correct to capitalize the h in Help and add the vowels in trapped, and he would have to rely on his Navy-employed brother moving past his initial reaction (“Ha ha, Joey’s complaining about the line at Starbucks again. Such a Spaßmacher.”) and towards interpreting the situation and filling the gaps of the hypothetical message with the word me, as in Help me, a colon or a dash following the imperative, and the simple but complete subject-verb phrase I am trapped in the cab of my crane, which would beg the questions (a) Why is Joseph Daniel Riggs trapped in his much-loved and much-preferred office of choice? and (b) Why is he, not his ground crew, especially Dave Roberts, or first responders, having to announce and, more importantly, having to rectify it? But things being what they are for the fifty-two-year-old and his repositioned crane, neither phantasmic message nor the flesh-and-blood crane operator will be moving anywhere but a little deeper into the ground.
The big man from the southeast corner of the state, known for its fuzzy mountains, forests, rivers, and Bigfoot sightings, has already thought about his wife Roxanne (Roxy Foxy, as he has called her—and this nickname flickers past him as the backend of the crane fishtails a little more), who balances being a full-time employee in the district’s unified school system and pursuing a part-time degree in speech pathology that will help her career. He has thought about his children: Dennis, his sixteen-year-old son, who is beginning to understand the hierarchies of high school and the pressures that accompany said hierarchies to be someone in some circle at all times, never leaving that circle, and Joy, his twenty-year-old daughter, who, at the university of her choice, thanks to a science scholarship, enjoys studying the molecular structures of carcinogens, specifically lung cancer, to which Joe’s older sister succumbed a few years ago, rather than watching television with her three roommates in the small 1950s cottage a few miles from campus and affectionately known as the Butterscotch House, due to its exterior paint, which Joe first saw why during Parents’ Day last year—and is the color that he sees intensifying as the only light streaming into the sandwiched cab.
The time that it is taking, from the beginning of the accident to its stunning and social media–worthy completion, the cab thudding into the ground outside the museum’s south wall, and waiting for the ground crew to realize that the accident was impossible to stop but also not impossible to gawk at, feels long to the man trapped inside, much longer than something of this magnitude and seriousness should feel like: the counterweights attached to the back of the crane and hoist were not enough, were miscalculated for the morning job, and as a result, contributed to the crane hinging forward like a trap door springing up after the lift commenced. Joe heard screaming and shouting outside the cab as metal creaked, like the lids on trash dumpsters, and when the crane started toppling and he noticed in the side mirrors the outriggers uprooting from the grass and dirt, Joe killed the procedure, but not in time, and said to himself, Ah nuts, I am being lifted off the ground and am headed straight into… Some quick-fire synapses inside the primal area of his brain wanted him to jump out and roll to safety, like the actors in the training videos that he had to watch for certification so long ago, but Joe feared that the crane could turn on its nose and fall to the side, crushing him underneath, especially if he did not roll quickly or if his steel-toed boots slowed him as he ran (he is “fit as a fiddle”—his doctor’s words—and has outlived his parents). The fifty-two-year-old tightened his seatbelt, the X-shaped harness squeezing his torso, slapped his hardhat on his head as low as it would compress, heard the words “Hang on, buddy” squawking from Dave, and gripped the seat’s armrests, watching the pastel-colored morning light recede to the grey concrete of the south wall, burst one final time, it seemed, on the sculpture’s crate swinging on the hook, and then plummet into the dark green grass that consumed any light remaining outside the front windshield. There was nothing Joe could do or change. Seconds after the cab planted itself, he had a flashback of his football-playing days in high school and the many times his face was impaled into the turf thanks to a surprise tackle or being blindsided in the wrong place at the wrong time, which, it seems, happened today.
His second thought was a run-on kindled with panic, uncertainty, and hyper-awareness that floated and looped around his body:
I am facing the windshield buried in the grass, the only light I see is the sunrise coming into what would be the passenger’s side window, it is butterscotch-colored, but my truck has toppled forward so that that window has cracked, and its frame is bent like a wire hanger, I am securely buckled in my chair, my hardhat remains on, the ceiling is much lower and slopes towards the broken windshield and dark green ground, I am aware of a few injuries, one is my lip is cut or maybe my mouth is cut, I taste blood, not a lot of it, but blood is in my mouth, I also taste something like engine lubricant, oil, it is not a good taste, the other injury is a lot of injuries piled into each other, my whole body aches and is on fire in certain areas, my wrist feels out of place, my thighs have twisted, my back hurts, a spot between my left shoulder blade and neck where my seatbelt snapped me in place burns a lot, I do not think that I am dead, I do not know what that would be like because as the joke goes the people who die can’t tell us they’re dead, that was a joke my daughter told me who heard it from her teacher in her pre-med class, it has stuck with me ever since, I hear a beeping inside the cab, and what I know of this model, that sound is probably the emergency cut-off telling me that the engine and the electrical panels have been cut off, I hope so, I do not smell gasoline, I do not smell a fire, but my pants are wet, I may have pissed myself, my coffee cup may have spilled on me, I do not see anyone coming for me yet, I hear the radio static, they are saying my name, Smoke, Joe, it’s Dave, Smoke, Joe, it’s Dave, Dave, I wish I could answer, I think I hear them calling for an ambulance, if I am not dead then I am close to blacking out, it has a numbing effect on me, my mouth is numb, I can feel the tingling in my legs and arms, and the tingle makes its way up to my neck, and it feels like a brain freeze after eating ice cream, I have been blinking rapidly, and my eyes are dry, or I am crying, it is hard to tell, I wish I could unbuckle the seatbelt and slide myself out of the cab, but I can tell out of the corner of my eye that the driver’s side door is closer to the ground than the passenger’s door which makes me wonder if the cab is starting to sway to the left losing its balance because its rear is sticking in the air, I cannot see the jib or the hook block or if the artwork is still there and all right, I cannot see the artwork, I hope that it did not drop, I did drop the peanut butter jar in here a few weeks ago while waiting for Dave to give me the go-ahead for those pallets of steel girders, I think I can smell it, it’s funny to me that I can smell that, it’s also funny that I can smell the pine air freshener in here, maybe both things mean that I am not dead, I tell myself things could be much worse, I hope that I am not dead.
For the man trapped inside, this moment is an accumulation of painful lethargy, and it stalls between start and finish, floating so effortlessly, thanks to outside forces and momentum, waiting on the energy of things having moved, of things waiting to be moved, like a pendulum keeping time and doing so by circling the minutes, knocking each peg down until another minute passes for Joe Riggs, who keeps his optimism and patience stimulated by imagining newscasters gathering onsite: “The most popular attraction at the new art museum wasn’t the art but a toppled piece of heavy equipment that left a lot of onlookers craning to see it.” He clenches his eyes, tears building in the corners, the imaginary onlookers taking photos, texting, and calling, and he adds, “The operator trapped inside the vehicle was pulled to safety and is in good condition.”
The artwork itself finally tiptoes across Joe’s mind as he waits trapped in the gap between past and present that expands the longer it takes for rescue to arrive. The job was simple and straightforward, and he could have executed it in his sleep, which he often did, including the dream in which he carried animals to shore from a boat capsized by the sea. After weeks of helping with the new building’s construction, Joe would gently lift the final piece from ground to the middle of the art garden near the museum’s roof. Once the main funnel-shaped base was secured, Joe could then lift the accompanying pieces that attached to the outside of the main base; these pieces included miniature metal trees, cars, cows, and street signs frozen in their swirl around the artistic nod to a notorious natural occurrence in the region and the upcoming exhibition associated with said meteorological effect—In a Tizzy: The Weather and Emotions.
Setting the sculpture by mid-morning and installing it by lunch were the two main goals of this phase. Museum staff could sign off and Franzen Bros. could remain on standby, per contract, if additional changes were needed. After further onsite inspections and a last-minute discussion between Franzen Bros. representatives and the museum’s director, curator, and exhibitions installer, the latter asking for additional Styrofoam padding inside the crate in order to avoid any scratches (were the crate to rock against the sculpture during the stress of the lift), as well as asking for secondary hooks should the first set of hooks fail, phone calls were made to the participating agencies and individuals handling indemnities for the lift and the artwork upon reassessment.
Adding her opinion to the matter at hand was the artist who made an appearance at the installation and who had been born in the state but had opted for the coasts, occupying one or the other at some point in her life, but she had maintained, she told interviewers, a “nostalgic love and carefree childhood innocence” of her home state and was more than willing, perhaps too willing, critics noted, to take funds and return later with something so that the good citizens could say that art indeed creates empathy, engages critically, and transcends identities and metaphorical and literal boundaries. But alas, this was not the case. As soon as she revealed her creation, the news, the blogs, the talk of the towns followed with scathing disapproval, the most popular and most disseminated being that the sculpture soon to crown the art garden looked less like a tornado rumbling over the prairie—a moment that strikes sublimity into the heart and minds of anyone seeing it—and more like “a lump of silver poop with things sticking from its sides plopped atop a roof.” Joe had heard about the controversy, chuckled at it, but knew that focusing on his job would be healthier and more productive; he wanted to be of good use.
The green light was eventually given, and by then most of the early morning had vanished, but the plan seemed to write itself out. Dave nodded. Joe fired up the engine; he was not responsible for determining the counterweight. No one, at that point, expressed any concern.
The ground crew, along with help from the museum staff, hooked the wooden crate to the hoist and reinforced the move by swaddling the crate in the blues of padded blankets and the oranges of thick industrial-strength straps. A secondary hook was used on the hoist block.
No warning sounds beeped from the control box, no dangerous RPMs flashed from digital black to red, the hoist engine continued revving. Joe allowed ample time for the boom to raise just enough before moving to the next portion of the lift like a mountain climber conquering a rock face step by step. He paused the motor and waited for the crate to stop swaying, and when it did, Joe engaged the motor from neutral to drive. As the crate gained height and made its way towards workers standing on the roof, the morning sunlight gleamed across Joe’s face, and he felt the warm reward of simply being in the cab and working in the morning, how it meant a great deal to him—to be there rather than anywhere else, a sentiment he first felt when he operated a tower crane and could see so many people below walking like ants on the cleared-off sidewalks and salted streets, and he thought, Cliché and thought how true it was even if it was cliché, the muffled sounds in a tower, clouds in the distance breaking up and moving across the blue sky, a glistening February sun that turned the snow underneath into mirrors, how far off the land could be observed, the clues that the sky can send, the sky with its grotesqueness and its grace, storms having to pass through before rainbows appear, these things that share the air.
And then the crate began to sink quickly, and the truck began to tilt forward. Dave rapidly called Stop!, but it was too late. The brief moments of reduced noise that Joe so loves while he works—the door closed, the hum of the motor, the compressed air—were annihilated by invisible, unstoppable momentum and shouts from the roof and the ground with its mad tides of hands and arms waving and fleeing the scene as the truck pulled itself from the ground.
And now he is waiting, caught in these seconds that seem like hours until the crew trickles back to the site of the flopped crane after they scampered away and sought shelter when it flipped.
From the corner of his eye, Joe is able to watch several shadows jitter across the ground that brightens with the rising sun. His hearing returns after tinnitus briefly smothered his ears. The blackout effect has washed away, and he stares at the cracked front windshield buried in the butterscotch-tinted grass. He has spit out more than just blood.
But he cannot see police unspooling yellow tape around the scene while smoke and the sounds of a sputtering engine drifts over the gathering crowds. Nor can he see an ambulance pulling in, lights on, no siren; a fire truck is a few seconds behind. Another crane is on its way to stabilize Joe’s in order for the man trapped inside to be safely freed. However, no one has reached his window yet. The radio fell from its charger on the dashboard and landed somewhere; Joe can hear his buddy’s voice echoing around him but can’t answer. Be calm, be calm, he chants to himself. At the mercy of others and at the mercy of larger forces, he is still wondering about the rescue procedure and why it is taking so long: hearing the toppling was impossible to miss, as was seeing it, he is certain. He sits there, a miner stuck in a cave-in, and has to wait for the present to catch up to the lapse, has to wait for the gap between the present and the past to heal.
As the crane teeters forward a little more, the long crack in the front windshield spreads with seismic shifts, and Joe, in his dire situation, imagines the one fantasy that has stayed with him all these years—of taking the crane and rolling it through the downtown streets like a giant monster knocking over old buildings. He begins to accept the appropriateness of him dying at work, that maybe this is his time, his check-out from Earth, a check-in at the Pearly Gates, and St. Peter double-checking his name. These things glide past him every time he winces and as every second of inactivity in the outside world peels away.
And then in this gap between climax and dénouement, accident and resolution, a bird arrives and follows the gooey tightrope strung between then and now. The bird lands on what would be the top part of the driver’s side window. At first, Joe accepts that he is now dead; why else would a thing with feathers and designed for the air be on the ground? It is here to guide him to the afterworld and flutter away when it has completed its mission—no other reason. The bird bounces closer to the inside of the cab. Joe takes a closer look. He is relieved that the bird is not a cardinal because he hates the St. Louis Cardinals and anything and everything associated with the team, and to be visited by said bird would be to Joe no different than the executioner insulting the condemned before the final order is given. But the bird isn’t a cardinal, any common sparrow, or a random springtime bird; it is the state bird; and Joe could see its unique feature backlit—the rear feathers terminating like scissors slicing through the light.
Now Joe begins to doubt his fate of dying while on the job, and he wonders if the bird is not a guide to the afterworld but is here to lead him out of the wreckage or to lead others to him—why else would the bird perch itself on the steering wheel and stare directly at Joe? Why else, Joe scrunches his face, would the bird open and close its mouth so quickly, as though it was trying to give oxygen to Joe, as though it has brought in its mouth some nouns and verbs that will empower him to exclaim, “I’m all right” or “I’m in here, alive, hurry” or “Save the art first” to the shadows gathering outside the cab, that his words, given to him under the spell of the state bird, could outlive this accident and correct this unfortunate event. He relaxes in the seat, and everything seems to disappear; everything seems to dissolve into another realm, perhaps where it originated or where it is destined to end regardless of the number or kinds of stops along the way, including the one here this morning with the bird saying so much without speaking in a human tongue, saying something that floats to the surface in the nick of time, just before a long, deep sleep.
The day is starting to turn around, the downside becoming an upside, like any good morning, the state bird waiting with him—how much better could a Wednesday rebound? Joe starts talking with the bird and hopes that it will talk to him and keep him company, maybe will tell him a story about great distances and far-off stars yet to be named. It chirps in sharp notes and hops along the dashboard and then onto his arm. Joe smiles with a few missing teeth, and he wishes that he could stick his finger into the peanut butter jar lost in here and feed the weightless thing. The bird twitches its pale-grey head left to right, its eyes flashing in what little light remains in the cab. The bird flaps its wings, revealing its belly washed in pink, and starts to fly off. Joe begs it to stay, which it does and, as it returns, starts pecking Joe’s hand, which speeds up time and resuscitates him more than the voices outside the cab trying to reach him, but this also annoys him and he questions why his helper has turned on him. Joe has no idea what to do, but he knows that he does not want to harm it in any way—to do so, he fears, could bring upon him the wrath of the state and citizens brandishing torches and pitchforks; he is the bird’s keeper as much as the bird has become his.
But this pastoral moment slides into irritation. Joe’s defense mode kicks in, and any reserves of adrenaline surge through him. His swats are apropos for a big man: large, meaty whacks from a smoke-colored middle-aged bear defending itself from bees after breaking open the honey hive. Several forearm-heavy swings miss the bird and do nothing but agitate it and exhaust the debilitated man.
“We’ve got movement!” a voice yells outside the cab, which has grown darker in some corners and lighter in others with the sun closer to noon and the scissors-shaped rear of the bird flitting about like a shadow puppet.
A firefighter with a power saw cuts into the cab’s door; the bird vanishes. The gap between past and present closes around Joe and nears completion as several gloves pull his legs and chest. Somebody yells his name; somebody who sounds like Dave is close to him, patting his arm, and says, “We nearly lost you, but you’re OK, buddy. You’re OK.” Joe looks around. He is in the light, moving through it on a stretcher, and he is thankful that he is not heading into The Light. He sees the top of the damaged building, smoke and debris, and the accordion-crushed cab. He sees the second crane with its dinosaur neck stabilizing his crane. Being in the open seems different to him, a rush of literal and symbolic fresh air making him aware of what he missed and, when he hears that his family waits for him at the hospital, what he could have missed. The outside cracking through a stubborn pitch-black wall is what he thinks of the butterscotch light, the grass turning different shades of green, the bird, and being trapped for what felt like hours but wasn’t. He glances at the hoist. The artwork hovers a few inches above the roofline and appears unharmed, still packed away, still heavy on the hook when he left it, something that he had hoped for but could not confirm until now.