Still Literary Contest Judge's Selection: Phillip Meeks
Phillip Meeks is a native of Grundy County, Tennessee. He currently works as an Extension Agent for Agriculture & Natural Resources in Whitley County, Kentucky. He lives in Williamsburg with his wife and three children.
Our first conversation concerns falling from a great height and all the terror wrapped in such a fate. She tells me you never feel the impact because your senses shut down long before you reach the earth.
“What about parachutists?” I ask. "If they blacked out, they couldn't make formations or yank the cord."
"Parachutists have hope -- that the first or second chute will open. It’s not the falling that makes the faller unconscious. It's the complete loss of hope for survival."
I ask her how anybody even knows this, and she tells me that a handful of men and women have survived falls from airplanes. Invariably, they always report they went blank on the way down and then woke up with their eyes, ears, mouths and noses full of mud and grit, not knowing if they were in this life or the next.
She and I are facing the Nunley Building with a good three dozen others. This is the year it collapses, one brick at a time over the course of the summer. It's the same summer that solar flares wreck cable television reception, and we all gather at the corner of 5th and Main in the evenings after work or on Saturday mornings or after church on Sunday, and we huddle in cliques beyond the barrier of yellow caution tape and wait for chunks of the structure to crash onto the blacktop.
The bricks look old, and when they shatter, we touch with our toes or fingertips their smooth innards or gaze down the uneven edge of those that survive the impact. Some of the older people in the crowd gather whole bricks to take home. They want to remember.
A white-haired man in a Ford Motors cap tells me the bricks were made by hand, in the yard of the Stephens House across the street.
The same white-haired man asks Mayor Hankins if it wouldn't be better to just push the building down with an excavator rather than risking injuries over the days or weeks that the collapse is likely to take, but the mayor just rubs the back of his head and says the Nunleys won't like that.
(Secrets to be revealed the following year send the mayor and two other town leaders — including a Nunley — to the penitentiary.)
I have never seen Candace before the collapse. The first time, twenty to thirty people are gathered on the corner, looking up, waiting for a brick to fall. She steps from the apartment building where you always see shirtless men with tattoos and Rottweilers on chains, and she emerges barefoot, in cut-off jeans. She has a rose tattoo of her own between her shoulder blades, so flawless it resembles a photograph in a gardening magazine. It’s not shoddy work. Considerable time and money have been invested.
On some evenings, Candace walks out and watches the collapse with a little boy in tow. Some days, she listens to music through earbuds.
I make eye contact with her one evening, and I hold it as long as I can, and the next time, she walks over and asks for a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke,” I tell her.
She smiles. “Yeah, I figured you were a good boy.”
By mid-July, the crowds are in shifts, in two factions: the Respectables in the daylight hours, the Hoodlums at night. Candace straddles dusk, gliding from her apartment once shadow has covered the corner and then lingering until the streetlights glow. She likes to sit beside the bright pink crape myrtle, where she crushes out her finished cigarettes on the crossties that separate the haphazard landscaping from the dry cleaner parking lot. I watch the smoke from her Winstons drift toward the Stephens place, where it mingles with wisps of mist that peel from the koi pond.
Among the crowd, we share the news that we've snagged here and there in a world with limited television -- the unexpectedly dead celebrities, the political reforms of one persuasion or another. It is also the summer that the Space Shuttle Program takes its retirement voyage, creating buzz that the Atlantis's piercing of the atmosphere has triggered strange weather and undetected earthquakes and thereby contributed to the Nunley Building's crumble.
This talk of astronauts and space stations brings to mind the Challenger explosion all those years ago, how I watched the coverage on the television of the welding supply sales office where my father worked, and how, when Rhonda the bookkeeper reported to my father that my eyes were swollen, he came into the break room, dug his fingers into my bicep and whispered, "Dry it up. You're embarrassing the hell out of me."
Not counting Candace, I notice things in town now that I’d overlooked my entire life: the koi pond at Mr. Stephens’s, maybe in the same spot where the bricks had been baked; the misspelled “Holliness” on the window of the store-front church; the considerable incline from the courthouse to the corner, a climb one would never notice in a car.
On the hottest days, the spectators share the shade rationed to those of us on the public side of the hedge by Mr. Stephens's enormous pin oaks. Here, I deliver to Candace a sizable list of facts about myself, but only glean a fraction from her in return. I update her on my history from high school valedictorian to the University to the family and the professional prestige I built in Atlanta. Then I unraveled it for her: divorce, unwise investments, homesickness, boredom.
“Do you regret coming back now?” she asks.
I answer no but don't allude to the list of footnotes that go with that answer.
On the first of August, we hear a prolonged creak from inside the building and deduce the floor joists are succumbing to gravity as the exterior walls splay outward. I notice my father pass in his Bronco as we witness this, and I watch him look in my direction and shake his head. Five minutes later, he passes again, more slowly.
Candace and I are balanced in the final thin strip of pin oak shade, talking about reincarnation when I hear my name called.
"Must be nice," says my father, loud enough for the crowd to hear. He's wearing a broad smile, but I recognize it as the smile that sells welding rods and acetylene tanks. "Some of us had to work today."
"I worked on a magazine article all morning," I tell him.
"Well that's good. And what will you make when and if you sell that? Three hundred? That might come close to paying the insurance on your granddaddy's house."
My face still burns long after he returns to his Bronco. I stand and talk to Earl Hatcher from high school, avoiding Candace for as long as I can.
A sizable chunk of the Nunley Building comes down, the biggest I've seen yet, and the audience exhales a collective gasp. It's a wad of brick and mortar the size of a church sign, which doesn't spin in the least as it falls. It just drops, as if being lowered on cables, and the thud on the blacktop is deep and powerful, felt against the breastbone like a bass drum. With this chunk missing, the structure looks less like a building and more like some random shape tucked into the profile of our town, square-ish but not quite perfect.
(The same day, a story in the Lexington paper tells how a Texas farmer draining his pond has found a piece of the Columbia, the second major disaster in the Space Shuttle Program’s history.)
I fail to notice when the man comes out of the apartments to argue with Candace, but he's loud and angry. I hesitate for a moment and then step in their direction just as he turns and grabs Candace by the upper arm. I walk faster but the two of them fade into the apartment.
"Pillhead!" is what I yell to their backs just before the door slams shut, and my voice sounds like my father’s. Pillhead is his word. I've never heard myself say it.
I don't see her for the next three days, and I wonder if she's left town for good. Even before I had ever heard her accent, she had struck me as a girl without deep roots, who might return to her mother and step-father in Michigan on a whim. I come earlier to the corner and stay later, and I look for her thin plume of cigarette smoke down by the crape myrtle. I don' t even glance in the direction of the Nunley Building when I go downtown on the fourth day. I weave through the crowd, speaking a minimal and reactionary greeting or two, and I stop about halfway between the crowd and her building. I want to go knock on her door. I want to grab her hand and lead her out into the katydid buzz of dusk and take her into that unstable building, up the cock-eyed stairs to the slanting second floor and make crazy love to her as everything crumbles around us.
Something hits me hard across the back of the neck, and as I fall onto the asphalt, I believe for a moment that I've wandered inside the yellow caution tape and a piece of wall has landed on me, but I'm too far away. I feel the weight like bricks again, now at the side of my head, and angry words accompany it.
"You fucking asshole!"
His fist to my ribcage rattles the side of my body as the man I saw arguing with Candace hits me again in the side, followed by more punches to my head and more vicious words.
I draw my arms around my head and roll my knees into my chest in an effort to shield myself from the crush of his strikes, and then it stops, and she is standing there telling him, "enough, enough."
My nose and mouth and right ear are wet and sticky. A sensation like being pierced with a hot knife splays along one rib whenever I inhale.
I squint my already swelling eyes and try to look up into her face, already forming my lips to ask, "why?" but she isn't standing there. She and the man are stepping quickly down Main Street, she motioning with her hands to move faster, get out of here while also, it appears, scolding him for what he’s done.
As I see them round the corner by the pharmacy, I notice my father's Bronco moving up Main Street. It slows before the Nunley Building, and I can only assume he's looking out his passenger side window at this lump of flesh that's his son piled in the parking lot. I hear his engine accelerate slightly, see his brake lights go out and watch him pull away just as a dozen hands are on me, probing my wounds and helping me to my feet.
I don’t go watch the building anymore, and I’m not there when, a few days before Labor Day, the bulk of its remnant tumbles in a grand finale that I only imagine solicits applause from the onlookers who have invested so much time this summer.
I dream one night about falling from a Space Shuttle, fully aware, trying to coach myself into unconsciousness before I slam into the advancing earth, but it’s useless, like trying to fall asleep full of caffeine. I dream this again a few nights later, only this time, I give up on trying to black out and instead just enjoy the view on the way down. There’s North America. There’s Florida jutting out. I see the Mississippi River over there. Here comes the strip pit over by the high school. (I’ve always heard you’ll die in real life if you hit the ground before you awake, but that’s a myth. It’ll sure as hell wake you from a dead sleep, but it won’t kill you.)
That winter, I approach my father about a job at the welding supply company, and he talks to the owner and gets me on. It’s a learning curve, but I pay attention and do the best I can to learn the needs of the customer and the ins and outs of the business.
I go visit with my father and mother at least a couple times each week, and after dinner, Dad and I often sit on the porch, and he'll talk about the economy or recount some of the idiotic customers to whom he's sold welding supplies. He was never big on animals, but he's now taken a liking to two old beagles somebody dropped on him. He'll lay his hand on the girl dog's head and tell me how she hides behind the glider about an hour before it storms and how, if there ever comes an earthquake, he guesses she'll probably predict it, and I want to tell him but don't that there are earthquakes so subtle that neither dogs nor ancient bricks even know they’ve happened.