I am standing on the ledge of a skyscraper, one hundred and one floors
up, on a beam about ten inches wide. The toes of my shoes hang over. I
am roughly a thousand feet from the ground—over three football fields
away. It is night and the traffic below looks like little miniature
cars with battery-powered lights. I can see people below—coming in and
out of shops, haling cabs, walking. But they don’t look real. They are
an inch tall.
I am pressed against the glass behind me, trying not even to breathe.
One mistake—one little slip—will send me to my death. My hands are
sweating even though it is February in Chicago. Even though it is
night. The monstrous structure behind me roars every so often. I am
amazed at how something so massive moves so easily when the wind kicks
up. At any moment, I fear I will be swept along by the breeze, into the
night. Gone forever.
Three minutes ago I was hanging off of the beam instead of standing on
it—let me back up even further. I started this interruption of a
journey inside the skyscraper, in a nice warm room overlooking the Windy
City’s horizon at sunset. The entire one hundred first floor is my
brother’s home. He designed this building. He was gracious enough to
let me use it, to propose to Holly. It is a beautiful place: marble
floors, hundreds of crystal lights, windows for walls on all sides.
I hate heights. Let me rephrase that—I am deathly afraid of heights.
Always have the urge to jump, even though I don’t want to kill myself.
Don’t know why.
I’d never been this high up and surely never wanted to be. But I knew
the view. I wanted to see the look on her face from this view. I
wanted her to remember it forever. And part of me wanted to be there—to
feel the rush from my fear of heights—something like watching a car
crash, I suppose. It was that rush that made me get as close to looking
down below as I could.
I took the ring out of its case from the inside suit pocket, and held it
up to the backdrop of the city. The light from the distant buildings
sparkled through the diamond. I wouldn’t even have to say anything to
her. I was sure of it.
If I just would have put the ring back in my pocket. But I didn’t.
Instead I held it in my right hand. I opened the window—it tilted
inward toward the room and stopped well before being parallel with the
floor. I leaned over it, curious of the site below. The drop was
further than I imagined, the landscape tinier. A shiver ran through my
body. I dropped the ring.
It slid down the window, toppled over the frame of the window, bounced
three times on the beam below, and somehow balanced on the edge. My
heart dropped. I squatted down below the window and reached my hand
out. The ring was just inches from the end of the window, but I
couldn’t get my fingers under it. The window was tilted too close to
the beam. I tried shutting it a bit, but that only shortened the
distance that I could move my hand out. I had to reach over the top of
I pulled out a chair, put my arm over the tilted-in window and reached
for the ring. Again I was an inch or so short. Not to be defeated I
pushed forward, my feet left the chair, my weight shifted, I grabbed the
ring, I slid out of the building.
I caught the beam with my left hand. My feet dangled and twisted
below. Survival always wins out over fear in these situations. I
grabbed the beam with my right hand and adrenaline pulled me up to
That’s how I got here.
The ring is in my inside suit coat, taking a beating from the pounding
of my heart.
The adrenaline is short lived though. Now I am just a man pressed
against the glass, on the one hundred first floor of a skyscraper my
brother designed. I am more scared at this moment than any other moment
in my life. And while I try desperately to cling to something,
anything, behind me, my hands are sweating and slick. I am sweating
nowhere else, just my hands.
The window I fell out of is shut now—my weight closed it as it
transferred from one side to the other. It does not appear to open from
the outside. And why would it?
I kick it gently with my heel. Gently because I am balancing on a beam
not wide enough for my feet. This is not ordinary glass I am kicking.
I’m sure my brother could give you the correct name. I will just call
it thick-skyscraper glass.
The beam above me is about six feet away. That means the one below me
is probably twelve feet away. Traveling up or down the building is out
of the question. There is a vibration by my waist. I think
for a moment that maybe it is the wind, or my trembling, and then
remember my cell phone is on vibrate. I reach in, taking my right hand
from the window as slowly as I can. I slide it in under my suit coat.
I pull out the phone with two fingers. At about my waist, it slips
through my lubricated fingertips, tossing in the air—I swing at it and
miss—and then it falls forever. I suck back to the window behind me.
My voice is small against the city. It goes nowhere, absorbed by the
clutter of car horns, sirens, and wind. Even this high up I can smell
the city, the exhausts and the factories, the pizzerias and Chicago
dogs, Lake Michigan.
I notice the wind picking up. I feel the temperature drop. It is
starting to rain.
Holly is catching a red-eye flight from Champaign. She won’t be here
My brother left town so we could have the place to ourselves for the
There is something in the corner of my eye. Something moving inside. I
turn my head so at least my right eye can look in.
It is my brother’s maid. She is folding towels on his couch. I start
to yell and kick the glass again with my heel and also my fists. There
is no response from her. She continues to work. I am screaming at the
top of my lungs. I am hitting the glass so hard that I am pushing
myself away from the building.
She walks not ten feet from me, but does not look up. Her ears are
plugged with speakers from an Ipod. I start to cry. The rain is
beating me against the window. The wind is howling. The building is
I can’t last much longer out here. I have to do something. I have to
try something. If I do not, I will either slip or be blown off. I will
tire from exhaustion or faint from fear. I already feel nauseous.
To my left, about twenty feet away, running vertical down the building,
is another iron beam. If I can get around that maybe there is something
on the other side—a window washer’s cart, something, who knows.
I slide my feet side to side, never taking my back away from the
window. I move rather quickly because I know the longer this lasts the
worse my chances are. I continue until my left shoulder bumps the
Deep breaths. Slower breaths. You can do this.
I unpeel myself from the glass and grab onto the beam with both hands.
My eyes are closed. I am now facing the building. My hands are
sweating. I take a step and feel with my foot but there is only air.
No beam on the other side? I take my leg and move it closer to the
building. I feel it now. I am on a corner. I open my eyes and see the
city below and the wide-open space around me. My hands are sweating. I
swing myself around the vertical beam, plant my right foot, almost trip,
back hits the glass, plant my left foot. I sway back and fourth. The
rain hits me hard. I open my eyes to see that I am still alive. The
beam I am on is different in one way from the other. Directly below my
feet there is a white pole hooked to the building, protruding upward at
a forty-five degree angle. On the end of it, is a large American flag.
It flails in the wind.
I have a thought and wish immediately to unthink it. But what are the
chances of someone finding me before I fall? What are the chances of me
lasting in the once rain, now snow? I don’t think they are very good.
They say that everything becomes clear just before you die, that
everything makes sense, that your life passes before your eyes. None of
that is happening with me
I look out over the city and see the soft white flakes of winter dance
toward the earth. I wish I were one of those flakes. I wish I could
float down to safety. I look at the snowflakes and then at the flag. A
sense of calm comes over me, a crude satisfaction for what I’m about to
do. Not because it will work, but because I am least going to try.
I plop down on the pole below me, straddling it, and holding on with my
They are still sweating.
I pull with my arms and scoot a couple of feet. I repeat this until I
am at the top of the pole with my head resting on a brass ball.
The city moves below.
I squeeze with my legs and hold with my left arm. With my right, I
retrieve a knife out of my pants pocket. It is a Swiss Army
pocketknife. When my grandfather gave it to me years ago, he said,
“Son, carry this on your person at all times. A good pocket knife could
be the difference in your survival.”
How right he was. And is.
The flag was strung with a plastic cable through two metal eyes at both
corners. I put the knife to my teeth and pull the saw blade open. I
work fast on the cable, trying to ignore the movement a thousand feet
below. A gust comes, bending the fiberglass pole beneath me. It might
I have my legs wrapped so tight that I cannot feel them anymore. The
last fibers of the plastic cable tear apart. I let grandfather’s knife
drop and hold one corner of the flag in my right hand. I scoot the
other corner down with my left hand until it has come off the split
cable. I lie there on my stomach, looking down at the concrete jungle
below, my legs cramping but numb, my heart beating in my chest, just as
fast now as the moment I fell out the window. I start to crumple the
flag until the bottom starts up toward me. It is at least ten feet
I have two corners in each hand. I sit up on the pole for a second. I
let my torso fall to the side. I’m hanging upside down.
“It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop. Let’s just
hope yours is not that sudden.”
My legs release.
I fall toward the city below.