by Anne Symons
While every other ten-year-old in Bucklin was being tucked in to bed to get a full night’s sleep before the first day of school in the morning, Ian and Pa climbed out the second floor bathroom window to sit in their usual spots on the roof to watch the last big storm of the summer brew across the Kansas plains. The deep indigo of the sky covered the land like a taut curtain; night had fallen and spidery filaments of lightning illuminated the horizon and released delayed booms of thunder.
Ian sat Indian style and let the sandpapery texture of the roof shingles scrape against his tan legs as he felt the familiar rush of an approaching storm fill his chest. “Thirty-nine, forty, forty-one.” Ian counted the seconds between lightning and thunder aloud, letting his grandfather convert the time to distance. Pa assured him that the storm was still about 8 miles away, so they could stay out on the roof for a bit longer. A radio perched on the windowsill spilled out the robotic voice of the National Weather Service, storm updates like background music for Pa and Ian’s ambling conversations.
“Well son, I guess we’ll be wakin’ up early tomorrow so you can catch the school bus,” Pa squinted into the distance and sipped a beer slowly. Thunder clapped and Pa’s eyes rolled up into their sockets a bit as he calculated in his head, “Seven miles now.”
“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” Ian said. “All the other kids are only going to be talking about my Tower and all the newspaper articles. And looking at me like I’m a freak.”
“Don’t say that, Ian. You know, it’s a wonder that thing has made it all summer,” Pa motioned to the Tower in the middle of the backyard, “Then again, I guess the windy season won’t be ‘til spring.” While the Tower obstructed their view, the two had grown accustomed to it as part of the landscape that stretched from their backyard to the horizon. These rooftop evenings led to the two of them sharing their common fascination with the vastness of the Kansas sky, somehow made more obvious by the wheat fields reaching infinitely in all directions beneath it.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to picture the earth being round,” Ian said one evening in the middle of June, “because I’ve never been on top a mountain or anything. But when we’re up here, I can see it. Like it’s this dome stretched over me. Holding me down.”
“But look! There it goes.” Pa yelped and pointed to The Tower, beginning to sway as the wind picked up. Lightning flashed and thunder clapped soon thereafter. “Maybe we should head inside.”
That summer was 1990, the summer after Ian’s parents’ death, the summer he turned ten, the summer he built the second tallest freestanding structure in Bucklin (the first tallest was the water tower). Composed entirely of wheat stalks weaved together into a cone-shaped structure, it stretched up like a spire pricking the edge of the sky, swaying with the winds like a feather stuck in the ground. It had been dubbed “the Tower” and everyone around town found it intriguing in its novelty, threatening in its ethereality. During hourly breaks at the public pool, kids would turn and point at it in the distance, sharing their theories between bites of melting ice cream sandwich. The structure was about a mile away but it remained in clear view across the Kansas plains from any point in town.
“It’s a wizard’s hat,” one child would claim, “I heard he likes magic and stuff. Or like, sorcery. He always used to do weird stuff with rocks at recess.”
Another, taking a swig from a can of orange Gatorade, would muse, “I thought it was supposed to be, like, a house. Or a fort or something. And maybe that’s where he’s been hiding all summer.” Such conversations would end with mutual shrugs and the blowing of a lifeguard’s whistle to signal the pool reopening.
It was May 18th and Ian had been splayed out on the backseat of his mother’s station wagon, nodding off on the way home from a movie. It had just begun to rain, the wheat fields outside blurred past in a late-spring twilight and his parents sang along to a Bruce Springsteen song on the radio until a head-on collision killed the two of them and sent him flying through the rear window. Ian did not remember any of the crash and found it difficult to visualize anyone flying through a window. The car burst into flames and Ian was found nestled between wheat stalks with a broken wrist and blood starting to cake over the scrapes covering his body. His parents were buried next to his Grandma and he didn’t remember much about the funeral other than Pa being very quiet and straining to hide his tears, then muttering something about the caskets being expensive in between sniffles. Ian never shed a tear, which family friends blamed on shock, but then he stopped speaking to anyone other than Pa, which family friends didn’t know what to blame on.
Building the Tower had not been a decision; it had been an impulse. The morning after the funeral, Ian sat in the bay window in the living room staring out at the wheat fields, letting his eyes go in and out of focus as cars passed through his line of vision. He imagined his mother driving up to pick him up in her station wagon, his father jogging across the wheat field with a baseball mitt to play catch. The station wagon up in flames, its wood panel doors burning, a metallic bonfire. Ian was suddenly overcome with a vast feeling of emptiness – like feeling hungry, but not in his stomach. More like in his heart. Ian wrung his hands together and was overwhelmed with the desire to do, to build, to create. He shot up out of his seat and scurried across the backyard to the wheat fields. He began to grab stalks one by one, and then in fistfuls. After half an hour he realized he was out of breath from running. He decided he would build something incredibly tall, incredibly huge, incredibly grand. Like what was in Washington, D.C. and the ancient cities he had seen on the History channel. A monument. Something to fill the emptiness that came when he lost his parents, a gaping void where his entire universe used to be. Ian worked until dusk and continued this pattern every day as Pa watched from the kitchen window.
All of this started the day after the funeral, when he was out of school but nobody else was. Since the crash happened in the middle of May, Ian didn’t go back to school that year. No one really thought anything of it until it was finished and reached almost 100 feet into the sky and the news stations from surrounding counties started calling. Ian and Pa hadn’t even known people were watching until the phone rang for the first time a few days after the 4th of July.
Each day while his classmates went to school for the last week of classes, Ian repeated the same ritual: wake up, eat a toaster strudel, and continue work on the monument. He had discovered a sort of weaving and knotting technique that felt sturdy, and the circular base of the structure was slowly beginning to turn into a cylinder. Ian’s thoughts were consumed by the creation of the monument and he sensed an incredible urgency to complete it. This responsibility weighed him down like a sack of bricks from which he only found relief when creating. Until he started building, Ian had felt uncomfortable outside. It didn’t feel safe; it no longer felt like it belonged to him. Now it felt like a place of uncertainty, a place where things like car crashes could happen, and where they were all held in, held to the spinning earth, by the sky that stretched over them like an impenetrable canopy. But as Ian worked on the tower, he felt like he was creating something that would interrupt the uncertainty, the feeling of helplessness that consumed him. He was building something that, once completed, would exist forever. Something permanent. Something to puncture the sky.
One day about midway through the monument’s creation, Pa strutted outside to Ian, letting the screen door slam behind him. He gestured to the work-in-progress stretched over the yard and crossed his arms. “Son, I’m not sure what exactly you’re trying to make here, but if you eventually want to stand it up on its haunches…”
Ian turned to him and nodded.
“It’s going to need some support inside,” Pa strolled to the end of the hollow cylinder and crouched down to look through it like it was some kind of giant telescope.
Ian pulled his hand up to his chin as if stroking an imaginary beard. “That’s what I was thinking. Do you think you have anything in the barn we could use?”
The two of them turned to the dilapidated building at the edge of the yard. “We just might,” said Pa.
After some searching, Pa and Ian settled on a few long metal poles that, if welded in a particular way, could support the structure to protect it from falling in the wind. “How tall should I make it?” Pa asked as he surveyed the poles.
“I guess about a hundred feet,” shrugged Ian.
“I want it to be really tall.”
Pa finished the frame in less than a week, but as Ian continued to work on the Tower throughout the summer his grandfather would often find himself sitting with him outside. Since they hadn’t stood it up yet, it didn’t draw much attention, but sometimes children riding by on their bikes on the way to the pool would recognize Ian and stop and stare. A few of their neighbors would stand out on their porches and shade their eyes with a hand as they watched the man and boy in the yard. A couple of them made a point to stop by and visit every now and then.
“So what do we have here?” Asked Mrs. Branscomb, the middle aged woman who lived catty-corner to Pa and Ian.
“Oh, he’s just working on a little project to pass the time. You know, get his mind off things,” Pa replied.
Mrs. Branscomb returned with an empathetic nod and reached out to squeeze Ian’s shoulder. “Well isn’t that just great,” she said.
On the day he and Pa decided to lift up the monument, Ian awoke while it was still dark outside, giddy with anticipation. With help from a tractor, the two managed to lift up the monument in all its glory before the sun had reached its peak in the sky. Ian tilted his head up to see the tip of the monument pierce the sky, squinting in the morning light and grinning wide. A few bits of wheat cascaded down, but his handiwork stayed intact for the most part. That hungry feeling - that emptiness – that had plagued him since the day after the funeral disappeared. Pa approached him from behind and gave him a firm pat on the back. “There it is,” the old man said.
“There it is,” whispered Ian.
The monument stood in peace for about a week before the news crews took interest. Plenty of people around Bucklin had walked by with their cameras, but eventually the small local news trucks began to arrive, asking for interviews with the architect.
“Hi, is this Mr. Alan White? I’m calling from Channel 12 News, and we’re interested in doing a story about the Tower,” a made-for-television voice sung through the receiver.
“The Tower. To our understanding it’s located on your property. Do you live at 202 Barkle—?”
Pa interrupted, “So is that what people are calling this thing? Well, it sure is on my property. But I’m not responsible for it. My grandson made it. I’ll have to talk to him about it.” He hung up and forgot about the call a couple of hours later.
Ian would return such proposals with silence, which resulted in three different news segments of elaborate speculation. Ian did, however, agree to pose with the monument for the cover of the Bucklin Citizen. Ian stood looking utterly puny next to the monument, stone-faced with his hands in his pockets in black and white. As he stood there before the photographer, he could see the earth as it curved at the horizon – stretching like a string that went right through the man behind the camera’s tripod, peering through the viewfinder. In the photograph, Ian’s face is not turned toward the camera, but a few dozen feet above it at the vast expanse of blue holding him down – the sky. Where does it begin and end? He wondered as the photographer adjusted the focus. Does the sky begin right above where my feet are touching the grass? The shutter snapped right as Ian blinked, grounded in his yard as firmly as his monument behind him. The photograph was published at the end of August, positioned just to the left of that day’s headline:
SEVERE WEATHER BLAZES THROUGH BUCKLIN
Eventually Ian had stopped counting the seconds between lightning and thunder and Pa had stopped calculating the miles – the storm had come and had been roaring all night. They found themselves without power and unable to sleep from the noise of the thunder, sitting at the kitchen table, watching the storm outside, listening until the rain that pounded the roof and gushed out of the gutters quieted. It was almost dawn. The radio static disappeared and the National Weather Service robot-voice reentered the room. The rain had stopped. “All over, then?” Pa said as he stood up from the table.
Ian sat still.
The interior of the house was suddenly illuminated. A deafening clap of thunder accompanied it, more severe than Ian had ever heard before. This one was more severe. Like a snap. “Woo-wee!” yelped Pa with a laugh as the room became dark again. “The grand finale!”
Ian chuckled and turned to the window, bright orange flickering in his peripheral vision. Jumping up from his chair and rushing to the window, he saw the source of the light.
The monument stood ablaze in the middle of the yard, the wheat burning away almost instantly and exposing the metal skeleton beneath, like a cadaver in flames. Ian stood at the back door in disbelief, his hand pressed against the glass creating a cloud of condensation. It was gone in less than a minute.
A few moments of silence later, Ian raced down the back steps and stumbled across the yard to where the monument once stood. In its place was a pile of delicate ash in a perfect circle. He walked around the perimeter of the circle for what felt like hours. There was no end and no beginning to the circle that had been created, so he found it difficult to make himself stop. As daylight appeared, he felt himself grow tired. Ian’s shoulders dropped and he stumbled to the center of the pile of ash. Crouching down to the ground, he let his head fall to his open hands, and he wept.