“Downtime” by T.R. Healy


It was so quiet, for a moment the dogs next door began to bark, furiously, as if something were the matter.

Alma also was surprised not to hear the familiar growl of jackhammers this morning, the whine of electric saws and the shouts of workmen. Something indeed must be the matter, she thought, as she eased into her bath water. Ever since she discovered that the old Dakota Building was going to be demolished, she had worried that something unforeseen might happen. Despite the assurances of her husband and neighbors, despite all the precautions taken by the people in charge, she remained on edge as the blast day approached, still expecting something to go wrong.

"You just can't blow up a building in the middle of a residential neighborhood," she told her husband, "and not expect some damage to occur."

Soon the hammering resumed, silencing the barking dogs, and impulsively Alma slid underwater for a moment, plugging her fingers in her ears. For nearly a week now, she had been listening to that racket coming from the Dakota Building, hour after hour until she thought her ears were going to burn off. It would all be over by the end of the week, the building reduced to rubble and dust, and she just hoped she could hold on until then without going to pieces herself.




The Dakota Building, a relic of red stone and barred windows, was for many years an apartment house for older people in the neighborhood. No one had resided there for several months, however, since it had been sold late last summer to some developers from Canada who planned to build a large office park in its place.

"It's hard to believe the Dakota isn't going to be standing there after Sunday," the mailman said to Jess as they stood across the street from the ramshackle building. "One of my aunts used to live there before she passed away, and I can remember many a Sunday afternoon visiting her there."

Jess nodded pensively. "The place has been there a long time, all right. About as long as anyone around here can remember."

"I understand it's supposed to drop in a matter of a few seconds."

"In the blink of an eye from what I've been told."

"It's hard to believe," the mailman said again as he resumed his route.

Jess removed his old baseball jersey, which was streaked with sweat, then bent over the sawing trestle and cut another large piece of plywood. He was standing in the driveway of old lady Coble's house, sawing and stacking wood that later he would fit over her front windows to protect them from incurring any damage from the blast. Along with several other people in the neighborhood, he had agreed to put up scaffolding for the homes of the older residents who were located within the immediate vicinity of the Dakota Building. He had taken off the past three days from work to gather blisters the size of raspberries on his hands.

Usually he worked alone, but sometimes Midge stopped by in the afternoon, not to help but to talk. He and Jess had met in the Army while being trained in demolitions. That was almost nine years ago, and they had not seen one another since then, until Jess happened to recognize his old acquaintance the other week at the Dakota Building and identified himself. Midge remembered him after a moment, smiled and shook his hand, and quickly they disclosed what they had been up to since their discharge.

"I'm still in the smithereens business," Midge admitted then, explaining that for the past year and a half he had been working for the general demolition contractor on the Dakota project.

"I always figured you enjoyed blowing things up a little too much."

He chuckled. "To be honest, Jess, it's the money I make that helps me retain my enthusiasm for the work. But I can't deny I still get a kick out of dropping something big like the Dakota."

"This is the first time a structure of this size has ever been demolished with explosives inside the city limits."

"So I understand," he said. "I guess this really puts your little neighborhood on the map."

Jess nodded. "Thousands of people are expected to be out here to watch the blast."

"All the attention we get is what makes our work so different from what you and I did as soldiers. Now I sometimes feel as if I'm part of a circus that has come to town. People pester me with questions, ask to have their pictures taken with me, ask for my autograph, want to buy me a drink or take me to dinner. It's incredible."

"The daring young man on the flying trapeze, are you now?"

He laughed. "Believe me, Jess, we get the royal treatment practically wherever we go. And you know what, chum? It feels great."

"I bet it does," Jess replied, also laughing.

"You ought to try it sometimes," he cackled. "Hell, everybody ought to have the chance to be in the spotlight at least once in their lives."




"Guess what?" Jess asked his wife as he rushed into the kitchen where she was rinsing a bowl of strawberries.

"What?"

"I saw a ghost today... Someone I haven't seen in years. We were in the Army together."

"What's your friend doing here?" She smiled. "Haunting some old house or something?"

"You could say that I guess. He's here to blow up the Dakota."

"You'd think he'd've had enough of that sort of work in the Army?"

"This isn't the same thing at all, Alma," Jess insisted. "He's the toast of the town these days, not some raggedy soldier anymore."

Throughout dinner Jess talked about Midge, so that he almost seemed to be an invisible guest at the table. He recounted some of the projects Midge had told him he had worked on, marvelling at all of the different places Midge had visited in the country and at the enthusiastic reception he had received in many of those places. Midge was as much of a celebrity, he told his wife, as that fellow in Texas who puts out oil fires all around the world.

"He scracely knows anything more about escarcelys than I do," Jess said, "yet he's regarded as some kind of wizard if you will."

You could be him, Alma thought to herself, knowing exactly what was going through her husband's mind this moment. You could be crisscrossing the country, earning pocketfuls of money and being treated like someone special if you didn't have to be stuck here with your pregnant wife.

The more Jess went on about his old Army acquaintance, the more suspicious she became that he was going to leave with him after the blast on Sunday. Ever since she became pregnant Alma had expected Jess to go away again, unable to accept the responsibility of finally settling down and raising a family. She had always assumed he would leave her for another woman, not to blow up buildings, but one served the same purpose as the other she supposed so long as his independence wasn't threatened.

She would not be able to track him down this time, she knew, she was too far along in her pregnancy to be wandering all over the place. She had become as slow as an old woman during the past month, breathing heavily just climbing up the stairs. She grimaced a moment, recalling the long drive she had made last time in search of Jess, finding him barely conscious in a dreary little lounge at the coast with a woman twice his age. This time, if he left, he would be gone forever, she feared.




Late on Friday afternoon, two days before the blast, Midge invited Jess to accompany him as he supervised the loading of explosive charges on the cast iron columns in the basement and first floor of the Dakota Building. They proceeded cautiously through the restricted area, through all the rubble from the walls that had already been knocked down by the workers, slowly circling the exposed columns. They had been trained in the service to demolish targets without regard to the effects of the blast, but the demolition this Sunday had been designed to minimize the damage to other property in the neighborhood.

"If you kick the supports out of a building," Midge reminded Jess, "the only way it can go is down."

Jess remembered. "Kill the body and the head dies."

"There you go, chum."

After a moment, Midge paused before a column on the first floor then looked at Jess, smiling tautly. "Do you want to decorate this tree?"

"Are you serious?"

"Sure, why not? You're qualified. You received the same demolition training as I did."

"All right, if you say so."

"I say so."

Jess mounted the stepladder beside the column then helped another worker secure the explosive charge to the side of the column. Surprisingly, he was relaxed, sure of himself after all these years.

"It appears you've still got the knack for this kind of work."

He nodded. "It's like riding a bicycle: once you learn you never forget."

"I guess you learned well, Jess. I guess both of us did."

For the past three years, Jess had been sitting at his desk on Friday afternoons, sipping a mug of coffee, sorting through and reviewing different policy claims, and not once had he ever experienced this kind of satisfaction in his work. He felt at this moment as if he had really been doing something that mattered, not simply putting in time until it was five o'clock and he could go home. Suddenly he considered the possibility of leaving the insurance business and going to work for Midge on a regular basis, even though he knew Alma would object, not wanting him to be on the road all the time and fearing he might become injured working with explosives. He tried to shake the idea from his thoughts, but it remained there, like a dull ache at the back of his head.




That evening, at dinner, Jess told Alma that he had been invited inside the Dakota the night before the blast to help Midge attach the firing mechanisms to the explosive charges. He was barely able to contain his enthusiasm as he told her, nervously tapping his steak knife against the edge of the table. "He also invited me to watch the blast with him from the command post," he said.

"I'd assumed you were going to watch it with me?"

He looked at her, his face clouded with confusion. "I didn't know you were really interested in watching it. You never acted as if you did."

"Maybe you weren't listening to me, Jess."

"Oh, I was listening all right. I was listening with both ears, and you weren't showing the slightest bit of interest until just now."

She swung her legs out from under the kitchen table, leaning back a little in her chair. "You really want to go, don't you?"

"Well, I told Midge I'd help him out, and I don't see any reason to renege now."

Her eyes sizzled in anger. "I mean, Jess, you want to go away from here... from me... from this child of yours I am carrying."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"I know you, Jess. You'd leave with your Army friend in a heartbeat if he asked you because you find things here too small and confining."

Jess slumped in his chair, his shoulders turning in as if he were suddenly being embraced by someone. "I can't deny I've thought about it, sure. But it's not because I want to leave you or the child. It's because I believe I could provide a better life for us with the money I'd be making with Midge."

"This time, if you go," she fumed, "don't expect me to be coming after you. Not this time, Jess."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," he said again, wondering if she might be right after all.




It was dusk. The first floor of the Dakota Building was almost as dark as the basement. Carefully, workers crept across the dusty floor, making the final preparations for the implosion tomorrow morning.

Jess, holding a flashlight, watched as Midge rigged a firing mechanism to the base of another column, considering to himself whether he really wanted to go to work for Midge as he had speculated the other afternoon. He thought so, but he wasn't sure. Obviously the demolitions business didn't promise to make him rich or famous, but it did offer at least the prospect of gaining the sort of attention and prosperity he could never gain working in an insurance office. If not a step into the spotlight, he thought, it was at least a step out of the shadows.

Moments later, as they moved on to rig another column, a worker came up to Midge. "We've had an unexpected visitor, boss."

Midge sighed with irritation. "Who is it now? Another neighbor trying to take pictures of the inside of the building?"

"Not quite, boss," the man grinned. "A kid was spotted climbing the fence at the north end and throwing something into the building."

"What was it?"

"He said it was just a stick so we checked it out, but instead of a stick we found a dead snake."

"What?"

The man laughed hoarsely. "At first the kid denied he threw it, but after a little persuasion he admitted the snake was his pet."

"So why in the hell did he throw it into the building?"

"Because he wanted to give it a memorable burial, he said."

Midge glanced at Jess, shaking his head. "You think you've heard it all, then something like this happens."

"What do you want me to do with the snake?"

"Let it lie," he laughed. "And tomorrow morning it'll have the most memorable burial this kid could have ever hoped for. Under six stories of dust."

"You're the boss."

Midge proceeded to another column, still laughing about the incident with Jess, who continued to hold the flashlight as Midge installed another firing mechanism. Time passed slowly, and as it did Jess recalled an instructor he and Midge had in training who used to tell them before they began a field exercise, "Now get out there, troops, and make some memories." He was still trying to carry out that order he supposed. Otherwise why else was he here tonight with Midge, if not to make some memories, like the boy with the snake. He regarded the preparations for the demolition as a chance to revive some of the special moments he had shared with Midge in the service. But he was only fooling himself, he knew the past could not be repeated. Now it was necessary to make some new memories, and thinking of the child Alma was carrying, he was confident the future would be full of such memories.




"It's time to go," Jess said as he touched his wife on the shoulder.

She rolled over on her side, groaning softly.

"It's time for the big bang everyone's been waiting for," he whispered.

She rubbed her eyes. "I thought you were going to watch it with your Army friend."

"I changed my mind," he said tersely. "Now let's got a move on. Rise and shine."

It was still dark out, but already the streets were filled with spectators, pressed as close as possible to the barriers that had been set up to cordon off the immediate area of the blast site. By the time Alma and Jess had made their way to the porch of one of their neighbors around the block, however, a sliver of sunlight began to appear through the clouds. Strings of balloons were visible from some of the surrounding houses, along with carpets that had been hung in the windows as protection against the blast. And to their right rose the Dakota Building, appearing as if it would be there forever.

A warning siren was sounded at the two-minute mark, which was greeted with a chorus of cheers and whistles from the crowd.

Alma, startled by the siren, edged closer to Jess. "Don't you wish you were up closer to the front row?"

He shook his head as the siren issued another warning. "I can see everything just as well from right here."

"You're sure?"

He gripped her wrist, gently stroking her hand. "I'm positive."

Then, with fifteen seconds to go, the siren sounded for the last time.

"Here we go, everybody," someone shouted anxiously from the driveway. "Hold on tight."

Suddenly then, after what sounded like an enormous drum being beaten, the old building shuddered and collapsed in a black cloud of dust. At once, there were cheers and shouts from the thousands of spectators. Some also rang bells and blew horns, as if it were New Year's Eve.

"It fell so quickly," Alma marvelled. "Like a house of cards."

"It's always faster to tear something down than it is to put it up."

"So it seems."

Jess stared at the thick cloud of dust that had already begun to envelop the crowd. "Alma, I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"For ever thinking of going away with Midge. I didn't mean to upset you. Honestly, I didn't."

She pressed a finger against his lips. "Let's not talk about it anymore. That's all in the past, Jess, just like the Dakota Building."