The closest airport to the little Southern town I call home is about thirty miles away, the opposite direction of the coast. When the attacks of September eleventh took place and everybody talked about the silent skies over the country, residents here didn’t notice; planesnever fly over our corner of the world anyway. I don’t know if it’s because of the constant, low-lying bank of clouds that covers our town or the fact that we’re not the shortest distance between any two points. Either way, our skies have always been empty, save the clouds; nothing up above and nothing on the horizon.
Because there are no planes, the pole in the center of town never needed any lights. Why bother? Nothing flies in, over, or through. It’s almost like we have our own little dead zone, and the pole stands tall at its center.
Tall. A weak description. I’ve stood before it, at its base, and looked straight up. And I’m young, so my eyes are good (for a while yet, anyway). Its surface is smooth, and it’s not polished; but no matter how long you stare and strain your eyes, you can’t see the top. The clouds cover whatever is up there. What’s more, nobody knows who placed the pole there; all the old photographs of town have it, in its spot, but there’s no mention of its construction.
No beginning, no end. Hallelujah.
At night, the clouds don’t dissipate. Asclouds should. They hang around; permanent conservators of the mystery nobody seems to care to unravel. I have a feeling, though, that if the clouds did take a hike, darkness would swallow the answer whole, like a wolf gorging onpieces of ripped apart sheep. The town, collectively, just ignores the pole, as if it were a piece of furniture in an unused part of the house. But I don’t ignore it. I think about it all the time.
I should have climbed that pole a long time ago, to see the top for myself.
I remember playing on the playground at school. From the swings, my friends and I could see the pole in the distance, rising up to who knows where beyond the clouds. We used to play pretend, and the star of our little dramas was the pole. Some days we were astronauts climbing it to the space station. Other days we were pilgrims climbing the pole to see God. We were eight. I know we were eight because it was third grade, and the next year, teachers started telling us to stop using the pole as the focus of playtime. If we were caught, we were given after school detention or silent lunch. I, of course, sat many lunches in silence. I stayed after, too, and cleaned Mrs. Key’s blackboards. Outside her room, I banged erasers against a wall. From that little courtyard, I could still see the pole. I used to imagine, there, alone, that I was knocking at the pole with those erasers, like John Henry swinging his hammer, busting through an irresistible mountain of stone.
Still it stands, all these years later, and still no one but me cares to ask why.
I ordered climbing boots from Amazon and picked up rubber-tipped gloves at the hardware store. I tried to have the boots drone-delivered, but drones don’t have clearance in our neck of the woods. They arrived by truck this morning and, after dinner, under thecover of darkness and below the thick bank of clouds, I started on my way up to heaven. Or whatever it is that lies at the top of the pole.
The boots grabbed at the pole as I climbed. I was surprised. I had thought, on more than one occasion, if everyone ignores this thing, and someone wants to keep a secret, surely it would be difficult to climb. But it wasn’t. I only got a little tired and maybe a little winded.
I didn’t look up until I was above the cloud layer. I can’t begin to guess the distance I had covered; I was above everything in town though: buildings, trees, cell towers. It was dark, but the moon and stars were out. I had never seen them in town before, only on vacation or in movies. We were led to believe they didn’t exist over us here, yet here they were.
I remember a movie once, about an alien and a boy and a bike, and the three were illuminated against the moon. That’s how the top of the pole looked when I first glimpsed at it:illuminated.
I kept climbing, driven by the need to know. Having cleared the cloud line, I could see the distance to the top was much shorter than the distance I had already covered. My second wind was matched by the increasing violence of the wind thrashing above the clouds, but my determination was immovable.
As I think on it now, in these final moments, I wonder if it was worth it. Should I have questioned? Should doubt and apathy choose my path? The only regret I can come up with is not bringing something to secure myself to the pole once I had reached the top. A rope, perhaps, or maybe bungee cords. I don’t know.I don’t have all the answers. I guess that’s why I climbed.
The wind was strong, too strong, in fact, for me to hold on for long. Had I brought help, I might have been able to sustain, maybe even make the return trip to tell the world that at the top of the pole, there is nothing.
But thoughts are hindsight, I guess, and it’s not my life flashing before my eyes, only what I should have done a long, long time ago.
Chip Jett is a teacher at a small school in Georgia. His stories have appeared in several literary magazines, online at Cadaverous Magazine, Ripples In Space, and Soft Cartel, and he has stories forthcoming in Inwood Indiana, Petrichor Audio Magazine, Temenos, and Curating Alexandria. Find him on Facebook at Jettstories, on Instagram at chipjettthewriter, and on Twitter @chipjett_writer.