The Tower

By Timothy O'Leary

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Barry hated cell phones. He shuddered when trapped in a crowd, people yacking at maximum decibel, as if everyone within earshot was buzzed to hear about dysfunctional families or drunken golf outings.  He detested camera phones, users blocking sidewalks, or rudely delaying meals to photograph the perfect tuna melt. He considered “selfies” an addiction for the self-obsessed. It saddened him when couples, heads tilted crotch-ward, abandoned human interaction in favor of text-talk. He’d scream “pay attention” at obtuse blockheads as they attempted to simultaneously type and walk.

But the biggest reason Barry hated them?  They’d murdered his wife. Diana was headed downtown in her Toyota Prius when sixteen-year-old Becca Hughes, oblivious to the road while texting a friend, ran a stop sign and killed them both.

To add insult to injury, Barry learned of Diana’s demise via a cell phone. While he refused to own one, Barry’s publicist carried the newest Apple anything, which she handed him after he’d delivered a speech to the Missoula, Montana Rotary Club.  “Barry, you need to take this, it’s your brother-in-law,” she said, her complexion as white as her iPhone 6. Standing in a dark corner of the Holiday Inn, the air reeking of moldy carpet and baked chicken, a sniffling voice informed him that the only woman he’d ever loved wouldn’t be picking him up at the airport in Portland tonight.

Four days after Diana’s funeral, his relatives and friends leaving him to roam an empty house, Barry got uncharacteristically drunk.  He enjoyed a glass of wine now and again, and two or three times a year he might imbibe a cocktail or port. But he prided himself on moderation; maintaining his academic mind for peak performance.  With his brain now a snarl of grief and disbelief, he wanted to turn it off.  Fog the room.  Martinis were his first choice, which translated to shots of vodka since he had no vermouth. Next, his oldest bottle of Cabernet. That’s when he remembered the joint, a salacious birthday gift from a friend, stuffed away in the bed stand months earlier. He and Diana had joked about how they’d relive their college years by getting high and listening to Dark Side of The Moon.  He toked-up with a long wooden fireplace match, coughed like a lung cancer victim, and stumbled into his backyard.

Barry stared at the new Weber grill, recalling the inaugural barbecue a month earlier, Diana donning her silly chef’s apron, Spank the Cook, which had made him laugh. He fell into a lounger, a quarter-full bottle jangling in his right hand, joint in the left, until the wap wap of a bouncing basketball brought him to his feet.  Pushing aside the lilacs he watched the neighbor boy shooting hoops in his driveway.  He’d known the kid since birth, but never really paid attention to children. Shirtless and adolescent-skinny, Barry guessed the boy was fourteen or fifteen, wearing calf-length neon green shorts, and a flat-brimmed baseball cap pulled back gangsta-style on his head.

“Hey,” Barry mumbled through the bushes.

Startled, the boy said, “Oh, hi Mr. Wells.  Sorry, was this bothering you?”  He glanced at the ball.

Barry shook his head and took a slug of wine.  “What’s your name?”

“My name?”  The boy squinted in confusion.  “Terence.  You know me Mr. Wells.”

“Terence.” Barry nodded.  “You grew up fast. How’d you like to make a hundred bucks?”

“A hundred dollars?”  Terence looked at him with the proper suspicion due when an adult offers a child money.  “Sure, I guess.  I mean, what do you want me to do?”

Barry frowned at the empty bottle, flinging it across the lawn.  “I have to clean out my house.  My wife, she died, and I have to get rid of some of her stuff. I c-can’t…I can’t look at it.” A softball-sized groan rose from the bottom of his lungs, and he dropped head-to-waist to vomit.

Terence gasped.  “Jesus, Mr. Wells, you OK?  Should I get my mom?”

Barry wiped away spittle, the joint still wedged between two fingers.  “No, I’m fine.  I feel better.”

The boy shoved a bottle of Gatorade through the bushes.  “Here.”

Barry took a swig, and spat a yellow stream to clear his mouth.  “Thanks.  All good.  Anyway, I could use your help packing up stuff, and like I said, a hundred bucks.”

“Mr. Wells, I know about your wife. I was at the funeral with my folks.  I’m so sorry. I really liked her. She’d always come out and talk to me whenever I mowed your lawn. I’ll help, and you don’t need to pay me.  You want to do it now?”

Barry blinked hard, Terence appearing holographic as the high-grade Kush kicked in.  “Yeah, now’s perfect. And I am going to pay you.  Always get compensated for your work,” he smiled weakly.

For the next hour they packed Diana’s belongings into the back of his Audi SUV, Barry sometimes stopping to inspect a piece of clothing, visualizing it on her. He found a stack of fashion magazines, ripping pages to wrap bottles of perfume and keepsakes to be kept. Sometimes he’d pause to inhale her scent before carefully placing them in boxes to be moved to the basement.

“You drive,” Barry said, tossing the keys.  “We’ll go to Goodwill.”

“Me? I can’t drive a car that nice.  And besides, I don’t have my license yet.”

“Do you know how to drive?”

“Yeah, my Dad taught me, and I’m going to take the test next month. But I’m not legal.”

Barry sucked on the joint, and made the sign of the cross in front of Terence.  “By the power vested in me by the State of Oregon due to the extreme circumstances we now find ourselves in, I pronounce you a legal driver for the next two hours.  There. Drive.”

“Wow,” Terence said, and shook his head. “Works for me.”

Barry stopped to pull a six-pack of Pale Ale out of the refrigerator and popped a top as he slumped in the passenger seat. “Speed it up, I’m not Miss Daisy,” he joked sadly as they cruised ten miles an hour under the speed limit. “What’s your story? You’re what, a sophomore?”

“Junior, this fall.”


“Sort of.  Well, not really.  There’s a girl, and I like her, but she’s not my girlfriend.”

Barry took a slug of beer.  “Teenage romance is the best.  Tell her how you feel. Women like that. It goes too fast, so get on it.  I met Diana in college, loved her from the minute I saw her, but I was shy.  I’d watch her, thinking no way she’d be interested in me, until she finally asked me out.  If I could do it again I’d walk up to her the second I saw her and tell her I loved her. That way I’d have had a little more time with her.”  Barry belched and shook his head. “Still not sure what she saw in me.”

“Aw, Mr. Wells, what do you mean?  You’re like a famous writer and professor, aren’t you?  My Dad says you’re a big deal.”

Barry shook his head. “I teach and write about economics, not the sexiest of subjects.  But for some reason that crap is popular now. Diana, she could have had anyone. Somebody a lot more interesting than me.  I’ve spent so much time running around the country, pontificating, when I could have been home with her.  Maybe if I’d been….” Barry stared out the window.

At Goodwill Terence unloaded the boxes while Barry sat in the car, watching his wife’s life carted away.  When Terence climbed back behind the wheel Barry was attempting to fire the last bit of roach with the Audi’s cigarette lighter, yelping as he seared his index finger.  As they drove up Vista Drive, Barry suddenly yelled in anger as they neared Washington Park.  “Look. Look at that goddamn thing,” pointing at a cell phone tower peeking out the trees.  “Drive towards that.”

“Mr. Wells, I think we should go home,” Terence protested.  “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you’re pretty fucked up.  You should take a nap.”

“No, I want to see that thing.  The tower that killed my wife.”  Barry grabbed at the wheel.

Terence grimaced, but veered into the park.  At the top of the hill he pulled to the curb, Barry jumping out, half running, half stumbling, up the green incline, one hand grasping the remainders from the six-pack. He tripped every few feet, finally reaching the base of the tower.  The metal structure was at least twenty feet in diameter, and Barry grabbed a post, shaking it violently.

“Aw, Mr. Wells, that won’t do anything, and you could hurt yourself,” Terence said, reaching for his arm.

Barry continued to assault the post. “I need to blow this fucking thing up. Maybe drive my car into it, before it kills someone else.”

“C’mon, Mr. Wells. That won’t do anything, there are hundreds of towers.  People will still talk on their cell phones.  You can’t stop that.”

Crimson and sweaty, Barry fell onto the grass.  “Jesus. I can’t believe this.”

Terence popped another beer, handed it to Barry, and sat down next to him. “Yeah, me too, Mr. Wells.  I mean, I sure didn’t know her like you, but I was around her my whole life. She’d invite me in sometimes after I finished the lawn.  Give me cookies or a sandwich.  We’d talk. I could tell her anything. She gave good advice.  She loved you, always talked about how smart you were.”

Barry took another swig.  “I didn’t know you two had a relationship.”

Terence nodded.  “She said you were a big thinker. A genius. That your head was always wrapped around numbers and formulas.  Hope you don’t mind me saying, but I kinda had a crush on her. Not like you should be jealous. I know she just thought of me as a kid, but…..I could see how you’d love her.”  Terence stared between his knees, voice cracking.  “I thought she was the kind of woman I’d want to marry. Smart, pretty, and….”

Barry put an arm around the boy’s shoulders and they sat silent for a moment.

“Did you know she really liked to play basketball?  Terence said.  “She’d come out to the driveway and we’d play HORSE.”

“Diana played basketball?  No, I did not know that,” Barry smiled in surprise.

“She did, and she was pretty good,” Terence said.  “She used to beat me, at least until I got bigger.  I even made a video of her playing a few weeks ago.”

Barry cocked his head.  “You have a video of her?”

Terence reached into his pocket and brought out a phone.  “Yeah, right here.”

Barry froze, staring at the phone.  “You could show it to me right now?”

“Sure.” Terence handed it to him.  Diana was dressed in gardening shorts and a Blazers cap, ponytail dropping out the back.  Barry brought the phone closer.

“OK, Terence,” Diana laughed, “prepare to be thoroughly trounced,” as she sunk an easy layup.  “That’s what we call H,” Diana doing an animated jig.  Barry watched as she worked her way around the driveway. “There’s an O and an R,” kidding Terence as she made the next two shots, and merrily screaming when she missed the third. “Mulligan,” she shouted as Terence protested off-camera.  Finally, Diana turned and pointed a finger. “So young man, study this carefully, and someday you might have an A-game too.”

Barry gasped as it ended, then hit the play button again.  He sat transfixed, the phone in both hands, watching it over and over.  His fingers traced the smooth back of the device as he found the switch to bring it to full volume, cradling it as if it were a fragile jewel, a damn cell phone, now the most important object in the world.

Timothy O’Leary