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Unpracticed Altitudes by Shaun Hamill

 

Shaun Hamill has lived in Texas most of his life, and he studied writing at the University of Texas at Arlington. His latest short film, Until Tomorrow, Then, recently premiered at the Dallas Video Festival. He lives with his wife, Rebekah, in Hurst, where he spends his days as an office drone and his nights as a struggling writer

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Onscreen, the pug pulls away just as Mrs. Hernandez in 7C calls to complain about an awful noise coming from the roof. The schnauzer tries to remount, but the pug growls at him. The people watching laugh, and I kill the speakers.

“Like a ghost playing with the plumbing,” Mrs. Hernandez says. She explains how the sound invaded her dream, woke her, frightened her, and she wondered what I’d be doing up there at this time of night, only I answered my phone so she knows it isn’t me. I make sympathetic, affirmative noises to reassure Mrs. Hernandez that I’m listening, as I take in the details onscreen: the blue scarf tied around the schnauzer’s neck, the metal picnic table casting shadows over the two dogs, the traffic jam on the highway in the distance. Mrs. Hernandez needs lots of reassurance.

The schnauzer, giving up, somehow balances on his rear legs, puts his forepaws on either side of his little red boner, and rubs. A minor miracle, and a few seconds later it’s over for both of us. I promise Mrs. Hernandez I’ll go take a look.

. . .

The building has an elevator, but it makes a sound like a robot being murdered, so I take the stairs. It doesn’t occur to me until I’m at the door to the roof that I might want a weapon. Do I own anything that qualifies? I open the door.

A mess of objects lies exploded across the roof’s surface. Molded metal bars, screws, bolts, springs, black fabric—and at the epicenter of the clutter, a small, thin woman with stringy brown hair. She sits, scowling at a fat white book in her lap. I don’t recognize her from around the building.

“Excuse me,” I say.

“Oh, good,” she says, still reading. Her voice is high-pitched and childlike. “I think I’m going to need help anyway.” She stands up and moves forward, over and across the mess. “The first thing it says is to put all the rail and leg pieces in a circle.” She sets the book down, hunting. She has a long, straight nose.

“Do you live here?” I say. “Ma’am?”

She sets down the book, picks up one of the molded metal bars, and sets it to one side. She grabs two other, smaller bars and arranges them next to it, making a soft M shape. I step away from the door and toward her. I look down at the book: Wowzers! Bowzers! ™ Trampoline Owner’s Manual.

“You’re not allowed to be up here,” I say.

She squats, peering at the mess. “Make another one of those ‘M’s, won’t you?” She looks at me for the first time. She smiles. “Please.” Her breath makes cartoon word bubbles in the air. Her eyes are green. Something in me rolls over.

“Please gather your things and go inside,” I say. “It’s not safe up here.” I don’t wait to see if she complies, but I do look back at her once as the roof door swings shut between us. She sits with her hands in her lap, her head cocked, a polite but confused look on her face.

 

Thank you for purchasing a Wowzers! Bowzers! ™-brand trampoline. And you’re welcome, as well! Why welcome? Because you have just purchased the safest, most durable, most FUN trampoline available to civilian consumers today!

Safe trampoline use requires proper knowledge of trampoline technique. Please read and memorize the core principles of this manual for important safety information before use.

Your trampoline should ship with the parts listed on pp. 18-19. If any parts are missing, please call Wowzers! Bowzers! ™ immediately.

Note: No tools are required to assemble your trampoline. We do recommend, however, the use of safety glasses and gloves.

 

Onscreen, the camera sits at a low, close angle, so I can’t see their faces. I see the backs of their legs as he moves inside her, his hands on her waist. Her skin is pink and flush. His is pale, like the belly of a fish.

The day wears on. Nobody calls. Outside everything is wet and gray. Through my window, I watch the potholes in the parking lot fill with rain. I wonder if they’ll freeze over tonight.

Some of the tenants huddle outside, chatting. Most of them are mothers, a few years younger than me. Their children run around and climb on rusting, patchwork cars. The mothers laugh like the girls in a middle school cafeteria, stopping only to shout the occasional directive at a child.

On-screen, the camera operator adjusts something, and the angle shifts. There’s a plastic click in the middle of the soft bump of meat, his grunts, her sighs. His balls are covered with black hair. A tiny fat roll creases her middle. Each time he rears back, I glimpse the space above and between their bodies, but I can’t make anything out. It’s just blank, white space. They could be fucking in limbo.

I didn’t sleep much last night. I paced.

Downstairs, a little girl in a powder blue coat kneels next to one of our puddles. She pulls her hood off. She’s got her long black hair tied back in a ponytail. The man on screen pulls back a bit too far and slips out of his partner. He thrusts against her twice more. Her body blocks him both times, redirecting the first push straight down and sending the second sliding up the curve of her ass. “Whup!” says the camera operator. The little girl downstairs leans forward, puckering her lips at the puddle’s surface. The man grabs his dick to center it, and pushes forward with maybe less care than the situation calls for. One of the mothers outside glances over to check her kid. She storms across the parking lot, still talking to her friends over her shoulder, grabs her daughter by the arm and yanks the girl to her feet. The man’s dick jams up against the woman’s asshole and then it’s inside. Without a word of explanation, the mother slaps her daughter across the face. The woman screams and falls forward onto a bed, pulling the man down with her. Her foot spasms, kicking the camera. The little girl looks up at her mother with a blank, puzzled expression for two or three seconds before her face scrunches up, turns pink, and she starts wailing. The man withdraws and hops up, shouting, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” The mother drags the daughter back to the mother huddle. But it’s all static. I can’t concentrate, can’t come. I keep seeing the woman on the roof. The way she held her head when I left.

. . .

The phone starts ringing at ten-thirty. I know who it is and what she wants. I close my door on its trilling as I step into the hall. I can still hear it even up on the fourth floor.

The small woman’s on the roof again. This time she’s wearing a purple sock cap and rainbow gloves, and she’s banging a metal bar against the roof. When she hears the door, she stops and looks up, brushing a piece of hair behind one ear.

“My name’s Mildred,” she says. “I live in 6F, and I have for three years.”

“I’ve never seen you around,” I say.

“I read my whole lease last night, and it doesn’t say anywhere that I can’t be on the roof.”

“You’re keeping the other tenants awake.”

“Who?” she says, tossing the bar aside. “Mrs. Hernandez? She’s mad I stopped giving her my sleeping pills.”

The mess of materials from last night has been rearranged somewhat. Similar pieces lie together in a big circle. It looks like a trampoline, but pancaked out.

“Why are you building a trampoline on the roof?” I say.

“Because it won’t fit in my apartment. Now will you please help? Mrs. Hernandez says you’re very handy.”

I can feel her looking at me, and that sick sensation starts in my middle again. I look at the mess, pretending to study it, so my eyes have some place to be.

 

  1. Place all rail and leg pieces in a circle, as shown.
  2. Connect 1 horizontal leg piece and 2 vertical leg pieces to build a leg assembly. Repeat with all remaining leg pieces. This should result in 4 complete leg assemblies.
  3. While holding 1 leg assembly vertical, connect it to 1 rail with 2 sockets as shown.
  4. Connect another leg assembly to this same rail with 2 sockets.
  5. Connect a rail with no sockets. Follow this by connecting a rail with 2 sockets.
  6. Connect the next leg assembly to the rail with 2 sockets. (Repeat steps 5 & 6 until all rail pieces and legs are connected. This should yield a completed frame.

 

Mildred works the night shift at a sporting goods store. She fills shelves with myriad balls and puts sports bras on racks. She unzips her coat to show me her blue polo shirt with “Sportingman’s” stitched on the right breast. She tells me that she has a friend who works in the back room, and he’s been helping her steal this trampoline, one piece at a time, for a month.

“We load a single piece into the back of my van every few days,” she says. “There are no cameras on the loading dock. It’s easy. The little pieces I just take in my pocket.”

We stand the frame upright, the skeleton of a child’s plaything. It looks ominous against the backdrop of the city, unkind, the way your childhood bedroom turned after dark.

Mildred nods her approval. “You are handy.”

We lift the frame and move it to the center of the roof. She circles it, checking that the legs are all locked in at the correct height. I should stand still on my end so that she has to come to me, has to bump into me, brush against me, or at least pass by close.

I circle opposite her, keeping the expanse of metal between us.

“Do you ever think about sex?” she says. “I mean really think about it—not just like, ‘I would like some sex,’ or ‘I do not want to have sex with this person,’ or ‘Sounds like the neighbors are having sex.’ I mean think about the actual, physical act of sex.”

“Sometimes,” I say, pulling at a piece of railing to check that it’s locked in. “Every now and then.”

“It’s gross, right? All these fluids running together, and when everything dries, you’re both just sticky and smelly and gross.” She leaves the frame and goes back to her mess. She nudges a pile of springs with the toe of her sneaker, and they roll away from one another.

“Yeah,” I say. “I guess.”

There was once, when I was eighteen, after a girl and I had been drinking, in the dark of a bedroom, and she felt full and heavy and alive under me, her cold, sweaty hands on the back of my neck and on my belt as she pushed up against me, the flesh on her cheeks so blue-white in the light from the computer, Please, please in my ear, our pants off, my mouth on her, tongue tracing out the Braille of an areola, my arms shaking as I held myself up, afraid of crushing her, and nothing, her urging, You think too much, you always think too much, just relax, but nothing, nothing, nothing.

That was the one time.

I look at my watch. It’s nearly five. “Well,” I say.

“Oh,” she says, looking back at me. “Already?”

“It’s just late,” I say. “Or early.” I try to smile. “You’ve got to be pretty tired.”

“I don’t sleep,” she says. She pulls up the hood of her coat and yanks its strings, drawing it in tight. It makes her head look small and fragile, and for some reason, it hurts to look at. So I don’t.

“You have insomnia?” I say.

“No.” She shakes her head. “Insomnia means you know how to sleep, you’re just having trouble doing it. I’venever slept.”

“That’s impossible,” I say.

“If you say so,” she says.

I risk a glance at her. Her eyes are bloodshot and surrounded by dark bags. She doesn’t look like she’s sleeping much lately.

“You’ll be back tonight?” She says.

“Yes,” I say.

She nods and turns away. “Go, then.”

 

Connect your jump-mat to its frame using 4 springs. Connect each spring to its spring notch. Place the springs evenly around the frame, and make sure the warning labels face up at you. You’re going to want to read these warnings every time you use your trampoline.

Now, connect a spring to every other spring-notch. Work clockwise or counterclockwise around the trampoline. Do whichever feels comfortable. Have someone work across from you. MAKE SURE YOU’RE BOTH GOING THE SAME DIRECTIONlike planets orbiting the same sun. This creates important trampoline synergy that you’ll need later.

 

“You’ve lived here for almost three years,” I say to Mildred the next night, too exhausted to be shy. “How is it I’ve never seen you?”

“You only see what you want to see,” Mildred says, sticking her tongue out a little as she wrestles another spring into place.

I bend to pick up a spring of my own. My hands are raw from stretching so many into their predestined notches. “And your apartment. It’s leased to Susan Edelmon.”

She stops wrestling. “Are you investigating me?” she says.

“I am your landlord.”

“I thought you were the super.” She sounds different tonight, a hard edge in her voice. She’s annoyed with the work. With me. With something, anyway.

“Same thing.”

She shakes the cramps out of her hands. She flexes, wincing. “My sister. My credit’s bad, so she helped me out.”

“Oh.” I fit my spring and step away.

“Let’s take five,” she says. She sits down, back propped against the ledge. She puts her hands up to her face, blows on them. She taps her fingers in rhythm on her big nose. “Sometimes I play drums on my face,” she explains.

I sit next to her.

“I used to have this dream in high school,” she says. “I was up on the roof of the school, and everyone was outside, looking at me and pointing. I have no idea how I got there. The police were there, too, shouting on the bullhorn about how I had everything to live for, but I wasn’t having it. So finally, they call in the badass—this big guy with sunglasses and no hair. They offer him the bullhorn, but he waves it away. He’s got this giant ghetto blaster, which he holds over his head and presses “play.” At first I don’t recognize the song, but then I realize: it’s ‘Jump,’ by Van Halen.”

“Then what happened?” I say.

“Dunno,” she says. “Always snapped out of it about then. The song would stick in my head for the rest of the day after that.”

“I thought you didn’t sleep?” I said.

“I daydream just like anybody else,” she says.

“I wish I had your problem,” I say. “To never have to sleep. I could get a lot done.”

“It’s not so great,” she says quietly.

Silence settles. Not the easygoing kind. One of those silences that becomes an actual physical space, daring you to cross it with something other than words. She scoots close and leans her head on my shoulder. I start feeling sick. But her head fits against me, and suddenly the quiet fits, too.

We look out at the city. It’s not a great view. We’re not the tallest building in the neighborhood, so most of what we see are the walls of other buildings. Their windows are almost always dark. Between the cracks, you catch glimpses of a world beyond—spiraling highways, epic bridges, boats in the harbor, the metallic flash of lights on water. Close your eyes and you can hear it: life jammed up against life, pulsing, pushing for space to breathe. But with your eyes open, you’re just boxed in.

“How come you never look at me when we talk?” she says.

“Don’t I?” I say.

She doesn’t respond.

I check my watch. “It’s after five,” I say.

She sighs, burrows deeper into me. “Running away again.”

“I’m not,” I say. “It’s late. Or early.”

“It’s not anything,” she says. “You just want to go.” She sits up, runs a hand through her hair.

“I don’t,” I say.

“So stay.” She faces me. I look at my lap. “Look at me,” she says.

I do. I should invite her inside. To my apartment. I should offer her coffee. I try to picture her in my apartment. In my bed. “I can’t,” I say.

We stand. I stretch the cramps out of my legs and shoulders. She shoves her hands in her pockets, walking in circles and shivering. I walk to the door. “You’ll be here tonight?” I say.

“I dunno,” she says. “Maybe.”

“Right.” I turn the knob.

“Will you do something for me?” She says behind me. I look back. “Don’t go to sleep. I know you probably have things to do around the building, so you’ve got to go. I get that. Just don’t sleep before you do them. Stay awake as long as you can.”

“What for?”

“Just try, okay?” she says.

“I’ll try,” I say.

“Right,” she says, and I can hear her shuffling the mess. “You can run now.”

And I do.

 

Warning: DO NOT let more than one person on the trampoline at one time. Multiple simultaneous usership can cause serious injuries. Do not allow small children onto the trampoline. Small children can cause serious injuries.

Warning: Trampolines launch users to unpracticed altitudes and body configurations. Trampoline misuse/abuse can cause serious injuries.

By using this trampoline, you assume risks for which Wowzers! Bowzers! ™ will not be accountable.

 

I wake in the dark to the sound of commotion in the hallway. I look around, my heart going, going, going, for a clock, for anything. How long have I been asleep? I’m still wearing my clothes. I was reading. I’m not supposed to be sleeping. How long have I been asleep?

I jerk open my door and step into the dim light of the hall. My tenants stand outside their own doors, sleepy-eyed and frightened like children. The older ones clutch at their robes. The younger ones tuck their hands into the pockets of their sweatpants or cross their arms. None of them look at me. They’re all staring up. I walk to the bottom of the stairs. It’s the same story on the second floor, everyone watching in anxious quiet, as though speech might affect the outcome of something very important.

The elevator shrieks and groans. I realize I’m freezing. The front doors stand propped open, forming a sort of tunnel that leads to the open mouth of an ambulance parked out front. Its lights spin, splashing red everywhere.

The elevator doors groan open, and here they come, the men in blue, the men in white, the rolling bed between them, Mildred, Mildred, all the blood, and all of us standing to one side as they pass us like a parade. It’s the first time I’ve seen her under any sort of light. She looks older, her skin tougher, more freckled. Little crow’s feet and big laugh lines. The men put her into the ambulance. The doors stand open, still hang open, something is gathering, it’s huge. I hear murmuring off to the side, feel a hand on my shoulder.

“Mr. Stanley?” a police officer says. I look at him, then back at the ambulance. “Sir, are you the super?” The doors shut, the ambulance pulls away. It’s gone.

I look at the cop. “Yes, officer,” I say.

How long have I been asleep?

. . .

Most of the building is up until dawn. The officer asks me a few questions. I show him my files, tell him what I know. He tells me they’ll be out of the building soon. He pauses, touches the back of his neck.

“We won’t be cleaning it,” he says. “The scene, I mean. Legally, it’s not our responsibility.”

I understand.

. . .

They gather in clumps to discuss it. The young mothers in the parking lot, the men in the lobby, the women in their kitchens and living rooms, the children out in the street. Mrs. Hernandez circles the wagons in her living room. They don’t even pretend to play bridge. The cards sit unopened in the middle of the table between Mrs. Hernandez, Mrs. Deering, and Ms. Storey, as I stand on a ladder in her kitchen, switching bulbs in the light fixture. I just bought a more energy-efficient brand.

Mrs. Deering lives with her husband in 6E. She tells everyone about how Mildred’s sister called every night at eight PM to check on her, only last night Mildred didn’t answer, which is how her sister knew something was wrong. They all agree that there was always something off about the girl. Something ugly.

. . .

A week passes. Mildred doesn’t return. I don’t hear from Susan Edelmon, even though I call her several times and leave long, stuttering voicemails. Days become a long slow strobe against my curtains. My tenants start calling me several times a day to look at nonexistent problems. They all give me tight-lipped, sympathetic nods to show solidarity. I feel like a plastic bag with a tear in the bottom. Everything blows right through me.

On screen, two people fuck, but they’re obscured by a man kneeling in front of them, holding a video camera. The voyeur watching the voyeur. One of those behind-the-scenes type deals. The fucking man’s moans turn into bellows. “I’m gonna!” he shouts, and the woman drops to her knees in front of him, presenting her face. He groans and tugs, and then someone’s yelling, “Cut! Cut!” Our camera rushes forward, toward the cameraman on screen. The cameraman on screen turns toward us. “Somebody get a tissue!” he says, a white glob running down his cheek, pooling in the folds at the corner of his mouth.

On screen, a naked woman with long black hair sits astride a faceless male body, working his member into her ass. She talks to someone off-camera. “What’s wrong?” the camera operator says. “It’s just, I can’t feel it,” she says. “I know it’s there, but I don’t feel anything. Is it still sexy if I can’t feel his cock?”

I try other videos, ones with hundreds of thousands of views and five-star ratings – videos with balloon tits, hair extensions, eye makeup, soft, sexy lighting. Videos where everything goes exactly where it should, videos with at least half a happy ending, but nothing, nothing, nothing.

. . .

On the tenth day, I let myself into her apartment.

I read somewhere that when people kill themselves, they like to tidy up. They sometimes write notes, but they almost always clean. They leave their homes in order, one last act of control before they let go. They get rid of sex toys, porn tapes, anything deviant or perverted. They leave behind the afterimage of a scrubbed, happy human being, a stark contrast to the body discovered.

Not Mildred. Whatever came for her came fast. Her apartment’s cluttered, messy. Roaches flee when I flip the lights; the floor’s a jumble of aluminum cans and dirty laundry. A small TV/VCR combo sits on a rolling tray in a corner, a stack of unlabelled cassettes atop it. Ornate crucifixes and paintings of the Virgin Mary hang on the walls. Several cheap particleboard bookcases line the room, full of children’s books: 101 Dalmatians. The Secret Garden. Peter Pan.

Down the hall the bedroom door stands open, the queen bed inside perfectly made. The only thing out of place is an orange shoebox at the foot.

The bathroom. Bits of dried blue toothpaste in the sink. The mirror streaked and dirty. Gunk in the tiles. And the tub. The thing I’m here for. The thing I need to clean. I set down my carrier, full of sponges, rags and sprays, and I stand there for a long time, just looking at it. After all the fuss, she left behind very little mess. A dirt ring, some dark smudges near the drain. A brown-red smear on the edge of the tub and on the wall opposite. So little blood. How can there be so little? How much drained away with the bathwater?

I take off my shoes and sit down inside. I have to fold my legs to fit. I lean back, resting my head on the tiles. I turn my forearms up, hold them out, try to match my contours with the bloody splotches. I look up at the sagging, water-damaged ceiling.

What must Mildred have felt? How sad? What sort of thing comes for a person who never sleeps? I think about my eighteenth birthday, the nice girl who wanted something that I just couldn’t do. I was so nervous, I think. I think too much, she said.

I get up, start scrubbing. I think about all the porn I’ve watched. The sort of porn I like. It’s not normal. It’s not silicone and collagen and steroids. It’s porn that should never have been porn. The pornography of in-between moments. Of mistakes and accidents. Of intimicacy. Moments when the artifice falls away and you can see just how silly and stupid and ridiculous it is. How real. This is what’s sexy to me.

I scrub, and as I do, I picture Mildred. I bring her to life beneath me in the tub, naked and bleeding, and looking at me with her head cocked to one side, polite but a little hurt. I imagine what my parents would say about her. Mom would say she dresses like a homeless person. Dad would say he pictured her prettier, the way I talked about her. He would say her nose is too big and her teeth too crooked, and her chin is weak, and her breasts too small. Her voice is like a cartoon character’s, Mom would say, trying to flip it into a compliment at the last second by adding, It’s precious!

I scrub. Yes, I tell my parents. Yes, exactly. As I scrub, the blood washing away under my hands, things collide. They slam together and melt. They caramelize. I’m making a sound but I can’t tell what it is. As I scrub, something happens. Something huge.

 

Lay your frame pad on the trampoline, with the connectors facing downward. Make sure the pad is aligned so that pad slips marry with each trampoline leg. Leave no trampoline legs smothered or unmarried.

You’re almost done! Just a few more steps!

. . .

Wait for her to return. It shouldn’t be much longer now. They’ll release her from the hospital, and she will convince her sister to let her come back. At least for a little while.

When she does come back, don’t wait. Go to her. She will answer the door in a pink Minnie Mouse t-shirt, her bandages removed. You’ll see her stitches right away, running up the insides of her arms almost to the elbows. They used black thread.

“What’s up?” she will say.

Say, “Hi.”

She will let you in, but warn you you’re not allowed in her bathroom. “I never let anyone in there,” she says. Sit on her couch with her. Let her tell you the story, narrating in a monotone. Listen closely, even if you know most of it already. Try to think of something to say. Accept that sometimes words fail. She will stare at her lap instead of you. Her hair will hang in her face.

She will ask, “Did you fall asleep that night?”

Be honest. Apologize. Say, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” she will say. “I’m just really unhappy.”

Try something. Reach out to brush away some of her hair. You will want to see her face. She will swat at you. Catch her hand. Do it gently. Feel the hardness go out of her. Feel her wanting you to touch her. Accept the idea that not everyone finds you repulsive. Pull her arm to you. Take a close look at her stitches.

“I’m not something for you to fix,” she will say. See the way she’s sewn together, like a rag doll.

Say, “I’m not trying to.”

“I’ll probably try it again,” she will say.

Say, “I like you anyway.” Put your mouth to the place thread loops flesh. Kiss her. Hear her breathe. Feel her pulse at your lips.

. . .

Ascend through the building together, bundled in your coats and mittens. Let yourselves onto the roof. Move your Wowzers! Bowzers! ™ Trampoline to the center, equidistant from each ledge. Stand facing one another. Let her tighten your scarf. Look her in the eye. Look for as long as it takes for her to understand that you see her. Let her balance on your shoulder as she removes her shoes. She will be wearing socks with snowmen on them.

Remember all that hooey we told you earlier about one person on the trampoline at a time? Forget it. Cast it from your mind for all time. What’s the point of a trampoline, if not to bring people together? Togetherness is vital to trampoline karma. Climb up together. Jump. Bounce and land together, or alternate, launching one another skyward. Look out over the city, watching it rise and fall, breathing, alive. People the heavens with the clouds of your exhalation. Laugh. Sing. Keep Mrs. Hernandez up all night. Reach for your partner as you pass in the air, grab for her hands, her arms, anything. Don’t worry if you miss this time. She’ll be there next time, ready to grab onto you.