The tower no longer held water and the ladder’s bottom three rungs were missing. Perching on the tiny hatch at its top, we pulled our knees to our chins, our hipbones pressing together, and waited. Small ships used the surrounding fields for training flights, and when landing their wings would skim the outlying grasses and come within inches of the tower’s base. We expected the worst. We dreamed of a spectacle.
And while I could hear the engines whining long before their last parabola over the tree line, Clay couldn’t. Nor could he say what color the ships were or identify the pilots by name. “Utt?” he would say, one of three sounds his voice box could produce. What?
My mother liked to say I’d met Clay in the fog. She was not wrong: Clay and I had our first dialogue in the condensation on our bus’s windows. Our talks were more symbol than word, simple elliptical stories relayed in crude glyphs. I knew bits of sign language, but my hands couldn’t handle narrative. Clay spoke to his teachers like a magician snatching doves out of the air, while I resembled a child crushing torpid flies.
“Oht,” he’d say with a smile that could disarm the worst pedant. No.
Clay was clever and eager but had his own curriculum. Once we got to school, he split off to join special classes at the end of the science wing with kids in helmets, kids buckled into wheelchairs, kids wearing glasses so thick their eyes looked like the back of television screens, kids whose names we didn’t know but whom we christened with our own awful monikers, names that thinned them down to the stems of their identities, ones only Clay was exempt from hearing.
Unlike his classmates, however, Clay was an athlete, a storm of limbs and limitless verve rising out of that frustrating silence. He could sneak up on someone, tap on their shoulder, and be halfway to the cafeteria before they’d spun around.
Sophomore year, his parents adopted a Dachshund who responded to gestures, claps, and snaps, but when Clay and I were on the tower, the dog came uncentered, mothlike, her little legs carrying her across the runways in long sweeping arcs, disappearing and reappearing on the field’s alternating boundaries. It was up to me to call for her.
“Macy! Fucking stop, Macy!”
Clay took part in gym class only if no balls were hurtling across the room, but since they always were, he climbed ropes instead or did laps in the forest, jumping over picnic tables and pitching pine cones into a barrel. He also wasn’t allowed to take woodshop—the spinning blades, the girls with hammers and lathes—but I stole a chisel and we carved our names into the underside of the tower. Clay added: Best friends. Another time we found a two-liter bottle of orange soda halfway up, wedged behind some sheet metal peeled back like a flap of flesh. I shook my head, but we climbed to the top and drank it anyways, spraying mouthfuls down at Macy.
Macy was asleep in the grass the time Clay leaned over the tower railing and tried to kiss me. I turned away and laughed, somewhat honored but mostly terrified. I could still hear what was said in the hallways. As if I weren’t already tainted with my chubbiness, floppy mouse-brown coif, and delusion of one day creating superheroes for a living.
“No,” I said, then ruffled his curly blond hair.
Every morning Clay’s brother Carl, with his theatrical, scarred face and choppy hair, would walk Clay to school, warding off would-be bullies until Clay had gotten his daily high-five from the bus driver. He’d then head up the hill to his job at the sand pits, walking backwards until the bus was out of sight.
A throng of locals tried to topple the tower with a truck and rope, but it only moved an inch or two. They then tried to tear its skin off but instead lost a bumper. Insulted, they shot it up with a hunting rifle.
I went back to scrape off our names, which someone had amended with Fags.
During the summers, Clay bagged groceries. When he made a mistake, a sunburned tourist would inevitably yell, “Are you deaf, son?” and everyone would applaud.
I worked at a grimy little bike rental shop. All day we watched as the fancier operation across the street rolled out bikes in droves. At lunchtime I’d pedal up the hill and Clay would come to the back door with stolen candy bars.
We were forced to take refuge under the tower during an epic storm. Macy vanished into the trees, then returned a couple hours later with a deer legbone, her soft mouth red with blood.
When I fell in love, Clay moved to the front of the bus. The fog shrank the tower to a blurry totem at the far end of the runway.
How does a mute grow quieter? I couldn’t tell you. You just have to see it.
Jillian, my girlfriend, was almost as tall as Clay, with long black hair and carefully torn jeans. Quiet and tense, she taught me painful lessons about the body. Clay saw what I couldn’t—her trysts in dark classrooms, her lurid missives to football stars—but kept it to himself.
When Jake joined the army, I learned some signs and told Clay, Jake funny. Clay a squirrel shadow.
Jillian dropped out of school. Clay and I shared a seat on the bus again.
The autumn of our senior year, a ship crashed. No one died, but the fields went up in a golden lather that singed the tower. Clay and I lowered our windows to better see the black scar leading from the runway to the concrete base, our sleeves and stomachs sopping up the mist from the glass.
“Shesh,” Clay said. “Shesh.”
Christopher X. Ryan is the author of the novel BOGORE, forthcoming in 2020 from J.New Books. In the past year his stories appeared in twenty-one journals, and he earned second place in the 2019 Baltimore Review winter contest. Born on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, he now lives in Helsinki, Finland, where he works as a writer, editor, and ghostwriter. He can be found at www.christopherXryan.com.