Astoria Column

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The Base

Mike said, “I’m sure it opens early.”

“It had better.”  Jane’s tone was unforgiving. His wife looked at him sullenly. Mike put a hand on her leg, but she pushed it away. She hadn’t had coffee yet, so he let it go. It was surprising the kind of things that could create devotion in her. In anyone, he thought.

Mike looked at the map on the console between them. As he reached to touch it, the map fell into the back seat. Thankfully, I don’t need it any longer, he considered. There were countless paths to purpose, but he had already spotted a sign.

“You know you don’t sleep well the first night we camp.”  This was a means of excuse, but Mike knew it was more than that. The children woke up early even in the summer. Trained, he thought, by alarms and friends texting them at all hours, giving a permanent lightness to their sleep, as though nothing could be done unobtrusively anymore.

“Nearly there.”  The car—and their chance to stay a family—turned on the words.

The trip was supposed to be an opportunity for the kids to get away from the boredom, self-imposed, or perhaps age-imposed, of being home during summer vacation. The week before there had been a swimming camp for Susan, but Jason decided he was done with Tae Kwon Do in May, and that meant no obligations. No one was hiring, either, which gave him a convenient out to go see his friends. Jane had confiscated their phones, and told them sternly that they would be off limits during the camping trip. After the wails subsided, but before the neighbors called the police, she’d relented and said they could have them for twenty minutes a day.

The car hit a speed bump and Mike saw, in the rearview mirror, the bag with their clothes bounce above the edge of the back seat and fall down again, an unmade scarecrow. Since we haven’t camped in nine months, he thought, we’re squirrels bumbling up a tree. But, it was more than that. Something unspoken seemed to threaten their unity.

“I forgot the salad,” Jane said abruptly.

“So?”

“Nothing.”

Mike laughed. “It’s only a few days. It will be fine in the fridge. If you’re worried about us eating our greens, I’m sure they have a store in town. We can buy more salad. My treat.”

Jane ignored the bait. Mike sighed. The trip was really about Jason. Still, perhaps Jane and he could use the time to reconnect as well. He knew marriages needed to be about more than the children, but kids were often a conduit for reconciliation.

Jason’s grades at the end of the year had been tolerable, just; Mike had reminded him that he was in high school now, “and you’ve only got three more years before college. It’s pretty competitive,” he said vaguely. All language felt both glazed and hollow when talking to his son, a boy who was fast becoming his own man.

Jason had nodded and Mike knew he’d repeat the talk in September. He tried to think of concrete arguments, a kind of scary statistic or something, stories about wrapping burgers for a living. Maybe he would play the buffoon and make some mild jokes. Isn’t that what kids wanted?

“It’s just,” Jane said suddenly, “when I saw the duffel bag jump like that, I remembered…” she laughed a little and gave up.

“You caught that, huh?”

She looked at Mike sternly while the car slowed down. “A mother sees all. And then I remembered. It’s silly, the salad. But I also wanted to buy three duffel bags. Two for the kids and a new one for us. We’re getting kind of crowded, aren’t we?”

The car answered by going heavily over another bump and gradually climbing a hill. Mike figured it would be more crowded inside the narrow column. A sign on the side of the road assured him it was less than half a mile away.

The back seat stayed quiet, for though they woke early, the kids did not exactly spring into action. Presently they were slumped down, one on a side, ears plugged with buds. The kind of attitude you couldn’t quite count as sin, even in the modern sense, but something close. A lack of motion, they seemed to believe, meant a lack of consequences: stay idle and let the world change around you.

The car continued to curve up the hill. A man in an orange vest met it as they pulled into the parking lot. It cost a dollar to visit the site, but the money bought an orange ticket that could be used all year. The transaction felt like a promise. Mike had found, that words, like duffel bags, are just one more place to hide secrets, one more thing to unearth.

He peered out past Jane at the imposing column.

“Will you look at that!” he said.

The First Landing

Jason bounded toward the column without watching for cars.

“Wait for your mother!” Mike shouted. For years, Jane’s maternal protection had been a reason to slow the children’s recklessness, but now it felt like an indictment. Jason stopped at the column’s base.

“Hurry up,” he whined. He’d never known about his mother’s stillbirth, the child that would have been their first. Mike remembered how much they had wept when Jason was born, and when he lived.

His sister slowed down, on purpose, Mike thought. Before they reached the entrance, several other sleep-drugged pilgrims slid by. He wondered how many people came to the column every day. More in the summer, sure, but the monolith relentlessly invited communicants. Most gave only passing attention to the historical depictions on its side. Inside was what mattered, because it was the only way to the top, one measurable distance among so many that could not be counted, not in blinks or empty bags.

As they began the ascent, Jason led, with his mother taking up the rear, either from habit or from Mike’s prologue. They found themselves behind an elderly couple. The separation of mother and son seemed natural, maybe even necessary to independence. But Jason was proving difficult to love as a teenager, and the price of independence was grave.

The single, spiral, metal staircase creaked under their feet. The old people, undaunted—Mike was sure this was not their first visit—smiled at one another; reaching the top was a ritual. It was natural. Age had a way of cementing relationships. As long as they could climb and descend, they remained triumphant. Jason’s impatience could be heard in the heaviness of his footfalls. Against the slowness of the old couple, Jason turned each step into drudgery, casting moribund glances at his mother, who stared back impassively.

Mike winced, embarrassed by his son, who was like a bird astir in a cage, impatient to let youth overtake his elders, like some eternal joke, even if a column is one long open pit with no place to run. There were enough pillars to conquer just getting older. Mike felt a wound on his heel re-open as they reached the first landing.

“Anyone need to catch their breath?” he asked, but no one did, and he felt the blood from his heel begin to seep into his sock and staunch itself, life-stopping life, as it will.

The Second Landing

Mike could see Jane watching Jason push on like so much dust. He thanked the old couple for letting him pass, and they, for their part, smiled knowingly. Jane frowned. Mike knew she was often infuriated with old people who pretended experience meant wisdom. Just because you’ve lived it once doesn’t mean it’s the same thing anymore. Times change, and memory is a blind guide. Perhaps they just remembered the sunnier parts, forgetting all the heartache. Or they smiled because they’d survived.

Mike sighed. At least all their friends were having trouble with their teenagers, too. Jason’s feet disappeared as he rounded a curve in the staircase. They heard him scream. Though his voice had deepened, Mike recalled similar cries from Jason’s childhood, when he’d fallen from a bicycle, no longer supported by trembling round wheels.

Jane pushed past Susan and they found Jason on the second landing holding his ankle. His eyes were closed and he was swearing softly.

“Are you okay?” Jane asked. Jason nodded.

“I tripped.”  The admission was all he would give, as though he could blame gravity in the dangerous silence. He stared up at Mike.

“Were you running?” his father asked, putting a hand on Jane’s shoulder. “Maybe take it slower from here on out.”  Jane always liked to pamper the kids a little, but they were grown now, and Mike found it easier to ask a question, pinpoint the problem, and fix it, even if it was the same advice every time: stop doing what you were doing.

Jane looked up. “Can you make it the rest of the way?”  Jason pulled himself up, his knuckles raw, looking chewed from the fall.

“I’m fine, Mom.”  He met her gaze only a moment.

Now the old couple was with them again, impetus enough for a teenager. Jason stretched his arms a little, and standing on one foot, twirled the injured ankle. He sighed and moved on to the next step, like a devout unwillingly to believe the impossibility of flight.

The Third Landing

Susan reached the third landing and Mike saw she was beginning to feel ill. She’d never suffered from vertigo, but neither was she a fan of heights or enclosed spaces, and the column leapt from one fear to the next. Her forehead seemed to weep.

“Are you okay, dear?” Jane asked.

“Yes. I hadn’t really thought what it would be like. Everyone was just so excited.”

The family congregated and waited, halting their vertical parade.

“Next time we’ll have to bring up an airplane,” Jason said.

“Airplane?”

“Yeah, Dad, I saw someone throw one from the top before we started up. I bet they sell them, or you could bring up your own. Paper airplane, or balsa, you know the ones that wind with a rubber band.”

Mike chuckled. “That’s probably what the dollar fee is for, to clean up downed planes.”

But Jason wasn’t listening. While Susan recovered her breath, Mike studied Jason’s inattentiveness. It wasn’t the same look he got when he was on his phone. That was dull, in need of repair. This was hopeful. He was staring at the walls of the column and Mike supposed he was imagining the open air outside. From the parking lot you could see acres of trees, the bridge, all the way over to Washington State and the river preparing its entrance into the ocean, always something greater.

“Jason,” he said. His son did not answer and Mike felt desperate to regain control. Of what, he couldn’t say. The children’s bodies had been beyond him since birth and their minds, once trained to be polite, careful, were now jumping into forbidden spaces, not just trundling along. They would keep going; time was beyond him, beyond everyone. Maybe directing them was one last way of keeping himself in check.

“Hey, buddy. Jason!”

Jason looked over, his eyes placid and glazed again, as though his father had interrupted some dream, some flight. His stare found a new thing to blame, but Mike wouldn’t accept his censure. And like Susan, he was starting to sweat, buried standing up in a tower.

“We want to reach the top, don’t we?”

The Fourth Landing

Mike was tired of the same shit.

“Jason, slow up!”  He stopped—paused might be more appropriate, his father thought, for nothing could actually stop the boy—but did not look back. Neither of them could join the other in humility.

“Seriously, the column’s not going away. The top will be there when we reach it, even if we take our time.”  He resumed walking. When Mike was a step behind Jason, he flinched, moved away.

Mike wanted someone to assist him in this rendering of his son; he looked at Jane and Susan; both women kept their eyes on the stairs and the feet in front of them. Mike did not look down. He trusted his feet.

Instead, he watched Jason’s back. The boy needed to understand what was acceptable, and no matter how old he got, or how big, he needed to listen to his parents. Respect would be nice, too, Mike thought, but sometimes you just had to settle for obedience. But he didn’t want Jason to think they expected him to misbehave. There was a danger in that: cycles of screeching and loneliness returning.

“Almost there.”  Mike tried to make it sound comforting, but the ascent had robbed him of command, and left him a little breathless. Winded, he thought dryly, in an enclosed space where no breeze could touch the stifled air.

Now Jason turned. “You okay, old man?”  There was an accompanying smile.

Mike tried to laugh, but didn’t quite complete the gesture. “I’ll make it. I just don’t know why you have to rush.”

“Why not?” Jason asked. Mike thought he sounded serious. “I want to see what’s up there before it’s too crowded.”

“People won’t stay too long, they’ll come down.”  He heard myself growing angry.

“Yeah, us too. But even though I know it’s soon, it’s like it’s not soon enough.”

“This isn’t—”

“Maybe you can’t understand it,” said Jason, his voice and neck muscles strained.

“What’s to understand?” Mike demanded, clenching his hands. “Kids hurry, and sometimes that’s okay, but you’re not going to die if we slow it up.”  He saw that his son’s eyes were red now. When had the boy begun to cry. His tears reminded Mike that the barter struck with time is constantly renegotiated, and he wanted to tell Jason that even when he grew up, problems wouldn’t disappear. There’s just less time to deal with them, and people are more entrenched.

Jane caught up with them. “You’re making a scene!” she hissed.

Mike looked puzzled. “Me?”

The Top

The family crowded together at the top of the column and what seemed simple became appallingly complicated, like a fear when it is exposed.

The core of the column itself took up so much space that there were only a few feet of spare concrete before the railing. Everyone was simultaneously conscious of the concrete of the column at their feet, as well as the panorama beyond, the view down to the Columbia, the hill’s declivity.

Mike realized, too late, that he should spend more time admiring people. It was a vocation he had yet to pursue.

The old couple reached the top. Mike expected them, of course, but not so soon. Then they were probably used to navigating themselves up and knew how long it would take. Maybe they even had a schedule, charts to challenge and track their efforts, some record of existence. He smiled slowly at them as they hunched through the small door.

Their success also meant less space to move. Mike edged around the column and met Jane coming from the opposite direction doing the same thing.

“Some party, huh?” he said.

“At least we’re early. I usually hate being early to any social gathering.”

He wondered if this was forgiveness, and looked out again, feeling himself disappearing in the view. There was the car and the beginning of a new crowd. The parking lot must fill and empty countless times each day.

Of course, not everyone climbed. The view from the top of the hill was almost as spectacular, worth the price of admission. However, the column added something more, an itinerant joy. Maybe they should call it a tower, Mike thought, for a man could feel kingly here.

Someone touched his arm. It was Jason.

“Some view.”

“It is,” he admitted, hoping their inchoate argument was forgotten, at least for now. We might resume it later, Mike thought. He pulled Jason closer, hugging him without holding the boy too near or too long, those extremes that precede embarrassment. “Actually, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“You can’t say that for many things,” Jason said, but rather than being laudatory, the words felt like a challenge.

When Jason stepped away, he shifted his gaze to the distance, to places where the center of the column was merely another point to ponder. The railing was a few feet high, but Jason grabbed the top and pulled powerfully while jumping. His legs were on top a second, and then the other side of the railing.

How long had he been able to do that, Mike wondered.

Just as suddenly, Jason leapt again, leaving nowhere but down for his eyes or body to veer, only the intolerable pleasure of the moment.

As Jason fell, and onlookers screamed, Mike saw his son smiling at this pause before death, though his mind tried to make him a stranger to the event, one who could say, “Who was this boy?”  He tried and failed. He witnessed time battling itself, its velocity shifting and reversing the way the physical world could not.

Levering himself against the wall, Mike recalled Jason’s final declaration about the rareness of novelty, that you could seldom marvel in something new.

“I guess not,” he said, and heard Jason hit. Apologizing, no matter how long it goes on, always seems inadequate; the same is likely true of thanks and prayers. The bump was time’s only punctuation, given without regret, and where the column stood, triumphant; there could be no further memorial, not even something temporary to tower over the past, nor wires for walking to somewhere else, for picking up static. No safety nets, Mike knew, to hold us when we go down where questions have to be answered.

Matt Kolbert

Matt Kolbet teaches and writes near Portland, Oregon. He is the author of the novel The Futility of Nicknames as well as numerous pieces online.

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