It's a great line to stop guys from coming onto you in a bar. They ask, so what do you do for a living? They expect to hear, I'm in sales or I'm a paralegal. If I'm wearing my black boots with the stacked heels and maybe a little lipstick, they might push me into the lawyer category, or the owner of a little boutique. They never expect to hear the truth. I blow up buildings, I say, and sip my wine. After hearing that, they usually back away a little. Which is good. I don't like to be crowded.
The crowd that morning was staying far away, lined up all along the twelve-foot fence encircling the lot, their faces curious and belligerent, the police forming an uneasy barricade between them and me and the building I was going to destroy. A hand-printed banner danced above their heads. You might not think it, but bringing down a building can be a controversial thing. People don't like change. It makes them worry about what's headed their way next, and whether it'll be any worse than what was there before.
Dingy clouds were doing a slow roll along the horizon. Chicago in mid-May could be unpredictable. "How far away does that look?" I asked my foreman.
Ahmed squinted. "I'd say we got a couple hours, maybe three." His broad face was washed in early morning light.
The guy was a wizard when it came to reading the weather. If he said two, maybe three, we'd be standing in a downpour come four. Two hours was good, three better. "We might just make it then."
He nodded. "Have you heard from Halim?"
Another worry. "Halim will be here." Of course he would, but he hadn't answered any of the six calls I'd placed to him that morning. As decorous as my partner was, he could also be a player. We'd been in Chicago for a month and the itch had been building. Apparently, he couldn't wait until the shoot was over to scratch it. Halim wasn't any different than the guys I'd known in college, and all the men after.
A shout. Something sailed through the air and clattered onto the cement near our feet. A beer can. A policeman moved forward and the onlookers jostled.
Ahmed curled his lip in disgust and kicked it with his boot.
"Least it wasn't a bomb," I told him.
Ahmed looked stricken. "Don't say these things."
Implosions are wrapped tight in superstition: wind the detonation wire clockwise; rap the front doorjamb before entering; wear the same pair of boots from the beginning of a job until its completion and if a lace broke, replace it with a borrowed set. Most of all, don't ever joke about explosives, especially when hundreds of pounds of the stuff stand only fifteen feet away.
My cell phone vibrated. Halim? But no, the caller ID read PRIVATE CALLER. They'd tried earlier, around six-thirty, and I was tempted to flip it open and let off a little steam at the telemarketer waiting to chirp good morning on the other end. But chances were, it would just be a recorded call and it would take ten seconds for me to disconnect. Seconds I couldn't afford to waste, not with that storm roiling toward us. Fitting the hardhat onto my head, I told Ahmed, "I'm starting the walkthrough."
A troubled look. "Without Halim?"
He didn't think I could do it. Didn't matter. I was still the boss, even if it sometimes felt in name only. "Start clearing the site."
The broad marble steps of the gracious old building seemed to sag beneath my boots. The old girl was ready to come down. She'd been up for a long time and weathered more than her share of storms. She was ready for a rest.
Shoving aside the heavy wing of fabric draped around the lower floors, I stepped over the threshold into pungent darkness. The interior sprang into view beneath the beam of my Maglite. Hard to believe hundreds of families once lived there, walked these floors, decorated these walls. Everything that could have made the place a home had been yanked down and hauled away. The walls, ceilings, floors, and window glass were long gone, leaving behind bare concrete, rafters and the skeletal outlines of two staircases. A bundle of wire mesh leaned against the chipped column we'd test-blasted a few days before. The empty elevator shaft yawned on my left. The air hung heavy and blue, dust spiraling lazily down from the open ceiling in ghostly strands like Mardi Gras beads. I rotated, seeing past the empty windows and crumbling columns, hearing the mumbles of long-ago residents, the babies' cries, and the laughter. The old girl held her breath, waiting. I'm coming, I told her. Hold on.
The clop of boots. Halim emerged from the shadows, his slim frame tidy in navy chinos and a crisp white workshirt. "Sorry I'm late," he told me. "I got an overseas call from my brother."
I should have guessed. Family was really the only thing that would keep Halim from a job. "How much?" I asked him.
He pursed his lips. He wanted to tell me it was none of my business how much money he lent his loser brother, but in point of fact, it was my business. Very much so, ever since we pooled our resources and started Down to Earth three years before.
"Don't worry." He glanced around. "We should get started, eh? What with the storm moving in."
"A thousand? Two thousand?" The business account only had three and change, but the annoyance on his face told me plainly that it now held nothing. "Halim," I said, feeling a pinch of fear. "Tell me."
"A temporary set-back," he said. "We finish this job and all will be fine."
It was the last time. Tomorrow morning, I'd be meeting with the bank manager to make sure any checks drawn on our business account in the future required both our signatures. But there was nothing I could do about it now. "I'll take the eastern half."
No railing along the staircase, the bottom riser chewed to rubble to discourage trespasser, the support walls smashed to pieces. Testing my weight with each step, I climbed to the twenty-sixth floor, winding past the narrow Chicago streets, to the furled tops of the trees, until finally the sleepy skyline spread before me. A month ago, I would have been gasping. Today, I made it in one long trek, with only my thigh muscles protesting the effort.
Streamers of sunlight spooled through the glass-free windows. Amid the drab grays and browns were daubs of neon yellow paint marking the load-bearing columns, and dense cobwebs of yellow, pink, and orange tubing. Colorful and deadly. I traced the lines up to the crevices we'd chipped into the columns and then packed with dynamite. The connections looked good. Untouched.
Halim walked toward me from the other direction, and we exchanged places silently, our worlds shrunk to fluorescent strands, electrical tape, and metal clips. We descended two floors to the next dynamited level.
The buzz of a jet overhead, the shrill blast of a policeman's whistle below. Probably another beer can. Shouts sailed up. The protesters were growing more belligerent. Great. As if we didn't have enough to deal with, outracing the storm.
Again, Halim and I crisscrossed paths; again, we retraced each other's steps. Outside, a Bobcat started with a rumble.
Halim waited on the ground floor. "We're behind schedule."
And whose fault was that? I glanced at my phone and saw I'd missed another call from PRIVATE CALLER. We'd used up one of Ahmed's hours.
"You finish here," Halim said, "and I'll check the basement level." He descended the crumbling stairs.
Stepping over a latticework of detonation cord, I ran my flashlight beam over the connections. A water leak had sprung up from somewhere--a pipe only recently turned off--and a shallow pool had collected in one corner, scummy with dust. A bent cigarette butt floated in the water. Circumventing the puddle, I paced over to the next delay.
The Bobcat's roar stopped. In the sudden silence, I heard the slow plink of water splashing metal, and something else.
The noise didn't repeat itself. Rats usually flee buildings about to be demolished, driven by some primordial instinct that tells them D Day is at hand, but maybe one had just gotten the message. I turned, sweeping my flashlight beam across the uneven floor.
A Styrofoam cup lying on its side, boot prints stamped in the dust, a balled-up lump of rust-colored cotton splotched with paint. Light sparkled across a smooth surface.
My walkie-talkie buzzed.
"Ready?" Halim's voice.
I depressed the talk button. "Just about." I held up my flashlight, peering.
An empty bottle of Budweiser glinted back from the shadows beside a wall brace. Dust-free, it couldn't have been there long. How had we missed the bottle last night? The broken brick lying beside it must have been the source of the noise I'd heard.
Footsteps echoed. Halim strode toward me. "Show time."
The crew gathered as Halim issued final instructions, confidence in his every gesture, his stance easy yet authoritative. "Countdown in fifteen minutes." He broke up the group with a clap of his hands.
A plastic bag hopped across the pavement. A uniformed police officer stood beside a small makeshift enclosure comprised of sand bags. A damp wind billowed. The man nodded. "All yours."
I dialed the prearranged number. "Stop the El," I told the operator.
"I'll tell them," she answered.
Overhead, a police helicopter swept by, searching rooftops for hidden onlookers. A cruiser drove by, bullhorn blaring. Television crews clustered a safe distance away. A covey of birches stood on the northwest corner, swaddled in geotextile fabric and shivering in the gusting wind. Dark clouds scuttled across the horizon as if pushed along by a broom. The dust and debris could be carried for miles; all of Chicago could be affected. "Think we should hold off?" I asked Halim.
"Just run the monitor afterward and make sure to download the readings."
It had been my idea, a way to issue a preemptive strike against possible lawsuits. Running the monitor wouldn't stop the dust from spreading, but I didn't argue. I was as eager as Halim to finish the job.
He picked up the blasting machine, a steel box with two buttons connected to the lead line, and held it out. Did he want me to hold it for him? He smiled, seeing my confusion. "This one's yours," he said. "You've earned it."
I'd never initiated the blast. Never. Halim was the expert; I was the trainee. But there it was, the small box that signaled I had finally pushed through the final barrier. Automatically, I folded my fingers around the machine and held it close. Halim couldn't pry it away from now, even if he wanted to.
He held up his walkie-talkie. "All clear."
A round of clears sounded from the crew bosses.
"Ten, nine, eight, seven."
The police helicopter tipped and sailed away.
A flock of swallows shot up.
"Two, one. Fire! Fire!" I sucked in a breath, then punched the small red button.
A thunderous blast shook the ground. I grabbed the sandbag wall for support. Halim pulled me toward him. Another explosion, another earthquake tremor, three swift eruptions, a firecracker flare near the foundation. The building held itself for an agonizing two seconds; then it swiveled and slammed south.
Tsunamis of dust boiled up, obliterating the sky. A seismic wave rushed toward me, an enormous riptide, a roller coaster without rails. I turned and ducked. Fine spray pelted my head and shoulders, then dissolved.
Crooking my elbow over my mouth and nose, I cracked my eyes open.
Two stories of rubble. Check. Adjacent buildings standing. Check. Trees erect, leaves attached. Check. Street cleaners starting their engines, push brooms and water hoses already beginning to clear away the sidewalks and walls. Check. Earth still rotating. Check.
The roller coaster rolled to a stop.
"Not bad, huh?" Halim said.
We stared at each other, the steel box cradled between us, then grinned. The shoot had gone off perfectly.
Trucks rumbled around the dusty lot. Lightning forked in the distance as men shouted and shovels scraped. Halim had already conducted two on-air interviews. Down to Earth Implosion would be splashed all over the news tonight; our phone would be ringing off the hook the next morning. We might even have to turn away work.
Halim stood in the middle of the debris field, Ahmed beside him. They were discussing something that had them both gesturing widely. Ahmed was shaking his head.
One of the dump truck drivers strode across the lot toward me. I accepted the clipboard he extended and signed the form. "You know where to take it?" I asked him.
A loud volley of shouting, the backhoe driver leaning out his window and waving. Ahmed yelled something back, then jogged across the site. He'd better watch his step. That was where the elevator shaft had been located.
I handed back the clipboard. The man jerked his chin. "Looks like something's up."
The trucks sat frozen, their engines switched off and their drivers sliding down out of the cabs and trotting toward where Ahmed now s