The trail to the fire tower started at a stone wall, only partly broken, that defended nothing from anything. Its foot was pushed up against a gnarled stump, hollowed and splintered by years of makeshift campfires. Whitetail hunters. High school kids with clean leather boots dropping candy wrappers and watching soda bottles melt. The other side of the wall trailed off near the edge of a bluff that dropped down into the river. Three years ago, Jacob had perched his shoe on this stump and tugged at its laces and slid his finger into his sock to make sure the ring was still there. Jess took pictures of the water and knelt down on her knees to take pictures up the side of the slope. She took pictures of rocks. She took pictures of glacial detritus shoved back into a cave by wind and snowmelt and deluge. She took a picture of Jacob’s hands pulling at his shoestrings.
Jacob put his hands in his vest pockets and walked the length of the wall. His mind churned furiously, as minds will when they know for sure they can recall something but can’t find it, can’t find it, and he wanted badly to remember their conversation that day – if it was normal, if it was nervous, if it had even existed. He reached out to pull an orange oak leaf from a low-hanging branch. He snapped it off and looked for holes in its flesh. He looked at his watch.
He passed the place where they’d made short, uncomfortable love, between a rutted section of the trail and a patch of yellow poplar saplings. She’d led him away by the pocket of his jeans and leaned back against the mother tree and pulled him to her cold, dry face, and when it was over he pulled his pants back on and looked nervously down either direction of the trail and she said, “Baby. Honey. God pauses the world for these kinds of things.” A couple of the saplings had survived and were still there and came to his belt buckle. He moved on.
They ate lunch on a boulder that had made a crater when it crashed down from the mountaintop. He asked her to marry him at three thirty.
It had been colder a few days ago when he’d doubled around the trail on his way to the tower. The wind had been fiercer, better aimed. At the time, this walk was one to be avoided. Today was different. Today was the day. Jess died three years and five days from the day she’d told him she would be his wife forever. His five days were up. Today was the day.
The sod around the tower was softer still from last night’s rain. Jacob slid from one footfall to the other and grabbed a rung of the ladder and swung his hip around and planted the other foot to keep from plunging legs-first into the Greenbrier. Jess was afraid of heights, deathly scared, she trembled when she stood on stools, and when she’d tried to climb this ladder, ignoring the caution signs, ignoring the weakness in the wood, he’d had to grab her butt and push her to the next step from underneath.
The open window had let the rain in. The floor was dark brown, chewed up, musty. New green algae snaked back and forth across the unfinished pine planks. He sat all the same.
“I lived for you,” he said to himself. He took the .44 from his waist and slid his fingers over its barrel, the fresh oil came off on his hands, smelled like Hoppes, and he set it on the ledge beside him and let his feet dangle over the side. He put his palms together like a couple would hold hands, tried to get back to the sensation of holding a woman, of feeling the strength of Jess’s squeeze. He tried to remember the thickness of her lips and the color of her eyes. He tried to remember her stomach and her knees and her nipples and her breath. He looked at his watch and set his intertwined fingers in his lap calmly and slouched his back and breathed and breathed and breathed.
The boys were listening to Johnny Cash when they came up on the man with a pistol in his mouth. He was sitting with his legs crisscrossed over the side of the doorframe of the fire tower and both his hands on the butt of a revolver that was clenched between his front teeth. His thumbs were both pressed against the trigger. They pulled the black, rusted pickup to the side of the trail a few hundred feet up the way and its expired license plate swung back and forth on one screw. One of them turned the music off while the other stepped out of the truck and leaned on the open doorframe.
“Hey there, mister, what you fixing to do?” he shouted. His voice was high-pitched. He was just a kid.
Jacob hadn’t heard them coming down. He let the .44 ease away from his lips and looked down on them, heavy, viscid tears staining his cheeks white and falling down into his mouth. His eyes were red like melted metal. He snorted and brought the gun to his temple and pulled back the hammer.
“Uh, uh, don’t go doing nothing stupid,” said the other boy. The two of them looked at each other uncomfortably, their muscles tensing, their legs readying for a run. “Come on down off there, what say?”
“Just throw that gun down first,” said the first boy, nodding at his friend.
“Yeah, throw that gun down first. Holy shit.”
Jacob pressed the gun’s muzzle deep into the flesh of his head and screamed so terribly that the scratches in his throat came back in echo. His mouth open so wide his dry lips stretched and cracked and watery blood coated his tongue. His eyes closed so tight he felt them pinching against his cheekbones. The boys started backwards, one of them ducking behind his open door and the other backtracking around the bed of the pickup. Both of them slid down into a crouch.
When his breath was gone and the mountains finished repeating his shout, Jacob, trembling, rocking, his head hanging, dropped the gun to the ground beneath the tower. He wiped at his eyes with his fingertips and looked at the boys and looked at his watch. “God damn you people,” he said, “God damn you, I’m late. God damn you.” Then he doubled over on himself, his sobbing jerking his entire body up and down, and he fell. The boys started toward him while he was still moving, and they heard his ribs crackle when he landed at the feet of the tower. His fingers splayed and contracted in the mud.