Empire State Building
by James Yates
When I was five, the Empire State Building appeared on TV. My father pointed at the screen. “I built that.”
I was in awe. “Really?”
"Yeah. Me and your uncle Bobby put it together in an afternoon. We hauled the beams and windows on the backs of our bikes, set the foundation, and drilled it all together. Secured the spire on top with a big wrench.”
I ran into the kitchen to ask my mother if she knew about his architectural feat. She lit a Virginia Slim on the stove and sat at the table.
Throughout my childhood, their arguments shook my bedroom floor. I never asked, they never told.
During my first trip to Manhattan, I stood on the observation deck and smiled, remembering that afternoon years ago.
I called my father from the hostel that evening.
“Dad, I visited the Empire State Building today. Do you remember what you told me when I was a kid?”
“Is the foundation still stable?”
“What’s so funny?”
He died two years later. As my mother and I made funeral arrangements at the kitchen table, she reached into her pocket and handed me a key to the spare room in the basement.
Along with food wrappers and empty bottles, the space was filled with hundreds of Empire State Building models on the desk, the floor, the closet, the bookshelves. They were made of toothpicks, popsicle sticks, Q-tips, matches, pipe cleaners, twist ties. A wastebasket was filled with empty glue bottles. Hundreds of sheets of graph paper had been affixed to the walls. On each page, outlines in various sizes, with shorthand notes, all showed the shape of the famous building. Ceramic models of the skyscraper lined the baseboards. In the corner, I saw a rusted wrench, taller than myself, adorned with years of cobwebs.
This story originated as an experimental assignment. Kyle Beachy teaches a stellar literature class on the concept of “A-realism,” the gap between literary realism and full-on experimentation. Even if their philosophies aren’t visible in this story, I wrote the first draft while I considered the world-building of Tom McCarthy and the speeches of Kathy Acker. The ending of this story represents other loves of mine that make their way into my writing more than I realize: messiness, personal marginalia, and documentations.
James Yates is a contributing editor to Longform.org. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, CHEAP POP, Pithead Chapel, Luna Luna Magazine, WhiskeyPaper, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. His work was also featured in The Baseball Handbook, the debut anthology from Hobart Handbooks. A graduate of the MFA Program at Roosevelt University, he lives in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.