His name was Gustave Eiffel, and he built his giant French tower because it was impossible—that is what everyone said—to build something so tall. They said the tower would topple under its own weight. Or the wind would blow, the metal would bend, and the rivets would snap. The tower would plunge into the city.
At night Gustave imagined designs and drew them with those doubts in mind. Slowly the designs got smarter and a two-dimensional version of the tower took shape. It wasn’t a work of art meant to espouse beauty or form. It was a work of engineering meant only to defy the weather.
In Paris he began his search for puddled iron and three hundred men to carry it, stack it, and drive those rivets in. Construction began, and as the tower got taller, and didn’t fall, Gustave grew famous. Also infamous, since artists and writers reviled him as the man who ruined the Parisian skyline. They argued that no single building should be visible from all points in Paris. Gustave said in Le Petit that aesthetes could shut their eyes or lie facedown in the dirt if they were bothered. Everyone else—all the people who didn’t have enough leisure to waste it debating beauty—cheered Gustave for building the biggest thing they’d ever seen. Who cared if it had purpose? And the tower wasn’t even finished yet. It kept growing, and Gustave became more famous. Then he became a kind of dream inside the mind of every child who thought they, too, could stack things high enough to climb into a better life.
Children playing in the street piled buckets and tin cans, and one reckless child—an Austrian immigrant boy with big ears who lived in a poor quarter—even built a tower out of chairs. Then he climbed his tower and declared himself an architect beyond measure.
Any man can build. But how many can fly? the boy shouted.
The boy jumped, because his body was a leaf or a bird—except thinking that didn’t make it true, and the boy fell. He broke his arm and wailed like he was just born, afraid of the cold air. His father leaned out the window and said, What lesson have you learned?, while his mother ran into the street, worried that her only son was dying.
She hugged the boy, who was bleeding from the lip, and wrapped him with both arms. That was how one family grew closer through pain, which meant Gustave wasn’t just an architect anymore. He was a man who could inspire things. Love was one of them. Folly was another.
Gustave said the tower was for France, and for the Exposition Universelle—the World’s Fair that would celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. And why not celebrate that upheaval? It marked the beginning of things. It marked the day every Frenchman and every Frenchboy earned the right to love their Frenchladies in the way they were famous for: thoroughly, joyously, and free from constraint.
He said the tower would show the world how strong and tall France was and had always been. How strong and tall she’d always be—the tower standing there, never tipping. Even if Gustave was building the tower for himself, as the skeptics suggested (probably the writers again, who said it was ego that propelled a crazy man into the clouds), well, no one cared. The people, the papers, the politicians—they all said the same thing: Gustave wasn’t just an engineer, he was an iron magician, and his pride was paid for in rivets. Two and a half million of them.
The day the first worker died was a cold one. It wasn’t snowing, but the air was crisp and the wind nibbled. The worker’s name was Dussardin, and he was a riveter’s assistant. He loved three things in the right order: his wife’s belly, since there was a child inside; then his wife herself; and finally his gloves, which kept his fingers warm when he worked high on the tower.
Dussardin never feared heights. But neither did he assume the ability to survive them. He walked confidently at altitude when other men would shiver, but he moved slowly and watched his feet. Still, Dussardin was only a man. He couldn’t see the wind nor anticipate its push.
That morning he’d woken up and kissed his wife like he meant it, because he did, and she kissed back and held him, because that was how their days always started—with the quiet admission that they’d rather spend the day together, maybe walking or sitting in bed with a book, touching because it was, by then, habitual. He kissed her stomach and waited for the child to kick. In the interim he rested his cheek on his wife’s navel and counted seconds.
Dussardin left when he got to one hundred. He had to. He also wanted to, since he was building something important for a country he loved. It was a tower people would one day sing about, travel to, and climb atop in order to marry in view of the world.
When he arrived at the construction site, he stepped off the trolley and looked up in the same way he always did: in awe of what his own hands had helped build. Then he marched to the stairs and climbed them. He did so like a man who felt tuned to the height of his construction, and as he climbed higher, so did his sense of having permanently marked the earth.
The boy who thought chairs wouldn’t tip and bodies wouldn’t fall, who leapt off his tiny tower and smashed his arm on the sidewalk, was named Franz Reichelt. He was a boy who took refuge in his habits. One of them: standing near the tower’s base and staring up until his neck hurt. He loved to watch the workers as they moved. They weren’t men, not really. Not at that height. They were tiny ants climbing on an endless metal flower.
The boy was always at the Champ de Mars, the field where Gustave’s tower grew. At least when there wasn’t school to study for or church to attend. He would aim himself in the correct direction—west along the Quai d’Orsay—and run the whole way from home. He never walked. He was a child who couldn’t bear the pace of it.
He would find a bench and sit on the lacquered wood. Or he’d find a dry spot in the grass and sit there instead. Or, if he was feeling brave, he’d climb a tree, where he was closer to the workers he admired. Not much closer, but a little bit. His father was on the tower, and Franz wanted to be as close to him as possible. His father was an old man with a gray beard, but his greatest asset was still his back. He was a riveter, and his assistants called him Fer Chevalier, meaning “Iron Knight,” in honor of the weight he could carry. Franz was very proud of his father’s title and hoped one day he could be called by the same name.
The day the first worker died, Franz was standing so close to the tower that its noon shadow almost touched him. The child was afraid of the tower’s shadow and didn’t want to be covered by it. The bright sun did nothing to warm the air, and Franz watched his breath climb and disappear. Then he watched the workers do the same—men returning from lunch, laughing.
Franz felt excitement primarily in his chest, which went boom-boom-boom, as the workers climbed the stairs. But the longer his heartbeat barreled, the deeper his excitement sank, and soon, as always, he became jealous. Why can’t I be up there? said Franz to the tower, and the workers, and the birds.
The men climbing eventually disappeared in the network of metal. But Franz kept watching, looking for movement. He spied on the ants and made a game of guessing which one was Papa. When the breeze picked up, Franz shivered for warmth. The wind wasn’t stiff, but it was constant, and maybe it was stiffer at altitude, even twenty or fifty meters up—though Franz couldn’t sense the air was dangerous. To him the air was only cold, and colder when it gusted.
Franz saw no cause for the fall. One ant just slipped, dropped, and made an indentation in the earth. The bug fell quickly but made a surprisingly soft sound when it hit, like fresh dough pounded flat by a baker’s fist. Franz stared at the body, and only one articulation sifted through his fog of thoughts: Please not Papa.
Franz wanted to run, but his legs froze, and his eyes locked on a man half-sunk in the earth. He prayed in his own way, really wishing for the man to stand up. When the man didn’t stand up, Franz stepped closer to the body, and his fear multiplied. All he saw was a man in a uniform he recognized.
The boy was too scared to cry. He became pale. His eyes were big, and they darted between the body and the platform it fell from, way up. Eventually he ran over to the body and sat down next to it—anything to avoid being alone—and he shut his eyes, because he couldn’t look.
Witnesses recounted the story for the newspapermen, who arrived late to the scene of the accident:
A boy comforted a dead stranger, both with eyes sealed shut. The boy was practically latched to the body’s arm. Eventually the boy was peeled off by the police, and he screamed when they touched him. He never stopped screaming, because his air was endless. A constant siren alerted the world that something bad had happened, and the boy was still very afraid. Then the boy’s father appeared from the raucous crowd, which had streamed in from the street and down from the tower. People pushed forward to see the body. Franz’s father was a riveter, and it was his assistant who’d fallen. The father took off his gloves and held his boy and said, What, what? Why are you here? Why are you touching that man? The boy finally opened his eyes and went silent on seeing his father, on absorbing the sound of his voice. Something crawled on the boy’s face. Not fear or shame, but some mix of them. Joy didn’t come when it should’ve. Instead of hugging his papa, the boy ran.Then he tripped because his feet wanted to move faster than his body.He landed in the grass on his broken arm and yelled in pain. Then he stood, turned back to see if his father was still watching. The father was, though with a kind of pity now. The boy saw the pity even if he didn’t understand its meaning. He turned red and cried and kept running.
Instead of chasing his son and holding him, Fer Chevalier stayed in the field beneath the tower. There was no purpose in providing a false sense of comfort. That was what he would tell his wife later when she asked. The boy needed to take care of himself. What purpose was there in comforting the boy? What wisdom? Only the pretend sense that everything was okay, that things could be undone, that dead men can wake up.
Fer Chevalier identified the body to the police. He said the name was Dussardin. Dussardin had a wife, he said, putting his head in his hands. Then he said, La belle femme, son amour. When he got to the part about the baby—the wife had been pregnant for some months—many heads in the crowd dipped. The authorities found the wife, notified her of the death, and immediately brought her to the grounds. Yes, my husband, she said. She sat down in shock, and in the wet grass she grew pale.
Dussardin wasn’t just the first worker to fall. He was also the last, or so the papers predicted. Le Petit cited Gustave’s insistence on safety as proof: in addition to screens and guardrails, he forbade his workers to drink wine during lunch. Dussardin, Le Petitwent so far as to claim, had disobeyed the edict by taking three sips of wine and one sip of brandy. The conjecture—based upon an anonymous confession by another riveter’s assistant—made Gustave an even greater hero. He’d spent two years erecting three hundred vertical meters of iron, and only one worker had died, and this from his own stupidity. A Fair Price? read the headline above a picture of Gustave sitting by Dussardin’s wife in the grass as she wept.
Gustave had stayed with the widow even after the newspapermen had left and the smoke of their magnesium lamps had dissipated. He’d hugged her for the sympathy it displayed and the comfort it brought him. Then he’d tried to explain why she would not only survive but flourish. In addition to her husband’s honor—his name would be engraved on the tower’s highest platform—there was a pension. Money she could use to feed her child, with some left over for schooling if she was careful not to waste it.
The widow’s body had shaken as the money had been discussed. Gustave had eventually tried to pull away, but the widow had stopped him. She’d grabbed Gustave’s sleeve and put his hand on her stomach, holding it there until the child kicked. She’d counted the seconds out loud. One, two, three. Then higher, almost to a hundred.
That evening Gustave dined alone. He prepared whatever was in his cupboard—simple things meant to inspire a lasting kind of fullness. Beans. Bread. Wine. Music played on one of Thomas Edison’s windup phonographs, a gift from the Americas. The music playing was recorded on a tin foil sheet wrapped around a grooved cylinder, and watching the machine work soothed Gustave—the perfect science of a great inventor playing soft music in his living room.
Gustave wasn’t a man who panicked, and he moved through his emotions industriously. He felt them in the correct order, believing that if he skipped one or stacked them improperly the imbalance would lead to rash action. Rash action included publicly apologizing, or disassembling the tower, or quitting architecture entirely for a career involving his heart, like poetry or playing the violin or falling in love for once—noble pursuits, he thought, but not historically significant. Gustave wanted to be remembered for something. One life and eight million francs was the price he paid for the world’s tallest tower in the world’s greatest state! He celebrated by trying to put more wine in his body than blood.
He picked up the paper again, Le Petit. He reread the headline and the article, then looked at the picture of himself and the widow. He felt hysterical in light of her sadness, and his pride disintegrated when he thought of how warm her stomach had felt.
Dussardin! shouted Gustave, as if the man had ruined something. Gustave’s mood, his appetite, his safety record. Then Gustave threw his empty wine bottle against the wall. The bottle didn’t break. It went into the wood and stuck there. This made him think for a long while about his grandmother. Anything to distract himself!
During his youth his grandmother had often complained about the weak walls. Or at least their thinness—that she could always hear neighbors fighting about money and smell their superior cooking. His grandmother was a terrible cook. She boiled food until you didn’t have to chew it.
Gustave looked at the bottle like the glass had disobeyed a rule of physics, and then he kicked it. The bottle still didn’t break. Instead the bottle went through the wall entirely, into a stranger’s apartment. A stranger because Gustave hardly slept at home and didn’t know his neighbors. He was always working, or inspecting the work of his laborers, or drawing, or drinking, or sleeping in a hotel closer to the tower. Or pretending to sleep in that hotel and actually sitting in the lobby with the bellhop and the porter, asking if they admired his latest designs. He only occasionally came back to the apartment, which these days he was too rich to live in. But he kept the apartment because it proved where he came from and how far he’d come. He came from nowhere special. His father had been a soldier in the French Army, and his mother had sold charcoal. Both had worked desperately to brighten their young son’s life, and as a result he’d studied at the Lycée Royal. But the cost of his education had been more than monetary, for his parents had been too busy to care for him. He had spent most of his youth under the watch of his grandmother. The apartment had been hers, and Gustave remained fond of it, for it contained her memory.
Gustave looked into the hole he created, and there was a boy’s face on the other side. The startled boy tried to shove his hurt arm through the wall. Pleased to meet you. Yes, it’s broken. Shake it softly. But the cast was too thick, so the boy pushed against the wall a few times, as if persistence itself solved problems. Eventually he gave up.
The boy looked through the hole again, eyes widening as he registered a famous face. Or at least a famous beard. And though his father had taught him that civility was more important than bravery or stature or even strength, Franz couldn’t find anything polite to say. The boy stayed quiet and stared through the wall at Gustave Eiffel thinking it couldn’t-be-him, then might-be, then probably-is. Finally he thought yes-definitely, which is when Franz fainted.
Gustave sprinkled water through the wall to rouse the boy.
Do you have a name? asked Gustave.
Yes, monsieur. It’s Franz, age ten.
Franz rubbed his eyes.
Do you know who I am?
Yes, monsieur. I’ve seen your picture.
Have you seen the tower, too?
Yes, monsieur. I was there today.
Early, said Franz, scooting back from the wall.
Did you see the man fall?
Yes, monsieur, said Franz, who began crying. He put his cast over his face.
Were you the boy touching him?
Yes, said Franz, crying harder. I thought it was Papa.
Franz covered his head entirely with his arms.
Your papa won’t fall, said Gustave.
Are you sure? Do you promise?
The boy cried for a while until his father put him to bed, at which point Fer Chevalier was shocked to see Gustave’s head in the wall. He had seen Gustave on the tower many times, had twice taken instructions from him directly, and had even shaken his hand. But a hole in the wall leading to the most famous man in France? Fer Chevalier sat on the wood floor and tried desperately to think of something polite and insightful to say.
Your son is very brave, said Gustave finally. You are the riveter, then? Fer Chevalier?
Yes, he said.
A pause revealed loud breathing, and Fer Chevalier turned around. He saw his boy peeking from a doorway
I told you to go to bed! said Fer Chevalier.
Franz ducked into the darkness of his room.
My hope is one day he does better than me, said Fer Chevalier. I told him not to be a riveter.
May our creations always exceed us, said Gustave, and both men nodded.
They agreed the hole in the wall shouldn’t be repaired—for Gustave admired the boy, and the boy’s father admired Gustave, if not for his kindness, at least for his prestige. One benefit of the arrangement was that Fer Chevalier could make use of the hole to ask for time off when he needed it. If, for example, he wanted to spend the day in bed with his wife, kissing her. Fer Chevalier would wake before sunup—as Gustave prepared to depart—and would whisper his requests through the passageway.
Paris passed two decades in fine form. Franz went from a boy with habits to a man with ambitions, and Gustave’s brown beard turned gray. They continued to converse through the wall. Meanwhile Fer Chevalier and his plump beautiful wife died of ripe age. That age was sped along by an abundance of wine and tobacco, and for that reason Franz enjoyed both sparingly. For a while Franz begrudged his parents for birthing him so late in their lives, departing for heaven while he was still young, but over time the mourning became a manageable sadness became only a fondness for their memories. He kept tintypes of both parents pinned to the wall.
It was, all of a sudden, December 1911. Christmas approached, and the city was covered in a fine layer of white snow. The cold was constant, and every time someone breathed, a cloud of vapor shot off to God.
Franz was a tailor now. He made suits for tourists. Austrians, mostly—rich types who played dress-up on vacation. He didn’t mind. They paid well and were usually polite. He spoke German in his shop and kept beer for them. He enjoyed their stories. They talked about the Alps like their mountains were the tallest ever. They talked about Serbia like a war was coming. They talked about the archduke, Ferdinand. They always noted his first name, which was Franz. They loved to point that out. They said maybe this Franz (they’d touch the tailor’s arm or his shoulder) was really that Franz in disguise, and they pointed toward the door as if Austria were right across the street. They laughed, drank, and hugged the tailor. Franz would try to measure each tourist’s chest or neck, but they’d move around the room, or gallop sometimes, touching things, looking out the window. They were glad to be in Paris, even if that month was so cold. The city was so famous! They’d just seen the tower, they’d had too much coffee, they felt bright. Franz would wait. The tourists would eventually sit, then laugh again, then let the man complete his measures.
But Franz’s true ambition wasn’t to make clothes. He wanted to make men float, and sewing clothes allowed Franz to evaluate the flying capability of fabrics: he learned what was strong, what was light, and how to stitch with both precision and speed. Every suit, then, was parachute practice.
You said men aren’t birds, said Franz one night through the hole in the wall that had never been repaired.
I didn’t say that. I said men are too heavy, said Gustave. That’s why your parachutes don’t work.
They could work!
I don’t see how.
Think about your tower. It’s taller and fatter than a thousand men, and made of iron. It still stands in defiance of gravity.
Not in defiance of gravity, said Gustave. The tower has legs. It’s standing on something. The ground!
You told me so many times that the people of France didn’t believe in you when you first proposed the tower. They said it was so tall it wouldn’t stand. And if it did stand, it would only stand for a short time before collapsing onto the city. But the tower has stood for almost twenty-three years, yet shows no lean.
Your point? asked Gustave.
Nothing is impossible if the design is right. All I need is a better one.
Then draw a better one, said Gustave, laughing in a kind way at his good foolish friend.
I’m trying so hard. I believe I’m close. Will you help me?
Let an old man rest, said Gustave. I haven’t designed anything in a long time. That and I’ve never been an inventor. I’m Gustave Eiffel, not Thomas Edison.
Gustave looked at his windup phonograph, now a relic of almost no value.
It’s not too late to invent something! said Franz. A working parachute. You could be remembered for saving lives.
I’m already remembered for so many things, said Gustave like that fact brought him no satisfaction.
But the lives! Workers. Soldiers. Don’t you see? It’s not just towers anymore, or tall churches, or high roads carved into steep cliffs. The future is coming. A revolution. They say aeroplanes will one day carry entire armies to war. The Wright Brothers risked their lives for the science of flight. But a whole army that high? At that speed? What if a soldier falls out?
His mother will miss him, said Gustave.
The cost of life is immeasurable! Even one life.
Soldiers are dead anyway.
Shot dead in a trench, said Gustave.
Franz put his hands in his hair, Gustave put his lips on the wine bottle, and they decided to change the subject. There was no war yet, only fear that one was coming.
Franz had, over the years, developed a habit of dropping things off the roof. Dolls at first, then dummies. In later stages of his obsession—or pursuit, as he called it—to build a functional parachute, those dummies became human analogs. The same weight with the same weight distribution as a real man, with joints at the elbows, knees, and hips in order to approximate the swinging of limbs, the changing center of gravity.
The dolls broke, and the dummies broke with a bang, as the parachutes continued to fail—great weights freefalling five stories, clattering on the cobbled walk. So that Christmas Franz asked Gustave for a gift he thought would lead to a breakthrough.
The chutes fail to fill, said Franz.
I told you that would happen, said Gustave. Men are too heavy.
I need a higher platform, said Franz. I need distance and time for the chute to fill. This building is only five flights. How many is your tower?
I built the tower so brave men would have something to climb, said Gustave. Not somewhere to exercise their foolishness.
What if it works? asked Franz. Next time the wind blows and one of your workers falls, he can drift back to his wife. It’ll make up for the man you killed.
I didn’t kill anyone, said Gustave. The wind did.
S’il vous plait, said Franz. What risk is it? What do you lose?
Gustave finally agreed, if only for the chance to gloat when Franz failed. He phoned the Prefecture of Police in the morning and made the request, saying the matter was personal. He said it would be the only favor he’d ever ask of the city from now until the day he died, which he promised would be soon. After all, he built the tower for France, and so the country owed him something.
The Prefect said it was no bother. He thought it’d be fun to watch. And he was right, since the only thing Franz made, after dropping his dummy from the first platform, was a new dent in the ground.
Franz burned candles and studied science by their dim, inconsistent light. The strain brought headaches and a daze he drank through. But the dimness also forced him to read slowly, so the data gathered, then stacked, then began to mean something he should’ve previously observed: a chute’s weight was less important than its surface area. And secondarily: the larger the surface area, the longer it would take to fill. The longer it took to fill, the higher a man would need to fall from in order to fall slowly. Franz considered the contradiction: a man who died from a fall of thirty meters might live if dropped from a height of three hundred, meaning the first platform of Gustave’s tower wasn’t high enough. Franz had to go to the top.
Franz modified his designs. Magnified them. The chutes became fat, tall, heavy. But the important measure—the weight-to-surface-area ratio—got smaller. After stitching endlessly into the night, Franz climbed to the roof of the apartment and tried, once again, to turn a stick man into a stick bird. Gustave refused further access to the tower, for he’d already used the only favor he was owed, and the newspapers had caught wind of the debacle. Gustave had been embarrassed. In old age, Gustave Eiffel uses famous French tower for strange games with a dashing young tailor! read one headline.
Gustave sat by his window and watched Franz fail with admirable consistency. Each dummy was tossed, and Gustave watched them spin downward. Some hit the cobbled walk and splintered completely. Others grounded hard, then died as well as wooden men could: in larger, recognizable pieces—there was the chest, but the head went rolling that way.
Franz sat in his kitchen eating olives one by one from a jar. He chewed each with a certain finality while considering all the men who might now die because of him. Or because of what he couldn’t accomplish without Gustave’s help. Franz the Flying Tailor hadn’t, in fact, ever sewn a flying suit. He’d only stitched a set of falling ones, and so millions of workers around the world, building towers, bridges, and roads cut into cliffs, risked falling like felled trees from high places. Not to mention future soldiers flying to future wars.
Gustave appeared at the wall and coughed through the hole, as if testing the silence on Franz’s side. He said, Maybe if you strap the chute on your own back, and perch there on the edge of the building like a bird, then close your eyes, pray, and step off. If you pretend you’re entitled to a soft landing, maybe God will give you one.
Gustave had poisoned himself with the wine again, and he waited for Franz to laugh at the joke. But Franz didn’t laugh. Instead Franz walked over to the hole and kicked it, hoping the tunnel would cave in. The impact of his foot only made the hole bigger and easier to talk through.
And your ambition was so much better? yelled Franz. Your tall tower with no purpose?
More expensive, at least, said Gustave. Eight million francs!
I’ve knocked your tower down a hundred times in a hundred different dreams, said Franz.
Why not do it in this life? The one I’m in, so I can watch. The government was supposed to dismantle the tower after the World’s Fair. Look—it’s twenty years later! I’m tired of staring at the monstrosity.
Franz sat on the floor. He said, My design won’t work from the height of the roof. But if I jump from the top platform of the tower—
What do you mean, jump? asked Gustave, serious now. You must have misunderstood my joke.
My new design requires human operation, said Franz. I’ll fall the first hundred meters. The rest I’ll float.
Gustave shut his eyes, emptied the wine bottle. It won’t work, he said. You’ll drop like a rock with a ribbon attached.
Not a ribbon, said Franz. A balloon. I know the design will work! It’s not faith. It’s science and stitching. I’ve been stitching my whole life.
Gustave shook his head. The city won’t allow it, he said.
I already queried the Prefecture of Police.
They won’t allow it! A wooden man is one thing. A living one is different.
But what are police famous for? asked Franz. Nothing. Falling asleep. Smoking cigarettes. Leaning against the wall. One needs only deceive the Prefect.
You’ll die for nothing! said Gustave.
When my chute opens and I land safely, brighter men than me will be inspired to invent better chutes that open at lower altitudes.
This is ludicrous.
The Aéro-Club de France doesn’t think so.
As the week passed, Franz burned up all his candles, having no time to buy more, so furiously was he working. On the night before he jumped, he was forced to turn on the electric bulbs. That light was more reliable, but also harsher, and in the bright yellow glow, and the dull buzz, he gathered whole parts of his wooden men: arms, legs, feet, heads, and the metal joints that held each piece together. He spread the parts on the floor and rigged them together into the shape of a man. Afterward, as dawn approached, he dragged the dummy out of the apartment, down the stairs, and into the street, where he pointed himself and his cargo toward the tower. The cobbled walk was black except for a measly moon and a series of measly streetlights, and a thin purple crack on the farthest edge of the sky.
Franz inhaled the air, then held it like it was his, he owned every cubic inch. He moved toward his cart, which was tied in the alley, and piled the doll inside. He began pushing, then pushed faster, then ran and pushed simultaneously. Every dent and bump and pit in the road he faced bravely, and because of that his cart never toppled or even tilted, except during turns, into which Franz leaned and sped through.
When the sun finally rose, Franz welcomed a light he didn’t have to turn on. His legs were tired, which was fine, because he had arrived at the base of the tower at exactly eight a.m. The Prefect of Police was already waiting.
Instead of the stairs, they took the elevator, which lessened the impact of their ascent: their legs didn’t burn, and the wind didn’t box them. Still, the ride up was slow. Loud. Each individual mechanism woke up, then sounded. Each chain, hydraulic ram, and water-powered piston. Those sounds stewed together and reverberated as the metal cage, and the two men inside it, pushed higher. But the intensity diminished with distance, leaving only the cable’s whine and the whine of all the rollers. The comparative quiet was so marked that Franz felt he had to fill a silence when there wasn’t one.
It’s perfectly designed, said Franz. This tower. Every part inside it.
The Prefect sighed deeply, and Franz wondered how long he’d been awake.
They switched elevators at the second level, then continued upward to the third and final platform, the highest point, where Gustave was waiting. It wasn’t a shock to see him, not really. Something softer, like an unpleasant smell.
You’re not supposed to be here, said Franz.
I built this tower, said Gustave. It’s mine.
You didn’t build it. You drew it on a napkin.
Gustave looked at the Prefect, then back at Franz. He said, Did you tell him you were going to drop the doll again? Is that how you negotiated this? It’s surprising, the things men will lie about.
Franz dragged the doll to the railing, heaved it up to the highest bar, which was just below his chest, then pushed. The wood toppled over with no resistance or fear, and the body fell. Fast and also strangely, a shot bird spinning. It became smaller in what looked like segments: first the doll was man-sized, then child-sized, then dog-sized, and so on. When it landed it disappeared via a certain kind of magic:physics. Each piece buried itself.
Dummy officially dropped, said Franz, nodding at the Prefect.
You idiot, said Gustave.
There would’ve been silence, except the wind was singing. During the pause, the Prefect leaned against the elevator door and lit a cigarette.
What are you going to do? asked Gustave. Jump?
The design requires human operation! I’ll fall a hundred meters before my chute fills. Then I’ll slow down. I’ll dangle and descend. Not like a leaf, exactly. I won’t land beautifully. But I’ll land softly enough to survive.
You don’t believe that, said Gustave.
Franz looked over the railing again, then strapped the parachute suitto his back. It was nine kilograms in all, including the rig and twenty square meters of silk. A hood of cloth extended over his head, and more cloth dragged near his feet, cloaklike. He looked back at the Prefect, who had fallen asleep. Then Franz climbed on the railing and held a post for balance, taking time to steady himself. Also to absorb the view. He didn’t converse upward, for it wasn’t God who would protect him. It was all the cloth strung to his back, which Franz had cut and sewed himself.
Gustave marched over to the railing, then reached up and grabbed Franz by the arm. Get down, he said.
I’m jumping, said Franz. Let go or you’re coming with me.
Fine, said Gustave. At least I’ll die in good company.
Gustave gripped tighter. He started counting. One, two. Ten. Fifty. One hundred.
Franz eventually shouted, Let go!
He shook his arm like it was a wing.
Gustave only gripped tighter. He even pushed Franz a little bit with his other hand. Go on, he said. Jump. There will be some symmetry to this. Twenty-some years ago this tower killed one man. Today it’ll kill two more. Age necessitates progress, right? If this tower doesn’t start besting itself, then it won’t be important anymore.
Franz breathed, and Gustave shouted, Coward!
The wind came and whistled through the various nooks, chutes, and patterns in the metal, and that’s when Franz began to pray in his own way, like really wishing for Gustave to let go.
Franz breathed because the air was his, made for him to float through. And while he didn’t know if his parachute would open, he believed it would—so he had no fear when he jumped.
Ian Bassingthwaighte is a writer and photographer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he attends the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. You can find him online at igbass.com.
Listen to Ian Bassingthwaighte and Antonio Monda discuss “Reichelt’s Parachute” on our Contributors in Conversation podcast.