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Short Story

Jordy Michaels Leaps the Great Divide

A short story by R.J. Dent.

They were called the dividers, but they were all gamblers. There were eight of them – five men and three women. Out of that eight, Jordy Michaels was, without doubt, the best of them. It was Jordy who had won the most money; it was Jordy who had set three new records – and broken two of them himself; it was Jordy who mostly found the best divides, whether they were in New York, Mexico City, Chicago, Toronto, or wherever.

After Jordy, Alec Murdoch was probably the best of the rest. Murdoch was the only one Jordy considered offered any sort of challenge to his supremacy. Jordy watched Murdoch go through his habitual finger-stretching exercises, sure that one day Murdoch would replace him, just as Jordy had once replaced the sadly lamented Wayne ‘Wings’ Stubley. Everyone got replaced eventually – it was the nature of things.

Leanne Garibaldi didn’t count – yet. She was new to it – she still took too many clumsy risks just prior to the leap – overly-fancy footwork, sloppy use of arm movements – and she kept her head too still. Still, tonight would be her fourth divide, and Jordy knew she was only just beginning to define her own style. If she managed to last for ten, Jordy knew she’d do well in the future – such as it was. As Jordy looked at her round face, she glanced up and caught his gaze. She nodded curtly, then looked away.

Anthony Penrose, warming his hands on the ventilator shaft, was stolid, partly due to being prone to spasmodic but severe arthritic seizures in his hands. He didn’t enter all of the contests, especially during the winter, but in the spring, the summer and the fall, he would be there with the other dividers, putting his two thousand dollars into the top hat, then going to find his number chalked somewhere on the roof and standing on it until it was his turn. Edward Summers, Miranda Frazier, Nicola Mills and Tom Patmore made up the eight. These last four were of about equal ability.

At one time, there had been nine dividers, but Lewis Gimmell had fallen from the roof of a Seattle office block after three and a half minutes. Two hours later, the eight survivors had gathered together in a hotel bar. Jordy told the others he’d start scouting for a new location. He’d found one eventually – this time in Pittsburgh. They’d all gone to view it together, trusting Jordy to have looked at – but not to have touched – the opposite building’s roof. He hadn’t touched it, but he had looked plenty.

What he’d seen was a twelve metre wide expanse of deep nothingness, waiting patiently between the two tall office buildings – a nothingness that held out death for the unwary, the frightened and the stupid. It also held out glory, rewards and a form of identity for the quick and the alive.

“It’s a great divide,” Murdoch had said, sounding like he meant it. “Yeah,” Leanne agreed. “Good work, Jordy.” “Thanks,” Jordy replied. They had been right. It was a great divide.

Jordy looked at it for a while, thinking a little about his approach, then he shifted his gaze to a black fire ladder, where a small group of people who claimed to be interested in joining the dividers were standing. He remembered how he’d been a little like them once, longing to join the dividers’ exclusive club – which wasn’t at all exclusive, and wasn’t a club either – but only having enough courage, but not enough cash for the entrance fee. It had taken him nearly a year to earn it, mostly by betting consistently on Stubley. He’d supplemented his money by once betting that a new divider would fall within a minute. He’d won eight hundred dollars as a result of that particular bet, but he still tried not to think about it too much. Jordy doubted that many of those there tonight to watch had either the courage or the money – they were there to see someone else’s death, not to risk their own lives.

The entrance money kept the brave but unresourceful out – the first divide was always five thousand – it allegedly covered the cost of a cheap funeral – it was never used for that. After the first one, it was two thousand a time. Many claimed they wanted to join, but few of those who claimed it actually ended up doing so. Jordy estimated that out of the bunch of almost twenty spectators, only two would actually become dividers. He saw one of the two he’d singled out – seeming vaguely familiar, standing with legs braced, arms loose by the sides of the body, hands not cold from Pittsburgh’s February night chill – and knew enough about the qualities necessary to be a good – meaning living – divider to recognise another future contender.

I’ll have a word afterwards, Jordy thought. Maybe the entrance amount can be made by betting on me. Or by betting against me! Maybe that’s what they’ve been doing all year.

Jordy, who knew exactly how much he was worth in a bet, snapped out of his useless reverie and took his chalknumbered place on the roof. As the last winning divider, he got to choose when he’d leap. He’d decided to go third. The others had sorted out their running and leaping order amongst themselves. He looked across at the other building.He knew the edge of its roofline like he knew his face in the mirror – he’d studied it for hours from a distance, looking at the shape of the concrete, trying to estimate its texture, wondering about its temperature. It looked warm. That was a good sign.

The rules of the contest were simple. In turn, each divider ran to the edge of the roof, leapt across the divide to the opposite building and hung onto the stone or wooden roof by their hands for as long as they could. Then they pulled themselves up. If they had the strength. No one was allowed to help. To make sure of this, no one was allowed onto the opposite building once it had been chosen, not even to practice. Everyone leapt in turn and the one who hung onto the roof for the longest time – carefully timed by the others – won eight thousand dollars out of the hat containing the money. The others shared the remainder. They also got whatever they’d managed to win on side bets. If anyone fell, their entrance money got shared out amongst every divider except for the winner.

Jordy had won twenty three divides out of the forty one he’d leapt. Not bad, he thought proudly, but the pride was short-lived, for he knew he was not going to be taking part in the contests for much longer. The last three divides he’d leapt had been tough. He’d hit the opposite walls hard, his loose-cut sports jacket not offering all that much in the way of protection – not that he’d have wanted the restriction and weight of a padded jacket – he’d seen their short-comings in the last but one divide.

Jordy remembered how an ex-stuntman had unexpectedly turned up in New Jersey, having somehow heard about the contest. He had been wearing his full protective stunt regalia and had very grandly placed his five thousand dollars in the top hat.

“That eight grand prize is as good as mine,” he’d said confidently, but Jordy – and some of the other dividers –- had heard the pronounced undercurrent of fear in his voice. Jordy had refrained from betting on him falling after three minutes, which was just as well, because he’d have lost the bet. The ex-stuntman had lasted for three minutes and thirty one seconds, then he’d fallen, screaming. Jordy had won the eight thousand that night, so the others had got to share the exstuntman’s money between them.

The ex-stuntman’s fall had made some of the possible contenders back out, even from being spectators. Sometimes it was brutal. Sometimes it was sublime. It was all a matter of perspective. Three months after the ex-stuntman’s death, Lewis had died when they’d all turned up in Seattle and leapt the divide in turn, Jordy leaping fourth, Lewis sixth. Jordy had won; Lewis had lost. Jordy became morose. It wasn’t Lewis’ death that had caused it, but an awareness of his own slightly decreasing agility – a terrible suspicion which had suddenly been made really and painfully obvious to him. He feared the potential physical limitations of his own body. He’d started to have his first doubts.

As he was having now.

Stop it, he chided himself. Don’t think about what you may not be able to do for much longer – think of what you can do – what you are capable of!

What Jordy could do – what he was very capable of doing – was hanging off the edge of a roof – his body taut and straining – for over five minutes. After that his arms started to complain and he had to haul himself up onto the roof, then accept the time the others agreed on – not that he needed them to tell him how long he’d hung there for – he knew it to the split second. Pain was his watch. Beating the pain and winning was his wake-up.

“Okay, can we make a start?” Miranda Frazier called suddenly. She was leaping first tonight. The other dividers crowded around her, stop-watches suddenly appearing out of coat and jacket pockets.

“I reckon about five,” she said. The other dividers nodded simultaneously. Miranda always reckoned about five, but she only ever dangled for about four.

Jordy watched her carefully as she prepared. She walked to the edge of the roof, gauged the distance and the impetus needed for the leap – even though she probably knew it down to the nearest gram per square centimetre – then walked back to the centre of the roof. She turned, faced the edge and ran. She made no sound as she reached the edge of the roof and leapt across the divide. Her arms were stretched out, reaching for the opposite building’s roof edge. She caught it easily and swung into the wall, bouncing easily – not too hard. Jordy started his stop-watch, knowing that there would be no tension until four minutes had passed. He was right. Four minutes and thirteen seconds later, Miranda pulled herself up onto the opposite roof. The dividers waited until she rejoined them, then it was Murdoch’s turn.

Murdoch’s strategy was the fast flit. He paced up and down for a moment, then turned and ran to the edge. He leapt and grabbed in one semi-circular motion, clearing the divide and gripping the roof easily. His body slammed into the wall and the other dividers inhaled sharply, for it had looked, just for a moment, as though the impact would jar him loose. But he hung on for five minutes and eight seconds, then pulled himself up. Jordy, Leanne and two of the spectators applauded him when he returned to their roof. It was a good time.

Jordy was next, with five-eight to beat. Easy, he told himself. I’ve done five-thirty tops. Five-eight is a cinch.

It wasn’t.

For a start, he leapt badly, not spreading his weight evenly as he cleared the divide. He found the roof edge with his hands easily enough – the stone was warm, as he’d thought – but he swung in too fast and his face, chest and legs slammed into the wall hard. The pain nearly made him lose his grip. Hold on! he told himself. Just hold on! Not long to go and you’ll have won again. So he held on and ignored the slowlybuilding pain that was beginning to gnaw at his body. His arms started to hurt at the shoulders, elbows and wrists, and his fingers started to throb painfully. To take his mind off the pain, he concentrated intently on watching the second hand of his wrist watch, seeing it slowly sweep past one minute, then two minutes and then three. It appeared to slow down a little for four minutes, then slow further for five. Long before then he had once more become aware of the excruciating agony that was searing through the upper half of his body. He almost gave up then – almost wanted to let go of the roof, but his locked finger grip wouldn’t loosen their hold, even when he’d thought they’d ungrip easily – even when he’d consciously willed them to open.

Trying to block out the physical trauma of intensifying pain and hurt, he continued staring at his watch. The second hand was nowhere near completing and recording the five minute circuit – instead, it had slowed down even more – at least it appeared to have, moving snail-like from one tiny gold time mark to another. For the first and last time as a divider, he panicked. It’s no good, I can’t do it! I can’t do it! I can’t do it!

Jordy’s mind chanted the negative refrain over and over, shouting it at him, but he managed to shut it out with the pragmatic part of him which hated that internal – and uncharacteristic – tone of whining defeatism he had heard so clearly. Then, just as he was about to attempt to haul himself up onto the roof, he saw that the second hand of his watch was no longer moving at all.

It was this final insulting indignity which goaded him into a decision.

I’m going for six!

As soon as he’d decided on this seemingly masochistic prolongation of suffering, the intense pain abruptly began to fade, then vanished completely. In its place came a wash of warmth that flooded through his previously screaming muscles and sinews. Along with this physical warmth came a magnified mental clarity. Suddenly, everything seemed simple; he would stay there until he was ready to move – and when he was ready to move, he would move. It was simply a matter of physics. Everything is physics, he thought. Movement equals movement. He looked at his watch again and saw that the second hand had swept past the five minute mark and was halfway around the six minute circuit. He felt a surge of triumph course rapidly from his chest up to his brain. I’m going to make six! Who says it can’t be done? Not me. I know it can because I’m going to do it!

And he did.

By then, his senses had clarified to an intensity far beyond their normal range – he could see, hear, smell, feel and taste far more – and far more clearly – than ever before. If he had been asked to explain his current physical and mental states, he’d have answered his interlocutor by saying: I’m an ice-pick – sharp, clean, functional and deadly – the one used to climb Everest, kill Trotsky and dig up the Sierra Madre treasure. As an ice-pick he hung there without effort. He dangled thirty storeys up from the roof of an office block in Pittsburgh, expending very little energy, suddenly full with the knowledge that he could have held on with just one hand for hours, never fearing he was going to drop to his death.

After seven minutes and three seconds, he decided to climb up onto the roof. Nobody cheered – they were too stunned. By the time he got back to the roof, the talking had started. Alec Murdoch came over to him.

“Pretty good, Jordy.”

“Bullshit.”

“No, really…” Murdoch said. “The way you stayed on it – absolutely great. What’s the secret?”

Jordy told him.

“Ice picks don’t die,” he said simply.

Murdoch nodded. “True. Very true.” He wandered away, puzzled.

After Murdoch had gone away, Jordy thought about the divide. It was a new record, of course – no one had ever reached seven-three. No one.

Something obvious then occurred to Jordy.

I’m going to go for eight, he told himself. It seemed like a good idea.

After the others had leapt the divide, Jordy told them what he planned to do.

They begged him not to – he refused to listen. They threatened to kick him out – he laughed at them. They offered to bribe him – he pointed out that it was his money they were using. Nothing they could think of to dissuade him worked.

Jordy was unstoppable. He felt better – more alive – than he ever had. He knew he’d be able to leap the divide and hang from the roof for as long as he chose.

Time is no longer a factor. Neither is the money. Neither is the divide.

Later, when all the spectators have gone, seven people stand in the early hours of first light and watch to see if they can learn how Jordy Michaels leaps the great divide.

© R.J. Dent 2002

R.J. Dent lives, writes and teaches in Brighton. He has written poems, short stories, essays and plays, and is currently writing and editing his first novel.

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