Travelers Welcome

Travelers Welcome

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


by T.R. Healy

Breathing rapidly, his heart throbbing against his ribs, Marcus pressed the buzzer under the first name listed on the directory outside the front door of the towering apartment building. No one answered so he pressed the buzzer under the next name. Still no answer. Urgently he pressed one buzzer after the other until a voice squawked through the speaker.

"Who is it?"

"I have a delivery from Federal Express," he lied.

A shrill sound followed almost at once as the door was unlocked and he pulled it open and hurried into the small vestibule and strode past the elevator to the stairway. Not surprisingly, no one was there. Anyone who could afford to live in this building would never bother to take the stairs he suspected. They were too steep and narrow, barely wide enough for one person. Anxiously he charged up them two at a time, breathing harder than ever, his flannel shirt sticking to his spine.

"Come on," he urged himself, refusing to take a break. "Come on ... come on ... come on."

At the top of the stairway was a black metal door. It was unlocked. His pulse pounding in his ears, he hesitated for a moment then pushed it open with his left shoulder and stepped out onto the roof. Immediately a stiff breeze caught him square in the face and he spun around and saw the steeple of the Presbyterian church where he attended a wedding last summer with his father. And just behind it was the ivy-covered apartment house he visited nearly a year ago. He smiled, remembering the startled look of the sunbather he found lying face down on two thick beach towels in the middle of the roof.

Overhead droned a bi-plane, its scruffy wings scarcely longer than his eyelashes.

At once, he stretched his arms straight above his head, as if to snatch the tiny plane out of the sky, then began to whirl around the narrow roof, his toes almost bouncing on its spongy tar surface. He saw the steeple of another church. He saw the top of the Ferris wheel on the other side of the river. He saw the observation floor of the tallest building in the city. He saw the thick limbs of the gigantic oak tree he used to swing from when he was little. He saw two more buildings he had visited and two more he had intended to visit last year.

Round and round he spun until he was afraid he might spin over the wall.


The first time Marcus snuck onto a roof was with his friend Hovie when they were seniors in high school. They had gone to a basketball game downtown and were walking back to the bus stop when they happened to approach the Carlyle Hotel. Often they issued challenges to one another, usually at school, and that night Hovie challenged him to go up with him onto the roof of the venerable old hotel. He resisted but Hovie was adamant and suddenly ducked into the revolving door and reluctantly he followed him through the ornate lobby and up the fire stairs.

"You know what I feel like?" Hovie asked as he peered down at the violet lights of the revolving restaurant across the street.

"What's that?"

"Like I'm on top of the world."

Marcus chuckled.

"Like I'm an explorer," he continued, staring now at the shimmering lights of the surrounding buildings. "Like someone who's been somewhere others haven't been."


Marcus only went onto one other roof with his high school friend and that was the night of their graduation when they crashed a wedding reception atop another majestic old hotel downtown, the Regency Arms. And they both agreed it was the best party they could have attended to celebrate their graduation. They were each other's closest friend and they were back on a summit together.

"I bet you never thought you'd do this again," Hovie laughed as he poured his friend another glass of champagne.


"Neither did I, partner."

Marcus lied, though, too embarrassed to tell the truth. For on several occasions since he followed his friend up to the Carlyle roof, he had snuck onto the roofs of other high-rises around town. Sometimes he did it for the sheer thrill of the challenge, as if he really were some kind of an explorer, but more often he went on the roofs to escape the increasing tension between him and his father. Up there he was alone and he was relaxed, not worried about his father badgering him to apply to college. There he could feel a certain satisfaction in knowing that he was clever enough to make it to the top, could look down at the city as if it belonged just to him. Up there he had accomplished something.

For quite a few months after his graduation he continued to go up on roofs around town until late one evening, at the Sterling Silver Insurance Building, he barely escaped being caught by a security guard and decided it was time to stop. His luck couldn't last forever, he realized, however clever he was. And the last thing he wanted to happen was to be arrested because he knew his father would never let him hear the end of it. So he swore to himself he would never sneak onto another roof again.


"Is that you, Marcus?" his father called out when he entered the back door of their modest bungalow.

"Yeah. Who else were you expecting?"

A moment later, his father shambled into the kitchen, his rheumy eyes almost as bright as his scarlet cardigan sweater. "You got some mail today."


He handed him a wrinkled blue envelope. "So I opened it."

He was surprised. "Didn't you see it was sent to me?"

"Yeah, I saw."

"So why did you open it?"

Not looking at his son, he took a deep breath. "It's from your mother."


"You heard me."

He was stunned. His mother died in a car accident almost fourteen years ago when he was still a toddler. "I don't understand."

"Please, sit down," his father said as he pulled out a chair from the breakfast table, "and I'll explain it to you." Thoroughly confused, he plopped down in the chair, the vein in the middle of his forehead pounding so furiously he was afraid it was going to burst.

"What I told you about your mother dying in a car crash was a lie," he admitted. "Actually, she abandoned us. I didn't really know why she left so I didn't know what to tell you."

"You could've told me the truth."

"Yeah, maybe so, but I thought it was easier to pretend she was dead because I was sure she was out of our lives for good. And she was until this letter arrived because, I swear to you, I've never heard one word from her since the day she walked out of here."

"You should have told me, Pop."

"There are a lot of things I should have done and some I did and some I didn't."


Suddenly, as he whirled atop the apartment building, Marcus stumbled and fell against the roof's low concrete wall. He started to get up but he was too tired and slumped back against the wall, breathing like a locomotive. As he gazed down at the cars moving around the building, he could not believe he had snuck up here, he was so sure he would never do such a foolish thing again, but after he read the letter from his mother he felt he had to go some place where he could be alone and think about whether he wanted to meet her as she requested. He just didn't know and took the letter out of the pocket of his denim jacket and looked at it again. It seemed as if what she wanted more than anything was forgiveness, a chance, he believed, to make everything right between them but he was afraid it was too late. She was a stranger to him, just like any of those drivers in the cars circling the apartment building right now, and probably always would be for what she did.

Still breathing hard, he leaned over the wall and let the letter slip between his fingers and watched it float through the heavy night air.

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