“Ladies and gentlemen, please!” Georgie likes me to pause here; it always begins so well. “I, the Amazing Furniture Ascender, will now climb this common household vanity set balanced precariously on the western corner of the Dubai City Tower.”
For this last trick, I will be blindfolded. That way I don’t look into anyone’s eyes. Doing so only points out how high I really am, how far I’ve come. The blindfold always puts me in a state: I feel one more step away from falling, I want to turn back, I know I have to keep going.
On the tower’s recently completed roof, the cameramen unclick their lens caps. Security discusses the sky, possible approach vectors. There’s no crowd up here. Only the city’s youngest emir—ten days since the last assassination—joins us. Into the camera he remarks in stilted English, “Speak No to terrorism.” My lifelong manager and partner Georgie rings a dinner bell: the signal.
I cover my eyes with the blindfold. Then I step onto the chair. Onto the desk. My recently healed ankle wobbles; the bone screws burn. Biting my tongue, I prop my foot on top of the mirror. I offer this feat to the world, my open arms filling with desert wind.
There’s no applause. The cameramen scrape their tripods on the roof. The emir practices his line again. One of the security detail asks, “Is that it?” They’re still waiting for more, even Georgie. But this time I’m not going to fall.
The French hate my act.
“Philippe Petit was an artist; you are, how you say, a doll without wings.”
On the Eiffel Tower’s observation deck, I will climb a watchman’s chair on a credenza on a polar bear rug. It’s the twelfth stop on the We Have a Huge Goodwill Tour, featuring me: the bold, toothsome face of Aggressive America. The tour’s not going well.
It does not surprise me that after the latest offensive by U.S. forces—a viral hemorrhagic fever in territorial Afghanistan that spread to the coast, killing millions in weeks—we are on people’s shit list. But I’m the one taking the heat. Me: a man in a fuchsia-sequined trench coat and top hat, a new pair of snakeskin boots, an American flag blindfold.
The bell rings, followed by far off cracking: fireworks and a concussion of drums from somewhere in the Champ de Mars. The polar bear squeaks like a dog toy when I step on its head. From the corners of the deck, the gathered audience laughs at Georgie’s idea of a joke.
Up the credenza and chair I scamper, ever the professional.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please!” But when I peek to see where the cameras are, everyone’s facing east, toward the black plumes.
The Louvre is burning; another suicide bomber. Beyond the smoke, the sheer breadth of the earth’s actual curve is enough to make me dizzy and my feet hot. Coming down in the new boots, I step on the bear’s lopsided head and break my ankle for the second time in my life. We postpone the tour indefinitely.
With nuclear disarmament on everyone’s lips—after we failed to vaporize Taliban forces in the Hindu Kush, Hiroshima-style—I am tapped for my first televised publicity stunt. Now I’m standing on a pleather ottoman balanced on our country’s last Hydrogen Bomb. Military officials salute me from the Florida airstrip; I wave back anxiously. When the Blue Angels buzz by, I grab my boot heels.
Walking atop the bomb’s length, I notice the metal casing sounds hollow.
“Is this it?”
The Secretary of Defense says, “Do you think we’d let you stand on a real H-bomb?”
“So then you got rid of them all.”
The Secretary of Defense chortles. “Someone get this kid a ladder and a margarita.”
In a time-lapsed infomercial, I assemble a buffet hutch. I’m wearing a bleach blond wig, a colorful gákti lined with white fur, and too much makeup. I pronounce my R’s and F’s like V’s until Georgie says, “You’re selling IKEA furniture, not shooting a ransom video.”
“I look like a doll with chest hair.”
“You’re fine,” she says. “Keep going.”
“You’ll catch me if anything goes wrong, right?”
“Of course,” she says, offering her arms to me like a child who wants to be picked up. “When have I not?”
After the last screw is in place, I scale the hutch. The camera slowly pans up to me while O Fortuna crescendos in the background. I have the urge to roar.
The infomercial takes four cuts—the furniture collapses the first three, I do the last.
Weekdays, I practice in Sears. Experimental routines with burnished walnut cribs and three-piece Bistro sets. Little girls clap at my tap dancing atop the dryers and the employees humor me because I’m a local celebrity. But they point and snicker when I climb the ovens and my knees begin to shake. They charge more for the ones I’ve fallen from.
The city’s museums don’t tolerate a man perfecting his art on Middle Kingdom sarcophagi or taxidermied lesser kudu.
At night, I resort to Central Park benches. The homeless stand on their shopping carts and wave to me. We talk about how the city’s getting older.
Slow nights at Red Lobster, I balance in a lobster suit on the main hall’s aquarium. It brings in tips. Kids love me. Parents say I’m a useful distraction. No one pays me on Prom Night when I knock over the wraparound tank and cause Harvey the Horseshoe Crab to become entangled in some girl’s expensive perm.
Broke, I drop out of The New School.
The lobster suit I steal. Several school desks, too. At Ground Zero, I mount the desks—stacked in two towers—and swat at invisible 767s for spare change.
The homeless move to other corners. I am on the news more than the war.
At the funeral, I want to climb my father’s coffin, but Mom says No—I’ll track shoeprints on the flag.
The first day I ascend a piece of furniture, I get hurt. I tell everyone I fell.
It’s my fourth birthday. It’s the day we launch Operation Enduring Freedom. My best gifts were three bags of army men and a large toy oven with red stove eyes and an egg timer.
Upstairs, Georgie and I drop the green figurines from my second-story window. Only after they hit the driveway do I remember their folded parachutes still in the bag in the backyard. Georgie drops her Ken doll, too. We hear its head crack.
We collect the men and doll and move to the backyard for more cake. She hoists me onto the stove. My hand saluted at my forehead, I scan the horizon for planes.
Georgie turns all the dials to High; I hop and dance and blow on my burning feet. She claps her Ken doll’s hands. His head falls off. The egg timer rings. Pausing, I
look into Georgie’s big eyes; I quickly cover my own. I say, “Lady and Gentleman, please!” and then dive off, open-armed, into the future.
Alexander Lumans is the Spring 2014 Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University. He has received fellowships to MacDowell, Yaddo, Sewanee, and Bread Loaf. He won the 2013 Gulf Coast Fiction Prize. His fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Cincinnati Review, Blackbird, among others. He received his MFA from Southern Illinois University.