SUGAR PANES by Neil Burkey
Molony pulled up his socks, replaced his pantcuffs, and put his back up against the wall. He ran his hand across the top of his head and picked up a foot, his clothes wrinkled and smelling of dew. He took his hand from his hair and came away with little bits of leaves in the armpits of his fingers, then rubbed them from his sweat-sticky skin with a thumb and groaned, stretching himself like a bat. He looked at his watch and looked at the sky. It was going to be a fine day. He still had time before he was due to meet Saoirse at her studio, so he sat there a little while longer, wiping his eyes.
On the way to the studio he stopped and got a coffee, put an amount of milk in it, and picked up a little ribbed cardboard tube. Coffee dripped onto his thumb as he walked with it, giving little pin pricks of pain. He took a drink and burned his lips. People were out walking the streets, the kind you always find on a work day: old people, very young children and men in soiled clothes. Every once in a while he would look at the sky. He reached Saoirse’s studio, housed in a beautiful brick building – an old factory of some kind, fabrics he thought she had said. He punched her name on his mobile and admired the building: big arching structures, half demolished in some places, propped up in others with huge wooden beams, while he listened to it ring.
‘Hi, Saoirse? It’s Anthony. Anthony Molony.’
‘Tony Molony? How’s it?’
‘Good. I’m outside your studio.’
‘Oh, shit, that’s right. Yeah, sorry, I totally lost track of time. I’m sorry, Tony. Listen, let me get my things and I’ll drive right over. Sorry, I’ll be there in 20 minutes.’
She hung up and Molony put the phone back in his pocket. He was standing in the parking lot: a bunch of gravel dumped and spread across the floor of what must have once been a part of the factory. There were a few strange little cars there with no one in them. At one section the outside wall was half gone, meeting the main structure from the ground in a zig zag movement. Molony walked over and climbed on where it was brushed clean. He scrambled a bit higher to see what he could see, which was not much, then went back down to the clean place and sat on it. He kicked his heels against the wall.
Birds flew into the empty space. There may have been a nest in the crook where the wall met the ceiling, where the beams met the brick, and he kicked his feet against the wall. Another car drove into the lot. The
driver got out (it wasn’t Saoirse), looked at him on the wall, closed the door, and locked it. She looked at him again and walked into the building. Anthony yawned and peered up through a hole from the building into the sky. He hopped from the wall, swiped at the seat of his trousers and walked through a door into the empty lot next to the building, grass growing in reedy clumps here and there. There was a bathtub in one corner and he went to see what was in it. In the bottom someone had carefully laid and folded a large blue sheet of metallic-coated paper, bunched and crumpled to simulate ripples. In the centre was a rubber duck wearing
rubber sunglasses and smoking a rubber cigar. Leaves had blown into the tub and sat on top of the water.
‘Huh,’ he said to himself.
There wasn’t much else of any interest: a mirror propped against a wall, a few empty bottles, a stick. He heard the crunch of gravel and a skidding stop, and went back through the doorway to where Saoirse was getting out of a car.
‘I’m really sorry, Tony. I totally forgot, I totally blew it. Have you been here long?’
‘Nah, not too long, it’s alright. How are you? Good to see you.’
‘You too, you too.’ She pushed her hair back. ‘Well, you want to have a look inside?’
‘Yeah, you bet.’
She reached into the car, pulled out a few bags which looked like they contained expensive equipment, and led him inside the building. ‘Glad you could make it over,’ she said, ‘I think you’ll like it.’ They entered a white stairwell that doubled back over itself a few times as it passed open doorwells with corridors turning off them and came to the top floor, which opened from the stairs into a communal studio space, where she left him to put away her things. The place was massive, with vaulted ceilings, as big as a church, exposed brick all around barring one corner, which appeared to have recently been painted, and a worn wood floor immaculately swept. There were stacks and stacks of things lined up along the walls: stretched canvases, bundled prints, random props and enormous rolls of fabric, on top of which sat a rubber duck smoking a rubber cigar and wearing rubber sunglasses. He went and picked it up, giving it a squeeze: it squeaked and wheezed. Saoirse came back in but didn’t say anything about the duck. He put it back on the fabric.
‘Would you mind helping me with something?’
‘No, of course not.’
She motioned to him and walked down a hallway through a door leading to a room the size of a few broom closets. In it a number of wide, thin cardboard boxes leaned against a wall. ‘Now, we’ll have to be very careful with these. They’re quite fragile.’
‘What are they?’
‘Sugar panes,’ she said.
Anthony went to the opposite side and Saoirse walked one of the boxes backwards with him into the studio, where they laid it upright against the back wall near the windows, in one of the few spots of open wall left in the room. One by one they moved the awkward heavy boxes into the studio until they’d taken about half of them – 20 or so. ‘Okay, that should be enough for now, thanks.’ She walked across the room and dragged two big metal objects resembling ice hockey pucks into the centre, a few feet apart from one another. ‘Right,’ she said, and moved toward a large wooden structure which looked like a guillotine, standing in the middle of it and picking it up from the base, turning around and staggering with it to the metal discs, laughing at Anthony while she hobbled. He saw what she was doing and helped her secure the device into the discs.
Then, taking from the items piled along the walls, they began arranging a room in the corner behind the pane, at her instruction. They placed a coffee table in the centre, a standing lamp in the corner, a reed chair by the lamp, a light divan and a bookshelf along the wall. They dropped a few boxes in their room and she said to ‘just try and make it look like a home’. As she was slotting books into the shelves he drew a printed cloth over the coffee table and put down some loose magazines and a few dishes. He found an amateur painting of horses running through a bright green valley and hung it on the wall. He put a vase of flowers on the table and set a
spindly palm by the chair.
Saoirse stepped from the room and looked through the structure, squinting one eye and moving her head like a prairie dog, then made some adjustments to its angle. ‘Let’s add some more to the edges,’ she said, and they expanded the room, pulling it all apart. ‘Good,’ she said. She went back to the frame and said, ‘That’s good,’ then hit the structure a few times with the heel of her palm. It was sturdy. She left the room.
Anthony went to look for himself and thought it did look good. Saoirse re-entered the room, dragging a kingsize mattress across the floor and dropping it with a whump directly in front of the window. ‘My stuntman should be here pretty soon,’ she said to him, ‘Shall we put in a pane?’
What else was he going to say?
They got some very large ladders from a room and set them on either side of the structure. From the top rung she tested its stability again and seemed satisfied. She descended the ladder and they approached the slender boxes. ‘Very carefully,’ she said, slicing one side open with an exacto knife. He flipped back the flap and saw its edge, testing it with a finger. It did not cut. They grabbed hold of it, slowly drawing it out by its corners: a wide, pristine windowpane. ‘It looks like the real thing, doesn’t it?’ she asked as they admired it, propped on the toes of their shoes. She put a bit of pressure on it, and it gave to her movements.
‘Okay,’ Saoirse said, meeting his eyes. They marched it solemnly to the ladders. From its surface it reflected everything on both sides of the room, alternately. They came to the ladders and she said, ‘this is going to be tricky.’ It wobbled between them. She left him with it and came back with two sets of thick cloth gloves with drops of rubber lining their palms, which they put on. They both bent their knees and grabbed the pane
by its middle edge, rising with it and watching each other. It shivered between them, mirroring each other’s movements, and they put their feet upon the first rung. It wasn’t terribly light. They had to find a way to
organise their slightly twisted bodies to maneouvre it up the structure.
They took the second step and the third; the fourth, the fifth, the sixth. They took all the steps besides the highest, which bore a warning. One eye on either side of the glass, they worked the pane hand over hand, till one was at its bottom edge, and the other near the middle. It wobbled and shivered in their hands as they brought it to the slot between the boards of the structure, and hand down by hand, lowered it in place. They clumb from the ladders and looked at what they had done. ‘Perfect,’ she said.
A man walked in the room with his hands in the pockets of comfortable trousers, wearing a short-sleeved button down shirt and a leather jacket draped over his arm. He looked as if he’d spent time in a wind tunnel.
His face was pocked and his arms were sinewy.
‘Gary?’ Saoirse asked.
‘That’s me,’ he said.
‘That’s right.’ She had her hands on her hips. ‘So I think we’re all set up for you; do you need anything to get
‘No, I think I’m good to go. You just tell me what to do.’
‘Right. Just give me a few minutes to set up my camera and then we can start.’
They were left there together, Gary with his hands in his pockets, Anthony with his hands by his sides. Gary started looking around the room. There were noises of other people doing other things below them in the building.
‘So you’re a stuntman, are you?’
‘Yeah, that’s right.’
‘Do you work mostly for movies, or–‘
‘Yeah, movies. TV commercials.’
‘Is there – are there, many of you in town?’
‘No, not much call, really. Depends on what sort of person you’re standing in for: woman, man, black, whatever.’
‘What about for children? Do they use midgets for children?’
‘What? No. They don’t use midgets. There’s not much need for child stand-ins. Not many people making movies about children falling out of buildings.’
‘No, I guess there wouldn’t be,’ Anthony said, not knowing whether to shake his head or nod it. ‘How does a person go about becoming a stuntman? Is there training or something?’
Gary began walking to where the room was set up. He knocked on the glass and then put his hand up to it over his brow like a peeping tom. ‘That’s pretty life-like, isn’t it? Yeah, not bad,’ he said, giving the pane a few
thumps with his pointed fingers. Saoirse returned and started setting up her equipment, and Gary walked around the window into the room,
taking a book from a shelf and sitting with it in the reed chair. Anthony went to the window and looked out on the courtyard with the bathtub and the duck. The wind was playing about in the grass and a squirrel was
crouched in a corner.
‘Alright Gary, I think we’re ready.’
Anthony unfolded a steel chair from the wall and sat on it away from the action. A sudden rain shower started, darkening the room. When he turned to look at it, he was surprised to find hundreds of petals from some flowering tree being tossed about in the rain. While he watched the spectacle, Saoirse explained to Gary what she wanted him to do. Anthony, looking closer, realised that they weren’t flower petals. They were
snowflakes. It was one of those rare early flurries, confused and caught between seasons. The squirrel had taken refuge, and the storm shut off as quickly as it had begun; everything in the room opened again.
‘Did you bring a sportscoat?’ Saoirse asked Gary.
‘No, sorry, didn’t know I was meant to.’
‘Maybe I didn’t tell you, I can’t remember.’ She looked at Anthony, whose attention had once again been drawn into the room. He got up and took off his suit jacket and handed it to Gary, who held it up in front of him by the shoulders with a hint of disdain before putting it on. It was a little small for him, and Anthony returned to his chair.
Things started happening now. Saoirse, 15 feet away from the window, stood concentrating deeply into her camera, primed at eye height on a tripod, with one arm held in the air, two fingers extended, and the other
worrying buttons and dials on the device. Gary stood in the room, also 15 feet away from the window, one foot in front of the other, leaning forward next to the bookcase with his arms loose in front of him. Saoirse twitched her outraised fingers and Gary took three loping strides before leaping, curling himself into a ball in the few instants before he smashed through the windowpane. There was a beautiful noise, a magnificent noise, which cloaked the subtler sound of Saoirse’s speed shutter, and Gary followed through and rolled himself out onto the mattress while shards of glass slithered outward across the wood. Gary unrolled himself regally and
stood from the mattress with his arms outstretched like a lion tamer and Saoirse laughed and jumped up and down and clapped her hands. Anthony halfway stood from his chair, looking for gashes across Gary’s face and
his suit jacket, but they were absolutely unharmed. Gary walked in a circle flexing his neck like a prizefighter and Saoirse, settling down, said, ‘Great, Gary, that was great, fantastic!’ as she grabbed a pushbroom and gathered the pieces of glass into a pile and moved it to the wall near Anthony’s chair, then walked to the boxes. Anthony joined her and they proceeded to set another pane in the slot while Gary went back to his book.
They repeated the exercise many times and it became a rhythm. People from the rest of the building, drawn by the noise of the thing, started drifting into the space to watch. Each time Gary revved up for his breakthrough they would do a voiced version of a drumroll, shouting and laughing at impact. Saoirse didn’t seem to mind – she wore a professional face but appeared to enjoy the attention, while Gary was obviously revelling in it. After each jump he would get up and entertain the crowd, playing the part of a matador or a gunslinger. People from the crowd helped out with the sweeping and the pile grew higher and higher, although Saoirse only trusted herself with Anthony to slot the pane.
Anthony wondered how the photos would turn out and how Saoirse would engineer them. Would the frame be outside the frame? Would she bead her focus on the windowpane? On Gary? On the items in the room: on
the bookcase, on the lamp, on the painting, on the air amongst it all? Which moment would she choose? The instant before impact, Gary’s face maximally tensed? The impact itself, forehead cresting through the square?
What size would she print them? What colour, what frame? At what height would they hang? His head spun with the possibilities. He would have rather been the jumper.
The din rose to festival levels in the room. Somebody had brought in food and drink. Half the room had turned their backs on the action and were chatting with cups in their hands, but others continued to engage. Gary began to look a bit weary and asked Saoirse if she minded if he took a break. Of course she didn’t. She melted into the crowd and started socialising. Anthony attempted the same.
He met people and spoke to people: architects, designers, the homeless, accountants, nurses, secretaries, billboard painters, mailmen, artists, drug dealers, editors, factory workers, computer programmers, firemen,
chefs, energy consultants, builders, dentists’ assistants, delivery drivers, fund managers, scam artists, science teachers, landscape technicians, food stylists, film producers, solicitors, actors and the unemployed. Gary felt
rested and said so to Saoirse and they resumed their business. They’d been at it for about six hours in total by the time they’d slotted their last window. The dark had come and all but the three of them had left. Anthony sat still in his chair by the window with his elbows on his knees and his hands laced before him. There was a terrific noise. A piece of glass skipped and bounded to Anthony’s toe. He looked at it, picked it up and tipped it into his mouth on the sly. It gradually dissolved into a sugary puddle on the tip of his tongue, where he let it sit.