On Top of the World

by Thomas Onks

Wonder, for me at least, is an extinct emotion. I certainly feel excitement of course, maybe some joy, a dash of hype and anticipation, and, if the stars align and the moon turns blue and a porker decides to soar to where no pig has ever gone before, a singular drop of hope and optimism. But wonder? Wonder is one of those things you lose when you realize you must grind your life away just to survive because your dream job is almost completely unattainable and unsustainable, you have a DSM’s worth of mental issues, and the world on which you live on is slowly being throttled by the very hands we cannot bite, lest we lose the means to feed ourselves. I feel like wonder is just one of those things you Lose like baby teeth, a natural byproduct that is discarded during puberty to make way for the stuff necessary to Grow Up: emotional ennui, a complicated relationship with your parents, and the ability to Shut Up and Do Your Work. However, back when I actually felt wonder, there are some moments that still cut through the congealed cynicism, a reminder of when I actually had high hopes for life, a child wanted to see everything in the world and be a good person to everyone in it, who didn’t realize that the masters of this world were trying to turn you into the exact opposite of that. One of my favorite echoes of a dried river that once flowed vigorously is the time I saw the expanse of Life for the very first time.

Now, not many people know this about me or my family, but my family on my father’s side largely come from Texas. My Dad’s Dad worked for a variety of companies, such as the Olympians of the chem industry, DOW and Bayer, often doing logistics and finances. This was a moving job, so he ended up in Chemical Valley, WV and met my Dad’s Mom, who worked as a plant manager for Union Carbide. They had my Dad, they split apart, Dad’s Dad moved back to the Lone Star once Dad wrapped up his public schooling, and he still lives there at the time of this writing. Aside from the past couple years where God has finalized his decision to initiate Judgement Day and has begun enacting his unending and horrific wrath on us all, we usually make it an annual trip to visit Grandpa, Grandma (he remarried), and my Aunt Caitlin in Texas, usually to celebrate the Yuletide. A fun time is usually held by all, as we visit their home in Canyon Lake, a small retiree community about an hour or two away from San Antonio.

However, they didn’t always live in Canyon Lake, which I once described when I was far younger as, and I quote, “a barren wasteland in the middle of nowhere” (Onks). No, they once lived in those hazy little suburbs in Houston, specifically a small yet quaint little borough named Sugarland (sic). Growing sick from the “city living,” Grandpa and Grandma decided to build their own house away from the maddening urbanity and needed our help surveying a good location close to where Caitlin was staying in San Antonio. I was around 10 at the time, still high on life and not suffering from the withdrawal yet, a single kid with a brother who could barely speak and could barely smile. During one Christmas vacation, we decided to set aside a weekend to visit the historic city of San Antone while searching for the perfect little spot to plop down what can charitably be described as the dollar menu equivalent of a McMansion. We ended up staying at a relatively nicer little hotel as our scouting outpost, and by “little hotel,” I mean a towering skyscraper overlooking the plaza where the legendary Alamo was still standing and most of the city. I cannot exactly remember the name of the joint, or whether it still even stands, but if you would pull up Google Maps and search for the Alamo, I believe the Marriott Rivercenter would be my main suspect. 

Anyway, I remember the place being an utter cathedral of glass and gilded metal, gleaming in the sun and moon, with the lobby kitted out for the holiday season. Emerald boughs festooned the usually austere light fixtures, ornate candelabras often left austere to ensure maximum fanciness. Red bows decked the modernist columns at their crests, with strand upon strand of multicolored lights cascading around the pillars to create a rainbow that spiraled downward into the marble. At the center of it all, a tree with dreams of becoming the next Rockefeller stood watch in the center of the lobby, an intimidating sentinel in full dress uniform, carrying all their many locally sourced ornaments: red and white and blue blinkers to celebrate a true Texan Christmas, and enough gold and silver dressing to hogtie a thousand cattle. Young me was so charmed by how pleasantly decorated the lobby was for the holiday, a sort of appetizer for what was waiting for me later in the night. 

After we had settled in for the night, as we had spent the whole day driving towards San Antonio, my Dad came back to our room. He is a stout man who was even bigger back then, always wearing cargo shorts and a polo shirt to match his receding hairline and salt-and-pepper beard, and at the time of this memory, still stood an almost incomprehensible amount taller than thou. If you want the closest possible image of who my father is, literally just grab Homer Simpson, remove the more exaggerated portions of his personality, give him some more brain cells and common sense, and you have my father. Anyway, he was really excited over something that he wouldn’t tell me about and told me to follow him up the stairs. I reluctantly agreed, having been tired and bored from the long drive and desolate landscape that separates San Antonio and Houston to the point that I would much rather go to face the dark uncertainty of sleep then expose my eyes to another potentially drab sight. I still followed him in the end, up the stairs from our 3rd floor suite. I still do not know whether the elevator was functioning or not, but it honestly doesn’t matter. We climbed step by step by step by step by step by step, higher and higher and higher and higher. Each subsequent step built anticipation, tension, and a sense of excitement, as we slowly but ever so surely ascended. After what felt like a true eternity of climbing the stairwell, we finally reached the roof access, the final barrier between us and the object of our quest, a portal into an all-new unknown. I let Dad open the door, and then…

We were on a dirty roof. 

Now, the roof wasn’t that dirty, since it was a rooftop, and people tend not to clean the areas that are the most likely to have wild animals using it as a toilet. However, something about the roof was a little different, as there were numerous people, young and old, all looking out over the roof into the beckoning glow emanating just beyond the edge. The wind was blowing ferociously, cold and dripping with moisture reaped from the Gulf. It had officially dropped what had been an 80-degree day into a 50-degree night, and for a wind that was strong enough to freeze Hell and defeat that legendary southern simmer, it certainly did not grant amnesty to the elementary schooler who had dared ventured to its domain without a hoodie. Dad gripped my small hand in the toughened bear mitt that was his and brought me closer to the edge. As I got closer and closer, the light seemed to grow brighter and more enticing. It was a true golden sheen, not like the artificial one that the Marriott lobby was using, like from a treasure soon to be unearthed. We were drawn ever closer as moths to a porchlight, all the way to the point we could finally see the source of the glow. I overcame the fear of being so high up, the cold slicing into my bones and soul, the weariness of an ADHD child being forced into a car ride with no stimulus for several hours, and gazed into the heart of the luminescence. 

I swear at that moment I thought the world was upside down, as the stars were all below us. 

I looked and saw the streetlights tinkling in the night, bestowing the infinitesimal figures who swarmed the endless universe of streets that stretched into the horizon. 

I looked and saw the astonishing number of buildings that were packed into each other, above us, below us, across from us, everywhere, with their legion of lights knitting a constellation of a thousand stars before my eyes, of gold stars, red stars, green ones too!

I looked and saw a beautiful azure serpent, long enough to grip the world and bite its own tail but kind enough to not do so on this wonderful night, slither through the city and its many organs, supplying its lifeblood and orbit to those who lived near it, just as it had done for the endless eons it had lived and will continue to live in it.

I listened and heard the hum of a world alive, of conversation and laughter and crying and yelling and screaming and beeping and more, oh so much more, a symphony of the city playing for little ol’ me. 

I smelled and caught the scents of existence, of the acts of life. The wind was not trying to cut us down, it was trying to get us to pay attention to the very odor of the city, the taste in your nose and your mouth of a scent so indescribably complex your brain would melt trying to comprehend even a single iota of it. 

I didn’t need to reach out and touch it, because I could already feel the soul of the city within, the heart of it pulsating like it was my own heart. 

My Dad and I had glimpsed Eternity on the top of the world, and yet I could only think of one thing to ask or even say. I opened my mouth to utter the one thing I could even think would be worth saying in that one moment. 

“Is that old shitty building down there the Alamo?”

Thomas Onks is a sophomore student at West Virginia Wesleyan College and is currently studying under an English Creative Writing/History double major. Thomas is from Cross Lanes, West Virginia and seeks to become a published author (and if that inevitably falls through, a professor or teacher of some sort).

Thomas’ hobbies include video games, writing, literature, and model kits, specifically gunpla. This is his second year working as a prose editor for The Vandalia, and he hopes that the readers of the 2021-2022 edition enjoy the works within as much as he did.