Old Man on a Ladder
*(Written in Nassau, 1969. Finally published this century as an “orphan” story in a collection entitled “Shadow of a Soldier — Army Tales From
An Unpublished Diary & Other Orphan Stories”)
THE CHANGE in the sound of the surf woke the old man. When he opened his eyes, the room was still gloomy–dark. He could see the window and the jalousie door at the end of the small room. The window panes and the jalousie slats were dim grey smears. It was morning.
For fifteen years now the change in the sound of the surf had been his alarm clock. The big Seth Thomas on the little shelf he’d built ticked loudly in the dark, but it didn’t chime anymore. It had chimed all his thirty working years for the city, but it didn’t any more. The salt air got to it two years after he and the old lady had come to Florida to retire.
Now in the morning there was that other burbling, low–pitched, self–satisfied birdy sound. Those goddamn pigeons, preening and cooing and getting ready to shit all over his favorite sunning chair and the old lady’s wash. Those fancy–ass Jews up on waterfront had started it by feeding them when the first pigeons wandered into the neighborhood. There hadn’t been any pigeons for fifteen years until that spring, and now there were dozens of the filthy things staining his lawn furniture, the sides of the house, everything. They lived to shit, it seemed.
They had never been there when he could have handled them. But now they were. Scratching and burbling under the eaves of the house, trying to find a way into the insulation spaces. The old beach house didn’t have an attic. Not many of its kind did; just space up under the roof for insulation and to crawl to get to the wiring. The pigeons wanted to get in there and he was damned if he was going to let them.
He swung his one leg from under the sheet carefully, trying to keep the bedsprings from squeaking. It was a trick he had learned on the night shifts when he didn’t want to wake up the old lady coming or going. It had been pretty handy for tomming around and going fishing up the river too, all those years. That had been with two legs, though. That was before the diabetes and the amputation and Medicare. That was when he was still his own man.
The bed squeaked a little but the old lady, upstairs on the screened-in sleeping porch, was a heavier sleeper now, because it wore her out doing all the housework and waiting on him hand and foot too. His heart was beating like on his first deer hunt in the river swamps. He got his aluminum walker and sidled back to the bathroom to relieve himself. A car engine, the familiar car engine of the morning paper–route carrier, sounded in the lane. As he flushed the toilet the big Thursday edition with all the grocery specials thudded out front.
He hobbled through the kitchen and drew a cup of coffee from the pot left on simmer all night and got back to his wheel chair where it was parked at the foot of the bed. The old lady hadn’t stirred. They had never slept together in forty–five years of marriage; she would come to his bed for sex and then leave again when they were done. But that had been over a long time, even before he lost the leg.
He got hold of the hand–molded plastic leg that his son who worked for the government had got him. He carefully strapped it in place and then sat in the chair and went through the routine. Heart pill, gulp of coffee; circulation pill, gulp. Then he started put on his pants, grunting to pull the right leg over the plastic limb with its shoe on; too stubborn to unlace it. He took a short breather before putting on his sock and getting his pants all the way on and belted, and tying his other shoe.
When he was ready, he bent way over from the waist and dragged the short pellet rifle from under the bed. He braced it in the corner of the chair and rolled quietly to the door, reversed, opened the door and hitched himself out onto the concrete stoop. The rubber tires were silent as he rolled out onto the lane. It was a tarmac strip not much wider than a driveway. It had been a service entrance to the Jew–houses on ocean front. The garage apartments like his were afterthoughts, small cypress–shingle two-stories, three on each side, squatting between the oceanfront houses and First Street among dense palm and oleander trees.
He turned left and rolled at an angle toward the house across the street. Behind him, the scratching and flapping and cooing seemed to get louder. He spun the wheelchair slowly, set the brake, and took hold of the little gun.
They were on the almost flat upstairs porch roof, preening and digging for bugs. He picked out the one with the most white on it, centered the sights and squeezed the trigger. Feathers puffed as the little gun snapped. There was a sudden frantic beating of wings. He snatched the gun down, braced it and began to lever the bellows forearm, building another compression of air. He pumped eight strokes and then fumbled another of the tiny pellets into the chamber, cursing his fumbles and the gun’s slowness. There was a soft thud on the tarmac. The one he’d shot had tumbled off the roof in its death throes.
One down. He hadn’t forgot how to shoot. That was something he still had.
The idiot pigeons couldn’t make it out. They’d had things their own way too long. They had scattered across the roof, but they hadn’t flushed. He waited for his pulse to slow down and his breathing to ease. He still knew how to wait, too. That was something the deer drives and the squirrels up in those big river oaks had taught him young, how to wait. That and fishing up the river. When he got on the fire department the shift work had been good for learning to wait, too. And the swings and graveyards left him time to hunt and run a trot line on the river.
But toward the end he had got lazier about going out. The subdivisions and the paper plants ate up the swamps and crowded the river, and most of the game was gone anyway, killed by pollution or moved deeper in the swamps. Like he had moved to Florida; like he would be gone, soon. But he could still wait.
His pulse was all right now. His breathing was steady. The pigeons began to shuffle around and a couple of them burbled kind of hesitantly. One flapped off the roof to the phone wire and balanced until the wire stopped moving around. Then it complacently bombarded his deck chair by the palm tree at the corner of his lot. That one. He put the little rifle up and snapped the shot off in one movement. The bird squawked and jumped, spilling feathers, then folded up and dropped like a stone. It landed with a solid whack, not ten feet from the first one. That settled it for the others. They got out of there in a satisfying panic. He knew they would be back, though.
He had that figured out too, and if the nigger showed up now like he’d said he would, everything would be just right. It was still an hour before the old lady’s little tin alarm clock would get her up to give him his insulin. Plenty of time, if Lester would just get here. Just as the old man was thinking that, he heard the clatter of a truck engine one street over. Then he didn’t hear it, and then he heard a door open and close quietly.
Then Lester came up the lane, moving loose and easy in his torn sneakers. He walked with a glide — shuffle — glide, and carried his arms at a dangle like a puppet. Lester worked on the beach town’s one garbage truck. He was a Georgia sharecropper who had come south six years ago to get work when his cotton failed and he had a couple run-ins with the law. He started in doing yard work around, and he’d done some for the old man.
The old man had spoken up for him when the town fathers were after a new sanitation man, because he’d got a letter from another retired fireman up in Georgia asking if he could help Lester out. The old man’s recommendation got him the job. Lester wasn’t young any more either but he was a rummy and one hell of a womanizer.
He and the old man were easy together. They neither one quite knew what to think about those lunch counter sit-ins and all that nonsense. They had both always been too concerned with making a living and woman–chasing on the side to think about things that other people just went on and on about. They didn’t ever talk about how they didn’t understand other people. That wasn’t their style. They were just easy together.
The old woman said it nearly broke Lester’s heart when he dropped by after laying out drunk for a week with a new woman and heard that the old man was in the hospital with a rotting leg. That was what she said. She said Lester checked by from time to time to see could he help out in the yard or anything.
When the old man saw him the first time after coming back from the hospital, Lester laughed a big happy laugh and said the old man was sure going to burn up a lot of wheelchair tires, ’cause Lester knew he wasn’t going to stop chasing women. The old man had been braced up to fight sympathy from a black man. When he didn’t get it, the bracing came loose all at once, and he laughed hard enough to bust stitches, and that wasn’t just a saying at the time. They just didn’t make niggers like that anymore, not even in Georgia, he bet.
Lester came up. “Mawnin’.”
“Mawnin’, Lester.” He kept his voice down. “That was smart, parkin’ over there like that.”
Lester grinned. “I done learn lawng time uhgo ‘bout easin’ round when I doesn’t want no female t’ know what i’se upter.” His soft voice carried just to the old man’s ears. “Whur duh ladduh?”
“In there.” He pointed a thumb at the garage behind him. “Neighbor said I could use it. I told him I was gonna git you t’check the roof for leaks.”
“Ain’t such uh bad ideuh, neithuh. The rainy time comin’ on.”
“Later,” the old man said. “First things first.”
“Awright, whur y’ wan’it?”
“Around back. That’s where they git in under the eaves. Be quiet now, an’ watch out. Dam’ thing’s heavy.”
Lester dipped his head and eased into the gloom of the garage. He almost vanished in the darkness, with his ebony skin and drab denim jacket. The ladder’s extension hardware went clunk, softly, as he lifted it. The old man felt his balls suck up. Don’t let her catch me now, he prayed. Not like this. Not now. Please not now.
Lester sidled out of the garage taking short, lumpy steps under the weight of the ladder. His face was drawn tight.
“You okay?” The old man was straining forward, aching to put his wasted shoulder against that weight. Something solid. He half–raised himself.
“You sit easy!” Lester hissed. “I’s strappin! Don’t fuss yo–self. C’mon.”
He moved across the lane and around the opposite side of the house from the old lady’s breezeway without even hesitating. When he got the end of the ladder down on the dewy grass, the old man trundled up to its butt–end.
“Here.” He wheeled into line, set the brake hard. “Walk it up to me.” He planted his one good foot against it. “You try t’ git it up by yo’self, you gonna make a racket.”
“Okay.” Lester lifted the top end, got it over his head and started walking in to the old man, keeping his hands high, pushing the ladder hand over hand into the air.
When he got up toe to toe with the old man his face was shining with sweat. The old man sniffed the sweetish odor of unbathed nigger and rum–sweat. Lester braced one side of the ladder and pivoted it around against the house and cranked up the extension. The rusty locks creaked loudly when they took hold, but nothing came of it.
“Good,” said the old man. “Now git my hammer and wire cutters and that screen mesh and my nails.”
“I could do hit jest as good,” Lester said, not looking at him. “I could.”
“It’s my house,” the old man said stubbornly.
“Aw–right. Can I have them pigeons out front? Them’s good eatin’, do yuh know howter fix ‘em.”
“Sure,” the old man said. “You can have every one I git. You done good. Take this pellet gun and put it on the front seat of my car. I’ll sneak it back in later. Thanks for comin’ on by, y’hear? I’ll git a few more of ’em after this, and you can have ’em all. They’ll get th’ idea soon, though. Soon’s I git this mesh put up and git a couple more of ‘em.”
He stood up with the dual care of age and amputation. “You better git now. If the old lady catches you here, it’ll be hell Columbia.”
“I better stay,” Lester said. He kept shooting glances at the kitchen window. “I ain’t wantin’ no fine ole lady aftuh me ’cause I lef’ yuh when yuh needed hep. . .”
“I don’t need your goddamn help! Now git outta here before she catches you. I might need you to sneak me another favor and you can’t if she’s onto you.”
The old man waited until he heard the distant truck door open and close again, and the engine groan to life and go rattling off, lifters slapping noisily. Then he got the roll of mesh in one pocket and the nails and cutters in the other, and stuck the hammer through his belt. He got his hands on the ladder and stepped up with his real leg on the first rung. Daylight was coming fast now. He straightened the leg and pulled himself up. He almost could feel the toes of the foot he didn’t have reaching for the next rung. But the plastic leg hung heavily from its harness, unresponsive and alien.
Thirty years of climbing ladders for the city, he thought. For what? He bent over and got his shiny new leg behind the knee and bent it until the foot swung onto the lower rung. Now he was eight inches off the ground. He held on tight and climbed one more rung and then, leaning against the slant of the ladder, got his pant leg and got the plastic one up. Thirty years of climbing ladders had at least taught him that you go at your own speed. Right now, this was his speed. It hadn’t been, but now it was. Step, bend, drag. Step, drag.
Now he was halfway up. The quiet, water–silvered grass looked farther down than the street had looked from the Culpepper Building with the roof burning and the wind threatening the whole business district of the city. The three — alarmer had been so hot he could feel the skin blistering under his helmet and thought he was going to die from the heat of it in his canvas turnout coat.
He stopped to let his heart quiet down. The stump of his missing leg ached horribly, and the harness dragged down on him. He had never been so aware of the thing’s deadness and uselessness. It gave him a place to put the other shoe and make him look whole in church Sunday, that was all it was good for. He had to use it as a brace for the step–up with his real foot, and be careful. He was always careful on a ladder. That was how he had retired in one piece.
Even when the whole old–fashioned downtown section of the city had finally gone up that hot, blowing May before the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor the next winter, he had been careful. Engine companies from as far away as Aiken had responded, and firemen died.
Powell and Teech got it in that one. They went through a roof they stayed on longer than they should have. They had Old Number One’s main line right on the hot heart of the King Cotton Hotel, and the fire got under them in the Diamond Pawn Shop and pulled them down. Turnquest and Dunlap and Edstrom would have got it too, if the old man hadn’t seen the big beam cutting down on them, leaning out toward them when the fire chewed it off at the base.
They were taking more line up the big ladder on the headquarters hook and ladder when the beam fell, and he hadn’t had time to do anything but turn loose and tumble into Dunlap waist–high, and that knocked them all back half a dozen rungs before the beam smacked across the ladder and splintered, spraying hot sparks.
They all caught themselves all right. He had been hanging half off the swaying ladder, looking down on a blazing wilderness that used to be the Woolworth’s when he noticed that Turnquest was upside down, hanging on like a spider and puking his guts out into the flames below. The old man had started laughing so hard he nearly fell off the ladder…
He was up now. The morning stretched around him, quiet and grey. He was at the place where the pigeons were trying to get in. From up here he could see the pink line of dawn running along the edge of the grey sea. A flock of pelicans, black on grey, swooped in perfect unison above the outside edge of the surf line. Farther out, he could see the pale smudges of a pair of shrimpers. He could even hear the quiet thump of their diesels as they hauled their nets.
He got out the wire and the cutters, moving with elaborate care. Turnquest would laugh his ass off if he read the old man had fallen off a ladder and killed himself. Turnquest and Harrison were the only other ones from the old house still left. Cancer got Dunlap. Edstrom shot his wife for running around, and then blew his own brains out. Captain Benteen got it in a car wreck. Dancy got pneumonia fishing up the river in the rain when he was sixty–nine. Even the engine house had been pulled down and its number assigned to another house.
It was Harrison who had written the old man about Lester; Harrison had retired to Waynesboro to raise bird dogs and play country squire.
The old man had got a letter from Turnquest just the other day about their old house being torn down. He offered to mail the old man a brick from the rubble, which the old man thought was about as silly a thing as Turnquest had ever said.
Turnquest also went on about how the young firemen just weren’t the same, but they still told the legends about Old Number One. About how the old man knocked out two of Lefty Halloran’s teeth with one punch, just because he walked in off the street one summer bragging about how tough he was. Lefty was first baseman for the Sally League Tigers. He was on the bench for a month until his gums healed, and the manager fined him a hundred dollars for wising off to the old man in the first place, and he never got called up to a higher league.
They still told the story about how Dancy had screwed the broad up in the hose loft, and put the Sunday paper under her ass when she hollered about it being too dirty up there. When she came down she had Flash Gordon sweated onto her right cheek and Bringing Up Father sweated onto the left cheek, and of course Dancy had to make her show her butt to the others.
Sometimes the old man wished he’d never left Georgia. He could go around to the engine houses like Turnquest and listen to the old stories and how they got wilder and wilder over the years. They would know his name all right, soon as he mentioned it. That was where he really belonged. But you were supposed to retire somewhere, and he had come to Florida.
He unrolled a length of the wire mesh and leaned up tight against the ladder to fit it into place. His stump was throbbing like fire. He pulled the mesh back to him and half twisted around to get at it with the cutters. The plastic leg betrayed him. It buckled at the knee. He dropped the mesh and cutters and his palms slapped the rough wood of the ladder before he thought, steadying himself.
The mesh fell straight down, but the cutters hit the side of the ladder and bounced against the house with a loud whack. He hung there with his heart running away and felt the dizziness come up out of his belly, pushing sour bile ahead of it into the back of his throat. He hung on and pushed it back down. He pushed it down twice and then it stayed down. Then he waited on his heart. Then he started grimly back down the ladder.
It was slower than going up. He had to knock the plastic leg off the rung and then hang there half squatting with his ass sticking out, all his weight back off the ladder, while the plastic leg pendulumed to a stop. Then he had to brace that leg before he could step down. He had to guess whether it was on the rung solid, because he couldn’t see past his own body. He had to trust it. He could feel the toes of the gone foot curling in his mind, reaching for the feel of the rung under the sole of his shoe. He had to trust the plastic leg to lock and hold his weight while he stepped off the upper rung with his real leg. When he finally got down he was sweating so bad that it ran in his eyes and blinded him.
He sat in his chair and used his handkerchief. When he was through it was sopping wet and the sweat was still coming. He tried to light a cigarette and broke one in half and dropped one on the grass before he got one lit. He sucked smoke deep in his lungs and blew it out, sucked it in again. He smoked it in ten long drags and threw what was left on the wet grass. Then he rolled over and grunted the cutters and the mesh up in his lap and rolled back to the foot of the ladder.
He was five rungs up when he heard the metallic shrill of the old lady’s alarm clock. He froze on the ladder. The sun was a pregnant orange bulge on the edge of the world. He waited. The clock cut off in mid–shrill. He heard bed springs groan faintly. Then he heard, through the fabric of the house, the loud snap of the breezeway light switch.
He climbed another rung before he heard the slow shuffle of her slippers in the kitchen. They stopped and he knew she was turning up the heat under the coffee; she liked it scalding hot. Then they started up again and went into the bathroom. He heard her put the seat down and then he heard her urinate, a loud whirring sound. The sound trickled away into silence and the toilet flushed. The slippers shuffled out into the kitchen again. He heard her call his name softly, her voice slurred with sleep. He waited.
She called again, and then shuffled into the front room. He heard the front door open and close. She came shuffling back, and he heard the rubber band being pushed off the rolled newspaper. Then she rattled cups in the cupboard. The light in the dining room went on, throwing a bar of yellow out onto the grass. He heard her smoothing the paper out on the table, its pages crackling.
He looked up at where the pigeons were trying to get in. The first thing she heard, she would come out. She would come out and order him to come down and when he refused, she would go call the rescue squad like the doctor had told her to do if he got into a predicament. They were good boys. They were firemen from Jacksonville, assigned to the new rescue squads that fire departments operated now. They would probably respond faster than he could come down. His stump was pounding and his head felt fuzzy.
He had never been brought off a ladder in his life. They would come up his ladder and bring him off it. At least they would be firemen, and not damn cops. But could he get the mesh up before she came out and caught him and called them? He didn’t think so. She would probably start up the ladder herself if he kept on hammering after she called the squad; she was as stubborn as he was. He had never been brought off a ladder. He never had. He had gone up his ladders when things were pretty bad. And he’d come back down every one of them. Sometimes he had brought other people off.
He brought Lassiter off when those windows in the Mi Ling Laundry exploded and got him in the eyes; fat Lassiter. He told Lassiter that if he so much as blinked, grinding the glass into his eyeballs, he would kick his ass clear to East Boundary. Lassiter was so afraid of him that he somehow controlled his blink reflex, and the eye doctors said later that saved his sight.
And he brought kids and old women down ladders, and one redheaded broad in a negligee from the Richmond Hotel fire that he would never forget, whose cunt had been hotter against him than the fire, and who had pulled his head down and kissed his with her tongue when he put her down on the ground. Later, she came around to the engine house in a sexy dress and took him to lunch in his blue dress uniform at the Bon Air. Then she took him upstairs to her new room and screwed him three times before she let him out of there and took him back to the engine house. He had even brought a couple of kittens out of trees.
But nobody was going to bring him off a ladder. Especially not now. Not even another fireman. He worked his way back down the ladder. It seemed to take a lot longer this time, just the five rungs, and the stump was shooting sparks of pain straight up his back. He moved as quiet as he could, and it seemed to take a long time. The wire cutters clinked against the wheel chair as he was sitting down. The old lady heard that, and called out.
“Yeah, it’s me,” he said.
Her chair scraped back and she shuffled toward the door.
“What you doin’ out there?” She unfastened the screen door and came through. When she saw the ladder, she stopped dead.
“I’m plantin’ corn,” he said bitterly‚
“How’d you get that ladder up there?” she said.
“Mind your own goddamn business!”
“It is my business,” she said patiently. “Now, who did it?”
“I did it myself,” he said.
“That Lester did it,” she said. “He’s the only one would go along with you on something as silly as this.”
“He did not.”
“That idiot Lester,” she said. “He’s crazy as you are. Salt an’ pepper, that’s what y’all are. Salt an’ pepper, in just–alike shakers.” She shook her head.
“Shut up, goddamn it.” He tried to shout but his voice rasped instead. She walked closer. “You get that screen put up there?” She was looking up where the ladder was leaning. He was silent. “Well?” she said, still squinting upward.
“No,” he said. “No, I did not get it up. Lester will have to do it.”
“Okay,” she said, looking at him now. “I’ll tell him when he comes by on the trash truck. You ready for your insulin?”
“No,” he said, “I am not ready for my insulin.”
“You better take it.”
“I’m not going to take it yet,” he said.
“Why not? What you gonna do now?”
He took the brake off the wheelchair. The pain in the stump was already easing off. “I’m goin’ up on the seawall an’ smoke a cigarette,” he said. “I’m gonna smoke a cigarette, and I’m gonna watch the sun come the rest of the way up.”
“What you want for breakfast?” she said.
“I’ll tell you when I get back.” He put down the mesh and the cutters, and took the hammer out of his belt and the nails out of his pocket and put them down.
“Don’t be all day,” she said. “You still gotta take your insulin.”
“I’ll stay as long as I want to,” he said, and started off.
She watched him push himself laboriously across the grass until he went around the corner out of sight. Then she went back inside to finish reading the paper and to wait for him to come back.