There wasn’t a bike rack because car people owned this town. You locked up to telephone poles covered in missing cats and hoped your chain stayed chained. In the shadows of rusting delivery trucks the Bolt Cutters were always waiting. Some nearby town must’ve had an incredible selection of used bicycles. Cats too, probably. All we had was cars and smack and fast food.
I double looped my chain, hugging my bike frame tight to the knee-high drive-thru sign. The combination lock was sticky and the loose vinyl chain sleeve got caught in the tumblers if you weren’t careful. I was careful. This chain was nicked off my father’s gas grill. Since he hadn’t even let me try being car people I figured, fair game. It was too far to walk and I was hungry. The moldy grill hadn’t been used since my mother loved my father enough to make him burn dinner.
Fryer grease was in the air, but it wanted to be on us. In us is even better. The unsuspecting patrons in the dining room of Taquote’s “Restaurant” didn’t smile. This border food was not happy food, even though the trumpets and vihuelas were convincing us Cinco de Mayo had come to upstate New York. The purple-and-black-haired girl at the counter convinced me punk rock and unrequited love were up here, too. Her “Restaurant” hat wore her. It was way back on her head like an open Zippo lighter. Freckles ran complicated plays on her pale skin. She was not from my high school.
Her name tag said, Blue. She handed me my change with raw, chapped hands. She must’ve done a lot of dishes. I did the dishes at home. We had so much in common.
“Do you like hardcore music?” she asked.
At least we had dishes. I didn’t know from hardcore so I said, “Madly.”
“Madly? That doesn’t sound very hardcore, that sounds like you’re a Mod.”
I tried not to stare into her violet contacts or anywhere else.
“You ever go to the matinee at The Lost?”
I knew a) The Lost was a rock club, and b) not to lie again.
“What’s it like working here?”
“Oh, it’s great. It’s my best job ever. Everybody agrees.”
I almost said, “Really?” but I didn’t get to.
“You gonna flirt all day or can I order?” said Dick Shitty, world famous shit dick, elbowing his way to the counter.
“You should work here,” her sarcastic lips spoke directly to my soul.
When I peeked inside my to go bag, I found a folded job application and an extra fajita.
* * *
Two days later I was back on my knees at the drive thru sign. It was early for the Bolt Cutters, but I locked up tight. The sky was one entire white nothing with no threat of rain, so I skipped my coat. I could feel the cars warm and whizzing behind me through my thin, light blue dress shirt. This was formerly Confirmation gear since I didn’t own a white shirt. I’d buttoned it all the way up since I’d lost my father’s tie, probably on the way out of Church. The only button-down Oxford inside Taquote’s interviewed me. Ron. Bedraggled but suspiciously stain-free, Ron. That he was my height smashed my limited perceptions of authority. His standard-issue necktie of space-age fabrics was rubbed worn at the knot. It was not a clip-on tie so it sagged, sadly displaying tiny palm trees, printed not embroidered. His mustache should’ve had character.
“You’re parents named you: I?”
“Oh, you wrote Isaac on Full Name. I see, ha. I. What will we put on your name tag? Never mind, we need to do this interview, am I right? You don’t think I’m asking you, do you? I is very confusing. Just nod, unless you agree.”
I was ready to nod for the rest of my life.
“Most jobs around here are doing minimum wage. This your first job?”
“I babysat some.” I had the references to prove it.
“Great. That’s good experience for food service. I’m prepared to offer you...do you have reliable transportation? I see you rode a bike. What about the winters? You are aware this is upstate...you get what, two months out of that bike?”
“If I take the test, I have access to– ”
“We are prepared to offer you more than the minimum wage. Five cents over. Very competitive for anywhere down this street this side of town. Most jobs are minimum. Here’s more. And all the soda you can drink. Don’t abuse it, but it’s free for workers. And there’s opportunity to bump your salary at yearly review. Maybe get you $4.50, if you become a Taquote’s Leader. No guarantees. You’ll start on probation. Six months. How soon can you start, now? Now? We have pants in the back. They should fit. Elastic waist. Grow with you. Are those non-slip shoes? You’ll have to buy some. We got catalogs. They take it out your first paycheck. Good shoes, especially for Leaders.”
Minutes after signing and dating a stack of papers, I was crouched and cleaning baseboards. Did all Leaders start this way? I dipped a Taquote’s toothbrush into a cardboard 20-ounce cup of sanitizer solution. My fingers smelled like bleach. Here, the fragrance was as innocuous as deodorant and much preferred to browned beef in a bag.
Within the first two weeks I learned it was forbidden to eat food “on the line.” The line was where all things edible were assembled. Even the most experienced employees lived in fear of penalty of dismemberment via tomato chopper and there were rumors of managers who disappeared. Health inspections and CEO surprises were also threatened at the earliest sign of disobedience or inexactitude. All our food products were weighed for accuracy and we were timed for speed. I learned that “expedite” is a fancy word for Hurry-the-Fuck-Up. We expedited food to customers and then expedited snuck food into the break room, where we masticated expeditiously. Especially the finest in recently expired meats. Even garbage can be eaten if you wrap it in a warm tortilla. Blue took my hand and showed me the way, even though she had a vegetarian boyfriend.
* * *
Every afternoon my father would pour a full pot of Folger’s into his battered steel Thermos and leave to work the second and/or third shift. And every afternoon my little sister would parrot my mother’s old anti-capitalist and arguably Marxist demand on my father: “Don’t work too hard.” When my mother split town, my sister continued her tired plea for quality time, or any time at all. I can’t remember the workaholic ever responding to either of them. Maybe he grunted recognition, or maybe he was acknowledging the outcropping of multiple hernias.
A hospital janitor by trade, my father didn’t reserve breaking his back for the hypercapitalism of the health industry. He was a suburban Sisyphus, farting around the sprawling grounds of our lumpy eighth of an acre. Homeownership was his cursed rock. Or maybe it was his hill. Either way, we did live on an incline and mowing was a bitch. He worked hard to avoid it. The thigh-high Kentucky bluegrass and nuclear yellow dandelions taunted the neighbors, and my mother would needle him. This was heartily dismissed. The onus to adapt was on the neighbors. In fact, the supermarket scrap metal, sandbags, sawhorses, holey rowboat, and tarpaulined mystery shards were actually part of a progressive recycling project. We led by example. But as soon as he figured I was responsible enough to keep my fingers attached to my hands, he gave in to my mother and let me sweat out the obstacle course.
With my mother living in a different area code, my father struggled to keep pace with domesticities. “There’s a hundred things to do around here” begat “hundreds,” begat “thousands,” and eventually “a million things to do” were completely unbegotten as my father’s completion rate began collapsing exponentially. Proactive improvements slid to reactive repairs, and when he wasn’t working doubles or triples he was fighting to rustle some sleep between odd jobs around our neighborhood. And the neighbors had demands. And cash. Prune this hedge, chop these dead limbs, floor this floor, roof this roof. It was as if the only good ladder in town belonged to my father. The ladder and I didn’t see it that way. Is that motive or merely guilt? I shouldn’t speak for the ladder.
Ladder says: A sunny day in Eastbridge, New York gave way to a limp drizzle, and let me tell you, things get slippery real fast. To be fair, things between me and the old longhair had already gone south. Anybody that’s sick of being walked on, hoisted about, and left to rust without so much as a recognition...sure, I spent some time in the garage over the years, but do you really want constant exposure to exhaust fumes and rotting fertilizer? So the man took a step from a wet roof to a wet ladder; accidents happens all the time. Calculated risk, especially for somebody who hadn’t slept since 1975. This guy. Maybe if somebody’d been holding me stable, maybe he doesn’t fall out of the sky and go splat. The man has a son. What’s he doing? Playing video games? Discussing the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre with his mother over the telephone? Eating finger sandwiches with his pinky out and a thumb in his ass? You should’ve heard the pavement resist that body. Loud skin and thick skull, the wet, echoing slap of a compact body. And the heels, or maybe steel-toes, of those Herman Survivor work boots thudding like a left-right on two kick drums. They’re gonna need to mix concrete filler to get that dent out of that driveway. One more project to mull over when he’s in traction. Or else it’s an inheritance job. You wonder if I felt bad about it? Ladders don’t do well with dropping a man. Our chief design function is assistance. Humans can’t achieve different viewpoints without a ladder. But for as rapidly as we might fail, ladders feel guilt in tremendously slow motion. As I scraped along that old roof’s edge, popping asphalt dust from the shingles, maybe I snuck a peek inside the window and saw the man’s useless son scrounging in the refrigerator for cold pizza. Maybe I dropped a rung to the back of the old man’s head and maybe the boy learns something. The old man played football and he took a pounding from his old man, so he knows a blindside hit. It’s just a part of the game. No one could blame the ladder. There’s no one to blame. Still, the man has a son who could’ve kept me in check. Maybe he learns.
The sound shook the kitchen windows. It didn’t sound like one ladder, but a whole stack had fallen through the clouds. A clatter of cheap sound effects through busted speakers. Our windows were shut in case it rained, but I could feel the sound in my teeth.
My father’s body was like a fresh-caught bass on the driveway. His legs were kicking at the ladder next to him and he was trying to push off the ground with his hands. His back humped up and collapsed repeatedly. He was speaking softly, “Son. Son. Son.” Yelling would’ve been normal. Instead, there were measured pleas.
“Suuuuuuuuuuun.” Somehow my ten-year-old sister didn’t even register. She was never around when somebody cracked a skull.
The driveway side of his face was a deflated basketball. With a bleeding forehead, my father was already on his feet staggering in circles like a ten-round boxer who won’t go down after losing the last nine.
He whispered, “I can’t do everything. I need help here. When I’m on the roof, I need help. I can’t be on the roof doing this alone. Someone needs to help me out. Somebody should be on that ladder when I’m up. No one helps me. That’s why this happens.”
I wasn’t sure it wasn’t suicide. He jabbered about my mother like she was coming back from the city. We all knew her new life was her old life. Years before she left, her every conversation was a lament about nightlife, wine tastings, and glorious parties. I think I became a loner to try to convince her it was a viable life choice. Though I’d probably been filed under loner since I had above-average acne in the pattern of a hammer and sickle. Teens all deal with acne, but subliminal Communism was another story.
The gash above my father’s eyebrow was running into the crook of a smile I’d never seen. It was not a ketchup red, more of a Merlot. He was drooling it out and still staggering in eights. Dancing with him, I fished his keys out of his pocket and rummaged up a greasy shop rag from under the driver’s seat. “Guess you’re learning,” he grunted and crawled across the bench seat. He grabbed the rag, wadded it up, and pressed it between the window and his forehead. He kept yawning. I yelled at him not to fall asleep, turning over the ignition. I tried the AM radio that was only static and he blurted, “OFF! You gotta sing, you wanna live.” We alternated a few rounds of “Row Row Your Truck Upta Hospo-o” and I drove drove drove as close to the shoulder as I could. Halfway there, he tried to get me to turn back.
“I’ve fallen hundreds of feet out of trees and off and through roofs and I’m always fine. I’ll be fine. I can feel the blood slowing.”
I said, “I need the practice.”
I pictured my father sitting at the dinner table. The one my mother didn’t take, a door drilled onto some swaying sawhorses. He would be putting all the uneaten leftovers into a saucepan and stirring it with his wooden serving shovel. Then with his mouth like a pizza oven, he would shovel away, stretching his lips, unhinging his jaw until the food was gone. My sister would shake her head and kick me and I would spit laughter milk across the table and she would duck. My father would yell again. Maybe he’d yell, “It’s not your fault I fell off the roof,” in a few decades.
* * *
Dying on your children is one way to get your wife to come home. After all, my mother was the primary beneficiary of my father’s life insurance. In the romantic and never-say-die eyes of the state of New York, they were still legally married. Divorce papers had been drawn up, but never signed. Upon arrival, she dragged the ladder from the driveway into the side yard by herself. I was at work anyway. My sister saw her check the ladder for blood and wipe it down with some newspapers and my father’s knock-off Windex. Before she left, she would’ve been winded just bending down and lifting. But her incredibly thin city-body must’ve figured there would be insurance investigators poking around soon. Me and the ladder wouldn’t say shit.
* * *
Nothing says “Let’s Get It On” like your dead father’s truck in a church parking lot. Blue and I spent the night of Halloween sweating through white face paint and black lipstick and ignoring the smeared passenger glass. Her boyfriend wasn’t her boyfriend anymore. She called it a hiatus, but I’d take it. It was the only reason to become car people. She knew I’d just been here for the funeral, and anything was better than a funeral.
“So, did you see it happen?” she said.
Luckily, I was prepared to answer. I missed a couple of days work when my father fell off the roof, but if I said nothing and looked sad I was embraced by women with teary eyes. No one even knew at school. It wasn’t in the papers or nothing.
I said, “I don’t want to talk about it,” and I thought of Ethiopians starving at Christmas and the baby veal cows they couldn’t eat.
And it worked with ground-breaking, window-fogging results.
The results were temporary. I wanted her to read philosophy to me, and she hated the sound of her own voice. She wanted us to meet her friends for Sunday brunches at the Greek diner owned by the Japanese. She wanted us to watch Blue Velvet in her basement every weekend, but wouldn’t tell me her real name. The opportunity for heavy petting at a minimum missed my radar. The possibility of a maximum didn’t dawn on me. Instead, I gifted her with accusations.
“You’re afraid of idleness. You’re afraid of being alone.”
“You are a Lonerist. A projectionist, elitist, and a capital M, Masochist.”
“I am the -IST of -ISTS. Hall-lay-lu-yah! I’m a goddamn bonerist.”
I’d never been slapped before. She punched me in the shoulder, too. Neither hurt. Both woke me.
Then she laughed and she lit a cigarette, knowing that I hated smoking. “That retort was pretty flaccid, I. A small b- bonerist.”
These kind of arguments were happening regularly, mostly in my truck and always in some parking lot a dead ringer for our “Restaurant.” She had a Hail Mary ploy to make our pairing work. I was served a list of demands: Meet my mother and little sister, cook vegetarian meals together, go to hardcore matinees, get body piercings and/or tattoos and/or shave random patterns into our scalps and/or be supportive about it. I was always unwilling, unshaven, unavailable. She tried but I had to go to work, so she took her pity elsewhere. Nobody was telling me not to work too hard.
* * *
About six months, twelve employees, and three managers later, I was a Taquote’s Leader. This distinction meant a name tag that read: “Leader” complete with quotes. The myth of $4.50 was nearer to reality. Customers were now free to come to me with complaints because I promised the managers I wouldn’t tell anyone to fuck off.
It was the time of night for Guacamole Couple, Rock Star with Groupies, Wannabe Rock Stars with Wallowing Disillusionment on the side, Guy with the Beer-Cozied-PBR Between His Legs and Six-Year Old Son Buckled Next to Him, and all the young dudes driving through backwards wanting you to say, “I’ve never seen that before – this one’s on the house, dude,” but instead you say, “Wow, you’re really into Kierkegaard.” One guy thought I was insulting his ride. I didn’t tell him I just started reading him because my mother said it was that or therapy. At the drive-thru you were always one wrong syllable away from a fight.
I hadn’t worked with Danny much, though I’d heard he didn’t know how to do anything. He was Ireland Irish with red hair and probably hiding out from the Feds. He was Taquote’s first immigrant-hire. No one trusted him with money, but there was no one else to run drive-thru. As Leader I worked the line. His distorted headset was up loud enough for the Bolt Cutters and Boosters in the dining room to hear.
“What?” the nightmares yelled into the outdoor intercom.
“You owe seven dollerr, ehttee-ett,” Danny said.
“What did you call me?”
“Yer total: Seven dollerr, ehttee-ett, drive oop to tha winda, please.”
At the window: the air-raid blast of sweaty rednecks. Two men who looked like anyone, but slightly less so. They were distinguished only by their intolerance of foreigners working in a taco joint. Drive-thru gives you a slight height advantage on sedan drivers, but you always worry with truck people because they can reach your throat. Dibs was the manager. He stalled them.
“He’s Irish. They talk funny. Say the cents after the dollars different. Eighty-eight. Cents.”
“Fuck you guys, man. We know it’s a fake.” Our customers were articulate about their feelings, especially when it came to authenticity of culture.
I’d heard stories about phlegm-spitting, testicle-dragging, black magic of the food service industry, but never saw it happen. Not once. Everybody wore gloves because you didn’t want beef and beans and cheese smelling up your skin and nails. This group of employees would totally fuck with your food, but we had standards.
I souped up the dudes’ burritos with onions onions onions and I maxed out our hottest hot sauce. Their bag was extra heavy with nothing tasty. I might’ve forgotten the beef. Leaders make the important decisions.
A fist of cash shoved through the window and the truck shoved off. Brakes shrieked. They rolled back. An open palm slapped the glass. We held our breath. Dibs prepared to punch a face or get face-punched.
“Gimme some mild sauce. Like a whole lot of packets?”
Dibs obliged without punches. This was not his strong suit; his small body almost always getting in the way. In fact, Dibs was the reason most of the staff left the “Restaurant.” For months, Blue and any other women had put up with daily clumsy brushing and generalized lechery. With male employees it was occasional, as if he were half-assing his equal harassment opportunities. When he wasn’t rubbing against someone, he was talking about sodomy. We learned all the laws and just how precisely different they were state by state. Perhaps the worst image in our collective employee mind involved tiny, mulleted Dibs and his beanpole fiancee spending quality time in the walk-in cooler. This was not a one-time event to check off the kink list. It had become a routine part of closing. Everyone knew to mop the bathroom floors until the beanpole and her thong were out smoking by the dumpster. Our destroyed bathroom walls always needed the extra time for bleaching out the 3-D blood and snot, anyway.
Dibs inspired loyalty in everyone not employed by Taquote’s. Our dining room was never empty when he was on. If it wasn’t Dib’s freezer fiancée waiting to spill his refried beans, it was the Boosters. Most of them were former Bolt Cutters embracing a change of vocation that edged occasionally into grand larceny. All of them were awaiting an audience with Dibs. He was their Fagin. Paper takeout bags came into the “Restaurant” with kingly tributes of car stereos, cassettes, or CDs. These same bags crossed the counter, holding just enough euphoria to get through the day. Dibs never made the Boosters pay for soda, but he did lose his mind if they loaded up a bag with sporks.
I was bribed to keep my mouth shut. A week after Blue left, Dibs gave me a couple of previously-owned cassettes. The bands were called Earth Crisis and Minor Threat. Hardcore music. I felt guilty even listening. They were all yelling at me.
* * *
I felt guilty about everything. My little sister had no father. My mother quit her artist life and now wouldn’t leave her bedroom. Blue got molested by our boss. My customers were full of heart disease. I was actively collapsing veins and exploding hearts of all the Boosters and Bolt Cutters who had begun smiling at me more than any of my customers, which made me want to put those coronary customers through the cilantro slicer, which made me feel even guiltier. Nowhere is as close to death as a fast food joint. I felt guilty about feeling guilty. I was a great and terrible Catholic.
* * *
Everyone knew it was coming when the phone wouldn’t stop. Employees were coming in on their day off and not ordering food. The universe was shrinking with questions.
“Do you feel sick?” “Who was sick first?” “I don’t think I don’t feel well, but I don’t feel right, right now.” “Do you feel feverish?” “Was Danny working?” “I hear he’s homeless.” “They’re thinking it was bad chicken?” “I heard lettuce.” “I heard the ice.” “Salmonella’s from chicken, right?” “Make sure you use gloves serving those drinks.” “Gloves all the time.” “Is it the new hot sauce?”
I finished my shift violently in the men’s room and I was lucky. Thanks to Catholic Jesus, I didn’t have the vomiting. I hadn’t regurgitated since the seventh grade when a) it was called barfing and b) my science teacher decided it would be educational to draw our own blood with a razor blade and look at it under a microscope. I couldn’t squeeze the blood from my thumb so the teacher, Mr. Michael, grabbed my hand, jabbing. Nothing. He then reached his hand to the heavens, swiftly stabbing my thumb. I ended up running for the restroom leaking blood from my hand and lunch from my mouth — a Hansel and Gretel trail for the custodial staff. I ran cold water on my thumb and splashed some on my face. It helped then. The slit in my thumb stopped bleeding and ridged with white.
Cold water wasn’t doing anything this time. I dragged my guts to the manager’s nook and my mother got a call that went something like:
“Can you please pick me up?”
“Maybe you could bring some of those fajitas?”
“I don’t think you want those right now.”
“Maybe a burrito, then?”
“Can you just get here?”
“I can pay for them.”
I already was already paying. For four days, I made the stumbling commute between a sweaty bed and an exhausted toilet. My mother and sister timed their bathroom use around me with minimal complaint. The idea of cold ceramic tiles on the bathroom floor was soothing, but in reality we had rolled linoleum flooring with wood grain. There was a lot of time to second guess how this could’ve happened. Even though I always washed my hands, wore gloves, and never had sex in the walk-in, my guilt always trumped rationality.
There was a Health Department investigation. If you want to cross the generation gap, there’s nothing like a food poisoning class-action suit. We were encouraged not to talk to lawyers if we wanted to keep our jobs. Our store was closed down for about 48 hours. Health inspectors found zero health violations. There was no known cause. “No known cause” meant I didn’t do it. But my guilt was robust; it didn’t disappear with facts. Especially when all employees were banned from the premises.
Cleaners were brought in. In my dehydrated exile, I made some assumptions. NASA astronauts scoured the store with toothbrushes and bleach. The owner showed up, but no one was allowed to meet him. “Germs,” he cried. Then he really cried, sobbing audibly from behind a sterilized curtain. Dibs was taken out back and shot. Scapegoats are necessary when you poison a whole county. The Boosters held vigil by the dumpster, but the beanpole didn’t show up or even ask for one last tour of the walk-in.
We actually had protesters. Car people got out of their cars and stood with signs calling for the closure of our store. It was enough to make the news, not enough to be scary. Damage control demanded that replacements were found immediately. There were scabs from as far away as Rhode Island and Ohio, but I think they were just the owner’s family. The scabs had to deal with fiery malcontents attempting to avenge the disruption of normal bodily plumbing. Rocks were hurled. Windows where replaced. Lawyers found everyone.
Managers, bosses’ bosses, team leaders, followers, and anyone stupid enough to not join the class action suit met at area hotels for the corporate explanation. We met in a budget motel conference room. On the prosperous salary of a janitor we’d never traveled without a tent, so I’d seen nothing like this. There were threatening patterns of fleur de lis on the carpet and everything was beige.
It was like the top brass were holding auditions. “Okay, let’s rehearse. Offer them free refills. We always have free refills. Offer to fetch them those refills. Then refill their refills.” The scabs had the whitest teeth. They were all taller than me and grease-resistant. Even still, I wanted my job back. It felt weird not to be working. I certainly didn’t want to be thinking. There were only two summers to save for college, then find a wife and begin having devastatingly attractive, independently wealthy, layabout kids who eventually buy me a boat with no holes. A 32-footer.
I signed something. Not suing guaranteed worker’s compensation. I think I gave up paternity rights to all future offspring, or maybe I claimed paternity, or maybe I got a hunting license. A lawyer might’ve been helpful. I had to stay on worker’s comp until the salmonella strain was out of my system. Stool samples entered my vocabulary. I tried to stay positive about negative results. Healing my guts would take weeks.
A certified letter arrived in the mail. It offered a “professional opportunity” for required sanitation courses. The sparkling store must’ve burned through a lot of toothbrushes. I got a certificate and we hung it on the wall behind the counter. Still, I wasn’t allowed in back until I got a doctor’s okay.
“How you feeling?” New manager Ron was slightly grayer than original manager Ron and had stolen his sad mustache. He held my comp check in both hands tightly. New Ron was really revving his engine at me.
“Good. I’m ready, but you know— ” I said.
“You just get healthy. Still getting those stools tested, right?” We had just met.
“Every couple days.”
“We’re all getting cleared now, just a matter of time.”
“Right.” He wasn’t even working here when.
“So how’d you like to make some money on a sunny day? You need money, right? We’ve got this fantastic new taco costume. You just go out in front of the store and wave at the cars, maybe you dance around a little. It’s corny, but we’ll pay you like twenty bucks for a couple hours. Build some goodwill out there. How’s tomorrow sound?”
He sounded jacked up like every manager ever. Working late, Dibs and I used to get buzzed on straight Mountain Dew syrup. He was chasing speed, but one shot of that viscous unmixed toxicity guaranteed an efficient closing shift for me. It’s also the reason to guzzle chewy jalapeño shots and drive backwards through donut shop drive-thrus at 3am. You live the life you got.
* * *
Blue’s blue hatchback was backed diagonally into my driveway. Her nearly-bald tires were cranked hard and her rear bumper hung over the dent where my father rearranged his insides one last time. I pulled in too close next to her. I’d have to exit out the passenger door. I was sure that these hardcore cassettes were hers, but how could I deny it? She knew I knew nothing about music. The glove box was full of my old man’s old maps, so I stuffed the tape boxes in and shut the door quickly. Sometimes it latched. It latched this time. When I slammed the truck door, who knows; I didn’t check.
In the kitchen three women were laughing at a knife. My mother stirred a pot. My sister banged a different pot with a fork. Blue was brandishing this long bread knife which I’d never seen in my house. Her hair was pulled back and violet with a hanging streak of blond that sliced her face nearly in half.
My mother said, “The universe has brought us together.”
“Your mom called me.”
“I found her number written on that paper bag from work. You touched it so much it was barely paper anymore. I figured you wouldn’t mind if I wrote her number in the book and threw the old bag away. The dear said she’d always wanted to meet me.”
“Hello,” I said and side-hugged Blue on the way to the living room. No one grabbed anything; she didn’t pummel me or pucker up. Normally I would toss my school bag under the coffee table. I wanted to pretend this evening wasn’t going outside my comfort zone. Of course, neither the comfort zone nor coffee table routine would be possible. All the furniture had been moved out of the living room. Only the machine-made Persian runner remained. It was made in the USA and worn pretty thin. In the center was the death ladder hanging off the edges of the rug by a couple feet on each side. Around the ladder were four square pillows purportedly for sitting.
“Don’t touch anything in there!” My mother hollered in her forced-casual sing song voice. At least she was out of her bedroom.
“We’re supposed to eat first,” my sister said. She was hollering in the same nasal, over-enunciating tone. Welcome to my showtune home.
Blue must’ve wandered away from the kitchen. A touch landed on both my hips, fingertips only, stopping short of palms, short of embrace. She smelled more like potatoes than is possible. I was caught staring down the ladder, but I didn’t flinch.
“Do you want to give me a tour of the house? That isn’t code for messing around, either. I’m just curious and here.”
“Is it all-vegetarian that you’re making?”
“I was hoping you’d come around. Now since you’ve enjoyed food-borne illness at the claws of chicken.”
“Nope. Still a meat-eater.”
“Well not tonight, honey.”
I gave her a tour like a real estate showing. There was a heavy focus on natural light and built-ins, which my mother just loved and had been talking about endlessly, but in a detached and general way, as in these would all be stunning if they were in a city apartment. My tour included silent recollections of yelling, cursing, and other family sentimentalities. I did not point out the toilet seat that prompted immediate castigation whenever I forgot to lightly replace it in the closed position. A favorite: “We are not barbarians!” In good times, this battle cry came from both parents in harmony, and in bad it was a half-hearted stab at spousal relevance by my father. I did not point out the baseboard where my sister’s face had been smashed after I knocked her down accidentally or quite possibly in a rage over some perceived slight or invasion of privacy. This wasn’t the dining table where the almighty dollar and its parental distribution was in dispute every night until we all stopped eating at the same times. These weren’t the basement stairs that my sister and I hid under. These weren’t the same stairs that my mother threatened to throw herself down if my father didn’t let her go. This file cabinet wasn’t a gun cabinet and the bullets were not in that dresser drawer beside completed but unsubmitted job applications and my father’s ribbed condoms. That wasn’t a pile of self-help books, just some classics collecting basement mold on the laundry table.
“Soup’s on!” came the call from upstairs.
It wasn’t soup, but it was runny and the flavor wasn’t bad if you enjoy the subtlety of leeks. The talk was small and mostly about leeks. After dinner, we were denied dessert in accordance with my mother’s diet. We couldn’t afford it anyway and the frozen “churros” from my employer weren’t really welcome, even though they were hermetically sealed and likely made of food-borne pathogen-resistant petroleum.
“Get the candles,” my mother said.
That’s what this was all about. I figured. My mother had often squawked about her metaphysical connectivity, but I hadn’t expected a full-on seance. No wonder Blue couldn’t refuse; she carried emergency tarot in her pants. A lengthy period of arrangements and rules took us to sunset. My sister was running all over the house, a banshee and an intern.
“Don’t pull the curtains. Leave them open for the moon,” my mother said.
“Tonight’s the new moon,” Blue said. The good vegetarian was astronomically well-researched.
“Even more reason. Let’s not make it harder to see us,” my mother said.
By hour eighteen of our attempted commune with the other side, the candles were giving me a headache. We were all assured that “Vanilla Mist and Lavender Beans in Grampa’s Pipe on Christmas Eve” would indeed promote “a message deliverance” from the “spirit of the ladder.” My mother insisted that all inanimate items are charged with energy derived from human contact.
“I’m having a little trouble tuning into –”
“Just say dead, Ma.” I said.
“The once-living. We say out of respect,” she said.
“Whatever,” I said. “Maybe we ought to say goodnight.” My sister gave me a look. The turncoat! Make one non-salmonella dinner and you earn loyalty, I guess.
“The ladder has something to tell us, but we must remain open,” my mother said.
Blue refused a look from me. Her intensity was focused on the ladder. My mother had insisted we all glue our right hands to it as if it would float away. At least no one was holding hands.
My mother began blinking like a cartoon neon sign. It seemed like she stopped breathing and she spoke deeper with a dialect slightly Liverpudlian, a hint of rasp.
“Now the ladder wants to clear the air. He says his job was to get the man up and down, but he failed. The ladder, not the man.”
“So Dad didn’t jump,” my sister said.
“Of course not. And it’s no one’s fault but the ladder.”
“This is a confession?” I said.
“So we’re talking to a murderer,” my sister said.
“Well, a manslaughterer, ” I said.
“Accidental,” Blue said.
“And he feels really bad about it,” my mother said.
“He?” my sister said.
“So, the ladder is a man,” I said.
“He identifies...well, I might’ve added that ’he’ for the ease of conversation.”
“This is much easier now,” I said.
Her accent and rasp were fading. “The ladder is making its point now, so everyone can it. Just shut up. Please. I need faith and concentration. And keep your hands!” From her pillow she bounced and scooched herself toward me, reaching across her body with her left arm to press my right hand down onto the ladder. With the weak candlelight, I thought I could avoid actually touching it. It didn’t burn and it wasn’t cold, but I definitely did not want to feel anything.
“The ladder says that the death is no one’s fault. People fall from ladders,” my mother said.
“But not if they’re held by someone,” I said.
“People fall from ladders even when they are held by someone.”
“But much less so. Statistically.”
“So ask the ladder what’s its purpose. What is the duty of the ladder?”
“To take people up and down.”
“So it failed to do its duty. It is responsible. Culpable. And there must be some motivation to shirk duty.”
“Shirk?” my sister said.
“I don’t get your motivation,” my mother said.
I pulled my hand from the ladder.
“Christ!” Blue said.
“It’s about the teleological... um...suspension of the ethical?” I said.
“What?” my sister said.
“What?” Blue said.
“What? So you actually read it.”
“Oh, he reads too much.” said Blue. “What’s your point, though?”
“Kierkegaard gets obsessed with Abraham and my namesake.”
“Issac? Now, you’re talking about Bible people?” my sister said.
“Yes. Okay. Abraham is a dutiful man. A good father by the standard of the times or whatever. But he decides, I’m going to takes the boy up the mountain to kill him.”
“Well, because God said to,” my mother said.
“Precisely,” I said.
“So he’s schizophrenic?” Blue said.
“He’s got some disorder,” I said.
“None of this was supposed to happen today,” my mother said in a quiet grumble with fidgeting.
“Sometimes there’s a greater power pushing-pulling you to do something.”
“Always,” my mother mumbled. She was fishing around in her pockets.
“Fine. Duty higher than duty. Like we’re seancing with the spirit of a ladder because Mom’s the boss. So, if logic is dead – sorry – once-living, we’re playing along with this delusion. Okay. Earthy Ladder hears the voice of God Ladder up and down its rungs. And Ladder God says, No more up and down. Off. Off the man. Knowing this, Guilty Son feels better and Guilty Mother feels better about Formerly Guilty Son. But, I don’t have faith in objects. I refuse this delusion. What if I chose to ignore helping my father because a) I was too tired after school and work, or b) I’m just lazy, or maybe c) I was just pray he’d frickin’ fall on his face and leave me alone about fixing shingles over my bedroom when he’s running on no sleep after working all night because I’m lazy and a selfish shit.”
“You haven’t properly grieved,” my mother said.
“So there’s a way? Maybe Earthy Ladder simply heard my wish.”
I hadn’t noticed my mother also took her hands off the ladder. She pulled a lighter and a cigarette case out of her pocket of her blue jeans. She was smoking and saw Blue eyeing her cigarette. Then she offered her her own, tossing both across the ladder. Both landed with a clang within reach of Blue’s boney fingers. The case popped open, a few fell out, and while she regrouped Blue was already halfway down to the filter. We sat in silence smoking. No one offered me so much as a drag.
“All that philosophy. Cartoons or not, you should talk to my friends in the city. You’re old enough to use your brain. Your father was so afraid of the intellect in the city,” my mother said.
“He was afraid of getting knifed and drive-by’d,” my sister said.
“Well, either way, here we are in the sticks. It’s a different world of ideas, Isaac. This guy John – you will meet him – both of you will. He used to be a professor at NYU or Colombia or somewheres. He’s brilliant and wrote a book. It’s on THE poetics, or... He’s European and brilliant and lives in a building with an elevator,” she said.
“Maybe it was actually idiopathic. Disasters are called acts of God to relieve our responsibility. Could be a cop-out. Maybe everyone got poisoned because I didn’t change meat at the right time. Maybe I dropped the tomatoes and didn’t wash them right. Maybe I used fermented fucking avocados. Or maybe somebody else jerked off in the lettuce,” I said.
“I!” my sister said. She hadn’t heard me curse in front of our mother before.
“Dibs was pretty gross,” Blue said.
“This isn’t what was supposed to happen tonight,” my mother said.
“Is that you speaking or the ladder?” I said, too aggressively.
“The ladder was going to say this: we’re moving away. We’re going to the city. You’ll finish school down there. The ladder will be sold with the house because no one needs a ladder in an apartment. So we say goodbye to the ladder tonight. His work here is done. It’s nobody’s fault. If we stay, we’re in danger,” my mother said.
“Because of the bloodlust of objects.”
“Because what? Why do we gotta go meet John the Fired Professor?”
“Because...I’m the mother. I’ve got to get back to the city. I can’t survive here.”
She was crying in globs with every blink. My sister was holding her. Blue was trying to turn to dust and slip between the floorboards. I wasn’t sure if it was a stage cry. She certainly had an audience.
“He didn’t really read the Kuh-kard. He got the comics one out of the school library.” When my sister fought back, she brought evidence. Nobody touched it. Everybody was tired. The ladder was clearly asleep.
“When did you start again?” I asked calmly.
“Oh, it’s why I’m so skinny now. You’re father wouldn’t let me smoke. So Catholic that I was...I didn’t.”
Blue’s hardcore tapes were still in my father’s truck. It would be a welcome distraction when I inevitably walk Blue out to her car. Look: shiny, plastic cassette tapes. They can say Goodbye and I’m sorry without a trace of bloodlust or revenge. Maybe they’d say Take this young man with you. If we could just get in her car and listen to the pummeling guitars for a few minutes together, it would drown out everything my mother tried to get the ladder to say. She didn’t know. I knew the sound that the ladder made.
* * *
I’m outside. I can’t see the cars so well, but I can hear them. The car people are flying by, pulling me in the drag of their wake, so I stagger. My eye slots are covered in mesh screening. This is not the costume of a mustachioed-mariachi-guy-who-just-happens-to-have-a-taco-for-a-body. This is about ten pounds of styrofoam corn taco on my body. There are four holes to the outside: two for arms and two for legs. There are no additional breathing holes. Tacos don’t breathe, though this one has a zipper in the back. This is taco couture.
I should have worn pants. My legs are a sour cream mess sprinkled with flecks of hair. Up close unappetizing, but white enough to blind oncoming drivers. An indoor summer also makes sunburn easy. The foam taco absorbs heat like it was designed for winter. I am top heavy with a golden shell, green lettuce, and red tomatoes popping from the exterior. It towers at least a foot above my head and a huge shadow is cast.
This might be the hottest day of the year. I’m dancing an increasingly decreasing two-step. Any movement is becoming difficult. I’m not even waving to cars anymore. There is a battery-powered fan in the corner of the head section. I pull my arm inside and flip it on. Scientifically-questionable relief. After a few minutes, I feel like I’ve dropped ten more pounds in perspiration and I’m still weak from food poisoning. It’s almost completely dark in the bowels of a taco. I am buried in taco. This is my coffin.
I look straight down to see my legs lit by slivers of light. If I look down too long, I lose balance. My hair is tangled in the fan, which tugs my whole head upward. I can hear an electrical strain and then the fan stops. It’s like when your car won’t turn over, but recognizes a key is turning. Clicking is the sound of ridicule. I move my head a little.
“Fffffuuuuuuhhhh,” says the Taco with its voice box fan.
“Hhhhuuuuuufffff,” I reply.
We are communicating. The fan stops again, completely engulfed in hair. The sweat is blinding my eyes. It’s not a mild sauce; it burns like hell and the fan keeps pulling me toward heaven. My neck is frozen parallel with my shoulder, but my both hands are fighting the fan. The fan has bloodlust, but I am furious poison. I rip a chunk of my hair loose and feel it drop down my leg and escape. It’s in the wind, free like shredded lettuce escaping every taco. The fan grabs more hair. My father always said he was killing himself just trying to survive.
I am singing. I can’t hear cars anymore and I don’t feel the pull. If I just lie down, the Boosters might fence me in another town, maybe in the city. A free taco on the sidewalk is still free. I rip out another hunk of hair and the fan starts. It sounds like a boat.
Once my father told me a bedtime story. He didn’t have time for long stories. He had to work. Leaning on the door frame he said, “The world spins so fast you don’t fall off. Nobody does.” I argued the science until he disappeared.
The taco and I move together. We are jumping, spinning. We are singing about boats and duty.