He was not a small man, or a young man. Snow white hair, lots of it, but white, ample like his waist. He could carry the ladder, prop it against the side of the house, settle the feet in the flower bed.
You’re killing the tulips.
They’ve been gone for weeks.
But the bulbs. The bulbs. You’re crushing the bulbs.
The ladder feet were, in fact, splayed over the limp brown tulip leaves. She wondered if that increased the possibility of slippage, thought of saying something, decided not to. He was pushing and shaking the ladder, making sure it was planted and solid.
He was good with tools—always had been—and she trusted the ladder was well settled over the crushed tulip bulbs—she could buy more—but she couldn’t imagine him actually mounting the ladder. Bad knees, bulging belly grazing the steps, holding his body out so far that his weight could pull the whole thing backwards.
He’d ask her to stand at the bottom to steady it, but what could she do if it started to slide or he came down on her? She saw how he climbed the stairs to their bedroom. How could he mount a ladder?
Steady it for me, will you? He was on the first step, his belly pushing him back so far that his arms were barely long enough to hold the sides.
I’ll go up, she said. Let me. You always do it.
He took a second step. His stomach scraped along the ladder raising his shirt, exposing an expanse of soft, white skin.
I’ve never been up the ladder, she said. My turn. She was afraid of heights or so they both thought, but her voice was insistent, even prodding. He stepped down the two steps, bowed to her and swung his right arm to indicate that the ladder was open. Please Madam, do as you wish.
She started to climb, looking down at first, which unnerved her by the fifth step, so then she looked up to the smooth slate roof of this house they’d lived in for more than 40 years.
She paused at the second story, peered into Diana’s room, the bedspread perfectly stretched over the narrow bed, the picture of the Monkees still on the wall. She took a deep breath and climbed higher, looking up, not down, up to the roof on a ladder that moved slightly under the soft fall of her foot. She grabbed the gutter with her hand without thinking, then remembered he said he never grabbed the gutter—too unstable. She took another step, and there was the roof of her house, the house she’d lived in her whole adult life and this a part of it she’d never seen.
Her first thought was to clamber out onto the roof, to dance across it, to celebrate what at that moment felt like a crowning achievement, but she didn’t. She was old too, not potbellied, but old, and there were gutters to be cleaned. She dug her hand into the rotting leaves and threw them down, handful after handful. Plop! Plop! Plop!
Hey! Watch where you throw that stuff!
She knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of rot and decay and tried to throw it wide—the best she could—and refused to come down when the gutter was clean. He called and called to her—faint voice—but she was in the clouds.
© 2013 Kathleen Coskran