Zoetrope: All-Story

Summer of Ladders

Steven Millhauser

Then came the summer of ladders. I don’t mean that the presence of ladders is in any way surprising, in our New England town. Every March or April, as soon as the last snow melts from the last strip of lawn, the first ladders appear. We see them leaning against the sides of houses, harbingers of spring as reliable as the unfolding petals of dogwood and forsythia. As the weather grows warmer the ladders begin to multiply, as if nourished by the sun. Stepladders spread open beside high hedges and backyard fences. All summer long you can find us standing above our well-mown lawns, touching up our shingles and window frames, cleaning out our rain gutters. By summer’s end the ladders have begun to grow scarcer, though you can still see them in a scattering of yards. Deep into autumn a few remain, disappearing at last with the coming of the first snow.

But that summer you could feel a difference. At first it was only the familiar sight of ladders poking above rooflines or resting beside second-floor windows, the sort of thing you notice and don’t notice as you stroll along the tree-shaded sidewalks on a Saturday morning or drive out to the mall at the edge of town. But soon the ladders were displaying themselves as never before. You could see them tilted against gazebos and garden sheds, you could spot them disappearing into tall sugar maples and lindens, where pairs of arms were trimming branches or hanging ropes for swings. Stepladders stood next to porch posts and windowsills. They nestled into flowering shrubs, loomed in the doorways of open garages. In a single yard I saw one aluminum extension ladder leaning against the sunny front of the house, another leaning against the shady side of the house, a paint-stained wooden ladder rising over the garage roof, and a dark-blue stepladder standing under the branches of a Norway spruce.

This efflorescence of ladders was probably no more than one of those common accidents of town life, like the sudden appearance of basketball nets on all the garages of a random stretch of block, but I soon became aware of something else. The ladders were growing taller. Extension ladders leaning against roofs began to rise higher, sometimes reaching full length and stretching far into the air. Here and there you would see someone dangerously climbing a few rungs above a gutter, clutching the rails with both hands and looking around. In one yard I caught a glimpse of the top of a ladder sticking through the crown of a towering red maple. Moments later a head appeared. The head looked around, nodded down at me, and continued rising, pulling up with it a tanned neck and a pair of shoulders in a checkered shirt. The head turned thoughtfully, gazing from side to side, and finally stared straight up at the blue sky.

In my spare time I had been climbing my own ladder, in order to touch up my window frames. One afternoon I carried the ladder around to the back of the house, where I set it in place next to the garbage cans. I pulled on the rope and watched as the rungs rose beside the second-floor bedroom window and came to a stop a few feet above the gutter. I climbed carefully toward the sunny window, holding my paint can and brush and sanding block in one hand. At the level of the sill I stopped, hung my paint can on the ladder hook, hesitated, and found myself climbing higher. Standing at last with my feet near the edge of the roof, clinging to the rails, I looked down at the yards on both sides, at the dark-red hexagon that was the top of Jim Driscoll’s table umbrella, at a white soccer ball casting a long black-green shadow, at the spray of a sprinkler falling slowly toward glistening grass, and throwing my gaze over the top of my garage to the Benedicts’ yard I saw a glass of lemonade shining with sunlight beside its trembling shadow on a wooden picnic table, I saw a blue sneaker lying on its side on the arm of a yellow slatted chair, and beyond the Benedicts’ yard, green fragments of other yards with spots of red and purple flowers and, in the distance, a small car moving along a thin line of street. Up there on my ladder, standing with most of my body above the roofline, I had the sensation of looking down at a world I had scarcely noticed before, a world smaller and vaster than the one I knew, and suddenly turning my face upward I stared into the rich blue dizzying sky before clutching the ladder tightly and warning myself to be careful, careful.

The next day, leaving my brush and paint can on the grass, I climbed two rungs higher. I could feel a slight tremor in the rails, as if my excitement were passing through my palms into the aluminum, and for a long while I stood there, looking this way and that, not quite sure what I was doing, up there in the air, wondering how high it was possible to go.

Accidents, I suppose, were bound to happen. The first fall took place from a six-foot stepladder beside a backyard hedge. A boy of seven climbed up, stood on the very top, peeked over the hedge into the next yard, and toppled sideways to the ground, fracturing a wrist and dislocating a shoulder. It was the sort of thing that we blamed on parental negligence rather than on the ladder itself, but two days later Bob Farrell, who coached our Little League team, plunged from a ladder on which he’d been standing far above his roofline and broke his right arm and three ribs.

News of the fall spread through every neighborhood. We were warned to climb carefully and to keep our feet four rungs below the point at which the ladder rested. Within two days the local hardware store was advertising a variety of new safety features. Ladder feet now came with heavy-duty anti-slip pads. Rungs were designed with special treads for superior traction. Fence-like supports, driven into the ground, stabilized the ladder base and permitted it to stand closer to the house, so that the nearly erect ladder could reach higher than the old models, now called “leaners.” You could buy safety nets, which you suspended from ropes and spread out some dozen feet below the ladder top.

As if encouraged by these precautionary measures, ladders soared even higher. On every block you could see them, touching the rooflines and reaching far above. People stood in the sky, looking down. One day the hardware store displayed a supply of newer ladders equipped with aluminum support poles that swung out from the side rails. The poles, slanting to the ground and fitted with extra-wide footpads, prevented the ladder from tipping backward or to either side.

It was during the spread of safety ladders, in mid-July, that the third and fourth falls took place. On sidewalks and front porches you could hear people talking about Ed Harrison’s broken neck, about Susan Meyer’s injured spine. Would they ever walk again? A few ladders were taken down and stored in garages, but others rose higher still. In the hardware store you could now buy extension ladders that came in three and even four sections, stretching to sixty feet, to seventy-two feet, to eighty feet. They were so heavy that they had to be delivered by truck and set up by three men. Additional poles could be fastened against the roof slope.

One night Tim Cullen, sixteen years old, was dared by friends to climb his father’s new ladder at the back of the house. At the top he held out his arms in triumph, bent his head back to look up at the moon, and plummeted to his death. In a show of respect no one set foot on a ladder rung on the day of the funeral. Three days later you could see people in every neighborhood climbing again, high above the roof peaks.

I continued to climb my twenty-four-foot ladder, moving a rung or two higher each time. Not long after Tim Cullen’s death I found myself staring with impatience at the steep slope of my roof, which rose before me as if in mockery. Hardly aware of what I was doing I stepped onto the shingles, crouched down on all fours, and made my way up to the chimney. There I sat awkwardly, with my back against the bricks. As far as my eyes could see, ladders rose over the tops of red and gray and green roofs. Some were so far away that they quivered in sunlight. A few distant figures stood against the sky, like birds resting before continuing their flight.

The next morning I drove over to the hardware store and purchased one of the new four-section extension ladders, which was delivered that afternoon. The ladder included six ground poles and four roof poles. Workers in hard hats set it all up a few feet from my old ladder, which still leaned against the roof edge. They stood watching me make my way up before they returned to their truck. Climbing slowly, resting first one foot and then the other on each new rung, I rose far above my rooftop and then stood looking down at rectangles of green yards stretching away, at the smaller and smaller roofs of distant neighborhoods, at a ripple of blue-green hills. As I turned my head to each side the rails trembled slightly. Shifting my feet so that I could look over my shoulder I took in the sweep of peaks and treetops behind me, all the way out to the reservoir. I could feel again the old exhilaration, shot through now with a new restlessness, even a dissatisfaction, as if any height could never be enough.

The sixth and seventh falls happened toward the end of July. They proved to be serious: John Sorenson broke both legs and his collarbone, Theresa Mastrianni suffered head injuries and a fractured pelvis and remained in critical condition. In early August we heard that Dennis Holtzman, who managed a popular family restaurant, had tumbled from his three-section ladder and endured a traumatic brain injury. A few days later we learned of the second death. Richard Warren, a retired gym teacher, had fallen from a height of sixty-six feet and died on the way to the hospital. His ladder had been secured by support poles and equipped with a safety net, which apparently failed to extend far enough.

The ladders seemed to pause, as if listening. Warnings against the dangers of climbing appeared on signs displayed in front yards. One sign showed a demonic ladder rising from the flames of hell and toppling terrified people from its rungs. A minister addressing his congregation denounced our ladders as materialistic perversions of spiritual striving. By the third week of August I was aware that a change had begun to take place. The great surge upward had tapered off. It may have been the shakiness of those uppermost extensions, the fear of falling, the screams of police and ambulance sirens on nearby streets. It may have been the exhaustion of a certain style of pleasure, or an end-of-summer tiredness. Whatever the reason, many of the new ladders now stood empty. Others were taken down and hidden away in cellars and garages.

Not everyone succumbed to the new caution. The remaining ladders continued to thrust their way higher. At times it seemed to me that they were trying to outdo one another, as if a passion for competition were vying with a sense of wonder. At the hardware store we discovered five-rung extensions that could be carried to the top and fastened in place. One climber in particular, Henry Pulaski, a civil engineer, was expert in connecting the new extensions to each other and inventing intricate supports for his always lengthening ladder. Pulaski was a quiet, polite man who appeared with his wife at occasional town functions but otherwise kept to himself. People stopped on the sidewalk to gaze up as he climbed higher, day after day.

And day after day I mounted my own ladder, forcing myself to ascend a few more rungs each time, as the rails trembled and swayed. At the top I carefully attached and locked into place a five-rung extension. Always, in the near distance, I saw the Pulaski ladder, rising higher and higher.

One morning near the end of August I made my way up my ladder, determined to push myself farther than ever before. It was one of those brilliant blue days of late summer, with a narrow line of cloud low in the sky, as if a streak of white had been painted there in order to intensify the vividness of blue. As I stood near the gently swaying top, holding tightly to the rails of the new extension, I saw Henry Pulaski climbing up into the sky, like a man intent on reaching the sun. I noticed that the line of cloud at the horizon had grown broader and was edged with gray. More clouds began to spread across the blue. Soon a heavy layer had moved in, passing across the top of Pulaski’s ladder and hiding it from sight. I saw Henry Pulaski stop and look up. Moments later he continued climbing. As his head disappeared into the cloud I thought of a boy making his way into a tree thick with leaves. Did Henry Pulaski want to see what was inside that cloud? Did he imagine there might be some unknown world in there, as in a child’s storybook? Did he want to burst through to the brightness on the other side? I watched his upper body rise into the darkening white. Soon there was nothing left of him but a single foot. The foot grew misty. It floated upward. Suddenly it vanished. My ladder shook in a stir of wind. Far off I could see slanting lines of rain. I began to step carefully down before it was too late, but a change had already set in, light was breaking through the clouds, the sun slid into a space of blue. Below, green yards glowed in a burn of light. Pulaski’s ladder stood clear against the sky. But Henry Pulaski was no longer there.

I climbed down as quickly as I could, like a man running backward. At the bottom I stood clinging to the ladder with both hands, savoring the feel of my feet on solid ground. Then I set off in the direction of the Pulaski house, some five blocks away. When I arrived three police cars were parked in the street. Rosa Pulaski was pointing up at her husband’s ladder again and again as she spoke excitedly to two policemen. A few neighbors lingered nearby, looking up at the empty rungs. Pulaski had disappeared. No one had seen him climb down. No one had seen him fall, though the police were awaiting further reports. I imagined a body lying smashed on the roof of someone’s back porch, one arm dangling over the edge.

In the course of the next few days no trace of him was found. Police cars cruised the neighborhood. A dozen people had witnessed Pulaski climb up into the cloud. Was he lying dead in the middle of a rosebush? Nervous rumors, half-joking, began to circulate. Pulaski had been carried off by an eagle to the top of a distant mountain. Pulaski had entered heaven. Pulaski had been abducted by aliens. Pulaski had stepped into the cloud and now lived among the cloud people. Pulaski had descended by means of a rope and sneaked away in order to escape his marriage and start a new life. The disappearance disturbed us far more than the injuries and deaths, as if an element of dark magic had come into our town. It proved to be the final blow to our ladder craze. On street after street you could see the ladders coming down, growing horizontal, vanishing into cellars and garages.

I stayed away from my sky-high ladder but left it standing there, the last one on the block. Neighbors threw me disapproving looks. In an effort to appease them I lowered my old two-part ladder and hung it sideways on hooks in the garage. One morning I woke with the sudden understanding that I had to make a final climb. Was I hoping to penetrate the mystery of disappearance, up there in the sky? I knew only that I wanted to be high over the rooftops once again.

I moved steadily from rung to rung, ascending past the gutter and continuing up beyond the peak, climbing higher and higher until I reached the place where I had stopped the last time. As I looked out over the town I could tell that something was different. I realized that my eyes had become used to the spectacle of ladders rising high over housetops, but now I saw only chimneys and their slanted shadows. It was like returning to a garden from which all the flowers had been plucked away. Restless, unhappy, I climbed a few rungs higher and stood with my hands clasped over the tops of the quivering rails, my face turned up toward the sky. What was I expecting to find up there? Was I hoping to see the bottoms of celestial ladders, hanging down from above? Did I long to leave the familiar world for the sake of some other world that I didn’t believe in? Lifting a leg carefully to make my way onto one more rung, I became aware of some slight shift of pressure in the sole of my lower foot, all at once I could feel myself slipping to the side, the weight of my body tore one hand from the rail, the other hand lost its grip, I was falling now, plunging to my death, thinking not of my life spread out before me from the moment of birth but only of a coffee cup that I had left in the sink, a cup that I regretted not having washed and placed in the rack, suddenly my body slammed against the slope of the roof, slid toward the gutter, knocked against the foot of a support pole, and stopped. My shoulder ached, my hip was throbbing. After a while I struggled over to the ladder and made my way down. A neighbor drove me to the ER.

Soreness, bruises, no bones broken, no head injuries: they called me a lucky man. The next morning I hired workers to take down the ladder and haul it away. One day in late September I took a walk in my neighborhood. It was one of those warm days of early autumn when the leaves are still green, when basketballs slap against driveways and squirrels scamper across telephone wires, and you can feel, in the drowsy air, a momentary chill. Bursts of grass flew out behind a lawnmower. Water from a hose splashed against a car. At the side of one house I saw a stepladder standing close to a kitchen window. A man wearing a baseball cap stood beside the dark-green windowsill. He waved to me and returned to his scraper. The doors of a yellow school bus opened and released two children with backpacks, who walked across the street and broke into a run. Already the summer of ladders seemed a dream from which the town had awakened, an uneasy dream that was changing and dissolving, a dream that we would have trouble remembering as we watched the snow falling outside our windows in the stillness of a winter night.

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