The ladder, patches of bright orange demarcating safety, stands fully extended but abandoned on a creosote-laden telephone pole, mid-block, in a trendy retail area. I pause my empty walk, grateful to see something like me. Others, on their own walks, ignore us. The ladder’s user is unlikely to be found in the small shops selling the noticeable stuff, the fine things carefully placed in the hardwood cabinets of the small high-rental spaces. No trucks or men capable of carrying such a noble piece of metal are in view.
Is this ladder a piece in a public gallery — everyday objects as modern art — to be viewed with hands on chins, heads nodding? I look for a placard, “The Ladder” — Anonymous — 2018. But there is none.
I begin to walk on. But can’t. I blend into the rough brick building and watch the passersby, half in their phones, a quarter in conversation with a partner, an eighth alone, grim faced, a sixteenth in black baby carriages. They expect the ladder to be there, like they expect that a country road on a dark night won’t end abruptly after the blind curve. Or that I won’t burst in front of them, shouting for attention, like the ladder is shouting at me.
You’ve already probably guessed what I’m thinking. Why not climb it? This makes you uneasy. Me too.
One or two rungs up, I might stop, let go with one hand and step out with one foot and wave, hoping someone would snap a picture on their phone and post it. “Crazy guy on a ladder.” Unlikely to go viral but a few likes from those who like to like. More likes if I were a four-year-old. But I’m not.
Five or six rungs up, the back of my sneakers at eye level. Unconscious glances — worn shoes, old man jeans, gray sweatshirt. Must be working on something.
Not a fatal fall. A jump to a broken ankle, a sore swollen knee, an abraded elbow. A single passerby, a kind matron, perhaps a retired teacher, might lean down as I crouch, grimacing on the hard concrete.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, seem to be,” as I dust off my pants. Stay with me, I think. “No harm done,” I say to dismiss her.
“You should be more careful next time.”
Ten or eleven rungs up — an unsettling thrill in my lower belly like leaning over a cliff. One in ten glance up, usually children, the brightest of whom wonder, “where’s his tool bag?” but don’t ask their parent. The view is better but not best. A fall would break more bones, but survivable, unless the impact’s angle was precise. An ambulance would be needed and I’m uninsured.
Fifteen or seventeen rungs up. Legs shaking now — fear or fatigue or both. Birds on the wire at my level cock their heads and then look away. Across the street, a squirrel runs the wire, ignoring me. Car tops with moon roofs below me with nothing inside except empty cups. A bus passes, the diesel remnants blown up to me, intense. The sounds are dulled up here.
The transformer and insulators are huge in my face. Stenciled numbers eroding on grey paint. No orange up here.
I grab a thick wire — after all, the birds do it all the time. I step off and swing. The wire stretches and strains but holds. I kick to start my arc. I kick harder. Can I swing over like an Olympian on the high bar?
I look down at the crowd, some pointing up, one dialing 9-1-1, another struggling to find the video button on her phone.
A truck from the electric company, yellow light flashing, pulls up. Hard hat, yellow vest steps out leaving the door open. He glances at me, tips the ladder away from the pole, and drops the extension to the ground.
The truck pulls away. I walk on.
I should’ve climbed it.
David Macpherson is a retired internal medicine physician living on a small farm in western Pennsylvania. His fiction has appeared in Scarlet Leaf Review, Adelaide Literary Journal, Front Porch Review, Rind Literary Magazine, and Typehouse Literary Magazine.