Jack's Ladder

from Sweet Potatoes

Jack drove along the waterfront. To the left tourist spots like the aquarium and the cinema showing the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s in three dimensions, to his right the viaduct under which he would look for parking and the club with the twenty large screens where he was to meet the guys. He felt vague about which guys. Pedestrians gesticulated at him; a big stubble-faced bloke came at him from the center of the road. Jack kept the window up, but when the derelict stopped by his front hood, leaned down and shook his head, Jack caught the meaning of the hubbub: he had a flat.

Yeah, he’d whacked a curb making a righthand turn too tight in Capitol Hill. But fuck this new expensive car with its gas-eating wide wheels. Why did he let her persuade him to spend all that money? All he wanted was something he could get up and go in, not a computer on wheels.

Jack needed five tries to get the trunk open with the fucking remote. He hefted the 23 ballbreaking boxes of quarry tile she’d made him return. Dammit he’d forgotten, their weight running up his gas-use for weeks.

The doughnut felt light after the tile pile. He leaned it against the black plastic strip that passed for a fender, cursed the scrapes on it, and tried to remember how much The Consumer Report said the useless suckers cost to replace after you tapped something. The jack looked big enough to lift a plate of cookies; it was painted metallic gray to match his car; a fucking designer jack. The jack-hole on the frame behind the front wheel was so tiny he couldn’t feel it, he had to get onto his back to find it. He forgot to loosen the nuts, so he had to drop it and lift it again, and the jack tilted a little towards the rear, but it was back up and he went for the doughnut but it was gone. He’d heard a monster truck grind by, maybe the goddam rednecks grabbed his doughnut—he ran where he thought the truck had gone. A bunch of rednecks with beerbottle in big trucks grinned at him. He wanted to start something but there were too many of them. They roared with laughter yelling, “Good job, Jack!” as he turned to watch the Vovo roll backwards off the jack and onto the fucking tiles. He felt the dirty water on his new cream slacks and the back of his new cream sweater cooling.

The guys were mostly guys from his business, salesmen who cracked up congratulating him on what a good job he was doing with his errands for the little woman. They annoyed him so much he got as drunk as he could but still drive back to the East Side. His favorite middleweight lost a bum decision in New Jersey.

Jack was so angry at home that night, and so stubborn the next morning in front of his young son that his wife filed for divorce that afternoon and forced him from the house that night.

Jack sold medical supplies all over the state, so he was accustomed to living on his own, and he didn’t give a shit about the money or his home or anything, so he headed out the door on an anger high that beat the hell out of life sitting around with the bitch hearing what she’d bought and her plans for renovating the next bathroom.

The fucking hotel was way across a mall the size of Spokane. He felt like an asshole walking the four-lane boulevard on the curb--of course there was no sidewalk in these expensive suburbs built for expensive cars--and then like an asshole on display as he walked the near-empty parking lot lit up like a football stadium. He couldn’t remember why he didn’t take the car.

The cable tv was out in the whole fucking hotel, the bar was closed, so he took a hot shower for 20 minutes trying to use up all their hot water, and then all there was to do was read the tourist guide and the Gideon’s Bible. The tourist guide catalogued the shops in the mall.

His doorbell rang. It was that tall blond on television all the time, the It Girl. Her face was nothing, kind of a horseface, but her body was amazing and as she and her camera crew streamed past him he reminded himself to look up the video of her doing it on the internet now he was a free man. They were shooting an ad called “There’s a Lot of Sherry in the Sheraton,” in which she tripped moist and naked through billowing steam from the shower of an average-Joe guest, which had to be Jack because he was the only non-uniformed guest in a hotel filled with flight crews and attendants. “This is your lucky night, man.”

The camera crew was all over the room with their blinding lights and blinding reflectors as Sherry Sheraton dropped her scanty clothes onto the foot of Jack’s bed, and talked to the director about the blocking as if her bush and her tits were her normal outfit. She murmured “Umm, nice one,” when Jack’s towel slipped. They put Jack back to bed.

It was a wrap after the 23 takes: they got the back edge of tit, the jut of hip right, no ass to call down the FCC. They liked the contrast of his hairy, droopy body with Sherry’s sleek perfections. Sherry was all sympathy about his divorce. “Now you need a little fun,” she crooned in a voice airy and pouty.

Jack’s wife was smooth as a fish when they were first together, but now she was more like one of those cuts of meat you send back to the butcher for more slicing because it’s ringed by white fat you don’t want to pay for.

Sherry stood, her tongue in the corner of her moist lips. “You know what I live for, Jack? --Guys like you that appreciate me. People think all I want is stars and hunks: I’ve had them all, and they’re bore-ring. I want a guy to pant like a dog for me; I want him to experience the miracle.” She bumped and ground, guiding Jack’s hands to everything he could want. Her tongue was soft on his fingers as she took his hand in her teeth; her breath was a soothing warmth, smelling of herbed meat. Her breasts were alive under his palm like sleek animals, the taut sections of her ass delicious predators.

As he took his first kiss from the lips and the tongue that suggested the moist soft warm flesh between the sinuous thighs towards which his stiff member was impelled like a crazed engine, he sensed the slightly stale odor his wife took on when excited, an odor that had always made him feel he was missing something.

The crowbar of his member became kielbasa and then rigatoni beneath the agitations of Sherry’s long, delicate fingers, and as she crooned wussamatter big-guy, you need a little frenching down there he wrestled himself from her encircling limbs and rose from the bed. Sherry lay back spread eagled and then kicked his hip, “Come on you common tacky little bastard.” and he felt paralyzed, as if she had dislocated his thigh.

He was afraid, not of the pain but of the bulbs on the front porch dying if he didn’t repot them after winter storage, and the black-brown of the potting soil reminded him of his wife’s

But now the alarm was ringing even though it was Saturday. The bed was warm where his wife had slept; he would never tell her or the therapist about the dream. What he liked about the therapy was how much smarter it made him, how it helped him answer the question how he could go on living with their son dead. The answer was that he didn’t know, but he could or was it should. Nothing could touch the grief that hit them like a kick in the stomach and took their life away. The fumbling attempts of their friends to bring everything back to normal or to imply their son’s killing himself was somehow for the better because if he’d do that he didn’t fit made Jack want to follow his son, but working with Leah in therapy he managed some sympathy for their friends’ obtuseness. Jack knew that his son’s madness put the boy outside anything the neighbors could deal with and he sympathized because there were so many times when it seemed beyond anything he and his wife could live through. He remembered when pregnancy had seemed like that, and then how the tiredness of working when the baby wouldn’t sleep, the fear when the little thing got sick were insurmountable troubles they got through. But he never felt good about how he got through the earlier crises until his son died; it was not the crappy sentiment that his son’s death had meaning, he would never ever accept his illness and death; it was that his own life seemed almost coherent now that he could try to talk about it with the woman with whom he’d lived for 20 years.

She appeared with eggs the way he loved them. The smell of eggs was sexy, and he began to hope because she was still in her bathrobe. Desire started as a tingling ache in his penis, and a wish that she would make the first move. He was never sure if she wanted it, sometimes he was convinced, but then when he touched her she was surprised.

“Yes, I’m awake. I’m lying here thinking. You know what I’m thinking.”

“What’re you thinking, dear?”

“I’m thinking eggs are sexy.”


“No see, they’re smooth and soft like right here.”

He traced the lines between her breasts with his thumb and forefinger as she handed him the tray. He pulled her to him for a kiss, but she held back.

“Wait honey, I haven’t brushed my teeth yet. Either have you.” He wished that just one time they could just drop everything and do it. The ache in his penis wanted instant soothing, petting, mothering.

“You finish those sexy eggs while I get beautiful.”

He was so grateful she took his desire seriously that he wept. It amazed him, particularly since the death, when anyone was earnest about what he needed. It amazed him that he could sleep late and his wife who regularly woke so early and was usually tired by early afternoon could cheerfully accede to his desires—hey, he was getting smart, “accede to his desires” was pretty good.
“Honey,” he said when she came in just the way he liked her, the robe gone, her knees showing below the nightgown, “you know what you’re doing?—You’re acceding to my desires.”

“No I’m not, you’re acceding to mine. Do you know what you were doing to me while you were asleep last night?”

Jesus, he thought.

“You were caressing my bottom and asking me for my little flower-pot. It was so cute. I almost woke you up and, well, you know.”

Later after therapy—where in six months they had never once discussed sex—they took a walk, through the light rain. She wanted to, he didn’t because she walked slowly and examined everyone’s gardens. He wanted a walk to be a walk, so his cardio-vascular system would benefit. But he knew it would not be the end of him to compromise, and maybe if they kept doing these walks he’d begin to remember the names of flowers and trees. Also, he would practice talking to her before the next walk, maybe asking that they walk faster every other time. He hoped he could do the talking. It occurred to him, though he shied from the connection, that he could walk slow this time because he’d gotten what he wanted.

His wife was 52. She was 5’5” and weighed 149, facts she lamented but to which he was indifferent. He noticed the cellulite when she was standing; when she lay down naked the puckers and bumps smoothed and her body composed itself into what he wanted. He watched her back bent forward, the stooping of her shoulders, and the slowing of her walk; he loved her aging declining being. The testiness that came with her menopause weighed on him, but he withdrew when she berated him. When their son died she overate; she was unpredictably cranky; worst of all, she fell into days which seemed like weeks of silence and silent crying. He hated it when she was immobilized; he felt left out when she was too depressed to function, and jealous that she got to show more emotion than he: it was his son too, so why couldn’t he be given a stage on which to grieve? His grief hit him at odd moments like driving, when he was alone in the house, or entering a prospect’s lobby.

The therapist once asked him why he was not looking at his wife, and directed him to look at her. Jack was overwhelmed.

“What are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling judged.”

“Can you talk about it?”

“No it’s hopeless. What I feel doesn’t matter.”

“You’re very sad. Is it your son?”

“Yes, of course, but it’s also her, I don’t know how to talk about myself with her. I’ve spent too long trying to please
her. I thought that’s what men do.”

“Lots of men think that. We men are not very smart.”

After that session they had the worst fight they could remember. She would not let go of his insult: how could he feel that she was not on his side, how could he? He slept in the guest room, happy that the fucking marriage was over, and now he could live his life the way he wanted to.

The next morning he saw her shoulders stooping over the sink, and he told her he was sorry.

Her illnesses annoyed him. She used chemical fertilizers and pesticides, oblivious to the environment and the cancers they could cause in her. He imagined her dying a long expensive death, slowly wearing him down as she died hideously disfigured, and he blamed her for not taking care of herself. When she caught colds or suffered from the flu she stayed too active for her own good, and he was annoyed she didn’t follow his prescriptions for recovery. He had imagined her submissively kind when they met; he had imagined a woman the opposite of his harsh mother. He experienced her deviations from his expectations as a harsh insult. He kept track of the insults. It could be a nightmare to be with the woman he loved, especially because he knew most of the time that the nightmare was his invention.

Towards the end of the walk they ran into a colleague of his from work.

“Hey, Jack and Leah, come on in, we’re just having dessert and Madeira. We were talking about you guys. Come on in. Don’t bother with your shoes, we’re cleaning tomorrow.”

He was so insistent they couldn’t say no. All the neighbors fussed over them, no matter what their relationship had been before.

The dessert was a plum pudding Jack knew they’d gotten at the expensive specialty shop, a pudding his wife found irresistible. Soon she was asking for seconds as they discussed the pros and cons of an initiative to lower the gas tax. His hosts were all for dropping any tax on anything, but Jack and his wife were not so sure. It always seemed like folks were getting huffy over a few cents or dollars a month. His wife had three servings of the pudding, Jack two, and they both had too much Madeira. Their bellies hurt and they had to pee when they left. His wife couldn’t make it, and Jack stood guard as she crept into a particularly pompous set of terraced hedgerows.

“Good fertilizer, honey.”

“Actually it burns the roots.”

“Well, their dog comes after our plantings, so this is payback. And they get the sweetest pee around.”

“Oh, Jack, you’re so cute. I love you.”

When she lay down naked, and as the cellulite on her buttocks composed itself he wished he could get rid of the pock-marks on his back from the pimples he still got when he ate too much sugar. He didn’t mind the scar from the excised ganglion, but it shamed him to sprout pimples in his 50’s and once again, as he climbed onto her buttocks to rub her shoulders and lower back, soothing her into sleep he prayed would last more than five hours, he resolved to give up all the foods and lattes and cocktails that disfigured his back and distended his belly. Sometimes he was bitter that she never massaged him unless he begged, he wanted her to come at him like a mother anticipating his needs, needs she met more fully than anything on earth, would they ever stop rising in him anew and eluding, like his thoughts, the peace he could feel when he hid his face in her lap and wept under her soft touch.

Sweet Potatoes, stories.
Ahadada Books Archive, Ontario, Feb. 2008.