The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Crucifixion by Ladder

(After posting 288 true* stories to the blog, this one is fiction.  It's from the first chapter of my novel Clear Heart.  I'm including it here because it fits with the ladder theme and because if you've read the previous four ladder entries plus an earlier entry called Impaled — all of which truly happened to me — you will know the origins of this fictional event as well.)

. . .

Somehow, each new day, year after year, the plywood seemed heavier while the quality seemed crappier—just like my body, Wally was thinking. 

Awkwardly balanced on the ladder, Wally pushed a raggedy four-by-eight-foot panel up toward the roof. Sweat trickled along the hairs of Wally’s armpits and dripped to the second-story subfloor fourteen feet below. He supported the plywood with the top of his belly, a splinter digging into his flesh, as he shifted his grip.

Standing above Wally, straddling two roof trusses, Juke was ready. While Juke took hold of the top of the panel and lifted from above, Wally pushed the plywood from below.

Laying the plywood over the trusses, squinting a practiced eye, Juke lined up the edge and set to work with the nailgun. Phap phap phap.

Wally slid the next sheet of 19/32 CDX ply up the ladder. 

With a final phap phap from the nailgun, Juke leaned down and grasped the top of the next sheet of plywood with his fingers.  He lifted.

And at that moment on that hillside where the frame of a house was rising among live oaks and wild oats with a red-tailed hawk soaring above, the world stirred. On this calm day, with neither Juke nor Wally noticing, clouds had formed. The oak branches bent. The oats flattened. The hawk shot out of sight.

Juke was just turning sideways when the wind hit. Suddenly, from out of nowhere a bolt of air was pulling the plywood—and Juke along with it—like a big, stiff kite.

Down below, meanwhile, Wally still had a hand on the plywood in addition to supporting it with his belly and, for one brief moment, no grip on the ladder. The updraft whipped the plywood out of his fingers and knocked his body off balance. Instinctively, Wally shifted his weight.

The ladder shifted, reacting to Wally’s sudden move.

Up above, Juke realized that if he didn’t let go he would be lifted to hang-glide into the sky under a four-by-eight panel of plywood. So he let go. The rough edge of the sheet ripped the tips of his fingers and sailed away. Juke fell back against the nailgun, which started to slide down the slope of the roof decking. Juke, with raw, bleeding fingertips, reached for the nailgun and at the same time saw that Wally had lost his balance on the ladder just below.

Their eyes locked.

Wally was fourteen feet up a ladder that was moving to the right while his body was twisting to the left. Juke lunged for Wally’s hand just as Wally, whose body had now spiraled a hundred and eighty degrees, was desperately reaching over and behind his head to grab the king post of the truss. Juke had the nailer in his grip. All three—nailgun, Wally’s hand, king post—met at the same moment.


For Wally, it was a moment of absolute clarity. He felt—and even smelled—the puff of compressed air, stale from a hundred feet of hose, that had driven the nail through his wrist. He felt Juke’s hand grabbing his own free left hand, the one that wasn’t nailed to the post. He heard the sliding of the ladder and then the clatter as it hit the floor below. He heard a mighty thud and a splintering of wood as the nailgun, dropped by Juke, struck the floor a moment later. He kicked his feet in a broad arc searching for support even though he knew that nothing was there.

“Jesus fuck!” Juke shouted from above.

And there was a woman. Where she had come from Wally had no idea. Already she was lifting the fallen ladder, but she wasn’t strong and the ladder was heavy.

Inside the nailed wrist, Wally felt two separate bones grinding against the nail. Or maybe the nail had shot right through one bone, splitting it in two. He couldn’t tell. All he knew was that inside his body, bone was in contact with steel, that the bone and nail and flesh were supporting the weight of his body, that the flesh was ripping as he wriggled, that the nail felt solid and unforgiving, that the bone felt as if it was bending and would be torn from its little sockets and pop like a broken spring out of his skin. 

Weird explosive shock waves were racing up the nerves of his arm to overload and confuse his brain. Even more urgent, rising into Wally’s awareness above the flood of pain: He couldn’t breathe. The weight of his body was stretching the muscles across his chest so that only with a supreme effort could he exhale, making quick ineffective puffs. With rapidly de-oxygenating air in his lungs, he was suffocating.

Juke, still holding Wally’s left hand in one of his own, lay down flat on the roof decking and placed his free hand under Wally’s armpit. When he had a solid grip he moved his other hand to Wally’s other armpit, supporting all of Wally’s weight.

With an explosion of fusty air Wally exhaled, coughing, and then sucked a deep gasp of breath.

Juke’s face was now pressed up against Wally’s, cheek to cheek, stubble to stubble, sweat to sweat.

Wally was panting, catching up on oxygen.

Meanwhile, down below, the woman couldn’t lift the ladder. Whoever she was, she’d never before dealt with the unwieldy heft of an OSHA Type A Louisville fiberglass extension ladder.

Juke called down to the woman: “You—uh—you—”

Wally could feel Juke’s jaw moving against his own.

“You gotta—” Juke was trying to tell the woman how to raise the ladder but he was handicapped by his speech impediment—an inability to open his mouth without cursing. Juke’s personal law of carpenter etiquette wouldn’t allow him to swear in the presence of a lady. He might be rough but he was gallant. Or if not gallant, at least fearful: Juke still had nightmares starring angry nuns.

“Walk it up,” Wally said in a voice that sounded strangely high-pitched to his own ears.

The woman, confused, raised her face toward Wally. “What?”

For an instant, Wally stared. Her eyes, even at this distance, the eyes of a puppy, luminous and brown.

Juke, meanwhile, stared as well. He could see right down the front of her jersey. Nice rack.

“Grab one end,” Wally squeaked, trying not to screech, to remain calm, to ignore the electric buzz that was running up his arm. “Place the tip against the wall, and then walk under the ladder, lifting it higher as you go, keeping one end against the wall. Can you do that, please?”

The "please" came out a little higher than Wally had intended. Screechy high.

The woman tried. She raised the ladder half way, sliding it up the studs. A moment of extended arms, trembling. As she tried to shift her grip, she lost it. The side of the ladder bounced against her shoulder and then rattled to the floor.

“I’m sorry,” she said. Briefly she laid a hand on her shoulder, wincing.

“You all right?” Wally said.

“My God. What a thing for you to ask right now.” Already she was trying again. This time she seemed to get a better angle on it, walking the ladder up the frame of two-by-fours without overextending her arms.

With something like a ballet move, Wally was able to arch his potbellied body and swing his legs sideways while the woman slid the ladder until his foot, and then two feet, once again supported his weight.

Juke could now let go of Wally. There were bloody fingerprints on Wally’s arm. Wally’s body was blocking Juke’s access to the ladder. Juke whispered, “Now what, Boss?”

Wally spoke to the woman below. “See that saw? No, behind you. The Milwaukee. There. Yes, that. Can you bring it up the ladder and give it to my partner here? Carry it by the handle so you don’t touch the trigger.” Always Mr. Safety. “Make sure it stays plugged in to the extension cord. Okay?”

Oops. His voice had squeaked again on the "okay."

Juke whispered, “No, Boss. I ain’t cuttin’ your hand off.”

“Cut the post,” Wally said.

And that’s exactly what Juke did.

Wally walked on his own two feet out of the house and straight to his truck, his hair powdered with fresh sawdust, his left hand cradling an eighteen-inch piece of two-by-four Douglas fir that was still nailed to his right wrist, trailing blood…  

 . . .

*True:  Based on fact.  I frequently change names or other details to protect people's identities and avoid lawsuits by billionaires.  Occasionally for ease-of-storytelling I'll combine two characters into one, or I'll compress a time line or use other implements of the trade.  I've been wearing a novelist's tool belt just as long as I've been wearing a carpenter's, so it comes naturally now to reach for the handiest chisel, or pliers, or plot device.  I'll smooth the rough spot out of a messy story just as I'll rub a little sandpaper over a piece of wood.

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