Ladder, Roof, River, Sky // Fiction by Alan Cheuse
Years went by, one lavishly slow day at a time, with hot summers, when we baked our bodies at the beach down the street or, on an occasional excursion, on the sands at Asbury Park or Bradley Beach some hours south of home, where we swam also in the pungent salty ocean waters; then came translucent autumn light, with the High Holidays catching our attention as much for the hours at synagogue they demanded of us as any sense of the holiness of things. Prayer, as I knew it then, bored me. It came packaged in a foreign language that I struggled to learn—and failed at. Clearly, English was my language, not the tongue of the synagogue or the European words that flowed easily from the mouths of my grandmother and great-grandmother and uncles and aunts.
The longest days, the Jewish holidays filled with those foreign prayers, gave me an excuse to skip school. I liked that. Our native holidays I came to love, the Presidents’ Days, the Fourth of July with its noisy exploding blossoms of fireworks bursting over the beach and the river. Thanksgiving delighted me because it sometimes meant a trip to Manhattan to watch the Macy’s parade, and a meal afterward at some low-down deli or coffee shop, a place within my father’s budget—by then he had left his job at General Motors as an engineering trouble-shooter on the assembly line and opened his own television repair service, with his work space in our basement in those days of vacuum tube technology. (Television, on a small screen with a fuzzy picture, became a thing for kids on our block years before my father ever thought of going into the repair business, because a family on our street had the wherewithal to purchase one of the early sets. Watching it on weekends at their house certainly engaged me more than religion.)
As for my father, his income stayed lean at first, but within a year or so he had made his reputation as an honest repairman who would never cheat you even if you knew nothing at all about the nature of television transmission. I heard the stories he told my mother—a customer called to say that his TV had stopped working. The screen had gone dark. No picture. No power. Nothing.
Mr. Soandso, my father would say. Go around to the back of your set and see if it is plugged in.
Because of this he began to become known in neighborhoods around the town as someone worth hiring, this man who would never charge you for a house call he did not believe you needed. By learning this I knew he was an honest man.
Which did not keep me from quarreling with him and building a long-standing grudge that he never gave me time the way the fathers of my other friends did. As his small business grew a little, so did my complaints. Had he ever taken me and my friends to roast potatoes in the sand? Had he ever taken me in to New York City on the train to see a major-league baseball game as my older cousin Marvin had? Did he know how much I loved going to the movies on a Saturday afternoon? Did he know how much I loved to read sea adventure stories and science-fiction novels? Did he know how much I loved listening to jazz (a gift from an older cousin) and new melodic American symphonic music (something I discovered on my own) and Stravinsky as well?
As I grew older, even the few things we did together as a family seemed to diminish—visiting relatives, my father’s brother in New York, my mother’s mother and father in our own town—and I grew deeper and deeper into the world made of the things I cared about—sports and reading and music. And staring at the river. And traveling in to New York City. And reading and music. New American music did things to my mind. Jazz did things to my soul.
And then one surprising morning in early June, when apparently I had grown to a certain height and possessed heft enough for my father’s purposes, he found me lost in my meditative leisure in my room and called on me to help him with a job.
“Ollan,” he said, with that accent of his. “I have something I can’t do by myself anymore. I need you to help me.”
A television antenna installation on the roof of a house on one of the two fine streets in our town, he explained.
The thought of such a thing had never before entered my mind. Help my father with his work?
“Dad,” I said, “I’m reading.”
You can hear it, the gap between us broad and wide, me in my world of books, music and daydreaming, and him in his world of working hard and earning money to keep the family running. (My mother worked, first, as I remember it, selling dresses in a local department store and after that in a secretarial job at the high school, which she received as patronage from the husband of a cousin of hers who had married well—to the successful lawyer D.W. who had prosecuted the Lindbergh kidnapping case and ran the county Democratic party out of his law office just, as it happened, down the street from the Majestic.)
“Ollan,” my father said (as he called me in that lingering Russian accent of his), “I am installing antenna. I need you to hold the ladder.”
I did not want to do this, mainly because it would interrupt my own plans for a sun-splattered summer afternoon, when I held in my hands a new Robert Heinlein novel and in my mind the time to read it for as long as I could until I finished.
“Dad,” I said, “I have things to do.”
“Pliss,” he said, “I need your help.”
What could I do? He had never said that to me before. There was something in his voice. We talked so little. He had never spoken like that within my hearing, let alone to me directly.
I paused—oh, how I now despise the arrogance of that millisecond!—and then in a disdainful slow-motion action, I laid my book aside and stood.
“How long will it take?”
He explained to me, as we loaded his equipment in the station wagon that served as his business car and our family transportation, just what he had to do and how long it might take. He looked up into the sky above our house—blue sky, reflecting the nearby river—like some farmer trying to gauge the chance for a day of good weather.
“Not so bad,” he said. “I vorry about vind, rain.”
He worried about rain and wind? I turned his words over in my mind, not sure why but doing so anyway.
But I had little time for that. Our destination lay only a few blocks away from our street of narrow attached two-story houses, on High Street, where larger single houses loomed up the incline of a slight hill built across from the confluence of the Arthur Kill and Raritan Bay. As the sun rose higher and higher out of the Atlantic, the bay threw back the light at us like sun on window glass.
I tried to keep my eyes on the water. But then we parked, and together in two trips carried the ladder and my father’s tools and the equipment up stone stairs to the side of the large sloped-roof white house that stood on the small hilly side of the street. Two white columns stood at either side of the front stone steps and stone pillars lined a second-floor balcony that looked over the bay. I did not know who lived there, but figured no Jews did. I didn’t know any Jews rich enough to live there.
More years went by than I care to say, years in which I rudely accepted most other gifts my father offered—encouragement, cash, affection—and used them, spent them, as rapidly as I could. Except this one, which I have carried with me ever since it occurred.
As if he had read my mind my father said, “Some spread, huh?” And then directed me as to how to help him unleash the extension ladder, and after a few slight shifts and changes of the top rung on the gutter of the two-story house, told me to stand at the base of the ladder and hold it steady as he climbed.
Up one rung, up two, up three, and so forth until he had reached the top, disappeared over the edge. I could feel in my hands the reverberations of his climb in the ladder where I held it as steady as I could.
Then down he came—the rumbling of his passage tingling my palms and fingers as I held the implement steady.
And up again he went, hauling the antenna, which in its unwieldiness and design appeared to be almost as large as he was.
“Now you come, Ollan,” he called down to me.
I was reluctant, as I was with most things at that time, except those that gave me immediate pleasure (though even the word pleasure had not yet entered my narrow vocabulary). The books, the music, the movies. To that did I want to add the sky above this house? The sudden onset of bird-song in the trees behind the house?
I climbed slowly, one rung at a time, until midway I stopped and looked around.
Beyond the trees on the far side of the street, the bay lay broken into pieces that fitted between the branches.
I climbed higher.
More of the bay appeared beyond the trees, the glimmer of it in early-morning sun.
I kept climbing, glancing back over my shoulder even as I tried to keep my balance on the old, quivering aluminum steps. A few more and I reached the gutter, pulling myself up, chest and legs, onto the cool slate roof. More birds sang up here than down below, or at least their songs became stronger, and my father flashed me a surprising smile as he wrestled with the stork-like spokes of the antenna, trying to unfold it in one place even as it folded at another.
“Bring me my tools,” he said without looking again.
I rose up into a half-crouch and found his tool kit and carried it over to him.
“You’ll hold this,” he said, meaning the stork-like antenna. And so I stood there, holding the metal contraption, staring out at the confluence of river, island and ocean, remembering from school lessons that before the Europeans arrived here, Leni Lenape Indians camped on the beach to fish for clams on the way north or south along a well-worn trail. The permanent population, if permanence meant anything at all, remained the deer, who ducked their oblong heads toward the water in low tide, when the river flowed out into the bay toward the sea and the drink tasted only marginally of salt, apparently the way the deer enjoyed it. And the bird population, the gulls, the few seabirds that strayed across the bay from the Atlantic. And the tiny crabs that burrowed in the sand. And the horseshoe crabs, those, as I learned much later, ancient creatures, who looked and lived pretty much as they did some millions of years ago.
The river joined these old times to modern times. The river made all the difference, turning what remained essentially a rudely stained factory town with a somewhat down-at-its-heels central shopping street into a paradise of sorts with a crab-filled beach for young and antic boys.
I saw some of that just then because I had climbed higher than ever before in this town, at my father’s behest. More years went by than I care to say, years in which I rudely accepted most other gifts he offered—encouragement, cash, affection—and used them, spent them, as rapidly as I could.
Except this one, which I have carried with me ever since it occurred.
The confluence of river, island, ocean, the wind at play while I roamed the beach with friends, galloping along in the tidal interstices of sand and water, daring the waves to catch us, until they did.
This first glimpse of the gift my father gave me—I will always look back, with the future looking over my shoulder.