The Ladder

Ari’s desk clock read 6:34 p.m. His cell phone wasn’t ringing, which meant that his wife had resigned to the idea he would miss their son’s little league game. Again. He sighed and rested his face in his hands. Two more pages, he thought. Just two more pages and I can get out of here. The fiscal year-end report was due the next day. Then a flight to Phoenix for a corporate presentation and then home for the weekend.

This would be the first weekend he would be home, for both days, in the last few months. The thought of taking Monday off, to have a three day break and more family time occurred to him. But Casey, Vice President of Acquisitions said he had to be in for the debrief after the corporate visit. As Ari leaned back in his chair he closed his eyes to take a deep breath. Briefly, he wished it all to be over. Then he glanced at the clock to convince himself that two more pages meant he’d have enough time to make it to Daniel’s game before the end of the fourth inning.

“Who am I kidding?” he asked the picture of his family on the wall next to his desk. “It’s little league, I’m not going to make it at all.” Glancing around his desk, objects came into focus like he was seeing them for the first time. Two empty coffee mugs, one that read “World’s Greatest Dad.” Stacks of manila folders stuffed with printouts and drafts. A mustard stained tie from the week before, folded and then stuffed into a corner under the credenza. Ari felt his shoulders slump with the weight of what he had become.

He bellied up to the desk and began to type on the keyboard as if it were an angry letter. Financial reports were boring; so boring. Casey told him the more he typed, the less the board would read, which meant they’d be forced to listen to his presentation, which meant they’d have to hear how excellent he is at his job which meant he could be promoted before the end of the calendar year. Seemed to him like an awful lot of planning just to make it one step higher.

Another paragraph of bullshit explanation as to why sales dropped in the first quarter due to the rise of online shopping. Two more lines about how the board’s decision to hire specified online marketing managers to push the company website had boosted sales by the third quarter. That’s sure to stroke their egos, he thought. One more half page about how the company came out ahead, just barely, over last year thanks to the almighty board’s decision-making ability and the careful calculations of Ari’s financial team that projected the whole thing, and he was finished.

Ari plugged in his flash drive to save the thirty page report. Then saved another copy on his computer’s hard drive. Just for good measure he added a copy to his folder on the shared drive. Two-and-a-half weeks of preparation, all condensed into tiny pieces of wire and plastic, holding his future with the company in their digital embrace.

Leaning back in his chair again he let out a puff of air that filled his cheeks like a chipmunk, running his shaking hands over his thinning hair. Alright, he told himself, I’m outta here.

Glancing at his watch on the way out of the elevator in the parking garage Ari saw that it read 7:15. SHIT. Five minutes to the freeway, fifteen minutes to the exit, another fifteen to get through the neighborhoods to the ballpark. Even without the rush hour traffic, at this point, he might as well just drive home. His pace slowed as he clicked the unlock button on his key fob and the tired squawk of his old Chevy Malibu filled the empty garage.

Ari’s body fell into the driver’s seat, perfectly molded to his form, and he leaned up to rest his head on the steering wheel. I can do this. I can apologize one more time, and by Christmas they’ll see it was all worth it. When they see all the gifts under the tree, they’ll forget all the times I had to say I was sorry. The thought conjured up a memory of his boy’s first Christmas Day.

Both sides of the family gathered for the first time since he and his wife were married, showering Daniel with love and affection. Gifts covered with different colored paper, laughter and excitement coursing through the air as everyone wooed over the new life they came together to support. The smiles (and eye rolls) as one after the other, the boxes were opened and everyone oohed and ahhed (or silently booed and bahhed) over and over again. Everyone was happy.

That beautiful holiday memory was nine years old. It was a funny, warm reminder of a simpler time. When Ari thought nothing of the working world, wanting to paint, like he’d always done. That same Christmas day he realized that painting just wasn’t going to cut it anymore, so he went back to school and got his finance degree. It wasn’t fair to put his family in a position to “do without” for the sake of his passion. Turned out he was pretty good with numbers, which put him at an advantage in his current role. His hand reached up and brushed the air, like petting the recollection of his former life before putting it to sleep. Abruptly, he sat up straight and scrunched his face up in defiance.

“One more time,” he told himself aloud. “One more time, get promoted, and then you can break out the canvas again.” Ari switched the car on and drove out of the parking lot.

Once on the interstate his mind switched to autopilot. Fifteen minutes to the exit to get home. He would eat a peanut butter sandwich and listen to his son tell him about his game. He would apologize, again, and promise that he would never miss another one. And this time he would mean it. His phone buzzed in the passenger seat. Ari glanced over to see the notification on the screen. A text from his wife, “Where are you?” His hands tightened on the steering wheel and he gritted his teeth.

Out of the corner of his eye Ari saw something glint; a tiny reflection of light on metal. He looked up just in time to see a ladder fall from a construction truck in the lane just to his right, and not quite a thousand feet in front of him.

 

:00

The ladder fell off the truck, but seemed to float to the road below it. A semi truck, pulling a full load of cars on their way to a dealer’s lot, and only a hundred feet or so behind the construction truck, tapped its brakes to illuminate the lights behind it. Ari felt his eyes widen.

 

:00:05

Ari turned to his left, to check the lane next to him, to see if he could move further away from the incident that was about to occur. The ladder landed on the road, briefly, before bouncing up again toward the front of the semi truck. The construction truck moved on, not realizing the ladder had come off. Or, ignoring the event entirely, probably because their insurance wasn’t paid up.

 

:00:18

Hands sweating, Ari moved the steering wheel to the left, causing his car to drift away from what was sure to be the beginning of an evening news story. His heart thumped in his chest, hard. There was no sound, his hearing had shut down to give his brain the processing power it needed to calculate his next move. He looked back to his right in time to see the ladder collide with the front end of the semi. The ladder, meeting the force of the truck, shattered into pieces, sending a five foot aluminum section hurdling toward Ari and his car. Reflections of metal shards sprayed around the front end of the semi.

 

:00:45

The lids of his eyes closed and opened, leaving tears floating in the bottom of his eye sockets. A natural, bodily reaction to the stress of the scenario invoking the fight or flight answer, in case things got rough.

Ari’s brain froze, surging with adrenaline. The number-crunching mentality that had overwhelmed him only minutes before gave way to his more comfortable artistic tendency. Eyes locked on the spectacular, shimmering show of metal on metal made him think of a dark evening, full of shooting stars. If he could freeze the moment, he would paint the sequel to The Starry Night and sell it for millions. He would call it The Glimmering Collision in which he would demonstrate the unstoppable force of nature acting on every living thing simply trying to survive.

 

:01:15

There were no tires squealing. Instead, the semi driver had chosen to plow through the silvery obstacle as though it were fog in front of a freight train. The piece of ladder that escaped the fate of its former whole now toppled end over end down the highway toward Ari and his old, salt-eaten Malibu. Like a knight riding a fiberglass steed, he would have to guide his four-wheeled mare out of harm’s way. He held instinct at bay, and kept his arms rigid on the steering wheel so as not to send the car into a spin.

Slowly and deliberately, together, Ari and the vehicle drifted further away from the oncoming projectile. He inhaled, holding his breath and hoping the shining spear would miss the Malibu completely. But as it toppled, his mathematical mind struggled against his artistic wants to draw the line of trajectory. A strikingly beautiful arc, like a rainbow, touched the tip of the angling ladder and rested its other end gently on the right side of the car’s windshield. Ari realized the car and ladder would collide, and when they did, he would be the prize at the end of the rainbow.

 

:01:52

No longer tumbling, the ladder made its final twist and brought the end of one leg down to meet the glass of Ari’s windshield. The only thing between Ari and mortal wounding was a thin piece of melted sand and time.

Now he thought of his wife, packing their son into the mini-van, trying to say something encouraging so that he did not get upset his father had missed another game. Her soulful voice spinning half-truths of why Ari was not there, explaining he had to work so hard to take care of them, and that he would be waiting to hear stories of the team’s triumph during bedtime routines. The small collection of tears at the bottoms of Ari’s eyelids overflowed and he felt the trail of salty liquid begin to make their way down his cheeks.

One hand, his right hand, his painting hand, left the steering wheel to brush the air, as if he could illuminate the thought of his son and make his face burn permanently into the space between he and his soon-to-be unwelcome passenger.

 

:02:37

Ari did not hear the glass shatter, he only saw the cracks in the windshield take shape, like the birth of a galaxy, sudden and violent.

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