Jaime was born on the same day a ladder descended from the sky off the coast of Atlantic City and dipped, like a toe, into the ocean.
There was a television bracketed in one corner of the delivery room. Jaime’s father and the doctor both watched, holding their hands in front of them to keep their gloves sterile. Jaime’s mother propped herself up to peek past their heads.
Helicopter footage panned to show people who climbed to the tops of buildings, up fire escapes, onto the rooftops in Manhattan, casinos, shopping malls, into tree houses, clinging up each rung, ascending, closer, to a sky they thought might swallow them whole, looking, looking, for more ladders, more things from the sky. They watched on televisions, in movie theaters, listened on the radio. Military guards rushed to the scene.
A hurricane was coming. It was July. The Ladder was doused in sea spray and rain. The sky was a dark gray, and the surf an inconsolable speaker.
Meanwhile, Jaime’s mother was hunched over, attempting to squeeze her baby out by pressing her palm to her stomach.
“Russians,” the doctor said.
“Aliens,” Jaime’s father said.
“Either way, some plot to cripple democracy I bet.”
“Excuse me,” Jaime’s mother called, stretching her neck to look over her stomach. “Boys. Eyes where they’re meant to be.”
“Ahem, sorry,” the doctor said. “Well, everyone, let’s make a baby, huh?”
His mother screamed and gripped the railing of her bed. People were itching to leave this world. She was itching to bring one into it, walking around her kitchen for the last month, fanning her face with the ‘lectric bill, hand on her back saying if this baby don’t come soon she’s gonna get on all fours and push so hard he shoots out of her. Because of that, Jaime’s father was waiting next to the doctor with his hands out like he was ready to catch a football.
When Jaime decided to come out, he was deep blue, umbilical cord wrapped tight around his neck.
“Blue?” Jaime’s father said. “I knew you were messing around on me.” He punched the door of the delivery room and ran out while the doctor, used to this kind of delivery room drama, carefully snipped the cord off the boy’s neck. Outside, fireworks slammed like cannons and painted the sky blue and purple.
Jaime was born dipping into this world like a toe, too.
A week later, Jaime’s father sat on the couch, cradling his son in one arm and a beer in the other, looking half dead inside from the medicine, watching footage from the security breach.
The man, the first man, swam past the coast guard, tackled a man with a gun, ran through the caution tape, grasped the first few rungs, notched his feet in this spindly thing and climbed.
He climbed, 200 feet, cheers marching from the shore, reaching him only as whispers. He stopped at the top, wrapped his arm around some rungs like a snake, looked over the shoreline, at all the lights and out to sea where those storm clouds shrouded the horizon and dropped off its edge, tethered to the curve of the earth.
He looked up.
He was just below a cloud that robbed all of sight. He put his fist in the air to signal those watching that he was going to do it, that he was ready to rock and roll.
Then, he climbed through.
People across the world cheered. The theories began. Some said they’d seen him flip over, as though gravity were reversed, and he fell, as a small speck, out into a tube in space. Some said the storm cloud evaporated him and gave him back to the sea in the form of red rain. Others said, well, he’s in heaven now, or maybe he came out the other end of a portal, churned up like ground beef in some ditch in China, as if he had dug through the center of the Earth.
“No, man,” Jaime’s father said to no one, “You’ve got it reversed. He didn’t dig to China. He went the other way.”
Jaime’s father snuck out of their trailer holding the boy like a football. He stripped himself stark naked, stripped his son stark naked too, and walked into the marsh.
Months earlier, Jaime’s father was walking through the woods, speaking with the trees when he stepped in a pool of black mud. He thought it was oil, took it as a bright star that signaled the coming of his son, and meant to sell the property to an oil company as soon as he had the chance to baptize his boy in it.
“Infrastructure is the circulatory system of the developed nation.” Jaime’s father said, holding his infant son up over his head. “If you put a knife in, she leaks oil. That’s her blood.” He turned Jaime around to look at the sky. Jaime dawdled his arms and groaned.
“To colonize space,” he said, holding Jaime over the puddle of black liquid. “That’s our destiny.”
He dipped his hand into the oil and rubbed it on the baby’s skin. He pressed his palm into Jaime’s forehead and stroked his fingertips down his face and chest, making black lines.
He stood up, put Jaime against his chest and said, “They’ve sent us steps that we might join them.”
When Jaime’s father came out of the woods, holding his son to his chest, naked and covered in black mud, police vehicles were surrounding the trailer. The police ran toward him. He put Jaime down in some long grass and ran. They went around in circles until the cops ran him down and tasered him until he was flopping around like a caught fish.
His mother put Jaime on her white night gown and wiped his face clean. She walked into the trailer and breastfed Jaime until he fell asleep, holding her son whose handprints and mouth stained her gown.
The day that the Ladder and Jaime turned eleven, Jamie ran down to the marsh so he and Carl could practice aerials. Angie came to watch and Carl’s brother came stumbling from Carl’s house in American flag underwear and said something like: “It’s so hot, I’d fuck a refrigerator.”
Jaime got down to his tighty whities, rubbed mud on his body and said, “My mom said this is how I was made.”
“What’s that mean?” Angie asked, biting on the eraser of the pencil she was using to doodle. Jaime shrugged his shoulders.
Carl stripped down to his underwear as well, flexed, and made sounds with his lips like motorboats. They grappled a little, then moved on to launching. Carl’s brother had stolen a diving board from the rich town’s pool and bolted it into cinder blocks and set up a mattress for landing. They put on goggles and bounced their thin bodies up into the air. They picked one another up and tossed their bodies sometimes missing the mattress and landing on gravel. Carl’s brother complimented their form. He put on Styx’s greatest hits. Jaime made note of how lovely it was to see a body fly, swimming helpless in currents of gravity, packed with the dust and bugs they kicked up–Carl’s body falling to Earth.
“It’s about pageantry,” Carl’s brother said, tipping his beer can to them, wearing a t-shirt he made that boasted his political agenda: “Food should be free.”
Overwhelmed with the excitement of having friends, Jaime blurted out, “Someday, we’ll all climb together, and do all of this in the next world.”
“Hush your mouth,” Angie said.
Jaime and Carl, who often romanticized riding up the Ladder on motorcycles, jousting ferociously into the next world, were taken aback. Carl’s brother looked, as usual, as though the world were a film he used as background noise.
“I don’t want to hear climbing talk from any of you. You’re staying put. Why the fuck would anyone want to leave this place?” Angie stomped away.
“Careful boys,” Carl’s brother said, pressing his hat over his eyes for a nap, tipping his beer at them, “She’s gonna be one of those New Natives.”
“What’s that?” Jaime asked.
“Stayers,” Carl’s brother said. “They don’t have any reason to leave this place. People like us got tons of reason.”
That night Jaime mouthed those words while in the living room, thinking back on his birthday.
“Jaime, come in here,” his mother called from the kitchen. “Jesus don’t save with ladders,” his mother said, staring into his little soul. “Remember that.”
Jaime sat at the table and watched the kitchen counter TV reporting on the eleven-year anniversary of the Ladder’s appearance. It had been off the coast of Atlantic City—near a place whose hotels had mermaid-shaped light switches, the words either “on” or “off” tucked neatly into their belly buttons. A paraplegic storm chaser named “Wheels” had been sitting in his schooner recording wind sounds when the Ladder came down, light as a feather, and dipped into the sea before him.
They interviewed Wheels about the sound, whose own gruff voice was proof enough that he’d thricely earned his salt in consumption of cigarettes.
“Something like that,” he said, “You expect to be more orchestral. Maybe some lightning. But there it is.”
“There you have it,” the newscaster said.
They showed footage of a helicopter flying back and forth where the Ladder should have ended in the cloud. And the Ladder, perpendicular to both sea and sky, had the scraping effect of sky lines—that intermingling between earth and echo that resembles the essence of infinity—the perpendicularity of heaven and earth. The helicopter kept going through, trying to find the end.
“Can I be a pilot?” Jaime asked.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “You can be anything you want.” She was mashing up potatoes and wiping her brow on her forearm.
“Is that what Dad did?” Jaime asked.
“Not exactly,” she said, turning the orange juice carton over, then back again like an hourglass. “When you came out of me, the cord was wrapped so tight around your neck you turned blue. He said I must have cheated on him with another man, or an alien, or something. No baby of his would ever come out blue. He said he was all human. Down to the bone. And his son would be too.” Jaime looked at his skin. It was tan, but still mostly white. “That’s why he’s in the nuthouse now. All because that oil rig blew up and shot him into the Gulf.”
His mother poured out the juice and was licking potato off a spoon, saying she read somewhere that a blast of the magnitude his father had suffered could scramble the spark plugs in your brain.
“That’s what happened,” she said. “He and Jim Dirk worked the rig. When it blew up, your daddy got blown clear into the water. Blew his clothes off. He said last thing he saw was Jim Dirk in flames. He woke up in the rescue boat, and it was so hot the water was evaporating right into the sky. That’s why he’s so goddamn crazy now.” She turned around and hit the chicken with a mallet. “That Ladder is just another devil trick. America is heaven. Don’t forget it.”
“Look for me in a storm cloud,” Jaime said, somberly referencing the last birthday card he’d gotten from his father which read: ‘They’re gonna put 1000 volts of electricity in me. Look for me in a storm cloud!’ Beneath the words was drawn a little stick figure getting hit with lightning.
“Stop talking that trash,” his mother yelled, “They shocked your father till his brain looked like boiled cauliflower.”
Jaime sat on the floor in the living room watching news casters argue over citizens’ right to climb the Ladder.
The problem was no one knew where you went when you climbed. No one had ever come back. That type of uncertainty was symptomatic of the whole floating question mark most people envisioned when they braved some focused attention on the Ladder, amid their morning stool, or over coffee, looking at a rainstorm: we just don’t know where it goes.
Jaime’s mother came into the room as the news caster reiterated “Only 2% of the population has decided to stay.”
“Jesus never climbed a God Damn ladder, except to step down off the cross but that was him being carried down so that doesn’t count. There’s very little in the Bible about ladders from what I can remember.”
“Are we New Natives, then?” Jaime asked.
“Magic bullshit,” Jaime’s mother said, “We’re good Christians.”
A man on the TV held a picket sign over his head that said, “No more later, we want Ladder.” He yelled into the interviewer’s microphone, “We wanna climb! It’s our right!”
Jaime arched his neck to his mother and asked what he’d heard Angie say: “Why the fuck would anyone want to leave this place?”
Jaime was watching a PBS special called “The Climbing Man.”
The Ladder was an image that changed as it repeated. So, too, was the climbing man. A woman with no arms designed a special mouth guard so she could grip the endless rungs with her teeth. A paraplegic man carried up by a team and pressed through at last on the back of one of the climbers—a grown man strapped to another grown man’s back, looking down on the others, waving as he went through.
Jaime got a letter that his father had escaped. This was a common occurrence. Usually, he was caught quickly. Sometimes a few states away, up to his old tricks, saying he was looking for his son. Jaime fantasized about that. He wondered what it would be like when his father finally found him. He was torn in two over it. At once, he was told by his mother, his teachers, his relatives, to stay away from the man, to not seek him out. Multiple times his father had escaped and the principle rushed Jaime into his office, pointed to the Civil War rifle on the wall and told him not to worry, “I’ll protect you from your Daddy with that.”
Jaime spent years waiting for him to come busting through the door, tackle the security guards, and take him away from here. At the same time, he dreaded it. His father finding him felt like the only sure thing in his life. He didn’t know what being found would really mean.
Jaime turned off the TV. He’d just turned eighteen. He had to meet Carl at the wrestling ring.
Red, yellow and blue fire etched purple above itself on the sky. Jaime was bouncing on a trampoline. He had on just some small wrestling shorts and had spread rock salt all over the ring to absorb the sweat so they don’t slip. He was mad at Carl because he was talking shit about Jaime’s mom to the whole town, but everyone knew he was just mad because Angie liked Jaime. And Jaime was mad because he considered Carl to be less like a friend and more like a brother, and he figured it was distasteful of Carl to want to feud with him. So, he challenged him to wrestle in the tramp ring and whoever won didn’t have to say sorry.
Carl came with his brother. When the fight started, Jaime punched Carl in the cheekbone three times. He bounced high over him and thought about a body slam but that seemed overly cruel. Instead, he rubbed salt into Carl’s face. Carl yelled and punched Jaime a few times, but he was small and even if he made you bleed it didn’t feel so bad. Jaime cocked back his head and drove it into Carl’s little, freckled nose.
Carl’s brother had to come in and drag him out, blood raking on the trampoline, his arms out, like Christ coming down off the cross. Carl wasn’t dead, he was just unconscious and drooling. Jaime stayed behind for a little and rubbed salt on his face and knuckles. He cleaned himself off and decided he’d go out and meet Angie for fireworks and maybe she’d let him give her a kiss again, like she did on her birthday.
He walked in the dark, cutting through the trailer park, around satellite dishes bolted to cinder blocks and pill shaped trailers. He came to a lantern that cast a twenty-foot perimeter of light. Darkness welled at its borders. He heard something so he stopped and looked into the darkness. Carl’s brother walked out from behind a trailer and held a flare gun at Jaime. The trigger clicked, the flare hissed a second in the barrel, then came tunneling out and into his belly, where it glowed hot light on everything.
“That’s for Carl,” he said, sneaking back into the shadows. Jaime laid on his back, waiting for the magnesium spots to leave his eyes, noting how unpleasant it was to catch a shooting star in his stomach. Trailer doors opened and some people came and dragged him off.
It burnt a hole in Jaime’s stomach, but nothing fell out. They stitched him at the hospital, and he slept for three days. His mom said something about the second coming of their Lord, and after visiting hours ended, Angie crawled onto his hospital bed and told him to hush. She pulled up her dress and got on top of him. His monitors cast shadows on his privacy curtains. Her skin looked green, her hair reaching down over her shoulder. She ground herself into him, holding his wrists down. She bit his ear and said: “No more fighting.”
“Fine,” he said.
Angie let Jaime put a baby in her.
Angie woke up one morning and decided it was time they discuss “finite strategies” about raising a child in Ladder world.
They walked into the tall grass lands and laid on their backs. Angie puckered her lips like she was kissing the sky. Her eyes were closed like she meant it.
“Who’re you kissing?” Jaime asked.
“Man of my dreams,” she said.
“What’s he look like?”
“Like you,” she said, “except taller.”
“If you want us to be New Natives, we can be,” Jaime said. A few nights ago, draped on a dark blue dress with small white spots, Angie walked barefoot to the park bench and read from her book: New Natives: A Beginner’s Guide.
“The tribes formed in the West, along the spines of Appalachia. The New Natives who seek ancient wisdom that lingered in the hidden cubbies of the land, in trailer parks, in marshes, in the moss stamped like the footprints of some invisible spirit, silently surveying the land. The magic of America would come back to save those who chose to stay. And without passing judgement on those who chose to leave, these new people would keep this Earth for those who might return, for those yet to be born, for those whose ghosts still haunt the deep tunnels, the fracked out Oklahoma, the charred forests of California, the thin air of Colorado.”
“It sounds like a eulogy,” Jaime said.
“It is one,” Angie said. “The world is ending. It’s starting over. We can all be Natives here.”
“We inherit the Earth,” Jaime said, self-consciously quoting his mother.
They left the grass and went to the river. Against the backdrop of night, the stars shone like cities. They swam from end to end and Jaime spoke about the earthquakes in Oklahoma. She was drying on a rock when she stood up, and he put his lips to her belly.
“Who’s in there?” he asked. He pressed his ear to her skin, listening for an answer.
“What do you hear?” Angie asked.
“Gurgling, stretching, as if to say, ‘Let me out of here!’”
“Sounds like a mudslide.”
He didn’t see it coming around the corner as he drove. She was distracting him with her hair—the way it blew in wisps in the rearview mirror. And before he could brake or turn, they were in it. The mudslide cut a gash down the yellow leaves. The windshield was filling up with muck. Their windows were covered and in the small, clear, corner of his windshield he saw the branches of a tree moving away against the flow. They were sliding off the road. Angie was breathing heavily.
“We need to get out!” she cried. The engine stalled. Jaime pried back the sunroof. Angie’s yellow dress was getting covered in mud, accentuating her pregnant belly. She stuck her head out and said: “It’s gonna push us right into the river.”
He unbuckled himself. Angie’s legs were on the console and she was pulling herself up on the roof, holding her stomach as though if she didn’t, it’d fall off. She crouched down and when he had half his body through, she slipped and squeaked out one horrible noise. It was the sound of Angie getting swallowed by mud. He broke his wrist hitting the top of the car to grab the trim of her dress. He got hold of it and all of her weight and felt what it felt like to hold his wife by dress alone, and then to hold nothing but a torn piece of cloth, soaked through with mud, in knuckles at the end of a broken wrist.
He closed his eyes and said “please.” He opened them and she was gone. He saw where the mudslide ended and jumped there, in the road. The truck went in and gargled. He slid down the leaves to the river bank. He braced himself with his broken wrist and there she was, like a brown slug, caught on a tree branch, getting pounded by the current. Jaime jumped in and swam like hell. He got to her and pulled her limp body to his and kept blowing bubbles on her muddy neck as he back-kicked his way to ground. He put his mouth to hers and let loose one long breath into her throat. She started to breathe again, and he cried and said, “Please.” He rolled her to her side. She retched up all that mud. He still had half her torn dress in his hands. She came back to him, brown mouthed, crying and bleeding between the legs.
At the hospital, Angie went into labor and their baby came out sleeping—still and blue. Jaime went into her room after and stood at her bedside, with dry mud still in his hair and wearing clean scrubs.
The doctor brought their daughter to them. Jaime put his finger in her cold little hand.
Carl visited, letting bygones be, apologizing to Jaime first for his brother about the whole flare to the stomach thing, and second about their having lost a child. They hugged.
Angie decided she would go to the New Native Tribes and help birth a new world. What hurt the most is that she didn’t stop Jaime when he said he would climb with Carl.
He invited her to coffee and told her she could come with them if she wanted and they could all go together and make a new family in the new world.
“I can’t leave her here alone,” she said. “Our daughter.”
“No,” Jaime said, getting up. His eyes were hot. “Don’t make me feel like I’m abandoning her.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, softening her face. “Climbing is a normal thing to want. I won’t shame you for it.”
“Where are you going?” Jaime asked.
“There’s a Tribe in Colorado that needs a leader.”
“My dad sent me a letter. He still thinks I’m the savior.”
“Do you believe him?” Angie’s asked, her eyes narrowing with suspicion.
She said she was sorry. Jaime knew he’d remember until the day he died the sound a baby makes when it comes out. It doesn’t make any sound at all.
“Nothing could’ve stopped that baby being born blue,” his mother said, standing over the small grave. “Nothing.”
Their first week in Atlantic City, Jaime and Carl went to a climber’s party—a drunken last send off before your number was called. There were people who, throughout the night, kept kissing one another. Carl leaned into Jaime and whispered, “swingers.” One of the women approached Carl and puckered her lips at him. He said, “Um, no thank you,” and walked to the punch bowl. Jaime walked through a herd of people to a door that had a piece of loose-leaf paper on it with the words “Climbed Communicator” scribbled in highlighter.
Jaime opened the door, letting it swing, revealing inside a woman on a bed. She had her legs crossed and looked lazily at the KISS poster lit blue and red by a lava lamp.
“You have doubts?” she asked.
“About climbing?” Jaime asked.
“Your words,” She said. “I can dispel those with just a few thoughts tuned in from someone who has climbed.”
“I’d like that,” Jaime said, taking a clumsy seat on an oversized bean bag.
“I need a moment of silence,” she said, placing her hand in front of her, staring into it, and then laying on her back and breathing deeply. Jaime didn’t make any noise and grew increasingly paranoid that the lava lamp would give him motion sickness.
“I have someone willing to share,” she said. Jaime shifted in the bean bag, though he wasn’t certain he was supposed to speak. He thought about his daughter, her small body, and wondered if she was on the other side, if she was speaking to him now.
“You climb through,” she said, her voice unwaveringly calm, words flowing into each other like streams carrying vocabulary, “pass through the clouds and you smile. You feel warmth as though back in the womb. The sun shines on your face. All your pain leaves you. You no longer miss or feel lost. You’ve taken with you all that you can. All else is leftovers.”
“Who said that to you?” Jaime asked.
“Is there someone you hope it is?”
“I hope it’s my daughter. But she died.”
She leaned forward, pressing her face toward his as though she intended to smush them together. “The interiority of man is not like a ladder, it’s like a maze. No one knows you like you. The answers you’re looking for, when you find them, will feel like memories. Because they’ve been inside you all along.”
“Is that true?” Jaime asked, his eyes feeling hot, as though he might cry, finally finding some voice offering him comfort that wasn’t the Ladder.
“It’s the only thing that’s true,” she said. “This whole world is a mirage. And everything is pointless. What makes you special is that you don’t believe that. And you don’t know why. You feel something despite insufficient evidence. That’s the curse of humanity. Everyone has told you to go, but you want to stay.”
“I don’t know what I want,” he said.
“You do. And soon, you’ll remember it.”
She stopped speaking, and he took it as his cue to leave. She gave him a business card and urged him to call, tapping her fingernails on his wrist to hammer home her sincere interest in him. He took the hint and decided, mentally, that he would call her.
“What if,” he said, “you could hear her. My daughter.”
“Then that would mean those who climb die. Is that what you wish for?”
“Can you hear her?”
“I can. And if you call, I’ll tell you what she says.” She put her hand on his cheek and closed the door, pressing him out of the room.
He found Carl doing a keg stand. They walked to the beach where people were processing down the shoreline with votive candles in paper bags.
“We grew up with it.” Jaime said, watching the wind assault Carl’s hair. “I feel like the Ladder is my twin brother. And there are two ways to live. In your brother’s shadow, or him in yours. Can you ever really walk with your brother as equals?”
“Not likely,” Carl said, thinking about his own, who body slammed him liberally throughout his childhood.
Jaime wondered if he would be like his own father, walking his daughter into the woods, painting lines on her bald head, bathing her in conflicting mythologies, of which she is at the center.
Jaime flicked the Communicator’s business card in his fingers. It only had a first name on it. Rachel.
A Last Walk party was saying goodbye to their pets. They bent down, kissed them and took off their collars, releasing them. Most were dogs and cats, but one man was followed closely by a stag who rubbed its antlers on the sand and bellowed out a horrible sound when the man stepped too far away.
He did call Rachel. In part, because he believed she could communicate with the climbed, and in part because he was certain that she couldn’t. There was something about the audacity of her belief, her certainty, that he longed for. It was the same sureness he saw in Angie, who was so rooted in her desire to remain. He wished for that certainty. He even remembered a time when he felt he had it, lying in bed with Angie, turning his face to the sun coming through the blinds opened like eye lids, letting it warm his face from so far away, the trees outside looking like hands holding it all up. He remembered too, the moment it left him, holding his daughter’s body, pressing his finger into her palm the way the dogs nuzzled his hand for attention. He wished it had given him certainty to climb, but instead, it only delivered him right into the middle, still just a son to a lunatic father, a well-meaning but sometimes too pious mother, a nobody in a deflating world.
“Why are you calling me?” Rachel asked.
“Because life is meaningless,” he said.
She laughed and agreed to meet him at the boardwalk.
They drank too much, took pills they bought from a man who only wanted kisses on the cheek in exchange, and went down by the rides built on top of a pier over a clapping ocean.
Jaime tried to wrestle the night into some manageable shape. The Ferris Wheel and the Merry-Go-Round share philosophy of spin—bound by centers that form a perfect union of play. 360 degrees on horse, or hippo—in a cart stained with popcorn butter. Looking out, to see the world, its boardwalks and people. Inward: lights and mirrors. And the Ferris Wheel goes up and down. At its center, lights of intricate designs, blaring. At the bottom are the boards and at the top you see the sand, and beyond, the dark sea.
“I feel like I could fall into it,” Rachel said, holding his arm. Carl was in the basket behind them, rocking back and forth so hard they had to stop the ride.
“Cut the shit,” the ride operator yelled up to him.
They walked to the casinos past the year-round Christmas shop and a sign that said: “Drive like your kids live here,” but “live here” was crossed out.
When they got back to his hotel room, Rachel sat with her back against the air conditioning and stared at the door with her fingernails clutching the rug.
“God is real,” she said, the pills still strong in her system. “And he’s gonna bust through that door and take me outta here.” She shut her eyes. “He sees me.”
When she finally fell sleep, Jaime went to move her. She moaned and said ‘no,’ so he left her there. He took the big comforter and rolled her into it like a burrito. Out the window, the spotlights beamed like lights from a spaceship, sucking people up.
Jaime and Carl went down to the boards.
“You think she really hears those people?” Carl asked.
“Just a scam,” Jaime said. “Like any other.”
“But how do you know?”
“She said she could hear my daughter. She might hear voices, but she doesn’t know where they come from or what they say.”
There was a line on the boardwalk. People were sleeping under umbrellas or sitting with beer cans warming in their fists.
“What’s going on,” Jaime asked a man waiting in line.
“Another asshole jumped. Chicken shit. Grabbed the person under her and pulled her off too. Big fuckin’ mess on the platform.”
“What about the nets?”
“Broke. They’re sayin’ the first woman hit the platform. And the other woman: she hit the water. They jumped in after her, but she’s dead, too.”
Jaime walked near a TV on his way to the casino floor. It was airing footage from the jump. He stood for a second, then turned his eyes away—denying his desire to witness the pornography of the jumper—the terror and beauty of bodies falling to Earth.
But he couldn’t avoid seeing her face. It was Rachel.
Men were walking around with flyers. They handed Jaime one and said, “The Ladder won’t save your soul.”
Jaime waited for the Ladder to close for the night. He swam to the dock and climbed, right to the edge of the cloud, where the whole sky was fog, and put his face so close he knew he was kissing the edge. What happened, he thought, to those that died before they climbed? Could those spirits follow us into the next world? Or are they left howling to deaf ears, until time repeats itself and they meet themselves again.
Jaime swam back to the beach, his pack of dogs crowding around him, licking the saltwater off his legs and fingers. He looked at the Ladder. The baby came out muddy and blue. They named her Angie, put her in a box and buried her in the yard, among the cattails, by the sycamore.
“Babies born dead become the wind,” his mother said, “that’s why you hear her howl.”
The sparks of the fire crackled and called for the surf. Shadow footsteps blinked in the slits of light coming through the boards. Beneath them, Jaime warmed himself by the fire. He had Thomas in his jacket, a three-legged dog who lost so much capacity to walk that Jaime had to tie the dog to his chest with fabric. The dollar menu burgers gave Bruce, the Great Dane, gas. He lay next to the trashcan, warming his hide and farting. There were some cats too. But they came and went. The bald moon looked like the tombstone of the earth. Thirty-something dogs lay in a pack around Jaime. When he walked the beach, they followed him, leaving tiny footprints spreading away from his own.
Something his mother said haunted him: “Your father’s with the New Natives of Time Square. If you see him, say hello for me.”
Jaime didn’t have to steal a car because there were plenty just lying around like cicada shells, many with the keys on the dash as a sort of climber’s last generosity. When he thought of leaving his pack to fend for themselves, he pictured their empty stomachs, the waiting and waiting for their master to return. The cruel act of domesticating something and then setting it free.
Most of his pack came and went. But seven dogs made proximity to Jaime their permanent home. He closed the door to the car. The seven dogs turned to look at him from the back seat. “We belong to each other now, I guess,” he said, repositioning the rearview mirror.
He drove up the Garden State parkway and made it all the way to the Lincoln Tunnel which was blocked by tipped over oil tankers. He leashed the dogs and walked through. There were bodies. Towards the end of it all, people began to realize that there were only two options, leave, or stay. Many took their lives, often putting clay in the exhaust pipes of their car and falling asleep.
The city had been overtaken by crudely fashioned bridges of rope and wood planks. They lay out of windows, run like powerlines from building to building, hung over the streets, connecting things like veins. He had heard of this. These were the dwellings of New Natives.
There was an assembly happening where Time Square forks. Jaime walked the dogs into the crowd.
There, standing above the gathered New Natives, was his father.
“I climbed,” his father yelled, an old Times Square advertisement dancing above his head. “And I saw wonderful things. And then, as no other has, I returned to birth a son.”
Jaime’s stomach dropped, as though he’d been called upon in school. Was it possible that his father returned in some time loop before the Ladder descended and birthed him? He felt himself falling back into the old habit of believing the things his father said, defending even their most implausible details, wanting so badly for it to be true.
Then, his father raised into the air a child.
“It’s my Son,” his father said. “My second Son.”
And that was all he needed to hear. The missing pieces cracked together like knuckles. His father needed containers for his extreme ideas. It mattered very little what that container was, be it oil, a ladder, or a baby. He thrived in this uncertain world. And soon, he would leave it, with this child strapped to his back, like so many other fathers had, ushering children into what might be the Universe’s blender, the cold claws of space, some prison out there on a moon of Jupiter, or maybe, paradise.
The assembly ended and Jaime stood with the dogs until the crowd dispersed. His father took the child into a theater on Broadway whose door was a simple piece of beige cloth. Jaime took the dogs and huddled by a trashcan fire where an old man was telling stories about his father’s journey into the next world.
“Our leader has climbed and returned to take us with him. The Ladder takes you to a world built on top of this one: the next level of humanity, one step closer to God.” The old man raised his hands over his head and pointed to the sky. One of the listeners, an elderly woman, rubbed her hands. Jaime saw in her eyes unbelievable relief.
When the sun set, Jaime pulled aside the cloth and stepped into a dark lobby. The exit signs were lit and offered passage to a theater. On the stage, a rope ladder went straight up into the rafters and beyond. Jaime tied the dogs to some seats, asked them nicely to be quiet, and took the wooden rungs in his hands. The ladder rocked back and forth as the splintered rungs bit into his hands. The coarse rope offered little sanctuary. Halfway up, he grew tired and snaked his arm through a wooden rung, twisted his leg in the rope and rested. His hands and shoulders burned. Each time he looked above, there was nothing but a black void, the specter of curtains, and hanging sandbags he could barely make out. He looked down into the darkness below and considered what falling would feel like. What relief it might be to jump. But his mind silenced the pain, it swept off the exhaustion. He un-snaked his arm, loosened his leg from the rope and continued to climb until finally he reached a ledge. He used both arms to hoist himself up and roll into a dark room, where for just a moment, he lay on his back, happy to have arrived on some precipice.
“Who’s there?” a voice called out.
Jaime jumped to his feet and made a stance, ready to fight. His father came forward feeling the ground with a cane.
“Oh,” Jaime said.
“Who is it?” his father hissed.
His father nosed the air like a dog.
“Your son,” Jaime said.
His father took his cane in both hands and sighed in relief. “So, we made it,” his father said, “We climbed. And you’ve grown and looped back to tell me I was right. Your crib is there,” he pointed with his cane to a crib by a tall window that showed the webs of bridges connecting the building above and below. “That’s you as a child. Say hello to yourself before telling me of our adventures in the future.”
Jaime pulled back the blanket. It wasn’t even a boy child. It was a girl. She cooed and stretched her arms, opened her eyes and then closed them again. Above the crib was a map of North America. Above Canada, in crude, unsharpened pencil, was written, “The New Native Tribes of North America.” Strewn across the map were poorly drawn stick figure houses. He looked at the one in Colorado. Angie, he whispered.
“Tell me, Dad. Can I steal this child for a while?”
His father laughed at him. “You can’t steal yourself, can you?”
“I suppose not,” Jaime said.
“But first,” his father touched his arm. “Tell me, please, what it’s like to climb.”
He walked his father to his bed, pulled the covers over him and told him what Rachel had said. He told him about the fog on the shore, the weightlessness of your heart the moment you pass into the next world and give up the burdens of this one. When you forget everyone you ever loved and are free from the shackles of memory.
He put his hand on his father’s chest until he fell asleep. His anger melted into forgiveness; his confusion turned into something like wisdom. He took the map off the wall and folded it into his pocket. He took his sister, tied her securely to his chest the way he had Thomas, and climbed down the rope ladder.
He found the dogs, walked them through the Lincoln tunnel and packed them into the car, and laid his sister down in the passenger seat. He’d need to find milk. He drove to Weehawken where a statue of Alexander Hamilton being shot in the stomach by Aaron Burr framed a grocery store from one side and the skyline across the Hudson from another. The unlit lights of Manhattan allowed the impossibly bright Milky Way to spread an effervescent sheet along a curved bed.
A low moon, the thinnest of crescents, signaled an inevitable morning. He remembered the dream he had, where his daughter propped a ladder from the crags of the moon down to earth, climbed back to them, making them at once whole.
He pulled out the map and laid it over the steering wheel and traced a line from New York City to the stick figure house in Colorado. He pressed his fingertip into it.
“I think,” Jaime said, turning his heart into America, where Angie waited for them, in the center of this thing shaped like an animal with what used to be Canada on its back, “You all need a mother.”