Chapter One?

Most people these days think that a ladder is a ladder, but Ted Steppe knew better. For four years Ted had just been another desk jockey in the ladder business with a dream to climb to the top but despite his perfect attendance record it seemed that he was destined to stay on the bottom rung. He knew this and didn’t mind discussing his stagnant career with friends and family. He even used colorful and creative metaphors to describe his corporate ineptitude. On Thursday he sat in Captain Steve’s Tavern with Hal, who prefers to be called Harold but is generally known as Sandy and said to him, “Sandy, if the inner circle of the ladder production world is a tuna casserole, then I am the Crisco sprayed on the bottom of the pan.” “Ted, nobody can say no to a good tuna casserole.” … “You know as well as I that a casserole is only as good as its greasy bottom layer. Man, that’s the best part! All I’m trying to say is that you can’t have a casserole without the Crisco. And if that oversized casserole that is the modern ladder industry needs somebody to grease its corporate bottom I can think of no worthier candidate.” “Thanks Sandy.” Ted finished his beer and retired to the streets. When he left the bar he tried hard not to notice where he was going but inevitably ended up staring at the door that had swung open that morning to permit him access to the world that seemed to reject him everyday and send his tired frame back here every night. It was the sort of door that dominated a street. This door was easily the most conspicuous element of the very harsh structure that it led to. The building itself was all angles and looked as if it had been lifted out of the old Soviet Union. No room was any better than another and each living area had the same general feeling- the feeling of a military bunker. Every space was equally dark and heavy. The oversized entry that had Ted’s attention at the moment stood out from the vines and concrete around it in red paint that still held some of the majesty of its more respectable days but now, chipped and faded, it looked to Ted like it was covered with the blood of a thousand dejected men who had thrown their souls against that portal, all seeking refuge from the world that had forsaken them. Ted focused on that door defiantly, willing it to respond to his focused intensity. He saw every drop of paint and every fiber of wood that went into its construction. He saw every defeated man that had passed under its threshold each night. Each admitted failure told him to join the ranks of the useless and give up. The door always won. Still, he stood insolently in its presence, rebelling against logic and necessity he waited. He didn’t see the people pass or hear the screeching of car tires down the block or feel the biting chill of the night. He needed that door to acknowledge his existence; to justify his being. Ted willed the plank to burst into flames and engulf the surrounding wall and street in the fire of his reality, incinerating the sidewalk, the block, the city, the world and his body. He desperately needed to feel proof that he had lived, needed to feel a final ecstatic annihilation created through his undeniable presence in the universe. The door stood solid, refusing to admit any hint of his existence. It started to rain. Ted was bumped by a couple hurrying to find their own residence. The man muttered an apology and Ted realized that he was drenched. He hadn’t felt the drops soaking his

shoulders and back. He hadn’t noticed the extra weight or cold absorbed by his shirt. He stepped up and kicked the closed door like the cops always did in the movies but it didn’t budge. He kicked it again and again with no intent of breaking it down; he just wanted the door to feel his boot so it would know that it was there. He put his palms on the peeling red paint, letting the water pool in the gaps between his splayed fingers. His head slowly bent towards this oppressor of humanity and when it leaned against the barricade he watched the water collect on his bangs and fall to the ground below. Each ephemeral drop exploded on impact with as much destructive force as it could muster. To Ted it looked like a collective effort to break through the paved sidewalk and feel the earth below. He felt the rough hands pushing him out of the way before he heard the voice. A body slipped in front of him and hands fumbled with keys. “Jesus Christ Ted, it’s fucking raining bullets out here. All you have to do is open the fucking door. Why are you looking at me like that?” Gus from 2B was holding the door open, all of its weight held lazily in one hand. Ted continued staring at Gus, then at the door again. “Shit man, sober up.” Ted stepped inside and closed the door slowly, turning the handle to let it slide silently back into place. He paused there for a moment and listened to the rain from the inside and then went upstairs hoping that he something stronger than beer. Friday found Ted Steppe at work on time but with the kind of headache that made him wonder exactly how long it would be before his eyeballs would explode. Ladders. Straussen & Morris could make them, market them, and sell them better then anybody. Ted knew this better than anyone; he filed papers for the Director of Marketing and Sales for the greater St. Louis area. He was fortunate enough to be living in the city where James P. Straussen and Rudolph Morris first met and he was working in the Straussen & Morris corporate headquarters. He had considered looking for a new job but the pay was decent and the work was both as easy and boring as hell. He was essentially a secretary but he wouldn’t have taken the job if it had been presented under that title. He was officially an Assistant to the Director of Marketing and Sales and he happened to be the assistant who organized incoming files. Anywhere from five to twelve times a day a pile of paperwork was dropped on his desk and he didn’t have to do any of it. It was only the first page that concerned him and of that first page all he ever worried about was one little line that he read and skillfully interpreted. That line could read, “memo to Jonathon Wainright concerning August sales in Town & Country” and Ted would know instantly that that particular memo belonged in pile number three. He frequently had as much as five hours of his eight hour shift in which he had no duties. After the first three days he discovered that fact and began to plan how best to actively pretend to work. His first step was to “dress to impress” just like his high school guidance counselor had always told him to do. Everyday he wore a brown two piece business suit with a white oxford shirt buttoned to one button below the very top, dark argyle socks, and loafers. Next he added items to his desk. It had started with a stapler, a phone, and five sorting bins; to be sorted, pile #1, pile #2, pile #3, and pile #4. To this he added another phone that was not plugged in to anything on which he talked in a frustrated manner to imaginary customers when it pleased him. He also brought a mug with a picture of Niagra Falls on it that he purchased

at an estate sale and in which he kept an impressive array of highlighters, ballpoint pens, and pencils that he had no need for and thus vowed never to use. He had never been to Niagra Falls. He started bringing a briefcase in which he carried diverse items depending on the conditions of the morning according to a very official system that he had created arbitrarily. If the barometric pressure had been rising for three or more days he included an extra pen to put in his Niagra Falls mug, just in case. If the day of the week had at least two vowels but started with a consonant he brought a book from a list that he had made of books that he had always wanted to read. If the date was an even number he also brought a magazine and if it was odd he included a collection of poetry. He started buying the paper every day on the way to work and reading about current events. On every other Wednesday he put in a pudding snack with a metal spoon. If he was planning to stay and work late he brought it all. The final and most important rule in his clever and complex system was that he did whatever the hell he wanted to. This Friday however he had forgotten his briefcase and left late so didn’t pick up the paper either. After he had slowly and meticulously sorted the majority of the folders on his desk (leaving the largest in one stack because he thought it made his desk look more important) he picked up a fairly hefty document and walked briskly down the hall looking straight ahead and holding the file out in front of him as if he were very ready to give it to a person who needed it very badly. This was one of his favorite activities. He marched to the elevator, closed his eyes and jabbed at the button display. Hmm, fifth floor, corporate offices. The elevator stopped and he walked out in the same manner of false importance. He took a lap around the plush offices and returned to the elevator, now holding the same paper tucked smartly under one arm, elbow bent with a reassuring hand on the front of the document; the business version of a football carry, he thought. Perhaps I’ll find some pipecleaners and make a Heisman trophy for myself. When he and his document returned to his lonely desk in the lonely corner of the lonely second floor he put it down and pulled out a pencil that he was prepared to not use when he noticed a man standing at his desk. This man could not be said to be ugly but he was an awkward amalgam of inconsistent facial features. Each individual feature was of the sort that if it had been on another face it would have been the dominant characteristic. He had a long imposing nose that seemed to draw attention to itself. If a nose could be self important this one was. If a nose could command an army with a regal air and a no-nonsense attitude this would be the one. It had narrow slits for nostrils that seemed to say, “don’t worry about Kleenex, we’ll take of ourselves.” His eyes were oversized but deep and understanding, like pools of the chocolate pudding that Ted had in his fridge they were kind and unassuming. He had a small dimpled chin camping out under pouting lips that were awkwardly full for a man, though were covered to some extent by a pleasant and well trimmed mustache. This business stache completed a comb over that would make Dan Rather rather proud. He wasn’t fat nor was he, by any means, skinny. A healthy, robust stomach seemed to protrude rather than sag and it had the patented Santa Clause jolly jiggle. When the man spoke it reminded Ted of a fresh head of lettuce falling from an immense height though he wasn’t quite sure why. “Good afternoon Mr. Steppe, my name is Kurt Stevenson. The boys and I up in personnel and general management have seen you around the office carrying your documents all over the place-”

bad news bears “-and we like what we see. You have a certain air of professionalism that really represents Straussen & Morris so we did a little research and you’ve been with us for four years and received one raise and have had zero complaints filed against you. Well, what I’m trying to say Mr. Steppe is we’d really like to see your face around the fourth floor a little more often. Yes, Mr. Steppe, that would be a managerial position; you’d have an office of your own and several employees reporting directly to you. You would in turn report to me but we can talk about that later, how about Monday at three?” “Well, Mr. Stevenson-” “Call me Kurt.” “Right, Kurt, Monday at three is actually-” “Perfect, we’ll see you then. Suite 22. Fourth floor.” Kurt turned his tubby little frame around and waddled back towards the elevator leaving Ted with the challenge of holding that look of arrogant diffidence with which he had been mocking the corporation that he seemed to represent so well. He picked up another document and strode purposefully down his favorite hallway; the one with vending machines at the end.

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