Thirty feet up and on his way down, Jerry felt his left foot slip on the rung of the ladder, and he knew it would be bad. He reached up for something to break his fall, grabbed air, lurched backward, pitched forward, and slammed his nose hard against the left aluminum upright. He passed out right then, everything going dark like the end of a scene, and it was a free fall the rest of the way down.
He landed face down, fractured spine up, on the hood of his white Ford F-250, parked at the base of the ladder. Splatters of his red speckled the ladder and the truck, but the sky was still blue, and the birds kept singing. The mower down the street went on mowing. Jerry was still out, but if you could have asked him just then what he was feeling, he would have said “Peace. Finally.”
Jerry was feeling none of the pain that would wrack his body for the rest of his life. The world around him went about its business, as it always had and always would.
One year later, after two rehabs—the first for his bones and the second for the pain pills he couldn’t quit—Jerry sat listening to the surf in his Viking 4x4 wheelchair his mom had got him. He still had his looks, from the waist up, and he still had Maren, stretched out on a towel beside him. Thank god for her.
“Hey, Mar? You wanna go get a cone? It’s getting hot out here?”
“Yuh. Lemme put on my wrap and then I’ll be ready.” Maren lifted herself off the flowered towel and pulled a robin’s-egg-blue linen sarong out of her clear plastic beach bag. They set off across the beach, Jerry driving the chair with oversize wheels like a Moon rover’s. Sunburnt boys turned and stared as they went by.
At the snack bar, waiting for their soft serves, Jerry broke it to her. “I want to try the surgery. I know it’s a big risk, and I know you’re worried about it, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life down here looking up at you.”
Maren had known this was coming. She knew Jerry had been mulling the opportunity Dr. Brooks had presented to him last month. She also understood Jerry well enough to know that without the next thing to focus on, he’d wither. So she agreed, because it would keep him going.
Maren decided to head back to their beach house right after that, but Jerry wanted to ride on the beach, so they hugged and said they’d meet for dinner. Maren always tried to give Jerry the alone time he needed, and he needed a lot.
Riding the Viking along the shore, Jerry closed his eyes and felt the wet warm salty breeze on his face. He missed being up high. Climbing on the roofs, on top of it all, looking down on everything small below. The work had been demanding, but he’d been good at it, in his element. His mom hated that he was a roofer—she never could bring herself to talk to her friends about his job, even when he’d asked her to, to get more work—but she’d learned to accept Jerry’s life, mostly because she could see how it satisfied him.
Jerry kept going past the crowds until they thinned out, as he approached the dunes at the end of the point. Pipers eyed him as he temporarily blocked their frantic back-and-forth passage in and out of the surf. He turned and rode up the easy slope of the biggest dune, gradually climbing to the top. This is where he would have planted his flag if he’d had one. Above it all, even if by only a few yards.