Elsie and the Ladder

By Abraham Schneider

The first night I met Elsie I had just finished an evening of summertime carousing. It was high June, with ghosts of warm air floating outside. I returned to my bedroom in my apartment with an unopened bottle of beer. The condensation had turned to droplets, and they slid down the sides and made the label soggy. My bedroom glared when I turned the light on. The apartment’s air conditioner had broken the day before, so I put the beer in the mini-fridge and threw open the window. I lay back on the bed with my feet on the floor and stared at the ceiling and thought about nothing.

I noticed insects flying in through the open window and buzzing around the light, so I got up to turn it off. And that was when Elsie came.

I heard something bang, and I spun around. The end of a ladder rested on the windowsill, extending a foot and a half into the room. I stepped over to it, wondering if I should be prepared to shove it out like I was defending my apartment against a siege. I stopped when I looked out the window. The ladder stretched across an alleyway between the apartment buildings and disappeared into a window no more than ten feet away.

Allen sounded like an accountant’s name, a man with scarce black hair and small glasses

Coming out of the window and onto the ladder was a girl, crawling carefully, forty feet above the alley, in denim jeans and a loose summer blouse. She looked up at me and smiled, then went back to picking her way across the ladder. I stood and watched her and kept quiet.

When she got to my window, she shrugged inside, then blossomed off the ladder onto the floor and extended her hand. She couldn’t have been over twenty-two.

“Hi. I’m Elsie.”

I shook her hand. It was warm and softly damp.

“I’m Allen.”

I wished my name were something sleek like Vance or big and steady like Austin. Allen sounded like an accountant’s name, a man with scarce black hair and small glasses. Which wasn’t, I guess, far from the truth. Despite just having passed twenty-six years, my hair was thinning on top.

I said to Elsie, “you just put a ladder into my window and crawled inside my bedroom.”

She slid her teeth back and forth and stared at the floor like I had brought up a shameful subject. Her eyes darted up to my face. “Were you going to bed?”

“No.”

“What were you doing?”

“I was staring at the ceiling.”

“Were you thinking?”

“Yes.”

“About what?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s not thinking. That’s the absence of thought.”

“I meant I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. It wasn’t the absence of thought. I was just looking at the patterns in the ceiling and letting my mind cool down. Then a ladder came through my window and you crawled across the ladder and now you’re here.”

“Yes, now I am here,” Elsie said. She looked around the room, then clapped her hands. “You have a record player.”

I nodded. Record shopping was a hobby I prided myself in. I kept a collection of blues, rock, and jazz from before 1973. It was a good collection. Elsie was already on the other side of the room, browsing through my albums. She kept ooing and aahing over particular records.

I jutted my thumb towards the window. “Do you want to leave your ladder there? Somebody might think you broke into my place.”

Elsie looked at me over her shoulder. Her cropped hair kept getting in her eyes and she had to blow it away. “To listen to records?”

“Is that why you came over?” I felt like a guest in my own apartment. I stood at the center of the room and wondered if she would be offended if I sat down on the bed.

“No, but I’d like to.” When she said that, Elsie’s face changed. I saw in her eyes a fear that didn’t match her demeanor. Her pupils grew into those of a scared puppy. “Is that all right?”

I said, “Who are you?”

She replied, “I’m Elsie and I live in an apartment in the building next to yours. Our windows are directly aligned. I live in my apartment alone and I’ve seen you through your window-not that I was looking or spying, but I saw you-so I bought a ladder at the hardware store because I wanted to come over and I thought that was the best way because I thought it might be strange if I just showed up at your doorstep when you didn’t know me at all.”

This seemed satisfactory.

Elsie put on Miles Davis and we lay down beside each other at the edge of the bed with our shoes on the carpet. We stared at the ceiling and I thought about nothing again, but this time I thought about it with Elsie there and Miles Davis blowing trumpet on grooves in the LP. The music floated to the window where the night was coming in and the two mixed together. After a long time I began to see swirl patterns in the ceiling, then I drifted to sleep.

It was a half sleep. I continued to think, unaware that I had lost my consciousness. Then a hand was shaking me and I looked up at Elsie, who was standing under the light with insects buzzing around her head.

She said, “I’m going to go now.”

I blinked and nodded. She knelt down and untied my laces and removed my shoes, the right one first and then the left one. Then she climbed out on the ladder and disappeared. I had already drifted off again when I was brought awake by the sound of the ladder being withdrawn from my sill. I crawled onto the bed and fell asleep.

The next night Elsie brought milkshakes. I came home early with another beer so that there were two in the mini fridge. I opened my window, then dimmed the lights so the bugs wouldn’t come in. I lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling again until I realized that I didn’t want to be caught twice staring at the ceiling and thinking about nothing. So I got out The Sun Also Rises, turned the lights up, and browsed through it. I couldn’t keep my attention on the pages. The only parts that held my interest were the scenes with Jake Barnes in front of the mirror, mourning the loss of his penis. This frightened me. I lay the book on my lap and closed my eyes.

The ladder didn’t strike the sill until midnight, bringing me violently awake. I crouched and watched her crawling out of her window with something in her hand. As she came into the yellow light of the sodium vapor lamp that stood between the buildings I saw it was two milkshakes sitting in a four-cup coffee tray. She edged her way across the ladder with two feet and her one free hand, and gave me the shakes as soon as she came within reach.

Then she climbed off the ladder into the apartment and smiled. She said, “The first time I saw you through the window you were putting on a record. So I actually knew you had a record player. I wasn’t surprised. I wanted you to know that.”

“All right,” I said.

“I don’t want that sort of lie sitting in the room. You wouldn’t be able to see it but I would.”

“Maybe I would feel it,” I said.

Elsie nodded. “You probably would. Would you like a milkshake?”

So we sat on the edge of the bed and listened to Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart, whom Elsie liked especially, and drank the milkshakes she had brought over. Hers was strawberry and mine was chocolate. When we finished, she said, “You’re very anonymous, aren’t you? Like, you’re just another guy in another apartment with another full-time job who isn’t on salary and you go drinking with your friends but don’t get drunk, am I right?”

I thought about my life. “Yes. That’s right.”

Elsie said, “I’m that way too. I just work a job and live in the apartment that just happens to be directly aligned with your apartment.”

“Do you go drinking with friends but not get drunk?”

She shook her head. “I don’t do much. I mostly come home and listen to music and sometimes an idea strikes me like buying a ladder at the hardware store so I do that.”

“So you didn’t buy the ladder in order to make a bridge to my window?”

Elsie shook her head. “I just wanted a ladder.”

The conversation died. I thought about the beers in the mini-fridge. I decided against it because I didn’t want her crossing the ladder with a buzz and falling off. It was a long ways down to the alley.

When Elsie left, she insisted on taking the empty shakes and tray with her because she said she didn’t want to trash up my apartment. I stood at the window as she climbed out onto the ladder. When she was outside, I said, “Elsie.”

I saw her stop, then she began the long and delicate process of turning around until she was facing me again. I stooped down and she leaned forward and we kissed under the open glass. Her mouth tasted like strawberry milkshake. It was the best kiss I had ever had because it was like kissing and eating a good desert at the same time. And also she was perched forty feet above the alley on a ladder outside my window and that seemed to add something as well.

When we finished, we looked at each other through the glass of the window’s upper frame. She mouthed, ‘can I come over tomorrow?’ I mouthed back ‘yes.’ Then she turned around again and I watched her denim butt fade across the ladder.

The next night Elsie and I sat propped up at the head of the bed and listened to Bread and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and didn’t kiss. We wanted to sit and listen to music and keep still. She had brought with her bottles of cream soda and we blew across the openings to add whistles to the music. Mine usually harmonized and hers usually didn’t.

Every night in June had been the same so far, but that night it rained. We left the window open and listened to the tap-tap-tap on the aluminum of the ladder spanning the two buildings. The gentle roar of the storm blew cool gusts of air in through the window, and the air mixed with the music. Elsie pulled a blanket over herself and after a while lay her head on my shoulder.

I stared into the dimness of the room and listened to the rain and thought about nothing. I had not thought about anything else in a long time. Elsie was the first original thing to crawl into my life since I had done drama my last year of high school.

Elsie murmured, “I really like this music.” Then she said, “I like listening to it with you and doing nothing. Thank you for letting me come over.” By the time she finished saying things, she sounded so tired that I thought she must have fallen asleep talking.

I said, “You must be the strangest person I’ve ever met.”

Her voice came again, barely conscious. “I’m not strange. Sometimes I do things that are strange and people think that I’m strange but I’m not. I’m just really lonely.”

I think she drifted off to sleep. I stared at the thousands of raindrops coming down outside the window. Each of them caught a little sphere of the yellow light. So I thought about that.

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About Abraham Schneider

Abraham Schneider dropped out of Washburn University to be a hitchhiker, a carny, and, on occasion, a vagrant. He is currently washing dishes and making burritos in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

One Comment

  1. wendell rockwell
    Posted May 2009 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    I very much enjoyed this short story. It reminds me of Haruki Murakami, and I love his writing.

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