“up and down the ladder” by Robert Couse-Baker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sky, Ladder, Cow, Lantern, Lake, Flowers, Heaven

Shane Jones

From the novel Young Forest

The hotel PDC was found online for two hundred dollars off the original price. Melanie had celebrated with half a beer and then immediately felt guilty because she imagined the alcohol infusing with her breast milk and brain damaging Julian. In the room I stood looking at the massive sand colored tub before deciding to lay down in it to see how large it was compared to my body. I could easily fit seven of me inside it and I wondered at what size a bathtub becomes a hot tub, and laughed to myself, alone in the hotel room. It had no jets and finely detailed clawed feet, so technically it was a tub. The rest of the room was dark, eggshell white walls and maroon carpet with black diamond shapes along the edges. I couldn’t stop laughing at the size of the tub. Even when I checked in the hotel manager commented on the tubs, arrogantly stating they had the largest of any hotel on the East coast. But what about the West coast? I had asked. I stood with my bag in one hand and holding the card for Athena in the other. What about it? You said this hotel had the largest tubs on the East coast, which is an interesting thing to mention, you didn’t say it had the biggest tubs in the country, which I probably would have accepted, you said the East coast. I surprised myself by the way I was talking. Maybe Athena’s work was influencing me. Portland, Oregon, said the hotel manager. It’s called The Foxtrot, owned by my brother. He heard about the tubs here so he installed even bigger ones there. That’s crazy, I said. No it’s not. Brothers do that sort of thing. Any time we stayed in a hotel Melanie made sure the room had a tub. She would pay extra for one. I never used them until the hotel PDC, where I had to take a bath in the largest tub on the East coast, and besides, my legs hurt from walking all day; the stress of finding my brother and not hearing from Melanie was exhausting. The warmth of Athena’s sun was still in my stomach. After the tub was filled I climbed in and closed my eyes. Because of the size I kept sliding into the water. Even when I did go under my feet never touched the opposite side. Next to me were folded washcloths neatly stacked in a thick triangle labeled heaven cloths, and soaps labeled soothing stones, and a Velcro headrest labeled sky cloud that I attached behind me on the tub wall. I checked my phone and made sure the volume was on. Still nothing, and the worry I had earlier was surprisingly gone in the comfort of the tub. Since Julian’s birth I couldn’t remember the last time I slept more than an hour stretch—now my fatigue had maxed out. I thought I was going to fall asleep during the meditation, or maybe I had, I couldn’t remember. I had slept maybe twenty minutes on the train and had momentarily fallen asleep across the backseat of the cab. When I closed my eyes I immediately fell asleep and saw four treehouses in four trees, waking once because I thought I heard my phone vibrate. I reminded myself to call Melanie again when I woke up to tell her about my trip, how much stranger everything had become, but still no idea where Nick was. I would also call my father and let him talk about Horse, hoping he would talk about my brother or my mother and what she had done that day, but I knew he wouldn’t. He would discuss Horse and what he was fixing around the house. Finally, I let myself relax. I envisioned the field. I dreamt about the hotel I was currently inside of. Nothing was different in the dream, and I found myself inside the dream telling myself how boring the dream was with just me walking into the hotel, nodding to the manager in a BIG TUBS t-shirt, riding the elevator to the fourteenth floor, and walking into the room where I laughed uncontrollably at the tub. The dream didn’t feel like a dream because I could move around inside it, I knew it was a dream, I could experience it and I could make fun of it. I checked my phone again but still didn’t have any messages. An intense hunger—my stomach held an empty heat. In the hallway the lights were bright pink, the carpet sun yellow with skinny black stains, and every door to every room was open. Cats were passing between the rooms, and at the end of the hallway stood a horse, inferno red. As I walked, I looked into each room and found a new environment, a new setting. The cats similar to Horse moved around my legs and I sat down to pet them, letting their bodies slink under my hand before continuing on. In one room I stood at the doorway, the hallway light behind me bright pink, and viewed a wide field and a lake on the hotel window. In the lake was a floating cow and two people swimming with ropes, attempting to rescue it. They brought the cow to the shore under a sun seemingly made from construction paper, and the longer I watched, other details I realized were drawn, colored with crayon, cut from paper and childishly taped down at the corners. Someone had hole-punched the sky, making ovals of white light—it was more beautiful than real life. At the shore, a family of four walked into a dark transparent gas rising from the dead cow’s mouth. It formed a bag around them. Then the lake began to smear like brushed paint to the far right side over the trees outside the hotel window. The next room was much darker, but still held the appearance of something created from paper, pen, tape, crayon, and scissors—in the middle tree branches were mended in a triangular structure. The light in this room came from a pile of burning flowers at the top of the structure, and I was in there, climbing one side like a ladder. I stayed in this room until I reached the top where I began speaking at the fire. A man standing at the bottom of the structure, who had previously been motionless, turned and was sucked into the wall. The last room I had to get on my knees to be able to see what I was looking inside of it was so short, which was connected cabinets with children stuffed inside. I stuck my head in. I heard my mother and father in muted voices from above. Hunched over, my brother was in there, surrounded with papers he was furiously writing on, single words on pages reading: SKY, LADDER, COW, LANTERN, LAKE, FLOWERS, HEAVEN. When I crawled a little closer, I noticed the hiding cabinets were made of cardboard. How long I stayed in this room I’m not sure, easily much longer than the others, and as I stuck my head as far inside as possible, reading my brother’s papers, I tried to speak but what came out was an amphibian groan of hot air, and one of the cats, scared from the noise I had made, slipped past and over my brother’s lap who just kept writing the single words on entire pages, furiously flipping the pages. I continued down the hall with the cats following me, trying to see if one of them was Horse, they resembled her, but each time I looked closer a white spotted foot, clipped tail, one eye green the other blue would tell me it wasn’t her. I kept walking but it didn’t feel like I was walking, more like I was telling myself to walk, seeing myself walk, but not feeling it. At the end of the hallway the horse had been replaced by a man in hunting gear who wore a red hat low over his brow, a black flannel jacket thick with muscle, and from where his eyes sat in shadow two blue lines moved vertically off his jaw. A rifle was strapped to his back, but he wasn’t menacing, rather, I felt comfortable standing in front of him, so I asked if I could leave the dream and he said why, this is what you’ve always wanted, and I said what I wanted was to see Julian, I couldn’t remember his face, and the hunter raised his arms—I braced for him to hit me—and his fists came thrusting downward through a pool of water.

Shane Jones is the author of six books, including Light Boxes (Penguin 2010), Daniel Fights a Hurricane (Penguin 2012), Crystal Eaters (Two Dollar Radio 2014) and Vincent and Alice and Alice (Tyrant 2019). He lives in upstate New York. 

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