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Climbing the Stalk
by Nathan Oates
reading time


Jack thought if he could climb those steps that bent like a beanstalk around the light spinning pole to the upper levels then he could step over the clouds and push the eggman off his perch and watch him spill on the stones and then he could lay his lips on hers and she would awake and this would make it all a happy ending. That was all he wanted, his bootstraps clicking as he walked towards the stalk, shoulders sliding through crowds that shimmered in sequin or fabric glittering. He tugged at his stiff collar and thought he deserved this, as much as anyone. It could be his. He would have it. It was about one man having his gingerbread house and eating it too.

Slickhaired she was up there in the tower of vice hemmed in by slickfaced men in slick shirts crowding around because her hair fell in locks down past her shoulders, the edges highlighted slightly and from here, below, in the nether reaches of the shifting bodies, Jack could see the inner curving slope of her thigh beneath her skirt edge and he quickened his step. He would have clicked his heels brightly against one another with bravado, if not for the twenty-something hag in front of him, waving a blue fluted glass over her head, glittering gin splashing up and over and down her wrist, flecking off onto the front of Jack's shirt, blossoming wildly, unethically into dark patches like the floorboards around an Orge's spittoon.

Floor fog dripped over down the steps like a slow cat, and the crowd around her was entranced and intent on carrying her away from him on pumpkin carriages into dewy nights where she would never meet him and so they would never get what they wanted. What he knew she could bring him. He saw it in the movement of her hair, which made it seem as though he'd known her all his days of wandering through cubicles filled with small wits and thin wallets and all this was love. Love was all he wanted out of it, not her thighs wrapped powder white around his ears, muffling her groans. None of that. What he wanted was love and fingers in his hair and his ear against her sternum which caught and reverberated her heartbeat.

Was that so much to ask? He wiped at the dull spots of his shirt and thought the heat, that swelled up everywhere, would likely dry these spots before he could reach her. If he could reach her, through this crush of peasants packing in through the door where sentinel giants stood with flicking lights and thick necks poking over tight black tee-shirts. He lowered his shoulder in earnest and knocked aside a court jester who tottered away waving his hands and shouting, Whoa whoa whoa cowboy, and then, when Jack was past him, the clown added, Fucking asshole.

He was nearly at the stairs and she was no longer in sight, but Jack no longer needed her image to climb the thin metal steps of the beanstalk.

Even the stalk's steps were now crowded, as though the gargoyles were breaking off their perch to barricade him from her above. He'd seen her before, when she'd been leaning forward over the bar towards the thin jawed man with his unsmiling bartending face and then, drink secured, she had turned to look down at Jack and he knew that when she smiled then, despite the waving arms and milling heads and slurping drinks, that her smile was meant for him, that she was giving it to him, laying it forward for him as though on a bed of cotton too soft to be believed, through which one could feel the slightest bump, a misplaced pea.

Excuse me, he screamed into the rising din that crashed like waves on a shipwrecked shore, Jack forced to straggle through shattered boards and broken bodies and he twined himself between two beautiful girls with large breasts who meant nothing to him, were nothing in his sights but wide trunks in a dark forest full of wolves and warlocks and then he was squeezing past a wide young man who leered viciously at a poor and shy girl in loose black pants who might as well, for this is how things were going, hurl herself backwards over the bar and plummet into the crowd.

Jack felt his feet separating themselves from him, as though he were lifting off and he could rise above the milieu and float himself over to hang like a mote of dust in blind broken slants of light above her who could bring him love, would and could and then he could settle down lightly beside her and everything else would be blown apart like topsoil. Their love would land like a house on the worthlessness of these young, snappy men and their western witchiness and they would be cleared away like so much drift.

But he was just making his way slowly and the lights were crashing off the mirrored stalk's steps and coming back to Jack with his own face, drawn tight and long in the twisted image and had he forgotten to shave? How many drinks had he had and who was paying for them and had he left a credit card and would he need to get it, before the night was out, from the fat and rushed man in a tight and sweaty shirt below, or would he leave it, rush out into the coolness of the night with his love because sweat was breaking under his arms, in the hollow of his back, his chest, blotting up with gin remains on his Brooks Brother's shirt with it's stiff and hot creases, down his arms, at his wrists.

Somehow, through force of will and love, Jack pushed his way to the top, his feet disappearing into the false fog that pumped from weary, clanking machines in corners that added to the unending din and he did not see her there, at first, his eyes darting, his hand flying to his side as though to brandish a sword, clear out the interlopers. He patted his wallet, felt it through the now getting-wet fabric of his pants and he pushed further into the crowd who all laughed and wobbled on their feet like badly constructed tin men with pretty, pretty faces.

And then he saw her and he felt himself rising, because finally it was over and he was here and she would look up, she would look up and smile at him and her head would tilt, just to the right and this would mean that everything was ok and that love was still here in the broken world and everything everyone said about nothing meaning anything and nothing bringing lightness into a world of drudge would be proven wrong. But then he noticed her hand. Which was on high on the leg of a tall, thin man who sat beside her with his beautiful face leaned towards her and his hair, so clearly sculpted into disarray, brushing her cheek and she was laughing. For a moment Jack stood there, waiting, while people pushed around him, he waited for her to look up and of course she did, but when she did she glanced at the crowd and right over his face to point at one of her girlfriends, another gorgeous brunette in a blazing red shirt open three buttons down the front who leaned forward and slapped her knee and raised her drink and then everyone there in the circle was drinking and the boy with sculpted hair was whispering into the ear of the woman Jack knew he was meant to love and then she pulled away slightly, kissed the boy on the mouth and everyone was laughing.

Blinking and blinking again because blinking seemed to be the only thing he could manage, blinking and breathing and then finally turning away, Jack directed himself towards the bar where the crowd bore him, slowly, arms pushed into various contortions by the shorter girls weaving beneath him like troglodytes until finally wood pressed hard into his stomach and what did it matter? He ground his teeth. He sought the attention of the thin, handsome bartender who served only the pretty girls and then talked with them with a smooth, worthless smile.

Impossible, someone said beside him. Isn't it? the voice said, and it was clear this was directed at Jack and so he turned to find a pretty young girl with short hair and thick glasses and a perfect nose, thin and leading to a gentle smile.

What's that? Jack asked. A waving arm bumped the back of his head like a storm tossed beam.

Getting a drink in this bar. It's impossible, the girl said. Jack liked her voice, the way it caught in his ear despite the roaring morons around them.

He leaned in towards her and said, Impossible and stupid and she laughed and lay a hand, as someone shoved her from behind, on Jack's own and he looked down at her dark blue fingernails and looked up to find her looking down, though her eyes would eventually rise and then they would meet his and they would both be smiling.

Nathan Oates is finishing his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction has appeared in the Louisville Review and nowhere else.
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