Kepler made a decision. He looked up from the sidewalk and stepped directly on a crack. He was twenty-three years old and it was time to grow up. It felt good, a load off, until he got a call from the emergency room saying his mother had stepped on a slug on the back porch, fallen and broken her back. A banana slug, fat and yellow and flattened to the consistency of discarded gum. He wondered if it was poisonous—wasn’t that what bright colors signified in the wild? Danger, toxicity, fangs and stingers? Inside the house his mother was laid out on the couch, her glowing, flowered muumuu signifying something else, though he didn’t know what.
He wasn’t about to spend twenty-five hundred dollars (which he didn’t have anyway) on an entrance ramp; a simple enough project, by the sound of it. The ancient Egyptians had figured it out, Son of Sam could very likely build one. Hell his dog could in all likelihood manage it.
Kepler couldn’t. He tried—lord knows he did—but the angles were all off, the incline varied wildly, the sections sagged under even his weight. It would never hold his mother. She was swelling before his eyes; that was his fault too. Her chewing rose above the hammer’s thwack, over the blare of The Price is Right. Cracklings splatted against the screen as she shouted out wildly inaccurate guesses: Forty-six dollars for a jar of Nutella, a dollar thirty-nine for a floor jack.
He worked harder than he had, probably ever. Calluses rose up like dunes on the pads of his palms. He saw himself in windows and bar mirrors and was startled each time at the assurance he didn’t recognize or feel. Women appeared suddenly on stools beside him. After dinner one night at the Golden Dragon, he found this in a cookie: Prosperity comes through others’ misfortune. He misread it, of course, as mother’s.
The first time he tried to wheel her down the ramp, the sound of two-by-fours cracking made him yank her back over the threshold.
“You said we were going to Costco.”
“It’s not ready yet.”
“Jesus. Your father could have built a boat by now.”
Wherever his father was, Kepler doubted he was building boats. He was a drunk with eight fingers left.
He began again.
And again. Each time he reached the top, nailed the final tread to the threshold, the other end would have begun succumbing to gravity and rot. Time, without his consent, performed its reverse magic. He felt his hair thinning as he worked, his skin loosening. At night, women began to look past him at other, younger men. The lawn died, the paint flaked in lead dandruff from the house’s walls. When his mother passed, he rented a cherry picker to lift her out a window.
The casket was beautiful, mitered and routed expertly. Better tools, he told himself, but the truth was he had learned nothing in all this time. He was a child still in many ways, though not in the ways that counted. On the drive home he found a dead rabbit beside the road, lopped off its foot and tucked it in his pocket, where it twitched faintly against his arthritic hip.
Jeff Ewing is a writer from Northern California. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in Sugar House Review, ZYZZYVA, Utne Reader, Crazyhorse, Beloit Poetry Journal, Catamaran Literary Reader, Arroyo, and Southwest Review. You can find him online at jeffewing.net.