The shopping center by your house (car wash, urgent care, and the shell of a former Wal-Mart) sits on a hill with a view it doesn’t deserve and doesn’t appreciate. But you do. You appreciate it very much, which is part of the reason you wash your car so often.
This morning, after rolling through express wash, you lingered as usual while the overhead door peeled open and those industrial dryers cleared the windshield, revealing mountains, sky and treetops framed just-so.
The impatient young woman in line behind you stuck her head out the window of her Audi.
“Wake up!” she shouted.
But that view deserved a moment of your time.
On the drive home you thought about the copper-colored mall roof with its decorative turrets. It would have the same view, but higher: three-hundred-sixty degrees of mountains and city lights, sunset and sunrise and stars in between. A place to be alone, to wrestle with thoughts of eternity. Maybe read the paper and drink coffee from a thermos, a box of donuts at your side. Astroturf, deck chair. Paradise.
You have never done anything about it before, but now is the time. You are through with idle fantasies. So here you are, on a night with barely a sliver of moon.
You park your car out of sight around the corner, manhandle the extension ladder into place, puffing and cursing under your breath.
The ladder is at its maximum extension and a foot and a half gap remains from the top rung to the rooftop. Trembling and sweating, you grope for a handhold, trying not to think about the distance to the loading dock below. You concentrate on the welcoming tang of rooftop tar. Clumsily, you heave yourself up, and with a last frenzied kick, scramble over the parapet and land on your back on pea gravel, gasping for air. You must have forgotten to breathe through that last part.
A scraping sound brings you to your feet, and you peer over the edge just in time to see the ladder gain momentum and topple onto the abandoned trash compactor. The crash echoes through the silent neighborhood. A light flicks on in the condo complex that backs onto the mall.
You fumble for your breast pocket and draw out a smashed packet of Camels. Choose one that is not broken, get it lit on the third try and take a long drag. You gaze over the edge, look up at the stars, shining weakly in the city’s glow. Turn to look out over the expanse of shopping center rooftop, then back to your ladder, aluminum feet in the air like it is dead.
Over at the condo complex the light goes out, which could be good or bad depending on the circumstances. You stub out your cigarette on the parapet.
Below in the condo courtyard, you hear voices: young men philosophizing, singing snatches of song, lobbing insults. Their sentences are constructed around profanity, as though the word “fuck” is an important part of speech, like prepositions.
There is a gang of maybe five of them. Your general impression in the darkness is of baggy shorts and ridiculously large ball caps.
The smell of marijuana drifts up, reminding you of your youth, that feeling of potential. They step through the hedge, one-by-one, wandering your way, gesturing, and ribbing each other, laughing too loud at dumb jokes.
What to do?
You call out, “Hey, excuse me!”
They fall silent. Stop and crane their necks toward the condo balconies. One of them mumbles, “Mind your own business, asshole.”
“No! Up here!” You wave your arms. “On top of the building.”
One of them spots you and points.
“Dude, what are you doing up there?”
They break into joyful laughter, hooting and pointing.
“Yeah, I’ll bet. What you been up to, old guy?”
“My ladder fell down.”
Now they are intrigued.
“How long you been up there?”
You ignore the question. “Could you just put my ladder back so I can get down?”
“Oh, Dude. Are you legitimate, or are you trying to rip off Wal-Mart? You know the store’s empty, right?”
“I’m legit,” you say. It is a white lie.
A couple of the boys move toward the ladder and start to wrestle it off the trash compactor, but one motions for them to stop.
“If we help you out, can we come up and have a tour?”
“Yeah, sure! Least I can do,” you say. Why not?
So, they all get to work and in less than a minute and a half they are running up the ladder, leaping onto the roof like it is nothing, strolling around.
“Aw, man, look at that view!”
“What’s that thing?” one of them asks.
“Air conditioning unit,” you hazard.
Without even discussing it, the six of you fan out toward a turret with a copper roof.
It draws you.
One of the young men arches his back, hands behind his head.
“I’ve always wanted to come up here,” he sighs.
“Me too,” you blurt, and he gives you a sidelong gaze.
Another kid swings a nylon sack off his back, one of those backpacks young people wear. He loosens the string ties.
“You want a beer?” he holds it out.
“Come on,” he wiggles it.
Once again, you get a rush of that feeling. The feeling of youth, of potential. You sit on the parapet, sip your Miller Highlife, follow with your eye the line of Alameda Avenue, all lit up, straight to the horizon.
A couple of the guys sprawl out on the gravel, watching the sky.
Nobody talks much, and it is perfect.
The sun peeks above the horizon over by the air force base. The sky bleeds red, backlighting the radar dishes and antennae. It softens to marigold, rippling clouds. For the first time, you see each other’s faces, and you know you would never have greeted one another on the street. Hell, if they rang your doorbell, you’ve have answered with a .357 Magnum.
Later, they help you carry the ladder back to your car. You shake hands all around and pound each other’s shoulders like in the truck commercials. It has been, perhaps, the best night of your life.
And perhaps if you meet again, you will exchange a secret smile, a subtle hand gesture. You will remember this night, the freedom, the bleeding sky, the feeling of potential. And it will remind you that you are still alive.