Open 2023 Stories -Carolyn R. Russell


The Ladder

By Carolyn R. Russell


The music coming from the club is so loud that from the sidewalk I can feel the rhythm section in every part of my body. Carson grins at me and cocks his heads toward the entrance, his eyebrows arched and a smile on his face I know might mean trouble. I’ve been on work trips with him before. A nice enough guy onscreen in our virtual office, he tends to go a little wild away from his wife and young family. My fiancée calls him Mister Bad Boy. This tradeshow is in his own backyard, though, so maybe it’ll be different. Carson’s version of dialed down.

I nod, and we pay the ten-dollar cover and follow the beat inside to a lengthwise murky sweatbox with a bar and tables. The place seems to be a shrine to the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, posters and signs in retro fifties fonts and pop-art colors. I’m a fan. Normally we’d end up someplace far worse, so I’m not unhappy to have landed here.

Carson heads for an empty red faux leather booth against the wall, and I’m behind him, making use of the way the crowd floats toward the edges of the room so he and his charisma can get to where they’re going. A significant number of female heads turn to take note of that location. He’s always had that effect on women. Men, too, though most of them would probably chalk it up to Carson’s swaggery, alpha-style self-confidence. He must have been born with it because near as I can tell he’s never done much to earn it.

A pretty server in a short skirt comes over and slings a hip at us. Nora, her necklace reads. Carson orders a double Jack on the rocks without taking his eyes off her low-cut top and asks her to put a rush on it. I order a beer and check the juice level on my phone; I’m going to need it later so I can pour Carson into an Uber.
Our drinks arrive and Carson makes no move toward his wallet, so I pull out a twenty and hand it to our server with a thank you. She gives me a perfunctory smile. When I turn to Carson, I catch a glimpse of his back as he follows a woman with long dark hair to the dance floor.

I take a long pull off my beer and settle in. It’s too loud to talk, so I check my texts and there’s one from Ava about the minister who’s doing our wedding. He’s no longer available, as he’s resigned due to some improprieties with a parishioner. We’re being thwarted by a cliché, she writes, and I can hear her laughter from here. I love her.

Our server returns and tells me that my friend has bought me a round of what he ordered. I’m not much of a hard liquor kind of guy, but I appreciate the gesture. And the implicit message. I lean back against the sticky banquette and put my feet up where Carson had been sitting. He’s going to be a while.

Eventually I spot Carson slowly weaving his way back to the booth, one hand in the air, his thumb and forefinger measuring an inch. I was this close. I give him a quick grin and point to my wrist. Our server materializes and hands me a bill. For the double Jacks Carson sent over. I remind her that they’ve been paid for by my buddy, and she looks at me and says no he hasn’t. You ordered them.

Carson is a few feet from our table, red-faced with exertion and alcohol. Various possible scenarios rat-a-tat-tat through my brain. I meet the server’s eyes: pleading, desperation, defiance. Something shifts inside my chest, and I hand her the money. I even tip.



It’s two in the morning before I’m ready to close down my station and deal with Frank. Who’s maybe the worst manager I’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot. Nora, he’ll tell me, you’re the best, and try to grab my ass, right in front of everyone. He surprises me now, tells the room how high my volume was tonight and slips me an extra fifty. Not his normal M.O., but highly welcome.

Outside it’s drizzling, and I pull my scarf more securely around my neck and tuck its edges into the ridiculous bustier they call a uniform. One time I had to wear it to my day job. I’d soothed Owen back to sleep after a nightmare soon after I got home from the bar and had woken up so late that I’d just thrown a sweater over the top and pulled on a pair of slacks before making coffee and heading to the call center out near the highway. Luckily, it’d been a chilly day, and the building was as reliably cold in the wintertime as it was stifling hot in the summer. Numb or in a stupor, it really didn’t matter; that place made dead-voiced zombies of the best of us.

I drive home with the windows wide open to keep me from nodding off. Owen is in bed when I check on him, his ten-year-old brain conjuring dreams he’s mumbling and twitching through. Tara’s bedroom door is half open so that she can hear her little brother if he needs her. She and I are very light sleepers; I don’t remember if it’s always been so, or if it’s behavior we’ve learned. In any case, I don’t want to wake her by entering her room after I make sure she’s okay. As I gently close her door, the dim yellow light thrown by a passing car briefly illuminates the thick paperback guide to colleges and universities on her nightstand. Before I can dwell too painfully on that subject and the hard questions it raises, I grab half a stale bagel and stretch out on the sofa.

When I wake up, my son is thrashing around our galley kitchen, and I panic for a second before I remember that Tara and I have done a recent sweep of glass and ceramic, sharp objects, small appliances, and powdered soap, which he swallows when he’s particularly angry with himself.

Owen’s in his Sunday clothes, his mixed martial arts logo pajamas. I hate them and the fact that he’s so fascinated by that culture, but I pick my battles carefully these days. I’ll ask him to change only if I can get him to leave the house with me and go for a hike, which he used to enjoy but now says…well, never mind what he says other than I didn’t know those words until I was older. But if I’m being honest, maybe not too much older.

Honest is one thing I’m not always these days. Just one more casualty of the ragged trajectory I’m on, one more disposable element of my psyche jettisoned in service to survival, mine and my kids’. It hurts a lot less now than it used to. By my own reckoning, I’m no longer a good person. One thing I didn’t learn in college: the hierarchy of needs Abraham Maslow is famous for constructing? If you can’t even get beyond that first level, and feel no sense of safety or security, no matter how hard you try and how long you work at it, everything else becomes beside the point. At school, I thought his list was a ladder that you naturally climbed in the course of being human. As one matured, life got better and better.

Owen has made us all breakfast, cereal and milk in a bowl and jellied toast. Tara’s place setting is littered with the debris of this meal; Sunday mornings she waitresses, and she usually eats at the restaurant. She must have risked being late to make Owen happy.

Owen beams at me, his pale face pink with pleasure as he pulls out a chair for me at the table. I camp it up as I sweep aside imaginary wide skirts to sit comfortably. I let everything go and will myself into a state of existence that lives completely in the now. And I exhale. Today might be a good day. Monday feels a world away.



There here is, that weird kid Owen who shuffles from room to room with some beat-up old bitch who looks at me and then looks away fast, like I’m shit on the sidewalk or something. When she goes up to the teacher with some papers, I can hear Devin and Fraze behind me, whispering, waiting for me to make my move.
I make as much noise as I can blowing my nose into a page of my notebook and get up from my desk to throw it away. It’s only a slight detour to pass Owen. He’s got his head down over the list of words for today’s end of month spelling thing. I do like a fake stumble and smoosh my piece of paper, snot-side down, on his list and then apologize loudly. Before I sit down again, I circle back around Devin and Fraze long enough to get some low fives and low laughs from those idiots.

The morning crawls by; Mondays suck even more than the rest of school. We can’t find Owen during lunch. He must be somewhere with his fucking nursemaid while she works her soggy ass off to help him pass for normal. Like that’s going to happen.

Finally, it’s nearly done, another shitty day in prison. But, first, the entire grade has to go to the auditorium for the spelling bee, like we’re stuck in some crap Disney movie. Owen wins, like he always does, like clockwork. The thought almost makes me laugh; my old man says even a broken clock is right twice a day. Owen is one defective waste of space for sure, but damn, he can spell. What a freak. It’s like watching a chicken peck out Led Zeppelin on a piano.

When we catch up with him later, his shoulders are already hunched forward, like a dog waiting to be smacked. He raises his head as we crowd him up against the grimy metal of his open locker, where I can see his newest blue ribbon lying diagonally across the top shelf.

Before I can reach for it, Owen manages to mew at me. Please, Brandon, please can I keep just this one. I’m in a generous mood so this time I tell him we’re gonna make a trade and after I take the ribbon, I replace his prize with one of my own, a shiny silvery pen I stole from my mom.

I look back at Owen as we move down the hall towards the open double school doors. He’s got the pen in his fist and he’s scratching it back and forth over his arm. If he’s going for a fake tattoo it’s gonna be a fail. The pen doesn’t work, I tried it.



I’m staring at the thick envelope on the kitchen counter where it’s lived for the past week. Maybe longer – Carson’s been gone longer than ten days, his usual trade show timeline. The letter came in the mail hours after he left, three days before the show’s official opening. I checked.

I’d told myself that he hadn’t really meant what he’d said. Especially about the pregnancy. That maybe he’d just left early to handle the set-up, even though he doesn’t normally get involved at that stage. Like he doesn’t usually stay in a hotel when he manages this particular show. Well, there’d been a lot of new normal lately, and I’d put it all out of my mind. Until today. Today was Brandon’s first day back after another one of his mandated mini vacations from his second round of the fifth grade, and he got home excited to show something or other to Carson and asked when he’d be done with his business trip. Luckily, Sara’d called to us from the front porch and we’d both followed the sound of her lilting soprano. Brandon may be a handful, but boy does he love his little sister.

Now I grab a cup of cold coffee and bring the letter back to bed, still warm with the latest shape of my changing body. It takes a long time to separate the legal jargon from the true meaning of the words. Or maybe it’s that I don’t want to understand what’s happening, has happened. Will happen.



The plane ride home is so painless, it takes me a while to adjust my expectations. It might be because instead of aggressively taking up as much space as possible in the seat next to mine, complaining incessantly about his inevitable hangover aches and pains and his having to fly to Michigan with me for a solo client consult, Carson is in the wind.

When I’d knocked on his door this morning, it had been swung open by a hotel employee with a clipboard and a camera. It had only taken a glance at the room to understand why. It looked like it had been ransacked by raccoons with a taste for vodka, sausage pizza, and drywall. I had backed out quickly before they could ask any questions.

I’d packed up in a hurry and left, spurning the free breakfast. It was one thing to be scammed a few bucks at a time by Carson; I’d always chalked it up to the price of doing business. I have friends with much worse working conditions; one guy I know is expected to source his boss’s Ritalin. But there was no way I was going to get involved in whatever damages were now owed to our unlucky corporate hosts.

The crisp winter air is a sweet kiss as I exit the plane and hit the tarmac. Ava meets me at the gate with our dog, Joan of Bark. It doesn’t get any better than this.


Carolyn R. Russell’s lives on and writes from Boston’s North Shore. Her latest novel is In the Fullness of Time, a dystopian thriller published by Vine Leaves Press in 2020. Her poetry, essays, and short stories have been featured in numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, Eunoia Review, 3rd Wednesday, Litro Magazine, Reflex Press, Club Plum Literary Journal, Daikaijuzine, Orca: A Literary Journal, Bridge Eight, Penumbric Speculative Fiction Magazine, and New World Writing. Her new collection of cross-genre flash will be published by Vine Leaves Press in October of 2023.


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