Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
If you've never done it before, stepping off a ladder two stories above the pavement is a scary experience. I'm the son of a roofer, a man who believed in sweating his three sons into the white-collar world with a lot of blue-collar summertime labor, so I learned early.
My father said that like any dangerous activity in life — driving, fist fighting, shooting pool or love — stepping off a ladder was all about care. Too careless, and you might get hurt. Too careful, and you were bound to. The trick was finding the middle; enough fear to keep you thinking about what it would feel like to hit the cement at the bottom of the ladder, but not so much that you froze.
It's simple, really:
Put your hand on the butt end of the ladder rail. Don't look down.
Take one foot (smart foot, right foot) off the topmost rung. Swing it around to the edge of the roof.
Then, like a man stepping up to a high curb, make that simple hop — that deft shifting of weight and balance that leaves you, for one breathtaking second, a creature of the air.
I was born in Little Rock but I didn't live here until I was grown. My parents were both born here too, but the itch for space meant I spent my childhood orbiting the city like a moon. When I was a baby, we lived in a falling-down plantation house south of Fourche Dam Pike. At two, we moved to Crystal Valley Road near Lawson — an acre with a fishpond and a spot for my mother's garden. At 12, we joined the white flight to Benton.
Because of how my father earned his living, a living that usually kept us hanging onto the hem of middle class by our fingernails, I spent my summers making daylight forays into Little Rock to work. I learned to know it as he did, as both a native and an exile.
My dad was a Charles Dickens-grade ragamuffin from College Station who grew into a Hollywood-grade hood — black jeans, primered Ford sedan, and a knife in his sock. Though he had settled into semi-sensible fatherhood by the time I was old enough to know him, his was still very much a hustler's Little Rock, a town within a town. He knew all the shortcuts; the back alleys and holes through fences. He knew where they served fried buffalo fish off wax paper on Wednesdays; which corner store still sold RC Cola in the big bottles; who was having a sale on 16 penny framing nails. At any given time, he knew how much scrap copper was going for at Sol Alman's, and where a man could lay hands on the driver's door from a '51 Buick, and who to see about laying a bet on the Cowboys.
While I've thought a lot about my father's place in the universe since he died a few years back (when I'm whiskey stupid, I'm prone to think a lot about him, and to think that a roof is the only thing separating the human race from misery) life on a roof isn't at all romantic. These days, though, when I think back on that time of my life, it's not of sweat and itch and toil, but of how free it felt. Like being a bird. Like being a puff of dust.
Once, just back from the Army, my father was called to do some patchwork by an old pawnbroker named Max. Max lived in a giant old Victorian house in what would eventually become the Quapaw Quarter — a sagging wedding cake of a house, lathered in peeling paint and black rot.
Like me, my father was a big man. Working on a flat spot of the roof, he had only a second or two of cracking as a warning, and then he was gone: through the roof and into a black hole. When he came to himself, he realized that he had landed on a bed. The room was pitch black except for the shaft of light streaming through the hole in the roof. When his eyes adjusted, he could see he had fallen back in time. Old, Victorian furniture sat around the room — over-stuffed chairs shedding their skin; a carved vanity with the cloudy mirror reflecting perfume bottles; a fringed pouf that puked stuffing; a four-post bed, covered with debris from his fall. Everything, he said, looked like the lady who lived there had just stepped out, if not for the blanket of dust covering it all.
He made his way to the door, and when he opened it, he was met with a blank wall — a sealed room, full of a woman's things. The hair on his neck, he said, stood up.
The only way he made it out was by stacking the furniture in the room up until he was high enough to crawl back out the way he came in. Too embarrassed to say he fell and too broke to pay to fix the ceiling if Max insisted, my father simply roofed over the hole, and let the house keep its ghosts.
Looking down on the world makes you feel like both God and devil — like you can see further than those below; that you are separate from them in some fundamental way that makes you feel both sad and superior at the same time. I remember watching people walk along below me, oblivious to my presence, their shadows thrown out long behind them. I remember watching bums fight in the alleyways, their shouts racketing off the dumpsters, and the guilty thrill of staring down through green windshields — me maybe 14, 15 years old — as women settled themselves into their cars, slammed the door, and then hiked their short skirts an extra inch or two to drive.
I remember wintertime — the two weeks of Christmas vacation — standing around a hot vent pipe warming my hands with my brothers on a roof downtown, and catching the best smell in the world: the sharp, warm vanilla bean smell of Jackson Cookie Company in North Little Rock.
“Goddamn,” my brother said. “I wish I had me some of them cookies.”
This is a city that can swallow you up.
My father used to tell this story: I don't know if it's true or not.
Once upon a time in the Great Depression, he said, his kin was on a crew that roofed the Arctic Ice House. My family on my father's side had been sharecroppers since the beginning of time. But after the '27 Overflow flushed them out of the Arkansas River Delta, they settled in the city and started doing the one job that people liked even less than sharecropping.
In those days — not like today, with gas-fired pumper kettles — the asphalt for the roof was heated in a huge pot. When I imagined it as a boy, I imagined that pot as big as a Pontiac, one of the black cauldrons of damnation down in Hell, stirred by shirtless heathens. Workers carried the asphalt in big buckets to the top of the ladder where it was poured out on the roof in great steaming puddles and mopped on.
Somewhere in the course of the job, my father said, one man — too careful, not careful enough — tripped over a loose shoelace, then fell off the roof and into the scalding pot of asphalt, hot enough to make the tar run like water. By the time they could get to him, he had been totally consumed. Later, they dipped out his bones with a rake.
What to do? This was the Depression, after all, and asphalt cost something. A dead man, on the other hand, was worth less than nothing. In the end, they sent his black bones back to his mother in a toolbox. The rest of him, my father said, they mopped on top of the Arctic Ice House, and he lies there still.
These days, I don't climb ladders any more. Probably couldn't if I wanted to. Somewhere along the way, I've lost my nerve for stepping off.
Instead, I sit behind a desk all day and shovel words. I work on the second floor of a building in downtown Little Rock. The window of the Arkansas Times newsroom is just high enough to let me see the rooftops farther down the block, a little grass, the cars crawling across the freeway bridge a quarter mile away, and a tiny wedge of the river. On hot days, I put my hand against the glass and think of roofs and misery.
I learned to love this city from above. In many ways, that's still how I see it. I live in Little Rock now, in a little white house with a red door on Maple Street. But for me this will always be a city of secret places, of whispering men, of conversations I am not privy to and shortcuts so short they can get you there faster — somehow — than a crow flying.
The truth is, I know now what I was trying to think of all those days standing on the edge of a roof, looking down: you can never really know a city. It's a thing as fluid as hot asphalt, as changeable as the people who live under its rooftops. You can never really own it. It never really loves you. The best that you can hope for is to love it enough to make yourself stay.
His entire adult life, my father had recurring nightmares about falling off the roof of the Albert Pike Hotel in downtown Little Rock — dreams so real he'd wake screaming and shellacked in sweat. It was always the same, he said: him on the slope of the highest roof, headed up the Spanish tile toward the ridge. Then he'd slip. A splotch of pigeon shit, maybe, but the result was instantaneous: his sure feet gone out from under him, then sliding on his belly, the slick tiles turned into a chute, His fingernails splintered and turned back as he clawed at the roof, rushing feet first toward the edge. And then —
And then he was in midair, a scream lodged in his breastbone like a blade as he tumbled into the shadowy canyon of Scott Street below, face to the blue sky and his work shirt rustling in the air, the double-headed eagles at the front of the Masonic Temple across the way watching it all. Twenty feet above the pavement, just low enough to see the trees in front of the hotel, he'd wake up.
One of these days, he told me, I'll make it all the way to the ground and that'll be all she wrote.
He never fell. It was cancer that finally got him. The tumor, he told me when he called, was just behind his ear. The size of a hen's egg, he said
No matter how I try to unsee it, and though I know better, that's what I always think of when I think of my father dying: a man with an egg inside his head. So white. So fragile.
A few years ago, I built my son a treehouse in our backyard, under the cherry tree — a simple platform with a rail around it, floored with planks. When I was done, I climbed up in it. If it would hold me, it would surely hold him. Once up there, I couldn't help but stand. When I was 17, I leaned over the edge of 15 stories once — dropped pebbles to watch them curve before they hit the earth. But when I stood on my son's treehouse, barely eight feet off the ground, the vertigo hit me like a stick. The old fear, the old care. It made me think of my father, five years dead by then, and the sound of his voice.
That's when I saw. From up there, I could see the houses shelving away down the hill and cars passing on the street the next block over. I could see the secret rooftops, and into backyards. Far off in the distance, I could see the dome of the state capitol, and I realized that if I stood there come the Fourth of July, I could watch the fireworks downtown — previously seen from our back door only as muted color against the sky. A calico cat strolled by below me on the other side of the fence. Before disappearing down the alley, he stopped to sniff at something in the grass. The sun sank. The shadows lengthened.
Finally, when it was nearly dark, my son emerged from the house, walked to the foot of his treehouse, and looked up at me.
“What are you doing up there?” he asked.
Someday, I'll try to tell him.