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Jacob’s Ladder

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It only lasted a few seconds. A glance — look at that! — and the world was brake lights.

Passing through the concrete belly of a New York skyscraper on a street with some number for a name, we began to submerge. Descending through layers of steel and stone and asphalt in a ‘80 Ford Fairmont, we sank below the sea level of the city. Ragged slate colored cliffs, the foundations of the great city above us became a channel for this child’s nightmare of a highway. In spite of the heat of engines around us, the walls were alive with sweat and the smell of never having been dry, the seeping sea keeping them wet forever.

So intent on navigation, I hardly took my eyes from the road. The glimpses of the city I do remember seem merely subliminal. A glance up at railings and people walking and towers. The rock walls and a guy in the next car smoking a cigar — his shirt is pale yellow. Light falls on us like a flood light through a picket fence. It’s warm up there. There’s a stairwell, an ancient iron mongery of a thing. Few people on it in this city of elevators. Is it coming down from the street above it or is it in a parking lot? The guy with the cigar. Red. Brake lights.

Everyone is alright. A bit miffed at the driver but alright. Everyone in the car must have helped me brake because we didn’t hit anything.

The stairs. I continued to see them even through the adrenaline rush, my eyes now glued to the road. They reminded me of the story of Jacob’s Ladder, of how he fled from his brother’s wrath into the unscrupulous dealings of his uncle, how he slept exhausted on the road, cobblestones for pillows, disposed people for bedfellows. I imagined his dreams full of angels down there in the basement of the world, that most unlikely place to be shown the gate to heaven. And that’s how this painting began — a glimpse of the unfamiliar along an uninviting road.