THIS IS THE SEQUENCE of events that led to Peter Bumble’s downfall: in 1958, as you well know, the Totochabo regime came to power in a military coup that claimed the lives of thousands. Immediately following this, as a first order of business, stairs were declared outdated and no longer practicable for living. The lower stories were thus abandoned and turned over to the animals, while everything above ground floor was deemed wildly unsafe and best forgotten about altogether.
This did not go over as well as the regime had hoped. Thousands more perished in the unrest. Totochabo consequently went one step further and in 1961 declared the use of stairs a punishable offense. A year later, ladders were outlawed, followed by elevators, airplanes, trampolines, cranes, stilts, and high-heeled shoes. Finally, in the spring of 1964, just after the Great Stair Scare, Peter Bumble, who until then had been a model citizen and never participated in any of the upheavals, found a ladder propped against a wall in his living room, sealing his fate.
Much as the rumor seems to persist, we did not install the ladder in Mr. Bumble’s home ourselves, though we certainly knew about it within the hour of discovery. It was quite a new-looking ladder, too, not any old piece of junk. It was of perfect make and painted a glaring red, as if custom-fitted for the occasion. Mr. Bumble was right to be flabbergasted.
But who put the ladder in its place? In all likelihood, the facts will never come to light. We did our homework, of course, dusting for fingerprints, examining the tapes, looking at the scene from every possible angle. Invariably, though, what the tapes show is a living room in which at 8:04 everything is in perfect order and which at 8:05 inexplicably contains a ladder.
At 8:15, then, we see Mr. Bumble enter the living room and convulse at the sight of the ladder. He stands as if rooted to the spot for a minute, two minutes. Then he springs into action. His head jerks to one side, then the other. He takes the ladder in both hands, feeling its weight. He hears something; it’s his wife. Mr. Bumble is now in a rightful panic. He closes the door, then thinks better of it, opens it again, runs to get the ladder, exits the living room at the exact moment Mrs. Bumble enters from the kitchen, and swift as a weasel manages to stow the item away in a cupboard in the hallway before Mrs. Bumble and the children all converge on the scene from various directions.
It was pure gold, of course. We couldn’t stop laughing as we watched the footage. Afterward, we held a vote which turned out seven to one in favor of leaving the ladder, for the time being at least, in Peter Bumble’s possession to see where it would all lead next. Poor Peter Bumble walked around the entire day with a face white as chalk. He was already as good as dead, since from November 1963 on—ever since Dagobert Sweeney (a.k.a. Dago the Stairmaster) had flooded the whole country for a month with his ladders—the penalty for possession had been death by firing squad.
That is not to say that the rules are never broken anymore. Recent statistics even show a rise in ladder crime—a term comprising not only offenses directly linked to ladders (possession, handling, or trade) but all crimes involving an item outlawed under the same general law. Thus the wearing of high heels is very much a ladder crime, as would be walking around on stilts (open or concealed), possession of a trampoline or trampoline-like structure, or conspiracy to build an airplane, paraglider, paper kite, etc.
Not all ladder crimes, however, merit the death penalty. For possession of a ladder, as in the case of poor Mr. Bumble, there may of course be no other option, but for crimes involving high heels or stilts, for instance, there is much more wiggle room, and while conspiracy to build an airplane is a clear death-penalty crime, anything to do with paper kites is treated more generously, provided the kite be not strong enough to lift a man.
The ladder laws have been in effect for close to two years, and still we get the occasional climber. But that was to be expected, of course. It was a big thing, getting rid of the lower and upper stories in one swoop, lifting that burden from everyone of constantly having to wonder if one was going up or down or staying put. As Totochabo once famously put it, “Man is not a bird, fluttering off into empty space. Nor is he a woodlouse, scurrying about in the cellars of the world. He is at heart a ground-floor creature, and we’re finally returning him to his natural state, never looking up or down, but always straight ahead.”
The climbers disagree, obviously. But they are few and far between. If in the first weeks of the ladder laws we had to rescue an average of 250 souls a week from the lower stories and ninety-one from the upper, since then those numbers have dwindled dramatically. We now get a mere eight or nine climbers a week in the cellars, and none at all in the upper stories. The ones we do find we execute swiftly, thereby assuring their full redemption and rebirth forthwith into a body and mind unconcerned with ladders or climbing.
With Peter Bumble, we were still wondering what would happen. Would he turn into a climber, or attempt to get rid of the ladder somehow? My money was on the latter, but you never truly know, do you? As Totochabo once said, “Opportunity makes a climber,” and there were many in the office who thought Bumble would make a run for it.
I still remember what those days were like, those early days after the Stairclaration. The regime needed soldiers more than anything. I was taken on in the first wave—recruited right out of school, so to speak. We went days without sleep, knocking on doors, sometimes in the middle of the night, bringing in heavy machinery and demolishing on the spot whatever stairs or stair-like structures we found, cutting off all access to the lower stories first and afterwards dealing with the upper stories in a like manner.
“It’s paramount you proceed in this very order,” Totochabo said. “Without the lower, after all, the upper stories soon lose their appeal. No one in his right mind would attempt to climb up, if he hadn’t first climbed down.”
It took us six months to rid the country of all access to the cellars. We were held back, of course, by the counterrevolution which was in full swing and gaining momentum by the day, but also by people simply refusing to give up what they imagined was rightfully theirs, as if burrowing oneself into the ground were no perversity but a human right worthy of defending to the death.
They pleaded and argued. They showed us contracts, which we tore up. They hid in the remotest nooks and crannies of their cellars, from which it sometimes took us days to extract them. More than a few times we had to resort to smoking them out of their holes. It was a sad thing seeing those formerly good men and women, many of whom I had known since childhood, behaving like insects, clinging to their stinking cellars like beetles to a ball of dung.
One day central command ordered me to my Uncle Obe’s house. It was an emergency. My uncle had taken a fellow soldier hostage and barricaded himself in his cellar.
“You can refuse to do this,” Totochabo told me. “Everyone would understand.”
“I’ll do it,” I said. “Better me than someone else get hurt trying.”
I knew that cellar like the back of my hand. For an hour I chased my uncle in the darkness of his underground lair, and when we emerged again the hostage was unharmed and my uncle stood blinking in the daylight like a blind mole.
“Look at me,” I yelled at him. “This is what you do to me, Obe. You force me to smudge my own soul with your foolishness.”
And we stood him against a wall and released him from all future craving for the lower stories.
It’s easy to laugh about it now, but those were intense days. Now the tides have turned, thank goodness. Totochabo is in full control, and the terrible hold the cellars once exercised over the minds of men is gone. Grounded for Life, the great leader’s manifesto, is mandatory reading in schools, and according to a recent poll ninety-eight percent of the population agrees that ladders and stairs were never a sign of progress, but something we had to overcome, collectively and for the good of all.
These are peaceful times. And so, in a way, it was Peter Bumble’s good fortune that he found the ladder under such favorable circumstances and not, say, three years earlier during the heyday of the Ladderectomy when we would have had no choice but to go in right away, confiscate the ladder, and pin Bumble to the wall.
We can afford to be lenient now, even to sit back occasionally and watch the show. If Totochabo has taught us anything, it is that the lower and upper stories will find a way to fight back. We may have put them in their place for now, but in time, given the right conditions, they will rise up again and try to envelop us once more in their fog of false notions. Thus, cases like Peter Bumble’s are golden opportunities for learning, and for observing how the lower stories may react to the new situation.
It took him a week, but finally Bumble was down on his knees, looking into the hole where before stairs had led down to the cellar.
“Who knows what’s down there now,” I said to Vince, one of the four colleagues watching the scene with me.
“All kinds of vermin,” Vince said.
“Rats for sure,” I said.
We watched as Bumble lowered the ladder carefully down the hole and, throwing caution to the wind, descended into the unknown. What was down there could not have been the cellar anymore as he had known it. Too much time had passed. It was a new creature now, and it is doubtful that Bumble knew the full extent of what he was getting himself into.
But Bumble did not stray far. Once he had reached bottom, he stopped. He looked around. Then he sat down, settled into a position he found agreeable, and remained that way, not moving a muscle even as the animals finally came and began to nibble at him.
“What’s he waiting for?” someone asked.
No one had an answer.
It was five hours later when Bumble finally stood up again, brushed the rats, worms, snakes, and even a small groundhog off, and climbed back up the ladder. Shortly after that, his wife arrived with the children, and with the ladder safely stowed away Peter Bumble instantly reverted back to his old self, nothing at all pointing to the fact that he had just spent the afternoon happily casting away the family honor.
A month later and Bumble’s audience, of which he is still blissfully unaware, includes not only the whole Ladders and Stairs department but the ministers of defense, justice, and the interior, and even Totochabo himself. The great man arrives every morning at seven sharp, demands to be given a rundown of the night’s events, and then settles down for twelve hours of Bumble TV.
The attention is well deserved, of course, for Peter Bumble now lives on the roof of his building. There he is now, collecting rainwater in an old satellite dish and finding nourishment in the stuffing of the roof and the occasional rat or two which, ladderless, find their way to the upper stories.
At the end of each day, invariably, we ask Totochabo the same question, but our heart isn’t truly in it, and Totochabo, too, appears undecided or even unwilling to give the order.
“Not yet,” he says every time, and a crooked smile will play on his lips, as if—crazy thought—he were secretly rooting for the poor guy on the roof.
Bumble still carries the same red ladder everywhere with which he conquered, one after the other, the second, third, and fourth floors of his building, like a mountaineer looking to scale the most distant peak imaginable. Only in poor Bumble’s case, the mountain is a pile of rubbish, and on the horizon, too, there is nothing but rubbish. However, rubbish or not, we’re all quite anxious to see where, if anywhere, the boy might go from here. If he stays, we’ll get him.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.