John McCloskey is a writer and digital artist living in Indiana.
The pressures of maintaining the Beanstalk aggravated Jack’s already moribund condition. Each morning, Jack squinted irritably out the window of his cottage at the approaching tourists who came to wonder at his legendary Beanstalk. It meant that his solitary routine of self destruction was interrupted once again. Cursing, he would slam shut the drawer that held his drugs, put on a tie, and drag himself out to greet them. The tourists probably wondered if the pale, trembling scarecrow who led them around could really be the famous Jack.
The truth was, Jack had fallen on hard times. After an unsuccessful venture into commercial agriculture he had tried his hand at show business for a while, as a song-and-dance man. But the audiences just wanted the famous Jack-and-the-Beanstalk routine, which he couldn’t do anymore.
Jack was booed off every stage in the land. When they threw vegetables at him he knew it was time to give up.
So, Jack returned to the Beanstalk, the site of his former glory, to act as curator and general maintenance man. At first, he was flattered by all the tourists and publicity. His picture was taken with his arm around a famous movie star, after which a party was thrown in his honor. There were many accolades, honorary degrees and anniversary banquets. Champagne, rare jewels and the finest cigars passed through his Beanstalk, into his cottage, into Jack’s dreaming mind. Fast living socialites made the Beanstalk a fashionable place for their decadence. Jack foolishly joined in the drug abuse and soon had an expensive habit.
In the middle of hilarious bacchanals, Jack would suddenly launch a temper tantrum at his guests. He screamed at them: “Are you really alive?!” He condemned them as wastrels when he was now the most gluttonous one at the party. Jack’s anger was just his own self-hatred turned around, because it hurt him to face it. The socialites wandered to the next party and Jack was soon alone with himself.
Now the constant weeding and pruning needed to maintain the Beanstalk was catching up to Jack. He resented the hard dirty chores that made his back sore and his hands numb with cold. It took him hours to climb the towering height and a few times he almost fell. He lowered himself on a rope that was unsteady.
One time he was left swinging back and forth from the rope like a human pendulum keeping inaccurate time. He finally let go and landed on the roof of his cottage. The experience shook Jack up.
He knew that he could have been killed. “What’s the matter with me?” he asked himself. “Can’t I even take care of the Beanstalk anymore?”
With his fair weather friends gone, Jack was left to sulk with his drugs. He mumbled that nobody truly appreciated him, despite the row of ribbons and medals on his mantle. As he staggered around the dark cottage in the late hours, he howled that none of them understood the sacrifice that he had made: returning to the Beanstalk to act as reassuring custodian of fertility when he could have had the world.
In reality, he had returned as a failure to rest of his laurels. Deep down he knew that he would have bungled any other line of work.
The fear of learning how weak he really was had led him back to the Beanstalk. These truths greeted Jack every hungover morning.
The Beanstalk itself looked frail and sickly. Jack had hauled off the last sack of beans weeks ago, always keeping up with drug expenses.
Jack raised his swollen face to the cottage window and looked out on piles of unraked leaves, heaps of fertilizer draining uselessly into the mud.
He gazed upon tools scattered around haphazardly, as if tossed aside by a worker who had just given up. That worker was Jack. All his best tools he had already handed over to a drug dealer who accepted them as payment. Now he was left with a few rusty hoes and shovels and the Beanstalk was dying before his eyes.
One morning Jack woke up nauseated to find a small group of tourists exploring the Beanstalk uninvited. Their numbers had faded to a trickle as everything fell into disrepair. Now their curiosity was openly morbid: They came to see Jack and his Beanstalk fall.
Jack ran outside half naked, screaming obscenities at the tourists. He chased them with a crooked, rusty pitchfork. As they scurried away from him, Jack dropped to his knees and vomited at the foot of the Beanstalk. A tourist raised his camera and captured poor Jack at his wit’s end. The tourist sold the picture to a magazine and Jack got some more publicity.
When they were gone Jack nailed up a “No Admittance-Beanstalk Closed til Further Notice” sign in front of the cottage. Then he went inside and opened the drawer.
Jack woke up sick, hungry and broke. He ransacked every jacket pocket, under every cushion, and came up empty. In his mania a question came to him: What am I looking for?
Jack growled, Jack sobbed. He paced his room, not knowing what to do in the next five minutes or for the rest of his life. He frowned at the photograph on the wall: himself and the famous movie star beaming innocently into time, with a firm Beanstalk in the background.
A knock came at the door. Jack groaned at the prospect of explaining himself to tourists. As he opened the door he thought of putting up a “For Sale” sign.
It was his neighbor, Dale Jensen. Out in the fields neighbors are far apart. Jack had never even met Dale, though the Jensens had been working the land back when the fateful first bean was planted.
Dale was there to borrow some coffee but after a quick look around he said, “I see your Beanstalk has the blight, Jack. When I was young I thought that it reached to heaven.”
“It doesn’t,” replied Jack with a bitter grunt. “What blight?”
And Dale showed Jack scholarly test results and graphs that he happened to be carrying. The University ag department had done a full work-up. The blight had threatened a lot of farmers like them, creeping up unnoticed when the harvest was still rich. Dale had all the formulas and treatments they needed right there in his hands.
And it turned out that Jack had all the equipment they needed right there at his farm.
The two of them worked all day that day and the next, eating bird pies that Jack had in his freezer. They retilled the packed, neglected soil, letting it breathe and drink. Together they cut off the top third of the Beanstalk which is where the blight had started, working its way down. The more Dale told him about the blight the more Jack realized that he had noticed it long before but simply taken it for the mature overgrowth of abundance.
Jack and Dale became best friends. Jack quit drugs and nurtured a stronger, shorter Beanstalk. The tourists returned and so did a documentary filmmaker. They all came back to hear how Jack had relearned the lesson he was famous for.