Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Sinister Staircase

A Sinister Staircase by Susan Buffum

It appeared in the center of a traffic island where Main Street branched at a ninety degree angle onto Elm Street, at a gentle curve to the left around the town green, or continued straight onto the narrower School Street. The island was triangular with multiple traffic signals like tall, yellow pines with bristling light cones—red, yellow, and green—controlling motor vehicle flow. Brick pathways trisected the island, converging at a central junction, each traffic light situated on its own raised dais enclosed by granite curbstones.

It wasn’t there one afternoon. But, it was there the following morning. It created traffic snarls as drivers slowed to a snail’s pace as they craned their necks, tilted their heads back trying to look upward. Several rear end collisions occurred during the morning commute when drivers abruptly stopped to gawk. A number of verbal altercations took place, but they were brief due to the fact that those involved were more curious about the staircase that rose from the center of the traffic island in a lazy, looping coil.

So high it rose that it appeared to vanish into the low lying, steely-gray clouds hovering just a story or two above the tallest building, which happened to be the three-story corner building that now housed a trendy coffee shop on its lower level. There were people sitting at the counter on stools facing out toward the green, eyes raised to the gray clouds, hands wrapped around ignored wide-mouthed cups of coffee in which sweet, creamy hearts surrounded by delicate curlicues floated atop their contents.

A half dozen brave souls had made it up to the second floor and out onto the small balcony where there were several tiny, round, wrought iron café tables with spider-legged matching chairs. There was an occasional stiff breeze gusting down the street in unpredictable bursts. The air smelled heavy with impending rain and slightly poisonous with exhaust fumes trapped beneath the clouds..

“That wasn’t there yesterday, was it?” wondered a woman with long, unruly strawberry-blonde hair who wore a leather jacket and jeans to a woman of indeterminate age who was sitting alone at the next table, her cellphone held like a prayer book in both her slender, pale hands, her face cast in a slightly bluish light.

“Nope,” came a masculine reply. “City must have slapped it up after five o’clock last night. Another damn waste of taxpayer money, if you ask me,” he muttered. He was dressed in work coveralls, was leaning against the brick wall near the doorway leading back inside the building from the balcony. “I’ve got to get to work so my taxes can pay for more crap like this,” he grumbled as he disappeared back inside. The thudding of his steel-toed boots as he descended the wooden staircase to the first floor felt like the reverberations of thunder beneath the feet of the people on the balcony.

“Is it some sort of art installation?” asked a college-aged girl with bright turquoise hair who stood up from her seat to walk to the short wrought iron railing on the parapet that prevented people from jumping and deterred others from climbing over onto the ledge and falling to the brick sidewalk below. “I bet it’s some artist’s doing, but what’s the point of placing it in this town? No one here appreciates art.”

Her companion, a tall, lanky young man with a fall of brown hair obscuring the right side of his lean, chiseled face shrugged as he furiously texted on his cellphone. “There’s nothing holding it up, you know,” he pointed out. “No supports. Another strong gust coming down Elm Street and that thing will topple over. Mark my words. Someone’s going to get killed.”

“You’re such a fatalist,” the girl muttered, grabbing her backpack from the tiled floor, slinging it over her right shoulder before grabbing her coffee that was in a takeout cup. “C’mon, we’re going to be late for class.” The lanky boy rose, stuffing his phone into his sweatshirt pocket before grabbing his own backpack and cup of coffee. He followed the girl with the turquoise hair to the door, ducking as he passed through.

This left the woman with the blue glow illuminating her face, the woman in the leather jacket, and a middle-aged man with a doughy face, receding brown hair, and black-framed glasses that magnified his watery blue eyes on the balcony. “Is that a kid on the staircase?” he asked, reaching up to adjust his glasses. He squinted through the smudgy lenses at the staircase diagonally across from the balcony. “I think there’s a kid on the staircase,” he said.

The woman with the phone glanced up, her gaze falling on the staircase. A slight frown creased her brow and she gave an elegant one-shoulder shrug before returning her gaze to the screen of her phone. “More a young woman, I’d say, not a young girl.”

“No, it’s a child,” he disagreed. “All gangly legs and bare feet on a day like this. Where’s her mother, I want to know,” he replied.

“She’s probably downstairs having coffee. You know how kids are. Easily bored and restless. They like to play,” the strawberry-blonde woman said.

He hauled himself up off the tiny, spindly-legged chair to go to the railing recently abandoned by the girl with the turquoise hair. He caught a faint hint of her cinnamon scent hanging on the heavy air. It made his stomach growl. His thoughts veered to the huge cinnamon roll he had seen in the pastry case behind the counter downstairs. He’d eaten breakfast before leaving home. However, he thought he might have to buy that obscenely enormous pastry and take it to work with him this morning. It was too much temptation to ignore with that scent teasing his olfactory sense. “I think she’s carrying a basket.”

 The women didn’t answer him. One was too absorbed in what she was reading on the small screen of her phone. The other was watching a crow that had landed with a flutter of dark wings on top of a nearby streetlight.

“She doesn’t even have a jacket on, or a sweater. She should at least have a sweater, or a sweatshirt. And some sort of shoes on her feet. She must be cold.” He thought he should go down there and offer her his jacket, but people were such alarmists these days. His kind gesture might be misconstrued as an attempt to molest the girl if he fumbled while trying to button it around her, if he accidentally touched her. One couldn’t even be a good Samaritan in this day and age without someone taking offense or misconstruing good intentions.

Down on the street, the girl hesitated, stopping on the bottom step of the staircase. Across from the island, on the corner, was a hair salon with sparkling golden letters painted on the Main Street side windows. Beside that business was a small bookstore. The proprietor of that shop stood outside the door on the granite stoop smoking a cigarette, one hand thrust into the front pocket of his jeans as he surveyed the morning traffic. The sleeves of his hoodie sweatshirt were pushed up to his elbows revealing lean arms with sinewy muscle snaking around the bones beneath his skin. He wore high-top canvas sneakers as bright a shade of red as arterial blood.  Next to the bookstore was a café, the heads of its patrons in the booths against the front window were bowed over their breakfasts, already having dismissed the mysterious staircase as some sort of advertising ploy, or ridiculous addition to the recently renovated downtown.

The girl seemed to take in everything with one sweep of her calm, dark eyes. She shifted the basket, and then leaned down, setting it on the brick pathway. It rested against the bottom step of the staircase.

“Gathering eggs, little lady?” asked an elderly man who walked crooked over so that he appeared to be the living personification of the cane he gripped in his left hand. The girl gave him a frank and curious look. He nodded toward the basket at her feet. “In your basket, you got eggs?”

“No, sir,” she replied softly. “It’s empty at the moment.”

He dipped his right hand into his deep trouser pocket then dropped a shiny quarter into the bottom of the basket. “Now it’s no longer empty,” he said, nodding his head with satisfaction as the white silhouette of a striding man lit up indicating he could cross the street safely.

A woman holding the hand of a toddler dug her free hand into her jacket pocket, plucking out a dollar bill that she dropped into the basket as they passed by, following the elderly man across Elm Street to the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop. The girl’s head turned as she followed their progress along the sidewalk toward the library on the corner.

Then she frowned down at the money in the bottom of the basket, squatted down and plucked it out, tossing it onto the bricks and then standing up with a defiant scowl on her face, as if daring anyone else to defile her basket by dropping money into it. She folded her thin arms as two men crossed Elm Street to the island. One walked past her to press the button to make the light change so they could cross. The other stopped, looked down at the girl who tilted her head back to look up at him, her face still set in that jaw thrust forward expression. Their eyes locked and held as he crouched down, picking up the dollar bill and the quarter. He rose to his full height again, stuffing the money into his windbreaker pocket, his expression daring her to remark upon his taking it. “You got something you want to say to me, little girl?” he asked, a hint of mockery in his tone, a subtle dare shadowing his words.

“There’s lots more of that, you know,” she replied.

“Lots more of what?”

“Money,” she said, her thumb popping up and flicking in a backwards motion over her shoulder to indicate the staircase.

“What do you mean? There ain’t nothin’ up there,” he retorted.

“Yes, there is. There’s lots and lots of money up there.” He started to scoff at her, but her face was suddenly cherubic, full of that innocence young children radiate. She cocked her head slightly toward her left shoulder, then bent and grasped the handle of the basket. “You’ll need this to carry it back down in.” She held the basket out to him.

He looked skeptical, but reached out and took the handle in his hand. “Chuck, c’mon, man,” said his friend from near the light signal pole. “She’s pullin’ you leg. There ain’t nothin’ up there but sky.”

“Doesn’t hurt nothin’ to run up and take a quick look. Kids don’t lie, right? She’s too young to know how to lie. It’ll just take a coupla seconds. Up and back. Hang tight.” He gave the child a little push to one side and quickly began climbing up the staircase.

“What’s really up there?” asked the other man who pushed his long, dirty, blonde hair back from his face with one hand. He didn’t know why Chuck thought the girl was a kid. She was older than his teenaged daughter. There were the curves of an adolescent girl beneath her simple white shift. They were rather intriguing curves with their promise of filling out to become womanly curves in a few years’ times. “You can tell me.”

“Everything you could ever dream of,” she replied.

“You don’t say.” She nodded, giving him a surprisingly coy look for such a sweet looking young lady.

“She wasn’t yankin’ my chain, Jimmy! Money! There’s piles and piles of it up here!” came Chuck’s distant, excited, and incredulous voice from high above their heads.

“See?” she said.

Jimmy put his foot up on the bottom step and grabbed the railing.

“I wouldn’t go up there, if I was you,” said a voice to his right.

He turned his head and saw it was the bookstore proprietor who had come across the street and was now standing on the island on the brick path. “What business is it of yours, weirdo? Go on back to your shop and stick your big nose into a book, and slam it shut!”

The bookstore proprietor smiled affably and shrugged. “I read a lot. Maybe you should take it up, reading. It never bodes well to climb a staircase you don’t know what’s at the top of.”

“Money! I’m rich!” came Chuck’s gleeful voice, followed by a metallic clatter.

Jimmy, the bookstore proprietor, and the girl all watched as several coins rolled down the staircase. They landed at Jimmy’s feet. He grinned smugly at the man from the bookstore, before shoving him aside and dashing up the staircase. “I’m comin’, Chuck! I want some of that cash!”

The bookstore proprietor sighed, turning his eyes toward the girl. She was a small child with short blonde hair, brown eyes, and lips that curved into a sly smile as he just gazed at her. He nodded, and as he did she seemed to waver in his vision like a mirage, or an image reflected in a funhouse mirror. She appeared to grow from child to adolescent, to young woman, to matron, to crone before becoming a child again. As he studied her, took the measure of her, the basket came rolling slowly down the staircase. “What do you collect in your basket?” he asked her as she bent to pick it up as it came to rest against her bare ankle and foot.

She looked down into the basket then reached inside. Half her arm seemed to disappear into the depths of the basket, although to his eyes it looked rather shallow. “Hands,” she said as she lifted a man’s clenched hand from the basket by the ragged, gory stump of its wrist. The book proprietor stepped back one big step as the girl smiled up at him. As she smiled, the hand she held unclenched and a shower of coins fell onto the bricks at their feet with a discordant metallic clatter. She laughed, her laughter as sweet as honey, but there was something tainted lurking within it.

The bookstore proprietor nodded as he kicked a nickel with the toe of his red sneaker. “That certainly is a sinister staircase,” he remarked. The child tossed the disembodied hand into the air. It vanished. Clutching the handle of the basket, she turned and began to climb the stairs without replying. His eyes followed her until she vanished into the gray clouds that still hung low over the intersection.

As he began to look away his eyes fell on the woman standing on the second floor balcony of the coffee shop on the corner. Her face was still illuminated by the screen of the cellphone she held like an open book in her hands. Her eyes rose from the screen to meet his from across the street for a long moment. Slowly, her eyes lowered and her left hand moved as she tapped on her screen.

In his pocket, the bookstore proprietor’s cellphone rang like an old bicycle bell to indicate that he had a text message. Her eyes rose from her phone’s screen as he pulled his phone from his sweatshirt pocket. He tore his gaze away from hers as he tapped the screen and opened the text message. I’ve got your number, he read.

“I bet you have,” he murmured as he swiped the screen and it went dark.

He glanced again toward the balcony, but the woman was gone. The staircase, however, was still in front of him. The coins still littered the brick path at the foot of the stairs. Cars flowed past as he walked to the yellow street signal post and pressed the button, then waited for the ghostly striding figure to light up in the small rectangular signpost across the street in front of the hair salon. There were people on that sidewalk waiting to cross to this island. “Let them come across,” he thought as the figure lit up and he stepped out between the parallel lines of the sidewalk, striding quickly back across the street and over to the granite stoop of his shop. As he opened the door and stepped inside, he flipped the book-shaped sign that hung on the inside of the door so that it read OPEN.

Walking through the store, he noticed a book that had fallen from the shelf. He went to pick it up, to place it back on top of the bookcase in the empty spot that marked the space it had recently occupied. Turning it over in his hands, he saw that it was a copy of Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White.

He laughed.

(NOTE: The novel Some Must Watch published in Great Britain in 1933 was adapted to the screen by screenwriter Mel Dinelli and became the basis for the film The Spiral Staircase in 1946 , starring Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, and Ethel Barrymore.)

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