Under the Stairs

Stale perfume hangs in the air. An unseen individual traveling on her own path had sent it in overlapping currents, commingling with the nitrogen and oxygen I inhale.  Its aerosolized molecules becoming time machine components, building real-time olfactory portraits of the past in my brain. I was sitting in my office cubical, now instantaneously, I am nine years old.  I am at home in Long Beach, California a drizzly day in late 1988.

My mother, younger brother and I lived in a huge home attached to a seamstress’s shop. Home and storefront were connected, interchangeable in a certain way. I can see the black and white checkerboard of the long “dance-floor,” (really a wide hallway) and arrayed around its circumference, under half-moon windows, stand mannequins; some with heads, all wearing costume jewelry and real furs (the old lady who owned the store has lots of furs.) The light is dim, the store-front showroom is behind, the main house ahead. I was frightened by the hallway, but I was more frightened of the red, runaway stairs. Up. Up. Up. And under those stairs, behind polished, beveled hardwood was a doorway.

There are small, seemingly unimportant things that loom as large as planets in the orbit of a young child’s fears. The stairs were Phobos and Deimos to the strange door’s Mars.  The white Art Deco sconces that lined the wall hadn’t had a bulb replaced in a generation. Fuzz blank darkness enveloped part of the stairs right at the bottom, and a red, red chevron-patterned runner flowed river-like up the steps.

Running up and down those stairs I always knew when I was over the space, the void beneath, where my footfalls went hollow leaving a dull heartbeat thud. I feared what might have been inside that chamber, what hid behind the door. Irrationality is a behemoth alive, corporeal and powerful. Despite my fear, I desperately wanted to know what was there circling in the soft velvet darkness beyond my sight. I pictured the creature. Small, lithe like me. It stood on two legs – I could almost feel its crinkled skin and hear its raspy breathing, hiss-like, near a Gila monster as a cousin.

What does it want? Does it live on dust, lost spider colonies, or perhaps a photovore swallowing what light that might penetrate under the narrow gap between the door and the floor? Is it male or female? Does it fear me…pounding down over its only home day after day, threatening its peace? I know I would fear me after all of that. It was very silent, but no doubt innocuous.

But the gloaming shadows hung there by the door. I decided that today would be the day that I would finally open that door and greet what lurked beyond. In arthritic creaks the house settled. My heartbeat echoed in my ears. An open window billowed white-shawl hangings and the saltwater ocean-bottom air smacked me in the face, enveloped me. That’s what happens waiting in silence.

Walking in tight, springboard steps I crossed the elegant parquet floor to the deep mahogany door and grasped the ancient mariner-bronze doorknob. I swallowed air and time, attempting to bolster my courage (a word I didn’t even know) and with a quick turn of my wrist the knob rotated and I pulled. That silence frozen like Roman concrete, aggregated, pulverized, enduring – filled my mind with a dozen conflicting emotions, enabling a hundred billion synced synapses to fire collectively. The resulting burst of electrochemical noise disturbed my higher thought processes. I forgot to breathe. The portal now stood open, so dark it was impossible to see past the first few inches where the dim hallway light penetrated.

I began to breathe again, having forgotten how to for what seems now like a microscopic eternity. Rooted to the floor I gazed, attempting to focus tightly on the nothing; both wanting and not wanting to see what might be there. Have you seen cat’s eyes in the semi-dark, those moments when, late at night walking in half stumble to the toilet, you see their green reflective disks? In a one second flash they are there and gone. Here, under the stairs, was the same flash.

Two reflective points of light instantly diminishing, their receptacle frame ducked away into the non-light. A child can respond to stimulus like this instantaneously, the fight-or-flight reaction geared up to high intensity, throbbing pulses of adrenaline should have forced a scream of ear-bleeding pitch from my larynx. Instead, I stood there and stared in the silence, now enforced by me…and I could hear another set of small lungs breathing there in the nothing.

As a magnet attracts it also repels. The dark room attracted me though my thinking brain found it repellent. I moved towards the space sewn up under the stairs, staring into what could have been an endless night. Imagine Galileo staring through his tube of ground glass and red leather and instead of finding the moons of Jupiter, he witnessed the incredible vastness of space arrayed out there beyond our atmosphere. Imagine he realized what that emptiness was, what it entailed. Eternity and infinity displayed more vividly than anything read in the Bible or heard uttered from some ancient saint’s lips burned to cinders on a cold November night.  Imagine that fear transplanted into this boy standing in that room.

I continued to walk, walk slowly with my heart pounding out Morse SOSs ad infinitum, eyes glazed over but still able to see. The breathing of the other set of lungs growing louder, more intense. I watched my feet cross the threshold into the black. Swallowed up by the nothing as surely as a photon would be after breaking the cusp of an Event Horizon, I became both wave and particle – dissolving into the dark. Here, now, was a new world not subject to the rules and logic of the light. The short hairs on my arms and at the back of my neck rose under the spell of electric nerves. I was caressed by small quick fingers, passing over my eyelids, swirled around lips and cheeks, dust-mite kisses across exposed skin; the breathing of the other continued steady and phased from one side of me to the other, fleeting.

Where was I? Who was this? Subsumed and sublimated by transitory phantoms, here under the stairs I communed with…something; something not here and not there. I opened my mouth, realizing that sound might break whatever spell I was under. Not truly paralyzed I said aloud, “who’s there?” I imagined I heard skitterings, like the sound mice make chewing on insulation hanging suspended over my bed in the 3 AM nights where I would lie hidden under my covers, struggling to breathe but knowing that even peeking out of my nest would tip off the creatures out there. The skittering stopped and so did the breathing. The dark was silent. I felt warmth near the side of my head, felt the strange arousing tickles of a wet mouth open and beginning to whisper into my ear: “I want to show you something.”

A small hand clutches mine, the grip light yet strong. The hands are soft, dry, and warm to the touch. For some reason that still defies my ability to understand, I allowed these events to unfold without a single remonstration. I desperately wanted to know who this person was. I felt perhaps that a monumental truth might be uncovered or some piece of knowledge I didn’t have might fall into my open mind. So I let the hand pull me along-tugging without hurting, leading me in my utter blindness towards something only it could see. We stopped moving after a few seconds, a distance much longer than the possible length of that little room, and I waited.

I heard a sound like rusty metal pipes rubbed together and noticed the smallest of pants come from the invisible figure ahead of me. Through the dark I began to see a sliver of pale light form and unfold into the hard edges of a rectangle. A door was being opened into a room I had never been into before. The light was extremely low, maybe it was sunlight trickling in from under yet another door somewhere away from where we were, but it might as well had been a spotlight after becoming so dark-adapted. I walked through the aperture and into a giant space, cold as only I had known on late December evenings as freezing sea-fog rolled in off of the ocean and my mother would make me wear a too tight sweater through.

It smelled like ladies perfume – but hollow, stale, like it had been applied decades ago, forgotten. I began to shiver and turned towards the being that brought me here. “Where are we, who are you?” I could only ask simple questions. It came closer to me and I could make out a lithe figure slightly shorter than me. Long hair, small mouth, it was a she. She was wearing a dark colored dress with large white collars…the low light prevented me from seeing color, and she walked on bare feet. She came close to me and again whispered in my ear, “this is where we keep the furs.” Furs? “What do you mean furs?” I asked, bewildered. I looked around the space, at least two stories high – all open with empty racks spaced at regular intervals around the walls. I assumed that this building must have once held a furrier, and those furs were kept here in the cold to preserve them.

I looked at the girl and felt her tingling sadness. Why was she hiding in the dark, why was she traveling between a world of absolute night and a world of stark cold? “My name is Chris, what’s yours?” I asked her. She looked at me and shook her head. “Aren’t you cold down here?” Again she looked at me and shook her head. Her hair twirled with each movement as though it was in its own independent breeze disconnected from our immediate reality. I tried a different tack, “how did you get down here, where are your parents?” She walked over to me and as though she could speak no other way, whispered into my ear, “daddy is working late tonight and mama went shopping. I play by myself when they’re gone away. They told me to stay out of the fur vault but I found the secret passage.” She pointed towards the door from the stairway closet, “daddy said I could get trapped in here and freeze to death. He’s so silly.” I was beginning to freeze myself, my teeth chattering as I attempted to reason with her. “Your dad is right, we could turn solid in here…why don’t we go back out the way we came and I’ll make us some sandwiches, ok?”

She stepped back and shook her head again, a movement of obstinate finality. I began to feel the long, slow build of panic leaching from the cold into my bones. I realized in a bright flash of awareness that this little girl was not really a little girl, at least not now. She must have been a child of the family that built this Art Deco palace in the 1930s. The panic was morphing into fear as I began to visualize the possible outcome of this dalliance with a ghost. I thought about time and silence. How walls must be able to retain memory. How she must have locked herself in this mausoleum once full of the skin and hair of a thousand dead mammals and despite wrapping herself in their embrace she succumbed to hypothermia. Her small, delicate lips a shade of exquisite lapis lazuli had whispered to me, had been inches from my ear. Her mummy skin fingers had danced on my face, caressed by death imprisoned here for decades, waiting for a playmate.

Maybe she wanted me to stay with her here, frozen into cold blue marble and reborn as a spirit to break the lasting loneliness she must have felt for so long. I didn’t want to die, not yet. I turned on my heels and ran straight back to the open door realizing that further conversation would be pointless from now on. She watched me as I went, I could feel her gaze, still hear her even breathing as it echoed within the vault. She made no attempt to stop me.

I walked through the door into the pitch dark and groped my way forward, tantalized by the warmth and the anticipation of light. Real, bright, light. Tripping over boxes and followed by the loud clatter of falling knickknacks, I found the door handle and turned it. There beyond me was the parquet floor flowing in all directions like a golden-brown flood sweeping me to safety. I was still shivering, standing there by the door. I watched and waited to see if she might follow me out – perhaps she might not want to remain a phantom.

Her small hand slowly appeared from the emptiness, breaking my reverie and from the pitch black that for all intents and purposes could have been a billion miles deep and a thousand light-years across, I heard her faint voice say “Goodbye. I’ll see you soon.” And seemingly hovering there unattached, lost in the beyond between life and death her hand grabbed the knob and shut the door quietly.

The smell of stale perfume lingered on my skin.

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