The Disembodied Stairwell
by J.M. Mitchell
Yes, I remember carrying that load up the stairs with Gustavo Ruiz. Most people would forget it, but I am not most people. You do not become as old as I am and not remember things like that. At the time, I believe I thought the stairwell was disembodied; I believe I thought that there was no building connected to it, but that even if there was a building, there was no city beyond the building, and even if there was a city, there was no continent upon which the city rested, and certainly no planet or universe beyond that. I believe I found it comforting; I did not want to believe that a device such as this stairwell had been created by the world upon which I’d been born and lived out my at-that-time very few years. I suppose it was the fragility of my youth; a fragility you have now removed. Thank you, I suppose.
But this stairwell spiraled, turned, and curved in countless directions, but it always led gradually upwards; it was constructed from beaten, once-varnished wood in some places, but in others chipped, dissolving concrete. I suppose we should have noticed when it transitioned from one material to another, but I suppose many things happen of which people ought to take better notice; my years in concert with you have taught me that. You share about half my thanks, then. I remember looking down into the thick, smelly, moist emptiness stretching out below me to the point where the darkness took over, and I can remember I was frightened at how precarious and crooked the stairwell looked, like it could never hold the weight of Gustavo Ruiz, our load, and myself all at once. It complained in bright, loud creaks that said more than either of us as we continued what we hoped was upwards.
I don’t know why I remember all of this now, at this moment when I see you for the first time. But your eyes tell me that you have never known that stairway or the load that must be carried up it, and that you have never been forced by circumstances to know somebody like Gustavo Ruiz. You, in your perfect clothing with everything in place, concealing your oddly imperfect, round-shaped body: I can see from that body and its shape that you have never had to exert yourself — have never carried any load yourself — which forces me to ask questions that dig holes that can only be filled with my memories, long-thought-discarded, of Gustavo Ruiz.
I know that Gustavo Ruiz himself would never have known the answer to any of these questions. To be honest, I never spoke to him — not even once. We were forced together and had nothing to say to one another. This felt wrong; it never occurred to me that our association was counter to what we would have ideally wished for ourselves — that if ever we were given the chance to choose where we were located and what we did there, we would never have chosen to be here, lifting this load together up this stairway, in each other’s company for more time than either of us could calculate. At the time, Gustavo Ruiz was all that I knew, and to have removed him from my life would have been a loss of more than another back for the heavy lifting — it would have punctured a wide, gaping hole into my life through which I would have been forced to see things I did not like.
Gustavo Ruiz never smiled. He grimaced constantly. It probably had something to do with the weight of our load, but after a great deal of time — though how much I could never tell you — I came to the conclusion that Gustavo Ruiz was one of us who was born to grimace no matter what occurred around him, who would never allow himself to be pulled too close to happiness. I know you would not understand — Gustavo Ruiz is not a phenomenon that you would ever have encountered in your brightly lit room with its polished machines and overhead lamps reflecting off the shiny surfaces of your teeth. The source of this lack in you begins in your eyes, that much I can tell, but it also extends outwards from your eyes and wraps around your ears like a second proboscis holding you in its grip, filtering all incoming messages. You are still staring at me, smiling. You expect me to say something to you. But how could I ever speak to someone with such an ugly thing marring their face? In this room with its shiny walls, you still carry loads; you carry invisible loads that disfigure and twist you. You carry them well, and you know you do.
But Gustavo Ruiz was not aware of anything but his own misery. I stayed on the other side of the load, and I don’t think I ever got too close to him. I tried to think of nothing but the top of the stairs. As we angled and adjusted our load, I thought only of the light at the top of the stairs, and to help Gustavo Ruiz I used to tell him about it:
“Once we get up there, we’ll drop this off. We’ll get a shower, and then we’ll change our clothes and we will go somewhere and we will drink alcohol. We will drink as much alcohol as we possibly can. And then we won’t remember any of this. We will remember nothing except the top…”
Of course, Gustavo Ruiz never responded. He just grimaced and grunted. He had a tattoo on one of his massive forearms, partially obscured by his uniform: it was a small picture of a rose with a thorny stem running away from it and up his arm, only to vanish beneath the smoky-blue sleeve. It was an ugly and crude piece of work, but sometimes, when we would hit a landing in the stairs, he would put the load down and he would begin to rub the tattoo and hold it beneath the shaft-let of dim light that shot down from that mythical top-place where we would drink alcohol, and he would stare at it, whispering. I think that early in our time together, I tried to ask him what the picture meant to him, but I quickly learned that he was not interested in speaking to me. Despite all this, I still tried to pretend that Gustavo Ruiz and I were somehow close, simply because if I was not close to him, it meant I was not close to anyone. I told myself we were getting closer every day. We were getting to know each other better, and when our time together was finished, we would share a bond that would be impossible for anybody but the two of us to understand. I looked forward to that understanding filling me up — I looked forward to it taking me over — I wanted that understanding to wrap itself around the outside of my body and to frame that entire journey up that frightening, empty, absurd and forgotten stairwell — I wanted that understanding to give those memories a shape. And I wanted that shape to be my own. But you are ruining it.
“Where did you get your jacket?” I ask you, for lack of anything more fitting to say.
“A very good jacket,” you say. “I think I picked it up down the street, at that small, first-floor store.”
Your voice chirps like birds in the morning — pleasing and lovely. It has never known pain, discomfort, or anger.
“It is very nice,” I say.
“Thank you,” you say.
You are still smiling, as if you are unaware of what you just asked me to do. As if it does not even occur to you what that question means, of how that stairwell burrows beneath the ground I walk on, waiting for me to get close enough.
“I hope that we can find a way to fix the problem,” I say.
“I — uh — think I just said what that way is, Fred,” you say.
“I understand, sir, but I don’t know —”
“What don’t you know?”
“I-I don’t know if you understand what your direction to me means.”
“I asked you to go to the basement and get the stain remover.”
“I didn’t mean to spill — ”
“I know that you didn’t,” you say, “I am not angry at you, but I do want you to go get the stain remover and clean it up.”
“But, sir, um...Walter...”
“Walter is sick today, so we will have to take care of it ourselves.”
I look you in the eyes.
“Sir,” I say, “I do not believe I can do what you are asking me.”
You look at me oddly. You look at me differently than I have ever been looked at; you look at me with a total lack of understanding of what or who I am.
“First off,” you say, “may I ask why you are calling me ‘sir’?”
My insides quake.
“I — uh — I was not thinking...Phil.”
“That’s better,” you say. “And secondly...may I ask why you are...unable...to get the stain remover and clean up that coffee?”
I begin to sweat, because in that moment I know for sure that you were born up here, at the top, and up here is where you will stay. You have no dark stairway that taught you what this bright room and these polished machines really are — someone else climbed it for you, most likely before you were even alive, someone else sprang out — dazzled — into this space so that you could take it for granted.
But I try anyway:
“Well, sir...you see...if I go downstairs I will be — forced — forced to use...the stairs...”
“Yes,” you say, “I understand that.”
“Yes, you see, well sir...those stairs...”
But I trail off. I drift into the fog of age. I can only remember a time when I would have been able to explain this to you in completeness, when I could have made you feel ashamed for even considering what you have asked me to do. But now, all I can think of is Gustavo Ruiz staring at his ugly rose tattoo, squinting down at it in the low light, rubbing it compulsively in the hopes he could somehow pull it off and hold it.
“What’s that?” you ask.
I look at you, and I really see you for the first time.
“N-nothing, s — um...Phil. Nothing.”
“Great...so you can go down and get that stain remover?”
“Yes,” I say, “of course.”
“Great,” you say.
And you walk away and all those memories of Gustavo Ruiz pour back into me — they all slosh, gush and coagulate into one, steady, consistent memory that I now realize is the only memory I will ever truly be allowed to possess completely: us and that load, the gulf that load dug between us, and the hopes I hoarded of someday reaching the top and living the life that you have just ended.
I walk across the bright, white room with its shiny, polished machines and out into the hallway. I take off my jacket and undo my tie. I unbutton my shirt and I pull it off and I look down at the smoky-blue uniform beneath. I shudder somewhere deep inside my ancient, sunken chest. I pull off my dress shoes and I see the battered workboots beneath, with each scratch and scrape I can remember so perfectly. I rip my slacks off along their inseams and they give way to the smoky-blue pants that match the shirt. I can feel a pulling just below me, and I know that stairwell is close, that it has always been close, following me and waiting for me to return. I think of you and your smile and the proboscis covering your face and I know that I cannot blame you for this, that were I in your place, I would do the same. I thought of all the beautiful, detailed pictures in your world and I wondered how I ever could have thought I could fool you — could ever have thought you wouldn’t be able to look into my eyes and see straight down to the ugly rose tattoo marring the arm of Gustavo Ruiz. I should have known you would wait for your moment. You would wait until I stained the floor. I cannot blame you. I can only hope that perhaps someday you, too, will be old, and that perhaps — for you — I can be Gustavo Ruiz.
But for me, no man is his equal. The door opens like a hungry mouth and I move down a small flight, until I get to the first landing. He — Gustavo Ruiz — is there. He looks up at me. He nods. He never did that before. Perhaps now it will be different between us — now that he knows I have no delusions. The door shuts behind me. I look up, and it is gone — it is just the continuing expanse of the disembodied stairwell and the tiny, dim curling light from far above. Our load rests in front of Gustavo Ruiz. I reach down. I make sure to bend my legs, but I feel the trembling in my chest telling me that I can’t. I shrug it off because I must. You and Gustavo Ruiz will not allow it to be any other way.
I look up, and I see Gustavo Ruiz’s outstretched arm. I see the ugly, faded rose tattoo.
“It’s beautiful,” I say to him.
“It’s enough,” Gustavo Ruiz says to me.
Copyright © 2011 by J.M. Mitchell