The Staircase

Copyright © 2008, John F. Raffensperger

13 January 2006, updated 20 Feb 2006, 27 April 2006, 23 Oct 2006, 28 Dec 2006, 12 May 2007.

A story about a man coming to his senses, in two ways.

Chapter 1. Fight.

Construction of the university had been paid for by a billionaire. He believed in education but amused himself with his power, so he had specified the gothic limestone architecture. The urban acid rain had quickly darkened the stone and deformed the gargoyles. The impeccable gardening made the tragic buildings all the more unsettling at night.

In the very middle of the quadrangle, between the School of Business, the Department of Economics, the Department of Mathematics, and the Visitors’ Apartments, Lee struggled with Bryan, who shouted, “It was my plan! I did the work! I’m taking the profits!” With one hand on Lee's throat, the larger man used his other to force a paper packet into Lee's gasping mouth. The paper broke, spilling chemical granules into Lee's throat. Lee could not avoid swallowing some, but the bitter taste briefly supercharged his desperation, enough that he threw Bryan off. Lee leaped from the neatly cut wet lawn, and he ran for his life spitting paper and granules across the dark quadrangle, without destination or goal but to be free of his murderous accomplice.

Ahead, Lee saw a dark building with a short outdoor stairwell leading down to a small arched basement door. He stumbled down the narrow steps and threw his weight against the black wood. The door opened easily, to a spiral staircase leading only downwards around to the left. He leaped forward, taking steps two and three at a time.

At each full turn of the staircase was an arched opening, sometimes dark, sometimes light. He heard steps behind him, just as fast as his own, so he tried to run faster, and faster, finally tripping over the triangular steps, and falling headlong through one of the arched openings into a black room. Scurrying on hands and knees, he found he could hide from view of the staircase, just inside, left of the opening.

The footsteps following him ceased. He held his breath, sweating heavily against the cold stone wall, and peered at the dim light shining from the staircase onto the floor.

His gasped for breath once, and held his breath again.

There was no sound.

He breathed, controlling his rushing lungs as best as he could. After a few moments, he lay down on the floor, and fell fast asleep.

Chapter 2. The couple in white.

He awoke to piano music, echoing through the staircase. He listened for a moment, then memory returned and he felt nauseous. He realized that his face was on a worn dark red carpet. Pulling himself to his feet, he walked towards the staircase and began to descend. After just a few steps, he heard footsteps behind him, so he moved more quickly, but did not want to fall again.

The next arched opening spilled bright warm light into the staircase. To hide from the steps behind, he stepped quickly inside the bright opening, his back to the wall, but was startled to see people. Standing near a stove, a man and a woman smiled at him. They were dressed in white, with strange cylindrical high white hats, as though each one’s forehead was two feet high and wrapped with a white turban. The woman’s hat drooped, like the hat of the cat in Dr. Seuss.

“Can I help you?” asked the man, still smiling. The woman leaned against the stove with her arms crossed, relaxed.

“Yes.” Lee tried to think of something to say. “Could I have some water?”

“Surely!” replied the man, who turned to the sink beside the stove, filled a tall cylindrical glass from the tap, and brought it to him. “World’s running out of it, but I bet we can spare some.”

Lee took the glass, held it to the light shining from the ceiling, briefly thinking that the water might contain granules. Catching himself at his silly logic, he took a little sip from the glass, then another little sip, then drank the rest in a rush.

He looked at the man and woman critically. The hats were really like foreheads, smoothly connected to their scalps. He put the glass next to a lamp on a nearby round wooden end table, murmured “Thank you,” and ran out, down the spiral staircase, down, down, down, and always around to the left, past one opening after another.

His nausea was worse. He had to stop, in spite of the footsteps behind him. He paused, gasping, with his hand on the wall, and retched onto the steps. After spitting the last bits from his mouth, he started downwards again, this time slowly, and forgetting the footsteps behind him.

After another dark arch, the next floor had an opening with light. He paused with his hand on the cool stone arch, peering in. The room had the same layout as the other rooms, with the same worn dark red carpet, but different furniture. He saw a polished upright piano across the room. A balding black man sat on the bench next to a young boy, also black. The man was telling the boy, “It’s important that you have discipline.” But when he became aware of Lee, the black man stood up and shook his finger at him. “Get outta here! We don’t want your kind in this building!”

Lee put his hand to his stomach, and wanted to ask to use the toilet, but decided the black man wouldn’t let him. So he turned and walked slowly down the stairs.

Chapter 3. Pomegranate juice.

The room at the next floor was dimly lit. Again, the room had the same layout as the others, but opposite the sink and stove was a large bed with a royal blue quilt and huge pillows. A beautiful young woman stood next to it. She had straight light brown hair which came nearly to her waist, and she wore a glossy peach-colored night gown with a long train like a wedding dress.

“Hello!” she said, and smiled at him. Lee stared at her. She held her hand to him, palm down, like a queen expecting her hand to be kissed, and she came toward him. The long silk gown trailed behind her, and made a soft swiff swiff sound when she moved.

“I guess my neighbor wasn’t very welcoming.” She still held her hand out to him. He took it and held it for a few seconds. He wanted to kiss her hand, but just let go.

“Could I please use the bathroom?”

“Of course! It’s right there.” She took a step back, and pointed to a door beside the bed.

Lee walked quickly to the bathroom, stooped, put both hands on the commode, and stared at the clear water in the toilet bowl. Despite his nausea, he did not retch again. He went to the sink. It was white porcelain and big. He looked in the mirror, saw only himself, so he splashed his face with water. It was cool and sweet, so he started to drink from his hands, but noticed that they were dirty. He washed them, taking something like soap from a white pump dispenser. It smelled good. He dried his hands on a white towel, then remembered that he wanted to drink. He drank long, letting the water pour continuously into his hands, and drinking it as it flowed. Finally, he dried his hands again, and looked at his clothes. They were dirty, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He looked at the toilet again and decided to urinate, then went back into the room with the girl.

Now she was wearing blue jeans and a red flannel shirt. Her hair was in a casual ponytail, and did not seem so long.

“Would you like something to eat?” She smiled at him again, the same smile as before.

“Yes, sure.”

She motioned for him to sit on a chair by a round dark table, and she turned to cupboards over the sink, and then to a refrigerator further left, past the stove.

“How about a grilled cheese sandwich?”

“That would be great.” In fact, Lee wasn’t so sure, but thought that putting something in his stomach might help the nausea.

The girl began to chat. “I hope you don’t mind if I don’t talk about the weather. I always thought that people who can only talk about the weather must not have much on their minds. I came here to think about things that are important.”

“What things are important?” Lee asked.

“Well, the environment, for one. We have to stop having Three Mile Islands and Love Canals, or else we’re going to Hell in a hurry.”

Lee didn’t know what she meant by “Love Canal,” and wondered if she was hitting on him. He had never been so uninterested in sex in his life.

“And poor people. I think we have a responsibility to help people who can’t help themselves. Social justice.”

She put a plate with the sandwich in front of him.

“Wanna glass of pomegranate juice?”

Lee didn’t know what that was, but nodded. She filled a glass with a dark liquid and put it on the table.

“So what do you think is important?” She sat down across from him.

Lee took a very little sip of the dark juice. It was good. He drank some, then put the glass down. “Getting by is important. Making a living. And discipline, I guess.” He looked at the sandwich, not sure whether it would stay down.

“Just getting by? I think people should reach for more than that. Otherwise, it’s just everyone for themselves. Or himself or herself. We have to do better than just getting by.”

“And not welshing on a deal.”

“Yeah. Keeping your word.” She looked at the table for a moment. “Actually my mother’s from Wales.”

Lee said, “Oh. That’s great,” but he didn’t know why she had said that. He took a bite of the sandwich. It seemed like it would stay down, so he ate some more. “Where’s your father from?”

The girl’s smile faded for a moment. She smiled at him again briefly, then looked at the table. “He’s from Ohio. He sells plastic products. Kind of bad for the environment. And he travels a lot. But maybe that was for the best.” She looked at the bed, then at the sink, then at the table again. “You seem like a nice guy.”

Lee finished his sandwich and emptied the glass of juice.

The girl sat down on the floor next to the table, almost under it, out of Lee’s view. He leaned in his chair around the table to see her. She was cross-legged, with her hands palm down on the linoleum floor, staring at something under the table.

Lee didn’t know what to do. He stood up and said, “Gotta go.”

The girl stood up and walked slowly to him, with her arms wide, beaming. She put her arms around him, and put her head against his thin chest. “I wish I could go with you.”

Lee was absolutely sure that this girl did not want to go with him, always looking for the next hit, always unhappy, always confused about what the world wanted of him, to run in the dark from your only friend.

He gently pulled her arms off him, but found himself waking up, covered with a blanket, his face against a sheet on the red carpet. The girl was nowhere to be seen. The overhead lamp was off, but in the dim light he could see his clothes neatly folded on a chair beside him. He put them on and ran out the door, down the staircase.

Chapter 4. Police.

After just a few floors, footsteps sounded behind him. These were stronger than any he had heard before, closer. He ran down the steps, more sure-footed. The footsteps behind receded a little. He found a floor with a dark opening, just like when he first entered the staircase. He went in, found a sofa in the dark, and hid behind it, breathing heavily. He peered around the sofa at the opening to the staircase as the footsteps approached. In the dim light, he saw a man in uniform walk past. Strangely, the man’s height did not change as he went down the stairs, yet he disappeared.

After a few minutes, he heard knocking, and then voices. “…mumble mumble trouble?” “No, just a mumble mumble…Nothing important.” A door closed, and he heard footsteps again, but no one passed by his opening.

Lee lay on the sofa in the dark and fell asleep. He awoke again to the dark room, got up, stretched, and found the bathroom. After splashing his face, drinking some water and using the toilet, he went out to continue his descent in the staircase.

Yet again footsteps followed him. He did not run this time, but walked calmly. The footsteps never seemed to catch up with him. He stopped, listening. The footsteps behind stopped as well, and he realized that he had been hearing an echo. He stepped downward again, without fear for the first time since entering the staircase. He began to whistle, and passed many floors. The stairs seemed wider and less steep than before. Some of the openings had doors. The doors had label holders, most of which were empty, but a few holders framed white labels with names hand-written in pen or pencil. Mingers. David Round. The Wein Family.

He began to count the floors. Five. Seven. Twenty-six. He thought of Bryan and remembered the granules in his mouth. His stomach felt small and shrunken, but did not hurt anymore. His count went awry, as digits above some of the doors confused him, so he tried to count more carefully.

Chapter 5. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

When his count came to forty-two, he thought he heard laughing. At count forty-four, he heard more laughing and people talking. At count forty-five, he found a door with the label “Grubbs.” The laughter and conversation poured into the staircase. He peered past the half-open door without touching it. People were pouring champagne from fat green and gold bottles, and piling finger food onto limp white paper plates. A short bald man seemed to be the center of the party. He wore blue jeans, a white shirt, and a blue blazer, but his most striking features were his mouth and cheeks. His face so cheerful and red that he reminded Lee of the Santa Claus at the mall.

Lee went in, without touching the door. He walked to the table, took a plate, filled it with food, and wolfed it down. He glanced at the cheerful bald man. The bald man was surrounded by people. The black man from the room with the piano stood by, glaring at Lee. Two young women in tight dresses and high heels giggled at some joke with the bald man, nearly spilling their eggrolls on him.

Lee glanced at his clothes. Magically, they were clean, and he remembered them folded on the chair. He walked near the bald man, to listen to the conversation and to try to understand what the party was about.

The black man was looking at the bald man, saying, “So how is this important?”

The bald man replied, “Well, what’s important to you? What kind of work do you do?”

The black man glanced at Lee, then back to the bald man. “I teach composition.”

The bald man said, “How are your joints?”

The black man glanced at Lee again, then replied, “They’re starting to get a bit sore. I turn 47 in March. I guess that’s par for the course.”

The bald man explained, “The end result of our work is the ability to make custom-built molecules with special properties, such as better drugs for the treatment of disease – like arthritis. We’ve showed how to get better electrical conduction in specialised plastics, which could probably produce a better music synthesizer. The work we’re doing is important for everyday things.”

Lee blurted out, “Plastics. Isn’t that bad for the environment?”

The bald man smiled again even more broadly, as though his red face would burst with cheer. He raised his champagne. “I’m so glad you care about the environment! Certainly one of the great issues of humanity.” He paused, then looked quite serious. “Many production processes require toxic chemicals. Our process of metathesis has already led to industrial and pharmaceutical methods that are more efficient and less wasteful, simpler, and more environmentally friendly.”

A tall man in a gray suit spoke up. Lee hadn’t noticed him before. “This represents a great step forward for green chemistry, reducing potentially hazardous waste through smarter production.”

The black man glanced again at Lee, frowning, then smiled at the bald man. “Well, I should be going. Congratulations, Professor Grubbs, on your Nobel Prize. Much deserved, I’m sure.”

“Thank you, Geoff. But much of the credit is due to my graduate students and colleagues at Caltech.”

Lee was astounded. Why did this man give credit to others? He had won some sort of prize, but he wanted to share it?

The black man moved away, while staring hard at Lee.

The bald man spoke to Lee. “Come, my friend, you need some champagne!” He turned to the table with the glasses and fat bottles, poured a glass, and handed it to Lee.

“So tell me, what is your specialty?”

Lee was positively stumped. He had no specialty. He wasn’t even sure what a specialty was. “I’m in insurance.”

“Ah! Now there’s something that’s important. Then you must know something about risk management.”

“Yes, a little. I do risky things all the time.”

The bald man burst out laughing. “Well done! Well done! Now if you would please excuse me, I should speak with my host from the Chemistry Department.” With that, he turned away to the tall man in the gray suit, leaving Lee alone.

Lee filled his paper plate again from the table, then walked systematically to the door and down the staircase, eating as he went.

Chapter 6. Risk Management.

He finished his food after just a few floors, and threw the paper plate on the stairs. He was beginning to wonder why he had entered the staircase. Maybe he should have run around the building. Maybe he should have fought Bryan harder – but he knew he had used all his strength. He began to count floors again, but soon became bored. Fifteen. He didn’t count some, then began counting again. Twenty-six. Forty-two. He quit counting. Most of the openings had doors, but only a few of the doors were labeled with names, which he found disorienting. It would be better if the doors were labeled with names.

After a while, he got tired of walking. He found a floor with an opening that had no door, and he went in. A pale man in a black sweater and black-rimmed glasses was sitting at the dark round table in front of the white stove, where the girl with brown hair had sat so long ago. The man looked up at him, peering at him through thick lenses.

“G’day, mate! Wot can I do for you?” He had an accent like Crocodile Dundee.

Lee didn’t know what to say, but he remembered that his earlier request for water had worked out. “Could I please have some water?”

“Got heaps of that, and it’s free! Not like Sydney.” The man leaped up, grabbed a jar in a swoop, filled it at the tap, and fairly ran to Lee with it, sloshing on the red carpet.

“Now, tell me, wot brings you here to my humble doorstep?”

Lee stalled by slowly drinking half the glass of water. Then – “What do you know about risk management?”

“Hah! I’m supposed to know heaps about risk management! After all, I’ve got a PhD in it! That qualifies me to waste just about anybody’s time. Now, set right here, mate. So then, wot is it you’ll be going to use risk management for?”

“Well, any number of things,” Lee replied, after sitting down with his water glass at the dark round table. He tried to look very thoughtful, and put his hand to his chin. “Insurance. The environment. Social justice. Chemistry. Whether you win the Nobel Prize. And whether or not someone is going to keep their word.”

The other man said, “Now those are big issues. Especially the one about people keeping their word. The first one you mentioned, insurance, now that’s a classic example of risk management. Let’s see if I can show you how to apply risk management to insurance.”

He took a sheet of paper from a brown folder, and began to draw on it. “Right. So let’s say you have a valuable violin.”

“Or a piano,” said Lee.

“Right, a piano,” said the other man. “And let’s say it’s worth a hundred dollars.”

“Or maybe a thousand. I’ve heard those things can be valuable.”

“Right, then. A thousand. So you have a piano worth a thousand dollars. You might want to buy insurance in case it gets burned.”

“Or stolen.”

“Right. Or stolen. Now let’s say the chance of getting your piano burned or stolen this year is one in a thousand. Would you pay one dollar for insurance to protect your piano?”

“Well, it depends on who was demanding the insurance.” Lee was thinking of some of Bryan’s old schemes, but he was thunderstruck when the man in the black-framed glasses burst out laughing.

“Now that’s something I never thought o’! Now that’s something I never thought o’!” He jumped up and bounded towards the refrigerator. “Do ya want an ale?”

Lee didn’t know what an ale was, but it looked like beer, which was most welcome. He nodded, and accepted the cold brown bottle from his host, who returned to drawing on his paper. This is what the Australian drew:

“Now then, would you want to buy insurance? Let’s say you were buying from a reputable company, like State Farm, or Allstate.”

Lee wondered why all insurance companies had the word “state,” but it all seemed on the up and up. He looked at the diagram.

“I guess I would buy insurance. One dollar is nothing compared to the possibility of losing the piano.”

“Exactly! Even though you’ll probably never get your piano pinched! Most people are risk averse. That means we’ll pay money to avoid something bad, even if the chances are we’ll lose overall. That’s why the insurance companies make so much money!”

And Lee finally understood that the cheerful man was not saying anything whatever about the Mob. He sat back in his chair, sipping his beer with a feeling of great understanding. Then he realized that he really had no idea what the man was talking about, so he suddenly leaned forward to look at the paper again.

“Wait a minute. I might pay a dollar, but I wouldn’t pay five dollars.”

“Exactly!” his teacher cried! “Exactly! Might you pay two dollars?”

Lee thought a minute. A thousand dollars seemed like a lot for a piano. “Yes,” he said slowly, “I guess I would.”

“And that’s why the John Hancock building is so tall!” The man fairly giggled, sitting back in his black leather arm chair, and pouring beer down his throat in a long, satisfying pull.

Lee was completely thrown by that comment, but he tried to act normally, and finished his beer. “Well, I’d better be going.”

“Right! Right you are! Off ya go, then. Cheers! Hurray!” His teacher jumped up, bounded to the door, and opened it for him, holding his hand out. Lee stared at him, then shook his hand and walked out, down the now-wide easy steps and to the left.

Chapter 7. Out.

Lee felt tired again. He guessed that the beer had gone to his head. The opening at every floor had a door, and the stairs were wide, so he lay down in the stairwell and went to sleep.

He woke up to find himself no longer in the staircase, but at the end of a long hallway. He could see an entrance door at the far end. His mind felt clear, really clear. He sat up and found he was leaning on another exit door. It was painted tan and scuffed with black marks at the bottom. Looking down the hallway, he saw doors exactly as he had seen in the stairwell. All the doors had name label holders; he saw only a few with names. He jumped up and tried to push open the exit door, but it was stuck. He kicked it, and it gave way, opening to another short stairwell upwards with a right turn to another door marked “Exit.” He kicked that door too, which easily burst open to a bright sunny day, with a perfectly blue sky, the green green grass in the quadrangle dry, a lawn mower humming nearby. He dashed out running, then stopped abruptly in the middle of the lawn. He looked at the buildings, and then he turned slowly all the way around, slowly, all the way around, taking in the tall trees and high blue sky.

Far above, near the very top of a huge oak tree, he saw two branches making a fork, and he remembered the man with the funny accent and his peculiar diagram. He imagined two neat hand-written labels on the high oak fork, like the framed labels on the doors in the staircase. One branch of the oak tree was labeled “Finish high school,” the other with “Find Bryan,” and he knew he wanted to stay away from those fiends for the rest of his life.

A slim woman in a pigtail and blue jeans walked up to him. “Hi! You look a lot better. How are you?”

Lee looked at her, and remembered the glossy night gown. “I’m all right. Say, where’s Wales?”