A staircase leading to nowhere. K. Lewis. November 14, 2021.
A staircase leads to nowhere: to a permanently locked door on the other side of which lies, they say, a cavernous, empty, windowless amphitheatre that might have once served as a classroom. An old, wooden lectern sits at the front, facing ring after ring of vacant seats. They do not teach here anymore and no one learns. The room is never not covered in darkness—no one will pay to keep the lights on.
But the building is kept in order, even still, out of habit more than pride. They hire an attendant to keep watch over the thing, keys clanging in the pocket of his perfectly creased pants.
His job, mostly, is to fall down, let us say “on the ruins of civilization.” That and to make small talk with the ancient librarian who, too, is kept on in this place, though no one enters the library anymore—haven’t in years.
In the hallway, across from the entrance to the library, an old woman nods off to sleep in a dilapidated chair. No one questions anymore why she is here; a relic of some time, maybe, when they still taught something in this place. She dreams that road construction (a disaster relief crew, more like it) has blocked her way en route to see the children. She becomes enraged, with an abandon the young can never muster—screaming impotently at the people, invisible, who seem to have detained her. Some dream-time person accompanies her—a boy maybe, who keeps poking her in the face, ostensibly because he has autism or scabies or some other disorder that makes reality stranger for him than for the others.
From a distance, the attendant sees her twitching in her chair; in her dreams, she is desperately trying to get to the place where the children wait for her, but now the road crew have her in an office, fluorescent-lit and as windowless as the empty classroom. She is going nowhere, not anywhere, ever again. The walls close in tight around her.
Over time, the weeds grow up over the ruins where the hard rupture teared (they say) a wound in the face of the earth. Leaves fall and the forgetfulness of time does its brutal, beautiful work. The worn-out buildings feel the memory of the place where the sea washed out the edge of the crumbling sidewalk, clawing back at all the pretenses of order—the road crew’s and the librarian’s.
Again: a staircase leads to nowhere. Dreaming still, the old woman flags it as the place where he, whoever he was, would not, could not, did not meet her (but who is she kidding, she was not ready, ever, until it was too late). But no matter! Even in her dreams, she feels no sorrow over this anymore—she waited so long she forgot, even, how it felt to long for him. She grew old in the interim. The attendant, strangely ageless, watched over her all the while. He brought water and, sometimes, a snack, when the nightmares got too bad.
The thread of the years spun out, fast and traceless. Time became like broken clockwork stuck and ticking fast at the evening hour; it was always late autumn, and the leaves never ceased to fall. We, all of us (and we were not many, anymore) relaxed into the ease of our total and (this was the worst part) not even particularly remarkable failure. We found peace there, having dropped at the foot of that deceptive staircase every thought of what we might have been. An old custodian, no more than 5 feet tall and more ancient, even, than the old woman’s sorrow, pushed his broom around. The rain fell, soft, on his wrinkled, paper-thin cheeks and he—we, all of us—were only a little bit afraid.
The face of the real (as they called it) is not a face anyone, not even a mother, could love. (That says, maybe, more about mothers than anything.) All the psychological theory in the world—attachment and trauma and every other passing fashion—cannot not save us from the horrifying glory of life stripped (apparently) of every illusion. Indeed, in this place, the “secure,” the “well-adjusted,” still less the “successful” (those compassionless saints in the army of business-as-usual!)—do not stand a chance.
No, here, in this place, whatever glory remains (and it is not much) passes, in the end, to the twisted, the broken, the haplessly deranged—their advantage (and it is nothing to envy, let’s be clear) seems to come from the fact that they share more in common with life, at least in her current and maybe permanent disguise: disrobed and stripped of her more beautiful masks.
Meanwhile, of course, for awhile, the pundits drone on, selling affirmations and positive thinking and the promise of a saccharine, loveless freedom, far from the spectre of mental distress, if only we would reach out for help, call a number, trust the science, grow resilient and carry on, regardless. Lesser men train their ear on them and their gaze, too, preferring to look in any direction but here, where they are—and you are too, for a little while, at least.
The creaking door at the top of the staircase opens unexpectedly one day near sunset; for what they say is the last time. The old woman stirs from her dreams, shuffles down the hallway, ascends the staircase, and gropes her way through the night-dark classroom to take her place at the lectern, in front of all those empty seats. Slowly, slowly, she extends her tired arms across the darkness, trembling with a passion youth will never know—belying all the years of lost, forsaken tenderness. Sagging flesh and exposed, swollen veins betray the obvious: that she is still mostly, as we all are, blood. The attendant flicks on the lights in time to watch as her shaking hands touch, at last, the quiet beauty so close and near at hand that she forgot to notice it until now, when it is almost too late. Neither regret nor the librarian will chastise her for taking so long to get here.