issue eight

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The Door at the
Top of the Stairs
Steven Gillis
 
Steven Gillis
Steven Gillis
Steven Gillis
Steven Gillis
Steven Gillis
       Terri loves me. I know this though she refuses to tell me and even pretends it isn't true. I watch her pet our dog, Normal, watch as she moves through our apartment, as she dresses and undresses, how she sits and eats and talks on the phone. I want to say something but don't know what. "Love's a bitch," I say to the dog. Normal understands. He turns his head and barks.
       
We go for a walk, Normal and me. Normal has a large head, a husky's chest and collie's hide. I wish sometimes that I was covered in fur. Normal sniffs the air as we get outside, his senses alerted. We start west, down 39th. I own Barking Man Books on East 27th and Normal spends most days with me at the store, playing in the aisles, sleeping in cool corners when it's hot. He thinks we're heading there now but I turn two blocks before and he looks up to see if I know what I'm doing.

Terri and I met at a party given by mutual friends. She came late into dinner and stood in the arch off the dining room. I remember her shoes were red. She slipped them off and wiggled her toes. We sat next to one another. Later she took me home. Drunk, and too newly acquainted to feign intimacy, we understood the opportunity to be feral. Our sex was urgent. We pushed and pawed then lay on the surface of Terri's blue bed and laughed. I enjoyed her tremendously, her irreverence and irony, the way her hands turned up and out, restless as she spoke.

On 31st Street three women carry a large cardboard box. I stop and watch them go into a building, see them set the box in front of a tall flight of stairs. I walk inside and stand behind the women. Normal moves to the end of his leash. At the top of the stairs is a door. There's nothing else in the lobby. The lobby is lit by a single bulb, the door above framed in red ash. There are markings on the surface of the door, scratches and gouges in the wood like animal bites. In the half-light I see the handle and hinges have been clawed at as well. The stairs are dark, a shade deeper than the floor which is also wood but stained the color of caramel. I count twenty-three steps which run up and stop directly in front of the door. There's no landing to speak of, no other door or walkways on either side. To the left of the stairs is another wall, to the right a banister made of redwood, thick and smooth and dyed a dusk dry cherry. Scuff marks cover the floor, continue up the center of the stairs.

I wait a minute then ask the women, "So what's with the door?"

The apartment where Terri and I live is modern, with Cyrex video intercoms and security cameras, HD cable and wireless hook-up. We have elevators in the lobby, not stairs, the large silver doors opening at the push of a button. I tell Terri about the building. "Maybe they're doing renovations," she says. "Maybe the door was left by workers looking to get to and from the other side."

I consider this, wonder still about the women. Terri shrugs. "You should let them think what they want."

Terri works at the Free Clinic, counseling clients on the mechanics of constructive reality, reciting existential axioms, rejecting Freudian theory, advocating Watson and Skinner. "Productive resolution" - she sings the behaviorist's mantra, champions the treating of symptoms, avoids asking her patients, "Why did you do that?" and questions rather, "What do you want to do now?"

"What's done is done," Terri says, and quotes a line written by Carthusian monks: "Past and present are human categories, but for God there is no past, only present."

I understand enough not to argue the point. Still whenever I try and tell her, "I love you becauseĀ…" and list reasons which are ground in our history together, she covers her ears and groans, "Those things happened before. You can't base what is on what was."

"Why?" I retrace the chronicle of our affair, say, "Everything I feel is rooted." This is important. Terri's a sucker for sentiment and won't dismiss my claim completely then. She accepts my emotions for what they are, even as she reminds me, "Feelings are like bubbles, they rise and pop."

The morning after I discovered the door, Normal and I walk across Benshaw Avenue on our way to Barking Man so I can look inside the building again. The single bulb in the lobby still glows. I stand the same as yesterday, six feet from the stairs, staring up at the door. Another man comes in a few minutes later, walks over and asks, "Anything?"

Not quite sure how to answer, I shake my head and say, "I don't think so, no."

The man goes up the stairs, knocks twice, puts his ear to the door and listens. After waiting, he comes back down. "Not today, I guess," he touches my arm gently and leaves.

I've asked Terri to marry me thirty-seven times. Thirty-seven times she's laughed. "Come on, Bare," she says. "Play with me first, then ask." She thinks it's more than enough that she's agreed to live with me. "What would be different if we got married?"

I have no answer. "I love you anyway," I tell her.

That night in bed, curled from me, hip to hip, Terri waits until she thinks I'm asleep, then
says my name, says "Bare," exactly as I hoped.

I roll toward her, ready to bring her close, but she sits up and looks at me. "There, are you happy?"

I say I am and she touches my cheek, lays beside me again, close and warm even as she warns me, "It's all downhill from here, Bare. You know that, don't you?"

I don't know, though. I'm inherently optimistic and never spend much time thinking of ways things can go bad. The list is too long and serves no purpose. I prefer to look for silver linings, to search for signs that give me hope.

The walk from our apartment to Barking Man takes seventeen minutes. Detouring to the building adds additional time. Normal shits on the curb. I carry blue plastic bags with me, the covering from the morning's paper delivered. I let the shit settle in the bottom of the bag then toss it into the first alley we pass. We go around the building to the offices next door where I tie Normal's leash to a parking meter then take the elevator to the second floor. I find the wall where the door should open, but there's nothing in place, just a flat surface at the end of a hallway outside the 4-Ever Linked Genealogy Center.

"Weird." I go back and double-check my calculation. A woman's in the lobby, standing to the right of the stairs. Her hands are set shoulder high on the edge of the sixth step, her head against her arms. I come in and ask, "Have you been to the other side?" She seems delighted by my question, answers "No, not yet," and misunderstanding, asks in turn, "Have you?"

I walk from the building to Barking Man. Terri calls around ten, in between clients. Most of the folks who come to the Free Clinic are stress bunnies, students and recovering addicts, fringe psychotics, depressives and social misfits. Terri conducts intake interviews, charts symptoms, tells them, "Don't think about anything but what you want to be now." Clients who quit the program are called "jumpers." Terri takes all jumps personally, questions her strategy, wonders what she might have done to make them stay.

"My 9:00 jumped," she says. "Erica." She gives her clients false names, protects their identity this way.

I know Erica as a 28 year old, 300 pound cashier at Gas 'N Gulp who suffers fits of anxiety, binge piercings and tattooing, self-injuries and certain other unflattering addictions. In therapy, Terri teaches role-playing which allows her clients to slip off old skins, test and ultimately adopt more favorable habits. We try the game ourselves sometimes, varying the rules and expectations. A few months ago Terri phoned from the Half Moon and asked me to meet her. I arrived just after eight and searched the bar, found her sitting with a knit cap covering most of her hair, a light blue t-shirt tucked into jeans. Both the cap and shirt were new. I waved as I spotted her, came and put my hand on her shoulder. "Hey," I said.

"Hey," she answered. "I'm Nancy."

"Nancy?"

"Nancy."

"Ok," I told her my name was Bill.

"Where are you from, Bill?"

We presented stories, created fictions, hinted at fantasies harmless and otherwise. Having just read The Object System, and America, after Simulacra and Simulation, I said Bill worked for Galilee, the French publishing house of Jean Baudrillard. "I believe America is the original version of modernity," Bill said, "in the way its identity is fixated on a complete blurring of reality and unreality."

After midnight, we went out to Terri/Nancy's car and had sex. An hour later, I drove home in my own car. Terri was already back in our apartment, in bed. I came in wanting to talk about what happened, to share the experience again and revel in it. "Wild," I said. "That was fun," but Terri didn't want to talk. I thought at first this was still part of the game, that I was supposed to pretend nothing had actually gone on between us as everything remained still with Nancy and Bill. Only after I undressed and lay down did I realize otherwise, that Terri wasn't looking to preserve our adventure by not discussing it, but was somehow sad it was over.

I spend my morning dealing with distributors, wading through paperwork, checking book orders for the University, updating the website for Barking Man. At lunch, I take a quick run over to City Hall where I do a title search on the building. The owner's listed as a holding company. I phone the company with questions, but no one there can tell me a thing. That night I walk with Normal to the building, stop inside again and stand at the foot of the stairs. I imagine Terri and I dancing behind the door. She's happy and there's music and when I ask her to marry me the song the band's playing - something by Snow Patrol - soars.

A man comes into the lobby carrying a burlap sack. Normal barks and I tighten my hold on his leash. The man goes up the stairs, knocks on the door, waits ten seconds, knocks again then comes back down. The sack in his hand wiggles. The man sets the bag in the center of the floor, douses it with some sort of oil and lights it on fire. I jump and Normal howls. The cries from inside the sack turn raw and high-pitched as the flames shoot up in a wild orange ball that crackles and stinks from within. I kick at the bag in order to put it out but the fire's too much. The man passes me while leaving. "The sacrifice," he weeps. "I loved those cats to death."

I tell Terri everything at dinner. She seems only surprised that I'm mentioning the door at all and asks, "Why did you go back?"

"Curiosity," I say. She points a finger and reminds me of the cats.

More and more I sense Terri fighting me. "I know what you're doing," she says, but isn't otherwise interested in talking about the door. I tell her to relax, to stop flailing and just try to float. We play new games, fool around in restaurants and shopping malls, take night drives that end in Chicago, perform Truth or Dare in hotel lobbies and the apartments of friends. Twice in June Terri gets me to leave work early for a few hours shared in some strange motel. I go each time, eager to make her happy, hoping the upside will last a bit longer than it does.        

Terri changes out of her work clothes, pulls on jeans. I suggest we go dancing, but she wants to see a movie. We catch some new mystery with Guy Pearce. That night in bed Terri calls me Guy, says, "Hey guy. Hey guy!" I dream later of climbing the stairs in the lobby and whispering through the wood of the door, "Terri? Terri?" I wake when she doesn't answer, lay watching her for some time.

The next morning Normal and I walk a different way to work, do not go near the door. There's a reading at the store that night. Harold Hand has written a new novel about a group of boys from Dakar befriended by an American writer. The American turns the boys into a traveling singing group called "Baba Kanish and the Lost Souls," and has them sell his books before each concert. After the reading, I invite Harold for a drink. I want to tell him about the door, think it's just the sort of thing he'll be interested in, but he prefers talking about his divorce and I decide to let the subject pass.

I get home around ten and find Terri in the front room, sitting on the couch. Another woman I don't recognize is with her. The woman's quite large, her thighs and breasts, the green shirt she has on covering her like a tarpaulin. Her hair is straight and clipped off just above her ears which are rimmed with six different rings each. Additional piercings include a silver hoop in her left eyebrow, a gold stud in her left nostril and a bone pin in the side of her neck. Normal greets me as I come in, stands as I survey the room. I notice three empty beer bottles on the coffee table, see kleenex piled into a small paper hill beneath my chair. Terri introduces us, says, "Erica, Bare."

"Ahh," I nod. "Hello."

Erica has nervous eyes, the kind that dart around unable to land any one place too long. I'm surprised to see her. Technically she's still a patient of the Clinic and there are rules against clients and therapists fraternizing. "Hello," she says and nothing more. I don't sit down, sense I'm not entirely welcome. Terri's protective. She tells Erica, "It's ok," then waits for me to leave.

I go with Normal back to the bedroom and watch tv. When Terri comes in twenty minutes later I'm catching the middle of Cool Hand Luke on cable. Terri hands me what's left of her beer, goes to the closet and pulls out our extra pillows and blanket. I sip off the last inch in the bottle though I'm not really thirsty. "Is everything alright?"

"It's nothing." She carries the blanket and pillows out to the front room. I look through the door, see her making up the couch, talking with Erica, touching her elbow, offering a hug. Each of these gestures is performed tenderly and without hesitation, Terri's eagerness to make the connection unguarded. I turn away. On the tv Strother Martin says, "What we have here is failure to communicate." (Paul Newman, whipped into the dust, looks up half dazed.)  Terri returns to the bedroom, starts to undress, her back to me.

"I called her," Terri says. "To see if she was ok."

I decide not to question her decision, mention nothing of the possible consequence, want to show support. "It's good you called. You should want to know." I wait for Terri to tell me more, imagine Erica pregnant by the married manager of Gas 'N Gulp, see her having a panic attack while in line at the China Buffet All You Can Eat. Terri continues changing into her pajamas. The silence is awkward. I ask again and she says, "I can't tell you."

"Why not?"

"Does it matter?"

"I don't know. You won't tell me." I begin worrying about the disconnect, wonder how to work my way through it, only I draw a blank and wind up repeating, "It's good you called. It was the right thing to do."

Terri turns around. I see her belly button is freshly pierced, a silver ring in the soft flesh. She sets her thumb and forefinger in a diamond shape and frames the ring, lets me look for a moment, then says, "It was. I think so, too."

Later, I go out to the front room. Terri's asleep in our bed, Erica on the couch, on her back, beached, her limbs not completely slack even when at rest. Her mouth is open, her breathing labored, as if forced from some stiff leather billow. I stand at the end of the couch, count the tattoos and piercings I can see there in the dark. The scars on her skin, the pink and brown worms both challenge and arouse my sympathy. I start backing away when the wood beneath me creaks and Erica opens her eyes. "Shit," I say. "Sorry," and continue moving off, unsure what else to do or how to explain. Erica smiles and holds out her arms.

I go back to bed a few minutes later and dream again about the door. Terri's with me at the bottom of the stairs and I'm tugging her up, trying to get her to come with me but she won't. A woman's there and says she's been to the stairs seventeen days in a row. Another woman brings homemade bread and cookies which she leaves on the top step. A man appears carrying a power drill which he tries to use on the hinges of the door, but the drill keeps failing. The man screams and throws the drill down into the lobby. It's all very dramatic.

I leave the next morning while Erica and Terri are drinking coffee. Erica doesn't cover her legs, sits in her undershorts which are clown size, enormous old-fashioned bloomers. Her thighs, calves and ankles are covered with additional scars and tattoos - snakes and flags, abstract shapes and designs, words spelled out I can't quite read. There are piercings, too, through the fatty white flesh, a small chain that dangles, a series of rings and a silver hook lock. I say good morning, go and put Normal on his leash.

Three people are standing inside the lobby when Normal and I arrive at the building. Each is staring down at the charred spot in the floor where the cats were burned. I stay briefly then head to Barking Man where, distracted by thoughts of last night, I take care of business the best I can. At 3:00 I call Terri and ask, "Can you get off?" I'm sitting on one of the ashwood step stools I keep by the shelves, pull down a novel by Malraux and fan the pages. Terri hesitates then says, "Give me an hour." We go to the Aryu Inn and play games around the flash of On Demand cable. Terri's mood is upbeat. At dinner she's more subdued. "I wore you out," I joke.

She considers the possibility, says, "Maybe."

I have her drop me back at the store where I pick up Normal and walk him home. I stop on the way and buy flowers, purple plums and passions. "What's this for?" Terri in the kitchen, takes a knife to the stems, carves off the bottoms and puts the flowers in a clear glass vase. The card is left on the table, opened and dropped down onto the cleaved remains of stalks. With love, I wrote.

"Let's not," she tells me. I watch her finish with the flowers, arranging the buds while twisting weak leaves. She walks across the apartment. Her hair has grown in the last few months, the color darkened. I study her closely, see the way she sets her heels in order to tighten her ass as she knows I'm watching. Sometimes in bed she likes me to blindfold her and describe everything I'm doing as I touch her leg, her belly and breasts, saying, "I'm touching your belly. I'm rubbing your tits." My voice heightens her other senses, she says. I can close my own eyes and describe her body perfectly, pretend I know exactly what I'm not seeing.

Terri comes back to the front room carrying her cell phone, checking messages. "About this afternoon," she says, and I think she's going to thank me for calling, for taking the initiative and setting things up, only she doesn't. She rolls her hands over as if to show me something. "All these games," she speaks to me as if I'm one of her clients. "You're in denial," she tells me. "You rely on too much fantasy." 

"Me?" I wonder if she's kidding. "I don't think that's true. I'm not the one," I say and extend my arms, make clear as best I can, "I don't need anything more than this."

Terri goes to the window in the front room and stares outside. The sky's turbid. I wait for her to turn around. After a minute she walks toward the kitchen, stops at the table where she picks up the vase of flowers and carries it to the sink. I listen for the sound of glass slipping from her hands, start talking very fast, tell her everything I can think of about the here and now and the way I'll feel in the future, only I trip over my own momentum and wind up blurting, "Why isn't any of it good enough for you?"

She says nothing for several seconds, then answers my question from a distance, asks, "What do you want from me, Bare?"

Normal lies between us, his big husky head raised. I reach and scratch his ear. When he stands, his tail pitches back and forth. I find his leash, take him down in the elevator and out to the street. The building's empty when we get there. The light overhead seems dimmer, though not completely dull. I let Normal off his leash and he paces the floor, crosses the burnt spot, investigates each corner but does not go up the stairs.

I sit on the first step with my back to the door. Someone's left an envelope marked To Whom It May Concern.  I stick the note in my pocket, set my elbows back. Normal comes and puts his head in my lap. I rub him gently, think about Terri. Two weeks ago we had dinner with Katie Speere, a writer-friend whose book - a collection of stories called Tinder in the Black Forest - was published last year and well received. Katie's husband, Mark, wrote the screenplay for Katie's story, Red Arse which takes place in an experimental clinic for treating delusional psychosis. ("I'll tell you why I'm here," the story begins.)  Katie drank too much at dinner, talked about Mark's affairs, said she was writing a novel now that would "break the bastard's heart."

I think again about last night and Terri bringing Erica home. I remember how she looked when fixing the couch for Erica to sleep, and later with me, how there was charity and intimacy and all that fell between. When Erica pulled me down and held me anchored to her soft-hard flesh, scarred and pierced, I told myself, "This is nothing," while straining to comfort her. "I love you," I said to Terri before I left.

"Bare," she called from the kitchen. I heard her again as I walked down the hall.

Normal wanders, checks the spot where the kittens burned, then follows me as I go up the stairs. I take the letter from my pocket, lean down and slide it underneath. The man from the other morning comes in a few minutes later, waves up at me and asks, "Anything?"

I wave in turn, raise my shoulders, "Don't know," I tell him. Normal slips past me and sniffs at the door.



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This work is copyrighted by the author, Steven Gillis. All rights reserved