Breaching, Slapping, Logging, and Lunging
Louise decided to leave the house. Why not? That wasn’t the right question. It had been a few days since she’d been outside, a few days since she’d showered. The shower schedule wasn’t a big deal—every other day was stellar if she didn’t sweat a lot. Rick never locked her in or anything, but he seemed happier when she stayed indoors. Where did the money come from? Rick got a check in the mail, Louise got a check in the mail—they both earned it, somehow.
The downstairs neighbors had a babysitting problem. They babysat a little girl named Nana, who was basically pre-verbal. Louise suspected Nana should have been verbal, but wasn’t, for some reason. Rick said it was never too early for a person to stop talking. Louise had seen her come and go, usually dropped off by a person resembling someone’s grandmother. The problem: something tended to happen downstairs while Rick was at work. Louise heard shouting nearly every day—sometimes the downstairs woman and the downstairs man, sometimes just the woman. She also heard the little girl screaming. The first time was more of a tantrum sound than a scream of pain, so Louise turned up the television. She could feel a mind-blowing daytime TV plot twist coming.
The child’s screams, followed by yelling, continued for weeks. Louise repeatedly found herself with her hand on the doorknob, ready to go downstairs and inquire as to what exactly was going on. When she heard voices in the stairwell, she cracked the door to listen. The grandmother-like person had arrived, and was talking to the woman downstairs. The woman downstairs said something about Nana playing with her shitty diaper again, that she had put Nana in the cold shower. The grandmother-like figure said something about the age of unreason, and laughed. Nana screamed on the way out.
Louise decided to leave the house because of what she saw the next day. It started with a rhythmic pounding around lunchtime. She assumed the downstairs man was hammering. Louise heard crying, followed by the sound of an adult female screaming. She took the stairs down and knocked on the neighbors’ door. The woman from downstairs—who looked like an even older version of Tracy Angelica Quartermaine from General Hospital—opened the door. “So sorry for the racket,” she said.
Anything else she might have said was cut off by shrieking. Louise watched Nana tear screaming across the living room behind the woman, her naked body splattered with what looked like shit.
“This girl has behavioral problems,” the woman said. “This girl is a work of art—I mean a piece of work,” she said, and slammed the door.
Louise left the house and started walking. She considered calling the police, child services, someone. When children screamed, you weren’t supposed to scream back, she thought. Her cell phone was upstairs, but she had to put distance between her and the racket. If Rick called, he’d have to deal with not knowing her every move, for once. He was unsympathetic to the Nana situation, having already said that the child needed a good throttling.
She had been reading lately. One of the books had told her there was something giant inside her. The more there was inside you, the larger you could be—which was a good thing, according to the book. The idea was to get the thing inside you outside of you, to make it part of your real appearance and personality. She thought about giant things: elephants, boulders, sequoias, whales, the Internet, a web woven by thousands of moth larvae covering her husband’s face. The book taught her to use the “swoosh” technique to change her mental state for the better. The way it worked was to picture a negative situation alongside a desired situation, and somehow “swoosh” the two around until only the desired situation remained. She pictured Rick raising his voice, pictured him at Seaworld giving an orca a rubdown after a successful performance, pictured him relaxing with the orcas in a decompression tank before having his leg bitten off, the stump jetting blood as the orcas tossed him from mouth to mouth, swimming around with the dead body.
Whales had the biggest brains around. If Louise had a spirit animal, and she decided she did, it would be a whale of some kind. Blue whales had the biggest bodies, but not the biggest brains. She had read that sperm whales, despite weighing less, had heavier brains. She was both lighter and smarter than Rick. She considered entering a store and asking to make a local call, finding a payphone and calling the police, or even calling Rick collect. What would she say? Surely what she had seen was criminal neglect, or close to it. Then again, Nana might be beyond control. Why was she screaming so often?
Louise reached the end of their street, turned onto a boulevard that led to the highway. Near its end she sat down on a bench in view of the parking lot belonging to an adult video store and a laundromat (separate businesses). She watched a man park down the street from the store, scan the parking lot, and hurry inside. She watched another man do the same. She watched a man in a weather-inappropriate yellow raincoat approach the parking lot mumbling, notice her, and cross the highway. Louise thought she remembered a newspaper article on a serial killer who always wore a yellow raincoat. The rubber made for easier cleanup, prevented little fingers from gaining purchase. She couldn’t decide if this had been in the paper or one of her paperback thrillers.
Louise froze on the bench when Rick’s van pulled into the lot. He parked in front of the laundromat, and walked into the video store, whistling. Louise stood up. Perhaps this could lead to something special. She pictured Rick drunk, pictured him floating in a whale tank as an orca rose from below, grabbed him by one of his feet, and dove to the bottom.
Esprit de l’Escalier
The older the house, the more have likely died inside. This house is old. Old, but not as old as I was when we bought it. We didn’t plan to live there long. We lived there a while. The most children we had at one time was three. Think of the worst thing you can think of. Our youngest child was born predisposed to becoming that thing, and in the end he couldn’t stand it. He wasn’t the only one.
Later it was the two of us. Me and the wife, walking up and down canted farmhouse stairs. Each year the staircase extended itself to the tune of two additional steps. There were two ways you could look at it: either our environment was conspiring to provide us with ever increasing amounts of exercise or the first and second floors were growing apart. We used to stay in the upstairs bedroom. We used to lead active lifestyles. I, for one, still do. It was through no fault of her own that my wife’s lifestyle lost its “active” designation.
Living upstairs began to chafe. Morning after morning, at the stairway’s carpeted peak, looking down: the view appeared the same. It was never the same. Two more stairs each year meant an extra stair every six months, half a stair every three months, one-sixth of a stair every month, and roughly one-one-hundred-and-eightieth of a stair each day. After a decade, the distance to the breakfast table downstairs had nearly doubled.
For my wife’s sake we moved into the spare room on the first floor. It was near the kitchen, and near a bathroom she might require at a moment’s notice. I rarely went upstairs, the trek taking longer each time. When we needed a special document from the attic, I became convinced that the staircase had increased its growth rate. Standing at the foot of the stairs, it was impossible to see the second floor landing. Maybe my eyes were failing—they wouldn’t have been the first thing. I climbed until it was difficult to breathe, which didn’t take long. The stairhead was still not visible. After sitting down to rest, I returned to the first floor to try again after a night’s sleep.
The next morning I set out early carrying a water bottle, just in case. This climb brought to mind my mountaineering days (I had formerly been a member of the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme). I could no longer move that fast, and at times relied on the handrail. After climbing for an hour I sat down to eat granola. Though I say “an hour,” it could have been far longer. I rarely wore a watch anymore, and my wife and I kept our respective cell phones in desk drawers, at bedsides, on the kitchen table, in the car, charging them in the hopes they would one day do some good. Not only was the second floor still not visible, the first floor was no longer in sight. Just as the staircase had stretched, so had the ceiling above, dotted with stylish LED lights that I could no longer recall installing.
We bought the farmhouse because it looked like the setting of a psychological thriller: isolated, desolate, surrounded by vineyards in the middle of nowhere. We kicked around phrases like “a new beginning,” “leaving it all behind,” “facing the secrets we’ve been running from,” and “escaping the malicious intent of the vineyards’ mysterious inhabitants.” Instead of a thriller starring a young couple, we eventually found ourselves in a depressing French-language drama starring septuagenarians. At least we had the Internet.
I was fortunate enough to have retrieved the computer (large, though in working order) before the second floor drifted away completely. I blamed my daughter for this particular compulsion. What planted the seed was when she let slip that you could “find anything” on there, that all you had to do was type what you were looking for into the search box. Now, I had known how to turn on the computer for at least a decade, but never had a reason to. Later I found out I could read the newspaper free of charge, as well as email the odd high school chum who was still alive. But this “search” function blew open my doors of perception, so to speak, starting with nude photos of Barbara Eden. The last time I had looked at something like that was on glossy paper in a different century. To convey what it was like to discover online pornography as an old man, I’d almost have to resort to metaphor. It was somewhat akin to Leonard Cohen taking up smoking again at age 80, though with more guilt, more sweating, and probably a similar increase in heavy breathing. My circulation problems, in one area at least, had disappeared. I continued climbing, close to convinced that daylight was visible above me. The hike may have rivaled the Camino Inca to Machu Picchu in intensity if not in length. What if the rate of stair increase surpassed my walking speed while I was en route? What if I made it upstairs and couldn’t find the document? What if my wife injured herself while I was gone and urgently needed my help? What if on the way down I were to fall, my tumbling body gaining speed, cracking one bone after another, acquiring multiple compound fractures and massive head trauma, including an acute subdural hematoma, before dislodging myself from this mortal coil to arrive, hours later, in the form of a tenderized slinky of flesh at the first floor?
The attic was hot, and it took a long time to locate the document I needed. While sifting through boxes I found a bundle of letters that even two years ago—before my wife took that turn—would have sent me into some sort of spiral or another. I used to worry about dying first, about whether she would remarry. You win some and you lose some, I suppose.
I took a look around upstairs, making sure there was nothing I would need. It was doubtful I’d ever make the trip again, doubtful it would even be possible. I refilled the water bottle in the bathroom, and emptied my bladder; the latter, like the trip upstairs, seeming to take longer with each passing year. Massaging my kidneys, I was under the impression that urine flowed into my bladder at nearly the same rate I was discharging it.
On the way down, I wondered if my desire to use the Internet could be classified as addiction. I wondered if it ran in the family. One could put a positive spin on my discovery, at this late stage, of one of life’s simple pleasures. I questioned why I had used the bathroom at all. Urinating on the stairs would have saved me time, and the absorbent carpet would only grow more distant, ceasing to be my problem.
Moving carefully down the stairs, I hoped I was gaining ground on the first floor. A question presented itself: was the staircase functioning like an escalator—not in the sense of a loop structure, but in the sense that all steps were moving in one direction—or like a telescope that continues to extend while its base remains stationary? If I sat down would I actually be carried higher? I wasn’t so sure. Once I reached the bottom I resolved to place an object on the stairs for observation. I had an object in mind.
For our 50th anniversary I had given my wife a porcelain rhinoceros from Dresden. It was one of many reproductions based on Albrecht Dürer’s celebrated woodcut. Dürer never saw a rhinoceros in his life, but based the woodcut on an inaccurate Portuguese sketch. From Roman times until 1515, no one in Europe had seen a rhinoceros. I had never seen one either. I tried to remember the location of the porcelain beast. The basement? I couldn’t ask my wife at that moment. Standing at the basement door, looking down, I couldn’t bring myself to make the trek.
Brooks Sterritt‘s writing has appeared or will appear in The Believer, Subtropics, Puerto del Sol, Green Mountains Review, and The Millions. He lives in Chicago and is a PhD candidate in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Program for Writers.