Archive for March, 2008

Home – The Galaxy Above the Stairs

The wall on the right side of the stairs has three distinct parts. For the first five stairs, there is no wall, just a banister that separates the stairs from the rest of the front wall. One can stick one’s head through the bars that connect the stairs to the handrail, turn one’s head to the side so as to become “stuck” and scream for help, though of course there is an age limit on such amusement. After the first five stairs, the wall starts. The bottom part is drywall, and the top part, which corresponds with where the second story begins, is smooth yet bumpy plaster. At stair eight there’s a big nail in the drywall; it’s just underneath where the plaster part of the wall starts, and the plaster wall comes out a few inches further than the drywall. It would be hard to catch anything on the giant nail, sheltered as it is by the plaster overhang, but it scares me. I slink past every time.

The ceiling above the mid-part of the stairs is like its own universe. It’s wide open up there – huge, high and cavernous. There’s easily enough space for another room, and the space already has three walls and a ceiling – all that’s missing is one more wall and a floor. It’s torturous to consider; an entire new room, unused, vacant, yet totally inaccessible. Because the builders of the house apparently wanted to include a vast amount of empty space, and frankly, it’s hard to complain too much. One’s thoughts, dense and hovering about one’s head in the rest of the house, suddenly soar to new heights on the middle part of the stairs. Of course, they’re packed back down by the normal-height ceilings that encroach at the top and bottom, but there in the middle… there’s no limit.

The space houses nothing but air, shadows, and galactic cobwebs that stretch from one corner to another. In any other house they’d be invisible, but we live in a wood-burning house so all the cobwebs collect micro-fine specks of soot and turn black. The effect is that spiders, left undisturbed for a hundred and fifty years, have spun a web big enough to trap a child, should a child find a way to access that space. And they must certainly trap some of the thoughts that float up to the sky, unhindered.

One time we fastened two brooms end to end and managed to stick the bristles up into the galaxy above the stairs, clearing out the cobwebs. It looked cold and empty afterwards; the lines too sharp, the empty space too empty, wasted. I was glad when the cobwebs grew back.

Add comment March 31st, 2008

Characters – The Family Lamb

I have a diminutive stuffed black lamb that Sam occasionally uses to ventriloquize his moods. Sometimes, for example, the lamb is too excited and wound up to sleep, so he gallops around the bedroom, up the walls, and across the ceiling. Sometimes, when he’s so happy he’s ready to burst, the lamb stands up on his back legs and does a little dance, front feet clasped in Sam’s hands so he can dance along as well. Occasionally, when I’ve been immersed in my own work for too long, my field of vision will be interrupted by an airborne, somersaulting lamb, who has decided to circumnavigate the room via a trajectory that passes between my eyes, and whatever project I’m working on. When I look up, Sam is invariably sitting still, facing some other direction, looking innocent.talking-lamb-21208.jpg

Here’s what the lamb had to say when I got home from work on Valentine’s Day:

Add comment March 27th, 2008

Home – Secret Passage

Sixteen stairs connect the first floor to the second. The wall on the left side of the stairs is white, and made of a kind of bumpy plaster that looks like the smooth surface of a fresh tub of cottage cheese. It’s always cool to the touch, though the little bumps just beg little fingers to pick at them – and after a long, humid, Midwestern summer, they are easily pried off.

Near the seventh step, there’s a small hole in the wall. The hole has always been there, and has nothing to do with small prying fingers. It’s about two inches square, and the lines are clean – the plaster is gone, revealing a piece of dark brown wood beneath. It looks like the result of a single sharp impact. Between the plaster that’s visible on the surface, and the wood that lies underneath, there’s an empty space. It’s hardly visible and can most easily be detected by running one’s finger along the exposed horizontal surface of the plaster, inside the hole.

The hole, and the empty space, function exactly like a candy machine, where a coin pressed flat into a circle-shaped depression will fall down, through a narrow slot, into a receptacle below. The hole in the wall is similarly suited for coin deposits. A penny pressed flat against the wall falls through the empty space below…

… and many, many long milliseconds later, can be heard hitting the floor somewhere down beneath the stairs. The sound echoes strangely, close enough to hear, yet far enough away to be problematic, and raise all sorts of questions. Is the hole in the wall the only known point of entry into a secret space that has somehow escaped discovery by previous residents? How big is this mysterious cavern? What else might be in there? Is there any way to access it? Is it big enough, maybe, for a kid to crawl inside and hide? Maybe a kid could dig through a wall under the stairs, find the cavern, and build a little room in there with just the basics; some books, a flashlight. A kid could live for a long, long time in such a hiding place.

Answers to such queries are elusive. Pennies can be hard to come by when you need them most, except of course for the forbidden collection of ancient pennies housed in a beer stein on a shelf on the eleventh stair. Attempts to tie a string around a penny so that it can be dropped and then recovered prove fruitless – the mechanics of such an operation are too complicated, though the lure of pulling a penny back from the brink of mystery is compelling. Maybe it would come back covered in phosphorescent goo, or even better, with a tiny note affixed to the surface – a message from the current occupant of the hidden chamber. The only thing to do is to keep dropping pennies through the secret opening, where they hit the floor, and occasionally, the other coins deposited over the years.

Add comment March 24th, 2008

Characters – Café Brevity

Overheard at my favorite local espresso stand…

Customer: “I’d like a decaf double latte please; skim milk, and with a shot of sugar-free vanilla.”

Barista: “Ah yes. One ‘Why Bother Latte’ coming right up.”

Add comment March 20th, 2008

Driftwords – The Unknown

I woke up to the sound of my father’s cough; he was close, but separated by at least a wall and a floor. I mulled the sound over for a while. Was that really my father’s voice? Something in the timber resonated, but I wasn’t fully convinced. Is it possible that my father is here, one floor down? I lofted the question out into the distance and waited, and waited. I drifted back down to the ground, silently. All that greeted my mental eye was a blank grey wall. No clues, no intuitions, nothing. I nudged the question around a bit but it didn’t stir, and showed no inclination of taking its own initiative. Slowly, I went through the processes of initiative myself. I do know that I have a father, that much is certain, and certain qualities of his voice persist, even when I’ve completely forgotten my own identity. But for the moment, that’s all and there’s nothing else. Just a blank grey wall, and a tremendous sense of rest. Nothing moves here, nothing matters, nothing exists.

Later I return to the question and ponder it again, slowly. A tiny sliver of my waking-world brain has intruded, and it is needling me. I really ought to be able to figure out whether or not the voice I heard was my father’s. I stare at the blank grey wall a bit more, and then finally decide to cheat. I open my eyes just a tiny bit. A tiny bit is all it takes – I see my bedroom in Los Angeles and the question is answered in a flash too fast to ponder. No, that wasn’t my father’s voice. Because I live in California and he does not, and my apartment doesn’t have two stories. Quickly, I close my eyes and scissor off the inrushing data. It’s been contained. The grey world wins for the moment; all that exists now is my mental eye, and a tiny image of my bedroom that floats around, disconnected from any further information.

This morning, my waking-world brain is not granted immediate superiority upon demand. But neither does it give up. “What does your apartment look like?” waking-world brain demands, in its quiet, patient, incontrovertible way. Is it in a house? Is it in a building? Are you in the city? In the countryside? Is there any grass around where you live?

I ponder, but only because it’s hard to ignore waking-world brain’s slow, but persistent agitation against the backdrop of nothing. I wonder, but not with any speed or direction. I try to remember anything, anything at all about my home. Or about myself. There’s nothing. Just emptiness, and grey the color of a misty dawn. Or dusk. Or something permanent and in between the two that never changes. I am no one, I possess nothing apart from this single mental eye that is wholly content to contemplate the grey and silence. It is very restful here. But I only know it is restful because waking-world brain has managed to insert a sliver of a memory of what it feels like to be awake – and I have a basis for comparison that leads to the adjective “restful.”

Waking-world brain is like water that erodes thousands of miles of rock given enough time, or like the tiny plants that burrow into concrete slabs, then sprout and burst the immobile into pieces. It is soft, it is quiet, but it persists. Though I’m wholly content to contemplate the grey, I also feel no judgment or rationalization here; when the questions come, I turn to look at them simply because they’re there. Who are you? Where are you? Is there any grass outside your apartment?

The questions are there so I do their bidding. Mentally, I imagine myself getting out of bed and leaving my bedroom. Miraculously, as I walk, the hallway appears. Then the living room. Then the front door. I open the door and descend the stairs.

Ah, aha. Oh. Oh.

Clever waking-world brain. All it takes is a glimpse and the rest of my identity reappears, like a mirage reemerging after a bank of fog burns off. There is some grass where I live. Not much, and it’s all consolidated in a tiny decorative yard, but it is there.

Traces of the grey linger into the morning. The oscillation between constituted and dissolved, between present and disappeared, echoes in my imagination. It occurs to me, more often than usual, that the waking world is a mutually agreed upon reality.

Add comment March 17th, 2008

Driftwords – The Back Stairs

I had to go to an event for work wearing only my bathrobe. The event was on the other side of campus, and my bathrobe – selected for its sleekness – had no pockets for house keys. So now I have to slink back home, in this strange state of semi-undress, and find a way back into my dorm room.

There is a precedent for this, of course. Whenever anyone gets locked out, in the middle of the night, wearing something inappropriate, the thing to do is climb up the fire escape stairs at the back of the building, beg entrance into whomever’s dorm is attached to the stairs at the top, ask them to let you in their back door and out their front door, from which one can scurry down the hall to one’s own home.

So I run through the back of the building, down dark corridors, up several flights of emergency escape stairs until I am, I estimate, on the same floor as my own dorm room. I find emergency escape stairs that lead to a back door, and start running up.

But halfway there, I realize these are stairs that do not exist merely as a passage way, at the pleasure of those who use them. Oh no. First, they become detached from their moorings at the bottom, and begin to sway – as though in a brisk breeze. Then they begin to spiral crazily, and I’m bent double, trying to keep my footing in a high wind, while my pathway pitches and rolls with alarming velocity. My bathrobe catches the wind, and I have to devote one whole hand just to staying clad, leaving only one hand to cling to the handrail.

The wind dies down, but only, I sense, so it can pay close attention to my every move. For the stairs have just become a kind of two-dimensional Gordian knot. A second ago, the handrail was on the left and the stairs were on the right; now they’ve twisted like a ribbon and the handrail is on the right, with the stairs on the left. And to follow them, I have to flatten into two dimensions as well, and somehow compel myself along the twisty-ribbon two-dimensional surface until the stairs pop back into their proper shape on the other side. I take a deep breath and dive in before I can really contemplate what I’m about to do.

I don’t remember the second half of the stairs after that; maybe going into two dimensions squeezed the memories out of me.

The next thing I know I’m at the top of the stairs, finally. The stairs themselves are about two feet wide, and they’re connected at the far right side of a doorway that’s at least eight feet wide. To the left of the stairs, there’s nothing but empty space that goes down a very long way. The doorway itself houses multiple doors. There are pocket doors, normal doors, trap doors hung sideways into the wall. I stand on the handrail, on tip-toe, and stretch as far to the left as I can to slide one of the pocket doors open, then reach through for the next door. It takes hours and many precipitous reaches to disengage them all, and all the while, the unmoored stairwell swings beneath me.

Finally I break through the last door and tumble onto the ridiculously safe, stable, and sane-looking linoleum floor of someone’s kitchen. My dorm alternates between boys’ and girls’ floors; of course, I miscalculated and landed on the boys’ floor. In my bathrobe. My neighbors are polite, nevertheless, and I am welcome to walk through their dorm room and use their front door to access the interior of the building where I can take the normal stairs down to my own floor.

I know they think I’m crazy.

Add comment March 13th, 2008

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