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The Brownstone Staircase
By James J. Marry
Saturday, December 27, 2003
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
A boy becomes a man with the ache of his grandmother's death and a visitor to guide him through it.
Ricky had never really been much of a fighter. But at the age of sixteen and living in north Queens in New York City, the boy was bound to learn. He just wasn’t going to learn to fight at Jesse’s expense. Jesse sat on him, and Ricky screamed with indignation.
“Get off of me, you bastard. I’m gonna kick your ass.” Ricky bellowed. “You can’t keep on doing this to me.”
Jesse was embarrassed on multiple levels by the whole ordeal as he sat on Ricky’s back in the asphalt gravel parking lot of Broderick’s Diner on Francis Lewis Boulevard. Not the least of which came from the fact that Ricky was right. Jesse deserved to have his ass kicked since this was about the third flannel shirt that he had ripped of Ricky’s in the past two months. Jesse felt foolish that he hadn’t been able to restrain himself.
And not that Ricky was without fault either. The blond haired, skinny, “Waffle-Whiffer could truly be unbearable. Such was Ricky’s nature. He flitted. He chirped. He performed. Plus Ricky had Maryann and Jesse worked hard to keep himself from hating Ricky for it.
Ricky and Jesse were not the greatest friends, though they were neighbors in the New York City town of Bayside. Jesse’s family was lower middle-income and Rick’s were on the high side of that spectrum. The two had met at church with the Catholic Youth Organization. Jesse was lonely and Rick wanted to meet more girls. Jesse never fit in and Rick always did. Jesse remembered Rick introducing him to Maryann.
“Hey Jess. Come here. I want you to meet someone.” Ricky called to Jess from the rock at the top of the lot in back of Broderick’s- really a grassy knoll if ever there was one.
It was November, and all the kids were wearing parkas. Mid seventies style hadn’t caught up with Jesse. The coats were more expensive than he suspected his folks could afford.
Jesse immediately recognized that the person with Rick was a girl- hard to tell with the big fluffy jacket. “This is Maryann, Jesse. We thought you might share that bottle with us.”
Rick pointed to Jesse’s pint bottle of Southern Comfort. Jesse had no trouble getting a bottle. Jess looked well over eighteen since he had facial hair sprout when he was thirteen. Jess looked at Maryann and suddenly wanted to impress her. Jesse had been at Rick’s side ever since, a slave to the hope that these two might fall apart. Then he started to lose patience with Rick.
Jesse remembered the first time he had grabbed Rick by his flannel shirt. That had been after the first trip he had taken with his Mom and Dad to the hospital to see his grandmother. Rick hadn’t really gone out of his way to get Jesse to overreact so badly, he’d just acted like Rick. He’d been annoying and Jesse just wasn’t up to letting it go.
Rick and Maryann and a few friends had joined together in one of their cronies’ basements. In the winter, you looked for warm places to share your booze. Almost like the real grown ups would. Jesse remembered that he had scored a bottle of rum for this particular evening. Jesse could always find the odd job to allow him to purchase the goods; he was a hard worker for a cause.
“Jesse really made a fool out of himself at last weeks dance.” Rick was saying. “That red head he was kissing could have sucked the teeth out of a horse.”
The gang all laughed in unison.
“And did you see the two of them dance? They looked like two snakes wrestling over a length of string.”
Again, the laughter rang out.
The harangue continued on for several more one liners and Jesse’s stomach had knotted up enough. Jesse knew that stepping into the one-man show was suicidal for his social life but somehow his self-image needed more attention than his sense of belonging to the group did.
“Rick- that’s enough.”
Rick looked at Jesse with gape mouthed wonder. “What?” Rick breathed quickly.
“I said stop it.”
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The room went into hibernation, waiting for Rick’s inevitable next reaction.
“And what are you going to do about it, Jesse?”
Blindness. Jesse couldn’t remember a better description for the experience. Jesse looked directly at Rick- and he never saw Rick. If Jesse had less control over the anger that was welled up inside of him, he might have step directly through Rick’s physical being. Jesse felt like one of those red balloons that fill up at the carnival when you aim your water pistol at them- he wouldn’t let the balloon explode though.
Jesse stepped forward as Rick’s eyes inflated and grabbed him by his flannel shirt. As their faces came two inches from a passionate kiss, Jesse forced the right arm forward that held Rick’s red and gray cotton shirt. The push of the arm was like a slow punch with a difference. Jesse never let go of the shirt at the end of the delivery. Pleasure was hard to resist as Jesse felt the pop of three buttons on Rick’s shirt, let go of Rick’s flailing body, and saw Rick slam into the basement block wall behind him.
“Hey,” Rick said in lightning recovery time, “You ruined my shirt!”
Jesse stood there in shock. He was surprised that he was so capable of such a senseless act. And he was afraid that he might have enjoyed it.
He looked around the room as Rick took advantage of Jesse’s new demeanor.
“I’m gonna kick your ass!” Rick yelled as people crowded around to prevent Rick from hurling himself against Jesse’s fists. Rick succumbed to his protectors with feigned struggle.
Maryann stepped forward to Jesse and told him to leave. Jesse obeyed out of confusion as well as out of honor. He was more confused by the second incident and even more by this, the third incident. And now all of the local roughnecks from the local street gang were in attendance. Jesse just sat on Rick and listened to his cries.
As the crowd started to turn against Jesse even more than they had so far, a young woman walked through the ring. She grabbed Jesse by the arm and lifted him off of Rick who scrambled quickly to his feet. The woman put her hand in Rick’s chest and froze him in place.
“Okay, you two. Now what’s this all about?” Karen asked.
Rick jumped in. “He’s ripped three of my flannel shirts in two months and I’m gonna kick his ass.”
“Not today, you’re not. We’re leaving.” And Jesse’s only sister bundled him under her left arm and led him to her 1973 Gold Duster.
After they settled in the two-door vehicle, Jesse thought he had figured out just what to say to his twenty-year-old sister. They were already rolling down the road towards the Cross Island Parkway- away from home.
Karen put her hand up to silence the next words.
“Forget it. We’re heading for the hospital.” She said sternly. “Grandma died today.
The next few days followed in a blur. Jesse hadn’t really even paid much attention to all of the activity that had circulated around the death of his mother’s family matriarch. The woman had lived her last three months in a hospital waiting to die. Emphysema had taken its toll on the 73-year-old woman.
Jesse remembered his grandmother in a lot of ways, but never as a healthy person. Sara Albert had been 57 when he had been born, and she lived two and one half-hours away from his family. By the time Jesse was walking, the sickness had begun to take hold in Sara. Jesse would see his grandmother twice a year until the sickness became more serious, once a year for the past five. She was the “incredible shrinking woman” in Jesse’s eyes, and she never did stop smoking her butts.
Jesse never really knew the woman, to be honest. But she was his only living grand parent ever. Mom’s father had died a young man and Dad’s folks had started his family late in life. By 1959, when Jesse had been born, the only generational survivor was Sara Albert. She was also the only death that Jesse had yet to deal with in his medium sized family. Maybe that would have something to do with all of the weirdness he felt after that day at the hospital with Karen and his family.
Grandma had died only hours before, and everyone was discussing the business of her death. Jesse sat in the waiting area looking for good magazines to read. He had picked up a “Sports Illustrated” with a Mark Spitz article that piqued his curiosity, when he realized that something had changed.
Not that Jesse could say what that particular something was. He just knew that something had changed. Maybe it was the slight tightness in his chest. Maybe the room had darkened a little more. Maybe everyone was mumbling a little more. Jesse didn’t know. He only knew that something had changed. And it wasn’t as though he felt something was “wrong” – not at all- it was just suddenly different.
Like anyone else might, Jesse just shrugged the whole thing off as imagination. Maybe he was just reacting to all of the stress he had felt that day. Stress related temporary insanity for a sixteen-year-old boy? Maybe- maybe not. He wasn’t going to dwell on it either way.
Hours rolled past and the day ended with everyone going their own separate ways. Jesse found himself eventually dressed down and ready for bed. He thought he had fallen asleep fairly softly and quickly. Then the weirdness began.
Jesse was wide-awake and looking out of his bedroom door from a supine laying down position. His bedroom was located on the second floor of their brownstone like home and he could see the up-climbing straight staircase through a landing banister in front of his door. Without any logical reason, Jesse was sure that in the still of the small hours of a new day, that someone was climbing the staircase.
Jesse’s house had four people living there- Jesse, Karen, Mom and Dad- so that might not seem so remarkable that someone was climbing the stairs at this hour. Heck. The kitchen was downstairs. Maybe Dad needed a snack or Mom couldn’t sleep after the passing of her own mother. That would make perfect sense. Wouldn’t it?
But something was different. True enough, that when Jesse went to sleep, a train wreck probably wouldn’t wake him. Everyone said so. But they all slept that way too. And even stranger…
Jesse couldn’t hear anything coming up that staircase.
Now, that might seem normal to most people who haven’t actually lived in a brownstone home built in the late forties. In thirty years of life, the most vociferous furnishing in the relatively quiet domicile had certainly become the stairs. The family had re-carpeted the house three years earlier and still Jesse knew that you couldn’t sneak up or down those damned stairs. One misstep would cry out like a baby in a tunnel. You could miss that creak and whine.
But as sure as Jesse was that something was coming up that staircase… no sound was made by any one of those thirty-year-old boards.
Jesse felt his breathing get shallower as panic seemed to drown him. He knew something was coming up those stairs. He looked at the alarm clock on his dresser and due to the streetlight shining through his un-shaded window, he saw “2:12” at the indication of the hands. He had nearly five hours yet to sleep, if he thought that he really would or could. Jesse looked back to the staircase. His heart beat alone could tell him that whatever or whoever was coming up that staircase, must be getting closer because the beats just got faster.
Then. He thought the muscle in his chest would simply explode.
Jesse could see a shadow. A head, maybe shoulders- but definitely a shadow.
And the shadow was progressing up the stairs steadily.
Jesse was sure that he was dreaming and made fast work to be assured of the fact. As if gossamer wings of sugar would dissolve in warm water, the memory of the image dissipated from his mind as he rose the next morning to travel to school. After the usual hustle and bustle of every man’s every day, Jesse resolved himself back to the warmth of his bed with nearly no thought given to the animation he felt sure he had created the night before.
Then Jesse was awake again.
And the shadow moved slowly up the wall. Jesse couldn’t force himself again to his dreams. The soundless passage of the staircase before his doorway would not allow him rest. And his visage upon the shadow would not continue for long even with its painfully strong yet tediously slow motion up the wall. His doorway would only allow so much for his point of attack visibility to view this intensely magnetic target. Soon the shadow would disappear on a seeming path towards the second floor landing to the right of his own mother and father’s door.
The panic rose again for the sixteen-year-old man cowering beneath the covers. Jesse looked again upon the clock on his dresser to see the same “2:12” indicated by golden arms. Still there was no sound as Jesse considered that this shadow that could not exist would soon be at his mother’s resting place entrance. Should he confront the shadow? Would his parents need to be rescued?
The shadow had been there before as surely as it was here now. Was it really here now? And why was a spectre so silent so capable of waking Jesse with such stealthy movement? On the night before, this apparition had left no damage in spite of Jesse returning to slumber. Jesse was sure that no such harm would come from this second visit. And why was Jesse so sure? Jesse didn’t know, but he sure of this fact regardless.
Jesse stole quietly and briskly from the bed and to the wall that blocked him from seeing the shadow’s progress. With his back to the wall, he inhaled his bravery deeply. Jesse knew he was turning into the propitious pathway of the potential phantom as he turned to place his body upon the banister-sidled hallway. His surprise was engulfing none the less.
Before Jesse was an apparition slightly taller than five foot in his estimate. The spirit was black upon dark gray with a harrowing human silhouette. The hair, the face, the features were indistinguishable in the darkness of the hallway but they were not in any manner unkindly. They were remarkable passive in their darkness, and they scared the hell out of Jesse as well.
In a backward crab, Jesse crawled back towards his room to bang stop into the wall before the turn. Rolling over, Jesse scurried to his feet and launched his 150-pound body through the air towards the pillow at the top of his bed. Jesse overshot the mark, ending his glide with a solid thump on the wall at the back of the bed. Voiceless with fear, Jesse sat and watched as the ghost moved across the threshold and into the ambient light of the street lamp outside of his room’s window. Jesse saw his mother in the face of the image coming towards him at the top of his bed.
Not exactly, but strongly, the facial features that were ‘til then obscured in darkness were of Jesse’s own mother. To this point, the closed eyes on the ghost had not revealed their familiar identity. This spirit was in fact Jesse’s own grandmother.
As near as the visage was to Jesse, the apparition moved closer still to stop an arm’s length from Jesse pressed harder into the bedroom wall. Jesse could no more breathe than he could cry out as the vision lifted its left arm slowly to rest inches from Jesse’s chest. Jesse froze as he looked from the seemingly raised hand to the spectre’s closed eyes. And then the eyes opened.
The eyes were clearly white with irises that had not color. Jesse was drawn to look at the eyes by fear as well as by curiosity. It was though a pool of white floated in darkest space with an island of clearest black in the center. Then the ghost stepped forward and the hand was upon Jesse’s chest.
There was no pressure. There was no feel. But if Jesse were to remember, he had no compulsion or desire, nor any ability to move from under the spirit’s arm. Visions blossomed in Jesse’s exhausted mind. Visions of Rick and how Jess had been played by the other boy's vanity as a dupe passed Jesse's eyes. How Rick had always exhibited Jesse as his slave, trapped by Rick’s own captivity of Maryann’s interest. Jesse also saw that Rick was unconscious in his own jealousy of Jesse’s ability with earning money and Jesse’s greater physical prowess. Jesse saw that the shirts had brought both young men to the fight that was at the diner days before.
Jesse also saw each of his visits to his now spectral grandmother’s hospital during her final bout with mortality. He saw the pain that he had concealed from even himself and the loss that he was enduring without that same realization. Jesse also saw that his grandmother knew his pain and that Jesse had needed so much more than Sara Albert had ever been able to offer the boy.
And Jesse saw his mother and the turmoil that she had endured through her own mother’s sickness. His eyes had been so closed in keeping his own pain hidden from himself.
Suddenly the eyes of his grandmother’s ghost were before him again. Closer now, as though inspecting what the young man might have learned. The ghost raised the hand to cover Jesse’s forehead and peace washed over him in the knowledge that all was well with Sara Albert. And Jesse slid down to his pillow and the sheets that had awaited him as Sara Albert’s ghost slowly turned and moved once again across the threshold of his room.
He awoke to a normal tiring day and began with large looming thoughts of his grandmother. On his way home he stopped two places. At the library, Jesse did some research on spirits, and at the church to purchase a small bible. As he arrived home, Jesse opened the bible to a certain passage and set the small book in the windowsill beside the front door to their brownstone home. Turning, he was startled by his mother standing at the downstairs foot of the case. Mom had her arms wrapped Indian style and leaned thoughtfully against the wall.
“Whatcha got there, Sport?” Mom asked with a wry smile.
“Aww, not much.” Jesse answered with a shuffle and his head turned to watch his own discomforted steps. “I didn’t think you or Dad would mind.”
“Mind?” Mom asked with a quizzical turn of her brow. “Mind what?” She said as she left her spot on the wall and moved toward the door side mantle.
“Well, I’ve put a scripture on the shelf, Mom.” Jesse answered sheepishly.
Sara Albert’s youngest daughter looked to see the small green bible opened to Psalm 23. After reading from ”The Lord is my shepherd” to “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”, she looked up and smiled at her beautiful son. Jesse would make a fine man, one day far in the future, she thought.
“You know, your grandmother used to do that when I was a child whenever someone close would pass, Jesse.” Mom said wistfully. “I think its lovely that you thought to do the same.
And as she turned and walked away, she said a quiet prayer to thank her Lord for allowing her mother to help her son pass away the grief that they all knew that Jesse would have avoided without her help.
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|Reviewed by Tricia a
|I love this story....edge of tears here, just not sure it's really horror??|