By Arnold Serapilio
Nobody really knows where the staircase came from. One day it didn’t exist, and then the next day there it was, fully assembled, as if it had always been there. Depending on who you asked, it was a stunning marble flanked by brass banisters. Others saw it as splintering wood in need of restoration. To some it was a spiral staircase and to others, not. The only consensus was that it looked not like the work of human hands but rather of some unnervingly invisible force, seeming to have sprouted from the earth overnight. I.E. Fielding, a member of several generations back who had passed years ago but who still inhabited the library on a different plane, had watched the staircase grow from nothing. It was the single most spectacular thing he had ever known.
An email blast to the membership read, “Lady Luck once again smiles upon the Boston Athenæum, this time in the form of an exquisite marble stairwell, genesis unknown. We are working diligently with our curators and experts in multiple fields to establish provenance. We encourage anybody with information about how sudden staircases work—neoclassical or otherwise—to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Originating below Lower Pilgrim, the staircase met the first floor at the Bow Room just a few paces ahead of stairwell 1, hitting the second floor where the Bow Room meets the Long Room, and cutting deeper into the Long Room at each floor, terminating at the entrance of the Jackson Room on five. This meant you could walk the entire height of the building in one throw knowing there was a couch waiting for you at the end. It was here that you could contemplate questions big and small, such as “Why do we exist? Not just as human beings—as opposed to, say, a wave of light or a desolate moon—but at all, and what do we do while here? Do we have a moral imperative to treat each other well and take care of our planet or is a singular devotion to self-interest a sufficient model of behavior? And if we’re not sure how to answer this strictly through introspection might we look outward, share ideas with each other, assess the amount of needless suffering that could be prevented with a tremendous coordinated team effort, and evaluate the efficacy of systems we’ve propped up that have either inadequate or else non-existent mechanisms to manage our worst impulses, e.g. thoughtless haste, greed, and arrogance, that have delivered us to a point of precariousness?” and “Where did this stain on my shirt come from,” respectively.
Jimmy stepped away from the front desk. No sooner was he out of eyeshot than a member approached the desk. “Where’s Jimmy?!” the member said, voice cracking.
The warm body at the front desk assured the member that Jimmy was still very much employed by the institution but that, as it happened, was not at the front desk at the present moment. Was there something the warm body could do for the member, or was this a personal matter for Jimmy specifically?
“He can’t leave, you know,” the member said. “This place will fall apart.”
“OK, I’m leaving,” Jimmy said as he came back around the corner, putting on his coat. “See you Friday.”
“He’s not back until Friday?” the member asked.
The warm body shrugged. Jimmy was an institution unto himself, so folks were skittish when he wasn’t around. That was understandable. Who wouldn’t feel at sea when someone you cared about was gone? The warm body had recently lost a friend. Shortly after the friend died, the warm body dreamed about the friend. The warm body was trying to navigate an impossibly steep staircase while carrying an unwieldy package and so didn’t notice the friend waiting at the top of the stairs until reaching the top. Startled, because even in the logic of the dream, the friend was dead, the warm body was overcome with emotion. “Are you OK?” the warm body managed to stammer out after some time, for in life the friend had gotten sick and died far too young. “Yes,” the friend said, and the warm body realized the friend looked healthy, and vibrant, as if she had never fallen ill. “Are you going to start showing up everywhere now?” the warm body asked. “I will,” the friend said, and the dream ended there.
Under watchful eye, hired art handlers shifted the two decorative urns from the front windows to the foot of the stairs on the first floor. There were three schools of thought on placement. Fifth floor regulars hoped the urns would be placed at the top of the stairs so they could admire them while ensconced in study. Others wanted the urns on the first floor as a visual selling point. Purists wanted the urns in Lowly Pilgrim where the stairs began because where in life do you start if not at the beginning? In the end it was decided the urns would travel from spot to spot once every two months so everybody would get a chance to relish them.
“You don’t have any spare wood planks lying around, do you?”
Folks had started using the stairs as workspace but were having difficulty balancing their laptops and notebooks on their laps. In order to keep the items from sagging you had to keep your legs clamped together tight, which was uncomfortable. But if you could rest a wooden plank atop your knees you had a portable desk for a scholar on the go. As it turned out the front desk didn’t have wooden planks, though they were quick to point out that there were desks throughout the building. No thanks. “How about this unused box lid? It’s somewhat stiff. Not as solid as a plank, but it might do the trick.” Yes please, that will do just fine. By noontime folks dotted the staircase in this manner.
And there were now enclosed bookshelves running up either side of the staircase, filled with curiosities from the Athenæum’s special collections. Things like the first (and only) edition of Midge and Bingo’s Journey Into___, which rested open for display purposes, to the following excerpt:
A trenchcoated figure floated over to the front desk. The person did not have a face. A mop of hair hung over a pair of sunglasses. Where you would have seen features there was simply air and your thwarted expectations. “My name is Dr. Ambitious, and I have an appointment with the Boston Athenæum.”
“And whom are you meeting?” asked the warm body at the front desk.
“The Boston Athenæum.”
“Right, but who exactly?”
Dr. Ambitious pointed to the staircase.
“Um…ok…” The warm body, being a consummate professional, reached for the phone and sighed, but only on the inside, so as to not telegraph agitation. Who to call? How about Reference? “Hi, I have a Dr. Ambush here to—”
“Sorry, a Dr. Ambitious here for…somebody? I’m having trouble getting to the bottom of who he—or she—” The warm body realized Dr. Ambitious’s gender was indiscernible. He or she? Although what did it matter really, since at core a human being is a human being? They, then. And when you got down to it, weren’t all human beings working from similar psychic mapping, such as a desire to socialize, to innovate, to explore, to love and be loved? Weren’t these fundamental commonalities the most important thing? Why divide and destroy when you could unify and create? Hadn’t you ever felt within yourself a loneliness or isolation, and what use was that pain if not as incentive to knock down the barriers you had previously put up for yourself? Where were these thoughts coming from? The real question was, who meets with a staircase?
Dr. Ambitious hugged the banister. “Hello, Vera. So good to see you again.” They knelt down and pressed their ear to a step. “Are folks enjoying you?”
Who was Vera? thought the warm body at the front desk. Was it time to call Security?
Ambitious said, “I beg your pardon. No need to call Security. I mean you no harm. I see there is confusion as to the nature of our dear Vera.”
Ambush could read minds? This was getting too weird.
“Ambitious, not Ambush,” Ambitious said, and as they began gliding toward the front entrance, said, “I suppose the confusion is understandable. But you see, you created this marvelous staircase. And you should be proud, not confused.” They left without another word.
THURSDAY NIGHT, SOMETHING LIKE MIDNIGHT
It was after hours and the building was empty. Everybody had gone home. I.E. Fielding was within the staircase. He was feeling nostalgic. How long had this building been his home? He remembered when he was alive, what it meant to be able to sit in a chair, or thumb the pages of a book. Now he was the chair, he was the book, he was the building, and that was nice, but it wasn’t the same as being one discrete person, bound by the material. It had been years since he’d known the pleasure of touch, and yet as he washed over the staircase he found that he could feel again. The staircase quivered gently, as if it were cold. He thought of his Athenæum friends, of Bingo and Mrs. Audrey especially, and how grateful he was to have known them, and the chasm of irrevocable loss seized him and he shivered. What an odd experience, to feel cosmically validated by the tactile exhilaration of a great chill, and yet the chill itself derived from sadness.
Dr. Ambitious said to Fielding, “Hey, think of it this way. We are fortunate to have anything to lose.”
Fielding said, “I had a wife, Beatrice. She was my kindred spirit. I had friends, Bingo and Midge. I truly was blessed. I tried to get them back after I departed, but I failed. I miss them all dearly.”
Ambitious nodded. “It really is all about the people you meet along the way, isn’t it? Into each other’s hearts we go. That’s where life is.”
“I love you, Beatrice,” Fielding said, “and I love you, Bingo old dog, and you, Mrs. Audrey, and your endless knowledge. Please take care. I will be ok.”
A door appeared at the very top of the stairs.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” said Dr. Ambitious.
“So where’s that door at the top of the stairs lead to, eh?”
It wasn’t even 10:30 in the morning yet and this was already sure to be the question of the day—of the month, most likely. The warm body at the front desk agreed that indeed, that was the question, wasn’t it? But unfortunately the door was locked, and nobody seemed to have the key, and furthermore the door did not even appear to have a lock or a keyhole. The truth was nobody knew what was on the other side of that door. But people talked nonetheless, and there were theories: what, after all, was that flickering light coming through the bottom? And those sounds, what were those sounds? Depending on who you asked it was a delicate icy tingling. Others heard a warm, low hum. Maybe you could listen for yourself.
The warm body at the front desk decided to investigate. Jimmy could cover the desk for as long as this might take. “I’ll be here,” Jimmy said. The warm body walked down to Lowly Pilgrim, thinking that if you were going to do this at all you were going to do it right, and the only way to do it right was to start from the bottom, start at the beginning. Up you went. The staircase was wobbly. Dizzying, actually. Time to sit down and collect yourself.
You resumed the climb after a brief spell. The stairs today were notably clear of people studying. Only Bingo and Mrs. Audrey graced the staircase. You recognized them from photographs in the library’s archive. Bingo muttered “a martini, a shot of scotch, anything,” and Mrs. Audrey said, “Somebody was thinking of us, I just know it.” And then Bingo said, “Um, look where we are…”
Getting back to you—here was something strange. With each step, the ground you’d covered vanished, and around you the building dropped away, leaving only a grey expanse. You could see only the stairs you hadn’t climbed yet and the door at the very top. Where was this headed? You needed to sit down again. You watched your feet dangling in the abyss, and something inside you encouraged you to press on. Up you went again, what remained of the staircase. When you got to the top your breathing was labored and your legs were stiff. You listened for any sounds. What were you hearing, laughter? Voices? Anybody you recognized? The door flew open as if by a gust of wind. You weren’t sure if you believed what you saw, Dr. Ambitious embedded in a starry sky, and they reached out their hand and said, “Right this way. There are people waiting for you, and we have so much to accomplish together.”