Thaddeus Rutkowski – Spiral stairs

Rutkowski LE P&W 4 Nov-Dec 2023

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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Four Nov-Dec 2023.

Spiral stairs, story by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Spiral stairs

The building’s tower wasn’t known to many people. When you came in the front door and looked around the bar area, you didn’t see it. You had to go around behind the bar to find the stairs. Most customers wouldn’t search far enough to find the stairs; they’d sit on a stool, drink their liquor, and, if alert enough, enjoy the decorations: the antique tchotchkes on shelves and the colored lights on strings.

My wife and I had stopped here for food on our way home from a clinic. I’d picked her up there.

“I’ll be back soon,” I said, and got up from our small, round-topped table.

I went straight to the tower. The stairs twisted in a spiral, following an outside stone wall. There was no railing, so I had to steady myself with my hand against the stones to climb the steps. As I ascended, I passed rooms, and when I looked in I found something ordinary but surprising in each one.

In the first enclosure I saw someone preparing a recipe. The food was red and white, and mushy, like grits. “Is it sweet or spicy?” I asked. “Or is it both?” I didn’t hear the answer because I had to move on.

Not only did I not know what was in these rooms, I didn’t know this part of town. We were way up north, and we lived downtown. On a table next to the tower’s steps, I saw a stack of fliers referring to the kind of poetry event I’d attend downtown. And why not? There was no reason uptown’s events couldn’t overlap with downtown’s.

When I looked into another room, I spotted a plant with flowers. It was a cactus—not a particularly healthy one. It looked like a windowsill plant in our apartment. Our plant had branches that drooped for most of the year but gained new life in the winter, when the cactus put out a bloom of large white flowers.

Elsewhere, I saw an art print on a wall. In the work, an insect sat in the center of a gray-brown background. The creature was some sort of fly, with a pattern of blacks and browns on its body and wings. But “sat” wasn’t the right word; the insect was mounted where two lines intersected. It was pinned there. One of its legs had come free and was frozen in a curl. It looked like a specimen prepared by my father for study. He had been an amateur entomologist and had preserved hundreds of insects in glass-topped boxes.

In another room, I was drawn to a window and looked out, expecting to see the side of a neighboring building, but the view opened onto greenery, a place like a park. Three trees stood in a row, as if planted. They were past flowering, and yellow-green leaves sprouted from their branches. They looked like trees outside our apartment in late spring.

Farther along, a watercolor made by child was tacked to a white wall. I recognized it as an artwork by our daughter: A girl’s head rose above a river next to Manhattan. Only one building, the Empire State, was visible in the distance. Was she drowning? I didn’t think so. The dark-haired girl was afloat, and she was smiling. Maybe she’d completed a swimming lap around the island.

In another enclosure, a photo caught my attention. Someone I knew was in the photo: a member of my childhood family. It was my mother, standing with her relatives—people I’d never met. The photo was labeled “The Wang Family” in someone’s handwriting. I should have known these people—they were my relatives, too—but I didn’t know them. I couldn’t put first names to their faces.

I came back to our table next to the bar. Very little time had passed since I got up and walked away. Our food had arrived. The drinkers were in their same places.

I encouraged my wife to climb the stairs. “You should go and look at the rooms,” I said. “If you go alone, you’ll see things I didn’t see.”

© Thaddeus Rutkowski

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of eight books, most recently Safe Colors, a novel in short fictions.. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and Columbia University and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

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