Ten days on the road and I am home, tired as hell. I park in the underground garage of my building. There is nobody around. Times like this, I often whistle the iconic tune from Westside Story to hear it reverberate against the concrete partitions and walls. I imagine Jets and Sharks spilling out from behind any of the chain-link lockers–it’s the perfect setting. I don’t whistle this evening though. I am grumpy to be back from another trip out west and must unload my van. This means hauling bags, books, and cooking gear up two flights of stairs. Yes, there are elevators, but they are in the wrong direction from the direct line between van and apartment. Yes there are the stairs to navigate, but I would rather them than the long hallway from the elevator to my door. Yes, I have done this before–nothing new.
My first load is just short of too much. I am loaded down with backpacks, and as many sacks of things as my two hands can carry. I walk from my van to the stairwell door where no Broadway dancers are. I see the door is not closed completely so I lean into it with my shoulder, push it open, and move myself into the stairwell; I am a walking cloud of stuff. The area is well-lit. There is not a corner in this building that doesn’t have some kind of luminous attention:
The concrete floor is painted grey. The walls are white and are kept white. There are odd bolts in one of the corners–details from an early leak fix. There is a rubber mat on the floor in front of the first flight. It might be a meter-square, and has quarter-sized holes in it that serve to catch dirt trying to ride in on your shoes. Or maybe it’s designed to catch quarters that bejangle out of pockets. Whatever its design function, I suppose this would be the landing, but that assumes descent only. What about ascending? Then, it would be a launch, right?
I hear a voice.
“Not many use this stairwell. I am glad to see you.”
I look toward the voice. It’s coming from the corner below the odd bolts. I see nobody, and nothing except a large cricket. “What the hell?” I mutter.
“You are going to lose a hardboiled egg out of your satchel if you don’t lean to the right,” says the voice.
I lean right, my body straining against my load, but then decide to ignore what I assume is an audio hallucination triggered by bad road coffee and plain exhaustion. I climb the stairs, walk into the hallway and fish for my keys in my pocket. Satchel? Who uses that word anymore? I lean left to line up the key in the lock and a hardboiled egg lands with an unimpressive thump on the hall carpet. I dump my bags in my living room and walk back out into the hall. I look down at the hardboiled egg–it clearly doesn’t belong where it is. It is from nature, and the carpet, with its gold and beige swirls and flourishes; a sad sea between walls papered to round out the experience of despair, is not. This is a hall that it’s best to hurry through, especially if you’re having a tough day. There is nothing noteworthy here, or wasn’t, until egg.
What is it when an old, busted hard-boiled egg is the most delightful object? I pick it up, see its crater-like point-of-impact, and throw it into the garbage. It was one of the eggs I made when I started my trip, ten days ago. Not sure why it wasn’t in the cooler. I start down the stairs for the next load.
Lately, I’ve developed a habit of letting air into my mouth on an outbreath, puffing out my cheeks, holding it, then expelling it under pressure similar to the way air moves out of an air mattress. This is a stress response–a physical acknowledgment of anxiety underlaid with resignation that I am human and am compelled to continue to play the part. I do it now, and get to the air-being-expelled part as I reach the landing/launch.
“You know that doesn’t do anything to help,” says the voice.
I stop. I hang onto the railing with my left hand and look for the voice source. I crouch down in front of the cricket.
“Oh, hello,” it says.
I back up and sit on the first stair. The cricket moves out of the corner, but not too far. “Are you okay? You look like someone edged you off your pins.”
There is silence. The cricket takes a step to its right. I squint at it. “Are you…”
“Am I?” it says. “I am not. Neither are you. That’s part of your problem. In fact, that IS your problem.”
“What are you talking…? You understand…”I blither.
“It doesn’t really matter does it? I could be a potato. Or a misplaced television remote. Or an egg.”
“I don’t understand.”
“How is one thing so different from another?” the cricket asks.
I get up and move toward the door. I look back at the cricket. “I have work to do yet. I don’t have time to spare listening to…” I turn to the door and open it. “…Potato.” I walk to the van and pull out another load, unsure of my reality right now. I drop my sleeping bag–the neato one I bought from MEC. It’s in a compression bag that makes it small, and it rolls underneath the van. I get down on my hands and knees so that I can see where it has gone to. I lie on my belly to reach it–don’t care about my clothes at this point. I retrieve the bag, but then rest there a minute and look around; the parking garage seems different from this level–cricket level. “Enough,” I whisper. I stand and do the breath-holding-balloon thing while I brush dirt off of my clothes. I fill my arms and shoulders with duffel bags, my sleeping bag, therma-rest, and a folding grocery box full of cans of food, crackers, dry things. I walk to the stairwell door which opens before I touch it. A man in a red, film noir concierge outfit, stands holding the door for me, a white linen serviette over his free arm. I step into the stairwell. Two bellboys in matching suits take my gear and my box of food and head up the stairs at a run.
“Um. Um…” I have no skills above idiot in this moment. I follow them with my eyes until they disappear behind the second flight of stairs. I hear the door to the hallway open, footsteps to my apartment, the door opening, then closing. I look down toward the corner of the stairwell. The cricket is sitting in a chair pulled up to a table on which it appears to be playing solitaire. It makes a tsk sound, gathers the tiny cards and looks up at me while it reshuffles.
“Happy?” it asks.
“I asked if you were happy. You know, since you didn’t have to carry so much stuff up those stairs. That should have made you at least a little happy, no?” it says, and begins dealing a new hand.
“Um, but I…where did these people come from?” I turn and step toward the concierge man at the door. “Where did you come from?” I demand.
“Where did who come from?” asks the cricket. I turn toward it. It looks up at me, then back to the cards. It puts an ace down in the space above the seven columns of cards. I look back toward the door. There is nobody there. I pull it open and look into the parking garage. I see nobody and hear no footsteps.
“Where did the guy with the thing on his arm go?” I ask.
“Hmmm? Oh, I suppose he went back to wherever he was before you saw him. You know sometimes, this game…it’s like it is so easy. Like I am being setup to win.” The cricket is laying cards as fast as it is turning them.
I lean my back against the wall. “And other times?” I looked up at the ceiling. “I suppose the two bellboys–also gone to wherever?”
“Maybe,” the cricket says, shuffling the deck. “Does it matter?”
I stand away from the wall. “What if they’re going through my stuff?” I posit.
The cricket throws the deck down on the table. “Oh, you and your stuff. So much stuff. And the storiesyou make up.”
I look up to the ceiling and then back to the cricket. The table, chair and deck of cards are all gone. The cricket is mimicking me leaning against the wall. I push myself to standing. “I’m going to go get the cooler.” The cricket looks at me and I swear it shrugs its shoulders. I open the door to the parking garage, pause to look for the concierge again, then walk to my van. I pull out the cooler– still one-third full of food, the last item that I need to tend to before I can go to bed. I open the lid and see that much of the ice is melted, so I take the unit to a water grate near my parking spot, pull open the drain plug on the cooler and tip the opposite end up enough to get rid of the water into wherever the grate leads. I look around for other people. There is nobody, but the sensor lights–the lights that are triggered by movement, go on and off here and there. Probably a spider. Probably.
I close the drain plug, lift the cooler and walk to the stairwell. The cooler is heavy enough, but not impossible especially if I do the breath-hold-balloon thingy. The stairwell door is closed. I put the cooler down, reach for the handle, pause, and whistle the Westside Story notes. Nothing. I open the door, pick up the cooler and step into the stairwell. I drop the cooler, let the door close behind me and watch as a cricket in a cowboy hat, chaps, and boots, maneuvers under stage lights that came from I-have-no-idea-where, and begins singing a song from Oklahoma.
“Bugs and chicks and ducks better scurry,
When I take you out in the surrey,
When I take you out in a hurry with the thing, on top…”
“Sorry, but I don’t think those are the right words,” I kind of yell.
The cricket stops and looks at me. It takes off its hat. It takes off its chaps and boots. It stands still for a moment and then it makes the iconic chirp sound of a cricket. “Is that better?”
“I said,” it said, “is that better? Do you prefer my animalia noise that I am supposed to make? Is that better than me belting out a slightly mucked-up rendition of a Rogers and Hammerstein ditty?”
The stage lights click off. The cricket sits back in the corner and makes more chirping noises. I figure that I am probably having a stroke, suffering from subtle exhaust fumes, or mold. I pick up my cooler and take it up to the second floor, open my apartment door and find the load the bellboys had hauled up previously. The windows are open, and there is a bowl of chicken soup and a glass of milk on my desk. My bed has been turned down and there is a wrapped chocolate on my pillow.
I sleep late into the next morning. I do not remember eating the chocolate, or the soup, but I find the meal dishes in my sink. I spend the day putting things away. I do laundry, and sleep more. I do not leave my apartment. The next day, as my normal anxiety about everything builds–my separateness from the world, I decide to get outside and hike on a trail. I go down through the stairwell to get my van. I notice a small cricket lying in beside the rubber landing/launch mat. I notice one of its legs move, but there is no sound. I continue on. I drive my van to the point where it activates the garage door, but then I back up, put the damn thing in park, run into the stairwell and coax the cricket up onto my hand, making every attempt to not damage any finer parts invisible to my eyes. It doesn’t fuss. I hold my hand flat and expect it to jump off and end up lost in my van but it does not. The cricket stays on my hand. I drive out of the garage, park the van, and take the cricket to the lawn, now in full sun. I put my hand down in the grass and tip it just enough for the little creature to escape easily. It steps off calmly, like a tourist exiting a bus. I am relieved, and blissfully happy.
I look up. The building super is walking his dog and sees me. I explain that I am freeing a cricket from the stairwell. We talk about traveling and dogs.