There’s a flight of stairs in my hometown that’s haunted me since childhood.
It menaced me every year — each time my family would line up with a thousand other spectators to watch parades roll through our town square. We would set up right next to our local courthouse with folding chairs and maybe a blanket spread upon the grass, sitting and waiting for the marching bands, fire trucks, horses and colorful floats filled with local children and cheerleaders and city councilmen to shower all the children with candy and balloons, listening to the sirens roar for hundreds of blocks up and down the city streets. It was tradition, a happy time for everyone. But each time, I was terrified I would have to journey down Those Stairs — the stairs that led “down there.”
The Stairs of Dread wore an ambiance of death, cast a smell of no return and echoed with centuries of screams. Those stairs were my very own childhood horror movie. And the stairs, steep and dirty and smelling of the past, weren’t even as scary as the anticipation of where they led. They were merely the entryway to the site of my early execution. They led to Certain Death.
Escaping the journey down the Stairs of Assassination is harder than one would think: for anyone brave enough to walk them, those stairs led to the only public bathroom in the area. As I was a mere child, bathroom breaks were a necessity. I would drink sodas and homemade lemonade, oblivious to the future physical consequences. I would begin to feel the coldness of fear along with the pressure on my bladder. It was an instantaneous and parallel meeting of pure terror.
What was a child to do? For what seemed like hours, I would hold in the urge to shake my father’s sleeve and let him know I had to “go.” Sometimes I would win the battle and leave the parade and sit in our car’s backseat. And as my father would begin our drive home, after only a couple blocks I’d scream out to my parents that I had to go pee NOW and beg them to swing into a McDonald’s for my release. It was worth the scolding from my dad asking why I just didn’t go back at the courthouse. “I didn’t have to go then,” I would reply softly. He didn’t understand. He never would.
But sometimes I couldn’t hold out until then. Sometimes, I had to go face-to-face with the stairs and their murderous legacy. I would begin with a slow walk across the yard toward the end of my existence until I reached the top of the stairs. Sometimes I would run down them with my back against the wall, like a Navy SEAL on recon trying to infiltrate a village while going undetected. Sometimes I would creep down the stairs very slowly, trying to not make a sound.
The door to the Chamber of Death was old and held on by a single hinge — I had to lift up on it just to get the door open. It dragged and screeched with a hideous sound as it scraped across the floor. It had an old, rusted, and dirty latch spring that would slam the door shut when I let it go. If I could make it inside the Dungeon of Death, I would hear the stall doors creaking and the pipes moaning as they leaked drips of acid onto the concrete floor. Right above my head, one exposed light bulb clung to a piece of bare electrical wire and a pull-chain that swayed back and forth endlessly without any force of breeze or wind. The dark green paint covering the walls was peeling, and the rust from the pipes slowly crept toward me. Water dripped constantly from the sinks’ hardware, which was caked with a green and rigid substance that looked like the buildup on a car battery.
The toilets were black, and they hummed, and the stalls were covered with words and pictures of violence. There were no locks on the doors. I assumed they were broken off by victims struggling and fighting to escape their doom. I would pick the stall closest to the exit. I would stand there, quiet and still until I was finished, glancing over my shoulder every couple of seconds. I would then turn around and stare at the stall door, trying desperately to gain enough courage to make a mad dash out of my Death Chamber and back to the Land of the Free. Up the stairs toward the light I would run like the wind. I did it! I made it. I was lucky — this time. I escaped once more.
But, of course, the older I got the less scary it became. It is silly now to think how worked up we, as children, can become. A few months ago, I went back to that town square when my grandfather was honored in a WWII memorial. And there it was, lurking just a few feet away — the nemesis from my childhood. I walked to the top of the stairwell and looked straight down. But it was not scary anymore. It was full of history, age, and beauty. The colors were gleaming. I walked to the bottom and looked up. I lay directly on my stomach upon the concrete to take that picture. I wanted to capture every single detail from top to bottom and from side to side. I had to somehow immortalize the way my old adversary looked to me that day.