Hot off of a revision of a story about an elevator ride that felt like it would never end is a story about a staircase. This one is an odd bird; it came from a dream I had last week.
In that dream, I was going to Hogwarts, which was located past a secret entrance at the back of an ice cream store in the retail district of a semi-futuristic city. There were a lot of odd thing about the dream: it was only 24 miles away and I decided to run there in 30 minutes. The ice cream shop had Dumbledor on the marketing. I could fly, encounters were triggered like video games (I play too many video games), and Hagrid–played by Gerard Butler–really didn’t want me to know about the staircase in the back that went up forever.
Well, I distilled all the Harry Potter and video game references right out of that, and this story was left.
“Do you want to know a secret,” the guy at the ice cream joint asked me. He’d already asked me if I thought that the ice cream was “magical,” evidently the tagline for the shop. I had agreed, albeit awkwardly. To be fair, the ice cream at “Cream-o-mancy” was incredible. The wizard on the shop’s signage, with his traditional pointed hat replaced by a waffle cone, seemed to think that the cream was pretty special. The guy behind the counter was buying into the theme, too, though his long gray hair and scrabbly beard were both wrapped in nets, spoiling the image.
“Uh.” Nothing good ever came from a strange bearded man, peddling sweets, and offering secrets. I was a little old to be lured into the back of a van, but the guy’s excitement was nearly manic.
“Come on, man… not everyone knows about this secret. It’s cool.” His eyes were also a little bloodshot. Maybe he’s going to offer me drugs? In that case, I was a little interested.
“All right, I’ll humor you.”
“In the back, waaaaay in the back, there’s a staircase that goes up forever.”
This was significantly less interesting a revelation, though I was right about the drugs.
“Nah, really! It’s, like, you can see it going up, but it doesn’t stop.”
“Haven’t you ever walked up it?”
“Fuck no! But one guy that used to work here said he did. Said he walked up it for at least half an hour, and when he gave up to turn back, he hadn’t gone up more than one or two steps.”
I laughed. How could I not?
“Your friend sounded like he was on some good stuff.”
“Not him, man.”
“Okay, well, in any event, the ice cream was great, but I—”
“You wanna see it?”
I considered carefully. Should I deny a guy clearly strung out on something, or should I take my chances in the back with mister wizard here?
“Yes! My man, you aren’t going to believe this shit.” He took off his apron and walked into the back without so much as a check to make sure there weren’t other customers. I followed, through a swinging door and into the cold of the storeroom. He led me past empty tubs of ice cream, beyond the large walk-in freezers and their noisy generators, and out the back door.
The shop was in one of those galleria malls downtown. Going “out back” didn’t put us outside, but in some featureless white hallway. Back doors to other businesses flanked us, and the place held the faintest smell of old produce.
“So, we gotta go back this way a ways. This place it like a maze, man, all twisting and turning and shit.” I followed trippy Gandalf as he took us around a few turns, down more featureless corridors, and through at least four more swinging doors. He wasn’t kidding; in short order, I was lost. I had tried to keep track of which mechanical room doors we passed, where the electric boxes were, and how many exits signs I counted. All the while, the running commentary from my guide in this demented quest got less and less coherent. The smell of rotting produce got stronger, and then faded, turning musky. We were still somewhere in the interior alleys of the city—we had to be—but it felt like we’d been winding around for a long time.
We continued this way until we emerged in the galleria.
Or rather, a completely empty portion of it. I’d been in the galleria a few times over the years, but this was completely new to me. New and deserted.
“Is this part being remodeled?” I asked.
“What? Nah, they just forgot about it.”
“Then why does it still have electricity and,” I noticed, “muzak?”
My guide shrugged.
The storefronts were all staples of the malls of my youth; stores like KB Toys, B Daltons, and Sam Goody. Doors were all open and shelves stocked, but there wasn’t a single person in sight. I got the feeling that I could have walked into any one of those stores, taken what I wanted, and no one would have stopped me. There was no one to care.
“C’mon, man, it’s just over there.” I suddenly felt like an idiot.
“That’s an escalator, dude,” I said, nodding to the moving staircase he’d pointed to. “It goes around and around, not up forever. Jesus, man, I have to admire your commitment to a joke.”
“Huh?” He was confused. “Oh, I get it. Maaaaan, that would be a good joke. Like, a total play on, like, expectations or something. But that’s not it. It’s up the escalator and at the end of the hallway.”
I nodded, a little disappointed that this trek wasn’t over. “Oh. Okay, well, let’s go, then.”
“Dude, I’m not going up there. This is all you, now.”
“I told you, I don’t like it. And, like, when you see it, I wouldn’t do anything but look.”
“You’re… you’re at least going to wait here, right? I don’t think I could find my way back.”
“Sure, sure,” he nodded. He pulled a joint out of his pocket and stuck it between his lips. “I’ll be right here when you get back.”
I’m not sure why I did it, but I stepped on the escalator. Fluorescent lights and the incessant tunes of synthesized Celine Dion followed me as I went. The walk was a little longer than I expected—clearly, my guide’s definition of “just ahead” and mine were different—but I went on. Sunk cost; I’d gone this far and could go just a little farther for what was sure to be some kind of drug-addled misunderstanding of how stairs worked.
I was at least a few minutes down the hall before I noticed that the shops and storefronts. The stores of my youth were replaced with less familiar ones. Gadzooks and Camelot Music and Kenny G muzak. Then to Contempo Casual and Casual Corner with versions of ABBA and the Bee-Gees. And on to Chess King and Kinney Shoes. The muzak eventually faded out altogether, replaced by the distant calliope of a carousel.
I was already starting to believe the ice cream wizard’s story by the time the storefronts were nothing but displays and rows of window displays of staircases. All the store names were stair themed bastardizations of the mall stores of the past—KB Stairs, Pepperidge Stairs, and so on. Kiosks advertised nothing but rotating pictures of stairways. Stairs spiraling up (or down, depending, I suppose, or your perspective). Grand staircases in plantations style homes and concrete steps in parks nestled in hidden corners of the country.
The last staircase at the end of this maddening walks was the one the ice cream guy was talking about. There was no mistaking it.
He wasn’t wrong; it was unsettling. I felt like its impossible length was a trick of perspective, and that it really didn’t go up forever, but just got smaller in scale as it went up. I thought about turning back at that point, but it seemed like I could no more do so that no breathe. If he really had a friend who had at least tried walking up the stairs only to turn back and leave, that person had more will than I did.
And so, up I went.
I didn’t decide at any point to turn around. I was in it for the long haul, so to speak, and I wouldn’t stop—couldn’t stop—until I reached the top. Whoever it was that was my wizardly guide here, that dark practitioner of the ice cream arts, had to know that I wouldn’t be coming back. But I think he didn’t expect me to come back.
I think he knew that he was leading me to a path without end. An escalator ride that never looped around.