The Woman on the Stairway
A light-brown colored woman resided in 607 Chester Residence at East 18th Street in Flatbush. Her hair was black and woolly, with strings of gray; the locks in rows barely brushed upon her rear neck bone and shoulders. She was a thin figure, bony face, and unsophisticated in appearance. As for her mannerism, she had a foul mouth and minded every tenant’s business but her own. The front door of the building and first floor lobby were her hang out spot. There is no doubt that she would’ve had a data base on everyone coming or leaving. She smoked incessantly and brought with her an annoying odor to the nose as she puffed smoke in the air.
Exhaling smoke cloud was not her only habit of annoyance to the tenants who grudgingly passed through the lobby when entering and exiting. We also smelled marijuana as we would walk down the stairs from our apartments every now and then. I would notice the worried look in her countenance when we passed on the stairway between the third and fourth floor, where she was also visible. She knew that we all understood that illegal and familiar scent. The Chester building itself was long over due for a make over according to complaints from the dwellers; but, she added to its indoor atmosphere an unwelcome faint onion stench, that pervaded around her presence.
We recently moved to Brooklyn just two months ago. It was around seven at night when we unloaded furniture from the rented U-haul truck. The woman stood with her back leaning on the outside threshold of her apartment door, observing us as we were moving in. We had relocated from Manhattan to Chester Residence in Brooklyn. I would not have made this hasty and circumstantial transition if it was not for the fact that I had been laid off from work. Therefore, we could not afford to reside in our uptown luxurious three bedroom apartment any longer. Our previous landlord was ready, of course, to have the Marshalls place an eviction notice two weeks later; but Jenkin an old confident of mind, a Superintendent, was employed by the owner of Chester Residence. Jenkin, with a little cash given to him for this personal favor, reserved for us there a large two bedroom apartment on the fourth floor just above that woman. My wife Bertha was not a full-time employee then, so we quickly settled for that first vacant space available for rent. One of us could have informed our relatives or parents concerning our great need, but pride for a life of success and a desire for privacy kept us from doing so.
“What a crack head,” I wondered to myself as I often passed by the woman when taking the stairs instead of that problematic and sometimes useless elevator. I once observed a disappointing look on Bertha’s face when we first moved in. She was not accustomed to this kind of neighborhood and neither was I. Bertha was from a middle class family. Her father was a bank manager and her mother worked as a singer at a Broadway musical show in Manhattan. Bertha and I met in college, graduated, got married, and succeeded in much of our future endeavors together. She was now in search for a nursing position. As for me, I was laid off from the teacher staff through no fault of my own, but that of a collapsing economy. I soon found work as a shoe store associate and tutored Jenkin’s son three days a week to help keep the roof over our heads.
“Daddy,” my four year old son called out as the three of us sat at table eating spaghetti one day after picking him up from school, “why’s that woman keep sittin’ on the stairs almost every time we’re goin down?” I paused from eating and wondered what to answer, but he continued, “And she be smokin…and smellin like Tanya’s foot.”
Tanya, one year older than Kenzie triggered by the joke, smacked her little brother on the back of the head, “How dare you compare me to that crack head…you the one with a big gap between ya teeth just like ‘er!” Kenzie then retorted, “But daddy gotta gap too and…”
“All right you two,” I intervened, “try not to wake up your little sister in the bedroom with all this racket. Kenzie, finish your plate and do your homework. Tanya, wash the dishes before your mother gets home.”
Later that evening a sound could be heard from the door as I sat watching television. It was the sound of jingling keys. Bertha was at the door. She shut it behind her after entering, and proceeded to lock it from top to bottom. She then placed her leather brown Coach bag on the living room table that was covered by a pink cloth.
“Hey hon, how are ya?” she said, with a sigh of relief perhaps from what seemed to her a long day of work. “I’m all right babe. How was your day at Whole Foods?” I inquired with a smile.
She allowed herself to drop on the fluffy leather brown furniture with our arms and fingers intertwined as her head was laid on my shoulder. “Well…it would’ve been a good day if that darn, wanna be manager wasn’t snitchin’ on people all the time. She’s like a Hawk. You know, I can’t wait for a response to my resume, so I can leave that job. I wanna help us make enough money to leave this place too,” she said. Noticing the unusual silence around us, she asked, “How are the kids?” “They’re in the bedroom doing their school work,” I responded. We sat together in long quiet minutes staring at the screen. She sat up, still staring at the television as though in a trance and asked, “Did you smell the stairway below us? That woman must be really smokin’ that stuff ain’t she?” I nodded in agreement, but was distracted by the tube.
Besides getting high and cursing on almost every sentence, the woman at the stairs was somewhat friendly to tenants even if some paid her no mind. She would always greet me, Bertha and the children as if we were her favorite neighbors. In the early morning hours she was not out there but in her apartment. It seemed to have been a habit of hers to sit out in the evenings. Sometimes there was a man sitting next to her with dark shades, blue worn jeans and a black hood that covered his afro. It must have been their pass time for smoking weed.
One evening, I passed by her on the third floor on the way up to my apartment. I always minded my business and did not engage in long conversations with the tenants, except to say good morning or good evening on the way in or out. This time around, I walked passed her floor with slow steps. I got to the fourth floor and leaned over the long badly painted rail. I listened while she was in conversation below on a cell phone unaware of my presence. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself. Her trumpet voice was an invitation for anyone to listen in. I sensed by listening to her, that she was probably up to no good.
Sometime before, I had a chance to see her eyes. They were brown and often stared straight like an eagle—stout and dignified. From afar she looked intelligent, but her mannerism betrayed that impression that seemed to struggle for a place in her image. What or whom was she sitting there waiting for as she held a shrinking cigarette between scrawny fingers. I wondered perhaps her job was to observe nature or people; but I suspected that she was waiting for something more typical, a business transaction perhaps. Like all of us having to work in order to make a living, she was probably hustling her way through life while depending on some kind of state fund. She did not need to elucidate her personal matters to anyone; it could be assumed through my own observation.
I also wondered about how she seemed to be oblivious of the dusty stairs she sat on often. I listened to her one-sided conversation as I stood above her floor. “You son-of-a------! I’m runnin out ta patience with ya!” and “Ya shoulda been ‘ere today, you lyin’ snake!” “So wha’ we gonna do bout ‘er?” “…I guess a sista gotta do what a sista gotta do in this joint, if ya ain’t gonna give a ----- bout me you hypocrite!!”
She went on and on this way. Finally, there was a moment of silence. “Ello… ello… oh no he didn’t!” Whoever she was speaking with must have hung up the phone deliberately. Out of what seemed to be frustration, she threw it on the ground a few feet away and dropped her head between her knees. I now heard sniffing and noticed that she was crying uncontrollably. My mind warned me to mind my own business, but then felt pulled by some force toward her as she wept bitterly with no one else around to witness. My feet with a mind of their own began to take a few steps down the stairs towards her floor.
She was wiping her eyes as she noticed my presence standing beside her. I noticed they were red and glassy with a struggle to hold back tears. A closer look at her countenance revealed to me a poor wretched soul to be pitied. “Why are you crying?” I questioned. I felt sorry for her present state, though I knew nothing concerning the woman. Shame was written on her face from being discovered in such emotion, she answered, “Sorry if I disturbed ya’ll.” She took out her cigarette and with a lighter as if it only would bring a sudden comfort.
“What’s your name?” I asked. “Marj,” she responded with watery eyes as she gave up trying to hide her wet face. “I haven’t cried like this for a long time,” she said. “Look, I know it’s none of my business. And you don’t have to go into personal details; but, are you gonna be okay?” I asked. “She blurted out in response, “I just wanna end my life! I damn sure can’t take it no mo. There’s no reason ta live this miserable existence. I don’t want me. He don’ want me. Even the Man upstairs himself don’t want me!!” she then resumed to sobbing.
“C’mon, don’t say that,” I responded as I discovered myself placing my right palm on her left shoulder.
“I’m a terrible person,” she pleaded.
“Aren’t we all terrible in some way?” I countered.
“I became sick and my mother and father both died one after the other three months ago,” she added.
I then understood that she had more problems than I wanted to hear. There was an uncomfortable silence for almost a minute. I did not know what to say, but felt that I had to say something—something to bring some kind of closure. I then asked for permission to sit next to her on the dusty stairs. She agreed. “You’re not alone; we all got problems; life is full of them, and I’m sorry to hear about your mother and father passing away; but, even though I’m married to a wonderful wife and have three children—there is still something missing in my own life,” I said.
“You seem to be better off—what could you be missin’?” she asked with some interest to know.
“Well, I’m really an orphan,” I said and continued as she seemed focused on hearing more. “I was adopted and never saw my biological parents. I wish I could remember at least what they look like. My foster parents explained that they used to live in Brooklyn but probably moved to another state a few years ago. I’m telling you this because it hurts not to know what they look like. But I was fortunate to find a family who did best to raise me.”
“Wow. I’m sorry ta hear that,” she continued, “but I understand just what tchou mean. I neva told anyone this, but in my teenage years I gave up a son fo adoption,” she confessed. She was now in deep thought, still wiping the remaining moisture below her eyebrows as she continued explaining. “Though it was several years ago, it’s still wit me.” She paused and than turned towards me and asked, “But tcha seem ta have a nice famly, aren’t tcha appy?”
“Oh yeah, I don’t know what I’d do without ‘em,” I responded smiling. She smiled as well, revealing a gap between her front teeth.
“I don’ think ma son would eva forgive me even if I could find ‘im again,” she resumed, “and he would be a grown man now. I use ta pray and aks forgiveness about ‘im.”
“Well…he may, you never know,” I said. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly approach ‘im afta all these years,” she said in wonderment.
I glanced at my watch and saw that several minutes had passed. “Well, it was nice talkin’ to ya,” I said while getting up, “I really have to go up now. I hope you gonna be okay Marj,” She presented a look of assurance and responded, “I will—thanks fo the talk.”
“What’s yo name by the way?” she asked. “It’s Sam,” I answered on my way up. “Sam?” she questioned as though intrigued. “Yeah, Sam,” I repeated. She was staring at me with scrutiny it seemed. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Oh—uh—yes. See you around Sam.” she said, nervously now but with a smile. “Well, have a good evening, Marj,” I said, smiling back and waving as I made my way upstairs with one hand in pocket. She then rose up and entered her apartment shutting the door quietly.
As I stood in front of my door, I reached in my right pocket and took the keys to open it. “She’s not a bad person,” I thought to myself.
“We have something in common. Why was her expression awkward when I told her my name?” I wondered.
A strange and ridiculous epiphany began to manifest in my head as flashes of her smile and wave appeared again.
“That’s crazy; but, could it be?” I wondered.
I opened the door, but for the first time I was deciding whether I should enter into my own apartment.
“Could it be?” I wondered as I stood with one foot in and the other out the door.
I then shut the door and ran down stairs with my mind and heart racing with a mixture of all sorts of possibilities.
The bell is pressed. She then opened it. Tears were flowing in those eyes and had now damped her shirt collar. “You’re Marjorie?” “Marjorie Stanten?” I asked in hope.
“Yeah,” she responded with a smile beginning to form like the rising sun. She then without warning threw herself upon me with springs of joyful tears.
Her arms coiled around my back as her head pressed against my chest. Tears flowed from our faces.
“Oh Sam…oh Sam! Forgive me, I’m sorry. I just couldn’t bear ta tell ya.”
“I couldn’t bear fo ya ta see your motha like this. You deserve betta.”
I found it hard to muster a word as if something was in my throat. It was joy; for a thousand pounds of concrete were being lifted from me.
“Ma son,” she wept as our fingers trembled around each other’s backs. Tears were sliding from my chin and had begun to soak a part of her hair.
The sobbing continued, “Thank ya Jesus,” she whispered, “thank ya fo bringin back ma son.”
“It’s okay Mom. It’s gonna be okay.”
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