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The Body at the Foot of the Stairs
A short story about marriage, mystery and music
My wife and I argued at the foot of the stairs, the body crumpled on the floor between us.
“Good Lord, Claire…he’s gone.”
“He’s right there.”
“I mean, he’s, you know…there’s no pulse.”
“Are you sure? Check again.”
“I’m not touching that twisted neck again. You check, he’s your father.”
“Father,” she clasped her arms around herself, but still trembled. “…I heard him coming….”
“Claire. My darling Claire. Get a hold of yourself.” I shook her shoulders. “We have to phone someone. What was he doing upstairs, anyway?”
“He’s not supposed to go upstairs.”
“He always goes upstairs when we’re down here. Probably pawing through my sock drawer, or tapping our phone, or something.”
“I’m sure…I’m sure he was just looking for a lost sock.”
“Lost sock, my foot.”
“He was snooping again. You know how much I hate that. What does he expect to find in our bedroom, for God’s sake?”
“He won’t find anything now.” She stared down at the body, still hugging herself.
“As if his socks would ever be upstairs. I would never wear red wool.”
“Toronto is colder than he’s used to, Stan.”
“Our heating bills have doubled since he got here.”
“You were the one who insisted on putting a thermostat in the basement apartment.”
“An act of consideration I have regretted. Red socks. Look how his feet splay out like that. I didn’t even know that was possible.” I bent down to touch his ankle, and shock punched the air from my stomach. Breathless, I jerked back my hand.
Something pounded at the base of my neck. I touched him again, then stowed my right hand in my pocket. My joints creaked as I stood, as if I also were a slow-moving, lonely and irritating seventy-six year old man.
Dust drifted in the weak winter sunlight that dribbled through our living room windows. Across the chasm of my father-in-law’s body stood Claire, her delicate features framed by the open door of her violin studio. From inside the studio a metronome clicked. The sound pinged at my neck, ricocheting in my panicking heart. No—it’s—not--true—no—it’s—not--true. We continued our argument, the metronome urging on our quickening whispers.
“Maybe he’s not dead, Claire.”
“Look at that bruise on his temple.”
“Maybe we can revive him.”
“You said yourself he’s gone.”
“Maybe he can still hear us. Edgar. Edgar!”
“Maybe he’s playing possum. Eavesdropping. Edgar!”
“Listening. He did like to listen.”
“Oh God, he must be alive. It’s just like him to pull something like this. Edgar!”
“Stop shaking him.” She doubled over, as if she would be sick. “It makes his neck wobble.”
“Edgar! He didn’t have to hang about the studio. Listening at the door. Interrupting our duets.” I was in a panic now, a tempo in my body speeding towards hysteria.
“Stop it, Stan.”
“Just try to keep a secret around here. Remember that phone call I made? The bank manager?”
“Snooping. ‘Just walking by’ as I was on the phone--bullshit. I heard the click after I hung up.” I shook the broken body. “Edgar! I know you’re listening! Edgar!”
“Stan! You’re going to break more of his bones.” Her fingers slid over my face, colder than ice, and the shock brought some clarity.
“Oh, God. He is dead. But I heard the click, dammit. I can’t stand to be snooped on in my own house.”
“He feels it’s partly his house.”
“Felt, Claire. But it’s not his house. He’s just in the basement apartment until a place opens up.”
“That’s not the only reason he’s here.”
“Yes it is. We’ve been over this.”
“He cosigned for this house and I at least am grateful for it.”
“That was ten years ago, and I could have paid off the mortgage by now if I hadn’t had to quit work.”
“Are you blaming this on me?”
“We wouldn’t have had to take him in if you’d quit your job instead of me quitting mine.”
“If the little wife stayed home with the kids, you mean.” She withdrew her hands. “We agreed I couldn’t give up the symphony gig. And you take such great care of them. Emily…Toby…”
“You’re better with them than you think. I’m just saying Edgar bought your gratitude. He bought his way into this house. So he could be entertained. Snoop and spy and pull strings.” I let go of the dead shoulders I’d been shaking. I hadn’t realized the depth of my anger.
“He helped us,” she said.
“By paying rent? Watching the kids once in a while?”
“The kids…” Her voice trailed off, her eyes unfocused.
“I don’t want him to watch the kids again. Ever again.”
In a crisis sometimes what is needed to grasp truth is the harshness of irony.
“Is he really dead, Stan?”
“I’m afraid so.”
She stopped shaking, her body stilled. “Are you?”
“My darling Claire. Don’t cry. That’s it, shut the studio door and lean against it. He did buy his way in, you know. Just like he bought his way into your mother’s life when you were four. Then he peered and prodded until you left. Isn’t that why you left?”
“Sshhhhhhh. He’ll hear you."
How I wanted to step over the body and go to her, put my arms around her and hold her, tell her everything would be all right. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t just step over the body. Bloodless Edgar, his face white except for the bruise, gazed at the ceiling with his empty eyes. Time crawled. I wouldn’t believe it moved at all except for the metronome. The closed door muffled its quick regular beat, but it could still be heard. As if, somewhere, something still pulsed in the dead and twisted body. It was crazy of me to think it were possible, yet I felt the wrist again, put my hand at the back of the horrible neck. I tasted bile.
Claire slumped against the studio door, an expression on her face that strangely echoed the emptiness of his. One of Edgar’s arms was flung towards the studio, looking like either a gesture of supplication or accusation.
“You were in the studio when he fell, Claire?”
“There was a terrible crashing. It went on and on. Then the door shook.”
“I heard you working on the Allegro of the Mozart Concerto, but that was long ago, before I started dinner. I didn’t hear anything after that.”
“I was …a string broke, and I took a breather and came out to look for you. You weren’t in the kitchen. I thought you’d gone for groceries. And then…I started the Largo, the pianissimo part. You probably couldn’t hear it through the door. Where were you?”
“When I came out looking for you.”
“I must’ve been in the herb garden, getting oregano, if I wasn’t in the kitchen. It’s 5:30. Emily and Toby should be home from the neighbor’s soon.”
“The kids. Oh, God, the kids…Spaghetti?”
“With Marinara sauce. Burning, now, smells like.”
“Pasta always leaves such a lump in my stomach.”
“The kids eat it. I’ll try to fix something else the next time a family member is murdered.”
“We have to call. Get the phone.”
“Get it yourself, I feel sick. Did you say murdered?”
“He didn’t just fall down, Claire.”
I shook my head slowly.
“The stairs are narrow.”
“He wears those stupid socks on the wood floors.”
“But you think… he didn’t just trip and fall?”
“And come hurtling down the stairs to crumple at the bottom like a worshipper against your music room door?”
My wife is more beautiful now than when I married her ten years ago. Her music is more beautiful, too. And, like her face, hides more. When she and I play violin duets—she, as the professional musician, the one who has time to practice, takes the top parts—the flawless notes cascade from her sounding board, the music cloaked and masked by a flawless fluid technique. Sometimes I hear something startling, the turn of a phrase, the hesitation before reaching for a high note, that I’ve never heard before. A musical choice that surprises, even frightens me with its daring, its riskiness, its rejection of the conventional. Those occasional brilliant, unchained moments, waiting in ambush behind an otherwise perfect conventional style, are the reason she’s more than a sectional symphony player. They’re the reason her solo career is taking off, the reason some conductors love her and others say they can’t follow her. The reason we decided she would keep her work, and I would quit most of my playing and stay home with the kids.
We reacted to Edgar coming to live with us in different ways. I ranted and raved, and Claire froze. And now this. How could I talk to her about this? Just as I was often taken off-guard by her music, I had no idea how she would react if I confronted her. My heart raced.
“Aren’t you going to call the police?”
“In a moment.”
“You look very intense. Like you do when we’re playing duets.”
“I’m trying to think, but my brain is going two speeds at once. As fast as sound, as slow as time.”
“Don’t touch me now, Claire.”
Much as I wanted at that moment to take the hand she held out to me, the strongest, most beautiful part of her, how could I? Her hands were the strongest, most beautiful, and most dangerous part of her.
I had an idea. The phone was around the corner in the kitchen, but there was another upstairs. Perhaps I could head toward the upstairs phone, checking each stair on the way up without her noticing. Then I would know for sure. I couldn’t stand this see-sawing between hope and grief. I couldn’t stand the way my heart alternated between racing and stopping. I grabbed the newel post.
“Where are you going?”
“Don’t! I mean, do you have to? I mean, why?”
“Oh. But I’ll do it! Stay here, Stan.”
I turned my back on her and took the first steps. Our staircase rises in a straight stack of long, narrow treads, a typical arrangement for the row houses in this part of Toronto. The steps are polished oak, flanked by spindles on the foyer side and ancient gray plaster wall on the other. The long staircase gives an illusion of spaciousness to the narrow living room, and the spindles and newel add a faded charm. We bought the house for the practical reason that the studio on the first floor keeps the noise away from the upstairs bedrooms, and for the emotional reason that we loved that old staircase.
The second stair. Claire tiptoed around the body and onto the step behind me. Her cologne--the scent was altered, as it was after she’d been playing. One of the most wonderful, sensual things about standing next to her as we made music together was that warm, musk scent. The third stair. The metronome pulse faded. Her nearness made me dizzy. I thrust my hand in my pocket, which was a mistake.
“What’s in your pocket?”
“Just my hand.”
“Let me see.”
“Let me see. Not the hand of a murderer.”
“How could you possibly think so?”
“You said yourself he was murdered.”
“There’s no one else here, Stan.”
She drew my hand from my pocket, made me open it, and stared into my palm. “You have a long lifeline. A strong love line. And two happy, safe children.” There was pleading in her voice.
“Yes, the children! They’ll be home soon.”
“I smell the sauce burning.”
I stood on the fourth stair, pulled in different directions: down to the acrid food, up to the phone. Down to my wife, up to the truth. The hypnotic clicking behind the door said up—down--up—down--up--down.
“Claire. You said Edgar would never take care of them again.”
“Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it?”
“I mean, that you didn’t want him to.”
“What I want doesn’t matter anymore.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“I want you to come back downstairs.”
“I’m not so sure.” I kept climbing. Not daring to look farther than one at a time, I kept my eyes on the gray plaster a few inches above the stair treads. From the step behind me, she tugged at my arm.
“Let’s go back down, Stan.”
“I think his eyes are following me, Stan.”
“The kids will be home any minute, we’ve got to protect them.”
“Do it yourself.”
I felt her startle, and reflexively put out my arm to steady her. Her arms squeezed around me as we stumbled to the next step. Her fingers clawed at my sweater.
“Don’t rush me, Claire.”
“What are you doing?”
“I think you know.”
We swayed, there on the stairs. Was she crying, there behind me, her face pressed into my back? I scanned the next step and the wall above it. Nothing. Every part of me wanted to turn around on the narrow stair and embrace her. If tears were coming from her eyes, I wanted to see them, touch them, taste them. But the more she tried to keep me from ascending, the more I knew I had to. What kind of marriage would we have if I didn’t?
“Only four more steps, Claire.”
“Are you counting them, for God’s sake?”
“Not for God’s.”
Every step on which I saw nothing was a reprieve. Like a fermata, which is the holding of a note, a suspending of the musical pulse that is time itself. At each empty step, after the rush of relief, I managed to shift my eyes to the next. Start—stop--life—death--slow—fast. Each stair almost stopped time, held me breathless in a cadenza before crashing into the final chords--the moment of finding that for which I searched.
“Stan. What are you looking for?”
“What I above all don’t want to find.”
At the third step from the top I heard the back door rattle in the lock. Emily and Toby. Emily never could get that old door open on the first try. In the far distance now the metronome still clicked. Was it my imagination or did it seem to have accelerated? Claire shrieked.
“The children! The children, Stan. You’ve got to protect them.”
“Do it yourself,” I hurtled back at her, and felt her startle. “Let me hurry, then.”
“Come back down. Quick, quick.”
Her strong hands reaching around my waist, she tried to pull me down the stairs. I shoved her against the plaster wall, mounted to the second step, and scanned the wall about a foot above the stairs. Downstairs, the kitchen door rattled more forcefully. I heard the impact of a small boot. Time, unlike the electric metronome, was running down.
“Claire, shut up. Shut up! You’ve got to trust me.”
“Trust, trust? I couldn’t trust him. He was supposed to be my father, and I couldn’t trust him.” She burst into hysterical crying.
Before the first step from the top, I turned and looked down at her. Even in the feeble violet twighlight, with her face buried in her hands, she was beautiful. The straight black hair, the tiny earlobes pillowing simple pearls. Her bare throat, the permanent red mark along her jaw from cradling her instrument. My darling Claire. Perhaps I was mistaken. What did I really know of my own wife? What does anyone know of their mate, beyond the masks of scent, sound, touch and sight?
The downstairs door squealed open, our children’s voices clambered in. We heard the thuds and giggles as they leaned against the kitchen wall, helping each other pull off their snowy boots.
“What do you mean?”
“I couldn’t trust him. Here in the house. Emily, Toby.”
“He…I heard…I’d forgotten.”
“What happened, Claire.”
She took her hands from her face. “Today, after the string broke, I got out a new package and sat at the work table, twisting the E string around my fingers.”
“I heard his footsteps. Going up. Shuffle—plod--shuffle--plod. I couldn’t have told you. You would have kicked him out. He loved living here, being with us, hearing us play.”
“Your reasons were so petty, I thought. Snooping, privacy. He’s just an old man, I thought.”
“Dammit. What happened?”
“When I was a child, my room was all by itself on the top floor. It was the worst thing in the world, waking to those stockinged footsteps plodding up the stairs late at night.”
“You always defended him.”
“I’d forgotten. I really had. And, he’s my father.”
The smell of burnt pasta wafted up the stairs. I whispered into the silence.
The metronome ground time to dust.
“Stan, you said to protect the children. Just now. You said, do it yourself.”
She took a step up and stood next to me. I’ll never forget her face then. Unrepentant, and deeply guilty. Pain and relief, joy and agony, fear and protection. Parent—child--parent--child. The metronome, muffled by the distance and the closed door, clicked with loneliness in the studio where Claire’s string had snapped before she ever began playing the slow and piannissimo Largo. She had never changed the tempo dial. Instead her fingers had been finding new uses for lengths of silvered catgut.
Time stopped. In the moments before nightfall, I’ll swear it did. Time stopped then, on the first stair.
The children’s voices ricocheted along the passage between the kitchen and the living room. One of them was popping gum. They would be here in an instant.
I knelt at Claire’s feet and ran my finger along the plaster. There it was--almost invisible against the gray wall--the small eye hook, a piece of E string still knotted to it.
What was a marriage, but two people tied to each other, climbing together, keeping their music a duet between them, private as silence? Gingerly I unscrewed the hook and string from the wall, and pressed the plaster back into place as best I could. I slipped them into my pocket, along with the other piece of violin string I’d found dangling from Edgar’s ankle. I put my arms around Claire’s legs, and as the children ran to open the door into the room, I filled my lungs with air and yelled.
“Don’t come in. Your Grandfather’s had….an accident.”
Claire crumpled beside me, and I held her as she wept, there at the top of the stairs. Far below us, the metronome continued its relentless step through pain and commitment and time.