The wheelchair man died alone in his trailer beside the Suwannee River. After four days, no one had noticed and no one had come to collect his body to bury in the little graveyard beside the highway. Because he was dead, he no longer needed sleep and so one night he stuffed his beige nylon suitcase with all of his saved lottery winnings and moved to New Orleans. He bought a little camelback house on Magazine Street beside the Necromancer’s bookshop. The little house had fourteen foot ceilings and a slate roof. Contractors came and peeled away the circus wallpaper from the second floor nursery to reveal ripped plaster and rust red brick.
“This will be my room,” the wheelchair man said.
When they laughed at his next request, the wheelchair man fired all of his contractors. What he asked them was this:
I want you to build staircases. Stairs of varying heights and shapes. I want round metal ones and grand marble ones and I want a miniature piano to be placed in the entrance hall so when you’re at the top, wherever you are, you look down and feel you have been trapped inside an old Anderson print. I want rickety stairs which lead to old closet doors that no longer open and sturdy stairs which lead to doors which lead to doors which lead to new stairs. I want the stairs to intersect in such a way that it feels like a long walk around an impoundment with rushes and white herons painted on the walls. I want music to play as you walk, and on the prime numbered steps, the sudden feeling of weightlessness as if you have died and are now ready to reach the next stage of existence. I want you to cut a square hole in the roof so on sunny days the sun shines on the stairs to help them grow, and when it rains, the water cascades into a pool filled with Spanish Mackerel.
The second set of contractors built three staircases one beside the other in a row. The first was painted blue, the second pink, and the third yellow.
“These are the children I will never have,” the wheelchair man said.
“What, your thing don’t work no more?” the contractor asked. The other men laughed with him and the wheelchair man showed them the door.
Whenever the wheelchair man wanted to go to his room he stood in the entrance hall and said, “Going up!” No one ever came, and by the fourth day he decided to rest in the kitchen curled next to the refrigerator.
The third set of contractors consisted of one man who worked slowly. He walked each room, marking the walls and saying “You picked a good house. It has good bones.” When the wheelchair man asked if he thought he could fit all the staircases he said, “We shall make them fit, Bobby.”
The wheelchair man’s name was not Bobby, but he had gone so long without being called anything he said to himself Bobby is a good name. It has good bones.
Ashley, who called the contractor Pop though he was not her father, came by twice a week with sandwiches from the place on Annunciation St. She and Bobby sat with their backs to the refrigerator and tried to hum in perfect harmony.
“Think if we hit the right frequency, the doors will open and cokes will fly out?” she asked.
“You are young enough to be my granddaughter,” he said.
Sometimes Ashely brought a watercolor set and painted the oak trees overhanging the front porch. Bobby asked her to hang these on the walls by the blue staircase so that walking up you felt like you were ascending branch after branch after branch. When she finished with oak trees she painted Bobby and Pop and the stray cats that wandered down from the university. She went to the zoo and came back with elephants and alligators and voles. When they too filled the walls she switched to murals on the floor and scrimshaw on the railings. Bobby asked if she shouldn’t be in college somewhere, but she said that she’d dropped out years ago to run away with her boyfriend.
“Oh,” he said.
“He was dying,” she said.
When Pop had been working for one year and a day, the only square footage that did not start at the bottom and lead up was a small bit of space around the refrigerator. Here, Pop suggested, should be an elevator.
“Only if the GE can come too,” Bobby said.
The elevator had four buttons but the doors only opened on the first floor. Up and down Bobby and the refrigerator would go, all day long.
Bobby confessed to Ashley that construction had siphoned most of his winnings away, and if she was only being nice to him to get into the will, she best move on.
“Why don’t you open the house to visitors,” she said. “Like a museum.”
Ashley led the tours. For the young and out-of-towners, she began with the simple straight staircases that went right to the top floor without break. As they huffed and leaned against each other she slid down the railings to set out lemonade and begin the next tour. Bobby greeted them each as they made their way back down, passing out glasses and saying, “So glad you could come.”
Bobby asked them to write down their thoughts in the guestbook, and each night he read them aloud to himself as he rode the elevator.
13. Yesterday I counted 1325 steps. Today there are 1328.
22. Try the second landing on the left. It’s my favorite.
131. Congratulations! You have crossed the state line of Georgia in a most unusual and surreptitious manner.
132. She fell and I wasn’t quick enough to stop her. But then she got up and everything was all right.
If he closed his eyes, Bobby could feel the legs of strangers moving all around him. He sat, the center of the wheel of feet and toes and the movement of people who all knew where they were going and how to get there.
For one week, Ashley stayed away and Bobby closed the house to all but the most regular of visitors. They asked after Ashley and Bobby wondered if maybe she was the reason they had come at all.
Pop said Ashley was looking to see if her diabetic ex-boyfriend had died. She’d received a call from someone who asked her never to call back.
“It’s not that she still loves him or nothing,” he said. “She just wants to know.”
Bobby once knew a man who faked his own death so his wife could use the insurance money. The investigators found him running fishing charters off the coast of North Carolina nearly a decade later and brought him home in a silver car. The son never spoke to his father again, and Bobby could understand why but on the whole he thought fake deaths were better than real ones.
“It’s a miracle,” he wanted to tell the boy. “The father you thought you had lost has been found again.”
Bobby now understood that since no one had noticed his passing, there was nowhere he could pass onto.
289. Without the weight of others’ memories, we drift like an empty net on the surface of the ocean.
The owner of the bookshop next door was a woman named Kathleen who wore leg braces and brought Bobby a newspaper and coffee every morning.
“And who are your people,” she asked.
“Them,” Bobby said as boy after girl after grandmother walked through the front door of his house.
Kathleen’s father had been a doctor in a town Bobby couldn’t pronounce. He’d given Kathleen an experimental polio vaccine which hadn’t worked like he’d hoped and killed himself years later from the guilt.
Because Kathleen was a bit like he was, Bobby let her ride in the elevator with him and they strained their ears for bits of gossip and stories you only tell when you’re walking up and down stairs in a strange person’s house.
Bobby asked Kathleen if she was afraid of dying alone and she replied that she wasn’t afraid of anything. When he asked her why, what she told him was this:
When I was a young woman, a boy took me to see The Birds. When I got home, I told my mother how scared I’d been in the dark of the theatre, a strange man’s hand on my knee, she having just found my father in the garage with the shotgun poking out the back of his head. That night she came into my room while I was sleeping carrying my old baby mobile strung with blue and pink silk birds. She waved it in my face screeching, “The birds are coming! The birds are coming!” Now every time I feel afraid, I remember my mother coming for me in the night and I push the thoughts away.
Ashley came home with a pale face and started her tours in the middle of a sentence. She led them up the round staircases and divided them into teams to play scavenger hunts. Find a three leaf clover growing in the wall. Bring back the fur of a limp platypus and the whisper of its name. She placed a green recycling bin on the front porch for the guests to fill. She buried each one in the backward beneath a tree where the mockingbirds gathered.
Finally, when he couldn’t stand it any longer, Bobby asked, “Is he dead?”
“I couldn’t find an obituary,” she said. “But each night I dream of a man who wears a coat of fishhooks, sweeping the earth for the thoughts I think of him.”
“I enjoy your company immensely,” Bobby offered.
“I will never come back here,” she said.
Each morning, Bobby opened the front door for Ashley and when she did not come, he retreated to his elevator. He could hear voices of people leading their own tours and inventing their own histories for the place he’d built.
729. They say that underneath Florida is a labyrinth of passages and that the rain which falls in Miami will erupt somewhere east of Tallahassee but if that were really true, wouldn’t the ground collapse from the weight of itself.
1270. Today there are 2517.
1271. Every time I think of you, we die a little.
Pop came by with the sandwiches from the place on Annunciation St and sat with Bobby against the refrigerator.
“Ashley asked me to,” he said.
They talked about repairs and the need for handicapped access and considered the idea of opening a second location somewhere North where the ceilings were lower. Perhaps they could do it all on a reduced scale so as you walked, you felt yourself getting smaller and smaller, curling into yourself like a spring.
When the last tour was done for the day, Bobby wheeled himself out and stood at the bottom of the staircase and said, “Going up!”
Pop lifted Bobby out of his chair and carried him up to the second floor, to what was previously a nursery. Ashley had painted birds on the plaster and planted clover and vines in the spaces between the brick. Bobby ran his hands over bluejays and bobwhites marveling at the rise and fall of wingbeats and feathers with the warped beams.
Pop set him down in a rocking chair and told him to call if he needed anything. When the rain started, Kathleen came over dressed in a nightgown and green rain-boots. They sat together, listening to raindrops on tin and when it had been a good while, she asked him, “Should I be scared to die alone?”
What he told her was this:
Once, when my mother and I were driving to New Orleans by way of Pass Christian, we had to stop because a whole herd of crawfish was crossing the road after a flood. People were getting out of their cars and using nets to toss them into the backs of their trucks. My mother put herself between them and the crawfish and said they were just God’s creatures trying to get from one place to the other and we weren’t no good to interfere. When we got to the house, I found one crawfish curled inside the cuff of my pant leg. It was dead and I thought if only he’d been one of the ones in the trucks he’d be in the same predicament but they would’ve known what became of him.
“His people,” she said.
“And who are your people?” she asked.
He took her hand in his, “I guess you are.”
The rain kept falling through the square in the roof and when the water was halfway up the first flight of stairs, Kathleen pulled and pushed the rocking chair to the door so they could watch the old GE refrigerator float its way up to them. When it reached the top, Kathleen opened the side by side doors so they could sit inside it like a little boat. They water pushed them up one staircase then another, through doors and down hallways that Pop had squeezed and pushed through the bones of the old house. Pop had knocked down walls and vaulted ceilings and everywhere they looked, staircases rose above them. Spanish mackerel jumped and skittered over Ashley’s paintings which floated beside their off-white dinghy. Kathleen clambered after the guestbook and pen so they could leave notes for the ones who would come behind them.
2801. Acts of violence fly over us like flocks of birds and the dead are billowed up on the wings of our notice of them. Forget the obituary, the marked grave, how difficult it is to be certain. Say only, I saw you, and we will lift from your lives.
Helena Bell is a writer living in Raleigh, NC. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Workshop and her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, and The Indiana Review.