The Stair Sweeper
A story for Halloween.
Here’s a story I wrote when we lived in San Francisco for a while. Happy Halloween, y’all.
image credit: Thomas Hawk via Flickr / Creative Commons
Joel had laughed the first night I heard the sweeper. I’d shaken him awake, panting and terrified at four in the morning, and he’d laughed. He’d said he didn’t hear anything.
Which was why I thrilled at being startled awake the second week in a row by the sound of sweeping down on the stoop. This time the sweeper was just getting started, whoever he was -- and whoever he was, he had three flights of stairs to go before he got to our doorstep. I had two minutes, maybe, to jostle Joel awake and prove I wasn’t crazy.
The first time, the sweeper had been much, much closer to our door before I climbed out of another dream about my teeth falling out and sat up in bed, listening to the scritch swoosh on the steps.
They were narrow stairs -- the building had been coughed up more than a hundred years ago in the wake of the 1906 earthquake -- and much expense had been spared, then and since. But the apartment was a deal, if you consider $2,500 a month for no parking, no dishwasher, no garbage disposal and no laundry a deal, and Joel and I did. So it only took one scritch and one swoosh per step, and up and up he climbed toward our little door on the third floor.
I didn’t believe my own ears at first. Why would our shitty management company, the same management company that hadn’t bothered to buff out the scrapes on the living room wall or finish installing the bottom of the kitchen’s sole utensil drawer, hire someone to sweep the stairs? In the middle of the night? On a Saturday? So I lay there, straining to paint a picture out of sounds.
He was a little man, I guessed. Dickensian. Chimney sweep type. Pushing a broom made of little sticks of straw, scraping and scratching. An angled broom, because one of those sweeps was going in the wrong direction -- scritching instead of swooshing. How could a man paid to sweep the stairs not know how to use his broom? Well, maybe it was his first time; it certainly was my first time. We hadn’t been in the apartment a full week yet. I had no way of knowing whether he’d ever used a broom before, in our little stairwell or any other.
While I was puzzling this out, he, whoever he was, finished.
I reached over the dog to give Joel a push on his shoulder.
“Joel! Joel! Do you hear that?”
No scritch. No swoosh. Joel rolled toward me and grunted.
“Joel! There’s someone on the stairs!”
At this, Joel opened his eyes.
“There’s someone on the stairs! Listen!”
No scritch. No swoosh.
“He was sweeping! There was somebody outside sweeping the stairs!”
Joel blinked and checked the time on his phone. “You heard someone sweeping the stairs?”
I said I had, and put my finger on my mouth to signal shhhh, hoping to hear a scritch, swoosh.
“There was a man outside sweeping the stairs! At four a.m.! He was practically at our doorstep!”
Joel flicked on the lamp without sitting up and pushed the cat off his legs. They both stretched.
“You heard a man sweeping the stairs in the middle of the night on a Saturday in this palace of luxury?”
Maybe I had been dreaming.
“I don't know. I guess. It sounded like someone was out there. A stair sweeper.”
“A stair sweeper?”
“A stair sweeper.”
Joel started to smile.
“What?” I asked.
“Do you think he’s--”
Joel couldn’t get the rest of the sentence out. He was starting to giggle. I cocked my head.
“Do you think--” he started again.
Now he was really laughing.
“Do you think he was friends with the viper?”
Who the fuck is the viper?
“Who the fuck is the viper?”
Joel melted under the covers, nearly crying real tears at this point.
“THE VINDOW VIPER!”
This was a good joke, I had to admit. And if I’d meant to set up my husband to make a classic campfire story into an urban nightmare punchline performed for an audience of sleeping pets, I’d have pulled it off flawlessly.
The next morning was like all next mornings after a weird night. The fact that the coffee tasted the same and the dog still had to pee somehow seemed to mean that whatever had happened, hadn’t happened, or hadn’t happened the way I’d thought it had happened. In daylight, the normal things told little morning stories to the strange middle-of-the-night things and tucked them away tight.
But now it was the next week, and Saturday again, and the sweeper was back and Joel was going to hear it and we were going to laugh about the sweeper and the viper and why in the world Aleksander Properties hired people to sweep stairs at four in the morning.
In the dark, I reached across the dog to shake Joel, but my hand landed on the cat. Fuck. Joel wasn’t even home tonight -- he was sleeping at the hospital up the street, in his grandma’s room. Broken hip.
I had to climb over the animals to flick the lamp on, and Cosmo grumbled and Jack hissed and both of them turned a couple of circles and settled back into little fur donuts. That was weird, right? Usually Cosmo would wake from a stone sleep to bark at skateboards and bikes and refrigerated trucks outside, but scritch, swoosh didn’t do anything for him. Well, I don’t know. Brooms don’t have wheels, I guess.
I mean, he was practically at the front door, and Cosmo was dead to the world. Some guard dog.
Now, footsteps. Back down the stairs. I heard the gate slam and then--nothing. The stair sweeper was done. Clocked out, I thought. Off to meet the viper for an after-shift drink. Maybe there are bars where the creepy stars of sleepover stories gather for beers and shots at 4:08 a.m. I closed my eyes and waited for my heartbeat to slow down and dreamed that Joel’s grandma fell down the stairs. (This was not a dream about the stair sweeper, I told myself. She had, three days ago, actually fallen down the stairs, as the grandmas of this world are wont to do.)
When Joel came home a few hours later, I almost told him about the sweeper, but the lattes he brought with him tasted like they always do and we had brunch reservations, so how newsworthy really could my dark-of-night stair sweeper be? The strange night things had been put to bed, and we were drinking mimosas. Between rounds, I set an alarm on my phone, anyway, for next Saturday.
On Monday, Cosmo and I practiced being a city dog. Well, Cosmo practiced. I practiced being a city lady. I had not yet mastered the loopy knotted scarf that all the impossibly cosmopolitan women, in their impossibly cosmopolitan boots, had been born knowing how to tie. But Cosmo -- the improbable cosmopolitan! -- was learning to be a city dog. He’d been picky and prissy at first, accustomed to doing his business on a variety of grassy surfaces as a pampered country pup who’d ruled his acreage back home.
Scratching at the door was well beyond, or maybe beneath, him. He’d just wait until he was about to burst and then start frantically nudging the nearest human. I was always the nearest human, because Joel was always at work. I mean, I was at work, too, but nobody thinks “working from home” is work until they’re working from home and the dog needs to piss six times a day and you live in a city made of damp and fog and on go the boots and the hoodie and the leash for another trip downstairs so Cosmo can lean on just the right tree, no not that tree, the next tree, or maybe the next one.
“Cosmo, real city dogs can hold it for a few hours,” I chided him as he pulled me down a flight and down a flight and down a flight and out the gate and into the road, almost, because Cosmo was a country dog, and what are roads to a country dog? Anyway, he found a tree and I got a few more steps on my new Fitbit and back we went through the gate and up the stairs, skipping the first step and its persistent brown smear, situated just where my foot always wanted to land. There was an ice cream shop down the street, and I had been pretending the brown smear was Chocolate Whore-Chata (it was an ice cream shop for white people) but I knew better and reckoned it was really something worse, tracked in on somebody’s heel.
I was halfway through simmering the bolognese for dinner -- Monday nights have always been pasta night at our house, and I wasn’t going to give it up just because I now only had a two-burner stove to work with -- before the little nag in the back of my head became a full-fledged worry. They hire a guy to sweep the stairs, but he doesn’t wipe up a shit stain on stair number one? What is this half-assed approach to stairway cleanliness? I mean, it tracks with the management’s half-assed approach to everything else, but you’re paying a guy to sweep in the middle of the night! Give the man a mop! I resolved to say something the next time I dropped off the rent.
Cosmo and I skipped the first stair a couple more times on Monday, and then we skipped it a few more times on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I meant to skip the first stair but tripped and face-planted into Cosmo’s butt and skinned my palm on the way back up instead. As I sat on the couch and picked little pieces of street detritus and splinters and crumbs out of my hand, I tried to curse a dog who was doing his damnedest to resist it by dropping his head into my lap and slipping into a deep snore. City life, with a city dog!
We took our city dog to the city park on Saturday, the first sunny Saturday in I don’t know how long. (I knew exactly how long: Three weeks, because I didn’t know of any other weeks in San Francisco, because I had never lived in San Francisco for any other weeks.) He loved it. He hated his leash, unaccustomed to being tugged and pulled away from those delicious, taunting cars and filthy napkins skipping across the green, but he loved the wet dirt and crunchy, mulchy musk of a city that never seemed to really get good and dry.
“I’m gonna sleep like the dead tonight,” Joel said when we fell into bed early.
I checked the alarm on my phone.
“I’m gonna sweep like the dead tonight,” I said, smiling to myself.
Joel was snoring within seconds. Him and Cosmo. Not Jack, though. Jack is too classy to snore, because he is a respectable cat. He chose me that night, settling into the crook of my waist to play the little spoon.
I was awake before my alarm went off, and it’s a good thing, too. If I hadn’t already been awake when I heard it, I’d have sworn it was a dream.
The sweeper was singing. Something old, or old-timey? It sounded like a gospel tune or maybe a college fight song, the kind of thing people sing to stay awake in a hunting blind or through the end of a late shift, or to keep the team spirit up. I thought to call out to Joel, but then I caught myself. If I could hear him singing, could the sweeper hear me talking?
I nudged Joel forcefully. Cosmo let loose a sleepy bouef, then woke properly with a start, growling a little.
“Joel!” I hissed. “The sweeper!”
Joel jerked awake and pulled the covers off his shoulders, squinting at me in the soft street light creeping through the drapes. I pointed through the wall, to the source of the singing, to the coal miner or street preacher who’d been hired to sweep our stairs at 4 a.m.
“Is he there?”
I nodded. Joel sat up, leaning on his knees.
I grabbed my phone from under my pillow and turned on its flashlight so Joel could see my face, raising my eyebrows high.
“Is he there?” Joel asked again, petting Cosmo into a soothed silence.
“Yes, he’s there! Jesus!”
“Jesus is everywhere, though,” Joel cracked. I was too scared to roll my eyes.
“Don’t fuck around, man,” I said, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed, ready to sprint to the door to confront my tormentor. Joel grabbed my wrist before I could get up.
“Nora, I don’t hear anything.”
“He was just sweeping! And singing! Cosmo heard it!”
I wrung Joel’s hand off my wrist and stood up, grabbing a hoodie off the chair and pulling it over my head.
Joel just stared at me, his face lit from underneath by the LED from my phone. Cosmo stood, turned, and laid down again. I waited for him to lunge at the door, to growl, to do anything to show he was on my side.
No growl. No bark.
The soft notes of some old resurrected tune wafted through the doorframe again.
“Stop fucking around, Joel,” I said through clenched teeth.
“I’m sorry, babe, I don’t hear anything.”
Jack, pissed off at being jostled awake, jumped off the bed. I backed away from the bed and nearly stepped on him, provoking an angry hiss. Everybody in this house thought I was crazy, I guess.
“I’m sorry. I said I’m sorry. Sit down for a second,” Joel urged me quietly. I sat tentatively on the edge of the chair, crammed into the corner and strewn with laundry that wouldn’t fit in the apartment’s closet (singular). I yearned for and yet dreaded the next scritch, swoosh.
It never came. I heard the sweeper’s go back down the stairs, and the front gate slam. I didn’t bother trying to explain what I was hearing to Joel, and I didn’t get back in bed that night. I just glared at Joel until he sighed and slid back under the covers.
I woke up in the chair, my half-worn hoodie half-choking me, to the sound of my husband playing a baseball video game behind the curtain to the living room. Just like normal. Fuck normal.
I brushed my teeth and washed my face and pulled on some leggings and my sneakers and poured myself a coffee in the big QuikTrip travel mug. I didn’t say a word to Joel as I left the apartment. What would I say? “I’m going jogging to clear my head!” I’m not going fucking jogging with 24 ounces of hot, cream-and-sugared coffee. And I don’t jog.
But the rent was due and it was weird that our cheapskate landlords with a penchant for stairway cleanliness would only take a check dropped off at their office instead of an online deposit like anyone else in the digital age. I headed down the stairs, kicking away a pile of upended flies rotting on the landing. Shit stain and a fly pile. Really getting our money’s worth out of that sweeper. I added it to my running list of complaints.
When I got to the property office -- or at least to the address listed on our lease--I would clear this whole thing up. I would ask about the sweeper and drop off the check and then come home and tell Joel that he’d somehow sleepwalked through last night’s sweeper appearance. Everything would be normal again. Real normal.
The address was nice, I had to admit, for an absentee landlord. I hoofed up the hill toward Pacific Heights, the mid-century office building looking appropriately dejected among the high-end boutiques and Victorians. It was Sunday, but the security guard behind the desk was friendly enough and seemed glad to have something to do besides play Candy Crush on her phone.
“Do you know which suite Aleksander Properties is in?” I asked, out of breath from the climb. She motioned for me to wait while she scrolled through a list of tenants on her clipboard.
“Is that with an ‘A’?”
“Yeah, A-l-e-k-s-a-n-d-e-r,” I said, a green feeling settling into my stomach.
“You looking for Alemaigne Associates?”
“No, it’s Aleksander Properties--it’s my rent. I have to drop off the rent,” I said. “People probably come through here all the time dropping off checks. They’re weird about it.”
The guard returned to her clipboard, making a show of dragging her index finger down the list a second, and then a third, time. She let me hold the clipboard and see for myself.
No Aleksander Properties. Did I have the wrong building? No, the security guard told me that this was definitely the address. Well, what about a shell company, then?
“Are there any property managers in the building?”
“We got two lawyers, two dentists, whatever they’re doing at Alemaigne, and a couple of accountants.”
“Well, what are they doing at Alemaigne?”
“They don’t pay me to know that, I’m afraid.”
I was afraid, too.
Joel had rented the apartment for us on the last trip he’d made out, when he accepted the job. I hadn’t seen it until the day we’d pulled up in the van, stinking of heat-lamp taquitos and gas station coffee. I’d been intent on getting the bed set up and doing nothing else until I’d enjoyed a solid twelve hours of sleeping and scrolling through Facebook.
But surely he must’ve met someone to show him the apartment?
I didn’t ask it quite that way when, an hour and a solo-downed carafe of mimosas later, I scritch-swooshed-stomped my angry ass through our front door.
“What the fuck, Joel?”
He paused the video game.
“I could ask you the same thing. What the fuck, Nora? You just leave? I had to cancel on Carlos and Kristy!”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry I interrupted your brunch plans with my discovery that our landlord doesn’t exist.”
“Oh? Speaking of people who don’t exist, is the landlord hanging out with the fucking stair sweeper somewhere?”
It was a low blow and Joel knew it, and he didn’t care. My coffee was still hot--bless you, QuikTrip mug -- so the mimosas told me to pour a couple fingers of whiskey in as a top-off.
“Is that gonna make him appear?” Joel asked, waving the PlayStation controller at my mug.
“I don’t know, Joel, but it might make him disappear.”
I wanted to slam a door on him, but: studio apartment. So I kicked off my sneakers, hard, and stormed ten feet to the bed and a deeply offended Cosmo and Jack. I opened up my laptop.
What do you Google in this situation, exactly? “Stair sweeper San Francisco” turned up a top 10 list of hidden San Francisco stairways (but how grungy were they?) and a cleaning advice blog still straggling along at what appeared to be a Geocities address. I knew if I sulked long enough, Joel would get guilty and come apologize, even though I’d been an asshole, too. That was how we worked. I was an asshole, maybe, and I made him be an asshole, sometimes, and then he apologized for being an asshole and then -- and only then -- I could apologize for being an asshole.
When that whole dumb relationship dance was done, I showed him what I’d Googled.
“Look, maybe I was still asleep when you said something last night,” he admitted.
“But Cosmo growled.”
“Cosmo growls at big flies.”
“We might have some big flies in this apartment,” I admitted.
“Some big-ass flies,” Joel said, kissing me on my neck.
I reached for my QuikTrip mug.
“Say, if we’re going to get day drunk, let’s get day drunk,” said Joel.
The karaoke bar up Market opened at 2 p.m. on Sundays. We were there the moment they opened the doors, and a series of hilariously bad decisions guided us through the next six hours and two and a half Mission burritos. We crashed hard and early, splayed out on the couch with a pile of pets and a YouTube playlist of classic R&B that spiraled into a series of late 90’s hits as we let drunkenness drift us away to sleep.
Look, I’d had a lot to drink, but I didn’t sleep through a week. Was I dreaming?
Alright, you motherfucker, I thought, squinting toward the door. I couldn’t see. Why couldn’t I see?
Glasses. Put your glasses on.
I grabbed my glasses off the table. Bless you 9 p.m. Nora, who had had the good foresight, as it were, to take her contacts out.
The singing began. Why this weird-ass song? The sweeper’s voice carried itself under the door, pushing on my left temple, already throbbing with an early hangover. I was a grown woman starting a hangover at 4 a.m. on a Monday.
On a Monday. I fumbled for my phone in the pocket of my hoodie and checked the date. This wasn’t some Sleeping Beauty nonsense. It was Monday. The first. The rent was due. The rent I hadn’t managed to drop off yesterday. Yesterday, the day Joel hadn’t heard the sweeper. The day we kissed and made up and sang awful songs awfully and stumbled home to a dog who needed walking and a cat mad about his delayed Fancy Feast.
What the fuck are you doing here on a Monday, you creep?
I repeated it in my head, practicing. What the fuck are you doing here, what the fuck are you doing here, what the fuck? I found a pair of flip-flops under the couch and slipped them on. What the fuck are you doing here, what the fuck are you doing here, what the fuck?
I opened the door.
And promptly forgot what I was going to say.
He wasn’t Dickensian at all. He was more like -- well, he was like a scarecrow. Like the one from the Wizard of Oz. Less costumey, but he had the bucket hat and a patched shirt and overalls. I was so tired, and I couldn’t make sense of it; I immediately wondered how far you’d have to go outside the city before you hit a cornfield. Sixty miles? A hundred?
The sweeper’s skin was burlap, or maybe it only looked like burlap, in the way of people who spend a lot of their time outside in the elements, bucket hats notwithstanding. The sun wasn’t even thinking about coming up yet, and the thin light from the porch lamp cast a sallow specter behind him, distorting his figure on the--
Where were the stairs?
I stared out at a landscape much more familiar to me than any San Francisco street. A gravel road stretched ahead, lazily curving off to the right in the distance. Was that … crickets? Something was buzzing or chirping in the tall grass lining the road. And then a smoky scent hit my nose -- burnt leaves and hay and whiskey, it came to me all at once -- and I stepped over the threshold, hoping to get closer, to inhale more, to take in the smell of … home.
“Hell of a time finding the place,” the sweeper said. I’d almost forgotten he was there.
“This place?” I gestured down the gravel path.
“No, not that place, that’s where I come from. Your place.”
I took exception to that. I got defensive: “This isn’t my place!”
The sweeper looked at me, or I think he did. Did he have eyes? The light didn’t reflect in his face the way I thought it probably should, where his eyes should be. But maybe it was the hat. Or maybe he didn’t have eyes. Did it matter? It smelled so good out here, like homecoming bonfires and barn lofts.
“Where does the road go?” I asked.
“Come on now,” he said. “You know where it goes.”
I squinted into the distance, shaking my head. Did I know this place? I reached up to wipe my glasses with my sleeve, the lenses covered in fingerprints from my fumble in the dark moments -- minutes? -- ago.
The apartment! Joel! Cosmo! Jack! I moved to turn around, reaching for the doorknob, but the sweeper stopped me. Not with his hands -- did he have hands? -- but with a quiet nmmm nmmm nmmm, like a grandmother verbally swatting a child away from a plate of hot cookies.
“Think,” said the sweeper. “You know this.”
If I only had a brain -- the lyric creeped into the back of my head, as if it had crawled up my spine. I laughed. It was funny. This was all very pleasant, really. And of course I knew where the road went. I thought about teasing the sweeper -- my head I’d be a scratchin’, while my thoughts are busy hatchin’ -- but the road was gravel, not yellow brick. And I did remember now.
“That goes to town, off that way,” I said, pointing toward the curve. “But there’s a smaller road, private driveway, up to the left.”
“And who lives up that way?” he asked.
“That’s the Fisher place. Where we got Cosmo,” I said. He’d been a little brown ball, the last of his litter and more fleas than fur. After we’d washed him up and he’d tried to bite the hair dryer, he was so soft all over. As he grew into a proper dog, his ears had still stayed soft.
“Do you want to get him again?”
I tried again to turn toward the door, but -- nmmm nmmm nmmm.
“There’s another Cosmo up there,” said the sweeper. “You can get him again. You can start over again. You can tell Joel you don’t want to come here, or--” the sweeper paused, lifting his chin to indicate over my shoulder “there.”
I did see, then, as the sweeper lifted his face toward the light, that he didn’t have anything like eyes, just dark places, torn into the rough space beneath the brim of his hat. This seemed fine. He had come from the Fisher place. He knew the Fishers. He knew about Cosmo. He wanted me to be happy again. The sweeper knew my heart hurt here, in this concrete and glass place where nobody asked me what I did all day and Joel papered over his absences with compostable cups of $9 coffee.
“I don’t want to be here -- there,” I admitted. “I’m not right, here. I want to do it again.”
The sweeper nodded. He turned toward the road. I understood that I was to follow him.
He began walking.
Clumps of straw, stuffed into the cuffs of his overalls, scraped the gravel as he lumbered away, dragging his -- feet? -- forward with some difficulty.
I heard Cosmo barking in the distance. Cosmo, I’m coming! We can start over again! He sounded like such a big, grown dog -- didn’t the sweeper say he would be small again? But who knows how these things work. I thought of how mad he’d been at the hair dryer, how he hated the bath. Cosmo, wait for me!
I followed the sweeper, grazing my hands over the tall, dry grass along the road, and thinking how nice it would be to be home again.