Wall Street Greek's Fine Arts Contributor and New York Stories Columnist Nicholas Zaharakos offers his latest effort; it is "Steps." It chronicles the final steps of a man's life. It is a story about the missteps of foolish youth that has eternal consequences.
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In the two weeks since receiving her reply, Paul Kallas has worn deep creases in the letter by countless readings. He has taken to clutching the folded plain lined paper as if it were a crucifix. He was holding it tightly as he watched his daughter at the campus on the periphery of the pounding heartbeat of the city. Paul, sitting on stone steps that formed an unfinished pyramid at the top could see Rebecca’s canvas-tented booth some ten yards away.
He was staying at the Empire Hotel overlooking the fair grounds. From his room, he could see the Hudson River and beyond toward where Michigan lay. Paul pondered about having been away from the place of his youth for half again as much as Odysseus was from his beloved Ithaca and his faithful Penelope. After yesterday’s storm, it was a summer day that a city dweller could hold in cupped hands like the most exquisite crystal. The sun was a jovial balloon, the clouds a moving festival of bride’s tulle stretching across the sky. The winds from the west were like cool fingers gently stirring one’s soul with the tinge of spring in the past and the fall to follow.
Yesterday, the rain and wind were so severe that his flight was delayed for three hours. The stewardess mistook the reason for Paul’s anxiety and kept telling him that everything would be all right as she passed up and down the aisle. The downpour didn’t let up when the plane finally landed in New York. The cab ride to the hotel was like being in a submarine, with the windows closed to keep out the water. The windshield wipers became twin metronomes that soon had Paul drowsy.
* * *
“When Hermia was dismissed from the presence of the Duke, she went to her lover Lysander and told him the peril she was in and that she must either give him up and marry Demetrius, or lose her life in four days.”
* * *
Unpacking in the hotel, Paul cursed the weather that had robbed him of a precious day. From his high floor, he could see deep puddles bubbling with raindrops where the displays would have been. The medications he was taking left him with little strength. He had room service bring him a sandwich and tea. After a warm bath, it was all he could do to get under the sheets. The rain had come with cold weather from the Midwest. The curtains flowed with the breeze like a pale wedding dress.
Paul was roused from his slumber – the storm had resumed with tempest fury, accompanied by hammered flashes of lightning. With difficulty, he got up to lower window, and then decided against it. Taking a blanket from the closet, Paul went back to bed. He drifted into an unnatural sleep, kept close to consciousness by the celestial turbulence.
* * *
Paul was pleased – things were going as planned. He could see that by the happy expression on Mary’s face, not that she ever seemed to be sad. Paul had wanted the past few days to be special, to thank Mary before he told her the good news. He wasn’t going to Michigan State in the fall. Tonight, after the Friday concert on the pier, he would let her know.
“To be, or not to be!” Paul recited in an exaggerated voice. Mary feeding him a large strawberry stopped him from going on. They were sharing a blanket on the beach at Lake Michigan. Between them, lay the basket of baked bread, fruit and chesses that they had gathered from Armitrano’s roadside market. Hidden on the bottom was the large bottle of red wine that Paul was saving for when they would watch the sun set over the Great Lakes.
Paul would meet Mary when she got off from her part-time job at the piano factory where her father also worked. Mr. Cosmos didn’t approve of Paul. “Any boy who doesn’t hold a summer job – well, something is fishy, and that’s all I can say.” That’s what he overheard through the screen door last week, after he drove Mary home late. Paul mused about what her father would have said if he knew that Paul had tried to cajole her into staying with him the entire night. The day charter boats were returning to port, as he turned to Mary.
“Too bad the drama club didn’t choose one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies for us to star in instead of that marshmallow, A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” Paul sighed. “I would have made a noble Caesar, don’t you think so?”
“Oh no, wouldn’t thy have taken two acts instead of one for thy death scene at the Senate? Alas, who would be able to keep back the audience from also offering their rendering services,” teased Mary. She popped another strawberry into his mouth. The sun was a dissolving orange as they continued jousting.
“Ah, look to your hands, Lady Macbeth, covered with blood,” cried Paul, as he took her berry stained fingers to his cheek. “Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
“You stole my lines, you scoundrel you,” answered Mary in mock horror. “Paul these are the sweetest strawberries that I’ve ever had. I hope you paid for them this time.”
“Come, have what Bacchus offers.” Paul wicked laughed as he held the cane-covered bottler with one hand and with the other brought Mary to him.
* * *
Paul floated back to wakefulness as the storm was abating into the distance. The sky was still filled with electricity as night yielded to dawn. He had thought that Grand Haven was too small for him, as would be school at East Lansing. Paul remembered Mary’s pleading tears when he told her he was leaving and not looking back. “You’re foolish to think that because you were my leading lady here, that you can anchor my future,” he recalled preaching. “You have to be sophisticated and know when to let go. I have an invitation to study at the Actor’s Theatre in New York. This is exactly what I have been working toward.”
Paul was sure that he would “make it big,” in no time. The “Theatre,” he found out was in a rundown warehouse near the docks. In the nine years that he had tried to break in, the only time he made it to Off-Broadway was when he played in an outdoor summer production of Shakespeare next door to a municipal bus depot. A pile of discarded tires was the backdrop. Paul recollected with ironic bitterness that he portrayed Brutus in Julius Caesar. Escape from that failure came in the form of Suzanne, a waitress, also an aspiring “star.” They eventually married and took over her father’s plumbing business. That lasted for 13 years. She left him for a younger man. Now, Leukemia was to end his days as a bookstore manager in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
* * *
Paul waited for a way that he could approach his daughter. In the morning, he watched as Rebecca unpacked from the boxes that Bill had carted with a rope-pulled dolly. She worked with antlike intensity, using a screwdriver and hammer to set up the racks and pegs to display cutting boards and utensils. After hanging the shingle: “Michigan Wood Crafts, Bill and Rebecca Sandusky,” they shared coffee from a thermos as they sat in a handcrafted loveseat made of ash and walnut. They were nestled between a stand with ceramic lamps and one with handmade kites and windsocks that swung like knight banners.
Throughout the day, Paul could just imagine what they were saying to each other. Because Bill and Rebecca’s actions were so animated, Paul didn’t feel he was missing much of their interactions. He was pleased with Bill, a tall bearded man. Bill seemed to be the kind of guy who could fix anything if it were broken. The constant breeze had dried all traces of yesterday’s storm. The fair was crowded from the start with strolling couples and families enjoying the country and western dancing at the far end of the campus and the natural food concessions across from the booths. Bill and Rebecca worked in a continual flow of packaging and writing up sales. Paul fancied seeing Mary in his daughter. The energy-sapping sun beating down on the steps had Paul napping.
* * *
“I will meet you, said Lysander, in the wood a few miles without the city, in that delightful wood where we have so often walked with Helena in the pleasant month of May.”
* * *
Paul awoke to a baby girl dancing barefooted on the plateau of the steps singing softly into the wind accompanied by the hand clapping of her parents. When she was done, her father carried the child to a stroller. Paul felt a sweet ache in his heart as they proudly wheeled their daughter away. Paul decided then that he was going to just slip away very soon.
The sun had become a searing disc low in the sky. The fair was closing. The dismantling of the tents and poles that had supported them had begun. The grounds became a beehive of squeaking hand-trucks and dollies rolling unsold wares to waiting vans for the long journey home. Neighboring crafts people were saying their good-byes as if they had spent the entire summer together at a campsite. Rebecca, now wearing a red plaid flannel shirt against the chilliness hurriedly took down their stand. She was working at a frantic pace as if in a race against time. Bill looking puzzled tried in vain to slow her down a few times. The sky was aflame with crimson and purple-clouded hues.
The last thing to be carted away was the loveseat. When Bill returned for that, Rebecca playfully pushed him into it. She then ran over to the refreshment concession returning with two large plastic containers overflowing with cut fruit. She gave one to Bill and kissed him after saying something quietly. Rebecca then walked over to Paul, who was now quite alone on the steps.
“Gee Mister, the food stand was closing up and they gave us more than me and my husband can handle. Please enjoy!” She smiled sweetly as she handed Paul the cup. “It’s going to be a beautiful sunset,” she laughed with chestnut eyes dancing. Paul stood and managed to nod back as he accepted her offering.
Rebecca rejoined Bill. They turned the loveseat toward the west and held each other in an unbreakable embrace. Paul silently shed bitter tears of endless remorse.
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