The Creaking Staircase

By Harold Stallworth

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Justin’s basement was an open-air museum of ‘90s pop culture. Action figures, cassette tapes, professional wrestling belts, 16-bit video game consoles — it was enough to send any garden variety millennial into a euphoric tizzy. I wanted nothing more than to horse around with the sprawling collection of novelties lining the walls and bookshelf, but Justin was as stingy as he was nostalgic. We sat opposite each other, slumped in sticky polyester bean bags. I sucked down a billowing cloud of smoke, flicked a clump of ashes into a giant psychedelic conch shell, then passed the tightly-rolled joint back over to Justin. A round of aggressive thumps at the basement door interrupted the chilled silence of our smoke break.

I sprung to my feet and opened to the door. Justin’s wife, Caroline, was standing on the other side, toting a tray furnished with hoagies and cashews and beer bottles. The room service was a timely and appreciated gesture, but it was difficult to concentrate on anything other than the tracksuit clinging to her curves, which were steep and plentiful. “Lunch is served!” She announced in her usual carbonated tone. “I’m headed to the gym, but there’s some meatballs on the slow cooker if you guys get hungry later.”

Caroline was unanimously gorgeous, a delicacy to which everyone could agree. I never understood how she fell for my best friend. Justin was obnoxious, dimwitted, irreparably big-boned, and cursed with a disembodied hairline. He barely acknowledged the lunch platter and shooed his wife away like some unwelcome pest buzzing about his man cave. Caroline’s warm, inviting eyes glazed over and narrowed to a villainous squint. I accepted the tray and she marched back upstairs to pursue whatever rigorous workout routine was responsible for her celestial frame.

Between puffs, Justin summoned his wife back to the basement. “Caroline!” He cried. “Caroliiiiiiiine!” She dashed back downstairs, her breasts danced to the rhythm of her panting. “What’s wrong?!” She demanded.

“I need to use the car before you get out of here,” explained Justin. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Hey man, can you grab me a pack of mints while you’re out?” I asked. “My mouth tastes weird.”

“You got mint money, Ralphie?” asked Justin, already halfway out the door before I could even respond.

Caroline plopped into the vacant bean bag. “How do you put up with that asshole?” She asked. “Do you have any more herb?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing.”

“Ask me about what? The asshole or the herb?”

“The asshole, I meant. There’s a bunch of joints left—” Then, mid-sentence, any semblance of bass and authority in my voice tapered off because I realized I’d said too much, but it was too late to halt the momentum of my flapping lips, “—in the cigar box under the bookshelf,” I muttered reluctantly.

“Ohhhhh, so that’s where Justin hides all his goodies!” Caroline flopped to her knees and ransacked her husband’s weed stash. I chomped into my hoagie and gazed up at the stormy swirls of weathered paint sweeping across the ceiling, wondering how I would explain this fit of betrayal to Justin.

One hour, two joints, and a three-and-half beers later, Caroline’s jolly facade dissolved to reveal a reformed scenester in the throes of relapse. “I used to go out three, sometimes four times a week,” she confessed. “Me and my girls played hard, Ralphie. Nowadays, I just go to work and tend to Justin. That’s my life, unfortunately.” The gym-friendly bun pinned to the back of her skull hatched into thick tendrils of corkscrew curls. “Just between me and you,” she hissed in a stage whisper. “He gets on my fucking nerves. I detest that inconsiderate piece of shit.”

“Yeah, I love Justin,” I chimed in. “But he can be a little grating, I suppose.”

“Grating? That’s a hell of an understatement. He’s a womanizing sociopath.” Caroline was still reeling from an encounter she had with Justin’s disgruntled ex-mistress. Just months earlier, the heartbroken stranger approached her in the gym parking lot and offered to treat her to a cup of coffee. When Caroline confronted Justin about the alleged affair, he presented her with a calloused ultimatum: shut up and behave or get out. She opted for the former, and her bitter diatribe made it obvious that she hated herself for choosing comfort over dignity. Public housing was a distant nightmare that Caroline had absolutely no interest in rehashing.

“So, uh, what kind of workout do you do at the gym?” I asked, trying to steer the conversation away from her laundry list of marital grievances.

“It varies throughout the week, but on Saturdays I attend a belly twerking class! It’s a contemporary form of belly dancing.” Caroline launched to her feet and unzipped her top, exposing a fluorescent sports bra that defied the laws of elasticity. Her torso and hips and rear-end seemed to gyrate on entirely separate planes. She inched in my direction until her quivering mounds of flesh were close enough to fan waves of stale air across my face.

Suddenly, an almost rhythmic patter of thuds echoed from the staircase, punctuated by a violent bang at the basement door. We rushed to investigate and found Justin curled at the landing, one foot propped over the bottom tread, unresponsive to our pokes and prods.

I braced myself for an incoming surge of panic and adrenalin, but strangely, it never arrived. I hoped that Justin was dead. I wanted to play with his toys and thumb through his comic books and fuck the deep-seated resentment out of his wife. I glanced over at Caroline, and, without so much as a word, I knew she felt the same. There wasn’t a hint of fear embedded in her expressionless face; her piercing brown eyes were flooded with self-serving aspiration.

Faint snores confirmed that Justin had been merely knocked unconscious. I suggested we hail an ambulance, but Caroline insisted that we transport her husband to Howard Hospital ourselves. Leading the way, I heaved Justin’s wide shoulders while Caroline lugged at his ankles. He reeked of off-brand cologne and his balding head, now nuzzled into the hollow of my chest, was greased like a dank stripper pole. Tread by creaking tread, the three of us slinked up the cramped staircase, trafficking deadweight and indignation.

– Harold Stallworth