I let myself in after ringing the doorbell one time. At most homes I wouldn’t do this; I’d just leave the groceries on the front stoop. But I decide to waltz right into Mr. Granger’s house for a few reasons.
One: he always leaves the front door unlocked, which he argues is intentional, and I retort that he is becoming forgetful in his old age.
Two: I like to linger here in this quaint home, however contrary a setting to its gruff owner.
Three: I quite enjoy the argumentative banter that we have developed over these last 6 months that I’ve delivered his groceries to him.
Four: Mr. Granger could be dead.
So, I might as well do the right thing and check.
I drop the grocery sacks onto the counter in the kitchen, and before announcing myself, I unload the cold cuts, ice cream, and whole milk into the fridge. I leave the rest for later, and make a circle through the unused dining room, then the study, and into the living room where Mr. Granger usually spends his time working crosswords and pretending to ignore the TV Soaps, though I know he has been, in fact, “working” in the same crossword puzzle book since 1993 and knows by heart every Soap storyline that has ever graced his screen.
He’s nowhere on the first floor, which is surprising because he has one of those sluggish chair lifts that carries him up the stairs like he’s nobility, and his patience runs thin at about step 4 (I’ve seen it), so he rarely goes up during the day. It’s parked at the top step, so he must be up there.
I call up from the bottom. “Mr. Granger? Mr. Granger. Hey Grange!” That last one, I know, will ruffle his feathers and get his attention if the first two attempts didn’t. “Grange” is his nickname from his military days, long before I was born, a nickname for which I have not earned the right to use because of the audacity I have to be so young in this day and age. But Ol’ Grange has never kicked me out of his house, not once, so I don’t think my use of it bothers him as much as he wants it to.
Not a sound materializes from upstairs, so I hesitantly make my way up. I’ve never gone up there. The old hardwood steps squeak, as expected, until one doesn’t. Step 7 is solid. I tip toe up and down, then up two and down two, like I’m playing the life-size piano from Big. Step 7 seems to be a broken key, or the only working key, really. A key to something I have not earned the right to know about but suddenly want to know everything about.
I have already tried to learn the ins and outs of Mr. Granger, I can’t help it, I’m a curious person. But he’s a closed book. I’ll admit, on the rare occasion, when I felt like lollygagging in Mr. Granger’s home after I had bored him with enough questions to cause him to doze on the couch, I have snooped in his office. I found a few old photos with no names or dates written on them. He looked happy then, smiling with his buddies, even clinking beer mugs in one photo. I brought him a six-pack from the store once, my treat, and tried to pop open a can with him, but he said he doesn’t drink and told me I’m too young anyway, even though I was old enough to buy the beer in the first place. I can’t seem to crack anything, or anyone, open in this house.
“Tell me a war story,” I asked him once.
“They’re not fairy tales, Kristen, they’re serious. Ask someone else.” He shut me down.
Another day: “Don’t you ever get lonely?”
“No,” he said. “Being alone is peaceful. You should try it sometime. Hey, how about now?”
I stayed longer than usual that day just to irritate him.
Another time: “Tell me about the first time you fell in love.”
“I’ve never fallen in love, Kristen. Men like me don’t fall; we stand firm until a woman falls for us.”
Sheesh. “So, who fell for you then?”
“None of your business. Did you forget the beans again?”
“Of course not. Why do you eat so many beans anyway? Don’t they give you gas?”
“All your prying gives me gas.” I rolled my eyes at that and turned my head to hide a reluctant smile.
When something is deemed “not my business” I am determined to make it my business from that moment forward. And stair step 7 has “not your business” written all over it.
“Mr. Gran-ger…” I half-heartedly call out one more time just in case he is within earshot.
I squat down, grip the edge of step 7, and attempt to lift it. It’s solid. Why fix this step and none of the others? Due to my aforementioned office snooping, I know where Mr. Granger keeps his crowbar. I fly there and back in seconds and start pulling up the step, before my good sense can catch up to this moment of insanity. It groans and gives way just enough for me to peek underneath. Before I do, I look at the void at the top of the stairs again. Under my breath I beg for forgiveness from the absent Mr. Granger.
I pull my phone from my pocket and shine the flashlight inside. Paper. Yellowed. It looks like envelopes. I stuff my right arm inside and grab as many letters as my fingers can clench. But when I try to pull my arm free, it doesn’t budge.
My face flushes. My hands start to sweat. If I get stuck like this, I will literally be caught red-handed. Or read-handed.
I search for the crowbar. It’s on the bottom step, too far for me to reach. I dig the heel of my left hand into the step’s edge and push up with all my might. It doesn’t budge. The fingers of my right hand are starting to tingle from lack of blood flow.
A couple of possible scenarios fly through my mind’s eye.
One: Mr. Granger finds me and reams me out for snooping and damaging his property.
Two: He never appears at all and I have to call 911 and explain that I’m stuck in a staircase…“And while you’re here could you check and see if there’s a dead man upstairs?”
Pride and humiliation prevent me from dialing 911. Instead, I croak, “Mr Gr—.”
But the sight of him kills my voice. He’s at the top of the steps, a statue, eyes on me. Shock shoots through me, but not because he looks angry, no. Tears. His eyes are full of tears. He’s—he’s weeping.
In an effort to deflect embarrassment away from the man whom I’ve never seen cry, I aim it at myself, try to make light of the situation, and pretend not to notice his tears. “Mr. Granger, umm, I’m sorry about this.” I gesture to my right arm which appears to have been amputated. “My arm, it’s stuck. I can’t feel my fingers.” I tug, but it’s no use. “I guess you wouldn’t believe I slipped and fell into this position?”
To my surprise, he chuckles, which leads to coughing, which then forces him to slowly sit down on the top step and compose himself. Meanwhile, my arm is asleep and my head is spinning in confusion at these emotions before me. I expected anger, but I’m witnessing tears and laughter and no big rush to help the disgraced damsel in distress. I might pass out.
He wipes his eyes and takes a big sniff. “Oh, I wish I had my camera.”
I shoot him a minor stink-eye but can’t really blame him for being amused by something I got my own self into. Somewhere I got myself into. “Umm, could you help me? Then, we could laugh about this over a cold drink and maybe an ice pack?”
He pulls himself up with the stair railing and sits down in the chair lift. “I’ll be down in a jiffy. Might want to sit back against the wall so I don’t run you over. Though, that would be the least of your worries right now.” He giggles.
I smirk. The lift descends at a repulsively slow pace. But, this time, I’m the one irritated by the speed, not Mr. Granger. He seems to be loving all of this, and I don’t know why.
When he reaches the bottom he bends down, grabs the crowbar, and hands it to me. I have just enough strength in my left arm and leverage to lift the step up another inch and pull my arm free. A few letters fall from my fingertips and land on the steps around me. Amidst my pain and embarrassment, I forget to tell him thank you for rescuing me from dismemberment. I just stare at the letters, willing them to disappear, willing my whole body to disappear.
“Kristen, you’ve done me a favor.”
I look right at him, mouth agape. “W-what do you mean?”
“You were right.”
About what? I stare speechless into his glossy eyes.
“I am getting forgetful in my old age; you were right about that. These letters. I hid them there years ago, under that step. Every time I used to walked up and down the steps—squeak, squeak, squeak—and step 7 was quiet and solid, I smiled knowingly. But this stupid chair lift—that’s why I forgot.”
I rub my sore arm as my fingers begin to come alive again, the way Mr. Granger seems to have come alive just now. I try to imagine how frustrating it would be to forget something so important. “So… what are these?”
Mr. Granger smiles. “These are from the woman I fell in love with.”
“I knew it!” I blurt out. “I knew you weren’t immune to falling in love.” The pain in my arm is suddenly replaced by a hunger to know everything about this epic relationship.
He says, “Why don’t you see if you can reach in there and get the rest of the letters out, then meet me in the living room. We’ve got some reminiscing to do.”
I resist the urge to squeal and, instead, start furiously grabbing every single dusty, glorious envelope.
Mr. Granger stands. “I’ll grab us a couple of beers from the fridge.” He winks and leaves me amid a gold mine of handwritten history and surreptitious love. My heart might just burst.