BellaOnline Literary Review
The Stairway by Debi Gardiner



Christine Kindberg

She hesitated at the curb, waiting for the light, and watched the words on the festival banner snap in the slight wind. Celtic Fest Chicago. Her handhold on Sheana reminded Abby of kindergarten and her first school bus, only she was the mother now. She wondered briefly if he would be here as well. The thought, and the place, made her hands sweat.

Boisterous music--electric guitar and bagpipes, flutes, fiddles, and drums--came from the park across the street. She remembered the sound echoing in the trees from the last time she had come, the way she remembered the smell of beer and summer sweat and sunshine and grass and the breeze off the lake. Had she made a mistake in coming back to the city? Was it all a mistake--quitting her job, moving away from her parents, starting over in a blank apartment, coming back here when she’d already failed once?

Sheana tugged at her hand, leaning toward the music and the crowd with every ounce of her four-year-old body. Abby held her back until the light changed and then allowed her to lead them into the park.

They were swallowed by the crowd almost immediately, surrounded by tanned shoulders and polo shirts and sunglasses and sundresses. Foam lobster hats from one of the food stands bobbed over the heads of children and adults. Men in kilts pushed by roughly. Kids licked popsicles, and adults guzzled beer from thin plastic cups.

On the edge of the sidewalk, people thinned to show dancers in bright costumes on a side stage. Abby bumped into Sheana when she stopped suddenly.

“Mommy,” Sheana pointed. “I want to dance.”

“What, like this?” Abby pulled Sheana’s arms up and tugged her straight into the air a few times until Sheana giggled.

“More, more!”

Abby adjusted her ponytail and took hold of Sheana’s hand again. “Let’s go see the band first. We can come back later, when we get food.”

In the bottom of a drawer at her parents’ house she still had CDs of Celtic rock from high school and early college. Abby had found the cases while packing her and Sheana’s things last week. The covers had looked comically outdated after nine years, and that had made her feel older than almost anything else. She had copied the music onto her computer and then replaced the cases in the drawer, beside valentines from elementary school and shredded-bandana necklaces she’d worn in junior high. She felt reassured and safer, somehow, knowing that she still had that one drawer in her parents’ house.

She settled in the grass with Sheana on her lap, facing the band on the big stage. A metal fence separated them from theater seats where people committed themselves to organized rows. Abby bounced Sheana in time to the music and watched the people around them.

On a blanket on their right, a foreign-looking woman leaned against the man who held his arms around her, half of his face buried in her hair. A few feet over, three girls sat on a wrinkled sheet, ogling the men walking by; they nudged each other every few minutes and snickered. On the other side of them, four blankets were positioned around a large picnic basket, out of which three men and five women assembled gourmet sandwiches while talking and drinking beer from the vendors.

Abby traced the curve of the sidewalk in front of her to where it disappeared into the crowd. That place where the field opened up to the vendors’ area—there; that was the exact spot where he had bumped into her. She could still remember the beer soaking into the front of her shirt. His green eyes had held promises when he’d smiled.

“Mommy, I have to go potty,” Sheana said, turning around to squeeze Abby’s face in her hands.

“Now?” Abby asked, although she already knew the answer. Her own mother usually took care of the Sheana-going-potty-in-a-public-restroom thing. Her mother had so much more patience. “Okay, honey. Come on.”

But there was a long line of people waiting for the portable toilets. “Mommy, I have to go potty,” Sheana insisted.

“I know.” Abby eyed the line. She asked herself what her own mother would do, and she hated the helplessness she felt. Was she messing up Sheana’s life as well as her own with this move? Was it worth it?

“C’mon, Shenny,” she tugged Sheana out of line and picked her up, holding her strategically. She walked around the line, ignoring what people were muttering to her back.

“Excuse me,” Abby said to the people at the front. “She really has to go…I’m sorry.” She didn’t wait for permission before claiming the next open stall.

In front of the blue box, she set Sheana down and held the door open for her to go in first. Sheana stepped in but then threw out her arms to brace herself in the doorway, blocking Abby’s entrance. “I’m going by myself,” Sheana announced.


“I’m going by myself,” Sheana repeated.

“Shenny, this isn’t a very good time.” Abby could feel all the people in the line behind them staring at her. She and her mother had been encouraging Sheana to take this step for weeks, but she couldn’t understand why Sheana chose to assert her independence at such a moment.

“By myself. Like a big girl.”

“Come on, honey, let me in.”

“No,” Sheana braced herself with all her strength, pushing against her mother.

“Sheana…” Abby tried to control the tone of her voice. She had never noticed how much Sheana looked like her grandmother when she was determined to not give in.

“I’m going to go by myself. I’m a big girl now.”

Abby wished she knew what to do. She took a breath and slowly knelt down to her daughter’s eye level. “Yes, you are a big girl, honey. Okay, show me how well you can do this.” She stood up and let Sheana go. “I’ll be right here if you need help.”

Sheana smiled, her green eyes tilting upward. She turned and pulled the door shut with both hands.

Left outside, Abby crossed her arms and leaned against the blue plastic. She stared over the heads of the people in line.

Above the trees of the park were the iconic buildings of the Chicago skyline. She’d loved this cityscape since she was little, when she’d first seen pictures. The view from this park was her favorite. It always made her feel as if she were looking at the sophisticated hubbub of the city from a secret, safe place in the middle of it all. There was that funny building she’d always thought looked like the Millennium Falcon. The innumerable windows of that bland rectangular building reflected the summer sky, obscuring the busy lives of the people inside. There was the Gothic façade that had always made her imagine the city a hundred years ago. The Sears tower peeked through a gap in buildings, lit with green in honor of the festival.

She loved this city, and here she was, a part of it, again. Finally. The clench at the bottom of her esophagus loosened a little. She was doing it; she was out of the sleepy sidelines. This time she would make it work. She rolled her shoulders back against the plastic blue wall of the port-a-potty and stood up a little straighter.

Off to her left were picnic tables in the trees. She recognized them, and the memory stole her brief confidence. That was where he had taken her to meet his friends after buying her a second round of beer. His friends had laughed hilariously at his retelling of how he’d bumped into her and spilled her drink; the friends had teased him about doing it on purpose to meet her. She’d laughed along with them. One of the girls across the table had quietly offered a sweatshirt if she wanted to change out of her beer-soaked clothes. Abby had declined. It wasn’t until later that she´d wondered if the girl had known what was going to happen. She realized later it might not have been the first time he’d met a girl so casually, so easily. The thought had only increased her anger at herself.

Every time she caught his eye that night, she had felt a cool shiver through her body. She thought she was living out a scene from a movie: random strangers bump into each other and everything changes because of the spark between them. She had thought she could predict the ending.

Abby shifted her weight, resisting the urge to check on Sheana. On the sidewalk to her right, a tall woman in heels and a flowing sundress glided by, effortlessly glamorous, confident, purposeful. Abby wondered where the woman was going.

A couple strolled by in the other direction, seemingly oblivious to the rest of the park. His arm was around her shoulder and her arm was around his waist, her fingers hooked in his belt loops. His black shirt read “Live the life you want.”

A young family walked by with the boy on his father’s shoulders, clutching a bright yellow balloon in one hand and a handful of his father’s blond hair in the other. The boy’s mother seemed to be watching him carefully from behind her sunglasses, unconsciously fiddling with the cap of the water bottle she held. She had immaculately manicured hands; light was refracted in all directions from the large diamond ring over her wedding band.

Two college-age girls in oversized sunglasses strutted by in tank tops that didn’t quite meet their undersized shorts. A group of men in polo shirts walked several steps behind them, elbowing each other and staring.

Abby tugged her t-shirt firmly down over her capris. She felt too young to be dowdy, too responsible to be sexy, too single to be a mother, too much a mother to be available. Maybe she should have stayed in tonight, in the anonymous safety of her blank apartment building.

She’d tried this life five years ago and had to go limping back to her parents’ house. What made her think she could make it work this time? But she couldn’t fail again. The stakes were higher now.

Abby brushed away a piece of grass that had stuck to her ankle, and when she looked up, she saw a man walking toward her. He was by himself and carried a plastic cup of beer in each hand. He walked carefully--his dark head bent slightly over the cups, his eyes focused on the sloshing beer--trying to keep from spilling on his dark green polo shirt.

Abby remembered that dark hair and his concentration. She remembered that green polo shirt pooling against the hardwood floor of her apartment, five years ago. She swallowed.

It was him.

She remembered that green shirt pooling against the bare hardwood floor in her apartment five years ago. The shirt’s absence in the morning had been the first thing she’d noticed. She had pretended she didn’t care; she had told her friends they’d only made out. Three months later, the two parallel lines on the drugstore test had been the same shade of green as that shirt.

It was him.

Abby stared at him, disbelieving. She was glad Sheana was in the bathroom, out of sight. She leaned against the door and clenched her fists, watching him come closer.

She knew his name was Michael, but she never knew more than his first name or his friends’ first names.

She willed him to look up from his beer and look at her. She lifted her chin, daring him to face her. He had to look at her.

Slowly, he raised his eyes from the plastic cups and met hers.

His eyes were brown. Not green.

The man smiled as if asking if he knew her, and she, relieved, smiled back. It wasn’t him. It wasn’t him. The man walked away, sloshing beer with each step.

Sheana pushed the door open, bumping Abby hard in the back. She was surprised at her daughter’s sudden strength. She knelt down to Sheana’s level, and Sheana smiled proudly, waiting to hear how well she’d done.

“Everything go okay?” Abby asked.

“Fine.” Sheana shrugged her shoulders with four-year-old nonchalance.

“You are such a big girl,” Abby told her. “What am I going to do with such a big girl?” She brushed Sheana’s bangs back from her face. “Did you wash your hands and everything?”

Sheana hesitated, then nodded.

“With soap and water?” Abby waited until Sheana confessed.

“The soap was too high.” The little girl looked down at her orange jelly sandals.

Abby smiled, making sure Sheana saw her. “You did a good job, Shenny. It’s okay. We can use hand sanitizer this time.” She carried Sheana to the grass, past the line of people waiting. She dug through her purse and flicked open the lid of the small plastic bottle, squirting clear gel into Sheana’s palm. Sheana rubbed it around quickly, her hands dripping with excess.

“Here, share some with me.” Abby rubbed each of Sheana’s hands between hers, and Sheana giggled as if her mother were being silly, her green eyes lighting up again.

“Come on, big girl. Let’s get something to eat.” They walked together through the crowd to the stands selling beer and food of all kinds.

When it was Abby’s turn in line, she asked them to fill her beer halfway. She didn´t want to spill it.

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Reader Feedback:
I really enjoyed the story - the feeling of the setting was very real. I related to trying over in a city that I loved. Nice ending, nicely presented.


Spring Equinox 2012 Table of Contents