The old man stopped. He could barely lift his foot another step. The four-floor walkup had hammered his will power his stamina for thirty-eight years, and it had finally won. In fact, everything about Herman Thalfeld's life had conspired to beat him into submission: a number of failed clothing businesses, two ex-wives, the Internal Revenue Service (which, with fines and penalties inspired by Herman's lifetime of irresponsible tax filing, had made sure that he would never afford a single item of luxury for the rest of his life), and his grown children who, after having extracted their college degrees from his flesh, had gone on to their respective careers and families far across the country. All had collectively sucked his spirit dry and discarded his nonproductive remains into the stale-beer- and urine-stained gutter after there was nothing else left to take. At least the muggers of this soulless metropolis had finally stopped their predictable harassment even for sport after robbing him of the last items of dubious value he dared carry on his person. And now the stairs.
He was halfway up the long rise to the third floor. Another twelve impossible steps would place him on the next landing with only twenty-three more stair steps to Apartment 4G. During the last few years each step had conspired against his ascent. The height of each riser seemed to grow overnight. Knees ached while his emaciated shins and thighs burned with the fire of old age and disuse. Ligaments and tendons had hardened beyond hope, and each sixty-nine-step journey from street to apartment felt as though it might be the last. And today here he was on the thirteenth step, halfway between floors two and three of the ratty, cockroach-infested building that he had called "home" for almost half of his life. Herman couldn't imagine how many times his shoes had trod the very step which now held him fast. He stood panting, unable to move an inch, as if the remaining steps at which he gazed upward were the giant blocks of the pyramids at Giza.
The stairway was somewhat dim, lit only from a window at the end of the hallway on each floor. The light bulb in the one ancient fixture above his head had long ago burnt out. Herman feebly reached out to steady himself on the barren wall, for the bannister had been ripped off by vandals years ago and was never replaced. Not daring to look behind him, he stood frozen, wondering what to do, for all he knew he might be standing on a sheer precipice of a cliff, and seeing the thousand-foot drop at his heels would unnerve him beyond control. The granite felt cold to his hand. He wondered just how high he really was he had to be at least above the snow line. A light gust of frosty air blew at his ankles and up his pant legs. He shivered. Was this how he was to die? alone, on the side of a mountain, the meager remains of his frail body left to be picked over by vultures?
The thought suddenly amused him, as the vultures of the feathered kind were nothing compared to the human variety he had long dealt with ever since he could remember: the bullies in sixth grade whose daily shakedowns made sure he went hungry every school day; tyrannical teachers, dissatisfied with their own miserable lives at having to ride herd on the sons and daughters of plebeian society; his own mother, for whom nothing he ever did could please; each of his ex-wives now there was a subspecies unto itself, at least in his case; his own children, in whose DNA lurked their mothers' thirst for the jugular; and finally the government, his landlord, the bank, cops, thugs, the mailman, all telephone operators, and even grocery clerks and box boys. All had feasted at the carrion that was Herman Thalfeld.
He heard the door to Sophie Silberstein's apartment open on the landing below the telltale tinkle of the little brass bell she had hung on the inside door handle announcing her weekly foray to buy matzah, onions, liver, and beets. Herman didn't turn to look, for fear of losing his balance. As Sophie inserted the key into the ancient lock, she sensed someone's presence and timidly turned her head to see a man's shoes halfway up the stairs. Her hand was still holding the key in the lock and she slowly turned it back to unlock the door. With one foot inside the apartment she now had her retreat well in hand. "Who-who's there?" she cried out.
"That you, Sophie?"
"Yes, it's me."
"Herman, you scared me, already. What are you doing like a no-good-nik on the stairs?"
Herman was embarrassed to admit his plight. He was cold and the height was dizzying. "I'm just resting a bit, nu? You know these stairs...."
"Herman, come down here right now. Take a rest. I'll give you some soup."
Another cold gust blew up his pant legs. He could barely feel his right hand anymore, it was so numb from the icy granite. There seemed no way to get down, even if he wanted to. The idea of spending even a few moments with Sophie sent a chill of a different kind down his back. Her apartment always smelled of overcooked liver and dirty cat box. In passing her door each day he had to hold his breath, but a lot of good it did. He had to exhale by the time he reached only the second step.
"Herman, can you hear me? Your apartment is up another flight-and-a-half. Nu, shoyn! Come in for"
At that moment Herman was distracted by a very faint sound coming from higher up the mountain. There was something familiar about it. He listened very intently as it began to get louder. It was music. And he had heard it before, a long time ago. He and Rosie, the girl he wished he had married, used to dance to it when they were courting. It was 1936 and Benny Goodman's band was playing "Goodnight My Love." And Ella was singing. My god, could she singand she was only nineteen! Herman had waited all night outside the record store to buy the new Victor recording the day it was released. Even though her name was not listed, there was no mistaking the voice. The dispute caused by Ella being a Decca artist resulted in Victor recalling the record shortly after that. Herman had been lucky to get one of the few that were sold.
"some soup. Rest a little!"
The music was so clear. Herman was back in Rosie's apartment. They danced to this tune every time he came to visit. Goodnight my love, the tired old moon is descending.... He could smell the perfume of her freshly-shampooed hair. She always wore the imitation pearls he gave her. Goodnight my love, my moment with you is now ending....
"HermanI'm talking to you!" Sophie moved to the foot of the stairs and peered up into the dim stairwell. There was Herman, standing midway between floors with his back to her. He didn't move an inch. What was he doing? Should I call for help?
"Herman, you're meshugeh! I'm going to come get you if you don't come down this minute!" This wasn't entirely true. Sophie was afraid of her own shadow and would venture out only once a week for her groceries. She had never in her life been up these stairs had never seen any other apartment in the building and always tried to plan her exit so that she met no one on her way down to the lobby. Now was a different matter. Her old friend seemed to be in trouble. Did he have a stroke? She tentatively put her right foot on the first step but then withdrew it. She knew she couldn't go up. It was foreign. It was the unknown.
Sophie looked toward the warm light emanating from her open apartment door. Inside was her world safe, womb-like. The chilly stairs scared her. And the dark ascent scared her even more.
"Sophie, go back. I'm just taking a breather. Can't an eighty-four-year-old man take a rest?"
"But Herman, you never come to visit! All these years, wasted. You never once.... Do me a favor, come down. What's so important you"
It was so heavenly, holding you close to me.... Herman embraced Rosie a little tighter as they danced. It was a winter evening and they were outside her apartment on the sidewalk. They left footprints in the blanket of fresh snow. It will be heavenly to hold you again in my dreams....
"need to go?"
The door to the foyer opened downstairs and Sophie panicked. She slowly moved back to the safety of her doorway and listened. Herman, come down! she whispered. Voices got closer, footsteps sounded on the stairs. Sophie bit her lip as her heart pounded. Her eyes darted back and forth from where Herman stood, frozen in time, to the landing from the floor below. At any moment strangers would appear and their foreign-ness with their ugly smells from the street would tear apart her neat, tidy, and safe little world. Herman! Sophie saw the tops of two hats just appear at the head of the stairs. That was it. Ich hob es in drerd! she muttered as she hastily backed into her apartment and slammed the door. Two deadbolts, a chain, and a police lock sealed her in; however, all those precautions couldn't protect her from the heart attack that would claim her two days hence.
Herman heard the door slam. He heard the footsteps, the voices men's voices and laughter. Rosie was gone. He was back on the mountainside and he felt not saw the shadow of a hawk pass over him. The voices got closer and closer until they stopped right behind him. "Uh, excuse us, Sir."
The light bulb in the stairway suddenly made a fizzling sound, sputtered and flickered, and then turned on. For the first time in many years Herman could see the true color of the paint on the wall, and it was pure white. Not a mark on it. He realized that his feet no longer felt glued to the step and he was able to move.
Herman turned around and saw two men standing about four steps below him. The man on the right suddenly broke out in a huge grin and said, "Hey man, look who's here! Herman Thalfeld, it's me, Ziggy!" Herman was speechless. He couldn't believe his eyes. It was Ziggy Ellman, trumpet player for Benny Goodman. Both men were dressed to the nines in white suits, and each was carrying a trumpet case.
"Herman, don't you remember? You were our biggest fan. You even caught us at the Roosevelt in '35. You bought all our records."
Herman laughed and shook Ziggy's hand excitedly. "I don't believe it! How did? I just heard you playing"
"Charlie Most, I want you to meet Herman Thalfeld. He outfitted the band with some snazzy suits and was at every concert we did in town. Herman, Charlie. I just came down to get Charlie he's one bad-ass trumpet player who's just joining the band."
Charlie took a step to shake Herman's hand, then the threesome began to slowly walk up the stairs. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Most," Herman said. "Ziggy, what are you doing here?"
"Why, we're going upstairs to the gig, of course. Want to join us?"
"Yeah, everyone's there Jess, Hymie, Red, Babe, Vernon even Krupa. It's a real hot band. 'Course not everyone could make it. Unfinished business, you know."
"Yeah, come on up." The three men arrived at the top of the stairs in what looked, to Herman, to be the grand ballroom of a palatial night club. He saw Benny's band on the stage and immediately recognized Ella stepping to the microphone. Ziggy said, "Hey, we'll catch you later, OK?" and the two musicians made their way to the stage as the band began playing.
The dance floor filled with couples. Word must have spread rather quickly, for Herman had no idea Benny would be playing here. He realized he was no longer cold. Any aches and pains he felt earlier were gone. In fact, he never felt better.
From out of the crowd came what Herman first thought was an apparition, but when she walked up to him and kissed him on the cheek, he knew she was for real. "Hi Herman, darling, I've been waiting for you." He offered her his arm and said, "Hi Rosie, want to dance?"
As they blended into the milling throng on the dance floor, Herman recognized the familiar perfume on Rosie's hair and saw the old fake pearls. He held her tightly and looked up at the bandstand. Ella locked gazes with him, winked, and began singing... Goodnight my love, the tired old moon is descending....
© 2002 Edward King
the porcelin pendant above to hear an mp3 file of "Goodnight, My Love"
recorded by Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald in 1936 (1.5 megabytes).
Edward King is the pen name of a retired commercial airline pilot living in San Diego, and is currently writing his memoirs. He was a big fan of the Goodman band. For more of his work in TheScreamOnline, visit the Talent Index.
Al Stewart, trumpet player for Benny Goodman and featured photographer
in the August 2001 issue, had this to say upon reading "Goodnight, My Love":
"Years ago one of the hotels we used to stay in
when coming off the road was the King Edward."
"Stairs" photo ©2002 Martin Balcomb, London.
Contact Mr. King at oedipusrex[AT]ca.rr.com
(replace [AT] with @)