The Stairway

by Bryan Vale

The wind howled through the trash-strewn Oakland streets beside the freeway on-ramp. Streetlights burned against the dark but could not eliminate it. Dakota downshifted for the last time and pulled the growling empty truck onto the lot. He eased into the vacant spot next to the small office, killed the engine, and clambered out. The wind caught his hat and nearly took it off; he held onto it with one hand until the gust was spent.

A figure awaited at the top of the short stairway that led to the back of the office. Silhouetted in the light from the open door, the figure, impassive, nodded once at Dakota. Then the figure put up a hand.

“Got a mask?”

Dakota paused on the stairs. “Right,” he said. He groped within his sheepskin jacket and produced one. It was a sad mask, drooping from over-usage. He put it on and inhaled the smell of dried sweat, and continued up the stairs.

The figure’s hand remained high. “Six feet.”

Dakota felt fatigue course through his body. “Oh, yeah.” He stopped at the appropriate distance. Also from within his jacket, he procured a folded piece of yellow paper. “I need this signed, and then I can head home,” he said. “I’ll follow you in.”

A shake of the head. “You can’t come inside.”


“It’s the coronavirus regulations. From the company.”

“Oh.” Dakota’s features twisted in confusion. “Even with the mask?” “Even with the mask.”

Dakota shrugged. “Okay.” He stretched out the hand that held the paper, trying to traverse the last two steps and as much of six feet as he could with one arm. The paper fluttered in the wind, waist-high to the figure at the top of the stairs. “Can I get this signed out here then?”

The figure bent slowly down to grasp it, and Dakota, straining, released it — an instant too soon. The wind rose and took the yellow scrap up into itself, up over the roof of the office, out into the dark unswept Oakland night. Signature- free, it would come down somewhere, no doubt — perhaps against a chain link fence, perhaps in the middle of Interstate 880 South, perhaps disappearing into the cold waters of the bay.