Everyone I knew as a kid was afraid of the “crooked stairs.” In a way they served as a dividing line between the lives of simple townsfolk on the hill and the sordid deeds going on below. The jagged concrete steps were placed in a zig-zag pattern that created a very risky downward descent. And being steep it made the attempt that much harder. The pathway was rutted with stones, and in some places the steps were completely gone or broken into large clumps. You had to crisscross your way down, and woe to those who looked up at the woodland canopy surrounding them, for then you could find yourself in a heap on the ground, covered with dirt and leaves and maybe some shards of glass hanging from your skin as you tumbled forward. Some children thought there were denizens of the forest who dwelled there, hoarding scraps of food and drinking half-empty bottles of booze thrown by the odd group of college boys who got wasted in the nearby bars.
If you made it to the bottom unscathed you were likely to find your shoes muddied from the moist air that clung to the pathway. Then if you scaled back up the hill to the water tower and the modest homes that dipped in and out of the hilly landscape, you felt as if you should be given a reward. On the top of the ridge was the Indian bluff, were kids scoured in the mounds for arrowheads. You were in a town that had a history, and it was pleasure and pain at the same time.
At the bottom of these stairs was Main Street. Across the street lay railroad tracks, used many years before as freight lines moving east to Chicago but now decaying over a patch of weeds. A way station that was once used as a conductor’s cabin stood in the grayish distance, a pile of wood precariously balanced next to its hollow frame. Once in a while you might see a train roll by, but it was rare. Seeing a human form in these parts was cause for concern, because most certainly they were from out of town or were simply the lone hobo searching for his mind.
Make a sharp left hand turn and a few feet over and you came upon a gaudy-looking nightclub called Schnee’s (as in HEY). This is where young women, most of them seemingly lost and uncared for, disrobed nightly in front of a rough band of working men from across the river trying to have some fun after a day of slicing through pig guts. The marquee flashed its bright orange neon bulbs, giving Schnee’s the honor of being the go-to bar for the late crowd at the far end of Sinsinawa Avenues. Two restaurants, several bars, and my father’s nightclub lit up the night. It was part of a thriving miracle of high-octane entertainment in this river town that became known as “Little Las Vegas.”
There are times when everything falls into place. The citizens of the town were happy and content. They raised their kids to be righteous and true, not give in to the temptations of the flesh. People went to bed knowing they didn’t have to worry about any kind of distraction. They enjoyed the comforts of home and family.
Until you read the afternoon newspaper one dull, below-zero January day.
Her stage name was Misty Black, in itself an iconic title for such a beautiful woman. And what was taking up the entire front page of the daily paper across the Mississippi was her untimely death by the hands of an enraged and possibly rejected fan. She had been stabbed several times. I’d never seen a larger headline in our local paper before. Covered by a blanket with a ringlet of blood around her head, Misty didn’t have a chance. An accompanying photo revealed a spray of raven black hair emerging from the blanket covering her. Schnee’s was her stage, just another place to make a few bucks, and the story described the confrontation that had left her laying supine and bleeding out on the icy pavement. The town was aghast that something like this could have happened in their tiny village, where people mostly had fun and were talked about but who were not having that much fun or doing that much talking.
I became enamored of this Misty Black, the young woman who simply ran into the wrong guy. I pitied her as many a person might, but I also wanted to know more about her and I knew this was simply not possible. Such news shines a light too deep into the terrors and fears of the population. People put tragedy behind them because they have to, and then on the first day of spring they find themselves enmeshed in other matters, seeding the lawn or washing the car.
But with me it hung around. I kept going back to the newspaper story, re-reading it so I might find a texture, some thread of reason or piece of the incident that I could make sense of to provide some closure. But I couldn’t. I found myself concocting a life around Misty Black, what it was like for her as a young girl, if she had brothers or sisters, and if she ever found a happy moment in her life and what that was like.
Yet I always come back to those miserable stairs. How they humbled you and made you feel like there was more to the world then just this town. The way they taunted you, twisting you this way and that, making you sprain your ankle and cut yourself all over. The trains that never made it to the abandoned station, the people who never talked when you were listening. All the injustices done in the name of governments. Now you could add the raven-haired woman whose real name remains part of her history also.
I clung to the belief that we really don’t know what a person is in his or her totality. We only know that episodes in life take place, and the ink on the page dries up and becomes yellow. Months went by and I read or heard nothing new. She was simply “one of the girls.” Her hair reappears to me every now and then, how it spread out beneath the blanket they laid upon her that night. We can frame her dreams and sorrows and concoct all sorts of possibilities. But Misty became the name that followed her to the grave, and hundreds of girls who went to work at Schnee’s had no idea what they could have learned from her demise.