I’m a collector of useless things. But my collection can’t be placed in a museum or garage or on a quaint shelf in a back closet, it can only exist out in the world.
It began with a staircase near my apartment that led nowhere. It was stone with a rusting metal railing, set back a bit from the street past some untended grass, straight into the chipped white wall of a building. There was no door, window, or entryway, there was no platform. It existed seemingly to convey people a few feet up and then have them turn around and walk back down again.
I became fascinated by this inexplicable structure. Why was it there? Did there used to be a door at the top, since replaced with brick and paint? Or maybe it was built accidentally and there was never intended to be anything there, merely an accident of poor planning and miscommunicated construction.
The building it was attached to was long since abandoned. There was no one I could pester with my curiosity. I did go so far as to look into property records and found the current owners, but awkward messages left at the best number I could find for them were left unreturned.
Yet the more I looked, the more I found of these normally useful objects stripped of their meaning. The back room of the retail outlet I worked at possessed an awkwardly placed door near the rear entrance that opened to a solid wall. I tried to ask about its provenance, but everyone working there just said it had always been there. Their total lack of intellectual curiosity confounded me.
There were gates with no fencing guarding empty fields. Bridges over solid earth. A tunnel, no more than a couple meters long, built over railroad tracks that had no reason for being there.
I saw them everywhere now. How did I miss them before? And how did people go their whole lives never realizing these objects of lost purpose? They’re everywhere and I simply had to find as many as I could.
I began cataloging them, carefully. It started in a notebook that I’d write into when I stumbled onto one, when I was driving or on long walks. I would write the type of object, location, and a description.
DOOR FRAME — 5TH AND HARLOW — CHIPPED RED PAINT, HINGES, NO DOOR
WINDOW — 455 W 8TH AVE — GLASS INTACT, BRICKED UP
The more I saw, the more an idea began to insinuate itself. Maybe the purpose of a thing can transcend its actual physical boundary.
A staircase or a door led somewhere, they are a gateway. A fence is a boundary. The outline of a building that was torn down belies that it was a structure once. All were possessed of an intention that was sealed, removed, or disregarded. Yet the objects remained.
But where did that purpose — that intention — go? Simply evaporated into wind? Transformed from what it was to mere curiosity?
A door leading into a solid wall ceased to be a door, since you must be able to pass through a door, to connect between two distinct places. Yet there was this construction that had hinges, panels, and a knob. You could turn the knob and swing it open, but the intent could never be fulfilled.
But these disparate, conflicting states cannot be. Intention is a lively entity, and it refuses to be quelled by a blockade. A window with no room, a door with no entry, a staircase to the ceiling. They all still existed, still functioned, but had no way to complete. They were forever unfulfilled, but their intention, oh their intention was strong as ever. Maybe even stronger than before, for what is more determined to be free than something chained?
One day, I saw a squirrel dead in the road, hit by a car. Its bloated body filling with the bacterial gases of death. Curiously, I could see its cubby hole nearby, secreted with nuts. A few scattered bits surrounded its body. The squirrel, like the stairs or doors, had a purpose, an intention, that was forcefully stopped. Yet the desire was still there, writ in the remnants of its purpose.
Death was the obstacle, the hindrance. Just like the bricked up wall, the building torn down, the window sealed. But intention never dies, and can be found again.
This was exciting — to reclaim lost intention. To be able to climb the stairs or pass through the door, open the window or unlock the gate. If that meaning could be found and harnessed again, then all intention could be eternal. The mountains wouldn’t crumble, stars could never burn out, and death was but prologue to the infinitudes of life’s intention.
By this point, my job had long since let me go. I kept calling off, missing days, and even when I was there, my mind was on this profound new idea. It was static electricity, building inside me and waiting to discharge. I only needed to find a conduit.
It made the most sense to start with the genesis of all this — those stairs into the wall near my apartment.
I would sit there for hours, examining them, considering their every facet. Condensing the entirety of their existence into what they were meant to be.
I imagined myself walking up them hundreds, thousands of times. Each careful step another motion to fulfillment.
But I didn’t walk up them. Not yet.
No, I knew that if I was premature, if the alignment of my desire with its intention was off even the most minute piece of a fragment, that I would be greeted with only a wall and the misery of failure. If I didn’t find purchase with my action the first time I attempted it, I knew with total clarity that the revelation I sought would be forever behind a veil.
There were five steps leading from the ground to the wall. Where the flat top of the sixth step would be was only disregarded and inflexible brickwork.
If I began from the ground, standing in the increasingly browning grass, I’d step up. One step.
Another. Another after that. Two more to go. Step, and a final careful step. That would be the moment of triumph or despondency. If I lifted my foot and moved it one more place up, to the phantom sixth stair, I would have transcended the boundary between physicality and intention. I would have reclaimed its purpose, and by doing so, proven that there are no walls, no barriers, no finality or death. That all was eternal.
Or I would find the tip of my toes hitting the wall. And that failure would be the worst kind, because I would know there was a path to success, but I was too stupid or callous or arrogant to find access to it. Such a thing is worse than dying.
I hadn’t really eaten much for days. There was no time for food. And if I was right, then the intention of hunger and eating were flexible, as malleable as the door opening into nothing could become an entrance into somewhere again.
I still slept, often in ragged stops and starts that left me confused and perched on the precipice of dream and reality. I dreamt of strange, exotic places of impossible geometries. Doors leading into doors leading into doors, ad infinitum. Staircases that not only reached up, but over, down, and through themselves.
As I hadn’t yet traversed the edges of reality, I spent the last of my meager savings on rent. The idea of rent, savings, money — all were trivialities compared to the ocean of understanding lapping at my shore.
I sketched it, dozens or hundreds of times, I can’t tell you which. Page after page — different angles, times of day, details, and size in the frame of paper. I knew those stairs better than I knew my own face. I could recite every chip, crinkle, and mark. All the patterned rust on the handrail, the missing screws, the gentle lean that time had given the left side. They were as dear and intimate to me as a lover.
Finally I had the tenacity to approach and measure. Each side, each step, every part of it was carefully considered. I would not step onto it though, or even touch it. There was only that one time I could do that, that perfect moment when all would align and give me purchase to follow my ambition into that second layer of the world previously hidden.
They were once painted a dull brown, which had since flaked off and left only speckled remnants of what they were. Was the color an intention too? Was paint a purpose? Are aesthetics part of the incalculable essence of what an object is?
I realized my phone had been disconnected at some point. I hadn’t been responding to anyone for some time, what few people contacted me. What was the point? This work was too grand, too important, to be interrupted by the mundanities of others.
Days turned into weeks. I was forced to eat because my mind was slipping. The intention of my body was insurmountable, so I acquiesced to its desires. I would sleep at the foot of the stairs, making sure not to touch it in any way. I knew I would turn in my sleep, so I laid myself far enough away from it to not disturb its sacred features.
Slowly, finally, I arrived at my understanding.
I knew when the fabric that enshrouded all things was weakest — during the time when the sun was fading yet still bright enough to see. The golden rays stretched through more of the atmosphere, alighting everything with just enough energy to be permeable, but not so little as to be absent.
I began to meditate. I sat cross-legged mere inches from its front, breathing in. Breathing out. I did not drink or eat or sleep. When I felt myself fading, I would summon whatever strength remained and reassert myself.
Time flowed as through a sieve. There were no longer hours or days, just an unbroken river that I floated upon. I could see leaves stop as they fell from trees, hung in the balance of eons or seconds. I could no longer feel my body or my mind as distinct entities, only a continuance of one intention to the next. Purpose was all that existed.
Finally, as if given a joyful message from some ancient knowledge, I was ready.
There were five steps to any outside observer. Five steps and an impenetrable surface.
I stood facing it, steeling myself and centering what remained of my being into this singular necessity.
I walked up onto the first step. I felt nauseated almost immediately. My stomach turned backflips and I nearly vomited, but my commitment and will wrestled the bile back down into the depths of my body. It would only get harder from here.
The next step was like a fire behind my eyes, pain and shock, jolts of energy that radiated through my essence and pumped my veins into rivers of flame. Three more, just three more.
As soon as I planted my feet on the third step, I was buffeted by what felt like shockwaves, emanating from everywhere at once. Their source and my countenance battled for victory, trying to knock me down and force me off my sacred mission. I bore down and gritted my teeth, a strained grumbling vibrating up through my core.
Fourth step. What was this horror, this pain, this unyielding of unyieldings? No one was meant for this, to be this close to the abyssal maw of existence. I could only barely keep myself centered, and closed my eyes to keep out the raging storm that held me in its maddening grip. But I had to press on, I had to find my answer.
All of reality craned and pinwheeled before me, a bright ebullience of sound and color, carried on winds of song. I had nearly reached the nexus, the epicenter of understanding. With a fitful, furtive movement that seemed dispossessed of my physical form, I took that fifth step, facing the test I had worked and trained and desired so hard to see.
And then I took one more.