Somewhere Upstairs – by Presley Acuna

I was a city kid and I was a recluse, for my parents were protective and rarely let me out of the house. I was the son of immigrants and I was an explorer, for the world was a great unknown.

I lived on the 4th floor of a six story walk-up in the working class neighborhood of northern Manhattan known as Washington Heights. It was the early 1960’s. From my living room window, I would spend the hot Summer days looking down at the world below – cars and people, trash and noise. I watched the bigger kids playing stickball on the street below. I heard the crack of the pole against the ball, the slap of sneakers and the shouts of excitement. I watched Greek families stage giant weddings: a procession of white clad brides, black clad grooms and enormous, colored flower bouquets, spilling into the church on the opposite corner, and then spilling out and into cars to speed away and leave the street as it was.

The French Fries truck and the Ice Cream truck would stream past, each blaring their signature music as they rolled towards the park, which was one block up the street, and children would chase it joyfully.

I watched the sun arc its way across the sky, shepherding clouds, and grey pigeons flying, floating, weightless and wary. I marveled at the dust motes visible in the slats of sunlight streaming through the Venetian blinds we had at every window and tried to touch them. All was new and mysterious.

One day, a paper streamer appeared in the air above, outside my window, and lengthened very slowly. I watched with interest as the breeze caught it and waved the unwinding white tongue, like a long confetti. I loved how it wafted in the air so playfully. To me it seemed to be coming down from the sky to play with me.
I was very young so it was perfectly plausible that the sky would want to play with me. It was daring me to grab the stream of paper, and as it slowly grew longer and the wind persuaded it closer to and then away from the building I felt that I would be able to. And then I did. I pulled it in until it was taut and felt it tug back. I let go and it wound back up into the sky. I didn’t see it again. I told no one.

The next day as I sat looking out the window the stream of paper appeared again, this time descending more quickly, as if knowing I was waiting. Inevitably, it wafted its way into my waiting hands and I pulled it into the apartment. This time the stream kept coming. I kept pulling and discovered that the last piece of the long strand had writing on it. It was a drawing made in crayon of a smiling face.

Excited, I ran to my room, found my crayons and drew a picture of a bird next to the face just as the paper began to pull back up. I didn’t see it again for many hours but that evening, as the sun dipped below the rooftops of the tenement buildings that comprised my landscape, it came down again, this time with something attached to the strand. It did not waft, for it was heavy now, and instead descended directly down to the height of my window and waited, expectant. I grabbed it and as soon as I tugged, the strand of paper yielded more length.
The object was a small plastic figure of a bird! I felt my cheeks grow hot and I laughed. I thought I heard another laugh from above. Was that another person? I realized my playmate wasn’t the sky but another person who had sent me a bird and was laughing too!

This was exciting. The sky was faceless and much bigger than me. That laughter had sounded like a little boy, like me. A boy who lived here, in my building! I suddenly had an inspiration. I ran to the bathroom and grabbed the extra roll of toilet paper. I also grabbed some Scotch tape that had been sitting on the coffee table. I unraveled some of my roll and taped it to the end of the strand from upstairs. I tugged on the strand and right on cue, it began to pull itself upwards.

My eyes shone with glee as I watched the taped union of both of our strands of paper rise up and out of sight. The strand kept rising, then paused. I imagined the mystery boy upstairs stopping to examine the taped end. Then it continued to rise upwards. I watched my roll of toilet paper dance and roll about on the floor as it was unwound by the pulling motions from upstairs. My counterpart pulled until the entire roll had unwound and disappeared into the sky above. Then all was quiet. It was getting dark and my mother called my name.

The next day I sat by the window again and waited. Downstairs the bigger kids were playing a game I heard them call “Ringolevio”. They formed into two teams. One team closed their eyes and counted down, while the other team scattered to various hiding places. It was entertainment at its finest to watch from above. I wished I could play too.

I was snapped out of my reverie by an incredible sight. Coming down from above was not one but five separate strands of paper, waving in the breeze, forming tangles and freeing themselves again. They danced outside my window like a curtain. And there was writing on them! I reached for the nearest strand and pulled it inside. I looked around the room and saw a stack of books on the sideboard table. I grabbed one and used it to anchor the captured strand. I then caught the remaining strands, and once I had them all anchored on the floor of my living room, I pulled all five strands into my apartment.

I pulled and pulled until I actually began to feel tired. Eventually, I encountered the end of each of the five strands and saw that each had been knotted to another strand! I paused, but the streams of paper kept coming and were now descending towards the street. One of the bigger kids playing Ringolevio on the street noticed and pointed up at my building, drawing the attention of the other kids. They shouted the news to the rest of their group and soon a mob of kids was converging at the foot of my building, laughing and jumping up and down trying to reach the paper strands. Passing cars noticed this too and started honking their horns. My mother heard the commotion and came into the living room.

“Ay, Dios Mío! Qué haces, Ignacio?” she cried as she took in the chaotic cloud of white toilet paper that completely covered the floor and chairs of the living room, with myself in the middle, holding the paper tiger by the tail and looking worried. She carefully placed the wooden spoon she had been holding onto a chair and inched her way towards me, as if the paper were quicksand. She knelt before me and asked, “What is this? Where did you get this paper?” She looked into my eyes searchingly, perhaps wondering if I was possessed, then hearing the commotion outside stood up, turned toward the window and looked out. She immediately grabbed the still descending strands and tore them so that any remaining paper would fall straight down to street and not into our apartment. The kids downstairs cheered. “Vayances!” she yelled. Someone threw a Spalding rubber ball at her but missed. She slammed the window shut. Another ball bounced off the glass. She pulled down the Venetian blinds and turned to me.

I felt afraid. My mother could get very angry. “Never!” she shrilly shouted, and then stopped to catch her breath. Then, more levelly, but with anger still cracking her voice, “Never open that window again, Ignacio, do you understand? You could have fallen out of that window if that boy or whoever upstairs had decided to play a trick on you. What if he offered you a rope? Would you grab it? And what if he pulled hard on it? Where do you think you would end up? You would be broken bones on the street!” She stood there glaring at me. I bowed my head in shame and started to cry. She was unmoved.

She left the living room and ducked into the kitchen. She returned in moments with a few paper sacks from the supermarket and dropped them on the floor in front of me. Pointing at the ocean of paper all around us she said, “I want you to collect all this paper and put it into these bags, OK?”

“OK, Mommy. I’m sorr…”

“Then when you‘re finished, go to your room and don’t come out until dinner! Wait until your father hears about this!”

My father was amused, much to the disgust of my mother, slamming his Miller on the kitchen tablecloth and cackling in delight, but eventually he composed himself and lectured me much as she had done. I was forbidden from looking out the windows. I was sent back to my room where I listened through the door to them arguing in Spanish at length — perhaps about me, perhaps about other things. They argued often.

The days passed and I had to content myself with watching television and playing with my few toys. Now and then when my mother was on the phone, distracted, I would venture towards the living room window and try to peek through the venetian blind slats. On the first day I didn’t dare look but as my boredom grew, I got braver and on the third day after the five strands incident, I peeked through the slats and saw that a lone strand of paper was waving in the air. And it had a lifesaver taped to the end. It banged against the glass like it was looking for me. But I did not dare open the window. I actually tried one time when she was in the bathroom but it would not budge.

After several more days the paper visitations stopped completely and I felt like I had lost something magical. I wondered how things would have gone if we had continued our game, me and my mystery playmate from upstairs. Slowly, I started to forget as more discoveries of growing up took their turns occupying my mind.

I learned how my flying saucer toy that floated a ping pong ball in the air above it worked, by throwing it violently until it fell apart. I made my own flying saucers by taping paper plates together and drawing windows on them. I learned that by dialing random numbers on our rotary phone I could contact mysterious other people who would sometimes talk for a long time. Sometimes when I dialed, I would connect and just hear people talking in the distance but they would not hear me. That one kept me busy for a good long while. I learned to make paper airplanes and I ached to throw them out the window but I had to content myself with in-apartment flight. I made hundreds of these, perfecting their design and dreaming of the day that I could actually fly them outside.

Then one day I heard a rustling at the front door to our apartment. Abuela and I were alone while my mother was out interviewing for a hairdressing job. I told Abuela about the rustling sounds and that piqued her curiosity, or perhaps her paranoia. Our neighborhood was not the safest, according to both her and my mother. Together we crept up to the front door and Abuela peeked through the peephole into the landing. She gasped and looked down at me.

“Ignacio! You have to see this,” she said and picked me up so I could peek too. I felt a hot thrill when I saw the trail of paper that began at our door and snaked its way up the stairs to the floor above. “Can we follow it?” I asked. Abuela blinked, unsure but then nodded solemnly and answered, “We have to know, right?”

She had me put on shoes and went to grab something from her purse before she opened the door and then led us both up the stairs in pursuit of the paper trail. It continued past the floor above to the next story of the building, the 6th floor. “This is the top floor, Ignacio,” she said, looking nervously at the final flight of stairs that led to a metal door that opened to the roof. I think she was weighing the chances of this all being some kind of trap but she had heard all about my paper episode so I think she tended to believe this was more of the same.

The paper trail ended at the door of apartment 6L. It actually continued under the door into the apartment. Abuela moved forward cautiously and read the name on the door’s nameplate.

“Papeleros,” she whispered. “That’s funny,” she chuckled. “Could be Greek, but could be Latino too,” she added.

“Can we knock?” I asked, eager to meet my mystery playmate.

Abuela looked at me for a long time before answering, “OK,” and then knocked on the door. No-one answered. We waited a few minutes more and then she rang the doorbell. We heard voices inside and pots clattering. Footsteps coming up to the door. The peephole cover squeaked on its little hinge as it was swung to the side.

“Qiuén es?” said a muffled voice.

“We have some toilet paper for you!” shouted Abuela, breaking into a dimpled smile at her ridiculous answer.

Silence.

Then we heard slippered feet clapping their way away from the door. Just as we were about to give up, the door suddenly opened.

“Hi,” said a boy a little taller than me, who was holding a basket of paper airplanes.

“Hi. I’m Ignacio.”

“I’m Gabriel. Have you ever flown a paper airplane?”

 

Presley Acuma writes genre fiction as well as stories about growing up in New York City. When he is not writing, he is working as a technologist on the dot com frontier. He is a born and raised New Yorker, currently living in Brooklyn.