The Missing Stair: Don’t Just Warn People, Fix It

an antique staircase with a missing stair
Image by Simon Aggozino / CC BY

Skyspook Falls Through the Stairs

My phone buzzes on the desk. I scoop it up. It usually would have been in my cardigan pocket, but I’m off my game. Doing everything in the wrong order.

It’s a text from Skyspook. Be careful on the way home. People are being stupid on the road.

And another. And one of the back stairs just collapsed on me.

I gasp, text back, Omg are you ok?

A few long seconds later, Skyspook responds. Just a bruise on my leg. Nothing bad.

A harried coworker appears with a work situation. Nothing life or death, but urgent enough. And annoying. Entirely preventable.

As we’re discussing the proper fix, we’re interrupted by 3 phone calls I have to take. I’m covering for a coworker who darted out the door with a flimsy excuse. We’re short staffed. And it’s been a miserable couple of months for anyone who works in mental health. Or anything like it. So I do what I can.

But it doesn’t help that we’ve had a few people who don’t want to do their jobs. That are content to play a game of chicken. To let everything fall apart and see who will dart in and pick up the pieces. It would seem that I’m on Team Hoover. And if you’re wondering? Yes, it sucks.

It’s the life of a middle manager when upper management tells you nothing can be done. No ability to set consequences.

The Missing Stair

I first read about the “missing stair” phenomenon from Cliff of the Pervocracy. As Cliff wrote:

Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it?  Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it?  “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings.  But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”

Some people are like that missing stair.

Just about every workplace has that one person who doesn’t do their job, but everyone’s grown accustomed to picking up their slack.  A lot of social groups and families have that one person.  The person whose tip you quietly add a couple bucks to.  (Maybe more than a couple, after how they talked to the server.)  The person you don’t bother arguing with when they get off on one of their rants.  The person you try really, really hard not to make angry, because they’re perfectly nice so long as no one makes them angry.

I know not all these people can be fixed, and sometimes they can’t be escaped either.  But the least you can do is recognize them, and that they are the problem.  Stop thinking that your inability to accomodate [sic] them is the problem.

*

“Are we all just going to step over this missing stair?” I ask, exasperated. For the third time this week.

“What can we do?” my boss says.

I stare at her, unbelieving. She knows what we can do. I have offered her the list many times. She just doesn’t want to do it. Doesn’t think it would help. Doesn’t think it’s possible to fix the stair.

Sure, it might take some doing. Maybe we’ll need some new materials. Maybe we’ll be more inconvenienced for a while. Walking a little further to use a different entrance into the house.

“There’s nothing we can do,” she says. “Just step over it.”

Warning and Fixing

Skyspook is correct about the roads. As I drive home, I’m nearly creamed by 3 drivers who are wandering through the lanes. Drunk on stress. The darkness of winter. A daunting and divided political climate.

So I focus, focus, focus. I do all I can to channel my attention to reflexes. No daydreaming about writing projects. Wondering about the inner lives of people of strangers or people I haven’t seen for a while. Telling myself jokes. Nothing like that.

I am all animal instinct. Quick adjustments. Wordless.

I don’t even listen to the radio.

When I get home, my brain is pent up. It needs to wander. I get out of my car, pull out my phone. Throw my eyes over messages I got while driving.

I note 2 friends who are having similar problems have resolved to pursue radically different solutions. It’s always difficult to suss out whether you should stay the course or give something the fuck up already. Especially when it’s you.

Some people cling to things that no longer serve them because they’re terrified of losing their investment (related to sunk cost bias). And others are easily discouraged. Have trouble finishing things when they get to the hard part.

And some? Some are pure grit. Nothing can stop them when they set out towards a goal. Even a barrage of shitty obstacles.

What causes grit, I wonder —

And then I’m falling. I scream before I know what has happened.

Of course.

The fucking missing stair. The one Skyspook warned me about.

My face flushes. I stifle tears.

I’m a fine one to warn anyone about anything, I think. To give advice. To complain about preventable problems.

I can already feel my left leg swelling. I hoist myself onto the porch, a mess of awkward angles and wounded pride. I’m sure it’s a fantastic show to anyone who could be watching. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone is. I don’t see Skyspook. He must be further in the house.

I walk into the kitchen, set down my things.

Skyspook emerges. “How are you doing?” There’s a look of concern on his face.

“Oh me?” I say. “I’m fine. How’s your leg?”

“Sore, but good.” He looks at me suspiciously. “Are you sure you’re fine?”

“You were right about the roads,” I say. “People were crazy.”

He frowns. Heads to the couch.

“So, dinner!” I say. “Can we just order pizza?”

“Sure,” he says. But there’s still tension in his voice.

The swelling in my leg is increasing. Straining a bit against my leggings. I’ll probably be limping soon. And I realize I have to tell him. I would want to know.

“Well, this is gonna sound crazy,” I say. “But I fell through the stairs, too.”

“I know,” Skyspook says. “I heard you yell.” He pauses a second. And says the words I least want him to say. “I warned you about the stairs, you know.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

He doesn’t say anything.

I go upstairs to change out of my leggings and into sweatpants. My leg aches. The marks remind me of my aunt’s old purple countertop. The pattern on the faux marble. Like a giant purple pen dropped and allowed to bleed out ink well past the point of saturation.

The swelling makes my leg look asymmetrical.

I know I deserve a lecture. And that it’s one I can’t handle right now.

So I go to the bedroom instead of going back downstairs. Crawl under the covers in the dark. Where it’s quiet. And I can just be.

My phone buzzes. A text from Skyspook. Love youWhy did you go away?

I’m mad at myself that I fell and ashamed, I text back.

Not a big deal, he writes. I fell too. 

Yeah, but you warned me, I text.

That’s alright. Doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or anything.

Do you want me to come back? I text.

Yes. I like you, he writes.

*

The next day Skyspook fixes the stairs.

 

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