Story #4, Among the Living and Other Stories, 2000
Until last week, when things were finally settled, I spent all of my spare time riding in the elevator at the Sage-O’Brien Building. Twenty-seven floors, long halls, bad paintings, short, generic carpet, hundreds of offices, doors closed, documents, filing cabinets, cubicles, shoulder-high partitions, stacking desk trays, bulletin boards, pagers, call-waiting, voice mail, e-mail,
www-dot-giveusyourmoney-dot-com, the smell of perfume, the smell of cologne, the smell of coffee, and of nerves, and fear, the fear of failure. Artificial urgency, best-dressed for success, coats and ties, dresses with shoulder pads, briefcases — hiding what, for heaven’s sake — that sad whisper of nylon-coated legs, swish, swish, swish — and those itchy wool pants. God — cold, sweaty palms, lipstick-pouting mouths: I’m sorry, he’s in a meeting right now, she’s in a meeting right now, the whole god-damned world is in a meeting right now — rejection, loneliness, despair. I had my reasons. The Sage-O’Brien Building is the tallest building in the city. My odds were better. Much better. You don’t live in the same city for thirty-nine years without at least knowing where your odds are better. If you want bad odds, visit the Tahiti Lounge. Have you been there? The bar next door, attached to the Sage-O’Brien like a wart. I spilled warm beer all over myself in that place. It ruined my jacket. The last day I went, it was raining. Just for the fun of it, I pretended I was lost. “It’s in the Sage-O’Brien,” they all said to me, and I opened my mouth and looked stupidly at them through the rain. The idiots. “Do you know where the Sage-O’Brien is?” they said, and I shook my head and said, “No, I’m new in town,” and they said, “Oh. Well, do you know where Liberty Street is?” “Liberty Street?” I said, “which one is that?” and on and on, just like that. I made some of them mad at me. They were getting wet — but so was I — until I got bored with being lost and wet and talking to idiots and went over to the Sage-O’Brien on my own, all by myself, without anyone’s help. I almost fell on my face right inside the main entrance, everything was so slippery, and right away my shoes started squeaking on that black-and-white tile floor they have. It looks like a checkerboard. “How are you,” a man says in a suit, “I’m Jason.” This Jason, he’s a real cardboard cutout. You know the type. “Please have free coffee and a doughnut,” he says, with a big howdy-do kind of emphasis on the word free. “Sign here, and you can win a vacation to Hawaii.” “A trip for two?” I ask him, and I get real close, and he says, “Yes,” and I say, “Can you get a girl to go with me?” He laughs. Good old Jason. Still wet behind he ears. God bless him. Jason’s eyes get big, though, and he laughs, heh-heh, you know, heh-heh, like he’s worried about something, and he holds out a styrofoam cup of black coffee — the diesel-looking kind — and I say, “Thanks anyway, Jason old buddy old pal, but I’m in a great big hurry.” And then, just in time — ding! — the elevator opens and I hop in, leaving Jason with his drawers full. Up I go. At the second floor, the bell rings again, I stop, the door opens, and these two wenches get in. They don’t know each other, but they stand together on the other side of the elevator as far away from me as they can — which isn’t very far — one looking up at the dial, the other looking straight ahead at where the door just closed. “What floor?” I say then. “Sixth,” the wench looking at the door says, and the other says, “Me, too.” So I press the six-button, in this polite, casual way I have that puts people at ease, and up we go. Whee. Ding! Third floor. Two tall guys in lawyer suits, a couple of real barflies. One of them presses the four-button and looks at his watch. He looks at the wenches and nods, sober-like, as if they couldn’t tell what was on his mind. “Dave will be waiting,” this guy says, half to the wenches, half to his smooth-faced partner. “I have both files.” And I think, shut up. Then we stop, the door opens, and the lawyers get out. Nobody’s waiting. The door closes again. Now, I really want to say something to the wenches, like, “I think you’re both pretty,” because they are, but I’m nervous as hell and I bend over and tie my shoe instead. But I wanted to talk to them. Oh, how I wanted to talk to them. But you know how it is in an elevator, with everyone so close together. People turn into islands. You’re right there, but you can’t reach out. I was reading the paper the other day — I don’t know when it was — and there was this starving African woman sitting in the dirt. She was an island. Right behind her, under a blanket, was her dead husband. And then on the ground next to her was their little baby, all crumpled up. Underneath the picture it said the baby was dying. Well, you’d have to be dead yourself to not feel what that poor woman was feeling, or at least not to try. And she was beautiful, too. I sat there waiting for the bus by the courthouse and tried as hard as I could to imagine what was going through her mind. So, up we go. On the fifth floor, two guys and two girls get in. The guys have on blue denim shirts, and they’re wearing jeans. Contractors or something. The both have beards and one of them has a hairy chest. The girls are friendly looking, thank God, and a little overweight. I look at them and say, “Which floor?” “Eleven,” one of them says, and the other chimes in: “I’m going down,” and I think, she’s in for a long ride. I press both buttons. The contractors keep their mouths shut. Ding! The wenches get off on the sixth. Nobody new. Ding! We’re at the eleventh already. Everybody gets off, except me and the girl who said she was going down. We’re both quiet. This one, she looks at me now, and right off I know she can tell I’m nervous about something. She looks at the button pad and sees the twenty-seven button all lit up, then she looks at me again. Well, it’s obvious she knows the top floor is reserved for what you might call the elite set, and here I am, not the most elite-looking person in town, my hair all soaking wet, and wearing my second-hand tennis shoes from Value World. But she doesn’t say anything. What is there for her to say? If anyone is going to say something, it should be me, and I keep my mouth shut. Then she glances at the phone. Well, I don’t blame her, because I feel like picking it up myself and screaming I’m so lonely I could cry, oh, oh, lonesome me, oh, Danny boy, the pipes the pipes are calling, come ye back when the valley’s hushed and white with snow, and loneliness is such a sad affair, and I’m thinking of all the times I’ve been alone with not one person in the world to talk to, and now I can’t even talk to a friendly girl in an elevator because I’m going to the twenty-seventh floor where the elite go to greet and to swish brandy in glasses the size of fish bowls just so I can find a great big lonely window to jump out of and end this god-damned misery. The elevator, it’s like a rocket ship going to the moon, and I’m like the last man on earth, or the first, I can’t tell which, but it doesn’t matter because in a few minutes I’ll be dead anyway and the whole world can go suck an egg. Really, that’s what I’m thinking, and right then and there I start shaking like a leaf, I’m so scared. On the twenty-first floor, a big crowd of people gets in. One guy steps on my foot like an ox and everybody else is pressing buttons and I think, hey, wait a minute, this is my button pad, but my foot hurts too much to do anything about it and we stop again at the next three floors, bing-bang-bong, until there’s so many of us crammed inside the elevator that it’s hard to breathe. Now everybody starts talking about lunch, and saying that it’s twelve o’clock and they’ve got that look in their eyes that says I’m getting out of here, the women holding their perfect little purses full of cold hard cash, bulging with credit cards that will buy them just about any fantasy they want except a man who loves them lock stock and barrel for their primitive beautiful selves, only they don’t know that, not in so many words, at least, because when you get right down to it that’s some pretty heavy stuff. And up we go again. Two floors away. Two floors from destiny. And then the magic door opens and I hear myself say, “Excuse me, please,” and the crowd parts just like the ocean in the Bible and I get out of the elevator. “I wonder where he’s going,” a man’s stupid superior voice says, but my back is already turned, so I can’t see who it is. It doesn’t matter anyway. I step into the hall, and the elevator door closes behind me. Then everything’s quiet. The quiet’s a quiet I’ve never heard before, like God turning off the ocean. And I walk off down the empty hall. At the end is this one tall window, and even from here I can see the gray, raining sky. Even God is crying, I say to myself. Even God doesn’t know what to do. And I keep walking, getting closer and closer to that window, until I get there and put my fingers on the cold glass. I look out over the city. I see dented roofs and railings, furnaces with steam rising from them, drain pipes, gutters, and bricks. I see rain falling on everything. I see clouds racing by. I see pigeons and sea gulls. From the twenty-seventh floor of the Sage-O’Brien, I see what no other man sees: I see the end. I see the end of myself, and I see the end of everyone else. I see what no other man is willing to see: the truth. Seeing the truth, knowing what it is, knowing it is the loneliest thing in the world, I reach into the pocket of my jacket and take out the rock I have been carrying with me for the last month. The rock is heavy, heavy enough to break the window. I raise the rock. I raise the rock, and my mind goes blank because everything inside me knows the world is about to end. I raise the rock. I raise the rock, and right then a woman’s gentle, sweet voice behind me says, “No, don’t.” My arm is still in the air. My hand is holding the rock. I turn around. It is the friendly girl, the girl who rode with me in the elevator from the fifth floor all the way to the top. It is the girl who looked at the phone, and who looked at me, and at the button pad. It is the girl who knew I was nervous about something, and who didn’t panic like some people would have. “Please don’t,” she says, and so I lower my arm and put the rock down on the floor and I say, “Okay.” And that’s all there is to it. She calls the police, the police come, we all get into the elevator again, and they bring me home. Now, don’t ask me any more questions. I’m tired, and I’m telling you all I know.
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Categories: Among the Living and Other Stories