Fiction from Web del Sol

Esprit de l'Elevator

Gary Lutz

      There were three of them left--sometimes four. Parked not in the lobby but in the gallery above the lobby, though that makes the place--the building, the apartment house-- sound classier than it was.
      Maybe an overhang is all it was called. An overlook.
      It was set up like a living room-stuffed chairs, a coffee table, a bookcase with a few magazines. There was a railing so people would not have to spill over into the lobby proper.
      These three watched me walking out of and back into the building a varying number of times per day. I was working on bringing the number down to maybe three or four.
      I was getting nowhere.
      The only progress I was making was remembering to carry something on my way out--& big envelope or a sealed box that looked ready to be taken to the post office. The envelopes and boxes piled up in the back of my car. Some night, I kept telling myself, I was going to stay up late and carry everything back up and start using it all over again.
      A part of me said, "Why bother to go get it when it might come to me in my sleep?" I was almost always in the trough of a nap, my arms over the sides, digging around in the carpet.
      I kept washing my hands of what the hands kept doing regardless.

      Three of the times were for breakfast, lunch, supper.
      The rest were for what I was still hungry for.
      I carried things up from my car in small plastic bags.
      I had different things I did to wear each day thin.

      The three were two retired women, widows, and one fat young security guard, male. The occasional fourth was the oldest retarded person I had ever seen. She had to be pushing sixty. I had never been close enough to make out if the glasses were bifocals. Sometimes when there was no way for me to get around walking past, I nodded hello and she cut me dead. Other times she waved a finger.
      I was the only one who trusted the elevator.

      Not a security guard for the building. He security-guarded someplace else.
      One afternoon I was in the laundry room--I had all three machines going--when he pudged in to throw some trash down the chute. What I was wearing had already been worn.
      "Washday?" he said, for the other two on the balcony to hear.
      As always, I had no answers, nothing to put a stop to their wanderings. That night, I began to set down the full account of my tenancy. It became a book of earnest libels. I had three copies copied--one for each.
      Herewith excerpts:

How often do you get it?
      Spend enough time with a person--coincide in the same room, achieve a reasonable congruence--and you will get a feel for, a glimpse of, the party you are sitting in for. It was like this with each of the women. A party sooner or later began to assume a shape in the space between us. I took an interest. I eventually began to court this party more diligently than each of the women could bother to herself. One day this party took me by storm.

Who foots the bills?
      I signed up to teach a night class at the high school, an extension course, no credit, for people who had forgotten how to sleep. It took me a weekend to throw the materials together. I baked up a big fat loaf of case histories, pattern practices, whatever else came to mind, then had copies run off. The first night, I wrote on the chalkboard the reasons people got bilked out of sleep. Afterward, I showed the students a trick, a mnemonic stunt, they could use to remember everything I had just said. They were mostly vast lactic women and self-heckling men in coats buttoned all the way up. All of them stayed after class to show me what they had taught themselves--the feats and magics, the shortcuts and so forth. A man ran me through his eye-sealing exercises, his fingers guiding mine. "I'm not up on myself and what I might still do," he told me. Sometime after dawn we went our separate ways.

What's inside the bags?
      Some days my trouble is nothing more than the heavy concentration of both parents in my body. E.g., my father's tendency, at mealtide, to add extra steps to everything he did--cf. my habit of reaching for my tumbler with my left hand and passing it along to the right hand before I take my first sip. In my father's case, the route things took from hand to mouth got longer and longer. Hence for years I have been amassing ingredients for a meal I am no longer in any position to cook.

And your mother?
      I am a disgruntled mourner.

Brothers or sisters?
      People coming out of the cathedral and crossing the street to their cars expected traffic to part compliantly for them--they held up their hands in hopeful crossing-guard gestures--and my sister was the only one who kept right on going, not even slowing down. She had some empty boxes in the back seat that I was going to get to use as tables--lampstands, nightstands, washstands, however I saw fit.

Reason for leaving last full-time position?
      One morning the supervisor stuck his head into my doorway and, taking in the undeserved spaciousness of the office, asked whether I thought I could maintain my level of performance if an additional employee were assigned to the room. Having always been sympathetic toward whoever has hired me when he discovers by galling degrees the set of fixations I bring to bear on even the most perfunctory of tasks, I said yes. A second desk was presently steered into the office. A man was brought in to sit at the desk with his back toward me. By the end of the first hour, my every movement had become an exact but involuntary belittlement of his swivelings, his head-tossings and hair-sweeps, the flights of his arms. I felt thrown off my body. The accuracy went out of my work.

Why can't you stay put?
      I have always gone to great lengths to keep my life away from the places where I have lived. People driven from themselves are always the ones you see the most of. They make themselves aggressively public. You find them in parks and municipal buildings. They see to it that as much as possible gets rubbed off, ground away, on the chairs and benches in lobbies and waiting rooms, on the tooth-yellow porcelain of department-store toilets. They make any store or auditorium look fuller than it actually is. They eat at take-out places, the ones with just a couple of tables. "For here or to go?" they are asked. as if there were a choice.

Describe your best marriage to date.
      My affiliation with--but never entirely a marriage to--a woman who worked briefly at the high school grew out of a series of conversations a man and I had about his son. The man would talk for hours about the son--how people swore by the haircuts he gave, even though he was not licensed or even certificated as a stylist, had in fact had no formal training, cut only when and where he felt like it, whenever the mood came over him--and as the man talked, the woman, whom I had known only from her canted penscript, would gain some ground, make headway. I left the man's house one night and cornered her at the library. She had a magazine open in front of her. Her shoes were already off.
      I remember that every morning for the first couple of weeks we took a kind of roll of everything we owned--called out the names of the appliances, the fixtures, the articles of clothing. Each day, there would be more things of hers to include in the tally. Before long, to save time, shirts, blouses, pullovers, sweaters, etc., became simply "tops." (This was her idea.) In like manner, other things became just broad categories of things. We lived in an "area," I was her "associate." She arrived at the age she thought suited her and then halted at it.
      For the longest while, everything got carried over into the way she filled in for people at work--the vacationers and no-shows, people needed in other buildings. She took their places with conviction. She installed herself behind their partitions. She uncramped her legs in the wells beneath their workstations. She helped herself to the little budgets of condiments, of salt, in their drawers. She drank long telling draughts from their mugs. The bottoms of her forearms stuck persuasively to the armrests of their chairs.
      Then people, employees, were suddenly no longer going anywhere. They no longer missed work. They resettled themselves in their chairs, restocked their drawers. The day she was let go, she went to the administrators and pleaded. "People don't change," she said.
      She came home and abridged things even further.

What would be visible to a knocker at your door if you opened tbe door six inches, then a foot, then a foot and a half? That is, from a knocker's perspective, describe bigger and bigger slivers of vestibular floorscape, with an emphasis on what would most likely stand out.
Six inches: a selection of plastic bags, each with its original contents, arranged chronologically and set against the closet door.
      Foot: the last of the exact words.
      Foot and a half: men and women both--her and me in general.

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