Photo by Iulian Ursu via Flickr. Licensed under CC.

She was riding the elevator to her first job, as an assistant at a music magazine; the world fell away as she rose to the fifteenth floor. She was twenty years old. During the few months she had worked in this office, she had learned how to move names from column A to column B for event invites, make a collated set of Xerox copies, carry a cardboard box full of six different coffee orders. There was something remarkable and sparkling about all of it, the fact that, each morning, she entered the waiting room and did not have to remain there like the others, but was allowed to walk through the doors into the crammed gray hallways. The glaring fluorescent lighting stretched across the ceiling, the glass-windowed offices surrounding the main area like individual aquariums—she loved all of it. Entering the offices was like walking into a stranger’s enormous, beating heart. She went to work each morning hoping the editors might soon trust her with more interesting tasks, for she wanted to show them everything she was capable of, which was endless and vast; however, each day, they asked her, barely looking at her, to do the same dull things. But today she wanted to change the editors’ view of what she could do. She was going to ask for more responsibility. She had practiced this, with her roommate, was thinking about how to set up an interview with the lead singer of the Go-Go’s, if she should just call the musician’s publicist or ask the editor first.

 

It was a slightly shabby elevator, in need of renovation, with the feel of a bathroom from the 1970s, the pink artificial marble-like panels faded, like almost invisible veins. The carpet was the color of a pale sky and always held the bitter odor of cleaning chemicals. The doors closed. She stood, examining the numbers flashing on the strip at the top of the elevator, and was only vaguely aware of a man standing in the elevator with her, and that they were alone.

 

The man turned to her and said, “I could rape you.”

Her thoughts, curving in one direction, stopped. They looked at each other. He smiled, as though this were a joke. An iciness flashed through her. She was new to office buildings, and she didn’t know—was this a joke men in offices made?

He was of indeterminate age, perhaps forty or fifty. The age at which some men developed a soft, vulnerable chin. His skin was a pinkish shade of pale, as though he never got out in the sun. The low lights in the elevator made him look glazed, made of ceramic.

She remembered how he looked at her then, rapt, as though this were a discussion they had been having.

She remembered wanting to ignore this statement and get back to her previous thoughts, but her thinking had been stopped by this. The man moved toward her and she stepped back, and he touched her shoulder in a gesture that appeared strangely paternal, except for the fact that his other hand reached over and squeezed her breast, just for a moment, holding it as though he wanted to test its presence. She felt her body gasp. She understood that, in that moment, anything could happen. The elevator doors opened. He darted out without looking back. The doors closed and she was alone in the elevator now, which slowly took her to the fifteenth floor.

 

So many years ago. It happened so quickly. Sometimes she wondered if she had imagined it. But why would she imagine someone saying anything like that? And since that time, when she found herself alone in an elevator with anyone, she got out. She got out even when she was with her children, when they were young, eight, ten, if it was just them and a man she did not know on the elevator. She noticed when people were getting off floors. A hot cloud rose in her, though she appeared calm; she would grab her children’s hands and step out onto the wrong floor while the person inside stood, watching.

“This isn’t our floor,” one of the children would point out.

She pretended not to hear and then said, “Oh. Wait a sec.”

Slowly looking around, waiting for the elevator door to close. Sometimes the man inside would try to be polite and hold the door for her, waiting for her to step back inside, which was not what she wanted.

“Don’t wait, go ahead,“ she’d say, waving her hand.

She would wait for the doors to close.

She had ridden many elevators in her life. When she graduated from college, she rode one to the twenty-sixth floor of the publicity firm where she worked as an assistant. When she got married, she worked at a company on the sixteenth floor. When she had her first child, she was still at that company, with that terrible supervisor who promoted the coworker who sat on his lap when he asked her to; she remembered walking by the supervisor’s office and seeing the woman perched on the edge of his leg, and occasionally she heard laughter that sounded like bullets were hitting the wall. Then she left that company and worked on the twenty-sixth floor of another building, a very fast, almost brutally efficient elevator, which never made any sound. It whisked her to the floor where many of the employees seemed to be sleeping even when they were perfectly awake. Somehow, this brought out a more authoritative part of herself, and she listened as she told people what to do, and often they followed her direction. Trying to wield this authoritative voice in other places—in the kitchen, in doctors’ offices, in principals’ offices—trying to press down the words slowly, to sound calm. The way the world came at you. The way hearts gave out, suddenly, the way children had their own plans. The feeling of always wanting to know what to say, to be prepared. That office, on the twenty-sixth floor, was in New York City, a very tall, dark granite building with a view of Broadway facing north from Thirty-Fourth Street, and the lights trailed out, bright necklaces, glittering strands that she wanted to grasp and climb like ropes. So she pulled herself along, year after year.

The company where she worked for the longest period, ten years, was located on the thirty-seventh floor. She had become the senior editor at a textbook company, overseeing history books for middle grades. She was proud of the way she shaped the textbooks. She could tell the students what about the past was important to remember. Sometimes she thought back on the moment when the man in the elevator had turned and looked at her. She thought about that deliberate, unexpected shaping of the day. What had he gained, for himself, with that action? When she had walked off that elevator, she had, in some automated version of herself, walked to the assigning editor to ask her how to interview the music star. She did not remember what the editor had answered.

She felt the city, the pounding of steel cranes, construction, the watery swish of cars, vanish as she rose to her places of employment, as she stood in the rising elevator, a sensation, in the soles of her feet, of both lightness and fear. The numbers flashed in elevators all over the nation, in Los Angeles, in San Francisco, in Atlanta and Miami and Houston and New York, the elevators all somehow united in this cause, taking people up and up and up and up to some bruised version of usefulness, or simply the slow shuffle through each day, all of these elevators rising as people stood, eyes gazing at the numbers above the doors, the oddly human sound of inhaled breath as the elevator rushed through the chute, as the employees were lifted to the floors where they worked, to the seats that they claimed, to the windows they gazed through, as the sunlight hit the city, the buildings glinting in the radiance like columns on fire.

 

The memory of that moment in the elevator dissipated, buried under the tumult of her life, but it was maintained in her bones, in the structure of her posture, for when she stood in elevators, there was always this subdued alertness.

 

One day, when she was in her mid-forties, past the time when she was perceived as a young woman but not quite sliding toward being old, she was in the elevator, heading to a meeting. She was thinking about the fact that she had to check on a statistic about casualties in the Battle of Gettysburg. So she did not notice when the elevator had let out people on the thirtieth floor.

And then, on the thirty-first floor, the elevator lurched, as though it were a heart beating irregularly, and, with a perverse, cheerful whistle, stopped.

She put her hand on the elevator wall to steady herself. There was a sound like water rushing outside of the elevator, but there was no water anywhere. She waited.

The door did not open.

“What the hell,” he said.

There was one other person in the elevator.

He was bent over, his hand rummaging through a briefcase. He was tall, taller than she was, perhaps six feet. She saw the flash of his arm, but not his face. She had not been aware of anyone here. How had she been so absent, just then? She had a meeting to attend, how could she not have been aware? The elevator was about eight by eight feet. She had never really perceived it as a space before. The gleaming bronze panels, the ads framed in glass. Prix fixe at Restaurant Villa Grande on Floor Twenty-Seven. The free six-month membership at the health club on the Concourse. The plea to come and explore Costa Rica. She wanted to step into these ads, out of here, out of the space now sealing her in.

She wanted to get out of the elevator. She pushed the door.

The thought crossed her mind that she could kill him. It was an impulse, an idea that rose up from her gut before she could understand it. She was startled by the sudden and savage logic of this thought, how it could rise up so quickly in relation to another person. How certain she was that he would try to attack her. The intensity of this thought embarrassed her, as she understood the tenderness that gave fruition to it, the way she cherished her own life.

She banged on the elevator door with her left fist and then fumbled through her purse. All she had that approximated a weapon was a ballpoint pen. Her purse revealed some tawdry, ill-conceived faith in human nature. The elevator door made a deep, echoing thud as she hit it, and the doors remained shut.

“What the hell,” she said.

She listened to her voice. Did it make her sound powerful? The concept itself seemed a joke.

She jabbed the Emergency button on the panel but it did nothing.

She did not want to look too closely at the person beside her. Perhaps if she kept staring at the lights on the elevator, he would stand, frozen, as well.

She banged on the door again.

The smell of orange gum and bacon. What was it? The odor of his breath. There was no place for breath to vanish here. He coughed.

She had not felt fear that first time—there had been no time to feel anything. Now it rushed up, a hot force, her heart turning over and over, her entire being wanting to get out of here, away, to pour through the solidity of these elevator walls. She wanted to hit the doors so hard they broke open. Her fear was embarrassing, and for this to be visible seemed shameful, would reveal her as crazy, and she was not. She was a deliberate, organized person. She had worked hard in her life and she was proud of the textbooks her company created, she was proud of what students learned from them; she had attended her children’s dance performances and purchased school supplies and driven her family from one place to another. The heat charged through her throat, her arms, her face. She did not even know where it was rising from. She pretended to laugh—a hoarse sound, like a scrape—thinking perhaps that would defuse the situation, even though she knew nothing about the man standing in the elevator with her, could not describe the discussion they were having, silently, in this elevator, without looking at each other. But they were having this discussion, of course, standing here, staring at the elevator doors, which remained, solidly, shut.

 

Open, she thought, looking at the doors. Open.

She would walk out, whole, untouched; the doors would just open and she would walk out.

Sit down, she told him in her mind. Sit down. Like a child. Perhaps she could convince him. Go. Marry someone. Drive to Utah. Support public schools. Watch TV. Eat popcorn. Go outside and walk. Listen to me.

What was he saying to her in his mind? She didn’t know. She listened to the wet sound of chewing.

There was a rustling and he moved and there was a sense of crystal breaking inside her chest as she darted back and he knocked on the elevator door.

“Somebody!” he yelled. “Open up!”

From the back, he appeared young. Perhaps twenty, twenty-five. He was wearing a navy suit; it did not fit him well; the jacket stretched across his waist and was a little baggy in the shoulders.

“Jesus,” he said.

He turned toward her. His expression was not threatening; nor was it comforting. She wanted to place him, quickly, but she could not. He was in a rush. He looked like he had shaved, with purpose, this morning; his face was pinkish, raw. He banged on the door again and the elevator walls shuddered.

“Come on!” he called.

He was probably over six feet tall, soft, almost feminine around the waist and hips. He glanced at her, for a moment, as though he were waiting, in a hopeful way, for her to protest his banging, but she wasn’t going to get into that.

She stood, half on the balls of her feet. They felt light; fear had emptied them.

“Push the Emergency button,” he said to her.

She looked at him. She didn’t like the way he spoke to her. Push. It was on the panel beside her. She had already pressed it.

“I did,” she said, icily. She pushed the button again, and there was a high, wheezing sound, as though some essential circuit had broken. “Look.”

She saw him step toward the button panel; she quickly stepped back. He leaned forward and pushed it, too.

“No,” he said. “Dammit. No.”

She felt protected, somehow, by her age, the idea that she was too old, too wilted now to attack; but perhaps she was just thinking this to comfort herself.

“They’re fucking going to fire me,” he said. He jabbed the Emergency button again.

He assumed she was listening. She pushed down the reflexive urge to comfort him, to say anything. He was not the man who had spoken to her those many years ago. But what had been left on her, the residue over all these years, was the idea that he could be.

This man in the elevator was anxious; she could see that, his glossy, dark hair a little damp around his forehead. His lips were red as if he had been eating a Popsicle, his features brisk, alert as though filled by a gust of wind in the back of his head.

He pushed the button one more time, and there was the long, hoarse shriek the button made.

“What a fucked-up building,” he said. He staggered back and leaned against the wall. “Why are you so calm? Don’t you want to get out of here?”

She couldn’t help it; she almost laughed. She didn’t answer.

“Don’t you?”

She stared at him. She could say nothing. She put her palm on the elevator door in case she could feel a vibration, a prelude to the doors opening, when she could jump out.

 

He squinted at her, as though the elevator had gone dark. It was painfully bright, actually. There was a chandelier in this elevator; perhaps some perverse person had tried to imagine this metal chamber as a living room. She noticed, for the first time, that the chandelier was broken, two of the dangling crystals chipped. The light from the chandelier glared so strongly she could almost see the shadow of his skull in his face; she wondered if he could see hers as well.

He sighed, sharply.

“They’re going to kill me,” he said. “Do you hear me? They. Are. Going. To. Gut. Me.”

That last sentence made her jump a little; she gripped the ballpoint pen in her purse.

He slid down so he was sitting on the dusty floor of the elevator and rubbed his hands over his face.

She watched him. She was taller than he was at this moment. She wondered if she heard sounds of life outside the elevator, or if she was imagining it, the rumble of footsteps, a door slamming, a woman’s laugh. But it felt as though the world had vanished, leaving only this cramped elevator stall, the golden walls gleaming in the relentless bright light from the broken chandelier. She had never quite noticed the golden walls of the elevator, how their grandeur implied some innate failure about the people riding it, how the riders would see, out of the corners of their eyes, blurred, gold reflections of themselves.

The man was speaking into the palms of his hands. “They said be there at three p.m. on the dot with the photos or don’t come in. Fuckers. I just know Smith planned this. I bet she’s stopped the elevator right now.”

She stood, silent.

He released a sharp sigh. “Smith! I see you! You cunning bitch. You can’t do this! I’m watching you right now.”

He spoke the words directly to the elevator doors. His anger toward Smith seemed like a form of longing. She felt he was waiting for her to ask a question about Smith. It was a hunger she could feel, palpably, in the elevator, and, as a mother, was familiar to her. His own mother had, it seemed, ignored him or belittled him. She stood, feeling that hunger around her, the elevator brimming with it, and it took enormous effort not to answer it.

She was aware of her own hunger, huge, yawning inside her, to get out of here. She needed to get to her meeting. Today they would discuss organizing information on the end of the Civil War. The supplementary online material linked to chapters in the textbook, what was the budget and who they would hire to write it? The regular plans, how luxurious they now seemed. The staff was probably talking about her now, wondering where she was. She was ridiculously punctual, never absent or even late. But she was not afraid in the same way he was; well, she was, a little, but she was one of the senior people in the company, which protected her from the consequences of being late. The broken elevator was, after all, not her fault. They would, she assumed, be worried, but someone from maintenance would apologize, she thought. Are you all right? They would ask. I hate getting stuck in elevators. They would think it an inconvenience. They would not think of the others in the elevator with her, the travelers in this small, close space lifting eyes to their particular destination.

 

He was afraid, for other reasons, and she sensed his fear, thick in the air. She felt relieved, and fortunate: her fellow employees would, she believed, not punish her for her absence. She was, she thought, not in the same situation that he was in, and understood that she could not reveal this to him.

“She planned this,” said the man, his voice a little hoarse. “You know? I could see it when she was sitting at her desk just staring into space and pretending to do nothing, but she was. I know it. Thinking about me.”

She watched him gaze at the elevator doors, staring at whoever was on the other side. What was this Smith doing right now? She imagined a woman in a trim black suit walking quickly down a hallway, holding her coffee carefully away from her. Did this Smith, whoever she was, think of him, or notice him, or even know who he was? She remembered all the times she had thought of the first man in the elevator, and how she wanted to erase him from her mind, and wondered if perhaps that was part of what he had intended, to remain in her mind in that way, to establish this, a presence.

Her heart was still marching, full, and she was alert. He was still sitting on the floor, his long legs stretched in front of him.

The space held a peculiar, motionless heat, a dead, quiet airlessness. The elevator hung over a long, dark chute, nineteen floors above the ground. It did not move, but she was aware that they were standing in a fragile metal box, glancing at their golden selves as the elevator was suspended in the stale air.

He glanced up at her. “Why don’t you say anything?” he asked.

She was not going to answer. She was going to stand there; her palm made a pale imprint on the gleaming elevator doors.

He regarded her, his eyebrows lifted. He was, she thought, trying to figure something out. Perhaps he thought she was deaf. Should she pretend she was deaf? Maybe she should pretend she had a disease. Didn’t people do that, sometimes, to dissuade others from approaching them? On the elevator door, her hand was just barely trembling.

She could sense him wanting her to speak, so that he would not be alone in this elevator. She understood, though she did not share this—he did not want to be alone. It had only been a few minutes, but it seemed the rest of the world had become nothing. Its presence was quiet and unknown. But she liked not speaking. He knew nothing about her. What was he guessing? Whom did she resemble? Did she think she was his mother, his sister, his girlfriend, what? Her own life felt like an exercise in deception. There was the meeting she was about to lead, the glorious and unsettling moment when the staff, assembled around the table, clutching Styrofoam cups of coffee, eyeing the rubbery muffins on a paper plate, waited to hear what she had to say. The theater of the meeting itself, the fact that some people were assigned lesser positions, paid less money, even if they were smarter, or even better at their jobs, the heavy and living silence about this inequality, the fact that they all sat around the conference room, nibbling at the crackers or grapes, pretending that no one was aware of this. The fact that she sat at the head of the table, now, and that she was the one to call a meeting to order, that she tried to turn the direction of the company the way she wanted, that the other employees asked her for direction, even if they perhaps resented what she said. She was the first woman at her company to hold that position and found the view from her place at the table like gazing across a long, troubled sea.

The man sitting on the floor was looking at her.

“I’ve seen you,” he said.

“What?” she asked.

“I’ve seen you with her. In the hallways. Yep. Sixteenth floor.”

He examined her with a new shrewdness, a desire to figure something out.

“I don’t work on the sixteenth floor,” she said.

“Yes, you do,” he said, sitting up. “You know her. Tell her I’m coming. I’m going to be at work. Tell her not to worry. I’m late because I had to buy the car. It’s not my fault. Sheila said buy the car. I didn’t want the car, I didn’t want more payments, for fuck’s sake, student loans. She wanted to ride in it. So I bought it. I’m not going to be late. Tell her. Come on. You’re best friends, right? Tell her.”

He was sitting straight up against the elevator, his face wounded with misunderstanding.

“See, I know,” he said. “She probably texted you a few minutes ago to ask, is he in there, is he in the elevator and you said yes, in fact he is—”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” she said, slowly. “And you’re wrong. I don’t work here.”

She listened to herself speak.

“I’m never here,” she said. “I’m never in this building.”

Her body became still as she said this, for this statement, though false, described something she understood. She sometimes believed that she was not in fact in this building or this elevator or even in this precise body or life. Her actual arms and chest and legs felt almost weightless as she said this, adjusting to this new reality.

“I’ve seen you,” he said, trying to look her in the eye.

“It wasn’t me,” she said, her voice louder as she went on, “it was someone else. I’m security. They called me. I’m here—I’m here to make an arrest.”

He blinked, uncertainty unfurling across his face. She was right about something. He had done something he was guilty about, whether it was criminal or not. He looked away; everyone is pierced by a form of guilt.

She wondered where the original man on the elevator was now, after thirty years; perhaps he was in a nursing home. Perhaps he was dead. She imagined him buried, a lawn stretched, a green haze over him.

“There was a disturbance. Seventeenth floor,” she said.

He rubbed his palms slowly along his thighs, as though trying to warm his hands.

“I didn’t hear anything,” he said.

“Half an hour ago,” she said. “You didn’t hear it. You weren’t here. Well, we got a call. There was screaming. The secretary called us. There was screaming.”

 

This was exactly what had happened. A part of her felt certain of this, even though none of it was true. This new reality presented itself to her as a clear relief. Her face was hot, but she hoped he could not detect anything true about her in the crushingly bright light of the elevator.

“Don’t you hear them?” she asked.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

She laughed, and, that time, it sounded like a human laugh.

“I hear them,” she said.

Standing by the elevator, she pressed her cheek to the golden doors. There were sounds, perhaps; running, the precise heaviness of masculine footsteps, the whine of a vacuum. Or nothing.

“Bullshit. Who do you hear? Who?”

She was not going to answer him.

“Sloan, it was Sloan I bet,” he said. “Idiot was under so much stress. I saw him here yesterday, he looked like he was going to have a heart attack. Was it Sloan?” He tapped his fingers against the floor, almost joyful. They made a sound like mice running. He paused.

She held still, not saying.

“No it wasn’t,” he said. He stood up. “It was my girlfriend, she screamed this morning before she got out of bed, I made her scream, I’ll tell you—”

He was standing beside her. His voice was heavy, as if a boulder were sitting on a piece of paper. His eyelid twitched.

“Not a scream like that,” she said. “No.”

He was silent.

“What? Was someone killing someone?”

Her cheek twitched; then she forced herself to look up, into his eyes. They were brown. She had expected them somehow to resemble a lizard’s, but actually they looked more like a cat’s, or, actually, like neither. She said, quickly, “There was an attempt. There was a lot of blood. There will be many arrests.”

Her voice came out louder and flatter than she expected. He lurched back. There were surprising dark shadows blooming under his armpits. He banged on the door another time, and the door thunked so loud she could feel it in her face.

“That’s not fucking true,” he said, looking at her. “That’s not—”

“It’s true,” she said. “You don’t know anything.”

“What the hell do you mean?”

“I know everything,” she said, softly.

“You do? So what are they going to do now? In fifteen minutes?”

She heard something else, the thinness of his voice, as though he had been shouting forever. It seemed as thin as silk.

“They’re on their way,” she said, firmly. She had no idea, but felt certain she was right. It was, perhaps, what they both wanted to hear. She liked saying it. “They’re on their way. I hear them.”

She pressed her body against the cold elevator door. She listened, and there were no distinguishable sounds on the other side, nothing that told her anything about life out there, or whether anyone was coming to open the elevator, or working in their respective offices, or was present in the world at all; but there it was, she thought, the sound, a low roar, the almost imperceptible gargantuan power of the machinery of this building, the faint whirr, if not of screaming, of relentless hunger, of something else. The man in the elevator also pushed his shoulder against the door. He was facing her. He was perhaps two feet away. His cheek was pressed, with all of his weight, against the golden door, and his eyes were closed as he tried to listen to the screaming she claimed was on the other side. The broken chandelier above them flickered; it looked like it was about to go out. She was cold. The elevator doors were cold. She imagined, with envy, the day happening outside this building, the sun moving with its heat and brightness through the sky, and the shadows of clouds falling across the buildings, the sky blossoming from blue to yellow to orange to red to a darkness that revealed stars. She was not here, not in this place, not in any enclosure; she was here, with this strange package of herself, wanted to be out there, out there; she wanted to be everywhere in the world; she did not know how to get there. The smell of the man’s orange gum was sickeningly sweet. She watched the man, her fingertips touching the door, waiting for a trembling, a vibration, waiting for sounds to indicate that someone was coming to open the doors and let them out.

*

From the Short Story Collection: 

The New Order by Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender is the author of the story collection Refund, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction and shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize. Her novels are Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her new collection, The New Order, will be published in November by Counterpoint Press. She is a visiting distinguished professor of creative writing at Hollins University.

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