Waiting for an Elevator

I saw an old professor of mine across a crowded train station. He was standing by a bank of elevators, waiting for one to take him to a higher floor. I called out to him, waving my hand high in the air, and I started to hobble over to him with my injured left leg. The light glared off the lenses of his glasses for a moment as he glanced over, and then he quickly looked away, lurching slightly at the elevator doors, as though he could will them to open and make his escape. I could tell that he didn’t want to see me, but I still made my way over to him, propelled by the momentum of my efforts to get across the floor. It was the holiday season, and everyone had on heavy coats. Everyone was headed home. I pushed my way through the crowd, still waving my hand in the air.

When I got over to him, he glanced down at my injured leg. He seemed to be disgusted by it, or else he was just revolted by me in general and the leg was just a larger part of it. I held out my hand to him, and I launched right into a conversation about something he had discussed in class. But I hardly got two words out before he cut me off, saying, “I’ve been waiting forever for this stupid elevator.” He pointed up at the arrow moving across the semi-circle dial that indicated the floor that the elevator was on. “I can’t keep wasting my time standing here. I think I’m going to take the stairs, and you can wait here for the elevator, and I’ll meet you up on the third level.”

I knew that this was a ruse to get away from me. He could see that I couldn’t take the stairs with my injured leg, and he was using that to his advantage. But he tried to make it look convincing; he tried to make it look like he was really going to wait for me. As a show of good faith, he even handed me his brown briefcase and his plum colored umbrella, which was wet from the melted snow. He would get these things back from me when we met above. But I could feel that the briefcase was empty, and I could see that there was no actual mechanism to open the umbrella. They were just props, cleverly employed for these exact sorts of situations.

He pressed these items into my hands, and then he backed away towards the stairs, almost stumbling against the bottom step in his hurry to get away. He kept reminding me that he would meet me on the third floor, maintaining the pretense that this actually mattered. I nodded and played along, the fake umbrella and the empty briefcase cradled in my arms. And then he was up the stairs and gone. As soon as he had slipped out of sight, the elevator bell dinged and the doors slid open. The elevator was empty. A florescent light in the ceiling flickered for a moment and then burned out and then the elevator was dark inside. There was no one aboard, and I knew there was no one waiting for me on the floors above.

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Pieces of a Horse

I went to visit a farmer that I knew. When I got there, I found him out in his garage, all excited about a wooden crate that had come in the mail. He was prying the lid off the crate with a crowbar when I walked up. I heard the crack of wood and the creak of the nails wrenching free. The crate was packed with straw, and the farmer dug around a bit and pulled out the leg of a horse. He brushed the leg clean of a few loose pieces of straw, and he held it gripped it with both hands, satisfied with the length and the weight and the feel of it. It was a rich brown with small patches of white. “Look at that shoe!” he told me, flipping the leg around so that the hoof faced me. The smoothest, shiniest silver horseshoe was fixed to the hoof, looking like it had never taken the slightest step on dirty ground.

He explained to me that this was the last piece he needed to make a horse. He’d ordered it all through the mail, one piece at a time, and crate after crate had been delivered to the farm over the last three months. I was baffled by what he was telling me. I pointed out that a horse was a living creature, born of its mother, and growing bigger and stronger with time. It wasn’t something that you could order in pieces through the mail and assemble together. But the farmer, he just laughed at my ignorance and gave me a little wink.

I followed him out to the barn. There was a large open area in the front, and he told me to wait there while he went in the back where the stalls were. I sat down on a bale of hay and gazed up at a large gap in the boards of the roof where the faded light of the cloudy day shone through. I rolled my eyes at the thought that the farmer was somewhere in the back, putting together a horse. But twenty minutes later, I heard that unmistakable snort and I looked up to see a brown and white horse come trotting through the doorway that led to the back of the barn. It looked over at me with its large dark eyes, and then it swung its head low and trotted past me out of the barn, out into the open field. As it passed into the light, I caught the gleam of silver off its hoof. It had on that same, perfectly clean shoe.

But all the same, I figured the farmer was pulling some kind of prank on me. Maybe this was a common joke among farmers. The old assembled horse routine. I figured I’d find him in the back, standing in the empty stall where the whole horse had been all along, still holding the horse leg that had come in the mail, laughing until there were tears in his eyes. But when I went in the back, there was no one there. I called out the farmer’s name, but no one answered. It was cool and quiet and dark, and all the stalls were empty.

The door to the last stall was open, and I found all of the farmer’s clothes in a heap on the floor inside the stall. I looked at the clothes and I looked back down at the doorway that the horse had went through, and I started to put it all together. The pieces of the horse were like a suit that the farmer had put on. He had put the torso of the horse around his midsection, slid the hind legs on like boots and the fore legs on like gloves, slipped the horse head over his own head, and fixed the tail to his own hind end. Doing so, he had actually become the horse. Not just wearing the horse, he was changed somewhere in the heart of the horse’s being. I realized that this was how all horses came to be, born out of some unique sense of freedom that only a horse could offer someone willing to order one piece by piece through the mail.

There was a soft rumble of thunder and the rain began to pour outside. I went back out to stand in the open doorway of the barn, just enough inside to still be clear of the rain, and I saw the horse out there in the field. It was getting agitated by the rain and a little spooked by the thunder. It trotted around uncertainly in a circle, not sure of what to do or where to go. Finally, it sought shelter under a tree that stood alone on a small hill, and I watched as it reached up and picked apples from the tree with its teeth and stood eating them, perfectly content.

By the Jailhouse

As I was strolling down a boulevard, enjoying the spring air and admiring the small trees that had been planted every few feet along the sidewalk, I came upon the stone building that served as the county jail. I happened to glance over as I was passing the front steps of the building, and I noticed a woman with curly, bleached blonde hair across the street, crouched down and hiding behind a hedge. Her eyes were just over the top of the hedge, and she was staring intently at the front doors of the jailhouse. This struck me as strange, almost comical, and I was curious about why the woman was there. So, when I got to the corner, I spent a few moments pretending to contemplate the bronze statue of the town’s founder that looked out over the five point intersection, and then I casually turned around and went back the way that I had come, so that I could cross by the woman once more.

As I passed by the jailhouse again, there was a young man wearing sunglasses and a grey jacket, hustling down the steps. His shoulder bumped into mine, nearly knocking me to the ground, but he didn’t stop to acknowledge me there. He didn’t even seem to notice that he had ran into me. He just stopped at the curb, glanced quickly up the street, and then hurried across to the blonde woman hiding behind the hedge. She came out to meet him with her arms wide to embrace him, her black heels clicking against the pavement as she shuffled her feet, and a shopping bag dangling from her left hand. I shook my head, thinking that it had been silly for her to hide like that, as though this had been a carefully orchestrated jailbreak rather than a legitimately scheduled release, as though all dealings of any kind with the county jail required skulking about and hiding behind bushes.

The young man was clearly the blonde woman’s boyfriend, and even he asked her what she was doing over there in the bushes. But he didn’t really bother waiting for an answer; he just shook his head. He snatched the shopping bag from her hand and peered down into it. “What the hell is this?” he asked her, his raised voice carrying across the street. He drew a blue sequinned dress up out of the bag, holding the price tag for her to see. She fidgited in place and fumbled in her pockets for a cigarette, and they both immediately launched into what seemed like an old, old argument about money.

I started to move on, feeling too conspicuous standing there and watching this couple argue. I could hear the blonde woman behind me in tears, her high-pitched voice carrying over her boyfriend’s low grumbles. She told him about all the places that she wanted them to go, fancy restaurants and nice stores, maybe even plays and art galleries. Somehow the sequinned dress was some necessary component of these fantasies, the key to the whole thing. She wanted them to have a new life, glossy and brightly colored, smooth and elegant. “And now you’ve ruined it, ruined everything!” she told him, stamping her heel on the sidewalk. Things were supposed to go a certain way when he got out of jail, when he came out and saw the dress, and already, from the very first scene, he had deviated from that long reel of celluloid images that she had hoped to see unwinding far into their future.

I heard the paper crinkle of the dress going back into the bag, and I glanced back to see the boyfriend put his hand on her arm to calm her, to comfort her, to tell her that he was sorry. But she had her head down, stubbornly refusing to be consoled. Their new life would be just like their old life, that picture perfect moment in the candlelight with the waiter holding the bottle of wine would always be just beyond their reach, always belonging to someone else, somewhere else. But they started away together down the boulevard, her sullenness subsiding as she rested her head on his shoulder. I just shrugged and turned the corner onto another sunny street.

Mirror Image

I had an important job interview to go to. I went in the bathroom to get ready, and as I flipped on the light, I was shocked and appalled by the face that confronted me in the mirror. I saw myself, looking frayed and frazzled and malnourished. There was a large purple bruise across my right eye, and the bones of my jaw stood out sharply, and the corners of my mouth kept twitching, seeming to form various cackles of mania and pale expressions of distress and extreme anxiety of their own accord. Strangest of all, there were several large, festering black sores protruding from my face and forehead.

As I leaned forward, I saw that the sores were actually the blossoms of some unknown variety of black flower that had somehow taken root in my skin. The petals looked like something burnt, like they would turn to ashes at the touch. But I tugged at one of the petals and it held firm. I started to panic a little, thinking about the job interview, trying to figure out how to clean myself up. But my panic only drove the face in the mirror to cackle and twist and twitch even more, making it all that much more grotesque. I grabbed at the black flower on my forehead, and as I tried to tear it off, I saw my left eye pull shut as I winced from the pain.

The Broom

On a cold winter morning the guards led me out to a snow-covered field where a massive stone chopping block and an executioner with a heavy wooden axe were waiting for me. I was part of a large family that had ruled the kingdom for ages. But now the family had been overthrown and all the other family members had been eliminated. I was the last one that they had left to deal with. The young prince of the new ruling family stood beside the executioner as a witness, his pale face hard and petulant, his arms folded across his chest, his right fist flexing and cracking the leather of his black glove.

As the guards were lowering me to my knees before the chopping block, the prince put up his hand to stop them. He gave them a short nod, indicating that he wanted a second to speak to me, to indulge his curiosity. Then he asked me the simplest question of all. He asked me if I was angry. I laughed at the question. I told him that the magnitude of what was happening was far beyond the possibility of anger. I looked out to where the sky and snow faded into grey on the horizon, and I told him that I felt like a bird that was about to fly away and vanish forever. How could I be angry? What good would it do me?

The prince still had his hand held up as he took a moment to consider my answer. Then he flipped his palm over and gestured for the guards to help me to my feet, and I knew then that I had been spared. “From now on, you will be just another commoner,” he told me. “Your family name will be stripped of any significance that it once had. Any thought that you might have of regaining power will be like trying to grasp at the air. There will be nothing there for you. You will be no one.” He told me that I would become the caretaker of the castle, serving the new ruling family. And in a briefly improvised ceremony, a broom was brought out from a stable nearby and placed into my hands as a coronation of my new position. I nodded eagerly. I accepted everything gladly. I clutched the cold wooden handle. There were chunks of snow and ice in the bristles.

And so I stayed on, sweeping the halls of the castle clean in the winters, and tending to the gardens outside in the summers. And that feeling of being a vanishing bird carried me through the rest of my life. I felt it whenever I passed by a window and saw the clouds in the blue sky, whenever I paused in my sweeping to look at the portraits hung in the main gallery, whenever the midday shadows fell deep along the stone walls, whenever I heard the bells toll the birth of a new royal child, or the marriage of the princess, or the crowning of the prince. I swept down through all these moments, days scattered by the handful, only ever touching down slightly, grazing them barely, like things dreamt of or already remembered, beautiful, beautiful things of no consequence whatsoever.