There was a joke in the building about the two elevators, the east and the west, which were separated in the lobby by a long marble wall that ran about forty feet. The west rose to the big luxury units with three or four bedrooms—it was thought of as a smooth-riding, whisperflow Cadillac, while the east, which serviced the less opulent units with only one or two bedrooms, was spoken of, with amusement and dismay, as a rickety third-world trolley. And, as if aware of its degraded reputation, it took on a third-world personality, making grumpy, confidence-deflating groans as it passed certain floors. When it stopped, it was always a few inches too high or too low.
It was slower, too, than the west elevator. The sliding doors were hopelessly sluggish, and when you pressed a button to go up or down, there was an irritating delay before the engine engaged. Farro Fescu, the concierge, who presided over the desk in the lobby, timed each elevator with his Hermes watch, which he had purchased a few months earlier in a feckless moment of self-indulgence. He found that the east elevator, going non-stop to the fifteenth floor, was sixty-three seconds slower than the west, and forty-nine seconds slower coming down.
So this thing with the elevator was not just a joke but a curse. The condo was close to Battery Park, among other condos, near the southern tip of Manhattan. Most of the units caught a handsome view of the Hudson, where it links up with the Upper Bay, and there were spacious park grounds nearby. On a warm day, you could relax in the sun and enjoy a hot dog or a lemon ice. Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty hover in the hazy distance. Foghorns croon on foggy nights, and on foggy days they groan and moan and complain. And a few blocks to the north and to the west, the sprawling financial district rides up and down on the slippery digital slopes of electronic dollars. All of that—the eateries, the museums, the ferries, the evening strolls along the riverside esplanade—all of it pumping, pressuring, pushing condo prices up into the stratosphere, yet you’ve bought into all of that, and there you are, in the lobby, waiting for a cranky, irresponsible elevator that is afflicted, obviously, with an acute form of adolescent narcissism and a nasty case of premature arthritis.
Now, toward the end of the summer, to no one's surprise, the elevator took a turn for the worse. There were times when, summoned, it wouldn't respond, and other times when it parked itself between floors and a mechanic had to be called in to get it moving again. The first time that happened, Lily Escobar was aboard, the sole passenger, stuck between the lobby and the floor above.
She rang the alarm and shouted into the red emergency phone. Farro Fescu, answering, gave her every assurance that the repairman would arrive in a few moments. But he didn't.
She took off her shoe and hammered the heel against the door. "Get me out!" she cried lustily. "Get me out!" She was fifty-three, her long hair colored a dark shade of brown, almost black. She wore it, always, in a bun, and lived alone. Her only friend in the building was Cora Plum, who, returning from a day of shopping, arrived in the lobby only minutes after Lily had begun with the shoe.
Cora dropped her packages by the desk and spoke to Lily on the emergency phone, trying to calm her. "They're doing everything they can, Lily. You're going to be okay. You have to believe that. You're going to be fine."
Then, turning to Farro Fescu, "That is correct, isn't it? She’s going to be all right?"
Lily, overhearing, shouted bitterly into the phone. "I don't want to be all right—I just want to be out of here!" At that very moment, she was seized by a powerful desire to gorge herself on a whole box of chocolate-covered almond cookies, the kind she used to eat when she was a girl. The flavor rose inside her, from long ago, igniting her taste buds and adding to her frustration.
It was well over two hours before the repairman arrived. He was sweaty and muscular, with long arms and short legs, wearing a gray T-shirt with a green alligator printed on it, and the word EVERGLADES. He knew what was wrong.
"The brake is stuck," he told Lily over the phone.
This alarmed her. If the brake was stuck, it might suddenly become unstuck, and she could plunge to her death in the subbasement.
"Try jumping up and down," the repairman said.
"Are you crazy?"
"It usually works," he said.
"What if it doesn't?"
"We try not to think about that."
She hung up, and again she hammered the heel of her shoe against the door, a steady, surly banging.
The repairman pried open the doors on the lobby level, and looked into the grimy darkness of the shaft. The elevator was stuck just above the opening, suspended behind the tall marble wall of the lobby, in an atmosphere of gloom. After a quick study of the underside of the elevator, the repairman left the lobby, sprinted up the stairs, and pried open the doors on the next level. He entered the shaft and, using the steel ladder attached to the wall, he descended the short distance to the top of the elevator, opened the escape panel, and looked in on Lily.
She was sitting on the slate floor, her back against a wall, her hair undone and her mascara smeared. Her legs, in pink pants, were stretched out flat on the floor, forming a wide V from her pelvis. She held the tip of her shoe with her right hand and was beating the heel not against the door, now, but on the floor, slowly and methodically, with a languishing, despondent rhythm.
"It's all right," the repairman said calmly. "You can stop with the shoe."
"I don't want to stop," she said sullenly. "Just—get—me—out—of—here!"
"Reach up to me, I'll pull you up," he said, putting his hand far down through the opening. His arm was remarkably long, roped with muscle. It seemed an arm that had, in its time, done a great deal of reaching and lifting. But she wasn't impressed, and found it, in fact, repulsive. That arm, so thick and long, with the bulging blue vein, she thought of it as the penis of some ugly antediluvian mastodon, stretching down to her from above.
"Not on your life," she said.
The repairman withdrew his arm and went to work on the brake. The elevator jerked loose, fell a few feet, and slammed to a stop.
"You're going to kill us both," she shouted, her chest fluttering with fright.
"We're almost there," he said.
"I don't want to be almost there. Whatever you did, don't do it again!"
He did it again. The elevator plunged briefly and came to a jolting stop that shook her bones. Her spine felt compressed, as if the vertebrae had been fused together. Had she not been sitting on the floor, she was sure she would have been hurled about wildly, at the cost of a few broken bones.
But the elevator was down, in the lobby. Farro Fescu helped her out, and Cora embraced her. Dear, precious Cora, Lily thought as she slumped into her arms, what would she do without her? Cora who hadn't yet experienced the trauma of turning fifty, still a few years away from that, with her faux-blond hair and wide-apart brown eyes, and a passion for shrimp cocktails and white wine. They went out together on weekends, to movies and concerts. They walked the treadmills in the eleventh-floor exercise room.
"I'll make tea," Cora said.
"I don't want tea. I just want to lie down and die." It was now a full three hours since she'd boarded the elevator. She had missed an episode of Autumn Acres, which she'd been following, and hadn't done the grocery shopping she'd set out to do. She lived on the third floor and swore she would never use that elevator again. She would use the stairs. Anything was better than being trapped again inside that mechanical monster.
After the repairman finished tinkering, the elevator behaved for a while. But before the week was out, it turned cranky again and became unpredictable. Lily, already weary of the stairs, was in despair. Her left ankle was in pain, her back hurt, and the bursitis in her right elbow was acting up. She renewed her prescription for Elixirene, to settle her nerves, and went to her priest, at the church on Barclay Street.
His name was Fernando, but he preferred Fred. Father Fred. He'd grown up in Rochester and had relatives in Cuba and Miami. She felt comfortable with him. He was portly and serene, in his late-forties, with a bush of brown hair turning slowly gray, and black-rimmed glasses that seemed half an inch thick. When he wasn't at the altar, he wore lumberjack shirts, bleached jeans, and gumsole shoes. She liked him—pitied him—because of the trouble he'd had in his life. His mother was a mental case, on medication that didn't help, and his father was long out of work and given to alcohol. His younger sister, Maria Gracia, was, he'd said, his greatest sorrow, living an abandoned life as a woman of the night and making so much money she could afford a condo in the East 80s. And it was a thorn in his flesh, he had confided, that all of his prayers for her went unanswered.
Lily visited him in the rectory. Over tea, at a table by a stained glass window, she told him about the elevator and its strange ways. Clearly, there was a devil in it, and she asked him to perform an exorcism. He listened sympathetically, then explained, in laborious detail, that an exorcism was a complicated thing, requiring the cardinal's permission, which could be long in coming. He suggested that a simple blessing might be a better way to go.
"I don't know about that," she said, aware that she really didn't have much say in the matter.
The following afternoon, Father Fred went to her apartment, using the stairs, as she had recommended. What use would he be if the elevator were to stop between floors with him in it? He arrived a half-hour late, wearing jeans, and carried, in a black briefcase, a bottle of holy water and a book of prayers in Latin and English.
The book contained blessings for railroads, airplanes, airports, bridges, and fire engines. Also for libraries, dormitories, seismographs, stoves, church organs, and sheep. There was no blessing for elevators, so he substituted the blessing for railroads, on the theory that an elevator was, after all, a kind of railroad, running vertically instead of horizontally.
From his pocket he took a purple stole and hung it about his neck, and Lily noted ruefully that the purple of the stole clashed horribly with the orange and blue of his striped shirt. In a moment of stabbing doubt, she wondered if his prayers would be any more efficacious than his ability to mix and match.
She summoned the elevator, and when it arrived she threw the stop switch, keeping the grouchy machine immobilized until the blessing was done. Father Fred sprinkled holy water and pronounced the blessing first in Latin, then in English. And in deference to Lily's fear that a devil might be on the loose, he threw in a sentence that he found in a blessing for hospital wards: "Banish from this place the wickedness of demons, fill it with the peace of angels, and keep it forever free of evil discord."
"Do you think that's enough?" Lily said, feeling certain that it was not.
"Have faith," he said. "To those who have faith, all things are possible."
Lily wasn't at all confident that she had faith. The faith that moves mountains, the faith that is faithful unto death. Faith was hard, she felt, especially after the things she'd been through. Her first husband was dead, the second husband had run off with a manicurist and had settled in another country, and the third was now living with a man in Nevada. Nothing in her life had panned out the way she had expected. She was sure the elevator was afflicted with something unnatural.
"Don't worry," Father Fred told her. "It will be all right. We have the same problem with the elevator in the rectory. If it sticks, jump up and down."
"That's what the elevator man said."
"It works," he said. "It really does."
She gave him a crooked look, and didn't invite him in for tea. Nor did she dare to use the elevator, thinking the demon might be drying himself off from the shower of holy water and preparing to come back with a vengeance.
She said nothing of any of this—about Father Fred and the blessing—to Cora Plum, because Cora would have pursed her lips, as she sometimes did, and would have shrugged off the blessing as little more than hocus-pocus. She was a Unitarian, though only occasionally. And Lily herself felt there was, perhaps, the faintest touch of superstition in this thing that her priest had done, the holy water and all that, and those silly Latin prayers. She imagined the demon, if there was one, was laughing up his sleeve in some dark, cranky corner of the elevator's machinery.
After the blessing, the elevator was on good behavior for a few days, then it went back to its old ways. Lily still didn't use it herself, but she heard the stories—how it grumbled, how the doors took forever to open and close, how it sometimes stopped three feet too high or too low and you had to climb when you boarded and jump when you got off. And now, too, it made a shrill sound when passing the third floor, as if it knew where she lived and was hooting her.
She began to think about moving out, to another location, where the elevators were more sensible. Mrs. Vine and Mr. Tool, on the upper floors, did move out, selling, each of them, for a handsome profit to buyers who wanted the river view and couldn't care less that the elevator was temperamental. The buyers were young, one a recent graduate from Stanford, the other from Yale, both starting out with near six-figure salaries in trainee positions at one of the big houses on Broad Street. Why should they worry about a silly elevator? An incubus? A poltergeist?
The Board canceled the repair service they'd been using, and hired a different company to look after the elevator. A new braking system was installed, a few computer chips were replaced, and a lubricant was applied to the parts that needed greasing. But still there were problems, and on a rainy Monday afternoon, it did again the terrible thing it had done once before, stopping between floors and trapping someone inside. The passenger, this time, was Cora—and help was long in coming, as it had been for Lily. But Cora had great confidence that all would be well, and did her best to remain calm. She hummed tunes from Oklahoma and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
She had been a brunette, but after her husband died, she told her hairdresser to make her over. All her life there had been something inside her telling her she was really a blonde, and she was happy now to have the hair to show it. When the elevator stalled, she'd been on her way home from the market on South End Avenue, and when the long wait in the elevator began to weigh on her, she opened a box of Fig Newtons and ate them all. She was in her mauve dress, with pink and white dogwood flowers printed all over it, and the hemline just below her knees.
The repairman was the same one who had rescued Lily. The one with short legs and very long arms. When he opened the escape hatch at the top of the elevator and looked in on Cora, she was surprised. "I thought you were fired," she said.
"Me? Not me. They dumped the company. I quit and teamed up with the new company that got the contract. You want me to pull you up?"
"Are you sure you can?" she asked, doubtfully.
He was wearing his old gray T-shirt with EVERGLADES printed on it. "When I lived in Florida," he said, "I used to pick up alligators by the tail."
"Well, I'm sorry I'm not an alligator," she said.
She stood up on her toes, and as she raised her right hand, he grabbed her arm above the wrist, and in a quick, wrenching moment, he pulled her through the opening.
When she was up on top, on her feet and breathless, she was so pleased about being rescued that she embraced him, hugging tight in the dim light of the elevator shaft—and, in the excitement of the moment, she kissed him on the mouth, surprising herself with her own forwardness.
The elevator had stalled halfway below the doors for the seventh floor. The repairman pried the doors open, and when he and Cora were safely in the corridor, she invited him upstairs for coffee. Or a beer, if he preferred.
The next day, when Lily, in a rare moment of weakness, confided that she'd had her priest in to sprinkle holy water and chase the devil out of the elevator, Cora was sensible enough not to say anything disparaging. They were at an alfresco table on Battery Place, taking cappuccino and crullers in the sun, which was pleasantly warm. When she was at the bottom of her cappuccino, Cora, in exchange for Lily's confession about the priest, made a confession of her own, disclosing that, after her deliverance from the stalled elevator, she brought the man into her apartment and gave him more, much more, than a glass of beer.
Lily was appalled. It was too much to comprehend. "How could you?" she said, gasping. "That short little fellow with the long arms?" It seemed to her, in a way, a form of unfaithfulness, a personal betrayal. "That sour-faced, mongoloid ape? You went to bed with him?"
"He was very gentle," Cora said, defensively. "He lifted me right up out of the elevator when it was stuck—and I was so delighted, you understand." Then, leaning across the table and looking Lily in the eye, "Haven't you ever done anything like that? Just let yourself go? Maybe with your priest?"
Lily looked away, her forehead wrinkling with distress. No, she had not, she said, but heaved a sigh and acknowledged there had been a moment, some years ago, when something might have happened, but didn't. It was when she was telling Father Fred about her husband who had run off with a boyfriend, and how lonely she was. "He put his hand on my arm," she said. "That's as far as it went."
"Maybe next time," Cora said.
"I wouldn't bet on it," Lily replied.
The Board looked into replacing the elevator with a new one, but it was going to be costly. Jack Killingsworth, who was on the Board—he lived in a unit served by the west elevator, not the cantankerous east—had been hoping to install a massive aquarium in the lobby, recessed into the forty-foot wall between the two elevators. He was thinking of leopard sharks, which he'd seen during a visit to a seaquarium in Australia. But there wasn't enough cash-flow in the budget for a shark habitat and a new elevator too, so he was arguing not for a new lift but for a refurbished secondhand model that would leave enough in the budget for the leopard sharks. And if they waited long enough, the problem with the elevator might simply go away. Machinery was like that, he insisted. There were kinks and abnormalities, appearing and disappearing. The weather, the time of year. Dust in the gears. Why rush things?
The aquarium met with random spasms of resistance, especially among users of the cranky east elevator. Those who had been around for a while remembered when Luther Rumfarm had wanted to install a waterfall between the elevators. That idea frittered away, and Rumfarm himself had also passed into oblivion. Now it was sharks, and Lily was among those who were hoping that Killingsworth, like Rumfarm, might vanish into another universe.
When he approached her one morning in the mailroom, trying to secure her vote for the aquarium, she all but hissed. "We don't need sharks, we need an elevator that obeys the rules."
Killingsworth tried sympathy, telling her how brave she'd been, her three-hour ordeal when she was stuck between floors. But she resisted sympathy as if it were a bee about to sting.
"I hate aquariums," she said. "They're so—wet."
He was cheerfully brisk. "Well—if others feel as you do, we could skip the sharks and make it a cage full of macaws and bald eagles. Everybody likes birds."
"Macaws? Do they chirp a lot?"
"Chirping, I wouldn't think. They're a kind of parrot, you know."
"But birds in a cage—they do tend to be messy, isn't that so?"
"Life is messy," he answered, losing patience and giving her up for hopeless, and he hurried from the mailroom.
She'd had three unhappy marriages, and if someone were to come along and present himself, no matter how pleasant or rich, she didn't think she would be interested. She certainly wouldn't want Killingsworth. And even more certainly she didn't want his sharks, even if they were macaws.
Later, after lunch, she sat in the lobby with Cora, side by side on a black couch. Cora wore blue leotards and a taupe dress, with white bows at the collar. Lily felt shabby beside her. She was tired, so tired, tired of the stairs and tired of the crazy elevator, which deserved a hefty dose of cyanide to put it out of its misery.
"I hate growing old," she said. "Don't you despise it? I hate my hair. I hate my teeth. I hate the short winter days when it's dark before supper. I hate the night."
It wasn't winter yet, but she was preparing herself mentally.
"You aren't old," Cora said. "You're only old if you think you're old."
"Sweetheart, when you turn the corner into fifty and the aches and pains settle in, and your doctors talk about hormone injections, cornea transplants, tooth implants, and cartilage therapy—believe me, that's old. If they ever tell me I need a heart transplant, I'm saying no. I'd rather die. If anybody mentions a face transplant, I'll spit."
She sat silent for a while, sinking in a sudden whirlpool of despair that was swirling inside her. She gazed at the floor, the checkerboard tiles, black and white, and she looked up at the high ceiling, a high white emptiness, and, up or down, there was no escaping the feelings inside her. Then, turning, she leaned against Cora, and letting herself go, she wept. Right there in the lobby, on the couch, under the palm tree.
"Be strong," Cora said.
"I'm tired of being strong."
"I don't want things to pass. I don't want life to be over."
"Come up with me," Cora said. "To my place. We'll play cards and eat popcorn. We haven't done that for a while." Cora lived on the ninth floor. It was too far for Lily to climb, she hadn't been up there since she stopped using the elevator.
"Come," said Cora. "We'll ride together. If it misbehaves, we'll kick it hard. I find that helps, sometimes."
"No," Lily answered. Because it wasn't something she could do, go back into that elevator, into that paralyzing memory.
She wiped her eyes with a tissue, and for a while they sat side by side, looking across at the two elevators, the east and the west, and the wide marble wall between them, where Killingsworth wanted to put his aquarium.
Cora put her hand on Lily's arm and squeezed it affectionately.
"Tomorrow," she said, as she rose from the couch. "I'll see you tomorrow and we'll go to a movie."
Lily rolled her head apathetically. She had no desire whatsoever to see a movie, even if the actors were romping around in their underwear, or stark naked. She watched as Cora disappeared into the elevator, and, still on the couch, she leaned back into the cushions. The lobby was empty, not a soul passing in or out. Farro Fescu, the concierge, was somewhere—the mailroom, or perhaps the toilet. She pushed herself up off the couch and stood a moment, looking toward the elevator, then turned and went out the front door, into the September afternoon. Fresh air, she thought. She needed air.
The day was cool, but the sun was crisp and she didn't need a jacket. She walked, going down the street and onto the esplanade that ran along the river. Just walking, not thinking. Small boats on the water, a few speedboats and some sails. A red boat carrying tourists across to Ellis Island. And seagulls, hundreds of them, swirling and dipping and rising. She didn't know birds—the names, the species—but she liked them. Big birds and small ones, white birds and dark, it was calming to watch them.
She was off the esplanade and into the park, strolling past the trees and the monuments, past statues and plaques and war memorials. Her ankle wasn't bothering her today, and she wondered how long she could wander before the pain acted up again. People walking, talking, hurrying past her, others lazing about, taking pictures, sitting on benches. Vendors sold hot dogs and falafel, and cans of soda.
Up ahead was the terminal for the Staten Island ferry, but she swung around, changing direction, and, passing through Bowling Green, she made her way to Broadway and walked north, toward Wall Street. Busy crowds hurrying along, men and women. The quick, clicking heels, the fixed gaze. This was the place where big money moved. The banks, the exchanges, the brokerage houses, everyone more than a little worried about the big dip the market had taken that week.
When she reached Wall Street, she paused in front of Trinity Church, glancing up at the spire. How impressive it must have been when it was the tallest thing in Manhattan. And still it was commanding. She admired the doors, the big bronze doors covered with biblical figures in bas-relief. She lingered, inclined to go in, but resisted. Some other time, she thought, and instead of going through those massive doors, she wandered off into the churchyard, which she had visited before, and browsed among the gravestones and the trees. Many important people there from long ago, some who had signed the Declaration of Independence.
She felt, again, the pain in her ankle coming on, nothing fierce but enough to notice, so she set out for home, not the long way through the park, but across on Cedar and angling over toward the river, a leisurely pace, thinking yet of the bronze doors of Trinity, and that tall, firm spire rising stiff and solemn toward a passing cloud.
At the condo, she sat on the sofa in the lobby, resting her legs and catching her breath, her ankle still in pain but bearable, it would pass. Farro Fescu, busy behind his desk, hardly noticed her. He had his radio on, low, something by Mozart she thought, though she wasn’t really sure.
She was staring at the doors of the east elevator. They were nothing like the doors of Trinity Church. Just flat sheets of polished steel, hard, shiny, and uninspiring. The doors to hell, she thought, hating what she had suffered inside that infernal machine. But she was, now, wrestling with her anger, with the scars and the hurt feelings deep inside—tired of all that, and maybe Cora was right, there was a point when the fighting and the resisting no longer mattered.
She closed her eyes and emptied her mind, thinking nothing for a while, pushing thought and memory far away. Deep breaths, slow and deep. Years ago, someone had told her about the value of measured breathing. It had helped her through some bad times.
When she opened her eyes, she was again looking at the elevator, gazing with a kind of numbness. Slowly, she stood up and did more deep breathing—and, trance-like, she approached the steel door. She stiffened her thumb and jabbed at the button, then closed her eyes and waited.
When the elevator arrived and the doors slid open, there before her, waiting to step out, was the elevator mechanic. His short legs were very short, and his long arms crazily long, hands dangling below his knees. He was shorter than she, but the elevator had stopped several inches above the proper level, putting them at an equal height. Neither of them moved. They were face to face, and close.
"You again," she said.
He studied her with his hazel eyes, which had, oddly, many red flecks in them. She'd never seen red like that in anybody's eyes, in the irises.
"You're the one that was banging with the shoe," he said.
"If that's how you remember it," she answered, put off by his tone. "I was simply registering a reasonable complaint and doing my best to sound an alarm."
"And you—here again? What are you up to?"
He shrugged. "I been runnin' some tests."
"On Cora Plum?"
"On the elevator."
"And of course it flunked," she said.
He rocked his head, side to side. "Well, maybe a C-minus."
"Not safe for human consumption," she said, as if it were a barnyard creature afflicted with mad cow disease.
"It did mutter and growl," he answered, "but it didn't kill me." Then, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, "They are gonna knock down the wall," he said.
"Right here between the elevators. "
"For the birds?"
"For the sharks. They called me up and asked my advice."
"You know about sharks?"
"I know about everything."
"I bet you do," she said with a flutter of skepticism. Maybe he really was that smart, but she was sure, one way or another, she could teach him a few things.
"If I didn't know everything," he said, "how would I save people from certain death when the elevator snorts and threatens?" Then, with a straight look, "You have a beer?"
It was forward of him, she thought. But she had always liked that in a man. Straight on, he knows what he wants.
"Not in my purse, no."
"In your ice box?"
"I can take a look," she said, shocked to hear herself saying that. "How about some Amaretto?"
"Kind of sweet, ain't it?"
"You don't like sweet?"
"Oh, I do, I do," he said. Then, with a meaningful glance, "But I guess it depends on what's in the package."
She was still outside the elevator, and he inside. He'd thrown the switch to keep the doors from shutting, and now, noticing how she kept glancing at his arms and legs, he told her why they were the way they were.
"The short legs are from my mother," he said. "She was a Cree Indian, from Manitoba. My father was Lithuanian. He had long arms. That's how it happened."
She didn't believe a word of it. His father wasn't Lithuanian, and his mother wasn't a Cree. The mismatched arms and legs were simply him. That's what people did, they made up stories to explain the wrong things in their lives, and after a while they believed the stories they made up.
"And the red eyes?" she asked. "Who gave you those?"
"Ah, you noticed. I inherited the red from the Garden of Eden."
"From the snake, no doubt."
"How'd you guess?"
She nodded knowingly. "I can always smell a rat. Or a reptile."
"You're a tough old lady," he said.
"If I weren't tough, I wouldn't be alive. And I'm younger than you think."
He pursed his lips, looking her over.
"And you?" she said, mocking. "You think of yourself as a thrashing young colt?"
"Me? I don't count the years," he said, flashing a crooked smile that she didn't quite understand.
Then the smile evaporated and his face assumed a seriousness that was almost frightening. He spoke in a changed voice, a dark, resonant tone that seemed oracular, out of another world. "I am older than the Crab Nebula," he said, the words booming from the elevator and echoing in the lobby. "Older than Mars, older than Jupiter, older than the dumb doomed stars in the Megellanic Clouds, which are now so old they are walking around on crutches."
Well, he did have a manner. Under those faded jeans, she suspected he probably had hairy legs, and she did wonder if he knew as much about everything as he said he did.
"So what do you think," he asked, switching back to his normal tone of voice, which was thin and, at times, almost squeaky.
She touched her fingers to her chin, thoughtfully. "I think," she said, "maybe I can find that can of beer you were looking for."
He moved aside, inviting her into the elevator, and only then did she see past him into the scene of her humiliation. She stood motionless, staring at the walnut panels on the walls and the slate floor where she had pounded with her shoe. She hated it. It seemed like death to her. She saw the escape hatch in the ceiling, where he had reached down with his long arm, and she had cursed him away. And here he was, with his red eyes, beckoning for her to come aboard, and she didn't know his name.
Title graphic: "Uplift" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2010.