ELEVATOR

It was a stifling summer outside when suddenly everything stopped.  The faces of the little girl and her father went pale; maybe the father was even more terrified than the little girl.  She wasn’t able to recognize real fear, nor was she aware of the danger of the situation.  She only felt that her father’s grip had suddenly become tighter, and this caused her face to turn white as a sheet.  As for the others: the tall fellow—destined always to experience life from so presumptuous height—was wobbling to such a degree that he had to lean on the inside wall with his elbow.  Actually, he wasn’t so much leaning as bumping against the wooden surface of the wall, taking advantage of its proximity to avoid collapsing on the floor.  The elderly couple were huddling together quietly and moving gradually into the corner, as if trying to conceal themselves.  The remaining four—the soldier, the man with the beard, the woman in red, and the man in the suit—were dispersed in all directions; one fell down, the other hit his forehead on the edge of the panel with the buttons, the third tumbled onto the floor, and the fourth pulled at the tall man’s sleeve and stumbled forward.

Out of all of them, the woman in red, with the pierced navel, responded to the event the loudest, letting out an inarticulate sound followed by a salvo of curses, but nobody objected—as they might have under different circumstances.  The man with the beard, who knew precisely what was happening, continued to lie soberly on the ridged, rubber floor, caressing the hairs of his beard with his fingers.  The gentleman in the suit—a striped jacket and trousers of indeterminate color—quickly stood up again and looked at his expensive watch, demonstrating to everyone that he was in a terrible hurry to get somewhere.  The soldier was the only one with his fleshy hands on his forehead, in noticeable pain, although he had on no way admitted defeat.  After the first wave of shock had passed, the father concluded that the elevator was indeed stuck.  The rest of them neither confirmed nor rejected this conclusion.  It seemed too soon for them to replace their usual formal head-nodding on stepping into the elevator or stingy salutations when exiting with alarm, sympathy, and unity in a common cause.  But it wasn’t long before it seemed that everybody, except the two silent old people, had accepted the reality that they would have to communicate and work together.

The man with the beard suggested pressing the emergency button, but, as was the case with all the other elevators in town, nobody believed that it would actually work, despite what the law required.  Maybe one of them even put his thumb on that big round circle, without the least hope that this would lead to an observable result.  Wanting to determine the height at which they were stuck—as if that would solve the problem—they tried to guess the floor they were on.  At first, the digital readout only showed two eights, indicating that the power supply had been interrupted, throwing off its calculation.  The soldier smacked the number display and then rapped on it with his knuckles; perhaps as the expression of some naïve thirst for vengeance on his part?  However, not only did the screen still refuse to display their vertical location, it now lost even those few flickers of life it retained.  The passengers began a verbal inquiry, the last person who’d come in, the tall fellow, who was sitting at the rear of the car –he’d gone in the back, since his destination was the top floor—confirmed that he’d entered the elevator on the tenth floor.  Now they were asking each other on which floor they’d joined the party, and where each had planned to exit the elevator, and concluded finally that they must be somewhere between the tenth floor and the fourteenth—the destination of the father and his little girl.

The father, a doctor, holding the little fingers of his daughter tightly, went up to the soldier after a while and looked at his bruised forehead in the dim elevator light.  The doctor examined the head of the man in uniform, and told the soldier that his injury couldn’t be treated in these conditions, and all they could do was try to make him comfortable.  They looked for a hard object to bandage against the soldier’s bump, which looked like a small horn growing on a newborn calf.  Not having too many other options, the doctor’s daughter pointed to the soldier’s belt where a gun hung in a white holster that would have been more or less level with her head.  The soldier reached for his gun slowly and bashfully, checked the safety, and put the handle on his forehead.  The sudden coldness surprised him and he dropped the weapon.  It bounced off the door and fell on the floor.  Some of the passengers looked at each other silently—keeping their fears to themselves.  The woman in red was the first to reach for the gun.  But rather than give it back to the frightened and clumsy soldier, she went up to him and pressed the handle to his reddened skin herself.  Yet, it didn’t bring him relief; on the contrary, now he was embarrassed as well as in pain.

 The old lady whispered something to her husband and he kneeled on the floor and started poking around the man with the beard (who, meanwhile, had informed the others that he was a painter); soon the old man was squeezing carefully through the other people’s legs.  The old lady explained that the sudden stop had caused her glasses to fall off, and she’d only just realized that they were missing.  Some of the other passengers kneeled then too, wanting to help the old man, who was still on his knees, impressing the younger people with his endurance and persistence.  The number of people in the car blocked a lot of the light from the weak fluorescents, their silhouettes casting numerous shadows—the deep darkness on the floor making their joint quest more difficult.  The man in the striped suit–a stuffed shirt, really—didn’t pitch in with the search, but instead started calling for help.  He started yelling various names, as if he knew important building personnel who were in charge of keeping the place running day to day.

No matter the volume, it was all in vain.  the building’s elevators had only recently been installed and they were, as it was said, absolutely cutting edge.  they had thick walls and solid insulation, which kept their movements perfectly quiet–an utter joy.  nothing like those rickety, terrifying, ancient elevators you find in older buildings, their decrepit mechanisms straining to pull vibrating cords tied to old tin cans up musty tunnels.  No, these new models moved quickly and silently, and always stopped with the utmost gentleness.  They gave the passengers a feeling of trust and security.

But everyone present had no choice but to accept the fact that the system wasn’t working properly–perhaps a flaw in the installation process?  Soon enough, when he noticed that his yells were useless, the man in the suit started to slam his open palms violently against the metal doors–something of a shock for everyone else.  when he figured out that even this wasn’t loud enough, he lifted his briefcase and started to smack it against the silvery, mirrored surface.  The echoes from this latest assault bounced all over the elevator car, occupying every plane and angle, and inciting even more unrest among his fellow passengers.

Suddenly the tall fellow grabbed the stuffed shirt’s hands.  Having gotten his attention, the giant then pointed toward the little girl who was covering her ears with her hands and looking at both with confusion.  Her father tried to convince the panicky man to apologize to the girl for the scene he was making. but he refused, explaining that what he was doing was for the collective welfare and common interests of all the stranded passengers.  The doctor didn’t give up, however, but continued dignified persistence until their juvenile bickering turned into a heated argument.  This was the first actual fight of their ordeal, and it put everyone even more on edge.

Moments later, when he realized that he’d already missed his meeting, the man in the suit removed his jacket, holding it in one hand while clutching his briefcase in the other, as though there was something strictly confidential in it.  The other passengers began to notice that the temperature, which should have been regulated by the ventilation system, was now increasing in waves, each even more unbearable than the last; they had to do something about that.  Most of the men removed some layer of thri clothes, and loosened their ties if they had one–or if they didn’t, like the painter, they rolled up their pants.  the old lady pulled out an old magazine and begin fanning it in front of her face, turning to her husband’s from time to time, letting her husband work it when she got tired of waving it.  Everyone else was wiping their dewy with everything within reach–their sleeves or facial tissues that they had been keeping in their pockets, thinking that they would never have to use them–everyone, that is, except for the soldier and the woman in red, who were chatting incessantly on various subjects.  At that particular moment, the soldier was explaining to the girl how his gun worked, how to switch the safety on and off, how to aim and shoot–things that he shouldn’t be talking about so nonchalantly in other circumstances.  The father interrupted them, saying that it would be appropriate to try, for a change, to keep quiet and listen, in case anything was happening outside–whether the elevator next to their was moving, for example, or whether they might be able to hear any workers trying to fix whatever malfunction had stranded them all there.  They should be trying to hear any updates and instructions that rescue teams would surely be calling out, discussing their prognosis and planning the best possible way to get them out of there.

Except for the rumblings of their bodies, however, there still wasn’t a sound to be heard.  By now the old man had already stated his hypothesis that the tall fellow was the culprit.  Despite everyone’s reasonable rejoinders, the old man blamed the tall fellow and his capricious decision to force himself upon the collective in the elevator for stranding them in this situation; the elevator must have had a weight limit, and the tall fellow must have caused an overload.  On account of his being the cause of all their troubles, the old man then asked that the tall fellow–who had revealed that he was a historian–tell everyone some stories, which would put their own unfortunate situation in the proper perspective.  So the tall man told them their time in the elevator was historically insignificant and spoke about the old legends, for instance when the galleys of the Githiesh navy got lost at sea and couldn’t take part in an important battle, thus not providing sea support to their infantry.  Later, however, when the sailors worked together, and all the captains coordinated their movements, they surprised the enemy from behind, and thus defeated them utterly.  The tall fellow would have certainly continued to dig through these musty catacombs if the well-dressed gentleman, who been grinding his teeth all the while, hadn’t suddenly–after ferociously mashing his phone’s key pad—put his phone to his ear.  Not a word was spoken, until this small cause for hope was extinguished as well: there was no signal.

It would have been one thing had the tenants of the building simply not cared not cared about the passengers trapped in the elevator—that wouldn’t have concerned them quite so much—but the fact that there had been no sign of life, that not a single sound had penetrated the car, and that the passengers had been unable to get a single message through . . . this seemed to threaten their assumptions and beliefs about the state of the world they’d recently left.  Time was passing, and soon the woman in red, who was sitting on the floor with her back against the wall and her hands wrapped around her knees, declared quite loudly that she was about to faint from hunger.  The soldier had leaned his head on her and was already dozing off.  Swallowing his self-importance, the well-dressed man addressed the group as a whole, concluding that the day must now be over, it was probably night outside.  The passengers had long since begun licking their dry lips, hoping to relieve their increasing thirst, and it was then that the artist pulled a small water bottle out of his bag, and, after taking the first sip, passed it on to the others.  When he was first offered a sip from the bottle, the man in the suit politely—albeit with a grimace—declined; a little later he was quick to grab the bottle and fiercely drink down what was left.  The water seemed to calm the passengers, and now they all lay down on the floor—inasmuch as this was possible—which had seemed wide enough at first, but now felt much smaller.  Except for the soldier, who would occasionally wake up to keep an eye on his fellow prisoners, and the little girl, who kept complaining to her father—even though he was doing his best to placate her by telling her stories, patiently and quietly—the others soon fell asleep.

The snoring and the deep sighs that became from the passengers on the floor mixed with other bodily sounds, until the entire group sounded like a small joyful band.  Some of them bumped their heads together accidently, or pushed aside their neighbor’s belongings, but overall there was no hostility, no angry shoves.  This temporary respite didn’t last long, however.  Their peaceful dreams were interrupted by a jarring bang.  Almost everyone jumped to their feet, save for the artist and the man in the suit, who—as if stuck to each other—didn’t’ budge.  With messy hair and bleary eyes, they rose their sight toward the light of the elevator’s ceiling; this time they looked at each other not with suspicion, but terror.  Now several of them mentioned that they had to answer the call of nature.  For a while they were wondering just what to do about it, until the tall historian came up with the idea to use the empty water bottle while the rest closed their eyes or turned their backs.  Then they all fell asleep for the second time.

There were no outbursts of desperation come morning, only the gurgling noises of their empty stomachs, like abandoned kittens mewling on someone’s porch, permeating the car.  Their shared vulnerability had turned into a mutual compassion and softened their hearts.  The woman in red went on and on about some recent events in her neighborhood.  Reminiscing remorsefully about her lack of compassion for a stray dog that had been playing in front of her building, she promised she would mend her ways once they got their lives back.  Now they all started to evoke similar poignant memories from their lives, as if standing in front of some invisible adjudicator who would soon make a final decision about their destinies and allow only a few to go back to address their errors.  Through these recollections they felt they were somehow guaranteeing their futures, giving evidence of their own worth—or their pretentions to superiority.  After the soldier explained what had brought him to the building the previous day, his companions concluded that he shouldn’t have been there in the first place—he’d gotten the wrong address.  But squeezed between the bodies of the father and the woman in red, who every so often was taking out a book and pretending to read attentively, the soldier didn’t regret his mistake for a minute.  The businessman, on the other hand, suddenly turned toward the old man and his wife, saying that he’d never liked old people and almost never let them cross the street, when he was driving—he’d zoom right into the crosswalk and cut them off.

After they’d all purged their souls, they went silent again.  The painter dozed off, snoring loudly.  When they began to stir again, they noticed that the heat coming from the ventilation system had been replaced with cool air.  It was blowing steadily from above and now everyone started to put their clothes back on and lie closer to each other.  Some of them switched their seats, depending on their ability to tolerate the chill.  Some time later, you could hear a sort of chewing sound coming from one of the elevator’s corners, shortly followed by a loud smacking of lips.  Those who were closer to the old man and woman could see for themselves, and those who were farther away could simply sense that they were chewing candies without sharing.  The woman in red crawled closer to them and begged for some.  At first the old woman held tightly to her bag and wouldn’t give in.  she relented soon enough and opened the bag to give the woman a single piece of nicely wrapped candy.  This only served to reaffirm dislike of the old couple, especially given the way the doctor’s young daughter was staring with watery eyes at the woman eagerly munching her prize.

A new ray of hope emerged when the elevator restarted, moving down one floor.  And yet, they were all certain that—if, for some reason, the elevator resumed its travels—it should go up, not down.  Still, this development reassured them that their ordeal—which had lasted more than twenty-four hours—was nearing its end.  The well-dressed businessman and the tall historian jumped to their feet and again started to yell out to their invisible saviors and bang uselessly on the doors with the soles of their shoes.  This time no one complained.  This supposed glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel made them increasingly impatient.  For a while now, the painter had been scribbling caricatures of the various passengers on the smooth walls of the car, using a pencil he’d taken out of his pocket.   He claimed to be an artist, but, in fact, his drawings seemed more like imperfections being introduced onto the surface of the hitherto spotless elevator, which, until then, had been shining like a crown jewel.  But such purity was lost on the car’s current inhabitants, who were staring at the painter without complaining or criticizing his sketch.  The painter was scrawling from the floor to the ceiling, slowly turning their dungeon into a sort of scribbled whirlwind that they all felt they were being drawn into as time went by.  To them it seemed that these lines were the only thing expressing their situation—cold, hungry, thirsty, tired—forced to contend with all the fallacies that their current ambiguous state brought into relief.  It was because of this that the painter—who hadn’t said a word since beginning his drawing—became an object of renewed suspicion, since the passengers would have dearly liked to find someone to blame for their predicament.  Spitefully, though with curiosity as well, they began to question the bearded man.  The old woman accused him of stealing her misplaced glasses when she’d been unable to find them on the floor.  The historian, who’d previously blamed everything on the inevitability of history questioned the painter’s decision to keep the water bottle a secret for so long.  The old man concluded that only the painter seemed as though he’d been fully prepared for this incident.  The soldier, the woman in red, and the father and daughter all refused to take part in this new trial, only mumbling quietly on occasion, as if trying to douse this fire.  It was the father who eventually succeeded in calming everyone down and saying that it was useless to worry about who was responsible for the accident, and how it would make more sense to do so afterward, when they got out.  They realized he’d said “when” instead of “if.”  This was somehow the final blow.  Exhausted, they all gave up on the idea of being rescued.  The soldier and the woman in red were hugging each other; he was playing with her belly-button ring while she was tracing the tattoo on his left forearm.  The little girl finally calmed down and sat in her father’s lap, while the painter gave up on his drawings and dropped his blunt pencil onto somebody’s shoe, without checking whose.

The old man was exhaling into his wife’s hands to warm them up—the least he could do.  Although it was cold in then car, the man in the suit had already begun to make himself a bit too comfortable; he’d dropped his suit jacket onto the floor, loosened his tie, unbuckled his belt, and even taken off his expensive watch that he’d been staring at so often in the dusky elevator light.  Almost half naked, he then leaned back, stretched out across the elevator’s door like a gatekeeper.  They were all petrified, just waiting for this performance to end and the curtain to fall.

The following morning, the elevator finally moved up.  As if some mysterious crown wheel had finally loosened, the elevator car cut silently through a thick layer of air.  At first, the passengers who were awake—or were only half-sleeping—thought that they were imagining things, that they were hallucinating, and this meant they were on their last legs.  Soon enough they realized that they were actually moving, but they couldn’t decide if the elevator was simply moving up to the next floor, where they were initially supposed to stop, or of it was headed for the very top of the skyscraper, or perhaps it was about to drop down into an eternal abyss.  Regardless of what was happening—as the elevator rapidly accelerated—no one had any intention of detaching themselves from one another; their bodies were more or less glued to each together.  Likewise, they had no intention of preparing themselves to make their long-awaited reentry into the civilized world with dignity.  All they did was sit still, with no expectations at all, just sitting quietly and breathing heavily.

They only moved when the doors opened in front of them, but only to close their eyes, or cover them with whatever was at hand.  An emergency team jumped in, making sure everyone was okay.  The passengers clung to the elevator’s walls as if caught on fish hooks and grabbed onto each other’s arms, making it difficult for the emergency team to coax them out onto stretchers.  Even as they were exiting one by one, the paramedics couldn’t help but notice that the members of the now disbanded group were all trying to reach out to each other, perhaps waving weakly, as though to hoping to schedule their next meeting as they passed each other in the hallway.  Indeed, the presence of all these newcomers evoked a look of fear, uncertainty, and suspicion in the passenger’s eyes, as if the emergency crew had been sent with the express purpose of separating their little band from whatever invisible and mysterious feeling that their captivity had created, and which was now being taken away from them.

When there was no one left in the elevator, and the ambulance sirens could no longer be heard, a lady with various soaps and detergents, a rag, a scrub brush, and a bucket full of water walked into the empty car.  With her wet rag, she wiped away the thick, full lines of the drawings that covered the interior of the elevator.  Scrubbing away the painter, the soldier, the woman in the red dress, the doctor and his daughter, the historian, the old man and his wife, and, lastly, the man in the suit.

 

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