The Operator

Sofie Harsha

                                                           

The elevator is all gold walls and mirrored ceiling. In my beige corduroy pants and loose cardigan akin to beige, I am a single brown bead in a gaudy shimmering jewelry box, ambiguous but determined in my preciousness.

            I’ve been riding the Macy’s elevator. It and I have become friends. It has requested that I be its operator.

            After pocketing one tip from my first rider, a lady with a large green purse who’d recently purchased four other purses, I decided that in my new position as an elevator operator I’d only accept tips given freely. I promised myself I wouldn’t hold out my hand for them in any literal or figurative way. As I made this promise, I looked up to the mirrored ceiling and witnessed myself agreeing with me—I nodded twice. Yes. Yes. Only the ones given freely.

            It is highly unattractive to demand a thing originally intended to be a gift.

            The elevator dings. A black-suited man enters looking sullen and tired, as if he has just risen from his desk after 75 years, and has only now discovered that he’s possessed the freedom to stand for the entirety of the time he’d been sitting. Every hour and every minute of every year.

            “Going up? Going down? Going sideways?” I say.

            An elevator operator needs a comic repertoire.

            “Uh. Shoe department?” the man says.

            “Floor three then.” I punch the glowing button with my thumb instead of my pointer. In my new position as an elevator operator I’ve vowed to do things a little differently, and I’ve started with embracing the fact that the thumb can do most of the things the pointer can do.

            I have no idea where the shoe department is. Floor three was a guess on my part. The man simply looked desperate. In need of direction. And the three had sounded strangely right as it left my mouth.

            I should never have taken the train to Max X’s house. In that vacant silent moment before the subway door closes, the one in which I always contemplate returning to the platform, I had decided to remain within the confines of the subway destined toward Max X.

            For one, the subway had smelled of rotten eggs. Sulfurous, like failed chemistry. For two, elderly people in matching orange VOLUNTEER shirts had taken over all the seats. I couldn’t decide if the smell was one of old people or one of volunteers. How was I supposed to greet Max X with that stubborn acrid scent stacked in my nostrils? How was I supposed to smell his chest with subtlety when I pushed my face into it instead of looking him directly in the eye? How was I supposed to apologize amidst such a lingering stench?

            What had the old people been volunteering for anyway?

            The world is overly saturated with groups of people in vague matching t-shirts.

            In the golden semi-reflective wall of the Macy’s elevator, I ask a distorted me whether I should have worn a colorful VOLUNTEER shirt to Max X’s doorstep. He might have had something to say to me then. He might have asked what organization I’d recently become involved in and I would have said, I know, right? Instead I’d been dressed lazily in all this brown and he’d thrown his Sunrise n Sausage Breakfast Bagel at me.

            I don’t need to see your puppy dog face right now, he said.

            I winced. What puppy dog face?

            That one. He pointed with the bagel, thrown out of his hand like a quiet grenade, as if he’d only become aware of the bagel’s potential violence the very second I showed up at his doorstep. Max X had fantastic aim.

            To my surprise, he didn’t invite me in, though his dog Marla was breathing like she wanted me to come inside and I said so.

            A spot of Max X’s early morning American cheese is lurking on my brown cardigan now. This is no way for an elevator operator to dress. Tomorrow I will have to look more professional.

            The elevator opens without its usual dinging sound. I am taken by numb surprise by a woman and her clinging pink-clothed child. They are hand in hand. The little girl looks at herself in the mirrored ceiling and remains interested in her reflection.

            “Going sideways?” I ask.

            “Huh?” the woman says.

            “Going up?”

            “Um.”

            “Going down?”

            The child moves toward the buttons. She wants to press one of them. Her eyes linger on what I think is the button for floor two. The elevator grows nervous.

            “What floor?” I say, wedging myself between the child and her childish desire to press something.

            “Excuse me, do you work here?” the woman says.

            “Yes. I am this elevator’s operator.”

            The woman looks down at her child. “Press floor two, hunny. Go on, it’s okay.”

            My versatile thumb gets to the button before the kid does. The child recoils against her mother’s leg and assumes an almost-crying face.

            I will not be receiving a tip from these riders.

            The elevator hums. I imagine the vast empty burrow it moves in and along, all the ropes and the metal—a contraption as flimsy as a fold-out chair, a ladder made of twigs, a paper swing. Something created by children in the backyard. The elevator will surely fall. It’s only a matter of time. The child will cry then.

            Right now Max X is walking around Brooklyn ashamed of me. I can feel it. He’s stopping at the one corner store with all the rotting fruit and he’s buying something I never knew he liked. Some type of pale cracker, or maybe an odd plastic crane he found in the very back, near the desolate rack of old postcards. He’s trying something new. He’s calling a friend. He’s telling her I’m out of excuses. Even Hitler had less, he’s saying. I don’t care if Hitler wanted to be a painter, he says. I don’t care if his father was cold and harsh and died when Hitler was a kid. I don’t care about the reasons people are shit. I’m sick of Hitler’s excuses.

            I’m not there to correct him on how much worse I am than Hitler—Hitler never tried to give anyone a single solitary excuse.

            He certainly could’ve. I wonder if Max X knows that the fuhrer’s brother died too, along with his father.

            The uprooted Park Slope sidewalks are presenting their piled trash to Max X religiously, a rancid hymn for every corner, and Max X is singing too, amidst the stench, about how he never needed me, how he never should’ve trusted me. He’s a man about town and he’s finding the park now. The one that never contained us together, laughing and confused, staying past dark, watching all the families find themselves as they pack to go, both full of purpose and purposeless.

            Max X would know how to calm this almost-crying elevator child. Max X would know how to keep the elevator from its inevitable fall.

            Max X can suspend single moments in midair.

            “I’m so sorry,” I whisper to my reflection in the gold elevator wall.

            “Huh?” the woman says.

            I say nothing.

            The woman and her child make the elevator heavier. It will surely drop soon. The woman is angry, and the child whines softly, watching herself languish in the mirrored ceiling. I anticipate their departure. I can only assume the relief will be agonizing. Almost tragic. I will miss them.

            The elevator opens to floor two, my passengers’ desired floor. A line of unsightly prom dresses greets us to our left. A man on his Bluetooth waits for his daughter to choose a dress while talking to the air about creating a document the entire office can view. He keeps saying something about the numbers. He needs those numbers, stat. As in right fucking now, goddamnit.

            Someone needs to get him those numbers.

            I wait patiently for the woman and her child to take their terrible leave.

            The elevator closes.

            To my great awe, the woman and her child have not exited the elevator, and they are staring at me, the both of them. In the mirrored ceiling I find that I’m still very much in the elevator with the woman and her child.

            “Who is your boss?” the woman says.

            “Oh, no, I’m sorry. Was that not the floor you wanted?”

            “Who is your supervisor?”

            “Ned.”

            “Ned who?” the woman reaches into her purse.

            I may have been wrong about the tip?

            She pulls out a pad and pen.

            “Ned—Macy” I say.

            “Are you serious? Are we on a candid camera show?”

            “That’s both an excellent question and a difficult one. I’m never sure about that either.”

            We look up to the mirrored ceiling in search of cameras. The child moves and sways, antsy.

            “What are you doing here?” the woman asks.

            “Operating this elevator.”

            “Are you okay?”

            “What?”

            “You don’t work here. Are you okay?”

            “...I don’t know,” I say. “Yes. Certainly.”

            The child presses five floors at once, mashing her palm onto all the buttons as if attempting to reassert her role in a narrative both her mother and I have momentarily forgotten.

            “Hunny! No!” her mother says.

            The elevator is overwhelmed. Even I, its operator, have no idea if we’ll go up first, or down.

            The elevator does not move. With my pointer finger I press the one designed to open the doors. In my distress, I’ve forgotten my vow about using the thumb.

            The doors do not open.

            In my new position as an elevator operator I am not prepared for this outcome. I search for a reset button.

            “Crap,” the woman says.

            “Crap is right,” I say.

            The child begins to whimper. I look to the mirrored ceiling and see that she is indeed beginning to cry. The woman strokes her daughter’s hair.

            “It’s okay,” I say to their tearful reflections. “I’ll fix this.”

            “Oh really?” the woman says.

            I do not appreciate her attitude.

            “Yes. Really,” I say. “In fact I’m sure I can. It’s my job. Just give me a moment to think.”

            “Is this part of the show?”

            “Like I said before, if we are on a television show, I’m as unaware of it as you are.”

            “Who are you?”

            “I told you. I am this elevator’s operator.”

            The woman tries to press the red emergency button.

            “It should be obvious by now that we are in a situation in which an emergency button will not be effective,” I say. “That is not how these kinds of things work.”

            “What the—are you talking about?”

            “Well, is it working?”

            We wait. Nothing happens. The elevator remains unmoved, its buttons still lit up with the possibilities of many floors. If, at this moment, more floors of the building suddenly built themselves up out of nothing and lit up their respective buttons, I would not be in the slightest surprised. Lately I’ve been learning everything is possible.

            For a while we all choose one of the four walls of the golden elevator to sit against. Each of us melts into our chosen wall, slumping against it, tired and confused—even the child, who starts to play with her shoelaces as if they are the only things that know how to escape the stagnant elevator alive. She caresses her shoelaces with focus, softly inventing knots, asking them silent questions. Mostly, though, she looks at herself in the ceiling. In fact, if viewed from above, the three of us would create some sort of archaic triangular design, sitting there across from one another, staring up at the same singular point in the mirror above us.

            But we don’t want to think about geometry. All we want is the elevator to open, or at the very least, we’d like it to move.

            “Who are you?” the woman asks me after some time.

            “We’ve gone over this.”

            “What is your name?”

            “Elevator—Operator.” I say.

            “Christ.”

            “Yeah.”

            The woman grows quiet and motions for her daughter to come sit next to her. Before going to her mother, the child looks at me with an expression that suggests she’s afraid to make any sudden moves in front of me. I’m afraid as well, but only because if the child moves, even slightly, the elevator is more likely to fall.

            The child joins her mother anyway, and receives a kiss on the top of her forehead.

            I think I feel the elevator shift imperceptibly.

            “There’s only one thing to do,” I say.

            I look up to the mirrored ceiling one more time. I begin arm stretches. I roll my neck. I do leg stretches. I crack my knuckles. I jog quietly in place, whispering the few fragments of the Lord’s prayer I remember. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Forgive us our trespasses.

            When I can’t remember any more of the prayer I move on to all the slogans I can think of. There are so many. I’m lovin’ it. Because you’re worth it. Do what tastes right. Be all that you can be. Be more. Have it your way. A diamond is forever. You’re in good hands. Subway. Eat Fresh. Who could ask for anything more? Maybe it’s Maybeline. Melts in your mouth, not in your hands. Have you met life today?

            “Oh my God. What are you doing now?” the woman says.

            The child starts to cry again.

            I move within inches of the elevator doors and push my forehead against their cold glimmer until my golden distorted reflection seems prepared enough. I wedge the fingers of both of my hands between the doors.

            In my new position as an elevator operator I have decided to pry open the doors myself.

            “Are you for real?” the woman asks, still sitting slumped against her wall.

            “As for real as you are, I’m sure.”

            “What?”

            “Please be quiet. I need to concentrate.”

            “Oh my God.”

            “You’re right. Praying may help.”

            As I use all my strength to pull the doors apart I enlist the help of the God of elevators, though his name eludes me.

            “You’re crazy. That is never going to work.”

            “Silence!”

            “You’re nuts.”

            “I believe I requested silence!”

            The woman curls her knees into her chest and tries to get a signal on her cell phone. The child moves to sit by her mother.

            I close my eyes and pull. Behind my lids as I pull and pull I see a tire swing swaying from a lone tree in a big backyard. I see myself jump off a cliff into a waterfall and laugh as it washes over me. I see the woman and her child walk hand in hand across a street. I see messages written in the sky above a busy park. I see Max X take plates down from the cupboard for dinner. I see Max X watching himself in the mirror as he brushes his teeth before turning off the bathroom light. I see his hallway light blink off. I see Max X fall into peaceful sleep. I see the spot of American cheese on my beige cardigan transform my entire brown outfit into a magnificent yellow that extends all the way to my fingertips. I see the orange sunrise out my big apartment window and the orange leaves on the big ground.

            Behind my lids I’m playing tennis. I’m dancing. I’m singing. I’m trudging through the snow using someone’s boot imprints as my pathway. I’m following someone good into a patch of trees to find dry wood for the fire. I’m dancing again. I am so full of energy and motion that my body is making its own music. I’m kinetic.

            The elevator doors open, slowly at first, and then all at once.

            “Holy crap,” the woman says.

            “Holy crap is right.”

            “Hunny, she did it,” the woman says to her child.

            “Wow,” the child says to the mirrored ceiling.

            “Wow,” I say to the mirrored ceiling.

            “Wow,” the woman whispers.

            The elevator goes all strange. It glows.

            Almost as if under some invisible direction, the three of us—the woman, the child, and I—exit the elevator together, all at once, and tenderly. As we leave, I turn my head to watch the shiny golden doors close. I want to be certain some older version of me is not still stuck inside. I’m suddenly afraid she’ll still be there, going up and down, obsessing over the stain on her shirt—unable to forget that it’ll forever be putrefying somewhere over her heart. I’m afraid she’ll still be there, madly manning the buttons, watching herself in the bleak mirror walls of the Macy’s elevator as she tries to keep herself together. Or at least, tries not to come completely apart.

            Either she is gone or the doors have closed too quickly to tell.

            The only thing I can discern in the skewed golden reflection of our departure is that I am not the only one of us who is looking back. The child, the mother, all three of us, have turned our heads to watch the doors close. In the reflection of the elevator’s closed doors, we are all watching each of us walk away.

© 2015 Cogswell College •  191 Baypointe Parkway, San Jose, CA 95134 800.264.7955 • www.cogswell.edu