.

 

Ceiling

Hole in the roof of the Smith & 9th St. Subway Station

I went for an interview at a branding firm in midtown. It's one of several branding and new media firms in its building. The other floors are taken up by a non-profit addiction treatment center, and a wig maker's. I strode in with purpose in my legs in order to keep the security guard from stopping me, and entered the elevator with a tall, thin, tired-looking man in a leather jacked who was shivering—shaking, really. He made it to the third floor, then began to pound the wall of the elevator with his fist and say “shit” repeatedly. There was nowhere else to look, so I looked at him. He had a black cloth bag, half-zippered with a piece of white plastic hanging out of the opening. He put his hands to his head and moaned, gritting his teeth. The elevator continued to creep skyward.

The poor bastard. Whatever was eating him—something oily with tentacles—was turning the world into ghosts, making everything sepulchral. You could see it on him. He was Orpheus surrounded by shades, desperate to turn back and see her one last time. I'm not one for hard drugs, but you have to have sympathy.

He got off at the 9th floor, and I went in for my interview. A friend suggested me and arranged the interview. The job is for a “production artist,” someone to run software, put together long documents and follow the guidelines established by the firm's designers, to do the legwork of the documentation age.

The interview was polite. I was rested and enthusiastic, trim in a tie and jacket. My resume, neatly laserprinted at Paul's, showed a smattering of work history, and my portfolio, created to complete the requirements of my night classes in Publishing Technologies, demonstrated sufficient technical skill. The interviewer, a woman named Calla with graying hair, manager of HR and operations, was polite and non-committal, but nodded often during the meeting and promised to call me this week.

After I left there was little to do but go back to work. I am helping a friend build sets for an off-Broadway opera. No one is sure of the specifics of the production, but the checks don't bounce. Somehow I have been brought in without offending the union, and so I swing my hammer and run the heavy cordless drill, putting together two-by-fours and painting large sheets of jigsawed plywood, cut into circles and parallelograms.

“How did that go?” he asked.

“Good, I guess,” I said. “We'll see.” I told him about the junkie in the elevator, and we laughed at it, and I proceeded to drilling holes into long warped boards that we would force to become risers.

The work had a rhythm, and as I fell into it, suddenly I remembered being in an old brown car in upstate New York, the lights of a police car in my rear-view mirror. I hadn't been speeding, so I knew what was coming. My pathetic Dodge beater had no chance of escape from the curved black-and-white Ford Taurus behind me. So I pulled over.

License and registration, etc. Waiting for him to ask permission to open the trunk, to search the back. In a paper bag below some eggs and potato chips were three small brown paper packages tied with string, and inside them plastic bags, and inside the bags was a long night in prison and an orange shirt with a number on it, with many more to follow, night after night, stretching into years. I'd been dangling myself over the cliff of this moment for almost a year. Even so, I willed my hands into steadiness and handed over the paperwork.

He looked at the license, and at my face in profile. In the next year I would learn to loathe his face, and he would come to represent everything that was falling apart, and it was finally his face that launched me to New York, to the wave of drunken couch life that rose and fell like waves across three years of my life.

The need to say something, to yank the future back away from the handcuffs that hung from his belt, overwhelmed me. I asked, “Was I speeding?” Knowing I hadn't been.

The officer said nothing for a long moment, and then: “I'm sorry to have bothered you, sir.” Another pause, agony. “Someone reported an old brown Dodge stolen, but this all seems fine.”

I laughed and suddenly fell into a character, someone new emerging, the old self submerged. “God, no. I wish someone would steal this car.”

“They're easy to hotwire,” he said. “Probably kids.”

“That so?” In my life I don't know that I'd ever said “that so” before, but the person I had just become was an expert at banter; he could talk about the weather, the hazards of modern driving, and quote from shows on television he'd never seen. “Never occurred to me anyone would want to steal this thing.” His gun hang loosely in its holster, easily reachable; another holster held a sheaf of blank parking tickets.

“People steal everything,” he said. “You wouldn't believe.”

I have $14,000 in illegal drugs in the car, I thought, as the submerged self surfaced, gasping for air. But I pushed him back down and said, “I guess you'd know all about that.”

“Guess so at that,” the policeman said. I could see him now: thin legs and a strong chest, the classic cop body, all driving and weight-lifting. Young: somewhere between 25 and 29, with a moustache pleasantly cultivated. “Well, okay then.” He handed me my papers.

“That's all right?”

“Everything's fine,” he said. “Sorry for the interruption.” He wished me a pleasant day.

I drove off, and before a minute was over he had passed me, moving silently past my rattling car.

That was the beginning of this life. The details, the causes and effects are for another day, when I have time and my arms are not sore from holding a drill and pushing warped wood into a form. Later, that same policeman would appear at my door and invite himself in, with a deal to make, and I began to see that all of my imagined toughness, my proud compromises, were an amateur act. I would learn that I could only stomach a little of the evil in the world, when I'd thought that I would have no problem swallowing bellyfuls, as the stage of my early 20s began to fall apart.

That was me in the elevator. Not the man beating his fist at the wall, but the man who went to night school and learned to use software named with corporate conjunctions: Photoshop, InDesign, GoLive. The man with the shakes got off on the 9th floor, and I went on to the 12th. I introduced myself to the receptionist and read a copy of AdWeek on the lobby couch. I stood up, squared my shoulders, and shook Calla's hand. I left the interview and went back to work. It took more than ten years to learn to do that; it takes most people much less time, but for me it was ten years. I have not filled in every space. But every night—tonight, when I finish writing this—I call Catherine, and twice a week we meet, usually at her apartment, sometimes at mine. Sometimes we have sex, usually taking turns until the other person is released. Just as often we're tired, and we put our hands on each other, we drink from the water bottle on the bedstand, she puts in her earplugs, and both sets of eyes close. We're gone for a few hours, swimming in the ether. Then the clock radio turns on, tuned to the news on public radio, a thoughtful, neutral voice telling us what remains.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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