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The Elevator photo

Nobody likes to ride an elevator. Some are terrified at the prospect—claustrophobics, for example, and the morbidly obese. Only the most peculiar people, though—the criminally insane, the basest of sexual fetishists—truly enjoy it. My intuition is that there is significant overlap between those with an enthusiastic attraction to elevator conveyance, and those who arrange their own kidnappings for sexual excitement. The psychic distance between the erotic longing to ride an elevator and the desire to be stuffed into the trunk of a car is likely inconsiderable.

I hated the elevator as a child, that mobile box of shared smells and clumsy glances. I grew up on the third floor of a shabby apartment building in the Bronx, and I had this in common with the elevator—we were both beasts of burden. Since my father was so often subdued by alcohol, and my mother subdued by being married to my father, I was sent daily on minor errands around the neighborhood, routinely shouldering home packages that collectively outweighed me, an exhausted ant with an enormous potato chip balanced upon his head. I wasn’t a fledgling misanthrope, but I did dread that proximity to strangers that presumptuously mimicked intimacy. The awkwardness of others disturbed me, the graceless uneasiness I thought I saw in everyone, including myself. Not the ungainly distress of basically solitary people reluctantly herded into company, but rather the frustrated lonesomeness of those who lived without fellowship but were surrounded. This is the cruelty of city life: the endless parade of goods out of reach, the mocking pantomime of communion.

Of all the neighbors I shared the elevator with, the one I dreaded the most was a man who lived on the fourth floor in an apartment directly above mine. He was a hulking figure—tall and broad but not at all muscled, his body like thick taffy draped over a coat rack. His face always seemed swollen, a surgical glove filled with gelatin, and his lower lip, this glistening slab of dense meat, protruded over his upper lip, a small dog half-concealed under a massive blanket. His eyes drooped wearily, as if singled out by the forces of gravity—he walked with a surprising sense of purpose if not urgency, but those eyes were always drunk with sloth, laminated by a bovine incomprehension. He was probably in his mid-forties. I never heard him speak, not even a grunt in place of a salutation. I never saw him without a knit wool cap—it was a nauseas pallid green.

I never knew his name, or what he did for a living, if anything. He was never impolite—not once did he acknowledge my presence in the elevator, but one couldn't say he ignored me. Ignoring someone is a willful decision—he did not seem to notice I was there. If there was any indication on his part that he was aware of me, it was how he situated himself in the elevator—I always stood in the back-left corner, a place of anxious vigilance, and he always stood in the front- right, the farthest point away from me. Unfortunately, this meant, given his girth and oblivious immobility, that I had no choice but to brush up against him as I exited the elevator. Every single time, this fleeting contact produced within me a breathless rush of fear, an assault of my own hyperactive nervous system, like an allergic response to some harmless foreign body. But I found his indifference terrifying, so deep it was indistinguishable to me, at least at that age, from malevolence.

Once safely outside the elevator, I would sprint frantically to our front door, this prohibitively massive sheet of metal, my fingers trembling as I fumbled the keys. There were four locks, designed to exhaust the patience of the even the most committed would-be intruder. Once inside, I locked them all in terrified haste. One of them was a security bar—a spear of rusting steel that settled into a catch in the door on one end, and another affixed to the floor, suspended at a 45-degree angle between them. No one has these anymore—people today would rather be robbed than tolerate such a grotesque impertinence. Every time I left the apartment, I had to bypass that bar, and it inspired a diligent watchfulness. The Bronx in the 1980s was a distrustful, violent place—a beehive stripped of order and cooperation. Very few of my neighbors ever left, even for an evening. I do not recall a single name of one of them. Those locks did not prevent burglars from robbing us half a dozen times.

More often than not, when I got to the safe side of the door my father was seated in the kitchen, pillaging a plate of food my mother had prepared for him. He always sat hunched over his plate, like a bear over her cubs, and prepared each forkful with inexplicable care, every bite such a heaping mound of matter it defied architectural sense. It was hard to take our eyes off each precarious lift of grub, ostensibly designed to elicit gasps and congratulatory applause. You did it, Papa! He chewed loudly and laboriously—his whole face was recruited into the action, even his brow quaked. I was always transfixed by the incongruence between the exquisite, even tender delicacy with which each mouthful was prepared, and the lustful violence with which it was annihilated. It was a ballet followed by a massacre. He seemed angry as he ate, but with him I always found it difficult to tell the difference between fury and mortification. My father was a disappointed man, embarrassed by the modesty of his accomplishments, his lack of financial resources, his lack of education, and a home that unmistakably announced poverty, however dignified by its order and cleanliness.

Although I could never discover the full story—I got scraps of information, minor revelations from momentarily indiscreet relations—it seemed that my father’s adult life began in humiliation. I think he had difficulty finding a respectable job in Ireland with only a high school education, and I know that his engagement ended in soap-operatically catastrophic terms. I don't know the details. He tried the seminary for a brief spell—but he had neither a studious mind nor a spiritual calling—he was seeking not a refuge from worldliness but his lack of worldly success. Then, long before his ordination, he met my mother on Orchard Beach in the Bronx—I have no idea why he was there—he was not a traveler and did not have a venturesome spirit. He immediately resolved to move to New York City and marry my mother, leaving Cork a diaspora of one. He regretted these impetuous decisions for the remainder of his days. He was a youthful sports star, a hurling player talented enough to become something of a minor celebrity, and he never quite recovered from that small taste of recognition, that gossamer thread of glory. My father suffered from the worst disfigurement of pride—a prolific abashment that discolored every moment of his life.

Our conversations were not exchanges of information but one-way deliveries of repugnance— my father vomited disgust at all things, a disdain for being itself, and I tried to keep my shirt clean. He communicated only by monologue, angry jeremiads about an upside-down world, the principal evidence of its injustice his unacknowledged worth. The last jagged shard of his shattered sense of self-importance was this organized project of terrorism—he was singled out for sabotage, a worthy target of moral assassination. The world was in league against him, a grand conspiracy from which only he was excluded. This world, he would say, slowly, deliberately, each syllable an indictment, entranced by his own contempt. This world. This fucking world. I could be held captive for as long as an hour at a time, but my fugitive attention would escape within minutes, and creep furtively into placeless reverie. I have only the murkiest remembrance of those sermons, of those lugubrious lectures repeated so often his conviction finally waned, and he delivered them with the rote automatism of an aging rock star performing decades old hits, reduced to a karaoke homage to himself. I do remember his face vividly though—the deep furrows dug by time and jaundiced by smoke, the bleary eyes half filled with water like fishbowls, the quavery, unsure hands, a silvery cotton ball of hair perched atop his head like a docile squirrel.

In most respects my father was a conventional man, and he choose to die conventionally— alcohol was the principal accomplice in his self-destruction. His life was an act of insobriety writ large, his youth a spell of reckless euphoria, his twilight years a collapse of clarity and will. Often, he drank so much he wandered outside the apartment in his sagging underwear in search of a place to piss. My mother—overcome with horror—would frantically run after her errant husband. It was always too late. It is nearly impossible to stop a man with a full bladder and contempt for propriety from urinating. The neighbors must have thought we owned a strange dog that never barked but refused to be house-trained. He pissed in the corner of the dining room, he pissed in the kitchen sink, he pissed in the laundry hamper, a particularly defiant choice since it was placed a foot away from the toilet. One morning I slipped on sneakers so damp, I knew he had struck again. He marked his territory by befouling it, extending his canine kingdom as far as he could.

When he died at the age of 56—he aged 30 years in the last decade of his life—I inherited his car, a poorly maintained Ford Taurus. While driving it home a tire blew, and when I popped the trunk to check if there was a spare, I found, in place of a tire, a cardboard box filled with cheap booze. I drank most of it, some of it right there on the spot while waiting for AAA. Underneath the box I found a single Polaroid picture—it must have been many years old, its colors exsanguinated by time—of a woman roughly his age. She was topless, although nothing else about the picture was erotically suggestive—she wore a beaming, uncomplicated smile, and posed in front of a gleaming red refrigerator adorned by a child’s feral artwork. It was a strangely wholesome shot, or to be more precise, it juxtaposed wholesomeness and salaciousness in a way that gave neither an unambiguous top billing.

I always wanted to learn more about my father—beneath a topsoil of angry chattiness, he was a nebulous man to me. It was rare anyone in the family volunteered any insight into his mutilated character, and I rarely gathered enough courage to ask. I had some opportunities in Ireland to learn more, however fleeting. When I was very young—maybe five years old—I traveled to Ireland; my parents sent me on my own, placed on a plane with a placard around my neck announcing a I was an “unaccompanied minor.” They couldn't afford to come with me. I was a child emissary of our wretched outpost in the New World. I rehearsed my diplomatic talking points—we go out to dinner often, Dad reads all night in his “study,” Mom laughs and laughs without any pharmaceutical assistance. I did in fact do very well in school, and could find peaceful asylum in books—I liked to read while sitting on an old radiator box set in front of a window that overlooked a narrow alley from which one could access the building’s basement.

I stayed with my grandfather in the neighborhood within which my father grew up. It was the neighborhood he called home when he was five. It was certainly poor—everyone seemed vigilantly suspicious but not openly hostile. Everyone knew my grandfather, and he knew everyone. It was astonishingly quiet, and not the menacing species of silence I was accustomed to, the silence of dangerous desolation, the silence that ominously announced a land without witnesses. Noise was considered unneighborly. If men beat their wives, they did so quietly, part of some peculiar but also strangely moving marital pact to avoid burdening others with their domestic turbulences.

My grandfather had a gentle, acquiescent manner—I never saw him excited let alone piqued— but I always had the impression this was less from a meditative calm than a fatigued wrath; he was like a tiger so tranquilized it was incapable of eating crippled prey. He once showed me a box—it looked like an old cigar box—filled with medals my father had won for various athletic accomplishments. There must have been dozens of them. Was my father a great athlete? He was a natural at everything. Was he famous? No, not in the way you mean it. Everyone here knows everyone already. But not everyone won so many medals? That’s true, your father won many more than most. Should I bring them back to the United States for him? You should pick one to keep for yourself. And so I did exactly that, fingered through all of them carefully, and chose one of the bigger ones, a disc of gold-colored metal tinged with red and blue, clearly once brilliant but now dimmed by time in this miniature coffin of forgettable triumphs.

I wish I remembered more of that trip, and those conversations with my grandfather. Of course, I can’t recall the totality of my youth—the inexhaustibility of experience always defeats memory, and as a result the mind recruits the unfaithful, mischievous aid of the imagination. I have forgotten meals and entire trips, and aunts and uncles, and countless hours of conversation. I do believe I have forgotten the whole of the second grade, and I am willing to entertain the possibility it never happened. As an adult, intimate assignations have vanished so thoroughly from my mind I would now indignantly deny them. But we all have memories that remain so minutely vivid that the recollection of them is tantamount to a virtual reenactment, and I find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that these particular memories refuse the erosion of time for a reason, that in some very real sense our lives depends upon them and their interpretation, that our very sense of selfhood is at stake. They feel like signs internally delivered, maybe warnings, like physical pain. All my other memories are but phantoms, the foggy memories of memories, like stories told to us about another’s experience. But there are two that remain so intractably radiant that they refuse the demotion to recollection, and demand to be relived again and again with all the vivacity of their original performance, and their meaning seems to be contained within the livid brilliance they never surrender.

When I was ten years old something happened, an event I never understood, but it would assume a central place in the remembrance of my childhood, even though it resisted every effort at decipherment. In fact, two things happened, two things that may or not be related, but we’ll get to that soon enough. Maybe it’s not ultimately that important, and maybe not as sinister as I intuited as a young boy, and one can make a defensible argument that it is dangerous to promiscuously search for meaning in all things, or to fill in the blanks of our ignorance with hypothesis, precisely because those kinds of hypothesis aren’t hypothesis at all, and are naturally drawn from the most lurid provinces of our minds. We are all personal historians, chroniclers of ourselves, but very bad ones by conventional academic standards.

I’ll try to communicate the event in all its particulars as carefully as I can. I was once woken suddenly to what sounded like the slamming of a heavy door, and hyperventilated gasps for air. I didn't understand what I was hearing—I was yanked from an infinitely deep sleep, the kind so oblivious it provides a foretaste of death. I stood on the threshold of waking consciousness and the blindness of dreamless sleep, and the noises I was hearing were unfamiliar, like the sound of something more animal than human, something startled. Then not startled, but wounded. I heard something that resembled a submissive yelp. I was starting to regain my bearings, inching back into the world uncreated by my mind. Not wounded, maybe exhausted, breathless. There was another set of sounds, something distinct from the first source, coming from a smaller animal. I was sitting up in my bed now, in the dark, the dark so dense it was undifferentiated blackness, like starless space. I was galvanizing all my strength to listen, and to remain utterly silent. I tried to breathe silently. The smaller animal is crying. I was beginning to find some purchase, some clarity. My mother is the smaller animal. I’ve heard her cry before, but not like this, this is something new, a terrified, anguished weeping. I know what I’m listening to now. It took me so long to figure it out because I’m so sleepy, and because these sounds are unexampled in my experience. The larger animal is my father, and he is sobbing. I tried to be very still, and very quiet, and stifle my own gathering tears. I’ve heard my father yell and scream, but not cry, and I’ve certainly never heard anything like this, sobbing so desperate it sounds like choking, like drowning. He sounded like a drowning child. No matter what else I hear, I must not move or make a sound.

Finally, the agonized wailings stopped, and were replaced by muted whispers. I suppose my mother was elevated, in some state of emergency, from her second-class status to the role of confidant. They were trying to figure something out—the exchanges were both desperate and conspiratorial. These were whispered shouts, punctuated by great urgency. They passed by my bedroom stealthily—my father typically stalked the house with heavy feet under which the hardwood floors plaintively groaned—and my mother left the apartment. I had no idea why she might leave the apartment now in the dead of night. She wasn't gone long. Then someone, I believe my father, took a shower, an uncharacteristically long one. They finally, quietly, went to bed.

The next morning my father was taciturnly silent, and avoided meeting my eyes with his own, downcast and self-incriminating. My mother’s were depleted and darkened, but not bruised, as I likely expected, and her embarrassed half-smile was an acknowledgement that something happened I likely heard, but she revealed nothing. That evening, at the dinner table, my father offered me a few dollars to spend after baseball practice the next day, an unprecedented expression of generosity that hit me with all the force of a confession to an unnamed crime. I noticed my father had a bandage on the right side of his face, just beneath his ear. The bandage was blackened by blood. He was so weary it didn't seem plausible such fatigue could be the result of his own exertions—he was carrying a freight that was his, but that was bequeathed to him by someone else. I caught a glimpse of an inheritance I was to take possession of as well, one day, depletion as an heirloom.

I still don't know what happened that night, that night of more than thirty years ago. My father has been dead for years, and my mother is not dead but not entirely alive, her mind disheveled by age, raped by regret. The last time I saw her was years ago, and she did not know me. I wanted to ask her about that evening—maybe the mention of it would deliver her a last burst of lucidity, a quick cameo appearance of her former self. I’m not sure what would come of a clarification of that night—I certainly don’t believe it’s some interpretive key, a cipher to my life’s dismal code. There’s no magical deliverance issued by solving these biographical mysteries, no spiritual manumission from the demands of existence. Even the faithful receive no reprieve from revelation—they endure like the rest of us, however much their hardship comes attached to a consolation. And this once urgent need to impose a solid form on the vaporous miasma of these experiences barely registers as a curiosity now, and lives on within me as an involuntary reflex, as necessary and thoughtless as perspiration. Some questions present themselves unbidden, and follow you to the end.

A week later, I had a peculiar conversation with my father, almost a tender one, as loving as it was awkward, the result of a another uncommon event I return to in my thoughts often, though in this case only as a morbid rehearsal since no riddle remains to be resolved. One evening, I took to my favorite spot, the radiator box in my room, perfect for reading and people watching by turns, both a promontory and a retreat. I was staring listlessly up at the elevated train tracks across the street when I saw a massive shadow race across my visual field, like a duffel bag thrown from a higher window. I was unprepared and momentarily stupefied—I did not immediately react in any way. The paralysis of fear and meditative calm often seem very similar. I was then snatched from my stupor by an explosive sound, something like grinding metal and cracking wood. It did and did not sound like the collision of automobiles. I wanted to look down, but hesitated—my curiosity was chastened by something I took at the time for fear. Finally, I peered out of the window and down into the alley, cautiously as if to avoid detection. It wasn't instantly clear what I was looking at—a formless mess of color and mass, nothing recognizable. Motionless. I keep scrutinizing this indiscriminate pile, mostly for signs of motion, and found none. At first, I thought it might be a bag of garbage that exploded upon impact with the concrete ground. Something about it, though, seemed organic, animal—this was not a dump of inanimate miscellany. I just seemed to know, as if by some sympathetic intuition, that this was a living, or formerly living thing. Then I saw it move, gently, almost imperceptibly, rhythmically, a slight but metronomic undulation. I think this is breathing. There are so many colors, but then I notice one in particular—green. A small patch of pallid green. The knit wool cap that my upstairs neighbor—the wordless man I feared so much on the elevator— permanently donned.

I didn't scrutinize his mangled body for long—he looked like he had been savagely disassembled, and then incompletely reassembled with haste and without skill. A mutilated fetus aborted from a fourth-floor window. I didn't know what to do, and so I did nothing. I sat on my bed, incapacitated by fear, and waited for nothing in particular. I knew I should do something, I should tell someone. I felt the inarticulate press of duty. Then, I heard a terrible scream, a shrill squeal that simultaneously shook me out of my torpor and relieved me of any urgent responsibility. A process was set in motion. I heard some yelling join the scream, and then calmer voices soothing the screamer, and an authoritative voice dispensing instructions.

By the following morning, I knew everything one could know. The speed with which rumors travel, even in a squalid building in an impoverished slum absent of nearly any neighborly communication, is a testament to the human longing for community. I still find gossip, even the most malicious and unseemly, somewhat moving. The man was mentally retarded—people still used those terms back then. He lived with his aging mother his entire life—she had been sick for some time and never left the apartment. I never saw her. When the police entered the apartment, they found her dead on the living room couch—she had likely been dead a week. The apartment itself, besides her rancid corpse, was impressively immaculate. They lived there for at least twenty years, and no one seemed to remember a man ever being in the picture. The red refrigerator, festooned with childish art, was bare, and in the kitchen sink they found an untidy pile of empty Tupperware containers, each marked with dates, and the meal for which it was intended. Lunch, 2/24. He survived until he ran out of food. Dinner, 2/26 was his expiration date.

A few days before he killed himself, I saw him in the elevator for the last time. I would have remembered that encounter even if he had not murdered himself. We instinctively rehearsed the same choreography of all our elevator meets—he guarded the front right corner, and I retreated into the back left. As always, the elevator moved slowly, glacially, with an arthritic reluctance, with an emphysemic wheeze. I tried, as always, to steal a furtive peek at his face, more fearfully than shyly. But this time, for the first and only time, he looked up and met my glance with his own, and held that stare for an imperishable moment, for a splinter of eternity. I remember the blank impassivity of his face, which seemed no different than ever to me, but his eyes, I saw something in his eyes, another face entirely, expressively alarmed. I don't know what I thought then, I was so young, but now, when I think of his face, almost daily, I remember his eyes as pleading, as beseeching, but I have no idea for what.

After the details surrounding the suicide made it to our apartment—my mother heard from the super’s niece, whom she often saw at the Laundromat—my father came to my room in order to discuss it with me. He didn't know that I had seen the body race past my window, or that I heard the inhuman sounds of its collision with the ground, or that I saw it still alive but fast dying. Nonetheless, he came to fulfill some sense of duty for which he was obviously unprepared, that he didn't seem to comprehend. I’m fairly confident, even as he entered my room, that he no idea what he was going to say—he hoped fecklessly that a script would be spontaneously born of instincts he did not possess. As much as I dreaded a conversation with him, I was touched by this recognition that I was a child, and his son, and that entailed obligations, however obscure, one could not lightly shirk. I wasn’t accustomed to paying attention to anything he said, but I watched him intently, and resisted the draw of a drift into daydreams the way an exhausted driver resists a deadly submission to sleep.

He sat nervously on the edge of my bed while I lied on the other side, my head propped up on a pillow. I no longer sat on the radiator box by the window. When he spoke to me, he kept his eyes fixed distantly on the far wall behind me—he never looked at me, not once. It was like he couldn't find me in the room precisely, a blind man estimating his interlocutor’s position. Mom told you what happened? Yes. Are you OK? Yes, I’m fine. He was mentally retarded. Yes, I know. It’s really all for the best. He never would have it made it on his own, you know. This world would have eaten him alive. This world would have eaten him whole. This world, you know.