Years ago I came into some money, and the first thing I bought was a building with an elevator. Actually no, it was second—after the white silk pajamas with navy blue piping. I got my money’s worth on those: they are the pajamas I go sailing in, the pajamas I wear to work. I can’t tell you where the building is, or what business I have running there, as a front. It is named for a literary character, and I try to please him with every aesthetic decision. Talk of movies is banned inside the building, for instance. And all the doors open with roller skate keys.
The elevator is often stuck, so I made the stairs nice. They are wide and well-lit, snaked with a railing made of pink ivory, which feels so good that at the very top and bottom some people move their bodies forward, just momentarily, without yet taking their hands off the wood. Beneath the railing are little holes through which music can be piped, very faintly, so that people think they’re hearing the song in their head. Good things happen between people on that staircase, though the stairs aren’t my business. Once you make something your focus, it happens everywhere around you.
Every morning I get down to work in my silk pajamas, reading an elbow-high stack of letters from people who want to ride in my elevator. Because this is my enterprise: I run an elevator that gets stuck. It gets stuck for anywhere from one to five hours, depending on how much you want to pay. And I orchestrate who gets stuck in it. It may seem like an insurmountable task, but I have a jet and two limousines. I have lots of plausible and very formal decoys for summoning people, perfected over the years. Most people, even the happiest and busiest ones, want to be summoned. They know it’s how the greatest adventures and sagas begin: with a mysterious summoning.
I won’t bore you too much with the procedure, once the sought party arrives in my building. But basically it goes like this: A person steps into an empty elevator, believing herself headed for a very important meeting on the fifth floor. On the third floor, someone that she might know or hate or love or lost steps into the elevator. The doors slide shut. The elevator starts to move up, buckles, and comes to a halt between floors. The lighting in the elevator dims to the level of candlelight.
About the letters—they are rather like tear-stained applications. People over fifty years old and some criminals occasionally request getting into the elevator to apologize, to explain. But for the most part everyone wants to ask. They want to ask a lover or a parent or a friend: Why didn’t you want to be with me? The sheer numbers of these letters has allowed me to deduce, with some assurance, that feeling guilty is easier to live with—it needles one less painfully—than being rejected. I do get exhausted by the abandonment cries—at these times the letters expressing unfulfilled lust are more refreshing, and I’m likely to grant a request that says simply, This person made me laugh, and I need to laugh again. Because really, who can gauge the strength of a connection, or the damage of a broken connection, by the words someone writes about it? I worry sometimes that the people I select are just better writers, with cool handwriting. The people who really need to be inside a broken elevator with someone would probably write poorly. They would not be able to write about it at all.
Regulations are quite strict, in terms of furnishing an elevator. But a single chair is allowed, in a rule dating back to when lift attendants had long shifts. In this case it’s green velvet, and closer to a love-seat. The elevator interior is painted butter yellow with cream trim, and one wall is mirrored from floor to ceiling. This allows a person to finally see himself beside the person he stands with in dreams, in memories. The flocks of birds wallpapered to the ceiling are so faint I’m not sure anyone notices them. No murders have happened in the elevator, though one far corner of the hardwood floor was gashed by fingernails or teeth. No babies have been born in the elevator, though three separate women have written to tell me their babies were conceived in it.
I sit in the empty elevator sometimes, riding between floors, and it’s quite peaceful. I think about how humans are bad at talking. They are bad at saying what they feel. They blame their scars, they blame their upbringings. They say this much, but they still can’t talk. I run—I break—an elevator to give them another chance. To say what they need to; to ask the questions they couldn’t. And I always hope the other person—the summoned one—will be able to talk too. It doesn’t always work, of course. I see this, because it’s my job to apologize profusely for the unprecedented and totally unexpected mechanical malfunction! as the elevator doors open. I wear a jacket embroidered with the name of my cover-business, and as the broken elevator descends I worry clouds of fingerprints into its brass buttons. Sometimes people fly out, not looking at each other. I see in the client’s face that the dream of closure, or true love, or just acceptance—whatever it was she wanted—has been shattered. In my elevator. And I can only hope—sometimes I even put my hand on the despairing person’s shoulder and insist—that peace, or something better, will move in to fill that big spot where the dream was.
But oh, my private enterprise—it too was once only a dream—pays me wildly. And I’m not talking about money. It pays with so many good stories, which I can’t tell here. It’s in the client contract that I have to disguise them as fiction. But it also pays with moments of success. Like the moment when two people who haven’t spoken in decades walk out of the elevator hand-in-hand, wearing each other’s shirts. Like the moment the doors open on a woman holding the baby—now a grown woman—she’d given up for adoption. Or like that moment when, after three hours stuck, the elevator doors open with a ding…and the people inside it don’t even look out. Even this morning, there was a moment when two long lost lovers, just released, were almost to the door, about to separate into the busy street. But then one rushed up to take hold of the other’s arm–he wrapped it really, with his arms, like it was a vine he wanted to swing. Wait, he said, We forgot to go up! And I know–because I stood by, watching the numbers flash in quick succession–that this time the elevator ran smoothly, all the way to the top.