Jo and the Elevator
You need to walk — an hour in, an hour out, some days farther, all the way to where the road runs off the cliff. The newest quarry is an ecstatic mouth. The ancient limestone is more valuable than a pair of oxfords, a sundress, and new music sold on cassette tapes.
The old malls consume the road like a noodle. The gums of forgotten shoe stores and the teeth of wilted greeting cards squeeze down. They become a tiny, kissable mouth. But the hole of the commercial failure balloons like a stubbed toe, monstrous and screaming. Jo ignores all of it.
She needs to talk, and you need to listen. Her boyfriend is flying her plane but he’s a dazed pilot. The blood is in his feet. He doesn’t care enough about that smear of hard green altitude. Jo locks her door at night. Sometimes he knocks and sometimes she can find him crushed against the concrete step in the morning. Sometimes Jo calls when he’s not around.
The merchandise was cleared out long ago, resold to the curators of alley discount dollar stores, but no — but this is a bad place to go. The sort of monster that might think to steal a leather sex toy in a waterlogged foil box has no business trying to sneak past the creature in the fountain.
Bats in darkness course overhead. The fountain yawns in darkness and shattered glass. The globe lights have been plumbed by rocks.
If light got in here, you would see lily pads and a frog.
Do not trust or touch frogs in abandoned pools. If you are Jo, you burn to them like fireflies. If you are you, you will be seconds too late to catch her sleeve. She is a beautiful eel. She will slip away and cut your hand as she goes.
Jo is not a princess in the woods, running from tree stump to shining pool to toadstool ring to dewy patch of sky blue flowers. She is distracted and curious. Some nights your walk together resonates like a complete, sculpted day, from putting on the coffee and returning to bed and your lover — to tipping the wine bottle all the way over and screaming goodnight at the stars. A single constellation has risen out of the forest. Jo walks as if someone is shouting in her ear.
Your legs and hands are already polka dots and ten-cent welts. You have met mosquitos before, but the silent vampires that haunt the lanes under the sycamore outside the entrance to the first mall are a species time forgot. Try to get the poison out of your thumb. Each time you dig, you drive the venom further in. Chewing a hole in the side of your hand does not help. Look up, where you are walking. Leave alone the little nagging land mines under your skin. Jo says something about broken ankles and acorns. Neither is safe to throw at windows. She touches her eye with a fingernail, a little tear there, or dew.
In the next alley, lawyers tag the puke white, ripped fishnet legs of an overpass. You tell Jo you have to move on, but if she needs answers you will wait near the magnolias. You cannot handle the back and forth anymore, and the lawyers’ dead yellow eyes aren’t so much metaphor wolves as coal doubloons.
You continue to dig out the needle in your thumb, but you’ve pushed it so deep your skin is peeling around the puncture like sunburn. Your best bet now is going after it from the other side. You squeeze out a pinhead of sticky blood. There are toxins at work and you’ll need a couple inches of mining equipment to excavate the pit. You haven’t the tools and you are hours from the car. You opt for an open scour. Jo asks if everything’s okay. She stumbles, scratches at a bite above her ankle. Skin and tears build under her fingernail.
By the sounds of the old stores, they are inhabited. Noises burn like coughs, like a troll trying to collect your attention, but if you can keep yourself from believing in him everything will be okay. Each busker gets about thirty feet of sidewalk to explain her life story.
When you don’t walk, you sit on the couch, making tumbleweed eyes at each other while her mom watches reruns. You leave once the programming collapses into news tease, infomercials, and porn for podiatrists. It’s enough to believe in conspiracies. Jo is back from a long road trip — the boy and the bus and the bed and the broken mornings. You can’t ask direct questions. She talks about music and cassette tapes, but a cassette tape is a kite out the window. You know they scream when they are angry, and even if make-up sex is a myth, she’s mythic. Time invested in a mistake is still an investment. She thinks coffee is a dessert, that rose petals are a snack, that pancakes are the saddest part of a rainy morning. She’s eaten more pancakes than you’ve ordered pizza. Dusty bus Jo feasts on cafe sweets and window shops.
This is where the river floods. The manholes are concrete tubeworms ten feet high. Where the iron has popped loose, the pipes drone like a hungry organ, like a musical belly-bladder pulled along by a dreaming current of crickets and sewage. This is the place of pretend stones set just so over the course of days in an attempt to discover natural order. The result is disastrous, an aborted artwork, a proof of gravity, a safari tucked into a zoo the scale of a blind alley of boarded windows where the graffiti and the tattoos go all the way up. This is where the walk enters the first mall. Once upon a time, these places were tiled by infantile excitement. The banner above the door reads, ‘Dating for Beginners.’ The shops on three floors are staggered to favor the date that reads books, the date who likes ice cream, the date who wears shoes. There is always an oddity at the center of the concourse, a giant carousel or a shoebox exhibit, or the local, synchronized tai chi team performing a minute hand waltz.
In a land of goblins and fey amusements, you kiss this Josephine. You hold her hand when she’s confused and doesn’t want to answer the door. Nothing she says will make you think less of her. Every breath will cause you to run away.
These moments make Jo nervous as if there’s not much to say but this all reminds of her of losing her mother’s hand in a holiday crowd, of getting sick atop a grey mare because she tried not to blink for three times ‘round the carousel. She was the only child who did not sit astride a reindeer or riding the glass-oily sleigh.
“I don’t know how to talk about normal things,” she says, but what she means is she can’t decide whether talking about the boy or her mother is mundane to the point of being trite, or routine to the point of being a cop-out.
This is where the coughing man sits. His black, flattened hat breeds coins. Jo wanders towards him as if caught by a song—as if she is light being sucked into shadow. She thinks that maybe she knows him. “He’s old,” you say, and she agrees, but so is her mom.
This is where the girl lies curled under a sheet of newspaper. Jo is pushed to the far side of the road. She explains the headlines are old. These newspapers should have rotted long ago. Mall Opens on Community Need, Developers’ Hearts. The River Grows Up: Floodplain Development Levees Fears. The Architecture of False Hope: Youth in the Suburbs.
This is where the elevator doors open. No one waits, and no one comes out. You have to cry as Jo goes inside, tear on cheek, hand on shoulder. The floors above are empty, an office tower, perhaps once a bank, and are nothing now but a warren of telephone wires, forgotten mail, and overturned chairs. Jo suggests you go up and collect all the lost paperclips. Tell her the elevator hasn’t been inspected in years. Tell her not even the girl under the newspaper has sought shelter here.
The doors begin to close. She jumps out. Your heart skips a beat. She pushes her hair back behind her ears where it stays for a brief second. You both look up at the tower block above. All the lights are out. Many are nailed over in plywood. Others are tarp and tape. Still, others are ragged, screaming holes. “What if I don’t get out?”
“If I never see you again?”
“There’s a button on the inside says, ‘Open Doors.’ It’s like every other button in every other elevator.”
“It says, Open Doors?”
“Like that? Open Doors.”
Jo says it’s more like runes. Everyone knows what they mean. They mean it’s okay. There’s a button you can press.
This is where the deer sticks his head up behind a service counter. He’s an easy target. He never moves. This is where the street lamp divides you both and Jo touches superstitious wood in the shape of a fallen twig she’s carried for a quarter mile.
This is where the road leaves the first mall and winds catastrophically through weeds and parking lot. The road turns to gravel which turns to bark and then dirt again. The lampposts break rhythm. The forest breaks like oceans over the trail. This is where the shrine has been laid, where the flowers pile like lost baggage. This is where the Dodge Charger sits on blocks, burnt out, everything stolen but the plates, which everyone knows are poison.
This is where the walk enters the second mall. This is where the Buddhists are rooted and break the concrete from the inside, making gardens of the gravel, cultivating seedlings on the margins of the old ponds. There are always fish, and the homeless man sitting on the edge will sell you a slice of bread for a dollar. A second dollar and there’s good luck in it. He has hung a small gift shop bell from a lamppost. Fifty cents for a ring and then you can walk ‘round the fountain three times clockwise. This will make half your wishes come true, guaranteed. Jo rings the bell. You walk ‘round quickly as if you’re doing homework before going out to play.
This is where you once saw the blind man waving at a train no one could have seen. The overpass station is boarded up now just as it was then. The bench is empty now, but you close your eyes too. A train is a magic fold in time and space. It is lovers slicing vegetables for a stir-fry when everything is going very, very well. It is two friends sitting in a shuttered cafe waiting for a coffee and a bagel where the kitchen has taken too long. Even the manager has gone on break to sit out on the grass under the moon.
This is where you walk silently with broad, bold shoulders. The shadows are asking for blood and Jo is two eyes looking for the next mile marker. She is fragile, and you are broken. Somewhere nearby a Laundromat is turning a good profit on old machines and river water. The delta of lint-silt vomit from out the doorway pushes the path into a tight oxbow. You hold Jo’s hand so she doesn’t go flying off like a balloon hunted by children.
This is where the mud gets so bad metal plates have been laid in twin tracks for cartwheels, one for each of you. If you want, you can clatter along holding hands and think of the teacher whom everyone said had the metal plate in his head. It is possible facts are best wrought with cruelty, thin as whispers now. You want to ask Jo for more. You want her to say the ugly things.
This is where the tornado of interstate spaghetti twists about the fork of you. Light and noise and yet you are untouched. The faces in the cars are the ghosts of other stories. They do not know the holes they are driving through.
This is where the road leaves the second mall. There is always a fountain. Most of the jets are bent as if kicked by a cement block. They still work like cheap fireworks work. You think — maybe this is where the mad figures come from, the capering of shadows — and the numbers — when the bean counters calculate the water lost to a city’s ancient pipes. Everything’s local post-apocalypse but the universe is still drawing a tithe of ten thousand gallons a minute. In ten years, we will find it on Europa, and goldfish the size of tiger sharks.
This is where you cross the road. Stop signs halt traffic and you wonder if the drivers know where they are—if they ever look deeper into the scrub woods. A child watches you watch him. Two teenagers bobbing in mom’s SUV stare at Jo. You are invisible to them.
“We just drove around,” said Jo. “We watched the license plates change color. We argued and when we opened our eyes the scenery was different. Everything was better with Motel 6 and a water tower. I never knew where we were. Aren knew — sometimes. I think he pretended he didn’t. We’d fight, and someone would take a walk and when he, I, got back from walking — wherever — nowhere, we’d climb back into the bed back in the van. Sometimes we’d grab a motel just for the shower and the broken patio chairs. After a while, we didn’t need the chairs anymore.”
This is where the track has been torn apart. It’s a playground for kids on mountain bikes. There are mountains where the lava has bubbled up and endless pits where adult toys have been sucked back into the throat of the world. The centerline has been bitten off.
This is where the walk enters the third mall. The carpet has been torn away in front of the cinema, leaving basalt and tides of glue. The hole that winds back into the bear den is black as under the bed.
This is where the mall goes on forever and the same five stores repeat like a coda. If you walk slowly enough you can live from one to the next, adapting like a jazz band to the mood of the room: shoes, clothes, shoes, novelties, games, luggage, shoes, chocolates, shoes. You are bound to like something.
You stop and turn around at the same spot each time. If you don’t hold Jo’s hand, she will keep going.
Roger Topp lives within the boreal forest of Interior Alaska in a house he designed and built. He directs museum exhibitions and travels to write and photograph research fieldwork. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA, CircleShow, The Maine Review, Anomaly, and other journals. He would like to thank his friends for keeping him, for the most part, out of the weeds and the darker corners of the old city. He can be found online at thewellandthewicked.com.