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by Tim Millas
At first he was just someone to nod at in the elevator. If I saw him coming I’d put my hand on the jamb to keep the door from closing. If he was already in there and I came in holding bags, he’d say, Twenty-two? And press the button before I answered.
For a long time that was all. He lived all the way up on forty, in one of the building’s two penthouses. He seemed taciturn and was obviously much older than me. I was still young enough then, to be able to dismiss other people as old.
Then one morning I got on the elevator at 4:30 a.m., carrying my dog in my arms. I had on the T-shirt I’d slept in, gym shorts, and dirty sneakers. He was there, his own dog in a perfect sit beside him. He was dressed in a white button-down shirt, grey slacks with sharp creases, polished black loafers. His eyes, magnified by black-framed glasses—like Groucho glasses, minus the mustache—got even bigger.
This one whined in my ear till I got up. And now she sees yours get an Uber ride. Giving her ideas!
I explained that Gem was fifteen and prone to pee in the elevator after not going out all night. Easier to carry him than mop it up. He made a scoffing noise and said, Dogs. Kind of how men of my father’s generation would say: Women.
I laughed. Now I liked him.
If you’ve ever lived in a big apartment building, you know what I mean. A face you know, a remark that amuses you and costs you nothing. A perfect companion for fifty-one seconds every few days. No names ever exchanged or expected.
Fifty-one seconds was how long the elevator took to get from my floor to the lobby. I knew this because I timed it once. This was back when my ex-wife was still technically my wife, and we were in the final days of our dirty war. We would say equally vicious things in battle, but only she would keep at it when we entered the elevator, even if other people were in there. Waiting in that space for the next horrible thing to come out of her mouth—the only way I could cope was to count down from fifty-one.
Minus my wife, the ride was short. Too short for much talking beyond one-liners or haikus.
Not that there were many people I wanted to talk to, or who wanted to talk to me. The ones under thirty would give me that weird look, of confusion becoming distaste, as if suddenly realizing I was an imposter, no longer one of them. Sometimes I’d dog-talk with other dog people—breed traits, health updates. There was a decent-looking married woman around my age (thirty-eight) with an Asperger’s brat in tow; the kid would pepper me with rude questions—you look fat, how much do you weigh?—and I answered him patiently, rarely speaking to her, my eyes doing the flirting, which she could reciprocate without admitting it. And there was an ancient German widow, who complained to me as she did to everyone that the building wasn’t what it used to be, the lobby ugly and the elevators cramped after the latest remodeling.
She was right about the elevator. The remodeling (done by the designer brother of the wife of the owner) had lowered the ceiling, dimmed the lights, and added a railing that jutted from the back wall, making the space feel crowded whenever there was more than one person in it. Add a couple of dogs or kids and you felt like someone’s hand was on your throat.
Murphy suck your gut in, he would say when I came in with Gem. I laughed. Meanwhile Gem stuck his nose into Murphy’s ass, then shoved it against his hand. Sorry, I said—he doesn’t get the concept of personal space.
He grunted. He didn’t pet Gem but didn’t move his hand away either.
Fight fuck or be friends. No bullshit, he added, as the elevator door opened to the lobby, and he jerked his chin to indicate that we should leave first.
Gruff is an old-fashioned word, but gruff he was, again reminding me of my father and his friends. Often he didn’t speak at all. Or what he said seemed cryptic. He made me laugh, but not knowing what he’d say, or what it meant, was intimidating.
He looked to be late sixties. What hair he had left wandered across a head that seemed to bulge at the temples. Behind the glasses, his face was homely, his skin pale yet coarsely speckled, as if he’d started avoiding direct sunlight after the damage was already done. His clothes were always pressed, immaculate, and perfectly fitting, except for his belt, which was buckled too loose and sagged under his gut.
He wasn’t handsome and he was balding and he had a gut. But his bearing—that made all of it irrelevant. He carried himself like he’d been there and done that and come out with his dignity intact. Maybe that’s what intimidated me.
Another time I entered to find him wearing a tux. An older style tux; he wore it well, but still, on him with his Groucho glasses, it looked funny. I said: Looking dapper!
Advanced reconnaissance. Make sure the royal livery is prepared to receive the queen. (His wife, I assumed.) Wedding, he added.
I hate weddings, I said. Even when they’re not mine.
It’s like everything. Put in a few hours and you’re free to go. What I tell my son. He still thinks he’s exempt. Even his own goddamn wedding day.
Oh! I said, embarrassed. Well—congratulations.
Headshake. Eyeroll that sent a tremor through his shaggy brow. The door rumbled open to the lobby. What about you? That girl I see you with?
I was so startled that I didn’t follow him out of the elevator. And when the married woman and her crazy kid piled in, I was too distracted to hear what the kid was jabbering at me or to eye-flirt with mom.
This was a weird time for me, I’d already failed in one marriage. And the past year I’d been seeing someone who lived two floors up in the north wing of the building. Becka was divorced too. She worked in TV production and traveled a lot. A bright, easygoing person. Four years younger than me but with prematurely silver hair that looked hip because she wore it jagged. She seemed a bit downtown for this building and was only in it because her ex-husband had been some Wall Street player. He always called me his freak, and then I found out he was a bigger freak than I could ever be. She said this almost with affection. He transferred the lease to her as part of their divorce settlement.
We fucked, ate meals together, went to movies, took occasional trips, and presented as a couple at weddings and funerals. But the relationship never seemed to progress beyond that. Each of us still kept our clothes and toothbrushes in our own apartments.
I couldn’t tell if this was because we both knew we weren’t madly in love, or were simply scared to fail again. We could talk endlessly about books and movies and politics, but never discussed marriage.
(How the hell, I wondered, did he even know about her? I usually picked her up at her place and we’d use her wing’s elevator. I couldn’t remember us encountering him.)
Then there was my job. I’d gone to medical school but by the end of it I knew I could never be a doctor. My grades were fine, but the idea of ever making a mistake that might kill or harm someone was like another hand on my throat. But I had to make a living. So I got into writing for companies that specialized in medical education. I was good at it and I hated it. I wrote about new drugs, new cures, advances in medical knowledge and treatment, and all I saw was the inevitability of illness and death.
Still, I couldn’t make myself do something else. I sometimes jotted verses, almost-poems in Moleskine notebooks. But I never tried to do anything with them, never even showed them to anyone. I was stuck. That was me. Slipping into things by chance and getting stuck in them.
He and I, with our dogs, entered the elevator in the lobby, and at the last second the German widow appeared. Late eighties, shrunken, no muscle or fat left, you could almost hear her bones scraping as she hobbled in. Carrying, or rather dragging, her ever-present string bag, her ball and chain.
Lemme get that, dear. He grabbed at the bag, but she yanked it back with surprising force.
Marlboro, she scoffed, and then took in Murphy, sitting next to him, and Gem, in my arms because he was barely walking these days.
Too many dogs in this building! Complaining seemed to revitalize her, brightening the faded blue of her eyes.
She thinks there’s too many people in this building. Right Murph?
She scoffed again, but in spite of herself glanced down at Murphy who stared back up with eyes as blue as hers. She said something, to Murphy, in German.
What was that? I said after she got out at seven.
The Survivor, he said, and at my blank look added: Ravensbrück. So I think she can survive a crowded elevator.
Like Marlboro Man. Cause I hold her bag for her. Don’t ask me. Then he jerked his chin at Gem. Doing that dog no favors by carrying it. Dog that can’t walk is finished.
Stunned, I got off at my floor without a word.
Gem died. He’d been getting weaker and sicker for a long time, and while I was debating whether to have him put down, he died in his sleep. I found him in a corner, still and cold. I had him cremated and received the ashes in a metal box, which I kept on the side table by my bed.
Next time I encountered them in the elevator, Murphy looked at me, looked at my feet, sniffed, and then looked up at me again. I had to turn away to contain myself. Sorry ‘bout your pup. So when’s the replacement?
I’m in mourning, I said, which sounded silly, and made me angry. I leaned into his face, close enough to see that one eye had a darker pouch under it than the other. You don’t replace someone you love.
He didn’t flinch or blink. When Murph goes we replace her and when I go my wife replaces me. We all gotta keep going.
I made a disgusted sound and turned away. And heard him add: Moping won’t help. What’ll help is getting a new one.
I walked out without looking at him. The next few times I entered the building and saw him by the elevator, I pretended to go check my mail, waiting till I heard the door open and close.
Still, he was right. A few days later I went to the closest shelter and got a lab-pit mix. His face was still as sculpture. He was going to get big but I didn’t care, I was through carrying dogs. I named him Mike.
Next time we met in the elevator he gave me the usual grunt. He knew I was mad at him, but he was one of those guys who doesn’t apologize. Instead, at the sight of Mike he said, Beautiful. And added to Mike, Hey you know you’re one lucky pup, with your new daddy. Which was the closest to sorry I could expect.
Mike was a godsend, but he also shook things up. Looked like sculpture until there was a noise in the hall and then his bark made the whole building quake. Needed constant exercise, ate like a horse, and every week looked twice as big as the week before. I started thinking I needed a bigger apartment, which meant a bigger rent, and a bigger salary to pay for it, and that got me going in mental circles about my work again.
Meanwhile Becka—though Mike loved her—seemed shocked that I hadn’t involved her in adopting a new dog. I thought we would do this together, she said. Which was the closest she’d ever come to saying we were together. This took me by surprise; and for an embarrassing moment I didn’t say anything. She sighed and started to walk out, even though we’d reserved movie tickets. I stammered after her: I’m sorry. Without turning around, she said: You’re an idiot. She sounded more sad than angry and didn’t slam the door. Just the click of it made me wince with shame.
I called her later that night, but the conversation was awkward and we hung up without really making peace. Then we didn’t talk at all for a while. It occurred to me that the bigger apartment could be managed financially if we shared it. There were nice three-bedrooms in the building. But was that a way to make a commitment? Be my roommate to afford a bigger apartment? That wouldn’t make her less mad at me. And was I just dodging the job question? Meanwhile, I’d gotten complaints about Mike’s barking. So now I was paying for a trainer too, and thinking if that didn’t solve the problem I might have to move out altogether.
Most writing jobs I could do from home, but one agency wanted me on site. The fee for the project was so big I agreed. It was in midtown, and I could run home at lunchtime to feed Mike, but I had to engage the trainer to exercise him in the afternoons. Although he now barked less, Mike started chewing furniture when alone and had to be confined to the kitchen. Given his size, I hated myself for doing this to him. Which made me hate the work I was doing even more.
In this frame of mind, I encountered him again. I was leaving for the agency earlier than usual, around seven, and there he was. I looked down, no Murphy, and on his feet were sneakers, instead of his usual black loafers.
Off to work, good. His lips didn’t smile, but his brows almost did.
Work. Work makes the man. What you do?
Clinical papers. Review articles. Disease monographs. Brochures. Mostly to help promote the latest drug a pharma company’s pushing. Hack writing.
Good, he said again, but then his eyes narrowed, like a delayed reaction to my last two words.
No. Not good. I hate it. Pays well, but I’ve hated every minute of it.
The door opened. We were in the basement, not the lobby. That explained the sneakers. There was a gym down there.
Forgot to hit your button. He stepped out. Too busy bragging about how much you hate your work.
I wasn’t bragging. As the door was starting to close I slid out after him. And who are you to take that tone with me.
What, you want me to respect you because you don’t respect how you make your living? You don’t like what you do, learn to like it. Or quit it.
That was the perfect point for him to enter the gym and leave the door swinging in my face. Instead he stood there, eye to eye with me. Not demanding an answer but not afraid of one either. So I turned my back on him, punched the elevator button. In the endless minute it took for the door to open, I could feel him there, as if our conversation wasn’t over.
Done with you. I shouted the words—in my head. Would I say them the next time I saw him? Well, I didn’t see him. He disappeared.
In big apartment buildings, people appear and disappear. You ride the elevator with someone day after day, for years, and then one day they’re gone. I didn’t even notice at first.
What I noticed was Murphy—I was staring at my shoes, thinking about my latest shitty day at the office, and suddenly those blue eyes were staring back up at me. I followed the lead back to the hand holding it, not the hairy knuckles of him, but the sleek fingers and sharp painted nails of her: his wife, and opposite, as pretty as he was homely, so thin that she seemed taller than him, dressed to kill, expertly made up, and smelling like a perfume counter.
Her hair, unlike many women of a certain age, was not hard blonde or weird red but a subtler color, honey maybe.
I’d seen her a few times in the lobby, with him, an incongruous pair. We’d exchanged greetings (his mostly an eyeroll), but when I did so now her smile showed no recognition. Say hello to—and then I remembered I didn’t even know what to call him. Instead I said, Where’s Murphy’s regular walker?
Oh, Dan? Taking a little break—in an absurdly deep voice, as if she was mimicking him. That’s my talking point, she added, arching a carefully sculpted brow.
I learned from the doormen (who will tell you anything, if you insist you don’t want to invade the person’s privacy) that Mister Raskind had some kind of brain surgery. So that was his name: Dan Raskind.
Then he was back. He was using a walker. He’d lost weight, his clothes were too big now, his pants sagging lower. Even with the walker he could barely move forward. It was pitiful. Maybe because of this, even as I held the elevator door for him, I snapped: Hurry it up! He laughed. And I realized that I’d accidentally struck the right tone, that he preferred this to sympathy.
He bumped the walker against the doorjamb: Want this shoved up your ass? No thanks, I said. Been a while. He flapped a hand, almost losing his balance, and then in his brusque way told me.
Too much water in the brain. Not too much brains mind you. Cracked my head open to drain it. Now I got a plate. Adjustable plate, says my doctor.
I looked at his head. Stitches that I’d mistaken for hairs, just above his bulging left temple. For how long?
Forever. He chuckled. Kid in my grade school had a big head. We called him watermelon. Now I’m that kid.
When I next saw him—on the pavement outside the lobby entrance—he had switched to a cane. Too soon, as with each step he looked about to tip over. I was already in the elevator and I pressed the CLOSE button to avoid him.
But it was inevitable that we’d share space again. There came a morning—a bad one, I was late for a copy review meeting—when the elevator went up instead of down, all the way to forty, and there he was with Murphy, cane in one hand, Murphy’s lead in the other. He looked down as he inched in. He didn’t acknowledge me.
Come on, slowpoke, I said, trying for the tone that had previously made him laugh, get a move on. But this time, there was something meaner in my voice. Man that can’t walk is finished, right?
Next thing I knew his cane struck my chest. But raising it off the floor to hit me upset his balance, and when he staggered, twisting his hips violently to avoid stepping on Murphy, his pants fell down.
Oh my god! he said—his growl suddenly a squeak.
Instinctively I had lunged and grabbed his sleeve, which saved him from falling, but not the pants. These were now in a bunch around his ankles. Exposing black socks that clung to his calves and immaculate white briefs. His legs were withered yet his ass looked plump as a baby’s.
Then I realized Raskind wasn’t wearing briefs. He was wearing a diaper.
Leggo—I got it. Pulling his sleeve free of me and tipping backward and into the elevator wall with a thud; to my relief his shoulder took the brunt, not his fragile head. Stay back, his voice deeper but still frantic, I got it, goddammit, the fingers of his free hand shakily grasping for his pants, but not reaching them.
Meanwhile the elevator was dropping. We’d reach the first floor in another few seconds. So I reached out and hit the STOP button. And with a shudder, we stopped.
This startled him; he almost lost his balance but somehow remained against the wall. He looked at me. I look Murphy’s lead from him and shrugged as if to say: Take your time.
He slowly bent his knees until he was able to reach the pants. Inch by inch, he managed to pull them back up, and to tighten the belt so they stayed up. I retrieved his cane and handed it back to him along with Murphy’s lead. Murphy, bless her, had remained still through the whole thing.
The crisis was over. But he seemed more frightened, not less.
Please, he said—please don’t tell my wife.
Promise me you won’t tell anybody.
You got it, Dad.
I meant to say Dan. And then felt no need to correct the mistake. I pulled out the STOP button and with a half-grin shrugged again.
Raskind stared at me as we dropped, his eyes and brows for once absolutely still.
The elevator opened to our concerned doorman. We’re OK, Raskind said. My cane bumped some button here. Then with Murphy he walked on, slowly, in a straight line through the lobby.
Unstopping the elevator seemed to unstick me. I picked up the phone and called Becka, who told me she was on her way out the door and hung up. Then I left a long message saying I loved her and we should move in together. After several days, she called me back.
We got married, she got pregnant, we got the three bedroom, and with Mike’s help we raised a great girl. Mike is gone now and the girl in college. Becka and I keep going.
And Dan Raskind? We never really spoke again. Maybe he was still embarrassed. Maybe he hobbled to the north side elevator banks to avoid me. I’d catch sight of him—at the opposite end of the lobby, or on the street walking Murphy—but never in the elevator or anywhere we might exchange more than a nod or an eyeroll.
Then he disappeared again, and this time his wife too. I knew he was gone for good the day I encountered the German lady, the Survivor, dragging her string bag. She looked at me, and at Mike, and I braced for another complaint.
Ja, she said, as if in response to something I had said, no more Marlboro.