“Going Down” by Ezra Fox

16Sep10

The carpet smelled like yeast and when Jo lifted her hands from it, her palms were itchy, pockmarked, with small curly hairs stuck to them. She rested her neck against the back wall of the elevator, her body heat warmed the metal. When she stretched her legs, her pedicured feet hit the polished steel door with her knees still bent. Mac rested his damp forehead above the control panel, a trail of sweat ran between the buttons and collected at a broken one labeled “Help.”

Mac loosened his tie. The elevator had already been stuck for half an hour. Jo held her right foot and massaged around her missing toe. Mac breathed through his mouth and ran his hand over his moist scalp. Short scraps of dark hair stuck to his palm.

One hour ago they were sitting with their lawyers, sniping passive-aggressively at each other while finalizing their divorce. Next they made separate plans with friends to drink, heavily, and ended up taking the same elevator from the 33rd floor of the Chrysler building. Neither wanted to stand within fifty feet of the other, but neither wanted to concede the elevator and wait a few minutes for the next. And that is how, on the 19th and a half floor, Mac and Jo found themselves breathing the same lemon-scented air for the indefinite future.

Possibly connected to the elevator problem, the muzak pumping through the speakers was also faulty. They could hear music, but just one song: “Return I Will to Old Brazil.” As to whether the song had any significance to the former Beckett-Oswalds, the divorced couple would disagree. Jo would say, correctly, that they had never been to Brazil because Mac was cherophobic. Mac would say, also correctly, that on their third date they saw a drive-in screening of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which neither cared for, although it did provide an opportunity for some vigorous necking and a little under-the-shirt-over-the-bra action. As was the case with all their arguments, the truth of the matter lay somewhere in the middle and neither gave “a flying dick about it.”[footnote 1]

Realizing they could be trapped in the elevator for some time, Jo thought it best to make civil conversation.

“Prick,” she said.

“Whore,” said Mac reflexively. The two fell silent again, Jo rubbing around her phantom toe, Mac now holding his cell phone up to the humming lights in hopes of getting a signal. Sinatra moaned on:

Tomorrow was another day.

* * *

Most couples have a hard time pinpointing where their problems began. Not so with the former Beckett-Oswalds.

One spring day two years ago, Mac started balding and Jo lost her toe. As local news coverage surrounding the incident was substantial, there’s no real need to rehash the specifics. However, in broad strokes:

First, at the Czechoslovakian restaurant where Mac worked, there had been two more complaints about hair in the kolackies, and on the same day, possibly not a coincidence, Mr. Petrović told Mac that he would be demoted to sous and that they would be hiring a new executive chef “from outside.” When Mac got home that night he left his knives on the counter. As was her habit, Jo picked up the paring knife and started twirling it through her fingers. Mac told her there was no way they’d have the money for a down payment on the Park Slope brownstone they wanted. Jo, while gesticulating with the knife, shuffled the words “failure” “fucktard” and “jackfest” in a loose approximation of a sentence. Mac then ripped tufts of hair from his shaggy head, flinging them at Jo who swatted them away while accidentally losing her grip on the knife and deboning her right pinkie toe.

“Look what you did, fuckwit!” she cried.

Jo told Mac he’d “assed up enough things already” and she would drive herself to the hospital. While picking up the toe she promptly passed out and Mac drove her. They waited three hours to get the toe reattached, a process both painful and annoying. After four weeks, Mac was halfway bald, and Jo’s reattached toe detached itself, wanting nothing to do with either of them, or existence. The Beckett-Oswalds soon discovered it was entirely beyond their ability to maintain a loving relationship with the person they blamed for the loss of their youth and/or mobility. Two miserable years later brought them to the firm of Puccinelli and Kapp, and to the humid elevator which held them captive.

* * *

After a period of silence where they both clenched their fists and willed the doors to open, Jo offered an olive twig.

“Listen, asshat,” said Jo. “We don’t know how long we’re going to be in here, so let’s just keep our heads down and not say anything and we’ll never have to see each other again.” Mac nodded rapidly. “Great,” she said. “Thanks.” At this point came the fifteen-second pause before the muzak track repeated and Jo and Mac noticed each other’s offensively loud breathing. Jo, suffering from a cold, had a slight nose whistle. Mac exhaled through his mouth, puffing out his cheeks like a sweaty, molting chimpanzee.

“Brazil,” Sinatra sang, “where hearts were entertained in June.”

Over the next ten repetitions of the song, Mac stood up and sat down five times. He closed his eyes, rested his head against the metal doors, and pictured Superman coming to save him, or an assassin coming to kill him: either would do. He checked his cell phone for reception twelve times. He emptied out his wallet and arranged his credit cards, first by credit limit, then by debt. He tapped out S.O.S. in Morse code on the broken Help button.

Meanwhile, Jo compared her toes, determining that since her right foot had bigger first, third, and fourth toes, it was a fair bet that her missing right pinkie had been bigger than her left. She smelled her shoulder, which was a mix of sweat and her vanilla blossom body wash. She took out a long blue pen and spun it around her thumb as she stared through the ceiling at the cable she couldn’t see, willing it to snap.

Had Mac been paying attention to her hands, he might’ve flashed to the first time he saw Jo spinning a pen. Sitting behind her in Hanrahan’s metaphysics class he watched Jo’s right hand dangle under the desk, passing a black ballpoint between three thin fingers.

Instead, the smell of sweaty vanilla overwhelmed him so he cupped his hand over his nose and inhaled slowly.

Had Jo been paying attention to Mac, she might’ve remembered the first time she talked to him. He was breathing into a paper bag outside of their classroom.

“You okay?” she asked, stopping to retie her dirty blonde ponytail.

“Just a little psychogenic hyperventilation syndrome. I’m fine,” he said, talking through the bag.

“That’s good. See, I thought you were having a panic attack because you were nervous about your presentation on soft determinism.” She leaned against the brick wall and adjusted her bag.

“No, I do this when I’m really confident,” he said and the edges of his smile poked out past the bag.

“Whew,” she said, looking him over. He was tan and skinny with panicky green eyes. “If you survive, let me buy you a slice of pie.”

“Pie?”

“Yeah, the banana crème at Doc’s. Okay?”

“Sure. Great.”

“No pressure,” she said, as she shifted her weight off of the wall and into the classroom.

* * *

Assuming the elevator was hermetically sealed, Mac imagined they would soon die of asphyxiation.[footnote 2] He thought it best to distract himself from his gasping death with something only slightly more pleasant.

“Look,” he said, “we’re never going to see each other again, right?”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Jo said, running her pale fingers through her scalp. She frowned, realizing her fingers probably smelled like foot.

“So this is the last time we’ll be able to talk. Ever.”

“Yes,” she said, shrugging to herself and continuing to play with a loose strand.

“Lemme ask you a question,” he said, sitting down as far from her as possible, about 18 inches.

“Mac, c’mon,” she said. “Let’s just sit here and wait.”

“I just want to know one thing.”

“No,” she said.

Mac bit the inside of his cheek. “Fine. Bye.” He sat down against the doors, opposite Jo, and rested his elbows on his knees. She looked at him. Her nose whistled.

“What was it?”

“No, it’s done.”

“Listen, asshole, do you want to get an answer to your stupid question or not?”

“Not.”

“Fine,” she said, clicking the pen twice. He puffed out his cheeks and exhaled, twisting his mouth so his breath cooled the side of his cheek.

“Do you think things would’ve been different if I had kept the job?” he asked, leaning back against the wall.

“What?”

“Two years ago. Would we still be together now?” Jo took out a pack of gum, unwrapped a stick, and placed it in her mouth. She chewed softly for a moment, then offered the pack to Mac who waved it off.

“No,” she finally said. “We would’ve found some other way to hate each other.”

“So it wasn’t my fault?”

“For not keeping the job?” she said.

“Yeah.”

“No, Mac, it wasn’t your fault.” She placed another stick in her mouth and offered the pack again. This time he accepted.

“I really wanted to make you happy,” he said, tearing into the gum. “For awhile.”

“You did,” she said. “For awhile.”

“You would’ve been a good mother,” he said, blowing a bubble and sucking it back.

“I would’ve been shit. Be grateful you never had to deal with me pregnant.”

“You were never that bad,” he said, looking up at her. She had a new freckle just above her collar bone. She snorted lightly.

“Just be happy you got out before I killed you.”

“Nah— you just talk a big game,” he said, grinning. “You’re a goddamn cream puff.”

“Yeah, well,” she said, “I guess we’ll never know.”

* * *

Another moment hardly worth mentioning was when Mac started taking an off-brand Mexican version of Propecia to regrow his hair.[footnote 3]  He had the misfortune of starting when they were thinking of getting pregnant, and unknown to them, side effects included erectile dysfunction and sterility. By the time the drug’s problems came to light in a public class-action lawsuit, Jo had started sleeping with her germophobic co-worker, Thomas, an experience both bizarre and exhilarating.

Next to his plastic-wrapped bed were large bottles of hand-sanitizer and lubricant, and they’d only grope for a few minutes before he reached for one of them. Once Mac had re-lost the little hair he had re-grown, he and Jo were performing all of their sexual activity away from the marriage.[footnote 4]

At the moment when the elevator broke down, the former Beckett-Oswalds discharged the kind of sigh one makes when a very long unsaved Word document has just been erased by tripping over a power cord. The doors of the elevator, while obviously in some disrepair, were finely polished. Since going bald, all mirrors had been terrifying to Mac, as he was recently self-diagnosed as spectrophobic. Jo felt that her ailment, a perceived burning pain in her missing toe, was far more normal.

Mac grabbed his head with both hands. He gnawed on his fleshy bottom lip.

“Jo, I’m going to tell you something that might disturb you.”

“Then don’t tell me,” she said, uncapping her pen and outlining the veins on her thin forearm.

“I think we might be dead.”

“Dead.” She didn’t look up.

“Yes.” He frowned, pacing back and forth the one stride the elevator allowed him. “You don’t believe me.”

“When would we have died?”

“Three hours ago in a huge goddamn elevator crash.”

“And we’re in Hell?”

“Why not? Maintenance would’ve come by now. Our cell phones would’ve worked. Something would’ve happened.”

“Like a Sartre play?” she said, switching the pen to her left hand and shakily drawing in the rest of her veins.

“Makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” she said, pausing. “It kind of does.”[footnote 5]

* * *

Return
I will
To old
Brazil.

* * *

“Do I get a question too?” Jo asked.

“If you want one.”

“Did you love any of them?”

“You love any of yours?”

“You first.” Jo took out her spent wad of gum, stretched it out and stuck it against the reflective doors with the other eight pieces. Now there was a small gum patch on the mirror-like doors that Mac could look at. Jo placed another stick on her outstretched tongue.

“I liked one of them,” he said. The elevator smelled like cinnamon now.

“What was she like?”

“Young. Short. Blonde. Her tits were big but not watery.”

“Aren’t you original.”

“She was a junior at NYU in food services and she interned at the restaurant. Always smelled like Altoids.”

“It didn’t last?”

“Ah, she’s studying in Bangkok. Fell for a Spanish guy building houses. How the hell can you compete with that?”

“Can’t,” she said, offering Mac another stick of gum. He added the old one to the door collection and started fresh.

“Your turn.”

“Yep,” she said while chewing. “One.”

“Was he the reason?”

“Not him, exactly. We’re not together. He was just nice. I liked that we didn’t fight. And there was nothing for me to be disappointed or angry about because I didn’t know him well enough.”

“And the sex?”

“Fine. Consistent. He’s not big, but he tries hard. And your jailbait?”

“She was sweet… and awkward. She’d leave her shirt on if she hadn’t shaved her armpits that day.”

“Just a baby,” Jo said and offered a half smile, shaking her head.

Sinatra sang.

And softly murmured someday soon.

We kissed and clung together.

* * *

One last trivial moment, hardly worth mentioning: years ago, at the end of their third date, Jo drove back to Mac’s dorm in her green Jetta. It was 2:30 a.m. and the Syracuse streets were empty enough for her to drive with the brights on. Mac shifted in his seat, then rested his head on Jo’s shoulder and continued sleeping. His cheek was warm and his stubble locked into her thin cashmere sweater. She parked across from Watson, leaned her head onto Mac’s, and listened to his breathing, waiting for him to wake up.

* * *

“You know, I went back to that dry cleaner we liked,” said Jo.

“On 7th and President?”

“Yeah, Mr. Ballinger.” Mac smiled. They were both sitting against the back corners of the elevator with their feet pressed up against the front wall.

“So I go in there to pick up a jacket—” she continued.

“The pinstripe or the corduroy?”

“Pinstripe. Deedee spilled wine on it at the last potluck.”

“Lush. You can keep all of our shitty friends, y’know.”

“Just try and make me,” she said. “Anyway, I walk in, and he’s not there.”

“Odd.”

“And there’s a woman there instead. And when I asked about him, she says,

‘He had a heart attack. He passed.’”

“No.”

“So I say I’m so sorry and get my jacket and pay. I drop a twenty in the tip jar. And I walk home, this little jacket in its little plastic slip draped across my arms,” she paused. “I haven’t worn it yet.”

“Huh,” he said. “You know we probably saw him over a hundred times?”

“And he’d give away satsumas in December.”

“So weird,” Mac said. “It really happens.”

The music stopped.

He looked at her. Small, blonde, wearing a loose white blouse with the top two buttons undone. With her legs bent, her black pleated skirt rested just above the knee. It was hot enough now that a small bead of sweat ran down her cheek, taking a touch of foundation with it.

She turned her head to look at him. His black suit jacket rested open, revealing a loosened blue tie and wrinkled white shirt. He had three days worth of stubble and his dark hair was cropped close to the scalp around his temples. He had crow’s feet and worry lines. His eyes were still quick and green.

There was still no music. Jo’s nose whistled.

“Listen,” she said but was interrupted by a ding, as the elevator drifted down to the 1st floor. He stood and straightened his tie. She slipped on her heels and raised her hands for Mac to pull her up. They passed each other thin smiles.

“Hey,” he started, but didn’t finish. He raised an open hand to the ceiling and stretched.

“Yeah,” she said. “Same.”

The doors opened.

They did not move at first.

They walked out silently to the street and hailed a cab. Mac opened the door for Jo. “Goodbye, prick,” she said softly. He smiled and nodded. “See you later, whore.”

______________
BACK[footnote 1]
From a fight sixteen-months before the divorce where their infidelities came to light. Jo: “I don’t give a flying dick about what you think happened!”

BACK[footnote 2]
The deaths Mac fears most: frozen, trampled by bulls, guillotined, and alone.

BACK[footnote 3]
Peluquido in low doses, has been known to regrow hair as well as a placebo. In high doses, it has been known to cause impotence, sterility, increased gambling urges, benign but dangerous liver tumors, clay-colored stools, jaundice, Blue Skin Disorder, Shrinking Penis Syndrome, trichotillomania, hypochondria, Human Zombie Disorder, and hair loss.

BACK[footnote 4]
There are conflicting stories as to who actually cheated first. Suffice to say they were both philandering jezebels of impressive proportions.

BACK[footnote 5]
Here is a list of reasons why Jo and Mac probably weren’t trapped in the elevator:
1. The universe was punishing them.
2. They had bad Karma.
3. They secretly wanted a chance to work out their issues and reach a mutual understanding.

Here is a list of reasons why Jo and Mac probably were trapped in the elevator:
1. The elevator was broken.

Also, they might be in Hell.


Ezra Fox is an MFA fiction student at San Francisco State University. He and his friends make fun of the worst books in the world at http://read-weep.com. He is living in Denmark and eating open-faced sandwiches for the rest of 2010. You can read about his adventures at http://ezrafox.com.


To read Ezra Fox’s comments on Terry Sanville’s “The Way Things Happen,” click here.

______________
Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
In “Going Down” we are trapped with what we first think are two rather despicable characters with absolute utter disregard for each other, its only saving grace the snap retorts and easy banter exchanged between the newly divorced couple. Separately they are both a bit quirky, one having lost his hair in chunks from stress, the other obsessively playing with the missing toe she mistakenly severed. Together they are greatly afflicted by the mere presence of each other, but one thing becomes clear: they respect each other enough to sidestep the sympathetic clichés that such situations create. Instead, they stand their ground, saying exactly what’s on their mind until the very end.

______________
Comments on this story by Nancy Werking Poling, author of “Woman with a Snubnose Revolver”
Her best friend warned, “It’s a bi-i-g mistake.” His mother said, “Honey, she’s not the girl for you.” Her parents told each other, “This marriage doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.” Halfway through the first and only marriage counseling session the therapist threw up her hands and said, “It would be unethical for me to take your money.” Though not in print, these concerns have to be part of “Going Down’s” backstory.

The dark humor of this narrative answers the question, “Can this marriage be saved?” Those of us who have watched a lot of movies think, hmm, estranged couple, elevator hanging between the nineteenth and twentieth floors—it’s going to lead to wild sex, maybe even renewed romance. Thank you, Ezra Fox, for keeping both Jo and Mac in character until the end. Some people, when finding themselves in a lemon of a marriage definitely should not try to make lemonade.




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