by James Beattie Morison
© 2011 James Beattie Morison
A woman whose life has just been turned upside down tries to run away from her problems. When she has a chance meeting with a man on an elevator, she is drawn into a conversation by the empathy he shows toward her.
This story is part of a larger project I call Conversational Stories.
The elevator doors slid open and the woman stepped in. As she backed into a corner and grasped the hand holds her eyes scanned around the dark fake wood panels. She wore a functional business suit and practical shoes. She gazed out through the elevator doors. She pressed her lips together, which brought out fine lines on her face.
The elevator doors closed and she was alone.
She closed her eyes and her body gave a slight shake. She paused and took a long deep breath. Then another. A lone tear slowly trickled down her cheek. She bend her head against the wall and put her hand to her eyes. She gasped and tried to take another deep breath. It only brought on a sob. Once it escaped from her, many more followed. Her shoulders shook.
The elevator bell rang. The woman opened her eyes and took a step forward. She glanced up at the floor indicator. She stopped and then retreated back into the corner. As she watched the floor indicator, she opened up her bag and rummaged through it. She found a tissue and dried her eyes. She took some deep breaths and murmured gently to herself.
The doors slid open and a man walked in. He was thin, almost scrawny, with loose fitting clothes. He wore a dark watch cap on his head. A few wisps of light colored hair poked out from underneath. His face was pale. The woman shifted around to face the wall. She studied her hand.
The man leaned up against the far wall of the elevator. The door closed and the elevator began to move again. The man watched the floor indicator. The woman didn’t move. A small tear formed in her eye and she quickly dabbed it away with her tissue. As her hand moved up, the man glanced in her direction.
“Please excuse me.” His voice was quiet and gentle. “May I ask if you are OK?”
The woman’s body went stiff. She turned her head to study a button on his jacket. “Oh I’m fine.” She paused to clear her throat. “I got a little dust or something in my eye.” She took a breath. “It’s just an allergy.”
“Good.” The man continued to look at her face. When she glanced at him, he turned to watch the floor indicator.
The elevator bell rang. When the doors slid open, the man reached out and held them back. He looked at the woman with a gentle smile on his face. She forced herself to smile at him as she left the elevator. The man followed her and let the doors close behind him.
The lobby was deserted. The woman hesitated for a moment, turned left and walked away. The man started to turn to the right and then stopped. He looked back toward the woman.
“Are you sure you’re OK?”
The woman stopped. As she glanced back at the man, she said, “I’m fine. Don’t worry.”
The man smiled, but didn’t move. The woman watched him. The man adjusted his watch cap, and smiled. She smiled back.
“Glad to hear that.”
She opened her mouth, but said nothing. She clenched a fist. “Good.” They continued to look at each other. Her voice quavered slightly as she asked, “Are you OK?”
The man took a half step in her direction. He sighed, “It’s been a long day for me.”
The woman replied, “You and me both.” She indicated the elevators with a tilt of her head. “Do you work here?”
“No. I had an appointment.” He reached up to push a few strands of hair out of his eyes.
The woman said, “I don’t want to keep you then.” She took a step backward.
He shrugged. “I’m finished for the day.”
“That must be nice.”
“It has it’s benefits.”
“I should get going.” She took another step toward the man. “Do you need a ride?”
“I don’t have far to go.” He shifted his feet and stepped closer to the wall. “Need exercise.” He patted the flat of his belly.
She came a little closer. “Do you enjoy walking?”
“When I can.”
Now that she was closer she studied his face. She could see that he was pale, almost pasty. He watched her closely. She appeared healthy, but the droop of her eyes made her look sad. A tinge of red colored her eyes.
He said, “I like to walk. Never seem to have the time.” He paused. “I’m not keeping you am I?”
She shook her head. “No.” she paused to take a deep breath. “I have things to do, but they can wait.” When he frowned she added, “There’s always tomorrow.”
“Most of the time.” The man moved over to the wall and leaned on it.
“I guess you’re right.” She sighed. “We can’t live forever.”
The man frowned and his shoulders sagged.
“You look tired.” Tones of concern crept into her voice.
“I feel tired.” He peered down the hall. “I think I’ll have a seat over there.” He started to walk down the hall. “A few minutes rest and I’ll be ready to take on the world.”
The man shifted in his seat and checked his watch.
The woman asked, “Where do you work?”
The man shook his head. “I don’t work anymore.”
“Must be nice.”
“I suppose so.” He looked up at the woman. “You work here?”
“I guess so.” After a brief pause she went on. “No, I guess I don’t.” She shrugged. “I’m kind of in transition.”
The man nodded. “Me too.” He glanced at his watch. “Read any good books lately?”
“Read?” She paused. “I like to read.” She sighed. “Haven’t had much time.”
“What do you read?”
“All sorts of books.” She tilted her head to the side and glanced at the man. “Have you ever read The Blinking Owl?”
“The Blinking Owl?” He shook his head. “No.” He quickly added, “I did see the movie.”
“I suppose it wasn’t too different.”
The man shrugged.
“It reminds me of a problem . . .” She hesitated. “A problem a friend of mine has.” She took a deep breath. “You know how Gloria reacted when Edward walked away?”
The man nodded.
After a short pause, she went on. “How can people behave that way?” She stood up and walked over to a potted plant. As she studied the plant, she said, “Why couldn’t I see it coming?” She walked back to her seat, her lips pressed closely together. She stopped, closed her eyes and asked, “How can she stand it?”
The man nodded slowly as she talked. He winced briefly as he shifted in his seat.
“I guess you think I’m silly.”
“Sympathy for a friend isn’t silly.”
“Thanks.” She sat down. She stared at the floor for a moment. “Breaking your word is the worst thing a person can do.” She brought her head up. “You agree?”
She frowned. “I don’t feel very charitable.” Her voice was almost a growl. “I’d like to see him drop dead.”
“Dead?” The ends of the man’s mouth drooped. His eyes glistened. He moved his head to gaze out the window. In the distance was a small park with a slide, some swings and a couple of other bits of equipment. Four or five young children ran about from swing to slide and back. One small boy tripped and went head first into the gravel. A young woman rushed over to pick him up. She held the little boy closely and patted his back as he bawled his eyes out. Then suddenly, he stopped, broke free and ran over to the swings.
“Don’t you agree?”
“Agree?” The man swung around. The woman was bent forward a little and her eyebrows were raised. He said, “Oh sorry, my mind drifted there.”
The woman’s eyes glazed over. She let her mouth open slightly and then tilted back on the couch.
He asked, “What did you say?”
“I guess it wasn’t that important.”
The man watched her quietly. He glanced around the room. He swallowed, opened his mouth, closed it and then swallowed. Finally he said. “Sorry.”
The woman smiled.
The man checked his watch. “I need to get to the drug store before it closes.”
“Is it far?” The woman said. “Can I give you a ride?”
The man relaxed. “Thank you, no.” He pointed across the street. “It’s just over there.”
The woman stood up and watched as the man struggled to his feet. She started to hold out her hand, but then pulled it back.
The man scanned the drug store. A couple of people wandered the aisles. He looked back to the pharmacist. The pharmacist sat at a computer in the back room. The man rested against the counter. He could see the bell, but made no move to ring it. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then slowly let it out. He checked his watch. The pharmacist was still on the computer. The man contemplated the chairs in the waiting area.
The pharmacist stopped his work briefly and glanced toward the counter. “Oh sorry.” He jumped up and dashed to the counter. “I didn’t see you.”
“That’s OK.” The man smiled.
“You look well today.” The pharmacist beamed. “It’s been a while.”
“Thanks. You look good too.” The man asked, “How’s the baby?”
“Ah, she and her mother are both happy as could be.” The pharmacist puffed up his chest. “She’s only a couple months old and the brightest little woman I ever met.” He pulled out some pictures to show the man. “This is from her one month birthday party.” He gazed at the picture. “She’s so beautiful, isn’t she.”
“I can see her father is proud.”
The pharmacist’s faced reddened slightly. “I guess I went a little overboard didn’t I.”
“Can’t blame you.” The man laughed.
“What can I do for you?”
The man pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and handed it to the pharmacist. The pharmacist read it over, then said, “Right.” The pharmacist continued to look down. His smile faded. “OK.” He took a deep breath. “So.”
The man was quiet.
The pharmacist moved toward the back room. “This will take a little while.” He paused at the door. “I hope you understand.”
“Yes. I do.”
The man sat down on one of the chairs. His body sagged and he closed his eyes. He leaned back and began to breathe slowly. His face was limp and sagged into a frown. For a moment he seemed to be asleep, but then his eyes flickered open. He stared distractedly at the ceiling. After a short rest, he shifted forward and studied his shoes. He took another deep breath and slowly let it escape. His hand reached up and rubbed his eyes. He sat still and waited.
The man raised his head and saw the woman in front of him.
The woman asked, “Mind if I join you?” She indicated the empty chair next to him.
“Yes, please do.” The man grinned broadly and he sat up in his chair. “I thought you went home.”
The woman shrugged. “I had to get something.”
The man nodded.
They both sat quietly. The woman shifted around in her chair. She watched the man. When he turned in her direction, she smiled then looked away. The man moved his gaze to the floor.
She said, “The druggist seemed to know you.”
“Know me?” The man shrugged. “I guess so. I’ve been here quite a bit over the years.” He glanced at the counter. “You do get to know someone like that after a while.”
“Do you trust him?”
“Trust?” He rubbed his chin with his hand. “I hadn’t really thought about it.” He shrugged. “I suppose I do.” The man paused. “He knows some secrets about me.” After a little further thought he added, “I don’t really know him.”
“Yet you trust him?”
“He is a professional.” He said, “They are bound to confidentiality. Aren’t they?”
“So they say.”
The man asked, “Don’t you think I should trust him?”
“I wouldn’t say that.” She shifted her gaze away from the man. “I don’t know him.” Her eyes wandered around the drug store. “Oh, they have a post office here.”
“They never seem very busy.”
“I guess people use e-mail now.”
He replied, “It’s hard to e-mail a package.”
“True. I have most of my bills on automatic transfer.”
“I should do that. I keep putting it off.” He went on. “I’ll have to do it soon.”
“It’ll make life easier.”
The man lay back in his chair and interlaced his hands over his belly. “The world has changed a lot.” He noticed his reflection in a display case mirror. “I’ve changed too.”
“We all grow old.”
“Not everyone – some are young forever.”
The woman said, “I wish.”
They sat there quietly. Then the woman stood up and walked over toward a row of shelves. The man frowned as he watched her go. The woman stopped at a display of chocolates. After a quick search, she picked up a box and studied the cover. She turned back to face the man and said, “This brings back some happy memories.” She took a few steps back toward the chairs. “I haven’t seen them for years.” She sat down, with the box of chocolates still in her hand. “I wonder if I should buy some.”
“Yes. That’s what it is.” She got up. “I don’t need to get fat.” She went back and put the box back on the display.
After she sat down she looked the man directly in the eyes. “Mind if I ask you a question?”
“Go ahead. Questions are free. Answers may be subject to a fee.”
She laughed. “Do you find it easy to trust people?” After a second or so she added, “You were quick to trust the druggist.”
The man gazed up at the ceiling. “I don’t think I am all that quick.” He returned his attention to her. “It depends.” He made a face. “Nobody likes ‘it depends’ as an answer.”
“Go on. What does it depend on?”
“I’m not sure I can say exactly.” He glanced in the direction of the drug counter. “It’s just a feeling I get.” He pointed with his head. “Like him. Never gave it a thought.”
“Hardly.” He rested his arms on his knees. “I’ve been burned badly.” He sighed. “Far too many times.”
“I didn’t mean to – .”
“No. It’s OK.” He gazed out the window. “I wonder if I could have trusted people that I didn’t.”
The woman watched him closely and waited.
“Guess I’ll never know. Will I?”
She murmured support.
“Does that answer your question?”
He closed his eyes and started to breathe deeply and slowly. He sank back into his chair.
“Are you OK?”
“Um yes, just a little tired.” He opened his eyes and sat up.
“Do your friends ever come to you for help?”
“Now and then.” His voice was quiet. “I’m not much good with advice.”
“Advice isn’t the only reason people ask for help.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Tell me about some of them.”
The man shook his head. “No. No I can’t do that.”
“If you confided in me, would you want me to share what you told me?”
“No. I wouldn’t.”
“You don’t trust easily do you?”
“No I don’t” She smiled. “Only when I shouldn’t.”
“I trust you.”
She made her eyes bore into the man. “Is that wise?”
She relaxed and eased back in her seat.
“Do you trust me?”
“Ah.” The woman held her hand over her eyes. “That’s a good question.”
He waited while she adjusted her hair with her hand.
The pharmacist called out “Williams.”
“My order is ready.” He slowly got to his feet. When she moved to help, he shook his head. He walked over to the counter to pay.
The woman walked through the store to the front door. She stopped several times to inspect the merchandise and glance back at the man. He was still at the counter when she reached the front door. She waited for a moment, and then walked out.
The Side Walk
She looked up and down the street. It was warm and the sun was bright, but the sun was low in the sky. She stepped to one side of the door and waited. She looked in the window, but could only see her reflection.
She jumped a little at a sound behind her. When she swung around, she saw a scruffy young man amble toward her. She turned her back on him.
She didn’t look. “What do you want?”
“What do I want? Nothing.”
She turned so she could see the scruffy man. “Nothing?”
“Yep. Nothing.” He said, “I’m giving something though.”
“I can tell you’re a might suspicious.”
She didn’t reply. She continued to watch him while she moved her head slowly back and forth.
“Here.” The scruffy man held out a slip of paper.”
She looked at the paper, but didn’t take it.
“It’s a free admission to the gallery.”
“Yep.” He did a little pirouette and pointed down the street. “The Anderson Brother’s Art Emporium.” When she said nothing, he went on. “We have a new exhibit on.” He pushed the slip of paper closer to her.
Finally she took the slip of paper.
“Thank you.” The scruffy man shuffled off down the walk with a silly grin on his face. Two stores down, he cornered another person.
“Who was that?”
She jerked around to see that the man had come out of the drug store. “I don’t know.” She chuckled. “I’m not sure he’d know if you asked.” They both smiled. “He gave me a free admittance to a gallery.”
“You like art don’t you?”
“Yes I do.” She pointed at the gallery down the street. “Want to join me?”
“Sure. I still have some time.”
The woman stood in front of a painting and studied it closely. The man sat on a padded bench in the middle of the room. He rested on one arm. There was hardly a sound. The man studied the room. The walls were white and the ceiling was black. In the darkness he could make out some trusses up above. Through a door way to his left he could see another almost identical room. To his right the view was the same.
“I wish we had left a trail of bread crumbs.”
The woman stepped back from the painting. She looked to the left and then the right. “You may be on to something there.” She took a couple steps toward him. “I think I can trust you.” She paused. “. . . to find our way out.”
“Thanks” He said. “My ego could use the boost.”
She focused her attention back to the painting. “What do you make of that?”
The man peered at the painting for a while. “It tells me something very profound and important.” He let a long pause hang in the air. “It tells me I’m completely clueless about art.”
“Ha, Ha, Ha.” She paused. “Have another look at it.”
After he studied it a bit longer he said, “It’s about trust.”
“I agree. Why do you think that?”
“Because you keep coming back to trust.”
The woman twisted her head to look at him. “Is it that obvious?”
“For me to notice? It must be.”
She moved closer. “I think you’re insightful.”
“I’m never really sure.” He shifted his weight to his other arm. “Are you ready to trust me?”
The woman stood still. She took her time. Different expressions fought for control of her face. “Yes. I think I do.”
“Yes I do.”
She sat at the other end of the padded bench. She was silent for a long time. He sat patiently and waited. He took long slow breaths.
“He lied to me.” Her voice was strained. “There are people who are evil.”
“You think people are evil?”
“No. I know they are.” She remained still. “Not everyone. Just some.” She got up and strode slowly around the room. “They don’t care.” She paused in front of another painting. “He lied to me.”
He watched as she moved around the room.
She snorted. She stood still for a few seconds. “Have you ever been betrayed?”
“Yes. I have.”
“So have I.” She resumed her walking. “But not like this.” She stopped, turned back the way she came and started to walk again. “He lied.” She took a few more steps. “Why do people act that way?” She slowed down. “Do they enjoy it?” She stopped.
The man muttered something to sound sympathetic.
“Idiot.” She said, “How could I be such an idiot?”
“We all make mistakes.”
“Is it a mistake to hope? To trust?” She walked around to the other side of the statue. “There is no excuse.” She started to walk back to the padded bench. “He lied to me. It’s all my fault.”
When she sat down, the man started to reach out to touch her. He hesitated. He pulled his hand back.
“I feel so stupid.”
The man watched her. His brow pinched together above his nose. He opened his mouth, but closed it without a word.
“It’s like a real pain.” She was quiet as her breath came in short spurts. “I want it to stop.” She wrapped her arms around herself. She seemed to shiver.
The woman grabbed her purse, took out a tissue and dabbed her eyes. She took several deep breaths before she went on. “How will I be able to sleep?”
“There are ways to sleep.” His voice was tentative.
The woman sat quietly. She didn’t look at the man. She just gazed at the floor. The man watched her in silence. She wiped her hand across her face. She pressed her lips tightly together and her cheeks started to color.
Another man wandered into the gallery. He walked slowly past the paintings on the wall. He stopped in front of one to get a closer look. Halfway across the gallery he glanced at the two people on the bench. He stopped and watched the woman for several seconds. He turned and walked quickly out through the door. He ignored the rest of the paintings.
The woman watched him leave. She gave a sigh and looked at the man. “I’m sorry.” She bit her lip. “I don’t mean to be so angry.”
The man watched her for a moment. “I get angry too.”
She didn’t look up, but gave a wry grin. “I know it’s mostly my fault.”
“I could have said no.” She brushed a wisp of hair out of her eyes. “I didn’t see what was coming.” Her shoulders slumped down. “What can I do?”
He watched her for a few moments. Then he asked, “What do you want?”
The woman shook her head slightly; she bit her lip. Her mouth moved, but she said nothing. She cleared her throat. “I don’t know.”
“What do you see as your options?”
She turned to the man and said, “You sound like a professor.”
“Sorry.” He smiled at her. “I’m not sure exactly what to say.”
“You and me both.” After a pause, she said, “I suppose I could just walk away.”
The man nodded.
She said, “Maybe I can go back to my old job.” She shook her head. “That is, if they’ll take me.”
“You could ask.”
She shook her head. “No. They’d want to know why.”
The man shrank back from her. He crossed his legs. He let the silence drag on.
“Maybe I could move to another city.” She shrugged. “You know. Start over.” Her face was bright for a moment, but that faded. “At my age? Not likely.”
The man frowned as he watched the woman.
She said, “What do you think I should do?”
The man’s eyes widened slightly. He took a breath and said, “Let me think about that.”
The man swallowed but hesitated before he said, “Well . . .”. He let the end of the word trail off into silence. He coughed. “Well. I don’t want to put words in your mouth.” He hesitated before he went on. “But I think you know what to do.”
She watched him.
“You want to leave. It doesn’t matter where to.”
The woman listened closely to his words. Her face frowned and her eyes closed. “I don’t think I can do that.”
The restaurant was quiet. Most of the tables were empty. The woman took another sip of her drink. The man slowly chewed a French fry. Most of the French fries remained on his plate. As he looked down at the French fries he said, “I should have had the salad.”
The woman nodded. She peered out of the window. “It’s getting late.”
The man stared at the remaining fries. He moved back in his seat and took his eyes off the fries. “I’m not very hungry today.”
The woman murmured agreement.
The man took a deep breath and slowly let it out. He focused his attention on the woman. “Have you ever visited India?”
“No. I haven’t done much travelling.” The woman raised her eyebrow. “Have you?”
“I spent some time there.”
“It was work. I was with immigration at the time.”
“What was it like?”
“OK. Interesting.” He said, “It wasn’t anything like I expected.”
“Not really. It was hot though.” He went on. “The people were different.” He gestured with his right hand. “They were just normal people.”
“As opposed to abnormal?”
“I guess it sounds bad when I say it that way.” His smile faded away. “There was one person.” He stopped for a moment and closed his eyes. “A refugee. He had escaped to India, but they wouldn’t let him stay.”
The woman blinked.
“We offered him asylum.” He shook his head slowly. “But he was very committed to his country.” The man grabbed his cup, but didn’t pick it up. “He would have been killed if he went back.” The man said, “He agonized for days.”
The woman watched the man closely.
“Finally he agreed to come here.”
“How did it work out?”
He replied, “Don’t know. Never heard from him.”
“I’ve never travelled outside the country.”
“Do you wish you had?”
She nodded. “Yes.” She gazed out the window into the distance. “I always had some reason not to.” She sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t really want to go anywhere.”
“Where would you have gone?”
“That’s hard to say.” She gazed at the table top. She was quiet. “I always read a lot about France.” She paused. “I’m a history buff.”
The woman looked puzzled. “Maybe I should go.” She shook her head.
“Money.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I suppose I can afford it.” The woman frowned. “I might need it later.”
She laughed. “It’s usually me that gives that advice.” She stopped laughing. “Easier to give than take.”
The man nodded. “It’s nice to hear you laugh Miss Smith.”
The woman’s face froze and she spun her head around to look at the man. Her eyes searched his face.
The man studied the French fries on his plate for a moment. “Too bad laughing can solve all the world’s problems.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. She pulled away from the man.
“You can only fight so long.” The man’s shoulders sagged. “It’s so hard to know.”
“Hard to know?”
“Yeah.” He rested his head in his hands. His fingers covered most of his face. He sat in silence, his eyes unfocussed.
She watched him in silence. Her eyes flitted around the restaurant. She checked the exits. She only saw one waiter. She shivered.
The man peered out the window into the dark. “Darkness.” His voice was barely a whisper. The man dropped his gaze to the table top. He picked up a napkin and dabbed away a few drops of water. His head came up. “Do you fear the dark?”
The woman stared back at him. He voice wavered a little. “Why do you ask?”
“I fear the dark.” He continued to look at the woman. “I thought you would too.”
“You act awfully familiar.”
The man’s brow wrinkled as he watched the woman. “Is something wrong?”
“What do you expect?”
“I don’t really know.” His voice was quiet. His eyes darted about. “Please tell me.”
“I never told you my name.”
The man’s eyes widened. He swallowed. He swallowed again. He reached up and adjusted his watch cap.
“I’ve never seen you before. How do you know who I am?
The man’s head jerked slightly. “Oh.” He smiled. “You don’t recognize me?”
The woman studied his face, but her head shook slowly.
“John.” He hesitated. “or Johnny”.
“At school. History class.”
The tension slowly came out of her face. “Johnny? Johnny Williams?”
“You remember now?” He relaxed. “I recognized you the second I saw you.” He continued. “I assumed you recognized me.”
“You’ve changed.” The woman continued to study his face. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.”
John shrugged. “C’est La Vie.” He paused and then asked, “You don’t teach anymore?”
“No, I left a couple years back.” She frowned. “Maybe I’ll go back. If they’ll take me.”
“Of course they will. You were the best teacher I had in High School.”
She said, “Thank you. I needed that.” She took a breath and added, “You can call me Mary.”
“OK. Mary.” He smiled. “That felt strange.”
They sat in silence.
“You said you don’t work.”
Johnny frowned. “I don’t need to work.” He gave a half-hearted grin. “I have enough money to last me the rest of my life.” He turned to look out into the darkness.
Mary watched Johnny. Her eyes drooped. “You were about to tell me something.” She waited a couple of seconds, and then she added, ‘Didn’t you?”
Johnny continued to look out the window. “Oh, it can wait.”
Mary pulled out a card and put it on the table in front of Johnny. “Well, you know you can always call me.”
Johnny slowly moved his gaze back to the table. He picked up the card and read it. “Yes, I will.” He stuffed the card into his pocket.
Mary checked her watch. “It is late, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “Yeah, we really should go.”
“I’ve got to book my trip tomorrow.” She stood up. “We can get together after I get back.”
“Yes, I’d like to do that.” Johnny’s eyes were unfocussed. He patted his pocket.
“OK then.” Mary took a half step away. “I’ll be going now.”
Johnny looked at her and said, “I just want to say that I’ll never forget what you did for me.”