Originally Published in The Tower Literary Magazine at the University of Minnesota – April 2015
As soon as I enter, I feel incomplete. My stomach drops as my dress shoes clop against the marble floor. The collar of my shirt chafes against my throat as I crane my neck up then left and right. The walls reach up so far I’m not sure if there is a ceiling. The entrance hall is narrow and long, snaking around the corners to either side, the wall across from me decorated with a set of complex directories, which upon inspection, I suspect not even a cartographer could properly navigate.
I wince at the harsh glare of lights I cannot locate, bite my lip, and adjust my tie. There’s nothing to follow, no chatter or footsteps. My credentials crinkle in my hand. My feet dance a little. I remind myself there’s no time for deliberation. I hang right, praying that I might find reception.
Another hallway, just as thin, just as tall, just as long. This one also turns a corner at the end. I don’t notice the doors until I’ve walked some way down the corridor. All of them are unnumbered and painted to look like the marble of the walls. Or maybe they are made of marble. Their knobs are gold with ornate patterns of spectacular shapes and figures etched in around the keyhole.
One sort of looks like a lion. Another looks like a great raging fire. The third looks like a flower. It’s beautiful, with violet tips and foaming sea-green petals. I pause to admire it more closely. It gleams as if actually dripping with mid-morning dew. I can smell it. I want to reach out to pluck it. Give it to Nana like I used to at the cottage in the summer. Go down to the beach and get sprayed with the salt water. Brush the wet sand off my palms. I can almost hear the tide come in.
There’s a woman down the hallway. She’s far away. Her right hand rests firmly on her hip; the other is holding a leather binder. I stand up straight and clear my throat.
“Do you know where you’re supposed to be?” she asks me.
“Not exactly. I have an interview at three o’clock with the managing director,” I reply. I check my wrist for the time. There is no watch. “Could you tell me where his office is?”
“Of course, right this way.” She turns and disappears around the corner. I follow briskly, ignoring the remaining doorknobs. I close the distance in moments. I turn. An elevator, the woman with the binder patiently waiting.
“Do come in,” she instructs.
The elevator is painted a translucent white on the inside, the color of frozen glass. There’s no music and eighty seven floors to climb. The doors close, though it doesn’t feel like we’re moving. I resist the urge to shiver.
“Do you work here?” I ask. She looks at me. Her face is remarkably ordinary, like someone I’ve seen a thousand times and yet reminiscent of no one in particular.
“Why yes, of course,” she replies.
“What do you do?”
She shrugs at me, “This.”
“Which floor do we stop at?”
The doors open. The woman nods at me. I step off the elevator, out into a richly furnished waiting room. Upon the walls hang a countless number of classical paintings of historical figures and landscapes, a filigreed silver trim lining the edge of each wall from the floor up to the endless ceiling. The lights are dimmer here. The whole room smells faintly of wood polish. On my right, a thin old man sits behind a massive, arcing mahogany desk. He is typing something into his computer. He does not appear to have noticed me.
“Excuse me?” I ask. His typing halts. He cocks his head at me.
“Hello there,” he says, “Need help with something?” I shuffle over to him; my resume tremors in my hand.
“I’m here for the managing director. We have an interview at three o’clock,” I tell him.
“I will let him know. Though you’re quite early.”
“How early?” I ask. He smiles and motions to the other side of the room. There’s a leather sofa and an armchair that looked plucked from the court of some mythic kingdom, hewn in radiant golden upholstery so dazzling they make the rest of the space seem utterly tasteless in comparison.
“You may have a seat,” he says. I go over to the exquisite chair and sit. It’s not remarkably comfortable. The old man resumes his typing and does not look at me again. My eyes search for a clock. I find none.
I make friends with the artwork while I wait. A portrait of George Washington and I are quickly drawn to one another, exchanging glances every few minutes, silently agreeing the painting of the farm with the purple silo and endless brassy wheat fields should get over itself.
Eventually George tires of me. I take up with Marie Antoinette, then Elizabeth, Galileo, even Mona. In time, they fade, their faces swallowed and replaced and swallowed again. I see people I don’t recognize. I see places I’ve never been. They are vaguely familiar. Most are gone before I get a good look.
A door opens beside me, a barefoot man in a white undershirt and cream colored khakis steps out. I give him my best smile. He doesn’t look at me right away. When he does, he beams back.
“You’re my three o’clock?”
I stop smiling, “That’s me.” I start to stand up out of the chair but cannot commit entirely.
“Right this way,” he motions with his arm through the doorway. I finish leaving the chair and follow him. Immediately, we’re descending a staircase. A long staircase, I cannot see the bottom. While we climb down, I hand the man the tattered paper in my hand. He reads it out loud to me, every syllable. I just listen.
“This seems just about right,” he says when he’s finished. He shakes his head and gives me a grin.
We reach his office not long after that. A small room, warm and colorless. There are two pillows on the floor to sit on. He takes one; I take the other. We sit cross-legged like children. I feel tears well up in my eyes. They’re hot and thick like blood.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“It’s nice,” I say, “Not much to it.”
“I’m a simple man,” he replies. In the distance I hear the listless break of waves on shore. I scratch my nose.
“What sort of questions do you have for me?” I ask.
“How much time do you have?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I feel the water seeping through my suit, the beach licking my heels. I cough. He smiles again. “I lost my watch.”
He laughs, “Well then, you’d better find it.”
As soon as I leave, I feel whole. My eyes burn; my chest seizes. The taste of salt. The air stings. I blink and I choke; it’s so dark out here. Are those stars? I can’t tell; I can’t wipe my eyes, my palms are crusted with sand. I’m lying on my back, wrenching the life back into my lungs. I remember my name. They’re shouting it. Soon, they’re cheering. Someone hugs me. I gasp. I shudder and hack. One more breath, tears running down my cheeks, head thrown back.
Those are stars, and they’re spectacular.