Poetry & Prose

The Man in the Elevator

“Which floor?” the man asks me.

This is the first time that anyone has spoken to me in the elevator, which is cold and dimly lit and large enough to hold a bed. It smells like cigarette smoke and the night air that drifts in whenever the doors slide open. I have ridden in it maybe ten times—with babies, with women in baggy shirts, with men who made me nervous. No one looked me in the eye, let alone offered to press a button for me.

I tell the man that I’m going to Level 6 and see that he is getting off on 4. While we wait for the elevator to move, I look at him. He seems nice. He has gray hair and glasses, a button-down shirt. He smiles at me.

“Long day?” he asks.

“Yeah.” Against my chest, I hold my laptop and a bottle of water. “You too?”

He nods his head, is silent for a moment and then says, “I’m so tired.”

I realize that maybe what makes him look nice is his sadness, which I can see in his eyes, and it is something that we share. I think of my sister in her hospital room trying to convince me to stay the night there and sleep in the guest bed with my mother. I think of how quickly I refused her, how badly I wanted to escape into this elevator that leads to the parking garage and to climb into my bed at the Ronald McDonald House, to brush my teeth with my own toothpaste, how I didn’t want to be in her hospital room all night, woken by the nurses coming in and out.

At the Ronald McDonald House, people like to share their stories. It’s a thing that they do. When my dad and I eat breakfast together there, before heading to the hospital, he introduces himself to people. “Real nice to meet you,” he’ll say.

“Did you just get in?” they ask.

“Yeah, I have a daughter up in the hospital.” He then launches into a description of my sister’s condition while they nod their heads. Then he gestures to me, across the kitchen, pouring a bowl of cereal. “That’s my other daughter,” he says. I wave.

Once, I came over to sit at the table with my dad while he was talking to a man named Dave whose newborn baby had been born with some sort of disability. I caught only the tail end of the conversation, my dad’s closing line as he stood up too quickly: “Well, I wish you the best.”

When we left the kitchen, I asked my dad what was wrong with Dave’s baby, and he snapped at me, saying that he didn’t remember what the condition was called. That was when I understood—he never really listened to them. He just nodded, said sorry, and waited to tell his own story.

It occurs to me that this gray-haired, soft-eyed man standing across from me in the elevator as we approach Level 4 may want to tell me his story. Maybe he hopes I will ask why he’s tired, so that he can talk about his wife just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer or his baby granddaughter born with Tay-Sachs disease. I would ask him how long he had been married. I would say, “What’s your granddaughter’s name?” I would apologize.

But maybe he doesn’t want to talk about it. Maybe, like me, he is content to ride in the elevator with another human being who knows what he means about feeling tired. Maybe he likes having someone to say “good night” to when he steps out of the elevator. The words reach ahead of him into the vast parking garage. Maybe it’s enough to hear the same sentiment in return, from a girl who clutches a small fragment of his sadness against her chest with her laptop and water bottle, without ever knowing what it’s for, as the elevator doors slide shut.

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