"Elevator" and "The Conversationalist"
Dan Faultersack
Elevator

The elevator doors open, slowly. A heavy thud resounds as they disappear into the wall. Several small, jittery clinks follow, as if the doors are adjusting themselves in their sockets. From the dimly lit, empty hallway, no one is visible within.

Craig, is old and tall, and holds a plastic bag in which rests a manuscript—his final manuscript, if his doctor is correct.

Craig steps from the uneven hallway floor to the even elevator floor, from thin carpet to cold, peeling, ceramic tile. It is only after he steps into the elevator and turns to his right that Craig sees the other man, standing very close up against the grey control panel. Craig starts back; then smiles quickly, politely, and turns to face the doors. He sets down his briefcase against the wall opposite the stranger. He glances up at the dimly glowing off-white numbers above the door. The number five might be a slightly less dull yellow-cream, but Craig’s eyesight is not what it was.

The elevator doors close, slowly. They slow further as they near each other, as if reluctant to touch. When they do touch, they send a hollow clank bouncing around. To Craig’s ears, the noise sticks out, slightly jarring.

Craig coughs heavily. He shifts his head slightly so that he can see the other man again. His fellow rider is still standing up against the grey control panel. Despite the dimness of the building, he is wearing black plastic-framed sunglasses, almost Blues Brothers. Narrow nose. Short forehead. Leather coat; patched. Jeans; stained. Stubble. Thin fingers of left hand brushing each other, near hip. Right hand balanced in mid air, as if poised for something. Battered dark grey fedora. Small-framed. Smell of alcohol. The gaze behind the dark sunglasses seems to point at Craig. Craig imagines what they see; knows his own appearance well: Silvery hair, like iron shavings, strong once. Loose skin beneath his round chin. Tall. Forehead lined. Nose dull. Eyes a pale hazel, and always moving. Ears too big. Mouth ringed in smile-creases. Brows thick. Shoulders bony; weary. Back a little stooped. Head forward. Wrinkled shirt, old jean coat, worn beige pants. Scarf. Briefcase. Smell of tobacco smoke.

The elevator stirs, lumbering. Craig pulls out of his cataloguing; snaps his fingers deliberately and grimaces at his forgetfulness; turns to the other man.

“Excuse me, I forgot to look: are we going up or down?”

The man in sunglasses shakes his head.

Craig repeats himself, a little slower. “Eh, the elevator – are we going up or down?” Pauses. “I didn’t check.”

The man shakes his head again. Then he hits a switch on the panel and leans forward slightly, obscuring it from Craig’s view.

The elevator lurches violently and stops. Craig stumbles backward; catches himself on the bare iron railing behind him. He coughs raggedly. The doors creak. The dingy overhead lights flicker.

Craig looks at his fellow passenger. “What’s happening? Which way were you going?”

“I’m here to, well, to meet you, Mr. Faraday,” says the man. Something familiar about his voice. “Now we’re stuck.” He didn’t say ‘ but now we’re stuck,’ Craig notices.

“We’re stuck? It looked like you did that.”

The man’s mouth draws into a tight line. “Well, I did,” he says, apologetically. He reaches with his right hand into the depths of his coat; slowly, awkwardly, feelingly.

Craig lets out a breath slowly. “Do you want me to sign a book or something? You want my autograph?”

“No no no,” says the man hurriedly. He pulls out a small revolver. “My interest is in a book you haven’t signed for anybody yet, except maybe your editor. Backstage. You have it with you, don’t you? In your coat? Briefcase?”

Craig draws in a quick breath. His neck muscles go tense. He puts his hands slowly in the air. “Careful now,” he says slowly. “Those things, they go off every now and then.”

The other man gives a snort and a smile that is half a wince. “Got your attention. Didn’t it? Didn’t it? Okay, the manuscript.” His sunglasses allow no view of his eyes; little reflection.

“I don’t have it with me,” says Craig very evenly. The gun points at his mouth.

The man laughs. “Sure you do.” The fingers of his left hand begin to tap on the metal of the elevator panel. “Why did you come here?”

Craig puts his heel up against the briefcase behind him; pins it to the wall of the elevator. “What do you mean?”

“Why did you come to this particular apartment building?”

Craig closes his eyes for a moment. “I got a note,” he says. “Left for me at my editor’s office.”

“Yeah,” says the other man. “He said you’d be in there today to go over things. Said he’d give the note to you. You were just at your editor’s office; you must have it with you.”

“It was signed Tom Schenk,” Craig continues. His brows furrow. “Are you Tom Schenk?”

“It’s in the briefcase, isn’t it?” says the man; angles his right wrist so that the revolver points at the briefcase, approximately.

“It said you’d do the interview after all, Tom,” says Craig. “Your two cents.”

“Isn’t it? It has to— I’ve got more than two,” Tom interrupts himself. The voice matches. “Cents.” His fingers tap faster.

Craig is watching the revolver waver. “So you want to have our talk in an elevator with me at gunpoint?” He puts his hands in his pockets.

Tom’s hand tightens on the revolver; trembles slightly. “No, you’re not interviewing me.”

“These are your terms? Okay, we’ll do it on your terms.”

“No no no no!” Tom takes a big step forward. “I repeat now what I told you last week.” His left hand clenches and unclenches.

“Over the telephone,” clarifies Craig; keeps his voice even.

Tom takes a small step back. “Over the telephone,” he agrees; nods his head quickly twice. “I said, and I say again, I’m not doing an interview. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t approve. What you’re doing.” His fingers resume their tapping.

Craig takes a deep breath in; lets it out slowly; air out of a balloon. He measures his words. “Not an interview, then. In that case, what are we to do here?”

“Give me the book.”

Backstage.”

“Yes.”

Craig puts out his left arm; supports himself on the back wall of the elevator. Tom hears the noise; shifts the gun quickly toward the spot of contact, then back. He does not look. Craig nods to himself. The sunglasses make sense now. He carefully lowers his hands.

“It is my only copy,” he says.

Tom slams his palm into the wall next to the panel. “Of course it’s your only copy. Don’t you get it? That’s the point. Don’t you get it?”

Craig bites his lip. “No,” he says quietly. “Not really.” He coughs. The revolver still points at him; wavers a bit. “Is this about you, or this about Maria Velden?”

Tom’s thin fingers go back to tapping on the steel of the panel. He snorts, nostrils flared. “Like we’re completely separate,” he says, head bowing slightly. “You say that, you ask that, you say that, like we’re completely separate. Like we have nothing to do with each other!”

Craig leans back; holds his hands up defensively. “I’m just confused.”

Tom clenches his teeth. “I’m just her husband. First. Her first husband.”

Craig opens his mouth; closes it. There is a moment of silence. The revolver wavers in the air between the two men. Craig coughs.

Tom’s fingers resume tapping. He begins to speak quickly. “Mr. Faraday I respect you, respect your writing, I want to continue respecting you, respecting your writing, so I can’t let you finish this, publish this, finish this book.” He waves the revolver. “Pick up the briefcase. Open it. Then take out the manuscript. Hand it to me.”

“You object to the book?”

“Just give it to me.”

“Just a minute, Tom. You object to the idea of it?”

“Just hand it to me. Just hand it to me.”

“You object to something in it.”

“Of course I do!”

“But you haven’t read it?”

“No,” Tom says quickly. “How could I have? No. You have lots of questions. We aren’t interviewing, remember? No. And no. How could I have? And I don’t want to.” He swallows; takes a breath. “Read enough trash about her.”

Craig closes his eyes for a moment again. “Mine isn’t trash,” he says calmly.

“I knew the real Maria. And I’ve read enough trash about her.”

“Mine isn’t trash,” Craig repeats levelly; rests his teeth together.

“How do I know that?” Tom asks, voice harsh. His head moves slightly from side to side as he speaks. “They all want to show her as some kind of whore, some kind of leech, some kind of spoiled siren, some kind of famous dirt, some kind of pretty garbage, some kind of . . .” He spits. “I am not about to cooperate with it.”

Craig looks at the ceiling; coughs heavily. “I agree,” he says. “I wanted to show the real Maria Velden. The one nobody saw on stage. Th—”

“Yeah, the one Backstage.” Tom’s fingers tap impatiently. “I heard that over the telephone. You pretend that you’re better, that you’re, uh, generous, that you’re this truth seeker, that you’re better. Than the mongers. But you’re not.”

Craig stares at him; keeps his voice even. “So you lured me here to take my book.” He coughs. “Because you have, ah, decided that my book will follow in the tradition of the lowbrow, sensationalistic, ‘Secrets of the Fabulous’ , gossip and scandal style ‘biographies’, so called.”

Tom’s mouth skews, and his narrow nose twitches. “Don’t try to pander to me.”

“Fine,” says Craig, furrowing his brow. “But you should understand that I refuse to hand it over.”

The revolver wavers.

Tom’s face twists into a sneer. “Then you won’t leave this elevator.”

Craig sits back against the wall; slides to the floor. “Ooookay.”

Tom’s expression changes again. “What?”

Craig rests his elbows on his knees and puts his hands together. “I said ‘okay’.”

Tom steps forward; opens his mouth. Shuts it; says nothing. He levels the revolver at Craig. Craig lets his head rest back against the elevator wall.

“I could, I could shoot you and take it,” says Tom. “I could, I could.”

Craig closes his eyes. “But you won’t, will you?” he asks, very gingerly.

Tom cocks the revolver. “I could.” Craig coughs. Tom’s fingers start tapping on the gun handle.

“Look,” says Craig, opening his eyes and his hands. “I can’t give you the book because it is my only copy, and it is my last book, and I want to finish writing it and have it published, before I am dead and past writing and publishing.”

“You’re dying?”

“Lung cancer.” Craig smiles. “So if your intent is to continue threatening me, you should really think of something less inevitable than death to threaten me with.”

Tom stands still in the center of the elevator, his revolver pointed slightly down at Craig’s tall, folded, sitting form. Craig’s eyes drift to the door; sketch the entire little room. “I don’t want to scathe her in it,” says Craig. “I don’t try to drudge up dirt. Parts of it are messy; well, so were parts of her life. I promise you I give her a fair depiction.”

Tom is silent. He stretches out his left arm to the wall; feels his way back to the wall opposite Craig. He begins to pace from one corner of it to the other: one long stride, turn, one long stride, turn. The fingers of his left hand are brushing each other rhythmically again, the same motion as snapping only with no force or sound. “Okay, you’ll read it to me,” he says swiftly and suddenly. “You’ll read, you’ll read it to me. Unfortunately, I can’t trust your word on something like this. ‘Fair’ is subjective.” He stops his pacing and faces Craig. “So, get it out and start reading it.”

“Okay,” says Craig. He hesitates. “All of it?”

“How long is it?”

“Two hundred fourteen pages.”

Tom pauses; waves the revolver around in the empty space in the center of the elevator. “We’ll see. Just start reading. We’ll see.”

Craig bites his lip. “Someone’s going to realize we’re in here soon.”

Tom hands his gun carefully from his right hand to his left; takes over tapping with his right. “Neh-enh. Not tonight. Nobody’s here. Hardly anybody’s here. Not tonight. Neh-enh, nuh-uh, I don’t think so.”

Craig shifts; pulls the briefcase out from behind him. “I think you underestimate the propensity people in this type of apartment building have for coming in and out during the wee hours of the night.”

Tom laughs, a little high pitched. “This type of apartment?” Laughs again, as if it’s a great joke. “This type of apartment! He says. Don’t you know? Hah! Maria and I lived in this apartment. In this apartment. In — this — apartment!” His finger jabs the air, stressing each of the last three words. He smiles to himself.

“I did not know that,” says Craig slowly, evenly.

“Yeah,” says Tom, nodding rapidly. “You learn somethin’ everyday. Uh-huh.” He resumes pacing, tapping. Craig coughs. “And I know this place. Know it’s almost empty. Yeah. I know that. So don’t try to tell me about it. You won’t be interrupted.” He waves his hands in a gesture possibly meant to be reassuring. “You won’t be interrupted. That’s why I chose this place.”

“Alright,” says Craig. He places the briefcase gently on his knees; opens it; takes out a stack of paper, wrapped in a plastic grocery bag, secured with two big blue rubber bands. “I feel obliged to warn you, I . . . well, I try to get inside Maria’s head. I imagine what she might have thought.”

Tom stops his pacing. His pointy brows lower. “Might have? What is this, a biography or a novel?”

Craig tilts his head slightly one way, slightly the other. “A mixture. A hybrid, you might say. In the final copy, the hypothesized parts – the imaginings, the musings – will be in a different font or italics or something, and there will be a note at the beginning, explaining what is fact and what is conjecture.”

“In the final copy,” Tom mutters. “ If there is a final copy.” Tom’s finger jabbed out those two I ’s. “Remember, remember, you’re still my captive. I have the gun.”

A smile crawls onto Craig’s face. “I won’t forget.” He takes off the blue rubber bands. He takes off the plastic bag. He runs one hand gently over the worn top sheet of paper. He coughs heavily.

“You can start,” says Tom. He leans back against the wall opposite Craig.

“Let me catch my breath,” says Craig; coughs again.

Tom stands up; leans back. He taps his chin with one finger. “I’ll imagine my Maria, and you read your ideas and your might-be-facts-might-be-musings about Maria, and I’ll see if these two ‘Maria’s are twins. See if you’re a good mirror maker.”

Craig shakes his head silently. “Where would you like me to start?”

“Start at the beginning. No, start at chapter one. No— yeah, start at chapter one.”

“Alright,” says Craig. “Okay.” The pages are loose. He fingers through the first few and sets them carefully aside on the floor, one precisely atop the previous.

There is a moment of silence. Craig coughs again.

“Come on, come on,” says Tom, when Craig is silent. “Let’s get started.” He trades the revolver back to his right hand, which feels its way back into his coat to replace the gun there in a loop sewn into the inner lining. Then he shoves his hands into his pockets. His face remains pointed at Craig. “I want to hear paper rustle. I want to hear words. Read.”

Craig clears his throat. “Patience.” He looks down at the manuscript; back up at Tom. Tom doesn’t move. “Okay.”

Craig’s voice is deep. It is not smooth. It has scars. It has hurdles to leap. It is punctuated by harsh coughs. Craig’s finger traces the words on the page. He reads:

“The stage is empty. It is July 10th, 1962, just before the appearance that will come to define Maria Valden—”

“Define?” bursts in Tom bitterly. “An appearance doesn’t define someone. One night can’t define anything!”

Craig takes a deep breath. “Right,” he says. “So how do you define a person?”

“I don’t,” says Tom quickly. “You don’t. It can’t be done.” He strikes his knee.

Craig is silent a moment. “Just let me read. If you interrupt, we’ll never get out.”

Tom leans back again. “Hey, I never made any promises.”

Craig clears his throat; starts again:

“The stage is empty. It is July 10th, 1962, just before the appearance that will come to ‘define’ Maria Valden, which both made her infamous and doubled the nation’s fascination with her. It is the turning point of her career, the injection that propelled her to superstardom and perhaps ruined her life. The events as reported are these: Maria Velden walks on stage looking barely recognizable in a plain skirt and old sweater. She makes up a bitter, angry song on the spot, and then screams insults at the audience.”

Tom hangs his head just a little. Craig’s eyes flick up to him; back to the paper.

“She walks off after five minutes in front of her audience. The crowd stands in shock, recoiling in disbelief. Their statue has fallen over. Their goddess is broken on the threshold. Hysteria. Frenzy. Anger. Then she walks back onto the stage. The crowd goes silent. She apologizes, brokenly and profusely, sings half of ‘Don’t Forget Me,’ and breaks down sobbing violently on the stage. A life in the public eye.”

Craig coughs. Tom opens his mouth; closes it; says nothing. He folds his legs beneath him and sits. Again Craig’s eyes jump off the page for a moment to watch him. Somewhere in Tom’s coat, the revolver clicks against something.

“The next day, she rules the headlines. The next week, there is more demand than ever for her singing, for her. The national fascination becomes an addiction, one that lives off hype and hyperbole, and every note off her lips.” Craig coughs again, struggles.

“8:07 pm. The stage is empty. Maria Velden is not on the stage. The man up there with the microphone giving her introduction does not count. He is not the one the thousands came to see. He is not going to sing. The stage is empty. Because Maria Velden is not on the stage. She sits on a stained chair in a small messy hallway backstage, with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. Her famous hair is disheveled and hangs over her face like a curtain. It does not catch the dim light back here as it does on stage. Her famous eyes are burning holes in the cluttered floor. Her supervisors and backstage hands keep running right past her in their panicked search for their star. Her head is in her hands. What is she thinking? What is she remembering?”

Tom abruptly stands. “You don’t have the right to ask those questions. You’re not . . . you’re not. . . . You have nothing to do with her. You couldn’t, you could not have known the real . . . Maria.”

Craig takes his hands off the paper; supports his head with them. He stares at the sunglass-hidden Tom for a moment. “Are you saying this because you disagree with what I’ve shown of her?” he asks slowly. “Or because you agree?”

“What? What is—?” Tom splutters. “What are you trying to make her into?”

“I’m not trying to make her into anything,” says Craig carefully. “I’m trying to show what I saw of her, and how that sheds a different light on what most people saw.”

Tom sits. He adjusts his dark, plastic sunglasses. He let’s out a staccato sigh. “I should be the one writing this,” he mutters.

Craig does not answer that; continues:

“She can hear the murmur of the crowd out there, rising in anticipation, growing in bemusement. She can hear the nervous man with the microphone spinning her introduction out longer, stumbling through explanations and jokes. But she sits there still. He is describing her with words like, ‘incomparable,’ ‘phenomenal,’ ‘flawless,’ ‘angel,’ but she keeps shaking her head at each of these, and sinking deeper into herself, pulling tighter into a ball. Her mouth moves silently.” Tom puts a hand to his forehead.

“Suddenly, anxious feet come toward her. ‘What’s going on?’ the man asks; one of her many ‘talent supervisors’. She stands up. She is wearing a plain skirt and sweater. ‘Where’s your dress? Where’s your makeup?’ he demands. ‘Hey, what’ going on?!’”

“‘I can’t go up there yet,’ she says. ‘I’m not ready.’”

“He laughs. ‘You have to.’”

“No answer. He yells at her. He swears at her. He threatens her. She does not respond. She does not, will not open a window on her soul to this man.”

“I was there.” Craig pauses; takes his finger off the page for a moment. “I do not claim a glimpse of her soul either; just a reflection. Neither Maria nor the man who shouts and whispers threats in her ear saw me. I was down the hallway. I saw her hurt and vulnerable. I saw it by mistake, on my way to talk to someone else backstage, but I could not look away. That moment still haunts me. Her head was in her hands.”

Tom’s pointer finger begins to tap methodically on his forehead.

“She did not cry. She bit her lip fiercely. She stared at the floor like it was her enemy. This moment—” Craig coughs; pauses; goes back, “this moment, is the one I want to use to inform my study of the woman behind our nation’s favorite voice. She was not an angel, as the man called her that night. She was not a devil, as many have called her since. She was a woman, and she was beautiful, yes, and she had a gift for song, a voice . . . a voice to put a crack in the floor of heaven and let a little glory down.”

“But there I go. It’s that easy. I want to get back to the Maria Velden who is silently refusing to go onstage.”

“She is not smiling.”

“She is not wearing jewelry.”

“She is not wearing makeup.”

“She is not sparkling.”

“She is not flirting.”

“She is not posing.”

“She is not blowing a kiss.”

“She is not saying something outrageous.”

“She is not making a donation.”

“She is not causing a scandal.”

She is bone weary and she is heart sick. She is angry at the world. She is aware of all her own clichés. She is angry at herself. She has vomited into backstage trash cans twice in the last ten minutes, while the clock ticks on, and her audience fidgets and her supervisors steam and wonder where she is. But one has found her, and she can no longer sit in her misery. Her only escape is the stage. But she’s unable to hide her misery there this time.

Tom sinks back against the elevator wall. “Stop,” he says, shaking his head. “Stop, please, stop.” His hand searches for words. “That was the night after she finalized her first divorce. With me. With me.” His face contorts. “She changed her name, too. Molly Schenk just doesn’t cut it for a singer, I suppose. But she never vomited. Never.” He yanks off his sunglasses; runs a hand across his eyebrows; replaces the sunglasses. For a moment Craig sees his eyes, sharp blue and wandering.

Craig puts the stack of paper back in the briefcase. “Okay.” Then, abruptly, he pulls from it an old photo, black and white; leans forward and offers it silently to Tom. “Photo of her,” he says.

“Keep it,” says Tom flatly. “I have hundreds. Finish your book.”

Craig leans back heavily against the elevator wall; coughs jaggedly.

Tom throws the switch on the panel. The elevator jolts downwards; falls into motion; slides back to a stop in a moment. The doors open slowly, as if reluctant.

Tom walks out.

Craig pulls a handheld tape recorder from his pocket; turns it off.

The Conversationalist

“Mr. Blake, Mr. Blake, Mr. Blake, I need you to listen to me. Your problem will go away. All I need you to do is say yes. . . . Because this problem pertains to you, I need you to say yes. Just say yes. . . . Just say yes. . . . You know, you sound confused, Mr. Blake; can I make this more clear for you? . . . No, I don’t think you do. I don’t think you grasp the simplicity of the . . . I understand, I understand, but hear me out. You don’t get how simple this is. You have a problem. You want this problem to disappear. I know a guy who specializes in that. Say yes into this phone, and your problem will disappear. . . . No, that’s not necessary, Mr. Blake. . . . I don’t deal in tricky definitions and nit-picking, Mr. Blake. You have to believe me when I say that this will be much simpler. This is what you want. Do what you want, Mr. Blake. Don’t be afraid to do what you want. . . . Just— you know what, I’m going to simplify this; I didn’t think that was possible, but I’m going to simplify this. You say you’re not sure what you want? I know what you want, Mr. Blake. You want your problem to go away. . . . No, don’t tell me what you don’t want, don’t deal in the negative; what you do want is for your problem to go away. I know that. . . . Now you sound distressed. Distressed people are sometimes very rude. But if you were to hang up this phone, Mr. Blake if you were to hang up this phone right now, just as simple as that, I would know what to do. . . . No, no don’t say anything, just hang up the phone. Just hang up the phone. Simple as that. Just hang up the phone.” Click.

Tomorrow, Randal will call back and tell Mr. Blake where to send the check.

Randal’s finger is tapping. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap on the sheet of paper on his desk. Beneath his fingers runs a list of names and corresponding numbers. Just more than half of the entries have check marks next to them. His fingers fly up to his office phone and jab at the numbers. He shoves the phone to his ear, so rapidly that he recoils from it. Then he traps it with his shoulder.

“Mr. Connor? Is this Mr. Connor? Oh, I’m sorry, can I speak to Mr. Connor then? Oh, okay. Well, let me know when Mr. Connor is back. Can you? You can? Thanks. You bet. That means so much to me. Thanks a lot. Goodbye.”

He circles the name Barrie Connor. His thumb moves down to the next name.

He picks up the phone again. It barely had a moment to rest on the cradle but the desk is covered—papers, coffee, a half eaten pastry, more papers.

Randal dials again rapidly, mouthing each number.

As he waits his head bobs up and down slightly.

He continues making calls all afternoon. Sometimes he stands and paces voraciously while he speaks, back and forth across the little office as far as the telephone cord will allow him.

At 4:20 he finishes his pastry, using a napkin to carefully funnel all the crumbs into his mouth.

He turns on his computer, checks his email, and turns it back off.

He picks up the phone again.

He works until 5:30. Then he gets up, pushes his chair in and walks as directly as possible out of his office; his strides consume the hallway, the parking lot.

The thing with most people, the terribly, brutally sad thing, is that they are scared to solve their problems in the most efficient manner. To force their problems to go away. The trick is to not give the problem any choice, any say in the matter. But people dilly dally around, and their problems get bigger and bigger, until you get a Titanic, no, a Napoleon, or a Hitler, or an Alexander the Nobody Stood Up to Me. Nike had the answer all along: Just Do It. But most people beat around the bush. They don’t want to make trouble. They don’t want to upset the boat, the pattern, the routine. They don’t want to make waves. And they hate the routine! But their afraid to make things worse. Here’s a dirty little secret for ya: action never makes things worse. The stupidest thing you can do is miles smarter than doing nothing. But most people don’t know how to deal with problems. They’ll take the longest way around every single time, because they don’t want to even admit to themselves that there is a problem. Trust me, there is a problem. The trick is to make the problem go away. To use force, to exert oneself, to push. But most people don’t know how to do that, one man in ten knows how to really deal with an issue, maybe one in twenty. If something gets in their way, they knock it down. And those guys are the fighters of the world, the real problem-solvers—the tough cops, the hunters, the bodyguards, the mean bouncers, the bare knuckles, the nose breakers, the grit, the blood, the lifeblood, yeah the lifeblood, the lifeblood of America. Yeah, and the criminals. They sort their problems out in zero-sum terms. Something wrong, you fix it. But most people won’t do this, so we get people with problems, and we get people who have solved their problems and are now bored and dangerous. That’s where I come in. Any economist can tell you about supply and demand—I supply the demand. I’m a connector, I’m a conduit of human efficiency, I am the circulatory system of life-affirming life—I’m an enabler. Two types stick out like sore thumbs in any school, the wimps and the bullies. The people who don’t solve their problems, and the people who solve their problems very directly with their fists and then move on to making problems. I get the bullies of my world to work for the wimps. They should give me the Nobel in economics and efficiency, baby, in getting stuff done.

When Randall arrives home, dinner is ready and steaming on the table as he expects. This is possible because he always opens the door at six o’clock precisely. He walks straight in and sits down at the head of the table beneath a gleaming chandelier.

“Where’s Rachel? Get her in here, she should be sitting down ready to greet her father when he comes in from a long day of work, I need someone to talk to don’t I, and you’re always cooking.”

“She’ll be down in a minute,” says his wife from the other room.

He quietly shakes his head. His fingers tap on the silverware.

He is thinking how the money he makes, the money they are to never ask questions about, is what makes all this possible. He is thinking how ungratefulness would make a great argument point, how to work it into his next spiel, depending on the customer of course. He is thinking about the research he will be doing tonight—find the customer’s regrets, or fears—problems—work with what you have, never concoct, the customer is always right, even when they’re wrong, but you must show the customer how right they really are, or rather how wronged they are, and how simple, how incredibly simple, the solution could be.

Rachel comes down the stairs like an avalanche. Her eyes are guarded as she approaches the table.

“Hi, Dad. . . .” She sits to his left.

“Hi Rachel, it’s good to see you, school was okay today, right?”

“Yeah it was normal,” she says quickly.

“Good, good, I’m glad to hear that, honey, normal is good, normal is fine; nobody’s picking on you right? You’re doing okay right? Nobody’s bothering you right? You remember what I told you about bullies, they’re just bored, because they solved their problems, at least their basic ones, they solved their problems, why could they solve their problems, Rachel?”

She looks at her plate, then at the chandelier. “Because they’re strong, right?”

“Yes, Rachel, because they’re strong; because they’re strong, but that’s only part of it, the other part, the more important part maybe, well they’re both important parts, but the other part, which you should also remember, is that they have the will to just act to get what they want, you know? Do you remember that, do you get what I’m saying?”

“I think so,” says Rachel. Her eyes are wide.

“You’re overwhelming her,” says Helen as she comes in from the kitchen, taking off her oven mitts. “Slow down a bit, the poor kid.” She pats Rachel on the head and then sits down on Randall’s right.

Randall looks at her. “This is important stuff, Helen. Do you understand that this is important stuff? This is what life is made up of, real interactions in the real world.”

“I know,” she says. “I’ve heard. But when you go on and on I worry about her.”

He smiles. “You worry about her any which way.”

“You say that as if it’s not natural.”

(Rachel’s eyes follow their words like she’s watching a ping-pong match.)

“Maybe it isn’t.”

“It is for me, Randall. Right now at least.”

“It shouldn’t be.” Randal drums his fingers on the table edge. “Okay, let’s eat—wait, Rachel what was I saying? Yeah, the bullies, here’s the thing, my point: anybody ever hits you, anybody ever looks like they’re going to hit you, you’ve got to hit them back, hit them first, harder and faster, so they know what they’re dealing with, right?” Helen bites her lip. Rachel nods slowly, looking at something deep within her own head. Her father continues. “Okay, let’s dig in, this looks good, I’m starved, you wouldn’t believe how bad the restaurants near the office are. You’ve got this Mac’s, which is just horrible, and you’ve got Ben’s, and you’ve got this Mexican place, and this Scandinavian place, half these places are ethnic, and the other half are just ridiculous, just ludicrous.”

“I could pack you a lunch.” Helen’s words are without emphasis.

“No, you’re busy in the morning, that wouldn’t be an efficient use of your time.”

Because it is a Friday night, he goes to the bowling alley directly after supper. He has timed the route so he hits all the greens. He slaps the steering wheel in satisfaction at this feat, even though he accomplishes it every week. His big red fuzzy dice bounce with the potholes.

He bowls one game by himself—no drinks, no strikes, no spares—and then goes back through an inconspicuous door into a small, moodily lit room with a metal table and an old, stained stuffed chair. He taps his fingers on his watch until he is joined by a tall, heavy man, with black hair that only covers the back of his head. The man sits down, puts his mug of coffee on the table, followed by a beige folder. “How are ya, Randy?”

“Yeah,” says Randal, “I’m doing okay, I’m doing okay. How are you, Jim?”

“I’m okay,” says Jim, pursing his lips and nodding his head slowly.

“The usual?” Randal asks, picking up the folder. “The usual quota?”

Jim shrugs. “More or less. You know, I don’t look at it.”

“I do.” Randal flips through the pages and photos, pacing around Jim.

Jim yawns. “How’s Helen?”

Randal stops mid-stride, fingers frozen. “Huh?” he says. “Helen. She’s great.”

Jim chuckles. “Every time you say her name like that I think you’re just going to say ‘hell.’”

Randal resumes flipping and pacing.

Jim takes a sip. “Glad to hear she’s okay.”

“I didn’t say she was okay, did I? I said she was great.”

“Don’t be so on edge.” Jim shifts his weight in his chair. “I didn’t mean anything.”

Randal is silent for a moment. “Tell me something, Jim, okay? Tell me, do you ever take a vacation? Ever just get out of this place, leave the pizza and the beer and your old car and the mold in the corners and the noisy customers and the smelly customers and—”

“And you with your always pacing?”

Randal laughs, a short staccato. “Do you ever think about a vacation?”

Jim takes a long draught of his coffee. “No,” he says. “I never do.”

Randal turns to the wall. “Helen never gets a vacation.”

Jim stares at him for a second. “She doesn’t have to work here!” he bursts out at last, like it’s a punch-line, and slaps his flabby knee.

“Yeah, but she’s got the same kinda bad car and plain house, and me.” Suddenly Randal burst into a loud, high-pitched laugh. “Heh-e-hehheh! And me.” Just as suddenly he is all business. “Okay, Jim, these look good, I’ll be able to make some headway with these, maybe snag a couple, maybe get Tommy an easy one for a change, an old guy with a will or something, that’d make his day, wouldn’t it?” Jim grunts and smiles. “Anyway thanks Jim, the game was good too, Jim, but you’ve got to clean this rat-hole up a bit, attract you some family business, get some kids in here bowling, some teenagers, you know, they eat more pizza and drink more beer, these old-timers eat a piece, take a swig, and throw their hands in the air, that’s enough, I’m full, you know?”

Jim laughs. “Don’t pretend to know my business,” he points a thick finger. “I won’t pretend to know yours.”

Randal smiles toothily. As he walks to his car he takes his phone out.

“Ms. Dane—Mrs. Dane?—Ms. Dane, please, I’m begging you to listen me out, for your own good, for your own good. I’m not sure you realize how cornered you really are by this guy, by this no-good. You’re months behind on your rent. You’re about—please, a moment—you’re about to lose custody of little what’s-his-name. And this no-good scumbag owes you— Listen, think about it, Ms. Dane. You don’t make a decision soon, to do something, to step out, to act, to make a positive contribution to your own situation, this idiot’s gonna have his way, and you’re going to loose ev-er-y-thing that’s important to you! What I’m offering here is a blank check to getting this back-stabber out of your life. You hate him, you despise him, I know you do, who wouldn’t? You’ll never have to see that nose again! The way I see it, you will always be cornered while he’s with you, and he’s not just gonna walk out, and you know it, and what’s more, you’re in danger, and your kid is in danger. Look, okay, I want you to think about this; I’m going to give you some time to think, going to give you a couple days, and I’m going to call you back, but I want you to make use of those two days and really stop and think hard about your situation, the edge that you’re teetering on. . . . Ms. Dane?”

“Huh,” he mutters to himself, with a sharp sniff. “She’ll be in a better mood later, once she thinks. She won’t be able to not think now. Desperation is a wonderful thing.”

He goes silent for the rest of the ride home; reaches for the radio knob once but lets his hand fall short. He sits in the car for ten minutes in his driveway. His fingers tap a rapid waltz on the folder lying on the other seat. Though the car is in park and the keys are in his pocket, he keeps moving his foot to the accelerator and stomping on it, imagining a long stretch of road, Florida, Utah, Alaska, Spain, Switzerland. Suddenly he reaches up, tears the fuzzy dice down, and throws them in the back. He exhales sharply.

Once inside he runs upstairs right away, to his office. He sits in his office chair, adjusts it, cannot get comfortable. He ends up sitting with his knees drawn up before him as he does his research late into the night. One or two of these guys might not take much convincing. At 11:40 he comes back down and is surprised to find light seeping out into the darkened living room from his bedroom. He freezes. His blue-grey shoe box is drawn out from under the bed, its top on the floor. Helen is sitting on their bed in the yellow glow of a table lamp. She turns his pistol over and over in her hands. He can feel its coldness as if it is in his. She finds the safety and clicks it off. She points it here and there. She lifts it up, parallel to her head. But she doesn’t quite put it to her temple. He steps silently forward. She pokes her stomach with the barrel. But just as he is about to call out to her, she flicks the safety back on and bending down, returns it to the shoebox. Randal holds back. She replaces the lid, gently pushes the box back under the bed. A moment later the light goes out. Randal counts to sixty, speeding up as he goes. Then he walks in and gets in bed. She is snoring lightly, pretending to snore. He cannot get comfortable for a long time.

“Why won’t you remove the problem from your life, Helen? There’s a problem staring you in the face, and you won’t do anything about it, wont’ act, won’t confront it, won’t get rid of it, refuse to take part in the battle. Why? Because you don’t recognize the problem. That’s what I think it is, Helen. You don’t recognize the problem. It’s living with you, it’s breathing with you, but you still can’t see it! What keeps you in this hellhole of a town anyway, this rotten neighborhood, this useless house, this lack of shelter, this war zone, this rat’s nest? What keeps you here, huh? Name it! You know it. You know it, you know it, you know it. Only one thing. What keeps you working your back-breaking job with the dirty floors and the dirty looks and the dirty dollar bills? Somebody won’t get a better job, somebody likes his job talking people to death too much, he’s good at it, but it doesn’t pay enough, it doesn’t pay the bills, doesn’t keep Rachel warm by itself, the girl, your girl warm, does it, does it now? She’s your girl, not his, he doesn’t care about her, look at the way he talks to her, talks at her, practices his speech patterns on her, bounces things off her, he’s gonna break her some day. Yeah, he’s gonna break her some day, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it. Not a thing. You can’t stop him. Nobody can stop him. Nobody can control him. Look at him, he can’t control himself, he’s shaking, always shaking, always tapping, always fidgeting, always shaking, always on the edge, you hate him. You hate him, don’t you? You have to do something about him, and you have to do it now. He’s gonna wind up hurting Rachel, or hurting you. He’s gonna be waving that pistol around. Or he’s gonna talk to one person he shouldn’t, say something he shouldn’t, let some addled syllable roll off that warped tongue of his, and you’re both gonna die. Because of him. Act while you can, Helen. Get rid of the problem. And remember, you don’t have to do it by yourself. Just tell me. Just say yes. That’s all you have to do, Helen. I want to help you, but I won’t act without your permission. Just say yes. Just say yes. I need an answer, Helen. Just say yes. No, better yet, just don’t say no. Just don’t yourself, yourself and Rachel. Just don’t say no. Let me get rid of your problem.”

In a fit of frenzy, Randal spits the last word onto the mirror. It runs down the reflection of his face as he pants for breath. The mirror reflects a cheap motel bathroom and his red face. He sucks in air greedily. His pistol is lying on top of the Gideon Bible in the drawer of the bedside table, and he has kept his distance. His cell phone is lying open on the bed, but he hasn’t dared go near it either. The saliva reaches the bottom of the mirror and slides off. Randal stares for a moment longer. Then he rushes out of the bathroom and slams the door behind him.

He strides to the bed. He picks up the phone. He dials with a jabbing finger. Incorrectly. He dials again, muttering under his breath.

As he speaks he paces jerkily. “Hank, it’s Randal. Okay. Listen, I’ve got a kinda last minute gig for you. Do you have time tonight? Yeah, it’ll be quick. I don’t foresee there being any trouble, no there shouldn’t be any trouble. Lackbay Motel, 344 Richardson St. Room 115. Yup, I even have someone to make sure the door is unlocked. No messing with bolts. And he should be sleeping. No, nah, just make it quick. Okay, okay sure. Money’s already been wired to your account. Good, good. Goodbye, Hank.”

Randal hangs up. He stands still for a minute, staring blankly at his phone. Then he stirs himself, walks to the window, opens it, and throws the phone as far as he can.

He takes his old suit coat off and drapes it on the back of the chair with the torn padding. He sits on the bed and slowly takes his shoes off. He sits on the edge of the bed for a long moment. He starts toward the bathroom, toward the mirror, again, but turns back. He turns off all the lights. He gets in bed. He unplugs the bedside clock. He breathes deeply. He tries to sleep.

The motel staff hear three gun shots at about two thirty a.m. One, two. Then the third. They echo off the poorly insulated walls. All the staff run down to room 115 together. Guests poke their heads cautiously out of rooms. Randal Kemps staggers out just as the staff arrive, bleeding from the shoulder and with a pistol and a Gideon Bible in his hands. There is blood spattered on his grey shirt as well. “Call 911,” he croaks. “If I’m gonna survive, I’m gonna survive. Call 911. Call an ambulance, I’m bleeding here, I’m bleeding all over your carpet, this is a problem, I’m bleeding, call an ambulance, hey, call the police too, there’s a skinny dead man in there. Call 911. Call an ambulance. Here, have a gun. If I’m gonna survive, I’m gonna survive.”