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Phil in the Elevator

Mike Lubow

Phil is in the back of the elevator, watching the little lights over the door indicate which floor he's slowly rising past. He's going for eight and the car's stopping on three. He stands there, a dork holding a big ugly pot of tall yellow flowers and a balloon. He hates hospitals and he wonders how the fuck he got to this point in his confusing life as the light over the door goes from three to four.
            He's in the elevator of a big city hospital, and he's crowded into the back, up against the wall of the long car. This is not pleasant. Phil's a little claustrophobic, and if it were an elevator in an office building, he'd be freaking. But he figures, hell, it's a hospital so you've got to be somewhat safer here. The place is all about health, and they're not going to let you get trapped in an elevator or have an elevator crash to the basement or anything like that. A hospital's got to have foolproof elevators, right?
            These are some of Phil's thoughts, and they help keep the claustrophobia to a minimum, but there's more bothering him than just the trapped feeling. There's the feeling that he's this pathetic dork because he's carrying a big flowerpot with an arrangement of long, yellow flowers sticking out of it. And they're wrapped in clear plastic crinkly stuff that adds intrusive embarrassing noise to the intrusive embarrassing yellow largeness of the floral arrangement. And there's a balloon sticking out of the top. The balloon says "Get Better I Love You."
            The whole thing is way too tall, reaching from Phil's hand to the ceiling of the infernal, enclosing elevator with its narrow sides, longish depth, eerie white fluorescent lighting, and its crowd of people from all corners of the galaxy. And he's thinking, how did I wind up here?


Between floors. Phil stopped in Grand Island, Nebraska once. It was an overnight stay on a road trip from Chicago to Boulder. He was at a roadside inn along the Platte River. Late summer.
            After a dinner of steak and fries, he went for a walk, away from the inn toward open land, and the sun still shone at eight something. The air was full of insects but they weren't biting, just buzzing around, part of the nature of the place. There was a field and in it were some cattle. Phil had no idea what kind. They didn't look like dairy. Maybe the kind we eat, the kind we get our steaks and burgers from. Reddish brown with white faces. Phil didn't think, at the time, about the steak in his belly.
            They were standing knee-high in the buggy, soft grass of this open pasture, with the sky going orange and the air smelling of earth, cattle, the humid evening to come. Phil went to the rusted barbed wire fence that contained the cattle pasture. There weren't a lot of animals, maybe ten, and they were insignificant against all that land. Anyone could tell they didn't have a sense of the fence. On their side, they could see unlimited country, and they could walk or run anywhere, wild as wild deer or elk. Phil could tell they felt it, the freedom.
            There was a shaggy, outdoor toughness to them, none of that beaten-down attitude you see in farm animals. One young small male, barely out of calfhood, ran around while the others walked or just stood and grazed. It looked at Phil and ran toward the fence where he stood. It ran at him fast, like a horse might run. Phil had never seen a cow do that. (Cow's the wrong word, the wrong gender of course, but bull seems wrong, too, since the thing was so young and Phil just doesn't know what to call a male cattle; he's a city guy, so screw it, it's a "cow" for now, a male cow, not important).
            Then it turned quickly, hooves ripping chunks of ground, and ran in another direction. Again, surprisingly fast, again, like a horse. Or a colt, it might be called. It was a colt of a calf. Wild, fast, and Phil could see it was happy. Happy in the summer evening, in sight of the elders of its herd, but free to do what it could do, which at the moment was run fast and turn and run fast in another direction, going even faster, taunting Phil, taunting everything, knowing it could be strong and fast, and just run like hell and the joke's on Phil.
            But Phil thinks, sadly, the joke's on the animal. The poor young colt, the small male cow, is here for one purpose: to be meat. The cow doesn't know it. He thinks life is good, that this pasture's all his, that this planet's all his, that his strength and sense of fun and happiness are all his. But Phil knows it's just a domestic animal in a big wide pen. All else is illusion. The animal's there to be eaten someday.
            Phil goes back to the inn to watch TV, feeling a little unhappy about the pasture, but shaking off the feeling.


Between floors. Phil's a college guy and he doesn't much like it. The classes are hard and boring both. All he really wants to do is sleep. Maybe at night he wants to go out and drink beer. He might want to read some philosophy books because, true to his name, he's got a strange philosophical itch in him somewhere, but the books are not for any of his college classes. Phil's college classes are not that impractical. They're about economics and science and real-world stuff.
            Phil's just going through the motion of college and taking these practical classes because, well, he has to. His parents made him go. They're paying for it. And Phil figures he's got to have a practical education to have a decent job, decent money, a decent life, although he's not entirely sold on this logic in his gut.
            He tells his friends that he thinks an uneducated long-haul truck driver has a decent life. The driver's a modern cowboy and gets to see a lot of the country, and can be his own boss. But Phil's friends and the world scoff at this. On some level of inbred good judgement he knows they're right. So he carries books from school building to school building, and one day he sees a girl who's carrying books, too, and she looks at him.
            For a reason that's utterly inexplicable, but probably planned, set out like a wall of dominoes from the moment of the big bang billions of years ago to that moment, she smiles at Phil. All those eons, the churn of cosmological forces, unfathomable time, the fusion of atoms and stars and the formation of planets and people and the evolution of life on earth, tadpoles then us, and all leading up to that one fertile moment where this stranger, this girl carrying books, looks at Phil and smiles.
            And the smile carries a charge. It's fucking hard-wired into Phil's destiny, that smile. The girl's got a big smile and big tits. She's pretty. She's exactly what Phil's looking for. He doesn't even remember if he smiles back. He's not good at social stuff. But the next day or so, it happens again, her big smile, and-don't forget, the big tits-these are important. Important to Phil because he's a horny, horny guy, and yeah, the word's got to be said twice, in fact it could be said a thousand times and still not adequately cover the subject.
            Point is, this girl's looking hot to Phil. She is hot to Phil. She's tall and pretty and got those tits calling out to him, hooking him, pulling him in and clinching the deal with that smile, that enveloping smile that is a force field, like in the sci-fi books, a force field he's not going to escape. And he doesn't want to escape; he likes it. He wants more of it. More smile. More of the tits. More of her prettiness and her all-girl girliness. Her dresses, dresses that unbutton, dresses that lift up, soft redolent flesh.
            This kind of thing can change a guy's college experience. It can knock him out. Everything changes, and there's more of the smile, the smile is the whole fucking world, every day, and Phil thinks he can run with that smile anywhere, to any horizon, and life is good. He's got himself a girlfriend, man, and he owns this whole fucking planet.


Between floors. Phil saw this nature film once, something on National Geographic maybe, about wildlife in Alaska. He likes wildlife and he likes Alaska. But it wasn't all tame and environmental sensitivity stuff. It was blood and guts, about wolves attacking a moose. A fucking moose snuff film, is what it was, and Phil felt drawn to it while at the same time a little upset by it. As though he were intruding into the moose's private death, being rude by staring, being disrespectful to the moose.
            It wasn't just that the moose was being attacked and killed, eventually to be eaten, a bloody mess of meat and fur and bones on the snow with the embarrassment of overengineered, useless antlers lying nearby. No, it wasn't that. It was that the moose never really understood what was happening to it.
            Sure, it kicked out a back leg at the wolves when they came close. Then, with an imperious, unconcerned strut, it just moved away from them like they were some kind of bothersome insects. And it started grazing again. It didn't run in terror. It didn't try to hide. It just did its moose business, snuffling for weeds or hay in the snow, walking slowly.
            The wolves would snap at its rear, at its legs, at its underbelly, and the moose would dance away and then resume grazing. Another leg kick. Sometimes it would turn, lower its head and swing those overrated antlers at the wolves, but wolves are fast, and easily skipped away. Once, while the moose was trying to buck a blur of a wolf, a big serious wolf came up behind and under, all fangs, and took a slash out of the moose's genital area.
            Blood flowed, then a long string of gut, actual visible intestine dropped down and out, a horrific rope of pale gray and red which the wolf pulled on; then other wolves swarmed in and pulled while the camera cut away to a long shot and a different view. This was a little violent and gory for National Geographic.
            But the crazy memorable disconcerting thing was that the moose still didn't get it! It flicked its back legs and the wolves fled for a moment, just moving off a short distance, and the moose started grazing again. What could it have been thinking? Hey, there's some nice looking green weeds over there, I think I'll chew me some. Damn, that wolf bite smarts. Well, I guess I'll just walk over and get some more of those greens over by that rock.
            Phil holds this memory, the memory of the moose, how it must have been thinking that animals so much smaller and individually weaker than itself could do no damage, that they could never change the moose's day, its world, its way of life. But in the next scene, the moose was a carcass and the wolves were growling at the approach of ravens, the wolves with their muzzles all bloody.
            Soon they'd rest and the ravens would have all they wanted, which wasn't a lot, as their bird bellies were small, not much bigger than a moose's eyeball. But there were no moose eyeballs to see any of this. It was a moose autopsy scene, with no end of bones, and Phil had to say, the poor stupid moose. The moose never got it, not even when it was all over.


Girls. Seems like they're such a simple concept. You see one over there. Mmmm. She smells good. Like powder. She's got these sexy parts. Something about her butt makes you vibrate with a kind of craziness. Her chest, soft and bulgy and sweet and pointy and jiggly, and for chrissakes you're getting a hard-on just thinking about it.
            In college, Phil went to a movie theatre called the "Art." It played two kinds of films. Sometimes it showed avant-garde foreign "cinema" which Phil found frankly awful because they were in black and white with subtitles, and were overwhelmingly morose. Other times, late at night, it showed skin flicks which were attended by drunk frat guys and the occasional single soul like Phil who let his horniness grab him by the balls and take him to the movies, all eyes.
            In one skin flick scene, a pretty girl has climbed a ladder in a library to retrieve a book from a top shelf, and as she comes back down her cheerleadery dress catches on the ladder and hikes up as she steps lower, rung by rung, until her cute, pink bare butt is showing, at least the bottom half of it, but that's enough to rivet Phil to the moment, actually weld him to it, hot weld him to it.
            He's never been more in the moment. It's like he's in the pounding heart of Stravinski's "Rite of Spring" or Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" where it's all banging primeval percussion, a heady chorus of wild bam-bam-bam, tomtoms amplified by all the power of a full orchestra going rhythmically insane, and this girly scene's cinematic, full-color, larger than life, pinker than life, pure glory.
            And the moment is climaxed when the pretty girl, not moving to cover anything, turns her head over her shoulder, looks back at the camera-at Phil-and smiles. She smiles! And Phil, this nineteen-year-old sack of hormones, dupe of the natural universe, he creams in his pants.
            He didn't even touch anything. He didn't even move. His polite upstanding hands are nowhere near his impolite upstanding crotch. Some involuntary spring sprung and sprouted when that girl, that wonderful heroic girl, looked over her shoulder, and that involuntary part of him just surged, a wide-awake wet dream, look-ma-no-hands, and it's all because girls are just, well, girls. Such a simple concept. At least to Phil's body and mind they are. Poor schmuck.


Between floors. Years later Phil's in a strip club. Nothing untoward going on. It's a business trip and he's with a client. A pink, naked girl comes up to him, all powdery, a marshmallow of a powdery girl with plump tits bared for the world to see, and she tells him her name is Tiffany and he totally believes it IS Tiffany and he can tell she likes him. He knows this because she compliments him on how he dresses, something about liking the kind of shirt he's wearing, and he puts some bills in her garter, because that's the thing guys do in this club, but she doesn't seem to notice, and why would she? She's into Phil.
            She likes his shirt, she thinks he's handsome obviously, and she'd like to be his girlfriend. She'd like to sail away with him on a skiff in the South Seas, all saltwater and sunset, and her being naked with those marshmallowy tits uncovered for him, and those big eyes, to say nothing about her butt because, well, let's not get too carried away here. The point is, this is a heroic girl and she is the pure form of girl. The Aristotelian pure form. (Just because Phil and all guys are lame jerks who can't see beyond the pink on a girl's bare skin doesn't mean he hasn't studied a little philosophy.)
            And all this falls apart - the image of this sweet pure form of sex girl, the fantasy of the skiff on the Pacific, the fancy of her fancying Phil and his shirt - because on the way out of the club, and, c'mon it's not a club, it's a fucking BAR, he sees her talking with a girlfriend, animatedly, and she's got a cigarette in her mouth, and she's now ugly as humans can be when they're just plain humans and not Aristotelian pure ideals; and the cigarette is bouncing as her lips move, very unbecoming, and she's crying, talking loud, crying with tears running with black eye paint, smearing her face, and her clothes are kind of garish, embarrassing for their poor taste, and she says loud enough for Phil to overhear, "My sister won't talk to him, my daddy won't talk to him, nobody will talk to him!"
            And Phil doesn't know what the hell she's talking about. It doesn't matter, but yet it has great import and is a great dousing of cold water onto his hot drunk imagination because he realizes this marshmallow pink girl is not that at all but a real person with a real life, annoying unreliable relatives, a bad boyfriend nobody will talk to, and other things, probably, things like sick grandparents, a noisy muffler on a bad car, bills that go unpaid. Mold is probably growing on her shower wall tiles, there are disappointments in her days, leaky mascara, garlic breath, cigarette breath; and there are underarm deodorants, toenail clippers, tampons and fungal ointments in her bathroom, her moldy tiled bathroom.
            The truth of it all bubbles up, maybe because as she blubbers to her friend, she reminds Phil of his sister. His sister has a doll dog named "Mr. Sweeny," and this insipid name nauseates Phil. The silly sister, the idiotic doll dog, and most of all the stupid name for it. And Phil realizes this girl is like any person, and might even be some poor schmuck's sister herself.
            She surely has doctor appointments, sinus infections, a long tradition of loving some mangy doll that might have a stupid name, and she might have a history of bedtime cuddling with this unfresh smelling doll stretching back to childhood. In her room there might be a trophy for some high-school dance contest. She probably has a soft spot for her grandmother. There could be, must be, a whole endless universe of personal trivia including a book of snapshots of her in a ballet tutu and Halloween costumes and prom dresses and fat dead war-hero uncles and her with braces on, all of which has nothing to do with Phil's sex fantasies. NOTHING to do with them.
            It sobers him up, even though he's drunk maybe five or six beers in the place. But now he's sober.
            All this goes through Phil's mind as he stands there in the back of the crowded elevator, in a hospital that smells of hospital. A smell composed of medicines and disinfectants and the ozone of electrical mystery machines and overtaxed heating and air-conditioning units and bodies, the bodies of patients, their bandages, their attendants with their constant use of soaps and creams, of vaporizers, and living and dying flowers, and then of course, piss and shit, which is not as well contained in a hospital as it is in most other buildings that our poor messy species inhabits.
            The Madison Avenue term "roach motel" was not a bad product name, and also a pretty good name for most of the places we higher forms of life spend our lives. So Phil's standing there, in an elevator. HOW DID HE GET THERE?
            He's holding these conspicuous, big yellow flowers in an annoyingly heavy flowerpot, with the balloon bopping around above him and everyone near him, and he looks straight ahead. The numbers above the door have become the focus of the moment, of the whole world, actually. They change, time changes. Just as time has changed for Phil. The numbers flick and illuminate, fade and disappear, slowly, certainly.


Between floors. The girl with the big smile, yeah, her. Not the stripper with the sad eyes and cigarette in the parking lot, the con game of her bare skin and rip-off of her flattery. No, the girl in college with her books and smile and, sure, the big tits. They were a big part of it. Nature will not be denied.
            The numbers change, and the smile girl was there again and again. At night the smile set in the west and, like the primitive man Phil is, he wondered if it would rise the next day in the east, and he sang a little prayer like Dionne Warwick sang so sweetly, that it would. And Dionne's little prayer worked, and the smile rose again the next day, and crops would grow and life would live because of it.
            The whole adventure, Phil thought at the time, had nothing to do with ever becoming a dork in an elevator. It had to do with being wild, spitting in the eye of the dull world. Running around, staying out all night, driving deep into the country to small motels and sinning to high heaven with all kinds of body games, some that came naturally, instinctively, and some that were pure mimicry of the salacious fictions of his fondly recalled skin flicks. But no, it all came instinctively, and living like an outlaw was just fresh air.
            He'd never go back to the ordinary life of everybody else. Those poor schmucks who went to classes, who watched sitcoms on TV, who had dinner at the homes of their families and made small talk. There was no more small talk. Everything of interest to Phil was outside the expected. The fun of being pulled into something, the fun of being in control of it all. Nothing like it, before or since.
            And then he and she were together, in their apartment. Their married home. Still fun, but where the fuck were the curtain rods? How come we have no curtains? And the door slams. She's gone. What did he say to cause this? She's walking around in the dark, mad at him. Always mad at him. He's always stepping on her emotional toes without realizing it. Phil had never been taught the right steps. Fuck dancing anyway. It's not his thing. He goes down to look for her. He finds her and brings her back upstairs. The numbers above the elevator door flicker.
            Phil wants the marshmallowy powder-soft good stuff. Tits, a nice butt, don't ever talk about a doll with a name like "Mister Algernon," he couldn't take that, and the mascara running and the family with dying grandmas and sick uncles and no end of cousins and brothers and sisters; he didn't go to the strip club or the skin flicks to see the likes of them. Leave them at the door. But there's more, of course. There's more to her.
            There's the emotional bullshit he requires, the allaying of groundless fears by kindness day and night, the sharing of history; he can't get into this stuff, it's not his style, and he's not going any further with this so don't expect it from him, but it's not fair to her to say she's just tits and ass, although as she ages, as Phil ages, poor fucked-up dork that he is, she might find it perversely flattering, this crudeness, and be amused.
            So the floors change, and now he's been together with her for more time than he's not been together with her, and she's having this operation which is nothing serious, thank god, but she's got to spend days and nights in this fucking scary, bad-smelling HOSPITAL, and Phil's standing in this elevator, way in the back, a dork with flowers, wondering how the hell he got here.
            Glad for her, of course, that it's nothing serious, thank god.

©  Mike Lubow 2006

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Author Bio

Mike Lubow's short stories have appeared in national magazines including Playboy , and many literary magazines, such as Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine, The Blue Moon Review, Roanoke Review, and Confluence . He also writes a regular column called "Got A Minute?" TM for The Chicago Tribune . He has taught writing at Columbia College in Chicago and has written for William Shatner and other well-known celebrities.
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November- December 2006 #56