Saturday, May 28, 2005

"The Race" A Short Story

Earlier this week I mentioned a short story exercise my friends and I were starting. We each had to writ e short story (between 5-10 pages) and they could be about anything. The only stipulation was that each story had to contain, somewhere, the following things:

An Easter egg, A Vampire, Chicago, and the line "I took a picture upon reaching the top as evidence we had arrived."

Last night we had our reading and it was really cool to see what everyone came up with. No two styles or stories were alike. There was a children's adventure story, a comedic journal entry as written by Napoleon Dynamite's brother Kip, a mysterious journey between a photographer and a local, and my entry here. Some of the language is very un-Ed-like, so fair warning. But this is what I came up with and I hope you enjoy it.

I MAY HAVE MISJUDGED my athletic abilities on this one.

At the time I made the bet with Todd it didn’t seem like the Herculean task it actually turned out to be. But fast-forward 37 floors and hindsight is definitely 20/20.

Todd and I hadn’t seen each other for 17 years before 10:30 this morning. We grew up in the same neighborhood cul-de-sac in a small Indiana town and after graduating from high school and moving on to college a letter every few weeks turned into a postcard every few months which turned into a Christmas card once a year. No one ever intends to lose touch with their closest friends but sometimes it just happens. He ended up in Chicago; I was in St. Louis.

When a friend of mine recently hooked me up with a gig playing at a jazz club in Chicago I jumped at the opportunity. I’d only been to the Windy City twice before and knew the music scene was hopping. I was also excited about the chance to see my old friend once again. I had to call his parents in Indiana to get his contact information (”He’ll be so excited to hear from you!”) and 45 minutes later Todd and I had planned to meet at the Sears Tower to reunite and catch up.

We met this morning and it was like no time had passed. We were our old selves again: laughing, joking, and punching one another in the arm. He showed me photos of his children and I brought him one of my cheapo CDs (”Even if you don’t like it, they make a great coaster!”).

Soon, the conversation turned tourist-y. “The Sears Tower, huh?” I said. “Tallest building in the world, right?”

“Well, it used to be. Up until like ‘96.” Todd replied.

“What’s the tallest building now?”

“Who gives a shit?” Todd said. I laughed out loud because I couldn’t agree more.

I craned my neck upward. “How tall is it?”

“110 stories.”

“That’s a lot of stairs,” I mused.

“Well you know, Ray, there’s also an elevator.”

“Smart ass.” I shot Todd the bird. “I mean if there’s a fire or something that’s a lot of stairs from all the way at the top.”

“If there was a fire, you couldn’t get out of my way fast enough,” Todd said. “I’d be the first one out of there.” I looked at him, specifically at his gut that made him look six months pregnant.

Todd caught my drift. “Screw you, Ray, I might have put on a few pounds, but I can still outrun you.” I didn’t mean to be so obvious about it but my reaction was the very definition of spontaneous laughter.

And thus the bet was born.

Twenty minutes later I replayed all of this in my head as I slowly climbed past the 46th floor. How did I let him talk me into a race up the stairs of the motherfucking Sears Tower? Sure, why not, I have nothing to do, why don’t I climb all the way to the top of the tallest building in the world (sorry, second tallest)? What the hell was my problem? I get winded carrying a bag of groceries to my third-floor apartment, what made me think I could not only climb a quarter of a mile up, but also beat the former high school football stud in the process?

Todd was far from the athlete he used to be, which is probably what convinced me I could finally beat him in an athletic game. We’re both just shy of 6 feet tall, although I thought I had a distinct advantage. Todd weighs in at around 240 and I only carry 170 pounds on my frame. There’s no way Todd can take me in this. Is there?

Through his connections with the building management, we were able to get permission to use two different stairwells at two opposite sides of the building. The rules were simple. We each climb a different set of stairs so we have no idea where the other person is. We can stop and rest as long as we want, but we cannot use any of the elevators. Of course, there’s really nothing stopping us from doing so except for our promise not to break that rule and among close friends, your word is all you need. (Although the building is 110 stories, the actual stairwell is only 103 floors so you know, we should be done a lot sooner.) With “On your mark, get set, and go” announced via cell phone, we were off. The first person to the top is the winner. Nice and easy. At least on paper.

Not so nice and easy to actually execute. Ask my legs as I reached the 39th floor. (Is that it? 39? I’m not even halfway there?) With each step I take my legs cry out at me. I’m an idiot.

I tell myself that when I get to the 50th floor I’ll stop and take five. Take a hit from my water bottle, catch my breath, and pray my second wind decides to show up to the dance. And then I realize that I tossed out what was left of my water right before entering the building. I can’t wait for that to come back and haunt me.

I hear voices above me. I can’t make out what they are saying but they obviously belong to a man and a woman speaking in soft tones. Surely they hear my heavy feet clunking up the stairs. What will they think when they turn and see me; out of breath and sweat pouring down my forehead like something out of a bad Saturday Night Live sketch? I can’t wait to see the look on their faces. Maybe I’ll ask them if there’s an elevator in the building just to get a laugh out of them.

But then I think twice about it. They have no idea I’ve been climbing the whole way up. For all they know I’m just running up from the floor below so I wouldn’t have to wait for an elevator. But surely they’ve been hearing my footsteps for some time now...they’d have to know that I’ve come at least three or four floors, wouldn’t they?

And suddenly they are in front of me. With all of my inane inner ranting about what they might think when they saw me, I gave no heed as to what I might see when I saw them.

I don’t think they even knew I was there. Their lips were pressed so close together that it almost looked like one person. These two were really going at it. I think I may have seen a nipple at one point but I quickly diverted my eyes and continued my climb. If they were aware of my presence they gave no indication. They had more important things to take care of and it was obvious I did not rank high on their list of priorities.

As soon as I passed them I realized that they were only distracting me from what was becoming an excruciating pain in my left leg; my knee to be exact. When I was standing on the street corner 44 floors below I hadn’t even thought of the incident at the laundry mat three years earlier.

I was doing a couple of extremely-overdue loads of wash on a rainy Friday night. I didn’t have a gig and since most people were out on Friday nights doing things that had nothing to do with laundry, topped by the fact that no one wants to lug their dirty clothes around in the rain, I was guaranteed an almost-deserted laundry atmosphere. Just the way I liked it. The only other people in the place were a middle-aged woman and her toddler terror who insisted on screaming every observation that popped into his head at the top of his lungs whilst repeatedly opening the washers mid-cycle and announcing, “THEY AIN’T DONE YET!” as water sloshed onto the floor.

Ten minutes after loading my clothes into a dryer the front doors opened and a wet whistling wind began to whip through the room. A woman struggling with two large laundry baskets did her best to make a speedy entrance but it wasn’t quite working out for her. She carried one basket in her arms while dragging the other behind her and was having trouble navigating the final turn inside. In the background the shouts of the Young Observer continued, refusing to be drowned out by the sounds of the wind and rain.

I made my way over to give the woman a hand. I reached for the basket in her arms and said, “Here, let me help you with that.”

She looked up at me and her brown eyes smiled. “Thank you,” she said, almost immediately diverting her eyes back down to the floor. By her accent I could tell those words were probably a majority of the English she spoke.

I smiled back at her, relieved her of her bulky load, and tried to guess her name in my head. Maria? Carmen? Rosa? And then I fell. The Young Observer's plot to foil my attempts of being smooth and cool were successful and my foot slipped on one of the puddles of water his curious excursions had created. I fell faster than an ostrich on ice skates and I heard my knee make a noise like I sat on a box of Cracker Jacks.

I played it off for most of the night (”I’m fine, really”) and Miranda (Miranda! I wasn’t even close!) had no idea how much pain I was actually experiencing. I’m pretty sure she thought my moans and groans later that night were just part of the throes of passion but as we laid there afterward, me spooning her from behind, brushing her hair back from her eyes and kissing the back of her neck, her contented and comfortable sigh told me she was completely unaware that my knee was begging me to “just cut me off for God’s sake and put me out of my misery you stupid son of a bitch!”

One thousand days and 56 floors later my knee reminded me that yes, not much had really changed, and I was still a stupid son of a bitch.

On the 59th floor I told myself there was no way in hell Todd had made it up this far. Not that you’ll find me gracing the cover of Men’s Health anytime soon, but I’m in pretty good shape and good God Todd got fat! I don’t care how fit you used to be, you can’t let yourself balloon up like that and then expect to win a race to the top of the Sears fucking Tower.

I pictured Todd in the opposite stairwell clinging to the rail, huffing and puffing. He’s probably already vomited the croissants we shared this morning and very likely is lying crumpled up and dying somewhere between floors 37 and 38. What if I make it all the way to the top only to learn that he’d had a heart attack and has been lying there for God knows how long, gasping for air, clutching his left arm, and trying to call for help all the while managing only to emit a faint wheeze?

Why the hell am I thinking like this? Why is it my thoughts automatically tend to jump to the worst-case scenario? Such is life here in the non-stop party that is my psyche.

My pace gradually slowed and as I arrived at the 66th floor I could just imagine an old woman with a walker behind me irked, annoyed, and wondering why I was moving so fucking slow. I laughed to myself at the idea and when I heard a soft cough above me I almost screamed out loud. The only noise I’d heard for the last hour had been the echo of my own footsteps and all thoughts of other people being in the stairwell left a long time ago.

There on the landing of the 68th floor was a small man leaning against a door that lead to a hall presumably lined with an endless row of offices. My first thought was he had gone out to sneak an illegal smoke but the absence of the unmistakable odor of tobacco in my nostrils told me that wasn’t the case.

Upon closer inspection I saw that he had been crying. His eyes were watery and red. Is this what happens to the office geek when no one else is looking? Have all of the jokes, jabs, and jibes finally taken their toll and forced this man to silently vent in private? How much seemingly harmless teasing has this man endured in his lifetime and more importantly, when will it stop? He probably taught himself to laugh along with the others and no one will ever know the chasm of ache that has been forged underneath that fake smile.

He looked at me as I began to pass and I nodded in acknowledgement. He said hello. The breath that wafted from his mouth nearly knocked me on my back. It smelled of old grease and farts. When he smiled the color of his teeth took me back to my childhood.

As youngsters my little brother and I always looked forward to Spring and the Easter holiday, primarily because of the invention of Paas. Was there anything else in the world that could even come close to the magic of coloring Easter Eggs? I loved to let mine soak in the colors for up to 20 minutes at a time because the longer they stayed submerged in the wonderful mixture of vinegar and Paas Pellets, the more brilliant the emerging colors would be. Red, blue, green and yellow did not exist with me. It was Red! Blue! Green! And Yellow!

One year my brother made an interesting discovery. He found that if you soak an egg in each of the colors for about five minutes at a time the result was a dull brown egg tinted gray. Not the most beautiful color in the world but nonetheless the answer to the question “What If?” This color came to be known to us simply as “THE EGG.”

This geeky little guy standing in the stairwell with breath that could strip varnish had teeth the color of THE EGG. He looked at me as if he were waiting for me to start a conversation; a conversation in which he didn’t know whether or not he wanted to be an active participant. And, like the stupid son of a bitch my knee continued to insist I was, I asked THE EGG how he was doing.

“Allergies,” he said, “They’re killing me.”

Allergies? That sure shot my story about the sad alienated crying geek all to shit. At least now I don’t feel so bad about wanting to stuff one of my sweaty socks down his throat to at least dilute the bad breath gurgling from up inside of him. If he were a cartoon character there would be little green clouds leaking from the corners of his mouth. And when he opened his mouth to speak again the words made me feel like I actually might be in a cartoon.

“There’s a vampire upstairs.” He said it with such a straight face and matter-of-factness that he might as well have said apples are his favorite fruit or cars run on gasoline.

It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how hard I was breathing. My chest felt like it was about to explode and I still had 35 floors to go. My heart was beating in my ears and I could have sworn this guy just told me there’s a vampire upstairs somewhere.

“Beg your pardon?” I said. Perhaps if I heard it again it’d be a little more believable the second time around.

“There’s a vampire upstairs. How far are you going up?”

“All the way,” I said. I felt like an ass standing there looking a big sweaty mess.

“Then you’ll want to watch out for the vampire. He won’t hurt you if you’re careful,” he advised me. He used his index finger to push his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose.

For a second or two I seriously contemplated hanging around for a bit and asking him about the vampire upstairs but I was in a race and couldn’t really waste a lot of time with the Dungeon Master swapping ghost stories.

“Thanks for the head’s up” is all I could come up with in response. What else was there?

When I reached the 73rd floor I was still thinking about the vampire upstairs. Partly because it was a little more than intriguing, but mostly because it kept my mind off of my knee which had just started making a scraping sound with each step upward. “That’s a new noise,” I told myself. “I’ve done everything from football to skiing to volleyball since that night with Miranda but this is the first time I’ve heard (and felt) it make such a sound. Of course, this is the first time I’ve climbed 74 flights of stairs since the injury, so I’m sure that has a bit to do with it.” I wanted to stop and look at the knee to see how badly it’d swollen but was too afraid of seeing something worse.

Around the 79th floor I started to get a little dizzy. I thought back to the half-full bottle of water I didn’t bother to finish or bring with me from breakfast and conceded for the third time during this little journey that I was indeed a stupid son of a bitch. I was sure it wouldn’t be breaking the rules to stop on one of the floors and snag some water from the Sparkletts dispenser in the first office I came across but I didn’t want to be That Guy. That Guy the office workers would be talking about for the next week and a half who came in off the street all disheveled and pungent and asking for a glass of water who finally had to be escorted out by security because damn, he’s drinking all the Sparkletts! Nah. I never want to be That Guy.

Instead, to ward off the dizziness I closed my eyes and clutched the handrail: my friendly metal guide who would lead me upward. When I opened my eyes again I hoped to find that I’d covered amazing ground and landed on the 103rd floor but I should have known better than to hope for so much. I swear the sign that read FLOOR 81 smirked at me as I passed.

I developed quite a severe limp in my left leg and for a few moments tried to tell myself I could make it the rest of the way by hopping on my right foot. Three pitiful hops and a slip that sent my head clunking against the steel railing convinced me otherwise. At least I had my throbbing forehead to divert me from my bum knee.

The 85th floor and for the first time I seriously considered taking the elevator.

The 87th floor and not only had I convinced myself that I wouldn’t be able to make it but was sure Todd was dead. I also wondered how long it would take to find the floor’s elevator.

It took me 25 minutes to get from the 88th floor to the 89th. This whole thing was stupid and, I was now sure, impossible. If it weren’t for my knee it wouldn’t be such an ordeal but I never even thought that spill in the laundry mat would come back to haunt me like this.

Granted, Todd had become the poster child of the average overweight obese American you read about in health reports but as far as I knew both of his legs still worked and I was convinced he had been at the top waiting for me for at least an hour and a half. And every floor has access to an elevator, right?

The 91st floor. So close to the end and yet still so fucking far away. I can’t make it. It can’t be done. It cannot be done. My knee was swollen to the point where I had to slice my jeans open with the penknife I usually carry in my back pocket. The skin underneath looked more like a green rotten head of cauliflower than a kneecap. I accidentally nicked myself with the knife and the milky pus that seeped out sent me into a fitful bout of dry heaves. So close, and yet so far.

I managed to open the heavy door marked FLOOR 91 and hobbled into the waiting hallway. I was so intent on finding an elevator that I can’t even describe my surroundings. Whether the walls were brick, carpeted, or covered with chicken heads I didn’t notice. I spotted the elevator a mere 10 yards away (thank God for small miracles!) and it remained my sole focus.

I limped my way to the elevator and pushed the button with the arrow pointing upward. I figured I’d check to see if Todd had bested me once again. At least if he did the bastard would make for something nice and solid to hold me up on the elevator ride back down.

Once inside the elevator I collapsed. The doors quietly whooshed closed and once again I began to ascend. I watched the different floor numbers light up as I rose skyward with a speed that would have been unimaginable had I stuck to the stairs.

The soft tone of the elevator bell informed me that I had arrived at my destination. “Well,” I said to no one, “That was easy.”

And I didn’t move.

That was easy.

That was easy. And it wasn’t supposed to be. That’s why it was such a great bet in the first place. The best bets are never made over things that are easy to do. That would be pointless. The challenge of the bet is to prove to yourself that you can do something a little more difficult than your daily commute and if it takes a stupid bet to make you really dig in and reach inside of yourself then so be it.

When I look back on today I wasn’t going to remember my knee or my leg or my head (which by the way had been bleeding without my even realizing it) or the geek with bad breath in the stairwell. All I was going to remember about this day is I took the elevator to the top floor.

And that, my friends, is the very definition of bullshit.

I remained standing in the elevator and pressed the button labeled “91.”

Two and a half hours later I took my last excruciating step and was greeted by a door with FLOOR 103 spray-painted in red. Although this door didn't look much different from the hundred or so others I passed today, it was my favorite.

The remaining twelve floors had pretty much been a blur of fuzz and white-hot pain. I remember falling at least twice and felt warm tears on my cheeks at least twice as many times. I seem to recall a dark figure watching me at one point. It was hard to make out any details because the nearest light was either out of order or the bulb had simply burned out. I remember being afraid of the figure but as I slowly crawled upward he made no move to hinder my progress. He just watched. If he was even there at all. I was so out of it I’m sure it could very well have been an hallucination.

But I made it. I put my hand on the doorknob, turned it, and then stopped. I had forgotten my bottle of water 103 floors below me but my camera phone was still with me. I figured if any moment was worthy of being immortalized in a photo this was it.

I leaned over the handrail and peered down into the endless square zigzag maze of steps and guardrails below. I held out the phone and snapped away. I took a photo when we reached the top as evidence we had arrived. I knew I would need it.

I turned back toward the door. I wasn’t sure if Todd would be waiting for me on the other side or if I had indeed been the victor but I was pretty certain which way it was going to go.

The air hinge on the door stopped it from slamming shut and instead let out a small hiss as it quietly closed behind me.

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