In the lobby she is waiting for the elevator. At her feet a puddle is forming, a yellowish-brown leak. She identifies the source of the discharge, a plant, a potted Yucca lodged beside the lift. She shifts her feet, puts ten inches between her Italian tips and the murky little pond, now making a surreptitious play for autonomy in the lobby.
Harold comes up behind her unannounced.
After a cordial exchange he extends a cotton sleeve knit loose about his arm. She never hears Harold’s footfalls, so quietly does he advance. One would swear he had learned the art of stealth among the natives of the Borneo outback, knife clenched between his teeth, eyes glaring, so silent are his footfalls on the marble floor. Harold and his over zealous watering of the lobby’s plants: is it a sign? If so, a sign of what: age, ill-attention, senility? Could it be that his operational training is incomplete. Should she mention it? The moment is perhaps inopportune to bring up Borneo, mucky Borneo, the murky memory of.
The elevator shaft offers her no escape.
– Came in this morning, he says, his head turned upward on a raspy breath.
A short man: dapper and dry beneath a felt cap, two letters in his outstretched hand.
– Thought I might hold them for you, he adds, consigning to her what bears her name – Ms. S. P. Jacobs – his eyes shark-blue in clouds of white, settling gently on her now, expectant, though inoffensively so.
– Hello Harold.
She nods her thanks, shifting her feet as she does, thus moving five inches closer to the lobby’s murky shallows. Perhaps she has underestimated Harold’s strategic planning. Perhaps the puddle is a stratagem, a ploy.
She brings up the square manila envelope, the smaller of the two, for inspection: streaky black vertical ciphers neatly aligned – her father’s hand. She recognizes the elliptic writing immediately. The other item, all of a piece of officialdom, is an off-white envelope fashioned in a longer format – formally rectangular, the company’s Ronstad typeface set about the logo. She stifles a sigh, and is aware that something foul will repeat itself from aback her mouth if she does not at once swallow. Then she swallows again, pressing down hard on the button, calling the lift as if it were the Phoenix rising, swooping in to save her from it all.
The lift doors open, she steps in just before the mechanics begin to close on her. Harold makes no move to decamp: his eyes in Borneo mode, fixed on her, unwavering, fixed on something that only he can see.
Homo janitos. Keeper of the door. Harold: Meticulous caretaker, puddles neatly put to one side, to the generous side – of care-giver. Over zealous like the green.
Harold the concierge.
Harold James Finley, youngest son of Martha Jeanie Finley – her maiden name. Harold James, her only son, the son who bears her name. No more than a simple man – of the simplest, a man edging over the rim of his sixth decade, a man among urban men, if not on occasion urbane – a man of the most congenital urbanity. Homo urbanus. Homo janitos urbanus – a dying bread. Neither fish nor fowl. A race apart.
Suzanne fumbles for the arrows, the little buttons one stabs on the metal panel of a lift; she finds the right dial, pushes. The doors, stuttering at first, reopen, open on the caretaker, his eyes blinking, drinking light, leaking it like optic liquid, as though they were beholding the miraculous parting of clouds: grey sketched on grey separating aloft beneath brightly lit skies, whence from the heavens a gleam reflects upon her face, thus radiating an impenetrable corner of her flesh, perfectly pallid, and Harold, seeing beyond the silver doors he has begged open with his mere Borneo regard emanating from his thirsty little shark-blue maggots, the membranes of which brush her now so and so, and so closely too.
– Was there something else Harold?
She refrains from mouthing too loudly, refrains from clipping words to briskly with lip and tongue in the hallowed lobby of August Heights.
She waits: no heightened eyebrow raised in probing encouragement; no circumflex stitched on her brow; just the naked anthropological orbit, and an oval sparkling out from it bony socket,curious – or feigning curiosity, desirous of that curious effect, pretending.
– Ma’am, he replies, in response to inquiry, then pauses, entirely unconvinced of words.
She knows the drill. Better not to rush him, even though the passive act of waiting, and more so now, waiting at this end of one such bespoke day, seems to her a monstrous task. She knows better than to rush the toil of words on a hesitant tongue, knows better than to be too demanding with Harold James Finley. For the matter of speech is a particular labour for Harold James – and more so at this hour – much like waiting on him is tiresome for her.
Windswept on the pavement, a yellow plastic bag whips by. Distraction: her eye latches on, pursuing the gaudy form, an instant at flight, she too, chasing after it, evasive in the air aloft; an unshapely patch, she stares on, clutching at the plastic, as if it were her favourite pastime, holding on tight as it canter-levers a good distance above the ground, scooped up, hoisted into the air on a flurry, now outstretched above Harold’s dapper headgear, she trails the colour of the yellow body, now curling, flailing – not without a barren grace of its own – into a loop, now spiral, now swiftly thrust down in a battered descent whereby the windswept yellow bag rushes by upon an invisible tray of ground-air, till passing from her view she can follow the distraction no more, short of lunging past the concierge – gatekeeper, caretaker, first begotten of Martha Jeanie Finley – short of lunging past the dear woman’s only son so as to pursue distraction out the door, she lets its go, returning to the lobby, to him, to the hour, to the very minute.
He appears haggard, and haggard for him appears right.
She feels harried, perhaps wrongly.
She makes a mental note of one or two items she must not forget to pack, standing ready, waiting on Harold, who is as languid as mystery. Borneo, she tells herself, has enduring effects on the mind, on the tongue, on the compass between thought and lip. Attending words she thinks of the items she ought not overlook should she wish not to appear a fool tomorrow, she herself feeling that she may – a feeling based on nothing at all other than the possibility that she might, should she forget.
– I was wondering, he says, breaking off just as soon, before he can gain purchase on the unnamed thing.
– What is it Harold, the veil deftly tearing through her tone, neatly torn, becoming two, she now impatient?
– I shan’t be in next week, you know. Back on Friday. Thought I might remind you. Going up to see my mother. Wasn’t sure if I had, had thought to tell you, had told you. Did I?
– Right Harold, back on Friday, thanks for letting me know. Have a good evening.
His finger raised in an antiquated gesture, he doffs his cap, makes to leave, to decamp from his temporary station. Harold James, son of Martha Jeanie, his old-man eyes smiling dimly, shark-blue in clouds of white, now separating from her.
She hesitates, unsure why, and then calls the lift.
A shift: that is what she needs most, a shift in her fiction, as her mother would have said.
She glances down at her feet. She notices the right flank, now annexed from toe to heel. A shift, but where to – higher ground?