|Chagrin River Review||
Joaquin shifted his weight but the elevator smelled like grape and he couldn’t focus. It bumped, too, when it stopped at each new floor. He could work only in thirty second bursts.
There was the matter – prominent today – of the passengers, their puzzlement. On the first two days, he’d tried to explain. But his sentences flickered like string lights battling a wayward fuse: sparks of coherence, but no illumination. This, he thought, is why only poets should speak. At rush hour the elevator crammed up, and strangers jostled his equipment. Tonight, he gave up and went to scrounge for dinner.
As he ate in a sleazy diner car down the street, Joaquin reviewed his progress. The building manager snuck away on a two-week vacation. With six days remaining, Joaquin felt confident he could finish his work. A small mark, his masterpiece, but he’d imprint a smudge of beauty in a depressed building in the center of a city struggling with despair.
The elevator constantly smelled like grape now, all because of a disastrous child. This disastrous child tore open a juice box with his little kid incisors. Joaquin came to recognize the disastrous child during the elevator’s frequent lobby stops. One time, he saw the disastrous child sit on a stranger’s puppy.
Another time, disastrous child tore up letters from a postal box that had been left open. Not yet 10 years old, he was a man who left whatever he found in shambles.
On the day of the grape incident, the disastrous child stood on the elevator jamming a straw into his juice box. The movements on Joaquin’s periphery annoyed him just enough to stop work until the child exited. The straw would not penetrate the box. Teeth were recruited. The elevator floor became grape, a stained floor mirror to compartment’s water-damaged ceiling tiles. On his walk to the diner car, Joaquin discovered wine-like stains on the cuffs of his jeans. The recognition cost him. As he looked back up to the street, Joaquin found a shouting bicyclist in his path. He lurched into the street, where a passing bus nicked his easel and sent it flying.
Needless to say, the elevator’s grape aroma offered no fond reminisces.
One woman, Joaquin called her grandma, rode the elevator with him every day, her face wrinkles shining like cracks under the half-cocked florescent lighting. She looked too old for a job and her family must all have died or forgotten her, because she had nothing to do. Three or four times a day, she’d lug a folding chair from her apartment into the elevator and then go sit on the sidewalk. She’d wave and smile at pedestrians too rushed or stoned to reciprocate. After an hour or so she’d toddle back in, ride the elevator upstairs, and repeat the journey later in the day.
Grandma never asked Joaquin about his work. She never even spent much time staring at him. Once, when a brush slipped from his hand and skittered across the floor, she labored to retrieve it. Joaquin stood frozen, not knowing whether he should accept this generosity or help the old woman. Like a crumbling building, she became gradually smaller until she reached the floor, picked up the brush, and still kneeling, returned it to him.
Joaquin decided to dedicate his project to this old woman.
Other elevators might have made better canvases. But Joaquin remembered having been to a rent party here, and checking on it, found the front door lock broken. The painter lacked a proper job, and so his project proceeded in steady fashion. Each day, he set up his easel on the side of the elevator not given over to buttons. He set the print replica on the easel and thumbed squares of putty on the back to affix it to the stand. Due to the squeezed space, he put only three colors on his palette at a time, so Joaquin often thought out what he’d be working on each day.
Because he could not reach it, the top edges of the painting remained the elevator’s original color, a cantankerous eggshell.
One day a man boarded the elevator that Joaquin did not recognize. The man glared at the buttons, pushing the top three, and then glared at Joaquin. Joaquin did not like being glared at. And he did not like the overabundance of stops and starts the elevator would now be making. But knowing his words could jeopardize his vision, Joaquin said nothing. The list of people who could potentially, theoretically, possibly, arguably put an end to Joaquin’s project numbered just over seven billion: everyone on earth but him.
The man glared some more and left the elevator at his first stop. Joaquin resumed painting.
[How does a man painting an elevator wall sense a passenger’s glance? Raised hairs on the neck? Goosebumps? That ghostly bubble in the stomach? No. Joaquin simply observed the reflections in the junky metal handrails.]
Not more than a few well-placed strokes and the code man returned. This time, Joaquin’s stomach possessed the ghostly bubble.
The man identified himself as Larksmith, Code Enforcement. He began to ask questions: Who directs you? Where is your permit? Why bother?
Joaquin ignored him and kept painting until Larksmith demanded identification, whereupon Joaquin offered up the meager amount of money in his wallet. Larksmith, disappointed with Joaquin’s poverty, took the bills and exited the elevator at the bottom floor. Robbed of his dinner, Joaquin tried to -- to no avail -- to herd his mind back around to the masterpiece. This grapey, shabby elevator suddenly felt like a mausoleum, and he a ghost on the wrong side of the wall.
Sometimes, in the pit of the waking world’s workday, the elevator sat empty on the ground floor, doors open. The mausoleum vanished, and Joaquin in his airy solitude believed in beauty and happiness for his city and hope for a beautiful non-grape-scented prosperity. With the swarm of an eager acolyte, Joaquin imbued the elevator with thousands of swirling, mottled brushstrokes. He dashed long arcs of wildfire orange and luminous blues, pulled back during the delicate tasks, like the sun-tint off the wooden bridge, the bridge that wanders into the background like the tail of comet forgotten for its cousin, the luminous core.
It was one of the open-door days, a clock-orbit of serenity, when Larksmith next appeared.
Nearly finished with his masterpiece, Joaquin painted. Larksmith pushed half the buttons on the plate. Larksmith glared. Joaquin painted. Larksmith edged closer, glared harder. Joaquin painted. He backed off, glaring from a fisheye distance. Joaquin painted. By Joaquin’s count, Larksmith left the elevator seven times and returned eleven times. Joaquin’s ghostly stomach bubble ballooned near bursting. As they crawled back down to the lobby, Larksmith began his questions.
Who directs you?
Where is your permit?
Joaquin painted until Larksmith demanded identification. With no money, Joaquin waved his hands.
Larksmith persisted. As he walked off the elevator, he hefted Joaquin’s easel, disappointed with its lightness.
When you undertake to make the world beautiful in a unique way, the world makes sure it will cost you.
Joaquin had no money. Joaquin had no easel. Joaquin had a day before the building manager returned from vacation.
The next morning, he arrived without an easel. For an hour, he tried to hold the replica in one hand while balancing his palette on his forearm and painting with the other hand. More paint dripped across the grapey carpet than his canvas wall. The second hour, he wedged the replica on the shabby elevator rail. It stuck for a moment or two each time, before jumping to the floor.
Joaquin sighed, sick of being poor, sick of grape fumes, sick of painting someone else’s work. As he rested against the back wall, the doors opened to present disastrous child. He straddled no puppy, wrestled with no juice box yet, and stared at Joaquin, who for the first time actually faced him.
Why do you paint a screaming man who covers his ears from his own scream? The child asked.
People only think he’s screaming. But he’s really gasping at the screams that come from the world.
What is screaming around him?
Joaquin thought for a moment. Is that really what this painting was about? And even if, did it matter? And then: this child is about the height of an easel, no?
Would you like to help me finish?
Yes, said disastrous child.
Joaquin handed the replica to disastrous child and returned to a capable way of painting, adding strokes of wildfire and even twisting his body to its edges to fill in some of the top. Fifteen minutes into the arrangement, disastrous child began to gnaw on the replica. Joaquin pushed on, his hands oriented as much by guesswork as his masterpiece filled in and his replica disappeared. Nothing would stop him.
Not disastrous child. Not Larksmith. Not the building manager.
Speaking of . . .
Not long after the child-easel began eating the replica – he’d munched away about a third of the painting – Larksmith appeared, followed in by the old woman Joaquin called grandma.
Larksmith glared, disastrous child munched, grandma ignored all. Joaquin painted. The last brush strokes flared in his mind, already applied in that sense. All he needed was for this clunky physical dimension to catch up. Soon, as they shuttled up and down from grocery stores and clerk jobs and doctor’s offices and back to their rectangle dwellings, these elevator goers would feast on a shred, a ligament, of humanity.
Larksmith began his questions.
Who directs you?
Where is your permit?
Joaquin stopped painting.
I have nothing to offer you.
Who directs you?
Where is your permit?
Empty your pockets.
Disastrous child chomped away at the replica’s bracing protagonist. The old woman stood her ground, folding chair in hand.
Joaquin looked at his painting. A few strokes missing up toward the top, but the painting soared and something screamed and the man held his ears. Completion. It would be ok to be broken now.
I have nothing for you.
The code official snatched Joaquin’s palette. He was reaching for the brushes when the seat of the folding chair smashed into his chin.
The old woman could swing. And then in a pique of vigor, she opened her voice.
I direct him. I am this building’s manager. And you are not a code official. Mr. Smythe is the code official and he won’t look kindly on your deceptions. You will leave now and never return.
Larksmith, dazed and refused, stumbled off the elevator.
Joaquin tried to digest his turn of luck. Or was it luck? How could this woman be the building manager? Why had she not thrown him out?
Because you are creating beauty, she said simply.
But I heard all the lobby people talking, they said you were on vacation for . . .
Oh yes, I’ve been on vacation every day. She gestured to the sidewalk. Come have a cup of tea and I’ll tell you about it.
May I have just another moment?
Joaquin took the folding chair, stood on it and spent the last few strokes of his brush near the top of the painting. Then they rode the elevator up and the old woman took him to her apartment.
The disastrous child remained in the elevator, munching on the replica of the real thing in the shadow of a small mark of beauty.
J.A. O’Sullivan is a journalist living and working in South Dakota's Black Hills, where he came after working as a reporter in Spokane, Washington, and central Wyoming. He practices boxing, zen, and writing in all disciplines. His fiction has appeared in 605 Magazine, Frostwriting, and The Squawk Back.