The Madison was old, red-brick, and smoke-stained on its far side from the chimneys of a nearby factory that had closed a decade ago. The building’s five stories housed a few dozen cramped, drab apartments, some of which also served as places of business: a seamstress, a child care provider, an online counselor, a call center rep, a translator. Its small foyer was dimly lit and had no doorman. An elevator occupied most of the wall across from the front doors and plate glass window that looked out onto the sidewalk and street. A potted artificial ficus stood like a sentinel at the base of the third wall, and a bank of mailboxes filled the fourth.
It was a chilly November afternoon. The seamstress, heavyset and middle-aged, unbuttoned the top of her overcoat as she came into the foyer from outside. She stopped at her mailbox and took out three circulars and the monthly postcard her brother sent from wherever his work as a photojournalist had taken him at the time. This one was from Africa and had a picture of muddy hippos on the front. She flipped it over and read the few brief sentences he always scribbled followed by his familiar salutation: “Be Well!” The new postcard would replace his last one on her refrigerator upstairs.
An old man the seamstress recognized appeared inside the elevator as its doors slid open. She’d often seen him standing alone at his apartment window on the top floor staring, perhaps forlornly, out at the world. He was wearing a plaid, fleece-lined jacket and carried an empty cloth satchel. They nodded to one another, then the old man shuffled past her and she stepped into the elevator before the doors slid closed again. He looked outside where the breeze tossed a paper cup along the gutter. The old man adjusted his rimless glasses, turned up the collar on his jacket, and went out through the doors into the chill. The online counselor watched him go from her apartment, as did a weary, red-haired mother juggling a baby boy on her hip.
An hour passed while the foyer sat still and empty. A little before four, the elevator doors opened, and the mother carried her baby through them over to the mailboxes. She opened hers, removed a stack of envelopes, leafed through them, and blew out a long breath: nothing from her husband who’d left on deployment before the baby’s birth. They got back on the elevator again and returned to their apartment above the seamstress.
Shortly after the church bells up the street had chimed five times, a teenage girl entered The Madison’s foyer from outside, went over to the elevator, and pushed the up button. When she smiled, which was rare, she was attractive, even pretty. The skinny boy who followed her inside a moment later had seen her smile at times at their high school, but only while reading a book. Something always fell in him when she did. He thought about her constantly, but had never gotten up the nerve to speak to her. He’d give a furtive glance her way while pretending to search through his family’s mailbox until she got on the elevator and it closed behind her. As much as it thrilled him to think of riding the elevator alone with her, he couldn’t imagine finding the courage to make that happen.
It was dark outside when the online counselor got off the elevator shortly after seven and walked over to her mailbox. She was of Middle Eastern descent and wore a gray hijab draped over her black cloak. Because of the short arms and torso associated with her dwarfism, she’d been given a mailbox on the bottom row. As she sorted through her jangle of keys, she glanced over at the old man shuffling back into the foyer, his satchel full of groceries. The high school boy entered the elevator on the fourth floor while the girl waited for it on the second. The seamstress was at her sewing machine putting finishing touches on a corduroy vest she was making for her brother, the good light from a gooseneck floor lamp focused on her stitches. The mother was sitting on her couch feeding her baby, adjusting her breast in his mouth. A shift change whistle at the factory blew as it had continued doing several times daily, even after closing.
The boy was alone in the elevator when it stopped and the doors slid open on the second floor. His eyes met the girl’s, and she gave him a small smile before stepping inside next to him. He swallowed hard, a warm flush spreading up behind his ears, and felt his breath quicken as the doors closed. The elevator made its customary jerk before beginning its descent, then stopped abruptly as the light inside blinked out. The two of them stood frozen together in complete blackness.
The entire building and most of the surrounding streets had been pitched into the same darkness. The old man dropped his satchel, scattering groceries onto the foyer’s linoleum floor. The counselor frowned and stopped fumbling with her keys. The seamstress looked out her window into the inky night. The mother switched her son from one breast to the other and held him closer.
“Well,” the girl on the elevator said, “what do we do now?”
“I don’t know,” the boy heard himself say. “Wait, I guess.”
The counselor bent down with the old man and tried to help him collect his groceries in the dark. The seamstress began to cry softly as the mother in the apartment above her started singing to her baby; it was a song the seamstress’ own mother had sung to her brother and her at bedtime when they were little.
“My name is Lily, by the way,” the girl said.
The boy’s heart felt like it would leap out of his chest in the black stillness. “I’m Paul.”
(pp. 14-16, The Hong Kong Review, Vol. II, No. 1)