Phobia

Published November 2017 in Varnish

 

 The two of them, mother and tow-headed son, had an argument in front of the Empire State Building's bank of elevators. He was for going up, but she refused. Their discordant voices echoed off of the lobby's marble columns and tiles. Eddies of tourists and businessmen, porters and deliverymen passed by, barely noticing them.

"Mom, you promised!"

"I would, Danny, but it's getting late and we can always come back again..."

"But Mom, we're already here! We can still go if we hurry!"

 Danny was dressed in his Sunday gray suit, a little short in the sleeves, and a white shirt that bound him tight around the neck. He wore a red clip-on bowtie, a bit wilted from the day's hard travels. She had on her pink dress with white polka dots with a three-inch wide black belt cinching her middle and long white gloves. She was carrying a small pink purse. She had gotten a perm the afternoon before. Her frosted blonde hair looked plastered in place on her forehead above her wing-tipped glasses. She was wearing unsensible shoes, pink high-heels, which Danny intuited dimly might be part of the problem.

The two of them had been on their feet nearly the whole day. His mother had kept the boy out of school that morning to take his first trip into the city, to see a few sights and then to stay overnight with his grandmother in Brooklyn. They'd packed a gigantic blue American Tourister suitcase with clothes enough to last them a month, it seemed to the boy.

They left the house at one minute past nine. The morning mist had yet to burn off and as they stood together on the stoop, their neighbors' houses, brown-brick duplexes, one no different from another, seemed still to be slumbering in the fog. They encountered no one as they lugged the suitcase the three blocks to a branch office of the Garden State Savings and Trust. Inside the bank, his mother got into an awkward discussion with one of the tellers, a stocky, middle-aged woman with rust-colored hair, and glasses, half-lenses attached to a long black chain. The woman tried hard to dissuade Danny's mother from closing out her account. In the end, she pointedly counted out every bill and every coin and then turned her back on them as if to dismiss them. 

From the bank they'd taken a taxi to the train station. The 9:22 delivered them to the ferryboat landing in Orange. A noisy, rusty old barge named the USS Cranford ferried them across the Hudson. They stood out on the forward deck and watched the seagulls circle overhead and skim across the gray surface of the water in front of them. The river smelled of petroleum and fishbait and raw sewage. The ferry made land in Manhattan just as the sun was materializing from out of the morning fog. They stowed the blue suitcase in a locker at Penn Station. Danny's mother slipped the stunted key into her purse and snapped close the beaded clasp. They set off bravely to make use of the day.

In the bosom of the big city, the boy breathed in the exhaust-tinged air and a smile alit his face. It was a warm spring day that had taken on for Danny the delirious tang of a surreptitious holiday. From time to time he thought of his schoolmates, back in their stuffy, overheated classroom, drugged by the drone of Miss Cannon's voice and by the bars of refracted sunlight streaming through the shut windowpanes. The air there was so thick with sunbeams and chalk dust, it hurt one's nostrils to breathe. He smiled secretly to himself at his incredible luck. He believed he had never seen his mother look quite so beautiful and bright, like a shy and reticent queen, coaxed onto a sunny veranda to wave to the crowd below. 

 They went first to the Museum of Natural History, where they studied all the old bones at leisure, and then the Hayden Planetarium, to sit in the velvet darkness and watch the planets journeying on their fixed pattern above their heads. They took a crowded, clamorous, subway ride downtown, Danny's first ever, with his wallet tucked carefully in his front pocket. He had admired the way the Puerto Ricans and the businessmen braced themselves without using their hands, as if it were some kind of instinct.

Their itinerary included lunch with Danny's father. His mother dreaded the encounter, the boy knew. His father worked as an accountant in lower Manhattan. He often didn't come home until after Danny had gone to bed. Then he and the boy's mother would fight, their voices penetrating the walls into Danny's room, filtering through in garbled high and low pitches. Far worse were the lulls in the arguments. Danny would lift his head above his pillow. He would strain to listen to the faint, mute sounds of grappling, the slaps, the dull thuds, the whimpers.

His father had a dingy accounting office above a storefront in the fur district, where for blocks the sidewalks were strewn with the brown and black scraps of discarded pelts. Along the way, Danny picked up a piece the size of a ragged kite's tail, felt its incredibly soft down between his fingers. He rubbed it experimentally against his cheek, discovered the stiffened hair, like hard, brittle needles, buried within the softness. His mother told him to please not do that; he had no idea what manner of life might still reside within it, she said, lice or cooties or maybe even a tarantula and to please drop it. He disobeyed, sneaking the piece into his jacket pocket.

His father's small, cramped office smelled of moldering paper and the faint odor of singed hair but most immediately and overpoweringly of cheap perfume. A young woman, the source of this scent, was sitting cross-legged in a chair to one side of his father's desk, making what looked like doodles on a pad. She was plump, with rolls of brown hair pulled back and puffing out above and behind her head. Her face in its lack of expression was like that of a play doll. She had small, puckered pink lips and tiny cold, dot-like brown eyes. She stood up when mother and son arrived and straightened out her brown skirt. She nodded at them once, and then was slow in exiting the room. Danny's father didn't introduce her. Nobody looked at each other until she left. She slipped out the back door, leaving behind her scent, like a cloud of cigarette smoke.

The shelves lining the walls of the office were filled with green and red and blue ledgers and hundreds of spools of adding machine tape, the ends paperclipped, each spool covered with ghostly blue numbers. In back and to the left of his father's desk was a door, the one his secretary had used, which had an opaque diamond-patterned glass window set in it. From behind the door came the continuous machine gun chattering of adding machines. When his father opened the door wide to announce his departure for lunch, the chattering increased and he had to shout to be heard above it.

 There was a red, white and green awning in front of the Italian deli where they ate pastrami sandwiches. Inside, long tubes of luncheon meat hung from the high ceiling. Fat men in long white aprons argued in Italian and wielded knives behind the counter. The family sat at a small table covered by a red gingham tablecloth. Danny's father was a thin man whose clothes tended to bag out and sag around him. He wore a rumpled white shirt, a gray vest and a blue and white tie. His face was thin and freckled, with a long red nose above a thick brown and red hemp-like mustache, much lighter in color than the thinning, chestnut brown hair on top of his head. At first, there seemed to be a small amused glimmer in his gray eyes, perhaps because of the novelty of wife and son in this, his daily bailiwick. The glimmer seemed to quickly fade, however, like a star dimming, then finally winking out, during the course of their lunch together.

"So where to next, son?" he asked Danny, his sandwich poised in mid-air.

"The Umpire State Building!" Danny blurted giddily, his face lit up in a wide neon grin.

The father frowned and put his sandwich down. He dusted invisible crumbs off of his fingertips. "That's Empire, not Umpire, not like 'umpire' in baseball, Danny. New York is the Empire state and the building is named after it. Haven't you learned that in school?"

"Yes, sir. I was just making a joke," Danny said, sinking back into his chair.

His father's face was flushed but he tried to grin. "Yes, well then I guess the joke's on me." His smile looked painfully constructed. "Well, that's a long way up, now, isn't it, son? All the way to the top of the Umpire State Building, I mean."

"Yes sir."

"It's a long way up and a long, long way down, too. You know, Margaret, speaking of which, I read recently that over the last ten years, more than a dozen people have thrown themselves from the top of that building. Quite an incredible figure. Think of it! That's more than one a year."

Danny's mother didn't reply. She hadn't said much or eaten much during lunch. She had just picked at the little mound of potato salad on her plate with a plastic fork, ignoring the sandwich and the conversation. Now she stared at her husband as if at a stranger. She had taken her white gloves off to eat. She clutched them tightly in her lap.

Then Danny's father noticed that he had spilled a drop of brown Dijon mustard on his tie.

"Oh fer Christ..." He rubbed at the stain with a paper napkin dipped in table water, and then used a handkerchief from his pocket, but the spot wouldn't come out. He scowled down at his tie and muttered something unintelligible.

  As the silence overspread their corner of the deli, the boy recalled in a helpless swoon the last time they had flown in an airplane together. It had been the previous summer. They were on their way home from visiting relatives in Michigan. Halfway through the flight, the airplane hit an airpocket and fell straight down, as if dropped off a cliff. There was a whoosh of air inside the cabin, a few cocktail glasses smashed against the ceiling. A spray of gin and ice stung Danny's cheek. But then all sound seemed to vanish. The roar of the engines disappeared, the chatter of conversation ceased. For an eternity there was only a ghastly silence, as they were pulled downward, downward. He held his breath and closed his eyes and clenched his fists. He felt his face go white. Death was a certainty. He had no thoughts to think about it. There was no time for them.

The impact, when it came, was like an explosion. He was lifted with great force from his seat and then slammed back down, rudely. There were thumps and thuds and startled cries and more shattered glass. Beside him, his father groaned in pain; his head had hit the ceiling. Danny's mother was in the aisle seat. She was unhurt, but her face was chalk-white. Sweat dotted her forehead and upper lip. Her brown eyes, huge behind the lenses, stared straight ahead, unseeing. There was a slight vibration in her lower lip and chin. Her hands gripped the sides of her seat so hard, she seemed to have squeezed the blood out of her fingers. They were bone-white.

The plane lept forward, throwing them backwards into their seats. Only then did the hubbub return in full, screams and yells and gasps of outrage and cries of relief and the roar of the engines, all surrounding him again like a cocoon.

Then the night before the trip into the city, during one of the terrible lapses in their fighting, the boy had hallucinated his parents holding their breaths, as he had on the plane. The silence he heard was their refusal to go on breathing. Their faces were turning red from the effort. He sat up in bed. He listened hard, his heart pounding wildly in his chest. He found he was having trouble breathing himself. Panic threatened to overpower him. He wanted to scream at them: "Exhale, exhale! You can exhale now!!"

Then their voices returned through the walls, hoarser and angrier and louder than ever. Relief rolled over him. Eventually he slept.

 

Danny's mother finally spoke up near the end of lunch. "We're going to stay with Mother tonight."

"Oh?"

"Maybe longer than just tonight."

The father nodded thoughtfully, then squelched a burp with a finger pressed against his lips, beneath his mustache. Then he said, without looking at her, "I take it you have money with you?"

"Yes."

"How much?"

"I don't know exactly."

He turned his sober gray eyes toward her. "Thirty dollars? Forty?"

"Yes. I mean, maybe that much."

"Why don't we check to be sure?"

Her facial muscles tightened. Her eyes behind her lenses narrowed, took on a guarded look. "What do you mean?"  

"Let's count it," he said.

"Right here?"

"Of course."

Now she looked frightened. Her cheeks had grown pale. She licked her lips and glanced around the interior of the restaurant nervously. The lunchtime crowd was thinning out. Most of the tables around them were vacant. There was still a noisy babble of voices behind the deli counter, but that was all.

"Nobody's watching." His eyes didn't leave her face.

She opened her pink purse. Her hands were trembling. She took out a red imitation leather billfold. She tilted it toward her and began silently counting the sheaf of bills inside. Her lips mouthed numbers.

"No, I want you to put it all out onto the table. I want to see it," Danny's father said.

She looked up at him sharply and then sagged into her chair. "But why?"

"Don't ask me why, Margaret. Because I want you to."

"But all these people..."

"Never mind them. Nobody's paying the slightest attention to us."

They locked eyes across the table. Messages, in code, passed back and forth between them. They're invisible and they must move at the speed of light, the boy thought dismally, like those frequencies that only dogs can hear.

Danny's father suddenly reached across the table and made a grab for the billfold. His hand, thick, hairy, freckled, much larger than hers, descended upon her like a talon. But he wasn't quick enough. She tightened her grip just in time. For a second they both pulled and the issue was in doubt. Then his eyes narrowed, his brow flushed, the skin below his eyes pulled taut, his face hardened into a gargoyle mask of pure hatred. He gave a vicious yank and ripped the billfold from her hand. The violence of this tore one of her fingernails and she gave a cry. The end of one of her fingers bloomed crimson.

He pulled out the wad of bills and tossed the billfold back toward her. It landed on the checkered cloth like a shed skin. He turned slightly to the side. The green bills looked oily and pale and rumpled in his hand. He licked his right thumb and began counting the bills one by one. He worked rapidly, in a practiced rhythm, pausing every few bills to flick his thumb up to his tongue for more moisture. Danny's mother sat stunned and silent. She wrapped her torn finger with a piece of paper napkin.

When he was done, he rolled his eyes up to the high ceiling and whistled softly. "There's over four hundred dollars here," he said, shaking his head. He looked over to Danny, as if wanting his son to commiserate. The boy smiled at his father weakly, a ghostly grin that seemed to remain suspended in mid-air, completely independent of him. Then because he didn't know what else to do, Danny shrugged. The shoulders of his little gray jacket went up and down once, stiffly.

His father turned toward his mother and waggled the thick wad in her direction, as if to taunt her with it. Then he flipped it onto the placemat in front of him. "Where'd you get it? No, don't tell me. Let me guess. You must have cashed out your account, the one that doesn't require my signature. How inventive. How clever. You actually thought I wouldn't find out?"

"It's my money," she said, her voice quivering with emotion.

"Oh no, Margaret, that it is not. Decidedly not."

"You gave it to me. You said it was mine to use how I wanted." Tears suddenly brightened her eyes behind the cat's eye lenses.

"No no no no no. Correction: I gave you a certain sum each month to spend on your own necessities, for a new dress or a pair of shoes and the like. Not so that you could hoard it away for one of your famous bird-brained schemes. Like this one, whatever it is this time. What were you planning on doing, anyway, running away?" His smirk opened up fullblown. He stretched out his long arms. He flapped his hands on the ends like a large, ungainly bird. "Were you thinking of flying away to Mother? She can't take you in anymore. Don't you know that? She's too sick and poor and demented..."

She rose from her seat and lunged for the cash. He was barely able to whisk it away from her in time. With his other hand, he batted her arm away from him, hard. She reeled and staggered and then sat back down heavily in her chair. She started to sob softly into her hands.

After a minute, he slowly peeled off a twenty and a ten from the wad and flipped the two bills at her. They floated down upon the remains of her uneaten sandwich. Then he folded the rest of the money once in half and slipped it into his shirt pocket, behind his vest, next to his heart. He watched her weep. His head began to nod.

She looked up at him once. "I hate you," she said. Her voice was hoarse and thick and tremulous, like she was drowning in her own phlegm.

He didn't reply. He just kept nodding his head, with a finger pressed gently against his lips.

 

 

Now by three o'clock, mother and son had reached their next to last destination, the lobby of the Empire State Building, and the fount of elevators, one of which Danny hoped would soon rocket them up to the top of the tallest skyscraper on earth. There was a gap-toothed girl about Danny's age, also waiting to go up top. She had brown pig-tails and was wearing a light blue dress, the color of forget-me-nots. The two of them made a game out of trying to guess which elevator would reach the lobby first. They watched the numbers above the doors light up in descending sequence, pretending the elevator cars were racing each other to the finish line. The lengthy stops at certain floors and the sudden plunges that followed were part of the thrill. When the winner finally arrived, a bell went off and a red light lit up. The girl shrieked, "I guessed right, I guessed right!" Both she and Danny began jumping up and down madly. Then he remembered his little piece of fur. He retrieved it from his jacket pocket.

"And here's your prize!" he said with a flourish, and pressed the furpiece into her hand. She accepted the gift immediately, rubbing the fur against her cheek. She looked at him with delight and amazement, as if he had conjured up a rabbit out of a hat.

The elevator spewed forth its human cargo and then quickly began filling up again. The small crowd, including the little girl and her parents, moved forward to take their places inside. All except Danny and his mother. Danny tugged at his mother's arm. But his mother stood rooted where she was, twisting the straps of her pink purse in her gloved hands, staring straight ahead of her, unmoving, immoveable.

"C'mon, Mom, we'll miss it, we'll miss it," Danny said, his voice still in a gleeful falsetto. He turned and saw the little girl in the front of the elevator. She was smiling and beckoning toward him urgently. She clutched the scrap of fur in her hand like a great treasure. But he couldn't get his mother to move; she was like dead weight. He glanced back at the little girl again. Everybody inside the elevator was staring straight ahead at him now, as if in reproach. The little girl's smile faded and then disappeared entirely as the brass-plated doors slid to a close. The numbers above them started their arduous climb again, leaving them behind.

"Mom," he wailed, "We missed it! We missed it!"

"That's okay, Danny," she said in a voice that was thin and unnaturally high, "Maybe we'll get the next one."

He sighed and frowned and furrowed his brow and turned his back on her, frantically scanning the lights above the doors. But when the next elevator arrived, she still wouldn't budge. After the doors closed again a third and then a fourth time without them, he spun around and glared up at her in disbelieve. They stared at each other mutely for a minute. Her hazel eyes behind the cat's eye lenses were clouded by a light film of moisture. Her calico bangs clung limply to the sides and front of her head, like the fingers of a hand. Her rouged lips traced a perfect downward arc. She clutched her pink purse straps in a kind of deathgrip.

"Mom, you promised!" he said, his voice hoarse with indignation.

"I would, Danny, but it's getting late and we can always come back again..."

"But Mom, we're already here! We can still go if we hurry!"

The bell clanged, announcing the next arrival and this time he took no chances. He howled, "Mother! Let's go!" and yanked hard on her arm with all of his strength, throwing them both nearly off-balance. But she resisted. He pulled his way and she pulled hers until the two of them were doing a slow pirouette in front of the elevators. Their backs were bowed, their arms and shoulders and legs locked in a fearsome tug-of-war. Her pink high heels and his Buster Browns slid and squealed along the slippery marble floor. The small crowd of on-lookers made way for them. There was much startled laughter.

"Danny, stop this," she hissed at him as they did their clumsy dance. Her eyes were like two large shiny copper pennies.

 “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you go?” he croaked at her in a strangled voice.

         “Why do you think?” she hissed at him. “I’m scared!”
         “Scared of what?”
         She didn’t reply. Instead their eyes locked. Across the electric wires now formed between them a sudden notion thrust itself unbidden into his brain. A notion of falling. No, no, it wasn’t falling, exactly. It was far worse than falling.
It was jumping.

 His mouth formed itself into a perfect little O of astonishment and he lost his grip on her. Both mother and son went tumbling backwards, arms flailing. She screamed. For an instant all breath and sound left him as he was suspended in mid-air. Then he felt the hard bump of his rear-end on the marble floor, felt himself sliding backwards like an errant bowling ball, until he plowed into somebody's legs, capsizing them. He came to a stop in a tangle of limbs, halfway across the lobby.

Unknown hands helped him up and dusted him off and he stood looking around slowly, rubbing his sore rump. The entire lobby reverberated with hubbub now, with peals of laughter and waves of giggles and chatter, echoing off the walls and high ceiling. His cheeks stung with embarrassment. Somebody pushed him gently in the direction of his mother. She was far away, sitting against a marble column near the elevators, sobbing into her white gloved hands, her pink legs and pink purse splayed out before her. He walked toward her cautiously, fearful that at the sight of him she might get up and run away. He came to a stop in front of the elevators and rubbed his hands hard against the sides of his jacket. He tried to think of something to say to her. Two middle aged women toting Macy's shopping bags were hovering around his mother, cooing like pigeons, grimacing in sympathy. They wore sleeveless blouses, one red and one white, and knitted slacks, one blue, the other green, and identical large fake-pearl earrings. When they noticed Danny, they stopped their pacing and glared intently at him. Suddenly a bell sounded beside him, a red light came on, doors slid open, a few passengers disembarked. The elevator car yawned empty for a brief few seconds while the two women made for it. Then it closed its golden doors behind them and was gone.