A resident of a housing complex on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is having trouble telling his dreams apart from his waking life--at least he hopes they’re dreams.
Published in The Chariton Review (Volume 31; Issue 1: Spring 2008).
He slips into the Xerox room at lunch to make a copy of his resume for the headhunter who called last week, rehearsing plausible explanations while operating the machine. Quickly grabbing the document from the output shelf, he tucks it into a manila folder labeled “Budget” and nonchalantly begins to head out of the room. Mission accomplished.
Pausing at the threshold, he feels a knot in his stomach, a fail-proof warning that something is wrong. Turning slowly around, he feels the knot tighten and catches sight of the machine cranking out more copies—five, six, seven—with no apparent intention of ever stopping. Not knowing exactly how to work the machine in an emergency, he hits all the buttons on the control panel, relieved when all activity ceases, and tucks the additional copies into his folder. Turning to head out, he pauses once again at the threshold, where he feels his second rush of relief for the day.
When he returns to his office and slides the folder into his briefcase, he feels the knot again. Is there a memo he was supposed to write? Has he asked his assistant to set up the meeting with the marketing department? Has he made a copy of his resume yet? He checks his briefcase twice, momentarily reassured that everything is in order, but then suddenly bolts down the hall back to the Xerox room, where he finds the machine turning out copies at an accelerated clip. Thirty-five. Thirty-six. Thirty-seven. He revisits the copy room several times that afternoon, never fully comforted by the machine’s inactivity.
In the middle of the night, he wakes up in a cold sweat. Has he been dreaming? Whatever the case, he appreciates the interruption, luxuriating in the familiarity of his bedroom at Lincoln Towers with its dramatic river views and the comfort of his rosewood modified sleigh bed with its down duvet and plump pillows before rolling over to resume his night’s sleep.
Studying himself in the mirror the next morning, he wonders if he should start coloring his hair. The gray-haired man staring back at him is only fifty, after all. If his wife had lived this long, she would be the first to say a little sprucing up was in order. Before heading out for work, he panics when he can’t find his Palm Pilot, knowing he will never be at peace without access to the detailed “To Do” list trapped inside the handheld marvel. While waiting anxiously for the bus at Broadway and 70th Street, he tries to put the matter out of his head by studying the Club Med ad on display in the bus shelter. He pores over the mountainous contours of the tanned bodies and imagines himself lying blissfully on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean without any need for his Palm Pilot until the bus pulls up in front of him.
As the procession of passengers pours out the front door, he wonders why no one ever uses the back door anymore. Wouldn’t that save time? He continues grumbling until he sees an elderly woman struggling to navigate the curb with two canes. After he helps her on her way, the door closes in his face, and the bus takes off without him. The next bus is the wrong one, but he takes advantage of the open door to cry for help.
“Hey, the last bus took off without me!” The driver shrugs and drives away. He starts to compose a letter in his head to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but struggles with the syntax until he loses his train of thought. When the next bus pulls up, he pokes his head inside.
“Hey, pal, what’s happened to the 104 this morning? I’ve been waiting forever.”
“The one ahead of me was a 104,” the driver replies with a sympathetic half-grimace. Deciding that a bird in the hand is better than something or other, he boards the M5 and slides into the last available seat, pleased at his good luck. Traveling to work by bus is so much more pleasant than taking the subway, he muses, watching the sights of upper Broadway roll by. He always enjoys passing Lincoln Center, having a very clear recollection of the first time he ever saw it—an elementary school trip to the Philharmonic during the sixties. He remembers sitting next to Donny Owens on the special bus hired for the outing and making faces across the aisle at Jane Rubin, who wore a bright-yellow rain slicker, even though there was no sign of rain that long-ago day. Years later, when he moved into the city after business school and took up residence in one of the apartment buildings in the city-within-a-city that was Lincoln Towers, he bragged to friends about living so close to Lincoln Center and took advantage of its offerings as often as possible. The ballet. The opera. The Mostly Mozart Festival. But with work getting more complicated these days, he hasn’t been there in ages. No, that’s not right, he suddenly recalls. He just saw that musical at the Vivian Beaumont Theater over behind Avery Fisher Hall. What was it called again?
As the bus swirls around Columbus Circle, he grabs the seat in front of him and sways back and forth, conjuring up the amusement park ride he and Donny used to love. Central Park looks especially inviting this morning, but he feels bad for the horses as they drive past a carriage arriving for the morning shift. Catching sight of the Plaza Hotel looming ahead, he thinks of Eloise, that prankster from one of his favorite childhood stories, until he feels the familiar knot in his stomach. He cries out at the woman standing over him.
“Where are we going? What happened to Broadway?” The driver must have missed the turn. Probably too busy worrying about how to make ends meet. Or maybe another strike is in the offing.
“The M5 goes down Fifth Avenue. You must be thinking of the 104.”
“Just so.” He nods and returns to calm.
That evening, the doorman asks him whom he wishes to see.
“I live here.” He inspects the new doorman with a sheepish smile. Must be a hard life, judging by how frequently the staff changes. On the fifteenth floor, something seems strange—the Monet print is missing, for one thing—until he finds his apartment door. 15D. Solid. Reassuring. His favorite apartment number, he likes to joke. The bottom key slides in as always but refuses to turn. The top key doesn’t fit at all. He calls out to no one in particular.
“Have they changed our locks?” He knows the building frequently upgrades the facilities to keep up with the times. Like the new doorbells they installed a few years ago. “I guess I forgot to read the notice about the locks.” He sighs and sets off on the long trek down the hall back to the elevator, wondering if his new key will be some sort of high-tech marvel, something with a microchip that keeps track of when it’s used or prevents unauthorized people from entering the apartment. Or makes lunch. He smiles at his joke as a young woman maneuvers a baby stroller out of the elevator. “Did you remember to get your new key?” She smiles back, but ignores his question. Distracted by the baby, no doubt. Suddenly feeling the knot start to tighten, he pushes the elevator door back open and watches as the woman makes her way down the hall, slides her key effortlessly into the lock of apartment 15D, and pushes the stroller inside. The doorman approaches him when he returns to the lobby.
“Are you lost?”
“This is Lincoln Towers, isn’t it? I haven’t been evicted, have I?” He laughs a little too hard.
“Do you want the 160 building?”
“Oh… Sorry—I live at 170.”
END OF EXCERPT