Frank Monroe saw the ants below. He thought of his dad. A mostly empty bottle of fine Irish whiskey sat on the glass endtable inside his penthouse. He gripped the rail. The big plasma TV played Sparticus to the leather couches. Great, big. Vanessa didn’t want him anymore.
Jack sat on the couch watching Law and Order on the little telly that came with the studio while Jill played cards idly on the bed, smoking. The ashtray was glass. Their friends had teased them about their names. She looked at him between puffs and wished he’d look back, wished he’d come to bed, wished. Jack got up to get a beer, stumbling over the unopened mail left on the floor.
Eva lay on the bed grading papers. Five classes, forty students each. The state had the girls wearing babies that cried at random intervals, and the teachers had to excuse the girls so they could leave class and calm the infant robots. Someone in the capital must’ve thought this a good way to teach them the difficulties of motherhood, but to Eva it felt like giving up. The girls showed their little baby robots off with pride but not their schoolwork, and Eva could see in them that they longed themselves for babies, their only dream and the only thing a man might do for them.
Vanessa got out of the cab. High heels. She walked to the security desk and demanded to see the man in the penthouse, floor 42. Her make-up smeared. “I need…” Michael, her husband, had hit her and she wanted no one to know. No one did. “Look, I’m his wife.” Great commotion among the security guards who gathered to witness the wreck. Her make-up smeared in thick lines from the corners of her eyes.
The slave left his Roman master off-screen while Frank looked at the skyscraper clusters. One housed his firm, but that didn’t matter. When he’d moved in, the sunrise reflecting off the skyscrapers had awoken him each morning, streaming right to his bed. Some had lights, hallways through the middle of each floor of condos, halls terminating in glass. Vanessa had liked the morning light. Frank didn’t care.
“Don’t.” A fight, rapid, like in a war zone. Bomb. “I’m just relaxing.” Jack was not a good drunk. Jack and Jill were always five sentences away from a “fuck you.” Jack opened his beer and sat back down. The commercials were almost over, and the legal proceedings of the second half were always better than the police procedural first. “Gawd, you’re always so angry when you drink.” Bitterly said. “Can you not fucking see the show is on?” He sipped. She steamed and shoved the cards off the bed.
Grading always took longer than expected. Everything did. The divorce took a decade, but realizing it was a mistake had taken no time at all. Sam had wanted to stay and so, after Geof threatened a custody battle she couldn’t afford, she’d relented. She noted the time: 9:33. She had to get up at six to sit in traffic for an hour. Another parent had called to complain: “What are you doing to.” “My son is an ‘A’ student. Why is he failing your.” The administration acts like the teachers make the students never hand work in.
Al the smiling guard who said hello to everyone sat at his desk going over the registry. Vanessa hovered over. She pointed. “Him, him.” The three other guards had gathered, silent, watching. “Your name’s not on the list, ma’am.” Al, always polite. “He’s my husband, I have to see him, I have…” Al. “See, we can’t take your up but.” “My husband.” “We can call.” Al picked up the phone.
Frank lifted his leg over. Then the other. Sat there. The firm had handled a wrongful death suit. Boy, dead in hospital. Wheezing through a tube. There is no god. Skyscrapers, monuments of man, impossible. A war someplace, kids starving on the news. Another genocide. Pretending any god would let this happen. And his father, the cancer, wheezing after all the chemo: “It’s not going to work this time.” And having to accept that. And Vanessa. And none of it mattering. Frank sat.
“I’m going out.” Eyes snapped away from show. “No” and “What the.” Jill getting on her jacket. Jack grabbing her arm. The warehouse by the docks where he’d work eight hours tomorrow. “This is fucking ridiculous.” Spilled beer. “We can’t charge him with first-degree murder, but we’ll throw the book at him for second.” “I’m going out.” The anger. “Look, Jack, this can’t keep going on like this. We both know that.” A moment of quiet, shared honesty. The “Fine” and him back on the couch, watching. She took a moment before opening the door.
Eva was laughing. “Romeo & Juliet drank the poison because as if love can not be.” The ridiculousness of the job. A bird on the ledge, fat white pigeon. The window slightly open for air, no screen. She got rid of her television because she hated the news. She thought about moving, getting a job closer to home, dropping it all and going to France, to India, to Russia, to Tunisia, away. Greek herself. The islands. There is one with monasteries at the top and the monks have to haul you up in a bucket, but women can’t go. And a lecture must be prepared for tomorrow on Things Fall Apart.
“There’s no answer.” Her chin. Shaking. “I have to – look, he’s my – my – I have to see him.” A gawker too close, over her shoulder almost. “This isn’t a show! This… I have to see him.” Her shouting, a scene, the gawkers repulsed, a breakdown. Al, never phased. “I could take you up there, knock on the door if you like.” He recognized Monroe and always said hi.
A car alarm blared. Briefly, a siren. Somebody arrested or an ambulance running after a heart attack. Get to the hospital. Inside, the tumult of a sea of runaway slaves. Below, the ants congregated and played. Somewhere a baby homo sapien emerged from his mother’s split twat, screaming. Never stops. The siren again. The cars like arteries. The wind rushing along the balcony. Looking over.
The apartment door closed with a thunk, then the outer apartment for the two studios. Jill hit a man as she turned the corner. Walking too fast. And it was he who asked “Are you okay.” Her, crying. Face distorted. Not wanting to. “Yes, yes.” The lie of her life. “Yes, yes.” He wore jeans and a T-shirt and he wanted to help her. Her collar, half upright, frazzled. Her head down, no eye contact. “I’m fine, fine.” Continuing down the hall. She didn’t know him. He could’ve lived next door.
Eva had not had sex in five years. She wanted another son. She wanted a man. Almost forty now. A pile of a hundred papers to be graded. The end of the quarter nearing. Few verbs on this page, no better than the last. Romeo compared to Gilgamesh. She saw the bird on the sill when it chirped. B-. Must keep them encouraged. The principal would complain if too many failed. Her fault. She’d played the guitar when she was little.
Al held the button with the two triangles pointing apart, and the woman with the scream and the make-up stepped after him. The other guards, trying not to look. To gawk. Vanessa standing away from him as the doors closed. Al inserted his keycard and hit “P3.” The world moved.
Screaming. Frank thought of the boy in the hospital. The wind wheezed. Cold through the full tux, dressed for the event. This was not a suicide committed out of anger, out of insanity, temporary or not. This was not a statement. Not a cry for help. Frank unlocked his feet from the concrete edge into which some work crew had fifteen years before plunged rails. He thought about the liberation of freefall. About watching the avenue grow. About what it might. About the biology of it. About being a child. His cellphone rang.
She couldn’t allow herself to entertain the fantasy. No Jack, following. Not with the show. A thunk, a door in the direction of their apartment. Not Jack. The man she’d bumped into. She pressed both buttons. Damned elevators. Could be tricked. She wanted out. One might come up to go up before to go down. Rude, she didn’t care. The farce of the relationship. Ignoring. Emphatic self-deceit required. Too much. Stop crying. Stupid. Stupid. Damn elevators.
Al trying to find something to say. Vanessa seeing her face in the stainless steel walls, turning away. Wetting her fingers with spit, wiping away the lines. Al felt pity. Al felt uncomfortable. Al wondered if he was doing the right thing. Al told himself he’d seen them together and it warranted a knock on the door. Al told himself Mr. Monroe probably wasn’t in anyway, and it would calm her down. “…” Opposite sides, her hiding her face. Eva decided to put on some music.
“Man, she was out of it.” John laughed in recounting. Nancy said to stop, always shy. “Oh, I feel sorry for her.” “Did you see that make-up. My God.” Francisco: “She was sexy, yes?” Discussion of her dress hugging her ass. Nancy shy. “Al was all ‘I’ll help you up.’” “Don’t feel bad to her. She was a bitch to you.” “Yeah, she was kind of a bitch.” With the screaming.
It wasn’t Vanessa. “Hello?” Frank sat. Cellphone from jacket pocket. Force of habit. Getting dressed. “No, I’m not interested. Thank you and good luck.” Hang-up beep. Perfect symbol. Meaningless. Can’t even escape the telemarketers to kill yourself. Frank felt the sleek phone in his hand. “Ready.” And the time: 9:36. In green. A glow. Frank sat on the rail and wiggled his feet. And then he began bashing the phone against the rail. Again, again.
To where? A bar, yes. Out. A bar. Not the one on the second floor. Out. Stupid. Ding. The door opened a few seconds after its warning. Jill stepped on, noted the strange woman in one corner and the security guard Al by the control. Al inserted his card. The doors closed. “What floor?” Pleasant. “Lobby. Thank you.” Afterthought. Jill in center. Crazy woman half still hiding her face, thinking Jill happy, normal. “We’re going up.” Caught having pressed both buttons. No, only wrong one. Why was Al going so high? “P3” lit. “It’ll go back down.” Always polite.
Eva searched her pile of CDs. Something soothing. Foreign. Babba Maal. Open case. Open player. Insert and close. The pigeon chirped. Near the open corner, never open enough for them to come in. She feared a bird flying around, pooping on everything. The drums started. Odd to see a pigeon at night. They never seemed interested in coming in. Nor pecked. Taking a break. Crazy night pigeon. Back to work. To tragic love filtered through teenage eyes. Hope for energy from Africa. From Senegal. Hope.
Francisco laughing: “She was sexy, no?” “What, you got problems at home?” Nancy laughing. “My marriage is not the concern.” “Man, you can’t get off this. You’re like ‘she’s sexy, sexy.’ You a little obsessed.” John lightening the night shift. Nancy enjoying the jibes, watching, shy. Francisco thinking of Mary and the kids and of minimum wage.
The phone still worked. He checked. 9:37 in radiant green. Damn indestructible but still can’t get signals everywhere. The doors opened. Al held his hand in the gap as Vanessa stepped off, then followed. Jill had never seen the penthouse double doors. Al waved goodbye to Jill, “Have a good night,” that smile. She put her card in the readers. “Thanks.” Doors closed. Vanessa already at the double door, knocking. “I can’t let you in if he says no.” He’d been preparing that. Vanessa, eyes on door, unwavering: “The TV’s on. I hear the TV. He can’t hear it.” “It’s loud.” Al stepped to the door and knocked. Frank held the phone against the rail, then began to lean forward.
The beer, almost done. Another commercial. She wasn’t the one – it was her sister. Expect another twist by end. Jill read the number made of little green glowing lines, saw her descent. 30. Jack cared. He did. He thought of her outside, meeting some guy. Angry, maybe goes home. 29. He didn’t mean to fight. What had it been about? 28. He loved her. She watched as 27 passed with no stop. Her floor. He thought of his mom with the wandering eye, nagging. And the warehouse. He didn’t mean to get angry. She’d better be home by the time he went to bed. 26.
Half of grading was understanding what was being said. The most illiterate could still surprise, like children, with a phrase of brilliance. The bird chirped. This paper was from Sam Lyne, forth period. “Romeo and Juliet dream of what they can’t have.” So smart but a real stinker. Only her second year of teaching. She had to call parents to report missing assignments, and she could hear Sam’s parents yelling at him in the background. Awful. Necessary but awful. Like the job. She tried to rush in time with the African drums but never.
“Al’s probably up there like, ‘aw, baby, he’s not in. Let’s get it on.’ She’s prob’ly going down on him. Outside that penthouse, yeah.” Nancy winced. John laughed. Francisco more.
If he let go at this moment, he would plunge. Exhilaration. Vanessa turned away from the door. “He can’t hear anything. You hear?” Fate sending her back to Michael. She stepped toward the elevators, pushed the down button. Stupid. A wind across the balcony, sudden fear. The cellphone, pressed against the cylindrical bar, fell. Shit. Leg back over. Then the other. The phone, tumbling into dark. The doors opened. Quick. Waiting at top on cycle. “Sorry.” Al in, sliding his card into the console. “L.” The doors closed. Saved by a telemarketer. Frank looked down, safe now, no phone in the dark. Back into the house, Sparticus and Irish whiskey waiting. Call the phone company? Find the wreck outside, curiosity? Vanessa and Al, going down.
There was beer on the carpet, and he’d have to clean it. She still wasn’t back. The reality of her out there. On the streets. Peter naked in the shower. Scalding hot. Thinking of biology class tomorrow. The prospect of years, med school, apprenticeship. Of that woman in the hall. Wondering why. Of the work and the time. Wet carpet. They caught the sister in a tenement, pretending to be someone else. Indictment. Her lawyer claiming the two sisters’ identities had been switched, the one they released at fault. A thunk outside the window. Jack got up to check, to inspect. Nothing. All the skyscrapers. Lights. Too large to take in. Jill, somewhere.
20. Eva finished her notes on Sam’s paper. Babba Maal finished a song, an orgy of unknown singers, abrupt. 19. Jill avoiding her face in the wall. Michael at home, till death. 18. The phone rang. Welcome distraction. Geof, a thought involuntary. She picked it up. 17. The elevator slowed. Jill braced. Doors open. A bald man, sweating. 16. Some telemarketer. Goodbye. The pigeon’s wings between songs. Flap. As if alarmed. Curious. 15. She wondered at his health, he at her hiding in the corner. A story here. 14. Romeo and Juliet denounced.
John waved at Adrian and Gabriela, arriving. Francisco suddenly formal, Nancy back behind the desk. 9:39 exploded against the sidewalk, unseen but heard.