by Elisa Filman
The elevator never stopped on the fourth floor. You either had to get
of on the fifth floor and walk down or get off on the third and walk up.
When it stopped at the other floors, it would bounce six times before
coming to a halt. If you jumped on too quickly or if you were Mrs. Anderson
on floor 13, who weighed close to 250 pounds, the elevator would bounce
again as you boarded. I used to pound on the "4" button hoping to make
it work. Sometimes, I would whisper to 4, coaxing it to take me to my
floor. After a while the owner put a piece of red tape over the button
and I stopped trying. Mother never again had to explain to people coming
to visit us that our elevator didn't stop on our floor.
Mother had always seemed ashamed of it, but I loved our elevator. It was
like another room for me. My bedroom was small, almost the size of a closet,
and there were no windows, only the ceiling light which flickered at night.
My elevator had fluorescent lights and they glared off the brass handles.
It had a pretty carpet, pea soup green with gold vines, and although it
was coming apart on the sides, the duct tape that held it to the floor
I'd ride the elevator with my mother when she wanted to check the mailbox
herself. My mother often chatted with the other tenants at the mailbox.
She talked of the weather and of her mother, but mainly of what she expected
to find in the mailbox. Soon, she'd say to them. Any day now.
I'd sit in the elevator playing games, with teapots, dolls or a book,
and when the elevator moved to another floor to pick up someone, I would
jump up and offer to press the button for them. The other tenants had
mixed reactions to my love for the elevator. Some would appease me and
I would get to strain to remember what floor they lived on. Others begrudged
me the privilege of pushing the button. As the elevator pushed itself
up the narrow shaft to their floor, they would whisper that I was an odd
child and what was my mother thinking allowing me to play in that unsafe
Even when I got stuck in the elevator between the eighth and ninth floors,
I felt safer than ever. I could live there forever, without my mother
dragging me out to brush my teeth, visit my grandmother or check the mail.
When the owner managed to squeeze the doors open enough to lean down and
retrieve me, I held on to the brass handles trying to remain inside.
My mother made a short-lived effort to keep me from my elevator after
that incident, but in truth she didn't really care. She worked 11-hour
days, to pay the rent, from 8 until 7 at Broadwick's shoe store 13 blocks
from our building. When she came to pick me up at my grandmother's apartment,
she much preferred to relax than order me around. I would rush to the
elevator upon entering our building and drop my mother off at the fifth
floor. I loved my grandmother, she taught me how to read, but I hated
her apartment, there was no elevator, so I couldn't wait to get home every
My shoes came from Broadwick's twice a year but all other necessities
were left for Christmas bonuses or Grandma, who somewhat reluctantly clothed
me when my dresses developed holes or tears. My father sent money once
in my life and that was two years after he left. He sent $13, which was
enough to buy me a sweater and a package of undershirts, but at 2 1/2
years old, I didn't know the significance of the letter which brought
my mother to tears. Only later, when I was 4 and 5, did I question the
absence of my father, whom I had learned of through pictures in the hallway.
But my mother just hushed me and sent me on my way to the elevator with
an apple and a letter to mail.
Very often afterward, I could be found by the other tenants eating an
apple in the elevator, and I toted a framed picture of a man in a uniform.
I gazed at the picture for hours, crouched in the left corner of the elevator,
next to an apple core. The picture was black and white, but I could see
the color of his hair, orange like mine, and could see the soft remnants
of freckles which must have covered his nose in the summer as a boy.
I had been on one of my trips to the mailbox to retrieve the mail for
my mother, when it caught my eye. The postcard was beautiful, unlike the
yellowed envelopes of bills and forgotten Christmas cards, and the stamp
had a brown bird on it. I knew immediately who it was from. This was the
long-awaited letter from the man in the photograph. I boarded the elevator
and chose the top floor to allow enough time to read it. The postcard
was nothing like the plain postcards I had seen at the drugstore. The
glossy picture caught a California sunset on it, with palm trees blowing
in the breeze and the Pacific lapping at the beach. I must have turned
the card over five times before reading it. As my eyes skimmed over the
lettering, the bird appeared to be looking directly at me. I wasn't sure
what news I expected this note to bring, but as my elevator lifted me
up, I felt my stomach rise up, too. The note had been neatly penned on
the white cardboard in black ink:
Dear Margaret, I will not be coming back.
The bird stared directly into my eyes as I reread the 10 words, and one
of the fluorescent lights flickered in the elevator. Button "1" illuminated,
and I began my descent to the ground floor. The doors creaked open and
a man in a blue shirt told me to get out of the elevator. In a daze, I
stepped out while the box still bounced. The man held a clipboard tightly
in his grip and scribbled notes down on it while the face of the owner
trembled over his shoulder. Shut down, he said. Hopelessly unsafe.
The bird didn't look at my mother the same way as it had me. She sobbed
and shrieked and yelled in pain when the bird looked at her. When the
bird looked at my grandmother, she sighed as though she already knew what
it had to say. The bird watched us move in with my grandmother. We carried
most of our stuff down the stairs, but we had to leave a lot of it because
my elevator was unsafe. Hopelessly unsafe.
My mother no longer cared for the mail or, for that matter, anything else.
She quit her job at Broadwick's and my grandmother started working at
a bookstore to pay the bills. She sat all day in the rocking chair with
the yellow quilt on it just rocking back and forth, humming softly to
herself. Even at 5, I knew what was wrong with my mother.
Her elevator was broken.