50 Floors Up
by Jack Byrne
She is moments from death. A single steel screw and fifty floors above to be exact. But she knows this already. Not in the same way she knows she has forgotten the way home, but deep inside herself there is a something there. If you ask her, and you had better want to be quick about it, she might say something like, “Well, you know—you just know, don’t you? It’s a feeling, like.” And perhaps she would be right. Or perhaps she knows because the life that has otherwise evaded her is beginning to slip back into her consciousness like an old bad habit.
It does not come in a flash, but one piece at a time.
Elizabeth is her first piece.
She knows the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. She knows sometime in between she is meant to eat, sleep, and bathe. She knows the arthritis in her wrists, knees, and elbows are pains of a life lived, and from the way her skin, like a used plastic grocery bag, hangs loosely off her skeleton it has probably been a long one. She knows she is supposed to remember the important things: people, places, faces. She knows she doesn’t. She knows that makes it so much worse—if she is going to forget at all, why couldn’t she forget she has forgotten? Knowing makes unknowing that much harder. She knows she knows a little less each day and how that probably means she will pass the worst of it soon. She knows she is some place and that she was going somewhere, but she has forgotten both. A hand guides her through a river of bodies. Each feels a little different as they brush and bump against her own. The hand feels the same. She is told not to wander and the hand lets go. “Only a moment,” it says, but a moment is long enough and she is jostled by the crowd and carried with their movement.
She stands atop two grey, cracked and uneven concrete slabs of sidewalk. She’s wandered. For her, life is a constant collage of moments—wandering then wondering, wondering then wandering—measured only by the What she knows and the What she can’t recall. The amber glow of street lamps. Convenience stores. Mother’s scolding, strollers rolling, children crying. Taxi cabs. Buses. Trains. The greasy smell of street vendor gyros. “Would you like falafel with that?” But is she North or South? East? West? Where is the sun? Panic ensues in her prefrontal cortex. It feels as if a rubber band is being squeezed over the crown of her skull. She knows this feeling: she is lost. For as long as she stands there she is still lost. She shuffles forward. Direction is irrelevant now, just as long as she is going somewhere. A raised edge in the concrete seizes her foot, her knees buckle and she falls with arms and hands outstretched, ready to meet the coarse, indifferent surface of the sidewalk. She is met by a hand instead: plump, and fleshy, and warm. She wonders.
Fifty floors up: it is sweltering. The air is thick with the stench of cum and half-baked genitals. The air is hard to swallow. A bra here. Trousers there. A trail of clothes along the apartment floor. It stops in the living room where a man and his mistress are found, tits and cock in hand, backed against the far window.
“Katherine, now listen—” he says to his wife.
The Venetian glass will do: a wedding gift from his mother. No time is wasted. With deadly vehemence, the wife launches the glass piece towards her husband and his lover, shattering it to bits at their feet. Shards of gold and sapphire blue ornament their soles with small lacerations. This time, the wife will not miss. A bust of Beethoven, a fine cut of alabaster. A framed picture of them on holiday in Venice, Italy. Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems (1947-1980). An unfinished scone and the ceramic plate it sat on. The wife removes her shoes and fires them. If she could throw herself she would, but can’t. The kettle gets the final blow as she strikes him up against his temple with it. He staggers: left, then right, then into the AC unit. His mistress’ screams mask the scrape of the unit’s metal frame as it dislodges from the window.
At first it moves slowly, but he moves slower still. A moan. A gasp. And the transparent clatter of a steel screw against wood floor.
It was Elizabeth she called when she was first diagnosed. And when she got lost in her own home because she couldn’t find the bathroom, it was Elizabeth who found her. When she realized this disease would kill her and decided she didn’t want to die at home because she didn’t want there to be “a room she died in,” Elizabeth joked how they’d go for walks every day, “just in case.” Here, now, it is Elizabeth’s hand in hers once more. She remembers.
It is too hot to bear being touched, but she doesn’t mind. She never minded much about anything when she was with Elizabeth.
“I told you not to wander.”
40 floors up: screams from below—faint, but audible. Through a small square window, a mother smokes a cigarette as she nurses her newborn. The mother looks with marbled eyes out the window and remembers what it felt like to be held in her own mother’s arms and to dream when a bright white mass races past the window.
That little red dress is her second piece. She was 23. Old for a first timer, or so Elizabeth joked. Elizabeth’s hand was in hers, like it is now, warm and soft, but then it was not so familiar. More foreign than Elizabeth, was what she was doing with the other hand. It’s been very long since she remembered that feeling—or is it just the heat?
30 floors to go, she gets her third piece: Bart. Her heart thumps in her ears. Some things are better left forgotten. It was her fault too, really, wasn’t it? Or so he said.
“And you’re not to tell anyone—you hear that?” He threatened. She wouldn’t. She didn’t, except Elizabeth, and not for many years later. The bruises had faded, but the images had not. Not at first at least.
“Who knows, Lizzie, maybe it’s a blessing?” she had said once, not long after her diagnosis. Her breath is irregular. Tears pool in the wrinkled corners of her eyes. “Bastard,” she thinks, “what sort of father—”
She begins to weep.
In 5 Floors:
“What’s the matter?”
Silence takes the stage. Hurried coughs. The crackle of lozenge wrappers stuffed into coat pockets. Twiddled programs. Half whispers of unfinished conversations. Large doors on either side of the stage close and the house lights go dim, then off all together. The audience and orchestra join one another as they wait for their maestro; an ancient conversation. They hold their breath. There is a tension here, awful but necessary. Ave Maria is her fourth piece.
“I said what’s the matter,” he insists.
Guided by thin slivers of light, like little windows between patrons, she dances in her seat as she searches for that perfect angle which will grant her a small glimpse of the action.
“Come sweets, sit here on Daddy’s lap.”
Maestro takes to the stage and her father’s words are drowned amid a roar of applause. Between a fur scarf and the bobbing head of a sleeping blue-hair, she finds her mother clad from heel to pearl in ruby sequin iridescence. She is twelve feet tall. She is beautiful. She is hers. Solo horn punctures the silence and tremolo strings gush forth; they shimmer in steady arpeggiation. Her mother’s voice soars through the texture with divine integrity, up, up, and over the conductor, over endless backs of heads, and into her ears. She doesn’t understand a word, but likes the way they make her feel. He pinches the skin beneath her armpits as he lifts her onto his lap.
“That’s it. Isn’t mommy stunning?”
A man’s head obstructs her view. There is no dancing on daddy’s lap, she is stuck. She wants to cry but doesn’t. O Jungfrau, eine Jungfrau ruft! Ave Maria!
25 floors up: a man sits at his desk to write. He is drowsy from lunch and cannot focus. The blank page mocks him as he daydreams of a smoke. “Just a quick one,” he says to himself. He relocates to the balcony outside his study and lights a Pall Mall. An object flies through his peripheral. Jesus—He looks below in horror: phones and fingers point, Snapchat, Instagram, Messenger, opened and at the ready to immortalize the carnage. Some aim upwards towards the descending air conditioning unit, most at the two older women stood hand-in-hand just beneath it. He looks away. In the solace of his elbow sleeve he whispers a prayer.
Elizabeth frees one hand from its embrace and wipes at the tears.
“What’s the matter?” She asks.
The tears stop. 18 floors to go and she can almost smell him: Wilhelm, that stocky, dribbling bull dog they named after Elizabeth’s high school physics professor with the pouty jowls. If the price of a surrogate was out of the question, perhaps a dog might do them just as well; 7 floors: their first studio apartment in Brooklyn. Wood floors. Spackled walls the color of wax. Some proof of their new life together; 5 floors: she remembers what she ate for breakfast: bagels and lox. Elizabeth squeezed the orange juice; 4 floors: they were on their way to CVS to pick up ibuprofen and then the park for a short walk; 3 floors: she remembers she forgot to let Wilhelm out to pee before they left, a task Elizabeth only leaves for her; 2 floors: it’s her 31st anniversary with Elizabeth; 1 Floor (10 Feet above): Elizabeth’s hand is still in hers; 5 feet: buses. Trains. Cabs. Screams. Elizabeth’s countenance dissolves into an unfamiliar distortion of itself. Her hand lets go.
1 foot: only seconds away before 120 lb.’s of metal will shred through her flesh, crack open her skull, and pulp what neurons have been unaffected by disease. If she had nerves in the hairs that stuck up from the top of her head she would feel a sharp edge of copper split their ends. Her last piece: that little girl whose mother taught her music is like love, it’s better felt than seen; that young lady who knew the difference in her father but could not find the words nor the courage to say; that woman who blushed at the sight of breasts other than her own; that student; that lover; that wife; that friend; that person who was last to be forgotten but missed most.
For Miriam, death is messy but quick. Cries are heard all around. Elizabeth is silent. There is no pain, but a buzzing. As if her body were filled with helium, she is lifted. 1 floor up: she sees her corpse lying pulped on the pavement; 8 floors up; 15 floors up; 25 floors up: a man cups his hands over his eyes, his cigarette burned almost to its butt; 34 floors up; 40 floors up: a newborn with mottled cheeks cries for its mother, whose head is out the window looking down; 45 floors up; 50 floors up: a man with gauze wrapped round his head consoles his wife; 60 floors up; 85 floors up; she floats above the apartment complex. Now, not a memory, but something new.
Jack Byrne, 25, studied viola at the Eastman School of Music and pursued a Take Five Certificate in world literature at the University of Rochester. He spent the last year living in Dublin, Ireland, where he worked at a village bookshop and wrote in his free time. He looks forward to returning to Rochester, NY after the pandemic settles.