A Visit to the Second Floor

Marek Waldorf


Over time the shape of things gets harder and harder to disentangle from the shadow. Last night I was paid a visit by two friends from my childhood. I'd all but forgotten Alex and Eleanor, even though she'd been my first (and, in a sense, only) real love. First loves! High-school crushes get all the press, but try it when you're eight and illiterate . . . functionally illiterate, that is. They'd lived several houses up from mine, in an identical plot. Brother and sister, did I mention that? She was roughly my age, though she acted more grown-up and "in charge" than me or her brother, when he was in fact the oldest by three years. But he deferred to her, and me he treated like an equal. For a year or more, we'd been inseparable. Him: a skinny-flabby boy with sharp features and red-rimmed green eyes. He had terrible allergies, I remember. Her: stringy brown hair, lanky-sinewy, and ugly-pretty, which is the only type of pretty that exists for me. Her brows hinted at an early gray and were cleft in such a way to make her look cross, which she often was—prone to fits of outrage and exasperation by the obstinacy of her brother, and me especially. I enjoyed setting her off. There was nothing I liked better, in fact. It was her air of entitlement that did it, I suppose, acting like the chosen leader while lacking any real facility in that area—being both strong-willed and extremely mercurial—and under her tutelage, or direction, so to speak, I learned the role of "instigator," not a natural inclination, though I grew into it. Bad habits never truly die. The scenarios of these games of our misspent childhood elude me now, there were so many—of Eleanor's invention mainly, but meant to cater to our ideas of fun, however clumsily. Hiding alone was a staple. Finding the most cramped spots to contract into, pretending not to breathe. I would play along, after token resistance, meanwhile plotting some minor or major treachery with Alex, who'd always balk at the last minute, when we were all set to wreck her plans. What would Eleanor do? Usually not talk to me for a time. How effective was her reproach? Pretty effective . . . you see, I had the crazy idea that the pair of us shared a secret rapport, communicating through the oblivious medium of Alex. Brown eyes. She had brown eyes. She had thin lips, meager almost, but with a pronounced philtrum she'd inevitably chew at, as if the angel who'd touched her there lingered for a while. Sure enough, although whip-smart, Eleanor was utterly lacking in higher wisdom, the "nectar of self-awareness" written about in the Vedas. She didn't blush easily, but when she did the pink went all the way up to her cheeks' highest points. It wasn't like I'd made careful study of her, oh no—I'd only learned how to worship at her feet. Recovering from my shock, I went to the kitchen cabinet and broke open a 14-year-old Clynelish I'd been saving for this very occasion, without realizing it—I poured neat and generous into some dusty shot glasses, and made the first toast, and we clinked, breathed in the mossy aroma, and drank. With the bottle at hand, we were caught up in no time. Alex, to my surprise, had turned out the ambitious one: a collection of business phrasings, two short novels praised for their playful surrealism, and a "Penguin Lives" of the twentieth-century English eccentric David Lindsay. "Want to know what the hardest part was?" he asked—"the clothes!"  Throughout the biography, Alex found himself unable to write without picturing the clothes the people were or could have been wearing. The compulsion had arisen, strangely enough, only when he'd fixed his sights on the nonrevisable past; in history books, the big transitions happen in the blink of an eye, or flip of a page, Edwardian to Great War, Jazz Age, etc.—yet for each blink, Alex felt the urge to dress his subjects according to the fashion dictates of the times. Just listening, I could appreciate how tiresome it must have been. In fact, I was becoming more and more conscious of what we had on ourselves. He: modified Nehru jacket, white T-shirt with black collar (an inverted priest) and partridge-green slacks. I had on a pair of Banana Republic shorts. It surprised me how fast we had moved from awkward reminiscence—forced at first to abridge the gaps—to this frankly untested intimacy, and I remarked again how "at ease" Alex had become with himself, and what a change from childhood. And yet the more we talked, the more things . . . well, leveled out. To counter his apparent complacency, I'd begun to feel . . . I hate to introduce a word as obtrusive as "unease" this soon, but . . . for one thing, it's no longer possible to ignore the fact that I hadn't forgotten them at all. Alex and Eleanor had been surfing the lower registers of my consciousness for some time. I'd turn on my book feed, and there they were—one of her impassioned readings on a store channel, Alex "amplifying" afterwards, with Lopate One or Two. It had been an itch I couldn't reach, or put into words.  An itch I didn't know I possessed.  Subtly, it influenced what I read and avoided. It unsettled me that my apprehensions fell so far beyond language, given that everything Alex was about was words. Because the more I paid attention, the more I felt—for all his evident intelligence, sincerity and lack of humor—Alex was "putting one over" on his listeners . . . or was it himself? Especially himself. The person on whom this registered most visibly was Eleanor. His sister, the sole reader of his work and constant public companion. Per their "division of labor," she'd decline the inevitable follow-up interview, and if addressed anyway, would say she had "nothing to add."Nothing to add.Oh! Then sit stone-faced, very still, her eyes following whoever spoke, her expression illegible . . . unless you'd known her from childhood. For me those eyes were inexhaustible—I read different things at different times. As he spoke—just now, as we toasted and drank, it was about a roman à clef with mix-and-match wardrobes, dressing the fictional counterparts of friends in V-necks and flared corduroys that, off the page, they'd never be caught dead in—I read in them the old disdain, reaching back to our childhood. She had her own set of dark rings now, just like his. She seemed worn through, in fact—as if all this writing talk was eating her insides away, carping on her like a tumor. This impression was most visible—unpalatable—right after she'd read . . . —but why? Was it the prospect of having to watch her brother make a fool of himself (as the other part of her expression seemed to imply) in the follow-up interview? He had a spiel he repeated, more or less, regardless of what questions were asked. He'd explain how they split "the work."  He performed the "writing part," while Eleanor would read it back to him. By listening, Alex was able to figure out where he'd gone wrong. Sometimes she might make a suggestion—typically of a practical, nonliterary nature—suggestions he never took, he would explain, since he was striving to give her a major yet mysterious role in the creative process. Was there any truth to their atrocious charade? Sometimes it seemed to be his doing. Getting back at Eleanor for the insults, betrayals and slights (real and invented) of their childhood. At other times that seemed impossible. The scenario was obviously her devising. It possessed the same clumsiness, flashes of brilliance, the careless falseness of her childhood portraits of an adult world we had yet to be invited into. It also situated her back in her favorite role of victim, no, not victim—the one imposed upon. Straight Girl. No doubt the truth lies somewhere in between—a private joke or world, shared to the exclusion of everybody else, each of them hiding behind the other, taking turns. Our scotch was sinking fast. I'd had two faux-snifters to Alex's three to Eleanor's one. He dominated the conversation, although I made a number of smart-seeming remarks as well. Once Eleanor chimed in with "He's got you there," to Alex, and I turned and smiled at her. She shrugged. So what. So beautiful she could take your breath away. That's what. Dawn was lurking around the corner. The Clynelish, its resolute integrity, consistent quality, and exemplary strength of character ballyhooed on the bottle, made the three of us seem lacking by comparison, not decent or intriguing, precocious or demure, as we believed, but soulless. So we finished the bottle in exact thirds, chinking glasses for this last round, letting the whiskey diffuse its character into ours. For him, a nonsensical effusiveness. "To improving our hygiene!" he toasted. "To good old B—, more gray days than any other county! The epicenter of crappy yard sales and garden kobolds!"  This was so like him. Kobolds. Why couldn't he just say "gnomes"? For Eleanor, a sudden interest in me. She asked whether I was surprised to see them. "Of course," I said, blushing, as I took off my blue cap. She wore a white panama hat she didn't remove or fiddle with, and a blue T-shirt with the word MY followed by a pictograph of a bunny. The levels of meta-irony didn't interfere with its inherent sexiness one bit. And she had jeans on. "But—somehow—I can't explain—I knew you were coming. Rather, I knew something big was on its way. There were all these signs, and though I didn't know of what, they were coming on fast, ripening into reality. Consciously, I didn't know what. But—unconsciously—well, hm—so while I was surprised and of course very glad to see you, I was also pleased with my own powers of projection. See? I said you wouldn't understand."  But Alex understood perfectly, or claimed to. Himself, he divided the world into retroactive versus proactive types, and just by the names he chose, I could tell what he thought about each category. You can go around retrospectively assigning portents to every important thing that happens, he said ("and by 'you,' I mean 'one'"), constantly fooling yourself, misreading what's to come, only remembering the portents that turn out to be significant, or you can trace the future's fingerprints merely by retraining your unconscious habits, and this time "you" did mean "me." I pointed out the fallacy, which wasn't solipsism but the older one of anticipating the conclusion within the premise, and felt like I'd arrived, somehow, or come full circle, arguing metaphysics with Alex G—. . .



Travel holds an element of diminution for me—the vanishing of whatever's left behind, hectic replacement of horizons en route, the disappointment of arrival. Train travel works this charm best, or I should say—the least. It's the first lesson in perspective, tying parallel tracks to a point signifying infinity, and that spirit, its malicious geometry, adheres to every landscape we ride past . . . traveling backwards is no problem for me, I told them, as we took our seats on the Metro North, tossing my overnight bag onto the rack overhead. They had nothing with them; Alex said they'd sent theirs on ahead, and I said, "How odd," and he agreed, as the train bumped out of its mooring and proceeded into the darkness of the tunnel without announcement. The train was a long time underground. When it emerged from the tunnel, I watched the exit grow smaller, its mouth adorned with ivy. Public housing lost out to à la carte high-rises, then brownstones and the backs of stores. The Hudson drew nearer, until there were cliffs on either side. I pointed to some leaves beginning to turn. "Wait till we're in the Catskills," Alex said gloomily. As if all this hadn't been his idea. I put my forehead to the glass and gazed at the rackethead inlets, the ruins overrunning their margin islands, pleasure crafts adrift on the calm sweep of the river, broadening until it engulfed the horizon—I slept for a while, lulled by the slack pull and rhythm of the train. We were picked up at Beacon; I was surprised by the shabbiness of the vehicle, and even more surprised when asked to climb into the back, because the seats were filled with groceries. I wanted to protest. "You won't care," Eleanor said. "Weren't you just reminding us how good you were at fitting into crawl spaces? Remember?"  The ride to the Liberty Fishkill & Hunting Lodge was brief, mercifully, but when I got out of the car, it felt like I'd left my grown-up self behind. For one thing, I had to jump down from the bumper, and the man who opened the door leaned over me, nearly double my height. "My god!" I said. There were oaks as tall as redwoods, birch trees as tall as oaks. "Neat?" Eleanor said to me, as I stared at her and Alex, who was looking more than a little scared himself. "Yes, don't worry," he said, his nose twitching, "we're experiencing the same perspective changes as you."  He began to sneeze. "What about them?" I asked. "You'll see," she said. "Alex—don't tell him anything."It’s better that way," he said stuffily. "Better—how?" "More thrilling." "You'll see," she said. "It's like those Mystery Spots!" I said. "Oh no," she said, suddenly furious, "it's the real deal!" "Well, it's more convincing," I said, "I'll give it that." "Don't be an idiot," she said. Liberty Lodge took the shape of a Swiss chalet and then confounded it with annexes, impediments, steps, sheds, and bowers, the whole semi-serpentine shebang drafted in native pine, the white wood stained darker. The "clearing" it inhabited was encroached by forest on all sides, with barely any room for flowerbeds on the wraparound drive and pittance of lawn several deer were helping crop. Rather inexplicably for a hunting lodge, I thought, but this was made clear later: the deer had come to realize the lawn was the only place where they wouldn't be shot at. A woman in a hand-knit shawl approached us from an alcove or door that seemed to open like a cupboard. "I knew you'd be back," she said flatly. "Ms. Barrows, this is Paul," Eleanor replied. "Of course it is," said Sadie Barrows, "and you've brought others. I knew you'd be back. It's always the curious ones.""Don't look at me," Alex sniffed unhappily. "It's Eleanor's doing. I hate it here. Oh, god!" "You can't fool me," Mrs. Barrows said. "I've seen you on TV. Get off—I know about the pair of you, acting like you was in the majors—" "Excuse me," I said, shocked by everything—but mainly by her rudeness—"what does this. . .?"  Eleanor shut me up with a fast look, like she wanted to bite my nose. Once we had privacy, safely ensconced in our cabin, she went over the basic terminology: "Didn't you review the brochure?"  No. But I did notice she'd taken the top bunk, Alex the bottom, and I got the cot, how funny was that. Also, I noticed the mess they'd made unpacking, mismatched articles strewn all over, clean sorted with dirty, and so on. We were the "minors," Eleanor explained, according to our height—there was a "measuring tree" out in the yard she'd show me in a second, if I'd be patient—and that meant many Lodge recreations and accommodations were off-limits to us, including its main manor's second floor. "Particularly the second floor," said Alex. She ignored him. The staff would remain uniformly hostile, "like Surly Sadie," she warned me, except for Franklin the gardener, who was friendly—but not in a good way. They were known invariably as "mediums." "Wait," she held up her hand, "you'll have to figure that one out for yourself." "In good time," said Alex. I put his new habit of underlining things down to nervousness; with Eleanor, it was closer to exhilaration . . . although definitely edged with fear. The cabin had many modern amenities, but its boards were thin and alive to the moods and weather of the surrounding woods. I went to the TV and turned it on, the way one does in motel rooms, but got nothing. There hadn't been any signal since the multistate blackout, she explained. But that was over a month ago, I said—but—again!—why protest? I decided to adopt a go figure attitude to everything I encountered from that point on. I kept a diary of my time there, I don't know why—I thought it might be important. We took part in the activities customized for our minority: hunting birds and small game; swimming, paddle-boating and fishing in the turmoil-colored lake; rock-climbing and rappelling; sliding down the zip-line beneath a canopy just coming into autumn flame, the maples' erratic jennies arrested by our wake as they spun down to and then below us. I got used to the new sequelae in perspective—the system by which I was re-relativized, so to speak—but the divisions still caused offense. This was Eleanor's doing, in part; certainly, she harped on its "unfairness" often enough. The signboard on the tripod set before the Lodge's main staircase announced a new entertainment every evening—fun and games we were effectively barred from, since they were held in the Rainbow Room, the Liberty Salon, the Fishkill Bar & Grill, the Roscoe Casino or the Washington Irving Reading Den, all located on the second floor. Of course. That sign was the first thing you'd note upon entering the lobby. A taunt? And the way it stood directly in front of the broad approach to the stairs. A sign—but also a wicket. "Nope," said Franklin,"can't do it. There's no sense begging me. You can't go up until you're yay big. I can apologize till I'm blue in the face, but I can't change the rules." "I'm not asking you to change the rules," Eleanor said, "I'm asking you to ignore them, or one of them—just this once." "Nope . . . can't do that either."  I couldn't see how they fit so many rooms up there, and said so aloud—but without provoking the response I'd wanted—news of a back annex and staircase. Alex explained instead. Having already defied the stated laws of perspective, we saw things at a distance or high in the air as bigger—or at least wider than expected. The science didn't concern me. What mattered was that we were second-class citizens as far as the Lodge owners were concerned. The upper stories were reserved for the last of the basic terms Eleanor had told me about on my first day there, the "majors."  This term had very strict usage factors. I never saw anybody described as "a major."  On the other hand, he or she might "have reached" or "be in his (or her) majority," under a premise that adumbrated both height and the adult state, if not exclusively. For one thing, they were all invalids . . . of a related type. "Why do they look like they're in shock?" I asked. "Listen to him," sneezed Alex. "Why? What did I say?""Oh for god's sake," Alex said heatedly. "I don't know what your problem is," Eleanor said to Alex, then to me—"if what he claims is so, there's nothing we can do anyway, we're just postponing the inevitable. We won't stay minors forever!"  I've recorded her accurately, for what it's worth; notice her correct employment of the term "minors," which she also could have applied, equally accurately, to an individual like me or her brother. With "majors," it's the opposite—it applies only in the present tense and the plural, as with competitive sports and other associations (I can't think of very many) of being in league. "We can leave!" he screamed. "I don't want to leave!" she yelled back. I interjected, but the argument had heated past words into the more fluid contours of will. Hers overwhelmed his of course, both of ours, although I didn't understand fully. How could I? The rude staff admonished and separated us. Something terrible had happened to them, no doubt about it, those who'd earned or come up against their majority, and their presence at the lodge (the similarities of affliction and symptoms) was part of their ongoing recovery from whatever frightening insufficiency they'd suffered. I use "insufficiency" because, at that time, I lacked any ideas as to the nature of their ordeal. I use "frightening" because of the expressions on even the stillest features. Unlike Alex, however, I saw no reason to see their fate as inevitable—even if we did stay within the confines of the Lodge—or connected in any way to the second floor. The opposite, in fact, and I explained why. "That would all be well and good if you ever saw one of them go up there," Alex argued. "I've seen them come down often enough," I said, "or being taken—" "Exactly!" he yelled and then sneezed all over his bare hands, starting another fight. We argued all the time. We were constantly being split up by the mediums, who preened themselves on "mediating," and threatened with solitary cabins. "I wouldn't mind one bit!" Eleanor yelled, although I had reason to believe she cared most. Unlike me, she was no Walden lover. I found I got on quite well on my own. I looked at the levels rising and falling on the tree that set daily minimum heights, a Dutch elm that had miraculously escaped the seaboard's mysterious blight—a survivor with a mast that went up thirty feet at least, before any talk of branches began. Sunlight through its leaves stained the unvarnished woodland floor. Today's height was sixteen, the stripe of white paint outside my perspective no matter how far I craned my neck. It was infuriating, no doubt, no matter how I looked at it, it was infuriating. This fielding of one "insult" on top of another (the term was no more than a gesture, a "term of art") was truly grotesque . . . I understood Alex—how easy it was to let this place get one down, feel the wrongness—a kind of gnawing at the timbers all about us—and establish a set of barriers, bright as sin, simply out of fear, when the reality was always too ambiguous for that. Tomorrow the level could sink down to twelve, or rise to eighteen. Eleanor had a premonition about this number—not the number itself, but how it was figured, which had to do with the numbers in the majority retrieved from the second floor. Serious droughts (like our present one) could make the heights rise to sixteen feet. Improbable, but I had seen invalids at least that tall. Of course.We all had. Not tall like real people tall—but more stretched out, I should say, like a normal-sized person if he or she had had his or her molecules rearranged for major-league heights. Incapable of moving on their own but with the easy plasticity of Ken or Barbie dolls: these were the newbies—those newly "brought down" from above. Nights I lay awake listening to the rise and fall of Eleanor's breath, convinced she was as alert as myself and the snuffling Alex, my own breathing attempting to follow in her footsteps, so to speak, and suffocating on my own intake, frightened only of what she might discover. That's not true—but that was the hell of it. The next day we'd be at a different level—the heights and horizons, the trees above us—like the landscape had been swallowed by a kind of river, except it didn't feel cleansing. It rained the whole afternoon, and we were confined to our cabins, more or less, with the main options to read or sleep. As she went from one to the other, Eleanor's breathing became adenoidal and increasingly ordinary. Exchanging glances, Alex and I escaped for a soak. Only a minority of hot tubs were open to us. No surprise; and we didn't mind so much, given the temperatures posted for the majority. Up to 145 degrees, which Alex claimed could peel the flesh right off a person. A normal person."Go figure," I said. "Go figure," he mimicked, "what are you, her oldest and dearest sock puppet?"  We slipped into the scintillating 105-degree scald of the tub known as Newton's Basket in an argumentative frame of mind, and I failed to notice the two people undoubtedly in their majority although only slightly taller than Alex and me, a couple, as they appeared to be holding hands—possibly, intertwining legs—beneath the water level, which, when we'd seated ourselves, reached up to our shoulders or necks. The surprise of them and shock of the heat established a new level inside me. I felt faint. "I don't want to talk," I said to Alex—but really announcing it to them as well—"is that okay?" "Oh, what a shame!" said the woman, while her partner said, "You sure you're all right?" at the exact same time. They introduced themselves. They were leaving the lodge the next day—back to "the outside world"—and had wanted to spend their last night in the tub. "To be perfectly honest," Brett said, "we were hoping to run into somebody like you, you know, folks we could practice on . . . we've been so removed from normal life." The Taylors of Cupertino. "Been here long?" Alex asked. "It feels like ages," Brett said, and Gertrud began to weep, to Alex's and my growing consternation. Me, because I knew how it would go already. I would say and he would say, nourishing more tears on her part, burying her head in his shoulders—and then we'd be treated to a certain display of sorrowful lewdness—her biting him to draw blood was only the most likely item on the shopping list—while Brett carried on his half of the conversation as though Alex and I were witnessing none of this—nothing! "Well, you see," said Brett, apologizing at last, "you'd weep, too, if you were in our shoes—if your shoes contained multitudes."  His shoulder stopped occupying Gertrud, who started to weep again, as if in syncopation with Brett's remarkable sentiment, whether remembering the beauty of it or the ordeal I wasn't able to guess, but whichever it was, the tears suggested they'd come to terms, in a manner of speaking. Lightning deflected in the clouds above our social whirlpool, like beacons or spotlights—nor could we hear the concussions. I would say and he would say and Alex would say and I would apologize immediately and he would apologize as well and Alex would say and I would say, while we agonized over our true meanings, their remembrances, as a fresh round of lightning hit the clouds, and Gertrud, in a rare moment of self-awareness, as it had begun to rain, we excused ourselves, only a few drops but still—from that height!—spattered and were able to bring down their targets—some more leaves—mimed the crawl, weeping so, it was hard to relinquish tomorrow's promise in the rise and fall of the majority's levels, or the day after, fluttering to where I stood, just barely, in the dark. Eleanor was furious at being abandoned—oh, in rare form. For the last time, I noticed what she had on. A brown tank top, with calico frills around the V-neck collar and the waist. Flared cords spaghetti-cut below her knees. It worked, given her mood. I finally came out and said it. "You brought me here because you want somebody to go up there with you?" "That's right," she said. "He's too afraid.""I follow my instincts," Alex said, shaking like a leaf. "Why not?" I said to her. "You don't know what you're saying," he said to me. "Sure I do," I said, "and I'm surprised you'd let your sister go there without you."  He began to curse me, using the worst language he could think of. It was pretty inventive, which led me to believe he wasn't all that devastated. Once she'd openly admitted what she wanted, and once I'd agreed to this folly or inspiration—frankly, I didn't care either way, a mistake could be more valuable, I thought—there was no point wasting time. We decided the Pushover would work well enough to get past the guard, with our roles (pusher or bench) to be determined by the sex of the medium. We knew we had to work fast. Larry from catering was on—I let Eleanor handle the talk, crawling behind him on my hands and knees. We went fast once he was down, screaming about his back, but the stairs were more exercise than we'd reckoned, and I hadn't reckoned much. Below the banisters, a latticework of white pine, same as everything else, the grille carved with flowery curlicues and windblown hats—I could see the flames of the lobby's hearth through the slits, telescoping its warm invitation. The hapless heads of animals shot in the nearby hills—some snarling, others contemplative. Century-old farm implements reworked into children's toys—their paint aged like a fine wine. The chipped lead in the chandelier when we reached the top. By now there was nobody to stop us, and the first room that presented itself naturally aroused our curiosity. It wasn't much. In fact, it was identical to just about every crummy motel room I'd ever found myself in—in itself, this was more inconceivable than anything we could have dreamt up. This was what we'd been warned off? Suicidally feared and craved? Eleanor pulled aside the curtains to confirm that we were on the right floor, while I turned on a lamp on the night table separating king- and queen-sized beds. Supporting the lamps was a gunmetal box bolted to the wall, with the purpose, Magic Wagers, written in red caps, and a turret slot taking quarters. Two per bed for five minutes it seemed. On Eleanor's command, I felt in my pocket for change. When they both began vibrating, we laughed and jumped aboard. The beds were made and surprisingly soft. "It's like featherbeds!" Eleanor said, and then she screamed, "Agh, a foot!—a hand!"  I thought she was being funny, but then I understood. Next to my foot was another foot, and another next to that—and below. And likewise with each hand. Petrified, I realized the essence of what I was lying on. Did horror render me helpless? Which did I lose first? The capacity to move? Or the will? Whichever it was, I realized I had been wrong before, it wasn't as if they had adapted or even succumbed. The word for what those coming into their majority became contained its own language. And yet, even as I merged into the souls or bodies sharing the bed with me, folded in origami-fashion, I never lost the capacity (or the will) for continuous thought: it was like I was flypaper to them, like they were for me, my shock lasting the full contraction of a beat, which passed through these beings without actually disturbing the design of their lasting object worship . . . nor could you blame them—well, us!—exactly. Table, lamp, chair. Capgun. Lattice grille. For now these things were our only hope of getting "unstuck."