THE THIRD FLOOR
By J Hirtle
Fleeing like the pearls of a fractured necklace, perspiration rolls down the unhandsome, pock-marked face of Freddie Shackleman. The tick, tick, tick of the cooling engine provides metered ear candy for the car’s lone occupant. Outside, the temperature has crept past the century mark again (five days running and it is only May); inside the nine-year-old PT Cruiser, where Freddie Shackleman, wearing a white cotton shirt stuck to his too thin frame, and khaki trousers stained by grass, mustard, and unidentifiable smears, dreams of what he will do with this unexpected stroke of luck. A windfall. A monetary godsend if one believes in such things.
He ignores the heap of discarded lottery tickets, the crumbled fast-food bags, and plastic water bottles littering the floorboard. He forgets the annoying mosquito buzzing around his sweaty forehead resolute on finding something to attach its sucking mouthparts to. Shackleman’s eyes are fixed upon the scratch-off ticket, held tightly between his nicotine-stained index finger and thumb. The latter covering the ‘ucks’ in Mega Bucks, cast over the head of a lucky leprechaun. He counts, again, the zeros following the number 3. The font is small and gray. Grayer than his mother’s hair. But Freddie Shackleman has the eyes of an eagle, the only fine mark ever afforded this consummate loser. One, two, three, four. Four zeros preceded by his lucky number 3. Thirty-thousand dollars! A scratch-off he did not even buy. There it was, just lying on the hot asphalt outside the Pic & Pay convenience store where his mother has sent him to buy a six pack of her favorite beverage, handing him a five-dollar bill. A fiver meant no change, or at least not enough to buy his favorite vice—a lottery ticket.
He spotted the green and white ticket as he was digging for the keys to the Cruiser with one hand, while holding Mommy’s precious beer with the other. Eagle eye Freddie knew, even at this distance, the ticket had not yet been scratched. A freebie! A fortunate fluke! A gift from the lottery gods. Balancing the beer on the car’s hot rooftop, Freddie walked to where the ticket waited. Placing his size nine boot atop the card, he quickly glances around the parking lot. No one is watching. Nor does anyone care what this too-thin, otherwise unremarkable, flit of a person is doing as he stoops and pretends to tie his boot before slipping the orphaned ticket into his pocket. But Freddie Shackleman believes ‘someone’ is always watching.
Now, struck by unsupported guilt, he drove the almond-colored car three blocks before pulling into another parking lot, this one belonging to one of the half-dozen dollar-stores that had popped up across the town since the manufacturing plant reopened. Killing the engine, but forgetting to lower the power windows, the firstborn son of Sheila Shackleman, carefully and with intention, (and a plethora of perspiration) scratched the silvery-green squares from the fortuitous gambler’s marker using his lucky quarter; a dance he has performed countless times.
Retrieving a half-smoked cigarette from the makeshift ashtray (a cat food can in its previous life), he searches his pockets for a lighter. He knew where he must go next (neglecting the conclusion of his beer run duties). The Lottery Commission is downtown in the old Bridgeton Investment Group building. His mother had worked there for years, until the investors decided there was nothing left in this dried-up town to invest in and departed without notice. Or pink slips. Or pensions. She always called it the BIG building (changing it to the BIG Pain-in-the-Ass building after they locked the doors for the last time). Indeed, it was big at the time. In fact, it was the tallest building in town. Not anymore. How things have changed.
Freddie found a parking space across from the BIG building that now houses the Lottery Commission, the Tax Office, and several other government sounding entities. With the fixation of a neurosurgeon, he inspects the winning ticket again before placing it in the breast pocket of his increasingly sweat-soaked cotton shirt.
The facade of the building is faded and in need of fresh paint. The awnings which once hung above the windows are gone, permitting the sun’s heat unfettered access via the large glass windows. Cool, air-conditioned air greets the lucky one as he passes through the double doors. A minute later, it becomes obvious that whatever machine is responsible for cooling is doing so at a reduced rate.
A circular reception’s counter is to his right. Low lighting conceals chipped granite and baseboards marred by careless custodians steering floor buffers as they thought of better days to come. Behind the counter, centerstage, a middle-aged woman sits, reading a book. Her round face is pretty and maintains the glow of her youth. She wears no jewelry, no earrings or necklace. Her red hair is pulled back tightly and bound by a red, white, and blue ribbon. Very patriotic. Freddie likes patriotism, but deep inside he believes it died years ago. But nobody else has noticed.
Crossing the recently waxed tiled floor, work boots echoing unaccompanied, Freddy can now see her glow may be better described as another sweaty face. A kindred spirit. She wears a name tag above her left breast, which he has also taken note of. Kennedy. Her name is Kennedy. Patriotic Kennedy. Pretty face Kennedy. Sweat beneath her boobs Kennedy. Freddie’s imagination, which has turned from lottery winnings to titillating taunts, is interrupted by the source—
“Can I help you?” She smiles, placing her book down on the counter. Her eyes are green and soft, reflecting the low light.
Freddie tries to smile but knows it is his fake smile. The fake smile he has practiced with miserly results since he was in first grade, “I need to go to the Lottery Commission, please,” he stammers.
Kennedy rolls her shoulders back, pushing her perky breasts forwards. Invisible strings increase the distance of her smile, “A winner! Well congratulations,” she sings, “Down the hall. Take the elevator to the third floor.” She nods in the direction of the elevator bank. “Take the one across from the water fountain, not the one next to it. That one won’t get you where you are going.”
Without another word, the red-headed Kennedy returns to her book.
The fortunate Freddie Shackleman presses the up button as he glances back to the reception area and the nice woman reading her book. He wonders what she is like in bed. What kind of things would she do to him? I wonder if she…
The elevator doors open wide. Freddie steps inside. The fingers of his left hand brush the hidden lottery ticket, reminding him of why his here. With his right, he presses the number three. His lucky number.
The vexing noise is obvious. A metallic whining sound one would not expect to hear standing inside a six-by-six box. A vibration, slight but certainly there, comes through the floor of the wood paneled car. Neither vibration nor sound concerns the only passenger. Freddie had worked in the Maintenance Department at the m-plant. He was not a mechanic or anything so glamorous. He cleaned bathrooms. “Cleaned” may be too generous a word, which his explains his current employment status. But he had been inside many elevators moving from floor to floor, toilet to toilet. Elevators which had made worse noise than this one, all without incident. That was three years ago. Freddie Shackleman has now been unemployed longer than he has ever held a job. No paycheck in three years. No paycheck—no rent money—no rent money—no apartment—no apartment—hello Mom.
The vibration grows, maturing into a quite noticeable shudder. The whine becomes like a screaming woman in a low budget horror flick.
The doors open. Freddie steps out, “No problem,” he tells the air, fingering the winning ticket.
The third floor looks like the first floor. Another elevator across the narrow hallway. A water fountain next to the elevator. Freddie crosses and pushes the silver button on the fountain. A stream, (I hesitate to call it a stream) crawls from the spout to a height of ¼ of an inch. An unusable performance. Freddie ignores the cold metal, and whatever germs reside upon it, bumping the sides of his mouth as he slurps the warm water.
Which way now? Turning his head to the left, he can see another reception desk. Behind the desk, a redhead, reading a book. Her name is…Kennedy.
“What the hell?” He whispers.
Work boots echo loudly as he returns to the desk.
“Excuse me. Did you tell me to take the elevator across from the water fountain?”
The woman puts down her book, looking up at the intruder over her reading glasses. Her green eyes piercing the sweaty face standing before her. She makes no attempt to conceal her annoyance at this interruption “Where are you going?” She demands.
“I told you, the Lottery Commission.”
“Third floor. Take the elevator on the right.”
“I did. I don’t think it is…”
“Not the one on the left. It will not get you to where you are going.” With that, she returns to her book, oblivious of the world around her.
He stares at the woman, not knowing if he should say something. She must like to read he thought. It is a different book. The first one was a romance novel. He knows this. The voluptuous girl on the cover, with hair redder and fuller than Kennedy’s, could not be overlooked by any red-blooded American. Man or woman. Her current book had a professionally dressed woman on the cover, her hands crossed in front of her with all the prim and proper of one educated in the best universities. Harvard or Princeton. “The Power of Womanhood—Expanding in a Testosterone Polluted World.” Not a romance novel, Freddie thought as he returned to the elevator bank.
Open doors greet him. He looks across to the other elevator. It looks the same, except with doors closed. She said on the right, across from the fountain. No fountain on this side. He steps in and pushes the button for the third floor. Number three—his lucky number. With a quiet swish, the doors close. The car begins a descent. Going Down? Freddie stares at the button panel as if he had never seen one before. A dim light glows from the G, the 2 and the 3 buttons. Who would do that, he thought? Time wasters. Commies. Nothing better to do than mess with me.
The car moves down like a snail exploring a green leaf. His thoughts turn to the winning ticket in his pocket. Thirty-thousand dollars. The first thing I will do is get my own place again. Get away from that crazy mother of mine. Out of that smoke-stained penitentiary that stinks of kitty-litter. No. No. No. The first thing I will do is buy a beer. Not that cheap wastewater she drinks. A dark beer in a glass bottle with a fancy label. And then, then I will ask Kennedy on a date. Take her to a nice restaurant and a movie, or to the beach for a walk under the moon where she can read her steamy romance novel aloud to me. Then I will get my own place. Our place…
The elevator whines and shudders before coming to a stop. The doors open without protest. The stench of car exhaust penetrates his nostrils. A parking garage. Freddie stares into the dimly lit space. No one is there.
“Hello,” his voice echoes.
Freddy steps to the opening. He leans forward looking from right to left. The hum of florescent lights echoes against the concrete walls. His breathing, which now sounds too loud in his ears, is the only other sound. It is stifling hot in the garage. Every pore on his sunburned skin opens and drips precious fluids as his body attempts to cool off.
“Hello,” he whispers again.
Three cars rest quietly in the covered garage. Four, five, six spaces between each. Nobody must park in the garage, he thinks. Three damn cars in this whole building. Three.
My lucky number.
Stepping back into the car, he presses the number three. Nothing happens. He presses it again but this time with authority. Still nothing. He taps the button over and over before at last the doors close. The now familiar whine utters a brief mournful sound. He can feel the floor beneath his feet begin to rise.
“Next time I am taking the frigging stairs,” he announces to the empty car.
A minute passes before the car shudders to a stop. Over the doors, the number two glows. The doors open. No vibration. No whine. No cheese. Nobody. Without inquiry, he presses the ‘Door Close’ button.
“Come on lucky three,” he coaxes the empty car.
A small fan overhead begins to spin. The air, as pitiful as it is, feels good against his hot skin. He stretches his arms upwards, giving thanks to the elevator gods. The malodor that escapes from his pits is dense and fleshy.
“Damn, that stinks!”
He looks around the car for affirmation of his dissertation.
Lowing his arms, “Damn, I stink.”
The elevator doors open, but not before a whine and a slight shudder. Freddie removes the ticket from his pocket. His lips ascend, without a whine or shudder, into a beaming smile. He steps out. A cold beer is in his future.
Her back is to him. Her shoulders hunched as if reading a book. Freddie looks up to the numbers over the open elevator doors. 1. All others are dark.
“What the fu…”
He walks to the reception desk, his work boots echoing loudly in his ears.
“I hate to complain Kennedy…”
The woman turns in her chair. A cigarette dangles from her mouth. White smoke watering her palsied eyes. Flakes of black mascara, applied to heavily, fall away as she blinks her vomit green eyes.
“Did you bring my beer?” She coughs. “And my change?” She stretches the last into a polysyllabic tangle.
“No shit Sherlock,” she laughs. “Where is my beer?”
Freddie looks around the large room. Dusk hides behind the large windows. Cars crawling along the street, honking impatience at the always reliable rush hour. Music passes overhead from unseen speakers. End of day music. Soothing, noncommitted music. Music without words.
“Mom, I won big. Look. Look, Ma. Thirty thousand dollars, Ma. We can get a new place. Someplace that don’t allow cats.” He chuckles.
“What the fudge are you jabbering about?” She sticks an unlit cigarette between her lips. A red lighter appears from her breast pocket. Sweat stains encircle the pocket creating a bullseye her son should not be looking at. She wears a name tag he has never seen before. Ma…Just Ma.
“You better not have used my change to buy another damn lottery ticket boy!”
“I found it, Ma.”
“You found it? You found what? What kind of fantasy world are you living in? Give me my damn beer.”
Freddie removes the ticket from his pocket. The winning thirty-thousand-dollar ticket is… limp. Limp like an old man’s dick. Limp, limp, limp. Limp went the old pimp. Limp and wet with his sweat. His stinky, yellow sweat. The words and cartoon leprechaun are gone. One blending into the other like a unicorn’s vomit. Any affirmation of winning swept away by…sweat.
The woman behind the reception desk begins to laugh, whine and shudder. Kitty litter breath escapes from her mouth. Whine and shudder. Beer and cheese. Mouth wide open. The devil’s laughter could not be as harsh or stench laden as his mother’s. Ma’s. Just Ma. Freddie holds the drooping ticket in his hand. What. What.
He looks at his whining, shuddering mother with gray hair that was once red but too short to be pulled back, too dirty to have ever been washed, too red to be beautiful. Her mouth wide open with guffaws of laughter, reveals her toothless smile.
Three gray-black molars have defeated the odds, miraculously gripping diseased gums the color of asphalt. Four, five, six spaces between them. She whine-laughs. Coughing white smoke. Shuddering boobs of an old lady too poor to buy a bra that fits. Laughing, braless Ma with kitty litter breath and three teeth. Just three.
My lucky number.