by Matt Briggs
The inspectors worked among the skyscrapers. Lila Mae Watson parked her van on the service level of city blocks that sometimes sat several stories above the street level, the street itself not the ground but far above the bedrock, the sewers, the subways, basements, subflooring, the sealed box theaters, neglected and reopened speakeasies. The city drew the earth into it along rail lines, thick tubes, wooden, cement, and steel pipes. At first, water had filled these tubes, but now all forms of matter and energy flowed into the city. Twisted copper and fantastically long spindles of glass carried electricity, telegraph signals, and packets of binary data. On the trains, trucks of heaped clothing, stacks of automobiles, hundreds of thousands of bananas, a constant flow of material rushed into the city where all of the matter was ingested, and contributed to the ongoing energy of the city. Rivers of effluvia and brown water passed into cisterns, tanks, and sewage lagoons to be reclaimed. Piles of discarded aluminum cans, crumbled plastic water bottles, sofas, and flattened cars flowed outward.
Lila Mae, though, was a minor functionary in this constantly decaying, rebuilding, expanding, and contracting organism. She enjoyed the patched asphalt in the spot where she parked. She noted the labor that kept the musty vault free of vermin and subterranean leaks. She entered an elevator that was troubled and allowed the vibrations to speak to her. She would ride the elevator and understand the repairs that needed to be made. Most of the movement in the city was lateral. She was there to keep the motion toward the sky and into the bedrock on which the city stood. Her profession kept the city in vertical motion. The movement pierced the clouds and the bedrock beneath the foundations of the city.
Her methods were opaque, but her success so far had been prefect. In her profession, she had learned to know more than could be learned. The Empiricists regarded this knowledge as suspect because it could not be tested, or rationally explained. The mind, they said, was not a black box. To them, all material things -- elevators, gearboxes, clouds, and the mind -- where physical objects and performed according to the laws of physics. Lila Mae believed this as well, but she also believed that the mind could discover deeper subtleties in the law. The first incident of her career had yet to occur. As a journeyman she only had successful training exercises behind her and a mundane but impeccable records during her first years of work. Something was to occur that was going to shake her sense of what possible.
When she returned, she was asked to drive into the country to a factory that manufactured confection. Lila Mae did not have a sweet tooth. When she did crave something sweet, rarely, she would make hotcakes and eat it with jam. She might make tapioca or a tiny cake without icing. In her home growing up sugar was something to put in coffee. She retained this reluctant feeling about buying more than a five-pound bag of sugar. She kept a tiny jar of sugar in her pantry and used it for coffee on occasion, but she didn't drink coffee habitually. In the morning when she woke, she sat in her room until she became aware of the light outside, coming in from the street. She lived in a middle zone of the city. Out of her window she could look down on water towers, a roof garden, the tin roof of a factory. Other buildings, their ranks of windows, row after rose above her position. Adjusted she showered, ate an egg and a strip of bacon. She drank a glass of tap water. She brushed her teeth. She hung her bathrobe from its hook in the tiled bathroom and put on her uniform. She did not feel whole until she had the uniform on. In her apartment, she was removed from the world. She did not have a name even in her apartment. She needed that separation, but she didn't feel it was the right thing for her.
Her assignment would be in the country, beyond the scrim of short office towers with their simple elevators. Different unions, Empiricists mostly, worked the suburbs where they could make a plain argument for their effectiveness. The Intuitionists were only an influence in the city, and it was strange that she would need to go into the country. But there was an elevator that the local union could not deal with. It required repair work, and in fact, as far as they could ascertain did not work. They had to fix it because it could not be replaced. It was a one of a kind elevator. They required someone who could deal with an elevator of an unknown make and model, an elevator for which there was no manual.
Lila Mae picked up the directions at the Union Headquarters. She would leave the next morning. That night she read and early she turned off her lamp and slept soundly. She drove against the traffic, the flow of material into the great city until it was behind her, a point of connection between the ground and the sky. She drove under the gray clouds along the turnpike. In a vast swamp, she turned onto a two-lane road. She passed gigantic trucks with the name of the confectioner on the side headed toward the port south the city, and then finally she came to a small town that had been there before the suburbs around the city had grown that had been there when only trains could take people from one place to another.
Above the town stood a massive black brick factory, a cluster of towers, stacks, and warehouses of various sizes. Lila Mae drove to the gate. She idled, expecting the gate to open or at least someone at the gatehouse to acknowledge her, but nothing happened. Finally, she climbed out of her truck and stretched. She could smell the factory then, an odor that was surprisingly pleasant like baking molasses cookies.
As she approached the gatehouse, she heard a knocking from the gate. Knock. Knock. Knock.
She didn't pay attention to it.
The gatehouse had heavy wooden planks someone had sprayed with graffiti and then scrubbed down so that the paint still filled the grain of the wood.
“I've come for the elevator,” she said.
The gate shook again. Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Can you let me in?” Lila Mae asked.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
She stood in front of the gate and thought about driving home. The place smelled nice, but it looked miserable. The grass lawn was dead. A few stray bags, slips of paper, were tangled in a few small wild shrubs. Behind the factory a desolate mountain rose, cliffs broken by forested slopes and then above that the same flat bank of clouds that obscured the skyline in the city. The wind brushed tiny particles of soot, sand, salt over her face. Tiny sparrows darted over the field grabbing locusts. The landed on the power line and wire on poles beside the road in neat lines.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Who is it?” she said.
“Mole,” a voice said. That is what she thought it said. Mole, like the animal with the big hands that dug in the ground. She had never seen a real mole. They didn't have moles. She'd seen rats, mice, but not moles, or shrews. She was from or rather of the city.
“Mole who?” she asked.
“Molasses,” the voice said.
“That's not even funny,” Lila Mae said.
The door opened, and a very gaunt man, thin, spindly in every way stood in front her in a cardigan, nice trousers, and shiny shoes.
“Wonka has retired,” he said. “I'm Bucket. What can I do for you? Factory tours are Saturday from noon Saturday to eleven a.m.”
“You mean from eleven to noon?”
“No, we get you on your way before you start. We don't have time to waste on tours. But they can't be avoided. It's a solution we can all live with.”
“I don't understand,” Lila Mae said. There really was nothing to understand she knew. She could see where the elevator was. She recognized the gearbox in one of the towers. She understood that was where the elevator was, but it was most unusual because it went up, but there was nothing to go up into. It was an exposed elevator shaft. Just the shaft and no floors.
“I have been called to repair your elevator.”
“I asked that they send a wrecking crew.”
“You would like your elevator removed?”
“A wrecking crew is the only type of professional who can make the delicate repairs that the elevator requires,” Bucket said. “I asked for some real brutes. They sent you. You won't do.”
“I am an Elevator Inspector. I employ a different methodology than the inspectors you talked to.”
“What do you expect to find in a lift when you inspect it?” Bucket asked.
“I expect nothing. I will know when I see it,” Lila Mae said.
“That is promising,” Bucket said. He looked at her, and then he said, “Oh.” The entire time he talked to her he held the gate with one hand as if he were about to close it, just as a person holds a door when a door-to-door salesperson makes a call. He was ready to slam it in her face. Then he said, “Oh,” he just started at her. She stared behind him at the factory grounds, which were just as desolate as the grounds outside of the factory. She expected to see some signs of care, of operation within the factory. But, it looked like no one worked there. The wind blew a loose bush across the inner courtyard. A tumbleweed.
“Well if you can repair my elevator that will be good. I need to elevate myself to Brazil to get nuts.”
“Elevators rise and lower. They do not travel to foreign countries,” Lila Mae said. She knew this. The parameters of an elevator were known to her, and so because they were known she could sense what needed to be fixed with an elevator. While she didn't kneed to know the name and make of the elevator to identify if it was safe or not, to repair it if it needed to be repaired, the truth of the matter was if she didn't den the manuals, she didn't need to follow the law of gravity.
“I'm not entirely certain you are qualified to fix my elevator. I need someone is used to breaking things into tiny pieces with force. A chain gang might do the trick. But you are free to try,” Bucket said and he led her across the courtyard, quickly opened a door, and led her across a great hall.
“Would you like an exactly-right-temperature chocolate?”
“No thank you,” she said.
“Thank you, but I don't need anything to drink.”
“You don't have to drink it. You can eat it, smell it, huff it, you have it applied as a skin patch and absorb it, you can inject it, or chew it. But mostly if it bypasses your taste buds you'll miss out on a real treat.”
“I do not drink coffee, often.”
“We have it without coffee, without sugar, without taste even, if that is what you prefer.”
“What is the point, then, Mr. Bucket?”
“We have it. There is nothing we don't have it. Would you like a bacon lettuce tomato and chocolate sundae triple no foam no soy no milk lactose-free latte?”
“Where is your elevator, Mr. Bucket?”
“Here,” he said. He fumbled with a ring of keys, the largest key the size of a ruler, the smallest key the size of a thumbtack. While he tried each one the lock, the bigger ones to big to fit, the smaller ones juggling inside the keyhole, he asked her, “Caramel au lait?”
“I appreciate your hospitality Mr. Bucket, but I am quite satisfied.”
“To be painfully contrary, Ms. Watson, I am not satisfied if you are not satiated. Satiety is the key to fulfillment. If you are satiated you are content. And it is important to me that all guests to the factory are content.”
“I am not a guest. I will only be content when I fix your elevator.”
“We have a problem then, because you are unqualified to fix my elevator.” He became agitated. I do not know why they sent someone with your skill set to perform a job that clearly requires a different skill set. No offense. I'm certain you are an expert, a rare and an exceptional talent. But seriously. My elevator must be repaired today so that I can procure the first just ripe perfect brazil nuts from Brazil tonight.” He laughed. “Silly me. This door is never locked. I had the lock mechanism removed when my predecessor -- have you ever met him? -- first showed me the elevator.”
“I have never met him. I thought he was still here.”
“Sadly no. He left this place to me. He got out in just in time because this place is falling to pieces. Here.” Bucket opened the door, and they were at the bottom of the elevator shaft. The elevator was stuck at an odd position halfway up the shaft. It was not connected as far as Lila May could see or sense to any standard pulley system. Normally, she could find the engine room. Now she couldn't find the engine room. “Do you know where the engine room is?”
“I have some business to attend to before I depart for Brazil. I must have the elevator fixed. You fix that elevator. And then you are content. And I will be content in your contentment. Things will resolve themselves very neatly if you do that. We won't think of the alternative because no one likes unpleasant thoughts in their heads unless they are perverse.”
Lila Mae climbed the elevator, and she could indeed see that it was an elevator, but it did more than go up and down, it also went sideways and front ways and back ways. This didn't make any sense to her. Her orientation was purely up and down. It didn't include left to right and the gyroscopic possibilities of mixing these different planes of direction.
She would have to fix the elevator by starting from scratch. A problem when intractable might require starting all over again. She went down to the base of the shaft. She called out. “Mr. Bucket?”
There was no sound.
She hurried back up to the elevator and realized to fix the elevator she would have to destroy it. Such destruction was not part of her training. She had never had a thought like this before, but she knew it in the way she typically knew the solution to a problem. She didn't carry dynamite or even know really how to saw through pipes. She pressed the steel frame, and it moved from its position in the side of the shaft. She had made an error, she realized, by trusting in her intuition. Her training had been to trust and accurately read what she already knew. But the universe was filled with things that could not be tested much less sensed or known. In short, she didn't know everything. The elevator tumbled to the bottom of the shaft. It shattered like a wine glass flung into a brick fireplace. It was only a mangled frame and glass pulverized into sequin-sized fragments.
“Did you do it!” she heard Mr. Bucket yell. He opened a door above her. There was some figure behind him. He looked down at her, his blonde hair swirling around his head in the air of the shaft. “You are a regular wrecking crew! You have completely obliterated my precious elevator.”
The elevator reassembled itself. The frame straightened itself out like a wooden block push toy that been collapsed. The glass pooled and then collected in smooth sheets on the side of the elevator. Lila Mae didn't know what to make of what she had done or the result. There was no way to know how she had the correct intuition. She was glad to leave with the elevator fixed. Mr. Bucket wore aviator glasses, a long white scarf, and carried an empty burlap bag with the word NUTS on the side. He handed her a tiny cup of ginger snap cookie flavored coffee-less coffee. “Your skill is immeasurable,” he said, and left.
All rights reserved.
I wrote a "fan fiction" (mis)appropriating the bodies who are the main characters in Jim Crace's much loved novel, Being Dead. While working on that story I also wrote a story mashing up Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, and Colson Whitehead The Intuitionist.