Many years ago, I worked as a software consultant for a shoe company in Mahwah, New Jersey. It was only for a few months, and I met nice enough people, some of them still friends, but there’s only so much enthusiasm one can work up for New Jersey, let alone Mahwah, New Jersey. Also, as we all know, those who work in corporations have to keep their sanity under wraps, and this company was no exception. At work, my colleagues and I were requisitely insane. Outside, it was a different matter.
I mention all this, because Zachary Bushnell’s story has a corporate employee who slowly becomes unable to keep up her inner sanity under wraps. As she rides the company’s elevators, she begins to listen— always a dangerous act— and she slowly transcends towards the ecstatic comprehension of the primal sound that envelops us all. Naturally, her behaviour soon begins to strain at the legal straitjacket we politely refer to as “company policy”.
From a writerly perspective, Zachary had a tricky task. He has to iterate one experience through several levels of intensity. It is different from, say, improvisation in Jazz, because instead of an equitable exploration over form, there is a gradual escalation in stakes, and with it, a strange kind of dread.
I strongly recommend reading this story during company hours.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
In any case, it is equivalent to being released.
‘As close as possible,’ she said when asked, in light of the history, how far she wanted the elevator from her office. Her office. She savoured the sacred flavour of the phrase and sensed the sanctity concealed there, like a consecration through the ages. Administration of such a complex organization required, she knew, a delicate balance of vigilance and devised bonhomie. With team members seated on multiple floors, as well as in other departments in their own unique and often distant buildings, convenience in transit was key. While speed dictated most interdepartmental issues be handled over the phone, access to the stairs was especially necessary, since she preferred, from an HR perspective, to address intradepartmental concerns in person. If she had to consult with Accounts, for instance, about how to prepone compensation to a colleague for surgery, she hiked her way up three storeys to room 328 and asked. Just so, if she needed advice on the best way to collate statistical data on effectiveness and efficiency for the fourteen-year existence of the Ethics Committee, she knocked on the door of room 617 and requested assistance. Her revolution, she decided, against automation and workplace isolation was face-to-face communication. This strategy also assured she achieved her daily quota of steps. When her watch said ‘Take a walk’, she took the opportunity to visit an associate or introduce herself to someone new, whom in her routine she might not otherwise have occasion to meet.
Predilection for movement carried over to her weekends. On Sunday mornings, with forty other folks or more, between the huge windows and mirrored walls of a fourth-floor sunlit dance studio, she let her body integrate sound, traverse the room, trace trajectories, channel the call-and-response of gesture and mood into manner, circumscribe spontaneous volumes, transmute music through the visceral groove into limbed constellations that orbited the pole of her heart, her ultimate choreographer, which led her to stretch, bow, squat, lunge, roll on the floor, kick her legs above her eyes, jump, throw her arms out to her sides, puff her cheeks, make her left arm an elephant trunk and pretend her reflection was a hunter with a gun, roar, die, galumph to the ground, then resurrect and sob. She followed all instructions.
For those two hours every week, she was free as she believed was possible without anxiety. Where else could she growl like a lion, stomp like a rhino, flop like a mackarel in the hull of a boat, or hiss and slither on the floor? Where in the world of dignified demeanours could a person swing from invisible vines and howl as loud as their lungs and passion could fathom? Home, of course, but she lived in a flat with fussy neighbours, plus the group accord was fundamental to catharsis. Participants met and spoke and maybe hugged at the end of their sessions and asked, ‘How was it for you today? Where did you go? What happened?’ She found such questions difficult to answer and tended simply to smile and blush. How was she to articulate the provenance of such diffuse and coherent stimuli? One of her dance friends, a septuagenarian with a throat wattle that in the throes resembled the sentient spirit of a cassowary, once used the descriptor ‘ecstatic’, which confused her, since she always left their sessions more embodied and sure in her skin than she was at the beginning. ‘That’s the paradox’, said her friend, and she guessed that was correct. Perhaps the best response she ever heard was from a young participant who, to the query ‘What happened?’ said, ‘It’.
The closest to that Sunday satisfaction she could reach during the week was when she finished the lists she wrote each night and attacked with fervor the following morning. To rise with a triumph, the perpetual first item she crossed off was: ‘Wake up’. Another larger list comprised her long-term projects, which her daily logs in general approached. She thought each day a step toward the realisation of her aspirations. In fact, attainment of her current employment culminated her previous Long-Term List, which she then printed out, folded into a boat, and released into the stream a few kilometres from her apartment. While her new LTL increased as fast as her responsibilities, she made a personal promise that with every assignment she completed, she would dance through the corridors of her workplace and utter whatever sounds she felt impelled to make. This form of celebration was on the LTL, as well.
When she finally compiled the department’s portion of the corporation-wide survey of work-related injuries, for instance, she might roll her ergonomic desk chair seated through the halls, contort her arms, torso, and especially her wrists, intone the mournful syllables, ‘ow, oh, ah, oo, oy, ugh’, and moan. When she organized the itinerary for the upcoming conference on the speculative neo-natal experience of architecture, for which she proposed the title ‘Wailing Walls: The Constructed World for the Unborn’, she could crawl across the floor, fall, cry for ‘Ma’ and ‘Da’, and speak the glossolalic gibberish of infants. Meanwhile, when she finalized her report on the Ethics Committe, she considered leaping from desk to desk throughout her building and flinging pages from a stack in her arms, shouting ‘You get a tort!’, ‘You get harrassment!’, ‘You get a contract dispute!’, ‘You get class action!’ Yet however much she fantasized such hypothetical associative festivities, she desired most to remain receptive to the whims and aleatoric influences of the moment. She knew too well from her Sunday dances that attachment to a predetermined choreography could stifle and restrict the true fluidity of motion in the moment.
The stairway at her workplace had an inconvenient design. Wrapped around the elevator shaft, the stairs formed a vertical helix through the core of the building. To move between floors, one had to enter the stairwell by way of a door beside the elevators, walk around three sides of the rectangular elevator shaft, emerge from a door on the other side of the elevators, and then enter the stairway again. To go from any storey to any other on her regular walks, she had to open at least two heavy fire doors, which swung shut with a dense and unexpected intensity.
From the stairwell, she could hear the elevator cars as they rose and fell on the other side of the wall. The engine emanated the low tremor of large machines that resonated the very concrete of the steps as she climbed them. Because the building had long halls, and carpets covered the area in front of the elevator doors, the engine sound softened when she left the stairway at every floor. This disparity between the noise and vibration on the stairs and the muffled tranquility on each level as she crossed to the next stairwell door created a pulse, a decibel sine, that lengthened or shortened with the pace at which she walked.
Once she recognized this rhythmic element to her commutes, she played the intervals of clamour and quiet like a tanpura drone, plus increased their complexity by layering the bass hum of the engine and the doppler of the elevator cars with the echoed stoccato of her footsteps. As she sampled these varieties of beats, she danced across floors, to and from meetings, on visits to colleagues, and for no other reason than to walk, which is how she finally got injured. On one such ‘Tap Lap’, as she came to call them, she thrust through a fire door on the seventh floor with the broad stance and spread arms of a slide, but held the pose so long the thick metal door swung to and crushed at least sixteen of the twenty-six bones in her foot.
She hated the cast and her crutches, felt immobile and confined. Worst of all, she could no longer dance on Sundays. One week anyway she tried, but was in too much pain, and had to be so careful that the abandon she desired became unattainable, which sapped the pursuit of all enjoyment. Her invalid state also made stairs a tedious endeavour, not worth the frustration. At work she had to ride the elevators, which was a choice she otherwise would never have taken, were her efforts to climb the steps not so laborious and fraught with humiliation. Without the weekend movement, she noticed changes in her constitution. Her patience withered. She was easily distracted and laughed less than usual. Her shit manifested in dry, puckered, unsatisfactory clumps. Drop-ins to associates diminished, until they altogether stopped. She communicated exclusively by phone. Even team-members with adjacent offices, she called.
Despite her ideological resistance to painkillers, the ache in her foot was so insistent and sustained that she accepted compromised alertness for the sake of relief and productivity, to which she found physical discomfort greater detriment than brain fog and fatigue. Moreover, when she happened by accident to bump her foot into a leg of her desk or chair wheel or door jamb, the pain flew in an electrical burst from her toes to the tips of her ears, then settled like lava in a column of reservoirs: behind her eyes, at the bottom of her throat, under her collar bones, beneath her ribs, and in the pit of her stomach.
Choked, sickened, she stuffed her ‘Take a Walk’ watch under a pile of sweaters in the closet. The repeated injunctions to stand were an insult to her invalid condition. She bought an ottoman to rest her leg on at the office, snapped about delays, and chastised others for mistakes. With no sense of purpose beyond her job, which also gave her a legitimate sense of satisfaction and appreciation, she stayed at work for hours after most of the staff had gone for the day.
Late one Friday evening, in the silence thick with innuendo that followed the departure of her colleagues, she heard the elevator run. Her office was adjacent to the staircase and when she put her hand to the shared wall, the warm buzz of the engine filled her arm with a sensation so subtle and real that she smiled. About half an hour later, when the engine engaged once more, she stood and pressed her sternum to the cinderblock. That Saturday night, early Sunday morning, she dreamed a thumb pressed her belly button and at the touch, her navel glowed orange, then a bolus of pleasure rose to the crown of her head and became a rapid oscillation that spread through her body in waves, which finally burst from her pores as isolated rays of yellow light. On Monday, she arrived at her office early, shut the door, and hugged the wall for the duration of the morning rush.
There was, she soon discovered, an harmonic structure to the sounds of the elevator engine and cars, which depended on whether both or only one was in motion and how many passengers they held, as well as to and from which floors they travelled, plus whether they went up or down. If a car went up, the tone rose as the cable shortened, whereas when a car went down, the tone fell while the chord grew long. There was a spectrum: the elevator sang a treble melody in portamenti, with bass notes that shifted with the motor load, while deeper, almost inaudibly low, she heard the tonic frequency of the idle engine throb.
Though she resumed her visits to colleagues, she no longer lingered in their offices to talk. In her formal request for an intern, she claimed she required assistance due to her reduced mobility, yet when he arrived, she posted the young man assigned her at the elevator doors, with instructions to send the cars to various floors and then recall them. A week went by before anyone asked the intern what his function was, which was also the first time he considered the curious nature of his unpaid employment. When he questioned her as to the reason for his redundant occupation, she invited him into her office to listen. Soon after, her intern was dismissed.
Nights, on occasion, when the janitors had left, she rode the elevators alone, just to run them, but soon realised that to be within the apparatus was far too rough, the motor too close, the stops and starts too sharp, the fluorescent lights too bright, the reflective chrome interiors too harsh, and so resolved to abide with the faint sough of the mechanism at rest through the walls of her office. She thought the stairwell gap the hollow of a cinderblock guitar, her wall the soundboard, elevator cars fingers or a slide, and the motor the arm. Even at home, she began to apprehend a vague, pervasive hum, as when one swims all day in the sea and in bed feels like a buoy. Her body remembered the engine song.
She discontinued her analgesic medication. Whenever she felt pain, she stood or sat against the wall of her office and the ache departed. The thought of the sound brought her comfort when she was far. Her broken foot healed with extraordinary speed. Relieved of her intern, she reached office early and remained till late. She had recurrent dreams, or rather, her dreams featured a single continuous element. No matter the situation, each scene contained a window display with a tall glass funnel full of tar, which beaded from the mouth of the flute and stretched with incredible slowness on a filament that was always just about to break when she awoke.
Although her foot was better, she spent most of the day with her back to the wall her office shared with the staircase. She craved molluscs, macarons, snap peas, and tongue. Her posture was impeccable. She used the ottoman she bought for her leg as a desk and printed handwritten flyers on the department copy machine that promised personal peace through communion with the built environment. ‘MIND THE ENGINE THAT LIVES IN OUR BUILDINGS,’ read one. Another said, ‘GET OFF AT EVERY FLOOR’. While she continued to strike the items from her LTL on schedule, she forgot about the ceremonies she assigned to their completion.
The week before she was fired, she transformed the elevator cars into escape pods, with installations of painted styrofoam, shrink wrap, and bits of aluminum foil. With the help of handpainted arrows and bubble-letter signs, she encouraged team members, colleagues, and whoever happened to pass on errands and business, to climb aboard her ‘chartered single-occupancy spaceships to enlightenment’. On her last day in office, abdomen immense, she walked each hallway in the building twice: once up, then down again. At every step she paused, squatted, stood erect to the tips of her toes, and sang in a high tone, ‘Ding!’
Image Credits: courtesy StratLab Marketing. For the go-getter, each book in their top-50 business book recommendations represents an elevator, so to speak, to the C-Suite. The business executive in this story obviously had read the wrong sort of books.
Zachary Tichauer Bushnell
Zachary Tichauer Bushnell writes poetry and prose. His poems have featured in Poetry at Sangam, Platform Magazine, and The Punch Poetry Issue 2023. His prose has appeared in National Geographic Traveller India, TimeOut Delhi, and Juked Magazine. Zachary lives with his spouse and their toddler in Goa, India, where he works as an editor and educator, plus runs swim lessons for children and adults.