15: Short Story #2
A man walked in the front door while I was working at my desk. It was late, and another distraction was the last thing I needed. He walked forward slowly, extending his stick in all directions, tap-dancing it across the cold office floor. His free hand felt outwardly for the edge of the front desk that was glaringly vacant.
Where had the receptionist gone? I wasn’t sure. Usually he would be sitting there eager to receive visitors and be the best part of their day, allowing me to go about my own work. But perhaps he cut out early, and in the absence of the usual reception, the visiting man was adrift.
He inched along the edge of the desk, exploring, seeming not to despair. I looked back at my to-do list. Not my most productive day. Still several more hours needed, I thought. I could hear the man tapping along. I returned to watching him. Being stationed this close to the front desk, I was routinely forced to observe visitors from a distance.
When the man reached the end of the front desk — the end of something to hold onto — he stopped. He went dead silent, and he brought his stick upright under his chin. He stood there like a column, draped in a faded golf polo and khaki pants, resting the weight of his bald head on his hands that clutched the stick. He was listening.
I made not a peep. I studied his face, furtively, as if he could see me. Silence passed, and then after a deep breath, the man extended his stick again. This time he left the front desk for good and walked forward into the office.
Tapping along, the man encountered a dolly that was protruding from a storage area. He tapped it and rang its cheap aluminum build several times. Continuing forward, he traced the curvature of several open drainage pipes that trickled nearby with coppery brown water. He drug his stick across them like a mallet along a xylophone. I was relieved he didn’t trip into the open piping, though the danger was not yet over.
The man was quickly approaching a scattering of desk islands that characterized the open floor plan of our office. Fearing he might be of threat to the various electronics on display there, I stood up and pushed my chair back with a screech, snapping the man’s attention towards me as if I were a hypnotist. Reluctantly.
As I walked towards the man, the muscles of his face seemed to react to my every step, and his neck craned towards the sound of my coming. In an attempt to ease his longing for information, or more so my discomfort, I spoke well before I reached him.
“Hi there, how can I help you?” I said.
But the man seemed to wait to respond until I was reasonably close to him. I arrived and squared up to him, making the sound of my final steps particularly audible. He spoke in deflated sing-song voice.
“I was just looking for the party, the one for Ankit’s company.” he said. “He’s a friend of mine.”
“Oh, okay. I know Ankit, but I’m not aware of a party.” I said.
He once again brought his stick upright, this time holding it like a staff. His free hand hovered in front of him, in the boundary between our torsos.
“Ankit told me there’s a party.” he said.
“Right, but do you know where it’s being held?” I asked.
I heard the elevator open around the corner. Two women in cocktail attire appeared and streamed towards the front door, paying us no attention.
“Well that sounds like a party.” the man said.
“What does?” I said
“Wherever they’re coming from.” the man replied.
The women wore long dresses that brushed gracefully along the cement floor, as their heels galloped underneath hidden from view. They went out the front door and took cigarettes from their handbags.
“Well, they came from the elevator. So, from the rooftop perhaps?” I said.
“Oh yes, that’s what Ankit said, I’m remembering.” the man said, chuckling. “Could you show me to the elevators?”
I took his hand and turned him around towards the elevator bay. We walked slowly around the front desk and banked sharply down the hallway.
“I hope I’m okay in this.” he said, smoothing out his shirt. “Can’t quite compete with those dresses, but what’s an old man to do?”
I wasn’t sure how he’d known the women wore dresses, but I supplied a laugh and kept us moving. Together we avoided the umbrellas shooting out of the overcrowded umbrella bin, and stepped over the extension cords snaking along the concrete floor.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“John” I said.
“Same as mine. You can be John number two, how about?”
“I’ve heard that before.” I said.
When we reached the elevator, I pushed the up button and I asked if I should ride with him.
“No, not needed. Too many John’s in one elevator.” he quipped, stepping cautiously through the elevator doors. “And there will probably be braille, anyway.”
Turning around inside the elevator, he felt for the silvery plaque of buttons.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes you’ve already done enough, getting up to help and all.” the man said.
He brushed over the door open button and then the door close button, the lobby button and the 4th floor. He nearly called the fire department before I begged to intervene.
“Here, let me — ” I said, joining him in the elevator. “Rooftop, right?”
I led his hand to touch the R button. I noticed it did not actually have braille. None of the buttons did. His finger searched for the dotted language but silently gave up when the elevator made a ding to signify that I had chosen a destination and the doors would close.
“To the party I go. Come on up later if you get some time.” he said.
“I figure I’ll be down here for a while more, need to get a couple things done.” I said, backing off the elevator.
“Sure, I’ve been there.” he said. “And with that fountain you have in the lobby — even I was tempted to stay and get a little done.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. We don’t have any fountains in the office, I thought, as the elevator doors began to close.
“Fountain? What fountain?” I asked.
The man cocked his head to the side for a microsecond, before the most subtle of smiles emerged on his face. He was clutching his stick proudly like a staff, but he didn’t answer.
“What founta—Oh! you mean the drainage pipes that we passed?” I said.
“— the drainage pipes with the water?” I begged.
But the doors had closed. I was alone. He could no longer hear me.
There was the sound of the elevator deciding what to do, and then there was the sound of the man shooting up and up, towards the growing chatter of a party on the rooftop. And then all I could hear was a tiny trickle, and my precious focus was ruined.