The Hospital Elevator
“I’m here to see Ray Holden. He’s in room 8772,” Adam said to the girl at the front desk.
“The elevators are down the hall, past the café, to the left,” she said.
“I don’t like elevators. I’m claustrophobic,” Adam explained.
He was hoping he would encounter the redhead from three days ago, Bridget or Beth, he forgot the name. He explained the claustrophobic bit to her. Judging by the look on this girl’s face, he would have to explain it again.
“I was here a couple of days ago to see my dad. The girl, Bridget I think her name was, said I could use the stairs. I can’t ride in elevators. I’m very claustrophobic,” Adam said.
“I understand sir; it’s just that the stairwell is under construction now. No one is allowed to use it,” the girl said.
Adam couldn’t believe his luck. He swallowed hard and looked down the hallway that led to the elevators. His heart started to beat rapidly, as it always did when he thought too much about elevators.
“I was just here three days ago. When did they start construction?” Adam asked, aware of the fruitlessness of this line of questioning.
“Yesterday. I’m sorry sir. I can ride with you if you like. There was a claustrophobic woman who used to visit her husband over the summer. She felt better when I rode with her,” the girl explained.
No, this wouldn’t do, Adam said to himself. He appreciated the offer. She had a beautiful face and riding with her would be nice. But it wouldn’t do anything for the claustrophobia.
“Thank you, but I hate riding in elevators because I fear getting stuck. I was stuck on an elevator once for fifteen minutes, and I passed out with fear. They had to take me to a hospital, which is ironic,” Adam said, looking around the vast space, the white walls, the white tiles under his feet, the girl’s white uniform. “It wouldn’t matter who was riding with me if we got stuck,” he said.
“I can assure you our elevators never get stuck. I’ve been working here for four years,” the girl said.
Adam didn’t believe her. He heard similar things before from the mouths of women behind reception desks, all sorts of reception desks: hospital reception desks, law firm reception desks, accounting firm reception desks. Adam’s father was an accountant. The elevators were always perfect. They never got stuck.
“With my luck, today will be the day,” Adam said.
The girl could see she was getting nowhere. She looked around for help, but there was none. She looked at her computer screen. She looked up at Adam and tried to smile. She scratched the back of her neck. She didn’t know what to say.
“Can’t I just use the stairs? I won’t bother the workers,” he asked with desperate eyes.
She frowned. “I’m afraid that’s against hospital policy,” she said.
Adam didn’t believe this either. Sure, it would be an inconvenience, but it wasn’t against hospital policy. Hospital policy didn’t cover bizarre situations like this.
He wanted to check out the stairwell construction himself. He wanted to see just how much construction was underway. But he couldn’t do this. She had been kind.
“Okay, sorry,” Adam said, turning away from the desk.
She didn’t say anything, but she added weight to her frown to show how sorry she was. Adam found sincerity in the lips, which was something not to be taken lightly.
He walked in the direction of the elevator. It was a death march. He marched as slow as he could through the hallway of glowing white. There was some respite, however. It came in the form of the café. The Hinsdale Café was a mirage in the anxious wasteland of white; the only white the devil can stand.
The café was all Adam’s.
“I’ll have an espresso,” he said to the elderly woman behind the cash registrar. As she typed into the registrar, he noticed the chalkboard behind her. It listed what the limited café offered, ten choices. He was fortunate espresso was one of the choices. The list was outlined with drawings of flowers and coffee cups in blue, red, and yellow chalk. Adam regretted he didn’t take the time to show the old woman he was admiring what she had put some time into creating.
“Three dollars,” the woman said dryly.
Adam handed her three crisp bills and took a seat. He had his back turned to the old woman, and he stared at the posters on the wall. There was a poster of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and one of a Coliseum in Rome. There was one of the Eiffel Tower as well. They did nothing to help Adam feel like he was in a café in Europe. Then he heard the old woman making the espresso, the absolute unique sound of the creation of espresso. That placed him in Europe a bit. That sound was the same in Hinsdale, Illinois or Venice, Italy.
As the old woman worked, Adam removed a toy wax alligator from his right front pocket. He lifted the alligator to his nose to see if the fresh smell of wax was still there. It was still there, a slight trace.
“Your espresso, sir,” the old woman said.
Adam left the alligator on the table and walked towards the woman.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the white mug out of her veiny hands. In the middle of the mug’s whiteness was a small red square holding the word “Illy” in white letters — Illy coffee. This café was alright, despite the posters, Adam said to himself.
He took a sip in front of the woman. She watched him.
“It’s really good,” he said.
“I’m glad,” she said.
Adam returned to the alligator. He touched its scaly skin as he took another sip. Then he took his smartphone out. He looked over his emails, but he was really thinking about the elevator.
In the middle of his fifth email, he heard someone enter the café. He looked up and saw the young woman from the reception desk.
“Hi, Carol. Can I have a strawberry smoothie, please,” she said in a tired but pleasant voice.
“One smoothie, coming up,” Carol said.
“How’s your day going Riya, you look a little gassed,” Carol asked.
Riya gave a quick and polite laugh. “It’s going,” she said.
Adam was taken in by how attractive she was. He hoped he wasn’t part of the reason she was gassed, his craziness with the elevator and all. As she rummaged through her purse for the money to pay for the smoothie, Adam thought it was the most important thing in the world at that moment for her not to be angry with him. He was hoping that when she noticed him, she would sit next to him and not at another table.
After she paid and received her smoothie, she looked at Adam. She had been watching the old woman make her smoothie.
“Are you going to visit your father?” she asked.
Adam slid a chair towards her.
“Have a seat,” he said. “I’m sorry about giving you a hard time back there.”
He saw the old woman looking at him when he said this. She wore an expression that said she knew he was trouble.
Riya took the seat. She unloaded the purse and smoothie on the table. The smoothie was only six inches from Adam’s espresso and the alligator.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I’m trying to work up the courage to get on that elevator. Pretty silly, huh?” Adam said.
He saw the old woman go into a back room, a room behind the chalkboard that displayed her slight artistic talent. A storage room perhaps? Anyway, he was glad she was gone.
“It’s certainly not silly. Claustrophobia is a serious disorder,” she said.
“Today might be the day I take my first step in conquering it,” Adam said, finishing the espresso with one last slurp.
“I hope you do,” she said. “The best way to conquer phobias is to take them head-on.”
She sipped, waiting for Adam to say something. He was convinced she was waiting for some great understanding from him, a proclamation of some new understanding. Adam thought for a moment, looked at the Eiffel tower, and tried to offer something profound.
“You sound like a doctor,” he said.
He could be witty and a great conversationalist when he put his mind to it. But now his mind was occupied by her eyes and, of course, the elevator.
“I’m pre-med at Northwestern, which means absolutely nothing. I’d like to be a doctor, but that’s a long ways away,” she said.
“What year are you?” he asked.
“Freshman. The doctor is still a long ways away,” she said.
“You’ll be a doctor before you know it,” he said.
“God, I hope so,” she said, picking up Adam’s alligator and taking another sip. When she was done sipping, she smiled.
“Oh my God, I remember these. They used to have those machines at Brookfield Zoo that made these things. I used to love that smell. Remember that hot wax smell?” she asked, examining the alligator with great care, this future doctor.
“They still have them at Brookfield Zoo. I took my nephew there two weeks ago, and he wanted a penguin. They had the Moldarama machine right there in the Penguin House,” Adam said.
She placed the alligator back down on the table. “Why did you bring it to the hospital?” she asked.
“It was the very first toy my father bought me. At least, it’s the very first toy I remember him buying me. The Moldarama machine was inside the Reptile House. It used to smell like my pet chameleons inside the Reptile House, which makes sense I guess. I think it’s called The Swamp Exhibit now or something. I don’t think it’s in the same building,” he said.
“What’s the matter with your father?” she asked.
“He has pancreatic cancer, stage four,” he said.
“I’m so sorry,” Riya said.
“Thank you,” Adam said.
She stared at her smoothie while he stared at the Coliseum and then the alligator. There was some silence, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.
“I think he’ll get a kick out of seeing the alligator. I wonder if he’ll remember buying it for me all those years ago,” he said.
“I’m sure he will,” she said.
She stared through the smoothie, and when she made up her mind, she looked up at Adam and moved her chair closer to him.
“I can talk with my manager. I’m sure she’ll let you take the stairs. I’ll tell her about your situation and your father. She’s actually really nice,” Riya said.
“No, it’s okay. I really need to beat this thing,” he said.
“But how do you plan on beating it right now?” she asked.
“I’ll think of my dad, I guess. After his cancer diagnosis, he still showed up to work every morning. He brought his chemo bag to work with him. If he could do that, I can suffer a few seconds inside an elevator to see him,” he said.
“And there’s something else,” he said. “A few weeks ago, I asked him, you know, if he was afraid to die. It was a stupid thing to ask, but his bravery amazed me. He doesn’t seem afraid to die. I never knew my father, the quiet accountant, was that brave. He said he believed in God and death was just placing yourself entirely in God’s hands. You have to be resigned to the fall or rise, he said. I’ll never forget that.”
“Your father sounds like an amazing man,” Riya said.
“He is,” Adam said. He thought that soon he would have to say “he was.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to ride with you?” she asked.
Adam was tempted to say “yes.” Perhaps, also, a dinner and a movie later tonight? Instead he said, “when I was nineteen, my father took me on a trip to Luxembourg. He was always traveling on business and sometimes I went with him. The company paid for everything, so I went as often as I could. I’ve been to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Rome, Paris, Venice, and Madrid.”
“But this time we were in Luxembourg, and we were staying at this five-star hotel, the Hotel Sofitel in Luxembourg City. It was the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed at. Anyway, the elevator there was great. I wasn’t afraid of elevators at the time, but I still realized how cool this elevator was. It was all glass, you could look out from all angles, and it was huge. There was plenty of space and air to breathe. And it was faster than most elevators. It was more of an amusement park ride than an elevator ride. It was located in the very center of the hotel, and as it shot up to the ninth floor, you saw the splendor and immensity of the hotel and its rooms and restaurants and people all around you. If all elevators were like that, I could ride in elevators all day.”
“If only elevators were made of glass, huh?” Riya said.
“But they’re not,” Adam said, standing up. He walked over to a saucer near the cash registrar and placed his empty white cup on top of it. He picked up the alligator and shook Riya’s hand. He didn’t know what else to do.
“Thanks for being so understanding,” he said.
“Next time you visit your father, make sure you say hello,” she said, releasing his hand.
“I will,” he said.
“Good luck with that elevator,” she said.
Adam wanted to say “thanks, I’ll need it.” But he just nodded at her and walked out of the café.
I am resigned to my fate, he told himself.
Adam pushed a button, and the elevator door opened just for him. When you die, even surrounded by people, you die alone, he said to himself. You are the only one who dies. He heard that from some other place. Was it a movie? A book? A song?
Inside the elevator, he pushed another button. The elevator door closed. He breathed in deeply. The steel and wood paneling that surrounded him were deadlier than the Lakota that surrounded Custer. At least those killers moved, they were not motionless, deaf things like wood and steel. The Lakota at least had ears to hear you scream. That was something. The steel and wood could not hear Adam’s erratic breathing.
The stillness of the elevator stabbed at him. Why are we not moving?
He was alone in the elevator. He removed the alligator from his pocket and studied it closely, the way Riya did, the way a doctor would.
“Let your will be done, Lord,” he said out loud because he was alone. He could not believe those words came out of his mouth.
There was a slight rattle. Then the elevator began to rise. It rose slowly. He concentrated on the alligator. He was resigned to the rise.
Chris Capitanio is a writer from Illinois.