The Tenth, Not Final, Plague
I myself would not believe it, if not for the bell. Every night it rings–and rings and rings until I open the door and find–nothing. The tight corridor between the elevator, my neighbor’s door and the door to the stairwell crouches before me with an emptiness like famine, with a blackness like a plague of night.
At first I believed it was a joke, that the children downstairs had learned to play tricks on a lonely old foreigner. I said and did nothing the first night, grew incensed the second night and lay in wait the third night, but when I flung open the door, needing time only to throw the bolt and turn the handle, there was no one there. The elevator had opened and was closing and stood empty on my floor. There was no one in the stairwell for two floors and not a soul on the roof.
So I began to listen. We pick up on patterns quickly, we mortals. By the fifth night I knew the time to the second. At nine thirty-five and three seconds, the elevator slid into place, the doors opened and after a pause just long enough for my heart to beat twice like a drum in the clutches of a madman, the bell rang.
I tested that bell. If I opened the door immediately, it cut off immediately. If I waited for ten minutes, it rang and rang until I could stand it no more and opened the door, as I have said, on a black, dry well whose bottom seemed to rise more swiftly with each turn of the game.
It seemed like a game. It was a game. I had played it before.
I began to listen as one listening for thunder in the distant hills or the faint, approaching jangle of the ice cream truck’s song. There is that moment when the sound is heard, but so vaguely and mistily that only the time of day, the flash of lightning or its utter approach assures you that it has begun. It was always like that, even when I made out voices and what they said, even when I huddled by the door in tears, listening to that bell as it rang and rang for half an hour.
I would have let it ring a decade if I could, but ever more clearly I could hear, behind the frantic ringing of the bell and the rapid pressures of a ghostly hand, a panicked voice, high and shrill, calling and crying, impatient, distressed. In tears like Pharaoh at the tenth and final plague, I burst into that space, grasping at shadows where the hand should be, the arm, the shoulders, the small, bright head, the frenzied, pouting face suddenly alight with impish reproach and the glee of relief and victory.
But there was nothing there, only my shadow on the elevator door, the dusty blue mat which I had not washed for weeks, the equally dusty shoe rack with its burden of abandoned shoes, hers and mine. Not theirs. Theirs lay like forgotten toys in careless jumbles on the rack inside the door and on the floor before it in a sward of dust disturbed only by my passing to and from the door to leave for work, to return from work and to answer the ringing of the bell.
One time I caught the elevator door before it closed. I stood there in that hollow light and felt for a moment as if I’d caught a scent, a harsh, sweet, strangling waft of her perfume. Impossible, of course. The scent had always faded by the time she came home, though it filled the house like the cloud the temple when she was ready to leave.
One time I locked the door and rode the elevator to the basement garage. I felt the motor of the scooter. It was warm, but only from my returning from work. I still parked the scooter tight against the rail and the parking space, my heart’s delight whenever we returned from church or an excursion to a park or the seaside, yawned like a family grave, a thick, black oil stain and a pile of planks for flowers and a headstone. A few neighbors had heartlessly offered to buy or rent it, but I had refused. It was my earth and it waited for their return.
One time I stood in the basement by the elevator door. It was nine thirty-three. At nine thirty-four and six seconds, the button lighted and the door opened. I stepped inside. I heard them. Piping, bright voices and hers scolding them for some heedless infringement of the maternal code. A squabble. A shout. All heard as if through glass, thick, black, frosted glass that made shadows of sound.
The door opened. I stepped out. I stood in the corridor. The bell did not ring. Puzzled impatience engulfed me like a wind. I unlocked the door and went in.
I have ridden with them since, always with the same result. The squabbles vary and the imprecations are not always severe, but the bell does not ring and I am conscious of confused expectation, as if I, too, were of their company. Sometimes I have made them wait until an unbearable edge of anger pierces my skin and heart like the sure stroke of a well-known knife. It is rare that I provoke them.
Most nights I wait beside the door, no longer doubting, more and more afraid. Will it occur to them that it is in vain, that they cannot enter, that I cannot reach them in that cramped void?
So far the bell still rings. With luck it will ring forever.
(c) 2006 Mark Penny