There are plenty of things to like about his job, but George likes the glass elevator best. It is clean, well lit, brand new, and hardly ever used. It is just like the elevator in Willy Wonka, which is perhaps why the library chose it.
The elevator lives in the parking garage and every day, George pushes his car, a gray, outdated, but always clean Buick up ramp by ramp, counting the floors until he makes it to five and there is no more concrete over his head. He always parks right at the doors; just so, with the crack perfectly centered on his daughter's purple graduation tassel hanging from the rearview mirror. He loves this parking spot because no one ever parks on the fifth floor. It is his alone; the parking spot is always open and the elevator always on the floor he left it. He pushes the button and the doors open promptly, on command, every time. A calm British voice tells him he is on the fifth floor and which floor would he like to go to? The first, he always chooses, and the voice complies.
When going down, George never turns to the outer window. He doesn't care to watch the beige government building begin to loom above him as the ground inches closer. It makes him nauseous. So he concentrates on the doors and the lines of sunlight moving around him, circling up, up, and up.
Once inside the library, it is all books this and DVDs that and where did this stack come from, are they checked in or not, as books clunk again and again into the bin, pushed by unseen hands. George sits at his desk, a half cubicle covered in paperwork and pencils, with a book cart swinging open and shut in a makeshift door. When the work is slow and the library is quiet, George swings the cart open and sits in the open area with the rest of the workers, sorting materials and laughing and complaining about their children's homework or that latest diet trend they'd all like to try if everyone would just stop bringing leftover desserts to work. Sometimes George laughs. If the work is busy, George swings the cart shut, locking himself into his half-cubicle room and counting down the minutes on the Felix the Cat clock his wife, Virginia, gave him for their thirtieth wedding anniversary.
There are other times George will lock himself in his cubicle. Like when the library director makes a surprise visit to take in the lack of organization. Or when a patron is upset over a late fee. Or anytime Zoe clocks in.
When Zoe clocks in, George always hears her particular time card beep. He knows this can't be true, that one beep sounds no different than another beep, but hers does and he is always right. It is softer, not as grating. He hears it, beeeep, and Zoe floats into the room, gliding along as if on skates, her blood-red hair fluttering to rest like a halo around her face. Today she wears lipstick to match and a pencil skirt littered with images of number two pencils. Her cheekbones are contoured and her eyebrows have been thickened, giving her the effect of looking both delicate and sharp.
She breezes to the break room to check the assignments George has made and then goes to her spot. On the hour, everyone switches and does a new thing for a while so no one feels too bored. Next hour, George has assigned himself and Zoe to work together at the check-in station. Just for one hour. He couldn't help himself.
Zoe is twenty-eight, unmarried, without children, and not beautiful but not unbeautiful. She comes in to work every day dressed as if she is a different person, her make-up and hair changed so strikingly, it is not unusual for regulars to ask if each day is her first day. Today, she is stunning and elegant. The day before, she lined her eyes thick, left her hair unbrushed, and replaced the stud in her nose with a ring. George has seen her hair dyed blonde, black, pink, and now this deep, dark red. He likes the red but the blonde is his favorite. When Zoe wore blonde, she wore it white and curled like Marilyn Monroe and she walked with the poise required of it. The world rotated around her presence -- the books, papers, and people around her but waves on the sea and she the magnetic core.
Zoe never seemed to notice when people were staring at her, or if she did, she pretended not to notice. George caught himself several times. He would be studying the pull of her shirt at her waist, the way she folded her sleeves when she shelved, the way her hair tucked behind her ears to reveal a line of piercings, and once a small star tattoo.
The other workers, all women, waffle between interrogating Zoe and pretending not to see her. They ask where she gets her hair done, where she bought those pants, what kind of food she eats, why she isn't eating more. Like the desserts, for example. Why doesn't Zoe ever eat any dessert? Does Zoe think she is fat? Because Zoe is crazy is she thinks she's fat. They hope Zoe isn't anorexic, they know how easily it can happen to young, unmarried, somewhat pretty twenty-eight year-olds.
But Zoe is not anorexic. Zoe just does not like sweets, George knows. Zoe is a vegetarian. George wouldn't mind being vegetarian. He is out of shape, can feel the sag of his belly when he bends over the carts. Somewhere under all that fat are muscles and George would like to see them again. He tried dieting once but Virginia did not approve. It made her feel fat.
The other workers do not ask Zoe to lunch, nor does she receive invitations to their backyard barbecues which, George decides, is just as well because he can't and doesn't want to imagine Zoe ever attending one. In fact, he doesn't want to ever imagine her outside of the boundaries of their workspace, though he does, sometimes.
He imagines her at fancy bars with her friends, wearing a chic dress and holding a martini glass and laughing and dancing. He imagines men staring at her, buzzing like flies and she waving them away, each an indiscriminate annoyance. Sometimes, and this is the most embarrassing thing, he imagines her on a runway, the background full dark and she wearing a dress made of diamonds and bright feathers of red and orange and purple that rise around her like wings. He imagines her walking to the end of the strip, posing and then flying away, her hand still on her hip and her smile demure.
"I hardly ever go out," Zoe told George once. "Too expensive and it's always the same old thing." But still, he imagines.
Zoe stands with her hand at her hip today as she speaks to a patron at the front desk. He notices the tilt of her legs toward the desk, one knee cocked forward in a kickstand. When the person leaves, she rests her chin forward on the palm of her hand, fingers over lips and he can picture her on the magazine page, selling Chanel, or better, Dior.
The closing music sounds and a woman no one knows announces that the day is over. Patrons line up at the checkout desk, all in a hurry to leave now that the music is sounding and it is rude to be checking out once the music sounds. It is the same each day; they tap their toes and wiggle their fingers, idling back and forth, shifting bags of books from one shoulder to the next. One woman asks, "This is an early closing, isn't it? You guys never close this early." We always close at this time, George tells her but she shakes her head and saunters into the stacks. One by one, the others reach the desk, check out their books, ask questions, pay fines, and then are all out the door, the workers ready to shut everything down.
But that woman. That one, sauntering woman. George can see the outline of her shoulder with purse through a crack in the shelves and his stomach does a little flip because he knows there is an unpleasant moment coming. He is going to tell this woman that she must leave the library and she is going to tell him that she is not ready to leave and he is going to have to be tough and she will most likely complain.
He marches up to her -- he tries to march to her but her back is turned so this tactic of looking important is lost on her. Standing behind her while she stares at the shelves, he clears his throat. She ignores him. He tries again but no luck. So he taps her on the shoulder and she turns, as if surprised, and by her face, George already knows this will not be easy.
"The library is closed now. Do you need help finding anything?" he says.
She takes a deep breath and does not make eye contact. "I am looking for something, but I don't think you'll be able to find it."
Secretly, George loves when patrons say this. It's the one moment he can surprise them, produce a book from the shelf like magic, the exact copy they were looking for in the exact place they had been looking in but for whatever reason could not find. It is the moment when the patron looks at him and their eyes widen and they realize that yes, the world does in fact make sense. It is the one moment where George holds the cards and no one else does. They look at him differently. They remember that he was the one who knew where the book was. These moments, George savors like soft chocolate.
"What is it?" he asks, holding back a grin.
"It's a book by John Muir," she says, George is excited. George has read lots of John Muir. When he was in high school and the Eagle Scout badge was still fresh on his Boy Scout uniform, George spent evenings reading Muir's essays on nature and people. To this day, he donates only to the Sierra Club because Muir founded it.
His smile grows. "Yes?"
The woman continues. "Something about the Colorado River and his explorations," she says. "It should be right here." She taps her finger loudly on the shelf, in an empty spot surrounded by other books by John Muir but none of them about the Colorado River.
"I looked up the title just a second ago. It was not checked out but now it's not here. Of course!" She throws her hands up and shakes her head. A strand of hair falls loose from her barrette, lop-sided and pointed like a rooster tail on her head. George tries not to look at it.
"My son needs it for a project due next week. His grade depends on it. I came all the way over here." She spits each sentence like a bullet. She looks at him accusingly. George racks his mind for any book by Muir regarding the Colorado River and he cannot come up with a single title.
"You saw it in the catalog?" he asks.
She nods, quickly. "Yes, it said it was on the shelf. But obviously not." She raises her eyebrows and, with her arms crossed over her chest, she bears striking resemblance to George's elementary school principal, the one that was so disappointed in him when he was caught cheating on his multiplication quiz. She looks around impatiently, like the book could be anywhere, like they are hiding it from her. And really, it could be anywhere. Books are always out of order. Right now, George sees three books by Seton that are in the wrong place, as if someone flipped through the pages, deemed them unworthy, and then shoved them back into any old space. The woman's fingers drum on her elbow.
"Are you sure it's not this one?" Zoe is behind them both with a book. She hands it to the woman; a book entitled The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.
The woman nods her head fast. "Yes! Yes, this one."
"It's actually by John Powell, not John Muir, so it was under P, right where it should be," Zoe says. George can hear the rightness in her voice, the defense. He blushes and they share a smile. We have been a team, he thinks. The woman does not acknowledge this last statement, just says thank you and rushes to the desk where two clerks wait glaring.
Zoe stares at George and they both grin wide grins. "She's a crazy person." Zoe whispers.
"Wouldn't be the first," George says, and his hand wanders to his hip.
They share a delicious laugh again and Zoe goes back to the workroom to gather her things. George checks his watch and when it is officially six o'clock, he tells everyone they can clock out. A chirping of beeps, Zoe's somewhere in the middle, doors opening, closing, slamming, laughter. He watches them go and steals away to the staff restroom before the commute. It is a moment of peace he savors, even if a toilet hides in the corner.
He locks the door behind him and enjoys the single moment of quiet and alone and he can feel his shoulders relax down from his ears as he studies himself in the mirror. His face is more lined this year than it has ever been before. He pulls at his temples and the skin smooths back to reveal cheek bones and full lips, a jaw line. He releases his skin and it all wilts back where everything belongs. He takes a breath and looks down at the sink.
There, he finds a small necklace he recognizes; a tree encircled by a gold ring -- Zoe's. It is still warm as he piles it in his hand. She will be back for it, he thinks. But first.
It is an urge he cannot contain, even as his pudgy fingers fumble with the clasp. He slips the necklace around his neck and watches it drape across his chest. He pulls his shirt down to create a V and lets the necklace rest there against his skin, nestled in the gray hair. He puts a hand on his hip. He pretends to hold a glass of wine. He laughs, silently but joyously, as if he is having the time of his life, as if he is the beautiful one, as if all the eyes were on him. He drinks it in and floats around the room, swaying and dancing, feeling as if his feet were no longer touching the ground. He looks at himself in the mirror.
He smiles. And then –
He fumbles again with the clasp and pulls the necklace from his neck. It catches and he can feel the sting of pulled hair. He drapes the necklace back over the sink, with the pendant falling, just as he has found it. His fingers linger on the tree as he takes a breath, shuts the light and closes the door behind him.
Outside, the evening is pleasant; air with a hint of comfortable chill and the sun fading in such a way to cast purple over everything. He admires the light, smiles at it, and takes his time. George approaches the glass elevator and pushes the button. The doors glide open and the floor is clean and polished and he steps in. He turns and as he pushes the button for the fifth floor, an arm stops the doors and Zoe shoves in.
"Fifth floor please," she says, not looking at him, arranging her coat. George pushes the button. The doors close. The elevator ascends slowly and Zoe turns to rest her head on the glass, watching everything shrink. It is so quiet.
"I love this elevator," she says, breaking the silence. "It's just like the one in Willy Wonka." And then it is quiet again. George knows he must speak, he must.
"Thank you," he chokes out, finally. "Earlier, thank you for finding that book."
She shrugs. "It's no big deal. The only reason I knew it was there was because I had shelved it earlier and thought I might read it. But, I decided not to." She looks at George and smiles. "Fate, I guess."
George nods, too fast. He notices the absence of the necklace around her neck. He tries not to look. The elevator slows to a stop. The doors open and there is George's car, right in front, waiting for him. They step out of the elevator together and Zoe floats to her car, a red Miata, a few spaces down. She hops in, starts it up, and is gone before he even unlocks his door.
George rests his head against the steering wheel. He wonders if she will start parking up here every night, if this will become a tradition for them, riding in the elevator together, watching the library shrink. He imagines the two of them sharing stories about each day, laughing joyously, their hands braced against the glass walls, her smile turned warmly to him. He thinks of the necklace again, how it waits, lonely, on the bathroom sink. He could go back for it. Even if she remembered where she left it, she would believe it taken by the cleaning staff.
He gets out of his car and summons the elevator, and waits as he descends down, his hands fiddling in his pockets. His knees are locked tight but his legs feel like water that will cascade at the first step. He feels light; a smile creeps at the corners of his mouth.
But by the time he reaches the bottom, a cold stone has settled in his stomach and his feet remain nailed to the floor even as the doors open and wait patiently for him exit. First floor, the voice insists. First floor. Instead, he presses the button for five and the doors shut and he is rising. He closes his eyes and rests his body against the glass. He feels the weight radiating from his head down, the elevator taking him up, up, and up.
Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian with the inability to shush people currently living in Denton, Texas. She owns a cat who, as one would expect, is disdainful of Lisa's very existence.