Monthly Archives: December 2014

Nothing Upstairs

elephant feet

Mrs. Sally Hober was quite positive that her upstairs neighbors had bought an elephant.  She had not seen it yet, but she had heard it.  Every night before she closed her eyes, she heard the thumping and clumping of the elephant walking around above her head.  There was no way she could fall asleep with an elephant on the next floor.  Suppose the weight of the animal caused the floor to give way above her?  Then the elephant would come crashing down through the ceiling and probably brain her as she slept.

“Frank?” Sally Hober said that morning at breakfast.  She was cooking eggs, but not very well.  She had been cooking eggs poorly every morning for the past thirty years.

“Frank?” she said again, since he had ignored her the first time.  Frank Hober read the Metro section of the New York Times every weekday morning and Sally had learned not to speak during this ritual.

“Sally,” he had said at the beginning of their marriage, “Knowledge is very important to me.  When I am reading, if you have anything to say, just write it down on a scrap of paper, and we’ll discuss it after I’ve finished.  That would be the efficient way to handle the situation.  Okay?”

It had not been okay with Sally, but she had nodded and remembered to keep track of little scraps of paper around the kitchen.  She had actually written things down for a couple of years, but then would either lose the piece of paper, or forget it entirely.  After a while, she had decided it was easier not to talk during breakfast at all.  She liked the morning talk shows better anyway.

But an elephant living in the upstairs apartment was something that couldn’t wait.

“Frank!” she said for the third time, with an edge to her voice.  It was almost a shout.  Not quite, but almost.  She hated to shout, especially so early in the morning, but she was feeling a little desperate and her voice had been louder than she expected.  She scrambled around the kitchen for something to get his attention.  Finally, she grabbed a spoon, scooped up one of her runny eggs from the pan and flung the mess at her husband’s face.

The egg hit Frank Hober squarely in the eye and began to dribble down his nose into his mouth.  He leaped up with a combination of a scream and a grunt and immediately tripped over the chair he had been sitting on.  He fell flatly on his back, knocking the wind out of himself, and he lay sprawling and choking for a full minute.  Sally put her hand to her mouth in horror at what she had just done and rushed to her husband’s side with a wash rag.  She wiped off most of the mess and tried to pat him comfortingly on the chest while he recovered his breath.

“What the Christ did you do that for?!” he screamed.  His face was a vivid magenta and he stared at his wife with wild rolling eyes.  He pushed her away crying, “Off!  Off!  For Christ’s sakes, what is your condition?”

“I’m sorry, so sorry….,” Sally let her apologies run together like her eggs.  “I had to get your attention, Frank and you just wouldn’t listen to me.”

Frank Hober dabbed at the remnants of the egg, stood the chair up and sat in it.

“All right then,” he sighed, “What’s so goddamn important anyway?”

Sally stepped back and took a dramatic pause before stating, “Our upstairs neighbors have an elephant.”

Frank Hober sat regarding his wife for what seemed like several minutes.  He blinked a few times, but beyond that, didn’t respond.  Sally had worried that his reaction would be violent, but he appeared to be too shocked to speak.

“I’m sorry,” he finally murmured, “Could you say that again?”

“Frank, there is an elephant living upstairs from us.  The neighbors have obviously bought an elephant for a pet, or for protection……something, and I think it is very dangerous and I want you to go up there and talk to them about it.”  Sally finished her speech and folded her arms across her chest firmly.

“An elephant, you say?” Frank grinned widely, “Yes, well, I suppose it would be pretty good protection to have an elephant patrolling your apartment.  Do you think they brought it up in the elevator or had a crane lift it in through the window?”

Sally recognized the sarcasm in his voice.  “Frank, this is no joke.  An elephant is a large and powerful animal.  Do you want that thing crashing through the ceiling onto our heads one night while we’re watching T.V.?”

“For chrissakes, Sally, don’t push it.” He glanced at his watch.  “Goddamn it, now I’m going to be late.”  He grabbed his briefcase off the table and hurried to get his jacket.

“Do I still have egg on my face, Sally?  I’ve got a meeting with the board at nine.”

“No, it’s all off,” she lied.  “Should I talk to them myself, then?  Maybe slip a note under their door?”

Frank rolled his eyes.  “Listen, I have a suggestion for you.  Why don’t you bring up a house-warming gift to the elephant?  Like maybe some peanuts.  Oh, and if you see them walking it on the street, make sure they’re cleaning up after it,” he chuckled on his way out the door.

Later that morning Sally heard the elephant moving around above her kitchen.  She finished sipping her coffee nervously, expecting at any moment for the huge animal to come crashing down on her.  The elephant is especially loud this morning, Sally thought to herself as she raised her eyes to the ceiling in response to each creak or bang.  She never heard anyone telling the elephant to be quiet, so she assumed they let it go around where it chose.  She didn’t think an elephant would really have enough room.  For a moment, she even felt sorry for the beast, being left alone, day after day, cramped in a tiny apartment.

At noon, she phoned her daughter, Sydney.

“Yes, Mother?” Sydney asked briskly, “What seems to be the trouble?”

“You see, Sydney, “ Sally wasn’t exactly sure how to phrase the situation, so that her daughter would not get too hysterical and insist on rushing right over.  “You see… dear, there appears to be an elephant living in the apartment above our place and I’m not sure quite what to do about it.”

“I’m sorry, Mother, there was some kind of static on the line.  Did you say you had an elephant living above you?” Sally heard her daughter chuckle – a chuckle a lot like her father’s.

“That is precisely what I said, Sydney,” Sally answered, “I know it’s hard to believe, but there you have it.”

“Well, have you actually SEEN the thing, Mom?”

“No, but I have heard it.” Sally faltered a little.

“Did you go up to the apartment and make sure it was actually an elephant and not just a fat man or a noisy dog?”

“Well, no, not yet….In fact, I thought I’d talk to the super first.”

“Okay, why don’t you do that, and then call me back.”  Sydney spoke in the same sort of patronizing voice as her father, Sally noticed.  “Look, Mom, I’ve got to go.  I’ve got a meeting at one.  Talk to you later.”

“..Love you..” Sally murmured into the phone as she heard the click of her daughter hanging up.  She felt hurt by her daughter’s dismissal.  She drearily dialed the super but no one picked up.  He’s probably sleeping on the job while there’s African wildlife loose on the eighth floor, she thought.  She stood up resolutely.  She would go and ring the bell of the upstairs apartment herself and get to the bottom of the matter.

Sally climbed the single flight of stairs defiantly at first, but growing more and more wary as she neared the top.  Visions of angry neighbors and their wild elephants flitted through her mind.  She edged closer to the door.  Apartment 8C.  She had only met the occupants once.  They were a young trendy couple in their early thirties: just the type to buy an elephant.  She imagined them buying it on the black market, the husband demonstrating with his arms just how big they wanted it to be.  “Big enough to crash through the floor!” the wife probably joked.  Sally shivered and rang the doorbell.

There was no answer except silence.  She pressed the bell again and waited.  Suddenly from the back of the apartment, she heard a distinct crashing sound.  She stepped back from the door, half expecting the elephant to come bursting through into the hall.  There was still no answer.  She heard another crash, this time a little closer, but Sally did not wait around.  She took the steps two at a time back to her own door, her heart pounding loudly in her ears.

She’d only been home for a few minutes when the crashing noises started up again.  They were coming directly from the expanse above her living room.  To Sally, it sounded as if the wooden beams were finally splitting.

She dialed her husband’s office so quickly that she got the wrong number twice.  After several frantic minutes of yelling at Frank’s secretary, who insisted he not be disturbed, Frank got on the line.

“I hope this is important, Sally,” Frank said sternly, “I was in a very important meeting and……”

“Frank!  Frank!  For God’s sake, come home!”  Sally shrieked in the receiver.  “The elephant, Frank!  I can hear it!  It’s going to crash through any second, Frank!  I swear it!”

Sally heard her husband take a sharp breath.  He said to her slowly, “Sally, I think you should just lie down for a little while.  Do you have the air conditioner on?  It’s very humid today and you should really be taking it easy…”

“You don’t understand!”  Sally sobbed at her husband’s ignorance, “I went up there and I rang the bell and I guess it got mad because now it’s trying to stamp its way through the ceiling.  You’ve got to come home, Frank!  Please!”

“You’re being completely ridiculous, just listen to yourself!”  He sounded more annoyed than gentle now.  “There is no goddamn elephant upstairs.  Now enough already!  Really!  I don’t know what’s come over you!  Did you have more than two cups of coffee today?”

Sally slammed down the phone and screamed.  The splitting noises were louder than ever.  She looked up at the ceiling and swore she saw the tiniest of cracks appear above the sofa.  She screamed again and slammed out of the apartment.

******

At a quarter to five, Frank Hober rode the elevator up to the seventh floor.  He walked down the hallway and paused before the janitor’s closet where he thought he heard the softest of sobs.  He opened the door and found his wife red-eyed and shaking, huddled in a mass behind the brooms.  He sighed and pulled her out by the shoulders.  He hugged her briefly, then led her by the arm down the hall to their apartment.  “No, noooo, please no…” Sally moaned as he unlocked the door.  He forced her inside and gestured silently, sweeping his arms across the room.  Not a single thing was out of place.

“Now,” he asked, smiling widely and trapping her against the wall with his most patronizing look, “Are you quite satisfied?”

Sally sniffed quietly, hating him, wishing for the briefest of moments that she had been right.  That there had been an elephant in the apartment above them.

They stood in silence for that moment, and then in the next, a deafening crack resounded through their home, and an avalanche of plaster and wood came crashing down into their living room.  Chips of paint and broken furniture rained down.  Amid the roar of destruction and flying debris, Sally watched in a mixture of horror and awe as a gigantic elephant came thundering down through the hole on top of husband’s screaming and petrified form.  She heard the trumpeting above the din, and recognized the thick grey skin and long agile trunk of the genuine pachyderm.  The beast, after landing on her husband and crumpling him to the floor, did not move at all.

Sally stood silently by as the remaining bits of ceiling tumbled down from above.  An elephant, she though, exactly what I said it was.

“I told you, Frank.”  She spoke to the spot where she assumed he lay.  “I told you, but of course you knew better, right?  Just like always.  You always think you know everything.  Well, Ha Ha on you.  This time I was right and you were wrong, so Ha Ha on you!”

Sally Hober stood and laughed triumphantly beside the gigantic mess in her living room.  After a few minutes, she went to get the vacuum cleaner.

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Port-OutLandish

Cupcake-Bicycle-Jack-Cesareo-Keep-Portland-Weird

Over the past ten years, several of my husband’s and my relatives have relocated to Portland, Oregon, and every time I go to visit, I am reminded of how incessantly nice everyone is. As well as being way cooler-looking than me. Not to mention laid-back and colloquial. Other than all that, I usually have a great time.

I have nothing against niceness in small doses. In fact, I appreciate it – it keeps the planet from becoming a bunch of puppy-kicking public belchers who wear large, obtrusive hats to the theater. But, after enduring a week of being surrounded by folks (nice people are also known as ‘folks’) who were randomly helpful enough to turn around in a crowd and supply me with a forgotten line to an obscure 1950’s musical song I had been singing (to myself), it became a bit unnerving.  Not to mention, it forced me – a native New-Yorker who keeps her eyes averted in elevators and sometimes forgets jay-walking is a crime – to examine my own typical behaviors in public and find them greatly lacking.

Discovering you are in a city in which everyone is a lot nicer than you starts out as a pleasant surprise. You find that most people are smiling and offering helpful information when you ask, rather than blatantly ignoring you or staring straight down at their phones. As a result, I made a concerted effort to be nicer myself. A family of five, traveling with small children, we were constantly offered seats on buses or restaurants or the opportunity to move ahead on a line. My initial shock (“Are you sure??  Oh, wow, thank you so much!”) eventually gave way to expectation (“Don’t worry, this guy will let us in.”) and finally to apathy and indifference. On Thanksgiving morning, my mother-in-law realized she was short on stuffing and dispatched me to the supermarket to pick up some more. Standing in the stuffing aisle I looked for the larger bags, but could only find small boxes on the shelves. I called the house to determine which box to buy, and as I explained the choices over the phone, an incredibly nice woman tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “They have the larger bags in Aisle 8, if that’s what you’re looking for.” How nice! (But, did you have to interrupt my phone conversation?)

Later, as I ducked into a pharmacy to grab an item I’d forgotten to pack, I noticed the long line at the register and groaned some obscenity under my breath. The woman standing in front of me turned and suggested I go ahead of her with my single item. How nice! “In fact,” she said brightly, glancing over at the pharmacy counter, “I’ll bet you could pay for that over there. There’s no one there right now.” How nice! (But, if you say it so loud, everyone will hear!) At the pharmacy register, the cashier looked briefly troubled. “Well, we’re not really supposed to ring up regular items here, but if it’s only one item…and if you can keep it a secret…” she smiled and winked. I winked back…..and immediately asked if I could add a pack of gum to the sale.

It’s slightly depressing to know that my reaction to consistent and prolonged niceness is to become immune to it or even take advantage of it. By the time we arrived at the airport to fly home, any remnants of my contact niceness had worn off, and I had reverted back to my loud-mouthed, gum-cracking, phone-checking self. I yelled at my kids to behave, argued with my husband in front of a crowd and responded to a well-meaning gentleman who pointed out two small tables on the far end of an airport cafeteria that could be pushed end to end ‘so my family could sit together’ by retorting “Thanks, but none of us want to sit near each other right now!”

In theory, being nice usually goes along with a certain aesthetic. Little old ladies with cats are generally nice. Boy scouts are nice. So, it’s even more distressing when I am forced to deal with nice people who don’t fit the stereotypical visual. If I had a dime for every person with full tattoo sleeves and multiple facial piercings merrily pushing their child in a stroller down the street where I live in the suburbs of Washington, DC – well, I’d be broke. But, Portland seems to thrive with a plethora of parents who fly their freak flags loud and proud. Back at the bottom of Capital Hill, where most moms fit a mold of age-appropriate highlighted lobs and sensible flats, I am considered to be a bit of a radical myself, what with my three tattoos that actually poke their way out of my shirt sleeves on occasion.  But, I felt like such a conservative Republican walking through the streets of Portland amongst the purple-haired, tatted-up moms and dads, I sensed the need to surreptitiously pull my sleeves up a bit higher just to broadcast my own fairly small badge of inked simpatico style. “I’m cool, too,” I tried to remind myself. In fact, I once owned a pair of Dr. Marten’s.

Other than being nice, Portland is known for being weird. It’s a directive they promote on billboards and buses – “Keep Portland Weird.” I’m not sure what kind of tax breaks or government-funded incentives the denizens are offered to keep their city weird, but it seems to work in subtle ways to ensure the city lives up to its motto.  East Coast/West Coast grammatical differences notwithstanding (I prefer to stand ‘on line’ rather than ‘in line’, much to the horror of the local Target clerk to whom I mentioned it), my husband and I witnessed several weird behaviors during our Portland trip. At the Apple Store, the only sign the salesman gave that he noticed the loud and slightly belligerent homeless man wandering around behind him was to raise his voice ever so slightly as he continued to point out the features of the latest MacBook Pro. While parallel parking on the street, we were reminded by a rather formal young man walking out to the car behind us that, ‘just for the record’, he needed more room to back up. At a coffee shop, while waiting for our order, several bundled-up Sunday morning customers remarked about how cold the weather was. The clerk behind the counter agreed, adding “It’s like someone stole the big warm blanket that’s usually up in the sky to keep us comfy and safe from the cold.” I gave my husband a wry smile at this point; surely that comment would be considered weirder than normal – even here. But instead of eyebrow furrows and stares, the other patrons nodded sagely, no doubt mulling over the necessary thickness of such an astral shroud.

I’m sure if I spent more than a week in Portland at any given time, I would grow more accustomed to the niceness and weirdness. Probably the weirdness more than the niceness. I’m kind of weird myself, but I’m definitely not that nice.

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