A game like roulette, these elevators, the Russian variety.

What are the odds?

One day, a premonition: the car goes a bit past your floor, hovers, then levels out. For a moment, it feels like the line is cut—a jolt, not so much to your stomach as your testicles—and you’re hanging suspended before it plummets. It’s never occurred to you before, but you realize that one of these lifts could plunge into the basement and crumple. But what ride will it happen on, and will you be inside when it does?

Your office building has five elevator cars, 13 floors plus a basement: B, 1-12, and the superstitious P, standing in for 13. It’s occupied Monday through Friday by 1,200 to 1,500 employees who ride up in the morning, back down for lunch, up again after they eat, and down at the close of business. Factor in that potentially 15% are smokers who take between 2 and 4 breaks a day, the number of people who take the stairs for reasons of health, and if you had any skill at math, you might be able to calculate the odds of disaster.

You tell yourself they’re probably serviced on a regular basis, appeasing your ignorance of industry standards with a quick, uninformed assumption. But your paranoia isn’t so easy to quell, and you can’t help fearing the freefall could happen any time you step through the doors. It’s true, you’ve thought about this too much, but there’s little else to think about when you’re here, and your imagination gravitates toward possible, however unlikely, calamities.

Whenever people ask how work is going, you reply that it’s draining your soul, and they laugh. You’re not sure why. It’s not a particularly original response. You suppose they’re commiserating. You wonder if anyone else shares your suspicions about the elevators, but you don’t ask because their sympathies might not extend to such morbid notions. You ponder dying too much for your own good. Before starting this job, you didn’t have health insurance, and since you couldn’t afford to visit the doctor, you diagnosed yourself with all sorts of ailments based on sluggishness or discolored moles. Now that you have coverage, you never go. “It’s expensive,” you say. You’re saving it for emergencies, crises. You schedule regular checkups with the dentist. With teeth, it’s all about maintenance. But you don’t go to the doctor until you’re worried your prostate is enlarged.

“What brings you in today?” the nurse asks.

“I have to go to the bathroom too often. Number one, not number two.”

When the doctor comes in, he dons a latex glove, lubes up, and after inserting his finger in your anus, asks what kept you away so long. You focus on the wall, but the pressure stirs an erection. You answer, “Oh, you know, feeling healthy,” without betraying the odd mix of discomfort and arousal inherent in having someone palpate the gland.

“So, how’s business?” you say.

He nods and pulls out.

“Can’t complain.”

Your prostate is normal-sized. He send you to a specialist to see what else it could be. After checking your prostate again, just to be sure, the specialist suggests sliding a microscopic camera into your urethra to have a look around. “We’ll inject an anesthetic at the base of your penis to numb it,” he says. You tell him you’ll call to schedule an appointment but decide you don’t need to find out what’s wrong that badly.

You work downtown, and your route to the office each morning takes you past monuments that tourists travel from far and wide to see. You hardly pay attention to them unless the tourists get in your way. Then you notice them enough to notice they annoy you, bunching together to take photographs, blocking your path. If the tourists cross in the wrong place, darting into the street and stepping over the heavy chains that block off Independence Hall, the guards, with pleated green pants, stiff pewter shirts, and khaki forest ranger hats, blow shrill whistles with verve, and this annoys you more than anything. You wonder who spies a thick chain and thinks, “Cross here!” Yet, plenty of people do it. Then you wonder how anyone over the age of six could get that excited about blowing a whistle.

Some days, you’re forgiving. You let the photographers get their shots, don’t intrude. Others, you cut through, ruin the angle, remind them that people work here, that it’s not a theme park engineered for their amusement. On your worst days, the guards, with their enthusiastic fellating of whistles and stern reprimands, remind you your life isn’t as bad as it could be. You could be one of them, even if getting paid to puff on a whistle seems like easy work.

Plus they have a reason for doing what they do, a purpose.

They watch the monuments, protect them.

People say these are great symbols.

People say that there could be an attack.

You think these people are idiots, and if there were an attack, these guards, who can’t stop a little Japanese girl from stealing past the intersection into their cordoned-off areas, would be woefully unprepared to deal with it. Still, they think they’re doing good, which is more than you can say for yourself. Maybe if you had a uniform, you’d feel a sense of purpose. You wouldn’t obsess over improbable events, plummeting elevators.

You’d use the elevators as a metaphor for the highs and lows of office life if there were any highs. Instead, the elevators represent mediocrity, with their faux-wood paneling, cheap voyeuristic video cameras, malfunctioning robot mystique—ding!, open, ding!, open—stuck on the third floor, next ten buttons lit. The fifth car of five, the service elevator, tells the truth, lined with old brown matting. They use it to take down the trash, the only car that can bypass the lobby and reach the basement where the dumpsters are. The walls here—objective, nonjudgmental—are privy to secrets, watching the refuse pass without a lens.  

You prefer to ride alone and go to absurd lengths for this, waiting until the lobby clears, pressing the button again and again until the masses file past and reach their respective floors. If it falls while you’re alone, there’s no one to witness your final moments, see you scream and piss yourself before you meet your maker. On occasion, you’ll fart in the confines and hope no one boards. You wonder what would be worse: falling now or the prospective prostate problems that could rob you of this minute celebration of bodily function? You’re often tense and farting relieves the pressure: the buildup and discomfort of expanding gas, tin can intestines filling with noxious zombie sardines swimming toward the sphincter, then the cut and release, pent-up bubbles bursting into the air, the glorious aftermath of liberation. If another passenger enters, you’ll grin and shrug like, “This isn’t mine! Someone else did this! We’re suffering in unison! Who are you to judge?”

Your boss caught you one day at your cube. You’d lit it up. She didn’t hear you, but she’d walked by in the aftermath and said, “It smells good over here. Did you have barbeque for lunch?”

It was the highest compliment she’d ever paid you, but your gas was young, full of pep.

It’s gone sour since.

“You’re lucky to have a job.”

This is what people say whenever the economy takes a turn for the worse and you express dissatisfaction with your situation. They’re not wrong, though this attitude overlooks the obvious fact that your work could be more fulfilling. When you were growing up, you believed you’d amount to more. You dreamed of becoming a baseball player, a rock star. You’d settled on becoming a famous novelist before reality set in. Now, whenever someone asks what you do, you change the subject. It won’t interest them, and you don’t ask what they do, since it won’t interest you. Cubicle culture has become so common it’s a waste of time describing, even for those who don’t work in an office. The language is cyclical, redundant, like the work itself, like your thoughts when you’re here. 

Coworkers comment on your heavy sighs and tendency to talk to yourself. They can’t hear what you’re saying, which is good, since you’re often cursing under your breath, stuck on a loop, one mundane word uttered robotically, your focus caught like a skipping record. “shitshitshit…” It takes a while to drift back. When you spot the woman across from you staring, you laugh like you’re aware you’re doing this, but you’re not, and if you didn’t have to return from that space, you’d stay, sheltered by your shoddy mantras. Christ, fuck, cocksucker, dick. Even profanity loses meaning during these spells, so you have to be careful you don’t offend anyone and lose the job you’re so lucky to have.

When you were new here, you had a brief affair with a coworker. You could stomach the job’s tedium if it meant hooking up with one of your prettier colleagues now and then. You’d first kissed outside a club one night when she was high on coke, and even though you only slept together three times, they were energetic bouts with her instructing you on how to change positions and best give her pleasure. She whispered dirty commands, words that arouse you even now as you think of them. She had wonderful breasts, but then, you’ve never slept with a woman and not been enchanted by her breasts. You considered her fiery, passionate. She complimented your performance without prompting, which let you believe she was sincere and stroked your ego, but your friends thought she was fickle and warned you not to take the dalliance to heart. Then she pulled away, stopped calling, coming to see you. You were suspicious of another man, but she denied it. You hadn’t pictured the two of you together for the long haul, but this rejection hurt your pride, and you steered the resulting fallout toward melodrama, causing a theatrical scene, hurling insults at one another with grandiose, flailing hand gestures in the alley behind your apartment after she’d shown up for your birthday and made out with her new guy on your living room sofa. You’ve always valued stories, and at that age—twenty-five—turning an event like this into a story helped elevate an otherwise mundane situation to mythological proportions, granting it greater personal significance than it otherwise had. Since then, you’ve learned that few things require the fuss you attribute to them. You’ve lost the energy to throw yourself out there in the interest of getting laid.

Later on, you worked with a guy who had the same name as you. He wrote bad poetry and used it to woo female colleagues. He wore skintight pants and form-fitting polyester shirts buttoned low to reveal an unruly swatch of blonde chest hair. When new women were hired, others warned them, “Watch out for Jason,” but they didn’t specify which one to avoid. They might have meant you, but you didn’t think so. After the brief affair, you’d stopped showing an interest in colleagues, and you could only trust the attire made it obvious which Jason to avoid, but his charms worked on some.

One day, he and an entry-level employee got takeout and ate it in the kitchen like they were on a date. Another woman, an older, more experienced colleague he’d been rumored to have had a fling with, came in, saw them and left in anger, lips pressed together, eyes glimmering.

You didn’t like him and you were glad when he quit, but part of you admired his audacity.

Seven years is too long to be in any one place. You’re frightened of growing old here. You’ve made middle management, but that’s as far as your ambition goes. You wouldn’t have tried for this except it pays better. You don’t have a natural inclination to lord it over others, tell them what to do, but you’ve bought a house with your fiancé, and have payments to make, payments your previous salary wouldn’t cover. Currently, you sock 10% of your earnings into a 401K before federal, local, and state governments take a cut, aside from which you save a little, here and there, dropping fifty, maybe twenty, into a savings account. Going out is mortgage, electricity, gas, car insurance, groceries, and a small chunk for wine or whiskey to temper the long days. Factor in plans for children, and if you were any good at arithmetic, you might develop a plan for early retirement, yet you fear the stressors might get you first. You imagine you can hear the organs cry in protest deep in your chest. Your heart thumping its way to attack. Your liver squealing, begging for a rest. To think, you were so worried about your prostate, but your prostate keeps to itself. There’s always the chance it will catch you unaware some sunny afternoon, increasingly frequent urination, pain. More and more, you contemplate the pitfalls of aging. Yet, the alternative’s worse.

You watch the elevators and wait.

You have 33 years left to do this. 33 years if you stop when you’re 65. But who’s to say they won’t push the age back to 70, that you’ll have enough to subsist? You have 33 years to wake at 6 a.m. to get here by 8, to move piles of manuscripts from one side of your desk to the other. The tasks themselves take 3 to 4 hours tops, but to justify paying a living wage, they make employees sit here for 8, as though compensating not for labor, but for life wasted. You assume it’s the same in any midlevel white collar position, which is why you haven’t seriously entertained the idea of looking elsewhere. You fear you’d end up losing more than you’d gain—sick time, vacation days, seniority. You lament the fact you’ve never been able to figure out what you might prefer to this. You’d like to work from home, waste less life; the job’s conducive to it, but they don’t offer that option.

Bright sides?

You try to enumerate: one…one…one? Nothing comes.

Subsistence. The roof over your head. The food you eat. Don’t be ungrateful. These are all qualities your father rattled off to you as a child. You appreciate them. But you’re looking for a more exciting side, a reason to wake up, not just in the morning, but as you sleepwalk through your day.

“You’re not exactly an optimist, are you?” says the woman who sits in the opposite cube.

You suspect she might have heard you counting aloud.

The bright side:

Every two or three weeks, you treat yourself to lunch in a bar around the corner where you have a burger, two beers, and return with a glow that makes the afternoon sing. It’s a risk consuming alcohol during business hours, but it’s a risk you’re willing to take, and today you need the release, the freedom of midday drinks. The bar is relatively unpopulated, and in the silence, you hunch over your pint and dig into your fries. You’re ruminating on a conversation you had with your fiancé this morning. You woke early and made love, and it seemed good for both of you, taking your time between the sheets, but before you left, she remarked, “You know, I think that’s the first time in all the years we’ve been together that I didn’t climax.” 

You didn’t respond.

“I thought it would make you feel good,” she said. “Knowing you’ve been giving them this long. It’s not a criticism. I just figured I’d mention it.”

But it doesn’t make you feel good. It’s just another thing you’re failing at as you age.

You take your last sip of the pint and place it on the counter. You’ve had more today than two. That was your third.

“Hit me again,” you say.

You’ve never heard anyone order this way outside the movies, but you say it, and after your fourth, you return to the office. You hunker down at your desk, avoid talking to anyone, hoping they won’t notice the flush in your cheeks, call out your indiscretion, ask a question and hear you trip over your words. The rest of the day goes by without incident, and you’re still tipsy as you pack up at 5 and walk to the elevators. You stop and hesitate: which one should you take? It’s never seemed more pressing than now. You think of the descent, the speed, the acceleration toward Earth, and if you weren’t in such a devil may care mood, the whole goddamn debacle would make you opt for the stairs. Instead, you bypass the five-chambers-one-bullet analogy and consider the green felt of casinos, James Bond, your fiancé’s favorite fictional character. He wouldn’t flinch here but call out, “Hit me again,” while, ostensibly sober, ordering a fifteenth martini.

You press the button, and the utility elevator, with its soft brown pads, arrives. It smells noxious in there, like a gym sock, so you wait for the next, hoping it isn’t as funky. You probably smell a bit yourself, and after waiting past two cars that have psychiatrists and patients from the penthouse suite in them, you find one that’s empty and enter the box where you pray you’ll be carried safely to the ground.

You stand tall, satisfied you’ve selected the right one, when it stops on the floor below. You recognize the young woman who enters. You’ve noticed her from afar—long, dark-brown hair; a slight, sexy gap in her front teeth. She usually wears jeans that hug her hips nicely, make you suspect God might not be so indifferent about what happens here after all. Today she’s sporting a grey skirt that rides her thighs, and despite her wedding ring, you feel aroused. You have to calm yourself for fear she’ll notice any arrhythmic inconsistencies in your breathing—slow, fast, then not at all, followed by a loud inhalation you pretend is a yawn.

She exhales deeply herself, and…are you trembling now?

Not enough for her to notice, but you’re embarrassed. It’s an interior tick, the way a dog’s back legs shake when it’s in heat, and you only hope she doesn’t notice. You fantasize about getting stuck here now, a moment out of time, in the realm of your mind: the elevator stops, the phone’s out, you have a mutual moment, free from constraint, an escape for you both. You have lives to return to, but maybe, when you discover help isn’t available you’ll settle in for the evening, offer her your coat, take to each other’s arms for warmth and while you’re comforting her, you’ll feel that mutual pulse, attraction, slide her skirt up…

“Long day?” she says.

“What’s that?”

She smiles. Your heart does a fluttering thing.

“Long day?” she says.

You compose yourself.

“Well, most days I nap through the morning, but I find the flask in my desk drawer helps with the afternoons.”

She laughs. You’ve said something she finds clever. You’re tempted to keep talking, but have enough sense to leave her wanting more. You’d only risk rambling, though impulsively, you belt out beneath your breath, “Little shots of whiskey,” in a warbling schoolmarmish falsetto that makes her laugh harder.

It seems she’s noticed you before. She might even think you’re attractive. You used to pick up on these things more readily. She probably pursued bad boys back in her day, hard-drinking cynical hipsters; then settled down with a stable guy, someone with your same pretense. But she can sense the remnants of old desires in you. Of course, you could be making this up, but you need to buy into the fantasy, and the way she leans toward you and half-whispers, even though there’s no one else in the elevator, seems convincing. By the time the doors open, you’ve exchanged names. You assume that over the coming weeks, you’ll nod and say hello to one another, trade grumblings about how hard it is to drag yourself into the office. It gives you something to look forward to, if only for a few seconds each day.

Passing the guard at his desk, he says, “Good night,” which is odd. He generally looks away, pretends you’re not there. But you’re in a good mood now, ready to share this benevolent light with anyone else who needs it.

“Good night,” you call, and he scowls like you’ve slapped him in the face.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” he says.

For a second, it almost ruins your high. You’ve never had a “good night” rescinded before, but the insult doesn’t faze you long. As you open the door and the cool night air hits your face, you’re happy. Tomorrow, with all its concerns, will come and come again until it doesn’t, but you’re alive, you’re walking alongside an attractive young woman who finds the guard’s reaction as oddly entertaining as you, and the elevator your rode, despite your premonitions of doom, didn’t fall today.