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"Shoes”
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Alison Parham

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John Chandler

Windows

       He slumped back against the hotel room door. Don’t turn the lights on. Let the darkness absorb you. The long workday, Amy’s meltdown, the glare of lights, the resistance of the participants, let all of it be shut off behind that locked door. He’d done all he could for the time being. Don’t try to come up with any additional remedies now, you’ll just obsess. Envision and control: a good night’s sleep, up at dawn, the essential routine--stretch, jog in the frosty morning through the meat-packing district before the city’s great machine of activity starts up again, shower, eat a good breakfast, come at the day ready, mobilized, remember the script, get on top of things, in setbacks go to the mantra—Think of the money. He’d find a way to turn it around, with or without Amy. For now he needed to lie down, de-stress, instruct his body to let go, focus, and begin the counting—1-30, 2-29, 3-28, 4-27, 5-26, 6-25…--that would sink him into sleep. He could just make out the shape of the bed and moved toward it, sat at the foot, loosened his tie, undid the top button of his shirt, pulled the shirt out of his pants. The armpits were wet with the greasy sweat of anxiety. He undid his laces, pried off his shoes.
       When he looked up he noticed the huge black frame of the window.
Close, across the airshaft, in the building facing his. He knew it was a window because he’d been startled by it when he first entered the room, two days before—how could you miss something so close? He’d imagined briefly what had allowed the buildings to be built only feet apart, how two windows almost directly facing each other could pass inspection, the payoffs involved. He’d thought of asking for a different room, but that might have involved Neal Ketchum, the v.p. overseeing the team-building program. So he’d settled. White Venetian blinds had been lowered over the opposite window, and he could draw the curtains in his room. Which he’d done. He wasn’t crazy about the closed-in feeling, but he could stand it for three days.
       The maid must have left his curtains open today, he thought, and the white blinds in the window opposite must have been pulled up. That’s why he was face to face with that sudden black rectangle. Ominous. No, he couldn’t allow himself to think like that, not now. He started to get up, pull his curtains, but the window form stopped him. There was nothing out there in the air, no moon or reflection, to reveal details. It looked like a hole in the darkness. The edges were grainy, duller than the center, where there was a liquid sheen. That had to be the glass, recessed below the sill.
       He peeled off his socks—disappointment, no relief when the air hit his naked feet. He rose, padded across the carpet, pulled open his window, leaned out, but there was no breeze. The air in the shaft seemed, if anything, less lively than the air in the room. Of course. What current could find motion in that space? He looked down. A light in the opposite building six or seven stories below revealed a dumpster below that, at street level. Above him nothing, not even a difference where the building ended and the sky began. He peered at the opposite window--almost within reach, if he could judge distance in this darkness—and closed his window, returned to the foot of the bed, tried to shake off this feeling. What about tomorrow? Last day, final impressions were what the company would remember.
       God, he was tired. Trying to work up spirit in these guys was like two days of dragging through sludge. And then to watch Amy fall apart, to have to pump her up again. But they’d get through this last day of the program, she’d feel relief, take a small vacation. In a little while, when her forces were rallied again, she’d look back on this as  challenge, not crisis. “You’re so practical,” she’d say. “You have so many ways to avoid falling.”
       But could he do it again? Would she be able to rally? If she didn’t, could he carry it alone for six more hours? Across the airshaft the blackness at the center of the darkness was pulsing. He brought his fingers to his temples, rubbed in small circles. Enough already. However it goes, it will be over. Think of the money. He closed his eyes and was about to recline when light registered on the inside of his lids. He sat back up. Where the darkness had been was a scene, a woman entering a room.
       She was wearing a dark business suit, and was bent forward, as though she’d been pushing against an invisible obstacle just outside her door. She had a pale, thin face, made paler, he thought, by bright red lipstick. Her first act was to hunch out of her jacket and drape it, unevenly, on the back of a plain wooden chair sitting in the middle of the room and sideways to him. Then she turned, unzipped the side of her skirt, walked out of it and out of his vision, returning in a few moments in her blouse and half-slip with a glass of white wine. She stood for a rather long time in front of the chair before she sank into it. A toneless, muffled sound started up. She must have turned on the television with a remote. All expression in her face seemed to drain away slowly over the next few minutes. Watching, he remembered photos he’d seen once of a man just before death and in fifteen minute intervals for the next three hours after he died. Minutes passed with no motion in the woman, only a sinking into something that seemed to have no bottom. The wine sat neglected by her right hand.
       Why was he looking? What was happening? It was ghastly, whatever it was. Not stillness. It was as though something was engulfing her. Finally, expressionless and without glancing at it she raised the wine glass to her lips, tilted it, set it back on the chair arm, unbuttoned her blouse, shook it like a minor irritation off her shoulders, reached back and unsnapped the bra, rubbing with the butts of her palms the area along her ribs where the bra straps had left a red line. He could make out the rise and hollows of individual ribs. She had small, slightly saggy breasts she was either unaware of or indifferent to—her hands seemed to avoid touching them as she rubbed at the reddened skin. But nothing registered in her face. When she finished rubbing at her ribs she hooked thumbs in the top of the half-slip and pushed it down over her thighs, then sat back in the chair like a bag of sand. During all these actions she had never changed expression or the angle of her face. She was looking straight ahead, her red lips slightly open.
       It isn’t the TV. It came to him that the murmur of sound he’d been listening to  stopped when she drank and resumed when she sat back down. She had been letting out a continual drone. He leaned more forward, tried without success to make out a word. Just a toneless, insistent sound that could as easily have belonged to a machine—a fan or air conditioner--stopping, presumably when she drew a breath, then resuming, exactly as it had been before, a flat line of sound.
       Finally a twitch at the corner of her mouth, she brought up the wine glass, took a sip, drew her lips in. The red vanished, then reappeared. For a moment she was still, then she rose, turned in his direction and took a single step toward her window.
       She’d always, since she sat down, been in profile, and at the same distance. This additional step toward him prickled his skin. Was he visible in spite of the reflection from her window, the night, the darkness in which he sat? He resisted the impulse to duck, looked at her eyes. There was nothing, no anger, no invitation, no sense he was there, only exhaustion and lines of emptiness and defeat around her eyes. When he could no longer bear to look at her face he let his gaze fall to her body. Each part, taken separately, could be described as attractive. She was slim, her breasts sagged only slightly, her thighs and buttocks and abdominal muscles were defined. She works out. She takes care of herself. He tried to remember how she’d looked that first moment entering her apartment, fully clothed. Perhaps a couple of hours ago someone seeing her in her business outfit, doing whatever job she did, someone might have thought she was attractive. Perhaps her eyes had life then.
       She took another step forward, to within an arm’s distance of the window. The toneless chant increased slightly in volume. He cringed at the thought that she would open the window and he would hear clearly what was issuing from her mouth. Maybe, like him, she was oppressed by the stuffiness of her room and wanted air.  But she stopped there, looking directly out, expressionless, and the sound continued, without anger or distress or any emotion he could identify. A terrible thought came to him:
She is going to jump.
       Of course, the listlessness, the indifference to everything around her, on her, the shedding of her clothes as though she would never again need them, especially the half-slip, which would impede her motion, the lack of interest in the wine. And even before she entered, the emptiness of that window. Something terrible was going to happen there. She was about to open the window, climb through, drop herself ten stories down this shaft, no doubt scraping off skin as she collided with the bricks of both buildings on the way down.
       That’s what this airshaft is designed  for.
       The thought stunned him. How could he be thinking this way? Why had he allowed any of this to get started in him? He brought himself back. Surely this thing he was imagining was just a product of his stressful day. If she opened the window he’d…No, if she opened the window it might be only in hopes of getting some air. He’d wait. If she opened the window and elevated her body even slightly, then he would do something, lean back out of sight and switch on his bedside lamp, shout something, jump toward her, even reach out, try to push her backward. Something in that crucial moment when things can still be turned around. That would shock her, wake her up, stop her.
       He tensed, studied her eyes, trying to penetrate them, to discern purpose. He could get no read. She stood there like a statue, a foot and a half from her closed window, sound and silence alternating, toneless, tireless.
After an interminable time the arm reached out, the white Venetian blind came down. Moments later the room behind the blind went dark.

John Chandler is an ex-teacher and Santa Cruz, Ca. resident for the past 45 tears. He's published previously in phren—Z, Quarry West, The Chicago Quarterly Review, Porter Gulch Review, and had a couple of plays produced, locally and in Maryland. His interest in fiction comes from a lifelong fascination with people’s stories and what’s hidden under their surfaces. That’s the ear he listens with. He is particularly drawn to the themes of love, anxiety and isolation. Special thanks to T.B. for inspiring this story.

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