Mark Drissel hadn’t left his apartment since attending his wife Clara’s funeral almost 20 years before. Then one day he did. It was a brisk October Saturday afternoon and he was excited to begin a monthly ritual that had started right after their honeymoon. For 38 years he had sat with Clara (physically or, in the years since her death, in his thoughts) and read to her the monthly letter that her little brother sent from their home in England, and that he continued to send after his sister’s death.
Mark solemnly sat out two mugs, a pot of coffee, and Clara’s old cream and sugar set on the little card table that Clara had dubbed their “Official Geoffrey’s Exploits Table.” The table had a wobble to it, and as usual, it annoyed him. Mark moved to reach down and adjust a folded index card he had placed under the offending leg some time ago, but just as he lifted his hand off the letter on the table to make the adjustment, a gust of wind raced through the small window next to the table and tossed Geoffrey’s latest exploits into the air.
Mark jumped up and tried to catch it, leaping and clasping his way through the apartment, but it was too late. The wind spat the letter out of another window on the opposite side of the room. Mark rushed to the window and leaned out as far as he could. He craned his neck and watched as the letter spun and bucked in the wind. After a few agonizing moments, the letter fluttered down and slipped into the entrance of an alleyway. He watched as it drifted, spun, then settled down next to a pile of garbage. Mark didn’t know what to do, so for a while he just stared. He curled his fingers painfully around the outside ledge as his mind raced in search of a solution that did not entail going out. He couldn’t think of a single reasonable one.
His therapist was out of town, and he wasn’t about to invite an on-call therapist he didn’t know into his sanctuary. Liam was always just a phone call away, of course. He was like a nephew to Mark, who’d known him his whole life. Liam brought Mark his groceries and took out his garbage and such, but it was a Saturday, and the poor kid was a med student. He never slept. Mark had given him specific instructions: if he had time to come by when he wasn’t scheduled to, then he had time to sleep, and he’d damn well better use it to do so. Liam was already stopping by three times a week. He couldn’t call the kid over a letter, however important it was to him.
He couldn’t call Liam’s parents either, his oldest friends who owned the diner, Jimmy’s, across the street. The building it was in made up one wall of the alley the letter had landed in. Tina, whose father, Jimmy, had opened the place, ran the front while her husband, Simon, ran the kitchen. He could see from the window the growing crowd up front; Jimmy’s was swamped. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Simon made the best burgers, fries, and coleslaw in the city. He still brought Mark dinner a couple of times a week when he got off. What was he supposed to do though, call Tina when she was already wrangling a crowd of hangry customers and ask her to send up an employee? Sure, she’d do it without a thought, but he’d feel like a jackass for weeks, and it would just be one more thing his therapist would try to convince him not to feel guilty about, that he knew he should feel guilty about. He was a burden, simple as that.
Mark ducked back in the apartment. He glanced at the hallway leading to the coat closet and the door. He could feel his breath coming fast and shallow. He needed to think. Mark pulled a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket and lit it as he pondered his dilemma. He paced and smoked, and smoked and paced, until the bitter smoke from his burning filter assaulted his tongue, and he crushed it out.
Mark made his way down the hall, grabbed his jacket from the closet, slipped one arm in, and caught sight of the door. He froze. How could he go out that door? And it wasn’t just the one, either. After this door he’d have the elevator doors to contend with. Then after the lobby, the large glass doors of the exit. He’d never been comfortable outside his own space, but Clara had made it easier, had coaxed him out into the world and then kept him out for the rest of her life. His wife. But she was gone, and the last time he’d walked through any of those doors, he’d just buried her. The memories came back in a flood and Mark sank to the floor.
He remembered what came next, or bits of it, at least. The first few weeks were lost to drinking and hours spent with his head in the toilet. People called, people knocked, but after a while they drifted away. Only Tina and Simon were allowed in, but there had been nothing they could really do. Then the letter arrived, and despite his hangover, he’d sat down to read it. He was stunned. It hadn’t occurred to him that Geoffrey would continue to write, but he guessed it made sense. He missed his sister. He couldn’t stop writing her, and maybe he couldn’t abandon her widowed husband either, who so completely understood who he’d lost in loosing his sister.
Mark read the letter out loud, and he could almost hear Clara affectionately scolding her spirited brother, who was so much like her, or laughing at some inside joke the two shared, that they’d allowed Mark to join in on. He’d continued reading those letters ever since. But Mark had never been able to walk back out that door after Clara, and those who knew him well had understood.
Mark stared at the door as the memories played out in his mind, and soon another memory came. He saw himself carrying Clara over the threshold, while she teased that she was shocked he’d made it so far without dropping her. The two had collapsed just inside the door, right where he now sat, in a pile of laughter.
Mark stood and brushed himself off. He finished putting on his jacket and turned to face the door again. He grabbed the knob and the door slid open without a sound. The hallway was empty and seemed much longer than he remembered. Too long. It felt like the world had somehow tilted, and he couldn’t quite regain his footing. Mark focused on the two small silver squares of the elevators at the end of the hall, then he stepped out. He could hear the blood rushing in his ears. He reached behind himself and gently pulled his door closed with a click.
Mark took first one step, and then another, as he slowly made his way down the hallway. Standing at the elevators, his mind flew back to his last awkward ride down. It had been full of well-meaning neighbors who didn’t know him well enough to know what to say, but couldn’t seem to avoid saying something, so they’d peppered him with all those platitudes that mean absolutely nothing, but feel like the right things to say when there are no right things to say. He’d wanted to tell them to shut up, to leave him the hell alone, but he just nodded and gave them a weak smile or two. When the doors opened he’d fled their pity and their platitudes, only to face her grave.
Instead of turning away from such thoughts, Mark made himself continue to look, continue to remember. After a while, he remembered other trips on those elevators. He remembered Clara with her nose in a Jane Austin novel as he spouted nonsense to see if she was listening.
“I rode a donkey all the way up Michigan Avenue today,” he’d once said.
“That’s nice.” She’d said, and turned the page.
It had annoyed him so much back then, but Clara wouldn’t have been Clara without her books. Mark pushed the button, stepped inside, and remembered the trip up the elevator with his new bride, as he headed down to the lobby. He recalled his wandering hands while he tried not to drop her, and Clara telling him to behave himself, while she laughed and half-heartedly batted at his hands. Soon the doors opened, he stepped through, then he looked up and was hit by the bustle of the lobby.
The noise and the lights and the blur of people rushing disoriented him, and he quickly found a seat on a bench next to the wall. Mark had forgotten how loud the world was. It was full of life and light and movement, and he felt very small, and very alone. He wanted to go back up to his apartment and wait for Simon and Tina to get off work, but he couldn’t. The letter might have been long gone by then.
Mark stood up off the bench and began to cross the lobby. His hands shook and his heart was racing so fast he feared it would escape his chest. He put one hand on his chest, willing his heart to slow down, and with the other, he reached out and steadied himself on a post nearby. He scanned the lobby and spotted a mirror on the wall, about five feet to his left. He could picture Clara checking her lipstick there, and he let go of the post. He felt that if he could just focus on that mirror he could keep going, and he took a few steps, then a few more. He paused at the mirror and took another look up.
He could picture her by the machines, grabbing her morning soda and chips, and calling one machine a “damn glorified toaster” when her chips got hung up. They were near the front, and he moved towards them. He could see her laughing at him and yelling “paybacks, baby, paybacks!” as he tried to lug all their Christmas shopping through the front doors, while she stood there on crutches with a busted ankle from an ice skating collision earlier that week. In Mark’s defense, it was his first time ice skating and Clara was a great instructor, but he couldn’t stop, and had unceremoniously plowed down his wife. What a pair they had made. He took his last few steps across the lobby floor. As Mark let the images roll through his mind, his brave Clara seemed to gently tease and prod him from his seclusion, just as she had in life. That’s how they’d met, he remembered with a smile. He was working as a stagehand and all-around handyman for a little local theater right out of trade school, where he met a beautiful young actress from England, who promptly decided the shy young man needed to get out more, and that she was going to see to it that he did.
Mark chuckled and wondered if Clara had sent the wind from beyond, just to get him out of that apartment. He didn’t doubt she could. Mark continued through the lobby, and soon found himself looking out the big glass doors of the entrance, at Jimmy’s across the street. That diner had been the first restaurant he and Clara had tried when they moved into the neighborhood, and they had quickly befriended Tina, who was the night manager at the time, and Simon, who was still just her boyfriend back then, and was already proving to be a talented cook. They were good people, and Clara loved people. Mark did too, in his way, he just had never really learned how to talk to them, or to be comfortable around them. Somehow Clara had cushioned his blunders around people, and helped him let people see him.
It was different with Tina and Simon though, right from the start. Tina was tiny, barely five feet tall and rail thin no matter what she ate, but she felt like a force of nature. She had a mouth like a sailor and already commanded the authority of a neighborhood street-mom, despite still being young herself, when they met. Simon was this great big, scary-looking bearded teddy bear, who gave a few too many hugs, and got emotional when he listened to Nina Simone. They adored Clara, and were instinctively protective of Mark. Mark stared at Jimmy’s and knew if he could just get to the alley and the letter, he’d be fine. The door to the kitchen was right there, if he needed them.
Mark held his breath and pushed open one of the doors. He squinted as the afternoon sun hit his eyes, and he quickly moved back against the wall of his building, as he tried to make some sense of the wall of people moving along the sidewalk and the roar of cars flying past on the other side of them. He watched the flow of people, and soon found a large enough gap to join the procession of city dwellers out and about on a Saturday afternoon. It felt strange to join this anonymous parade. Like he was intruding. He stared at the cement as he walked, avoiding the gaze of strangers, and only looked up to gage his progress or take in a comforting glimpse of Jimmy’s, standing still on the other side of this sea of movement, like a lighthouse leading him towards the safety of friends.
Mark stood trembling at the edge of the crosswalk, and stepped out onto the street when the lights changed as if he was stepping on ice, afraid it would crack and swallow him up. When he reached the other side, Mark quickly moved to the front wall of the little market in the building that made up the other wall to the alley, and edged along it, keeping his eyes on the alley, and Jimmy’s. He gasped and almost cried out as a teenage girl came bursting out the front of the store, swinging her bag to whatever music was pumping through her headphones, and nearly collided with him. She giggled an apology and soon vanished into the crowd.
Mark continued on and slipped into the alleyway. His throat tightened up as he grabbed the letter, then he sank down onto the steps of Jimmy’s kitchen by the dumpster and tried to catch his breath, but he couldn’t. It came in big, ragged, gulps, and tears began to stream down Mark’s face, as he realized what he’d done, and that he’d have to do it all over again going back. Just then the door behind him swung open, and there was Simon in his apron, hauling a bag of garbage out to the dumpster.
“Jesus, Mark!” He gasped, and dropped the bag. He stuck his head back inside and hollered at an employee. “Get Tina out here, now! It’s Mark… no, he’s on the freaking steps, go get her!” Simon knelt down next to Mark. “What happened, are you hurt? How did you get down here?” He asked Mark gently, placing his hand on Mark’s back. Mark handed Simon the letter.
“The wind,” Mark managed, his voice shaky, “threw it out the window… I think maybe it was Clara.” Mark added, half laughing, half crying. Simon saw what letter it was and nodded, then hugged Mark fiercely as Tina stepped outside, her face creased with worry. She rushed to help Simon get Mark up, and the two led him inside and settled him down at a small table on the side of the kitchen where the employees ate. Simon slapped a patty on the grill for him while Tina had someone fetch him some coffee. He was to stay until they could take him home themselves. Mark’s breath slowly returned to normal. It was going to be okay.