From my desk, I could see the ethereal reflection of my own office extending out from the window into the blackness of the night sky, suspended twenty-six floors above the emptying street below – a translucent mirage, hovering in the void, in which the content of my office was perfectly reproduced. The lights from the airport twinkled in the distance and I could just make out the illuminated landing lights of a plane as it descended towards the runway. It may well be the last incoming flight of the evening before the airport corridors go dark for a few hours; before the pre-dawn business travelers again queue up to hurtle through the atmosphere.
Out the adjacent corner-office window to my right stood the neighboring bank buildings which, along with my own, formed the core of the business district. This part of town was dead soon after the evening rush hour. Our city was one that slept. Most of the offices were now dark, but a few remained strategically illuminated, their red- or green-filtered windows organized geometrically to display Christmas holiday symbols visible at night across the city and from the interstate as it looped its way around downtown. A gargantuan Christmas tree faced me from the façade of the building just across the street, its resplendent shape glowing in marked contrast to the darkened, empty offices arranged along its borders. Only a handful of other windows shone with the pale fluorescent radiance of after-hours activity. Our own building sported Christmas wreaths on each side – the upper part of a bow began just a few floors below my own. Fortunately, I had been spared the annoyance of having to look out onto the city through a crimson plastic filter.
I could also see in the middle-distance the outline of an old iron-manufacturing complex that had long been shut down and turned into a national landmark and venue for music festivals. Its silo-shaped Cowper stoves and derelict smokestacks, rising in the air, were faintly silhouetted by the street lights running adjacent to the facility along the old veterans’ memorial highway stretching towards the airport. Its blast furnaces – along with those of perhaps a dozen factories like it spread along the north and west sides of town – once lit up the city throughout the night in a preternatural haze of unearthly light. Their time was now over and the city lay peacefully in the dark rest afforded by the rise of commercial banking and the healthcare industry.
The first case I handled years ago involved an accident at one of those iron smelting plants, although a different one than the one I was now watching from my window. The gods of heavy industry do not look favorably on inattentive laborers. One such unfortunate soul lost his footing while attempting to repair a valve high up on the top of Big Bess, the name the men had given to the largest furnace at the plant. He slipped and fell six stories into a pool of molten iron. The initial investigation suggested that he might have grown dizzy from an accumulation of methane or other gasses trapped between the top of the furnace and the corrugated metal roof. A witness to the accident, however, swore that he saw someone give the man a shove. Apparently, the deceased had been a shift leader or foreman of some sort who had grown unpopular with the crew serving under him. No cause was officially determined and we settled the whole thing out of court. Anyway, it was in the paper at the time. I’m sure they still have something on file at the library. I went on to represent the company in a variety of matters over the years. I still have the corporate-branded hard hat they gave me, which now sits on top of the wooden coat rack standing in the shadow by my office door.
I swiveled away from the window and back towards my desk. A pair of accordion folders rested in front of me, their contents partially spilled out across the center of my desk. A couple of bankers’ boxes on the floor off to my side held several more of their kind. While much of this material could surely be accessed electronically on the firm’s computer system, I still preferred the tangibility of paper files and the feeling of domestication and conquest that came with the work of pen, highlighter, and plastic flags. As soon as I finished working through these, I would exchange them for a couple more of the neatly stacked boxes stored just across the hall in what we call our “war room.” We liked to think of ourselves as engaged in some sort of harrowing battle but really it all represented nothing more than a bloodless cacophony of lawyers pushing paper back and forth at each other. The clients might complain that it all seemed so pointless and endless – was it all really necessary? What a question. Of course it was necessary and I certainly hoped it was endless. You see, inside each box was packed not just a series of accordion folders, each stuffed with sub-folders organized and labeled by date and topic, but the invisible, electric essence of law practice itself – billable hours. Productivity. The life force and animating spirit of my profession. Each year begins at zero and we march our way through the calendar year, day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, and so on, filling a reservoir with these diaphanous units of time – intangible, abstract, numinous – converting them into billing statements, and, hopefully, into collections. Then it all starts over again on the first of the year. The fact of the matter is that we have nothing else to sell but our time. We capture hours in gossamer nets, floating in the ether, and fill jars with them like so many fireflies. At least that’s how I like to imagine it. I’m not really sure how many boxes I’ve even worked through at this point. They seem blessedly endless.
The floor was quiet. The rest of my colleagues had left hours before and I was, once again, alone working late into the night. This was really the best time to be here. Only the cleaning crew occasionally disturbed my silent reverie. I always hide from them as they make their rounds. They hadn’t seen me yet this evening. I make a point of listening carefully for them. Sometimes I set down my pen or highlighter and just listen for a door or footsteps in the hall. Cheryl – one of the late-night crew – always works her way clockwise around the floor emptying the trash from the secretarial stations. I know her routine and I could always hear her if she were coming. Ben is less predictable, but he is an intrinsically noisy person, scuffling and wheezing as he works his way around the twenty-sixth floor. In either case, I could slip out of view behind my desk or just out of view along the wall. Why was I hiding? Well, I never much enjoyed the forced exchange of pleasantries between us. And lately I think they’ve been ignoring me too. They like to act like I’m not here. It would be better for all of us, frankly, if I just disappeared temporarily. I sat there quietly for a few more minutes. I still didn’t hear anything. Good.
A new guy in the crew caught me off guard just a few days ago. I think I scared him. I had wandered down to the conference room on the south side of our floor and was looking out over the dark city below, stretching out towards the crest that divided the city from the prosperous suburbs on the south side of town. The conference room lights were out, but I had left the door open to allow a pyramid of light to gently illuminate the room around me. The new guy – I didn’t know his name – passed by before I heard him coming. I think he only saw my reflection in the window. He didn’t expect to see me. I just noticed his round face in the doorway for a moment, his mouth half-opened idiotically under his oversized glasses, before he quickly rushed off somewhere. I didn’t see him again that night, but I’ve been watching for him. He won’t catch me off guard again so easily.
I leaned back in my chair and glanced at the Bandelier National Monument mug that sat on the corner of my desk. I think someone has been moving it when I’m not here. You should go if you’ve never been – to Bandelier, I mean. I was in Santa Fe for a legal education conference some time ago and woke up late on the final day with a raging hangover from the leadership dinner the night before. I skipped the ethics presentation that morning and drove my rental car out to the monument instead. It’s an impressive site. The ancestors of the Pueblo Indians carved their homes out of the face of the high canyon wall centuries ago. I assume it was safer and cooler up there than living out in the open on the valley floor. It must have been very similar to working high up in an office building like mine, now that I think about it. Except I can use the internal stairs or an elevator. It would be quite a harrowing experience to climb a ladder to the twenty-sixth floor every day from the outside of the building and I don’t think my hardhat would afford me much protection. It would certainly be hard to get these boxes up here. But I think I feel something of the same security from here, looking out over the city at night, that perhaps they must have felt too as their fires burned low and the stars all came out.
High up in a niche along one of the cliff walls you can still see a partially reconstructed kiva – a kind of circular ceremonial meeting place sitting low in the ground. As I paced the periphery of its low brick wall, still winded by the climb up from the valley floor, I asked the guide about a small hole that stood just off center in the floor of the space. She told me it was a sipapu – a representation of the navel of the world through which the ancestors of the Pueblo first emerged. It struck me as somehow ironic that a place marked among those prehistoric cliff dwellings in remembrance of man’s primordial origin could lie not more than ten miles from Los Alamos, where man’s doom was plotted in accordance with our own occult rituals of promethean fury. Both were places of passage, perhaps, between this world and another, between the beginning and the end.
I considered getting another refill of coffee as I finished reviewing the box next to me but thought better of it. It was much too late already. Only a small layer of cold black coffee remained in my mug from earlier. Perhaps I should admit that this mug has never been cleaned. In my defense, I only drink black coffee so there is never any residue of milk or sugar to attract copious amounts of bacteria. To be honest, I never emptied the final residue of coffee from the previous cup either. I suppose it helped cool the fresh cup just enough to make it immediately drinkable without the tedious business of gingerly blowing and sipping. But that’s not the real reason why I did this. You see, it meant something to me that the cup was never empty. My coffee cup was eternal. Like the starter culture my wife used in bread-making, my coffee was theoretically immortal. As long as I left just a little bit of coffee in my mug every time, my coffee would be consumed and refilled in an eternal recurrence but never depleted. It would wax and wane like the tides but always remain.
I stood up to stretch my legs and passed through my office doorway out into the hallway, not heading anywhere in particular. It looked like a new associate had just moved into one of the offices a couple of doors down from mine. I actually don’t recall meeting her. I soon found myself again in the unlit south conference room, gazing out through the window with my hands resting behind my back. Somewhere below, a siren wailed, its pitch stretching and growing faint as it vanished into the city. And I saw again faces in the night sky, beckoning to me, inviting me to join them in their unhurried, languid dance.
I closed my eyes and thought only of home.
Elizabeth was already in bed. I sat down on the oversized sectional sofa arranged in a right angle along two sides of the wide glass coffee table standing near the center of the living room – our own kiva and sipapu, perhaps. My back was to the hall running to the master bedroom where, no doubt, Elizabeth slept on the far side of the king bed, wrapped in an unequal share of our Egyptian cotton sheets and plush down comforter. The blinds on the French doors across the room from where I now sat were still partially open, and enough moonlight filtered through them in the unlit room that I could easily make out the furniture around me and the familiar spines of books stacked on the coffee table or arranged in solemn procession on the built-in shelves over the fireplace to my right and along the floor-to-ceiling shelving on the back wall to my left. Elizabeth had reserved space along the shelves at intervals for framed portraits and other knick-knacks that revealed Elizabeth’s heightened awareness of the details of a properly ordered domestic setting – a shallow dish holding what looked like quartz eggs, some sort of carved Chinese dog, a pair of squat candles on brass candle stands, a commemorative teacup and saucer from Buckingham Palace. My own habits were quite different, as she was fond of reminding me. Only my own home office, tucked away in the back corner of the main floor, was allowed a certain masculine entropy. I had the habit of printing emails and articles off the computer, reviewing them with highlighter and pencil, and sometimes even arranging them in piles on the floor when I ran out of space on my desk. That sort of thing had to remain in my designated corner of the house.
The silence of the still night was broken by the soft, deep chiming of the grandfather clock in the entryway by the front door. I had bought the clock for Elizabeth as an anniversary gift years before. It’s probably the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought for her. She was genuinely surprised to find it wrapped in a ribbon by the door. As the ringing of the chime tapered off into oblivion, only the faint sound of the clock’s escapement mechanism, driven by the gentle, regular swing of the pendulum, could be heard dividing the night into its component parts with its characteristic, gentle ticking. It was late.
I rose from the sofa and silently began to pace around the shadow-draped house, as if I were a cat burglar who, having overcome the primary obstacle of entry through some vent or window tucked away in an unexposed corner just below the roofline, was now at leisure to take stock of the valuable objects around him. What would I take? Well, certainly not the eggs, the dog, the candles, or the teacup. And the grandfather clock would of course be too big. Perhaps only the lockbox at the back of the bedroom closet, containing Elizabeth’s best jewelry, a pistol, and some emergency cash, was worth taking.
The oil paintings I now looked up towards along the wall next to the ascending staircase off the entryway – one for each of our three children – certainly cost me quite a lot. But their value was unique to us and couldn’t conceivably have much value in some black-market art trade. The children were all gone now. After school, they had gone off to college and had found spouses and careers of their own. I’m really not sure how long it’s been since Franklin, our youngest, moved out. Unlike the clock by the door, I can’t keep track of time anymore. I wasn’t very good at taking stock of the passage of time while the children were at home, honestly. “It’s almost children’s hour,” I’d sometimes comment knowingly to one of our associates as it started to get dark at the office. The truth is that’s really all the time I had for them most days. We’d eat dinner and I’d read them a story. And then they’d be off to bed. It all took about an hour. But I like to think of children’s hour not so much as a designated unit of time, penciled into my schedule by my dutiful secretary, but as a mystical parallel reality where we are all together by the fireplace, reading a story. The eternal children’s hour.
I now stood just outside the closed master bedroom door. I hadn’t decided if I should enter. I pictured myself stooped low by the side of the bed, Elizabeth sleeping peacefully as I watched her. I knew I wouldn’t wake her. Then I could slip through that low, secret door I had found into her dreams. I could wander the corridors of her mind just as I have wandered the hallways at my office or the house late at night. I could reach out and touch the objects I found there and see her thoughts and feelings arranged along the shelves of her mind like the photos, books, and ornaments in the living room. I could leave my own traces in the dust, slip penciled love letters between the pages of those books, and hide forgotten Polaroids among the leaves of her photo albums. Once, she saw me there, on a bench across a grassy lawn on the other side of the botanical gardens where we used to sit together when we were young. She was sitting by the fountain and she rose and walked towards me with a curious look on her face. We didn’t talk. I looked into her eyes as she sat next to me. She was waiting for me to say something. But the words were caught in my chest and I lacked the strength to summon them into existence. She just gazed at me with such pitiful, sad eyes. Not tonight. I would not try again tonight.
As I turned back towards the living room, I noticed a sudden silence in the air. The ticking of the grandfather clock seemed to have faded away, swallowed up in the gloom. I stepped forward along the hall and saw that I was now facing an empty room. The sofa, the coffee table – all the books and other objects that had lined the shelves – all were gone. Only a bare, hardwood floor stood before me in the moonlit room. A small wet spot had collected on the floor and I could see that the wood had become slightly swollen and warped, the planks curled just along the edges. Directly above, the ceiling was cracked and bits of plaster hung precariously, ready to fall at any moment. The rest of the house was empty too. Only the marks of furniture being dragged along portions of the floor remained as a sign of previous habitation. A light coat of dust had already begun to accumulate on the bannister along the stairs. The framed pictures of our children were gone, just like everything else.
I returned once more to the living room and approached the French doors that opened out onto the back porch. I would walk through those doors and across the grass into the trees beyond towards the golf course. Just on the other side of the ninth hole fairway there was a pond. As I’ve done so many times before, I would wade into that pond and feel the dark, cool water saturate my clothes as my feet sunk slowly into the rich loam along the bottom. There I would join the others as I slipped beneath the still surface of the water, their hands guiding me down as we became one, lost to ourselves groping in the dark. And in that sunken world I would rest for a time and awake again at my desk, looking out once more at the dark night sky, stretched out above the sleeping city, the few remaining lights twinkling below me along the inscrutable streets.