A STUPID HORSE
They stepped into the elevator. He slid closed the outer door, which was made of metal slats, like an accordion, then the inner door slid closed on its own. The red plastic card he held said 1216. He pressed the button for the 12th floor.
In my country, he said, in her language, There’s no such thing as floor zero.
No? she asked. How could that be?
Over there floor zero is called the first floor, so the first floor here, for us, is the second floor for you guys.
He looked at the card in his hand, and he realized they were headed for the thirteenth floor, but he decided he wouldn’t mention that to her.
That’s very interesting, she said.
But it makes sense, if you think about it, he said. I mean, how could there be a zero floor? What is a floor but that which we walk on? That which contains our feet, our bodies, our domestic animals, our sofas and loveseats? If there were no floor, if it were really zero, there’d be nothing to hold us up. Can you imagine that? We’d walk into any building onto floor zero and suddenly we’d all fall into a vast pit, an endless abyss. Or we’d walk into empty space, a no-place, and we’d be suspended there forever.
He wondered if he sounded like a stupid man, or worse yet, some pseudointellectual.
When the elevator reached the 12th floor, the inner door slowly slid open, like it didn’t want to open but had no choice, then he slid the outer door open, and gestured for her to step out, and she did. The hallway was dimly lit by blue lights. On both sides of the elevator an endless number of numbered doors descended into a black hole.
She walked down the hallway, looking up at the numbers on the doors, her brain at work on a simple problem. She had red hair, but it was dyed, a false red, almost the color of shiny rust or like on a 1980s punk rocker girl. She wore a short dress and high heels. He caught up to her and then took a left at an intersection, but she didn’t follow him.
Don’t go that way, she said. It’s 1216, isn’t it? It would be this way.
He looked at the numbers and saw that 1214-1222 went that way into the darkness.
Oh you’re right, he said, and he turned around and followed her.
The door was unlocked. He opened it and let her enter, and he followed behind her. The room was big and clean and well-lit, and a flat-screen TV hung on the wall like a painting. There was a Jacuzzi behind glass, large enough for a party.
Nice, he said. She sat on the bed and looked around, her purse on her lap. She looked like she had something she wanted to say.
He stood before her. He looked at her two hands splayed on her purse, as if it were a crystal ball. She had red nail polish.
Something’s on your mind. Just say it.
Okay, I will. She cleared her throat.
When I was a girl, she said, we lived on the fifteenth floor of a building. It wasn’t a great place.
She looked up at the black screen of the TV, reflecting an image of her sitting on the bed and his shadowy figure standing behind her.
It only had one bedroom, she said, so us kids slept in the living room, and all the windows looked out onto the side of other buildings.
She paused, opened her purse to look for something, but then she closed it again.
Just say it.
On the bottom floor, floor zero, she said, there was a man who lived alone. We would never learn his name. He lived there for as long as we did, and probably a long time before us, and probably a long time after us. The window to his dining room faced the sidewalk on a busy street, and at night when he ate, he had his window wide open, not just the shutters, but the curtains. The light hanging over the table was bright yellow. Anyone walking by on the sidewalk could just look in, and there he was sitting at the table eating dinner, usually a bowl of spaghetti with red sauce and a piece of bread and a glass of purple wine. He always seemed to eat the same thing every night. But who knows, maybe I just remember that one meal of his, for some reason. But it was funny to see him every night, because it was like he didn’t care that people could see him. And there was a bus stop right there, not two meters away from his window, and all the people lining up for the next bus to arrive could see him right there, close enough to whisper to him. He ate his dinner, as if he were completely alone.
That’s strange, he said.
He was always without a shirt, too, and he wasn’t fat, but he had a big belly. He was real skinny, his arms all old man-like with rubbery skin quivering off the bones, but what a big belly! All our childhood he was there, living on floor zero, but the only time we ever saw him was when he ate. We never saw him in the lobby. Never saw him in the elevator.
She was silent, as if she could see it all so clearly in her head, then she said, But of course, living on floor zero, what use would he have for the elevator?
Maybe he hated eating alone, the man said.
I don’t think he had air-conditioning, or maybe he didn’t like to run it, because in summer he would slide open the glass all the way, and you could reach your arm inside and touch him, if you wanted to.
Did you ever say anything to him?
Oh, my God! she said. She put her hand over her mouth.
What is it? he asked.
Now that I think about it, every year, when he would start opening his window in the evening, it was a sign to us kids that summer was coming! It was something we looked forward to.
He sat on the bed next to her. He touched her face. She looked at him, shy and coy at the same time, and then she looked away. She had green eyes.
What ever happened to him? he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders.
My family moved to the provinces, she said. We still live there. To get to work I take a train to the city. Takes two hours. It’s funny, but I never thought of him until now, until today. I wonder if he’s still there. He could be dead for all I know. That was like ten years ago. He seemed like an old man, but I was just a kid. Now I know that kids see adults as real old. You don’t even have to be that old, but if you’re a kid and you see an adult, they just seem old. There’s not much difference between 30 years old and 40 years old when you’re a kid. He could have been your age. How old are you?
Forty-five, he said.
Yeah, he could have been your age. Even younger.
When they left the room, she seemed a bit sad, as if she were thinking of something grave, and her face looked sincere, like she was alone in her room and had no reason to fake the way she felt. He saw that in private she was beautiful, so beautiful it made him sad. He knew now he was looking for something. He pressed the button for the elevator.
When it arrived, the outer door slid open, and he waited for her to get in, but she didn’t get in. She stood there. Her eyes were glassy.
What is it? he asked.
I just remembered, she said, just now, something I had forgotten. He had a picture on his wall, a painting, nothing fancy or artsy, just a silly painting, and it was framed in this fake gilded gold, like it was a great work of art that should be hanging in a museum.
The elevator started to beep, a warning to get in, to shut the door and get on with it, but she just raised her voice and talked faster.
It was such a stupid painting. But I looked at it all the time. I looked out for it, like I had to hold my breath until I saw it and then I could breath again. You could tell that it was something cheap. How could I forget that picture? she asked herself, as if she were asking only herself.
What was it a picture of? he asked.
A horse. Just a stupid horse eating grass in a big green field. Nothing around, just the horse eating grass.
The beep seemed to get louder, more urgent. A red light in the elevator was blinking, warning them to get in.
She snapped out of her dream, as if it were time to get back to work. She stepped into the box, and her face took on a false expression, like a kid trying to look like an adult, all serious and mature and too tough to ever be hurt by anyone. He stepped in behind her, and he slid closed the outer door, and the inner door slid closed on its own. He pressed “0”.
Daniel Chacón is author of Hotel Juárez: Stories, Rooms, and Loops (2013). His collection of short stories, Unending Rooms, won the 2008 Hudson Prize. He also has a novel, and the shadows took him, and another collection of stories called Chicano Chicanery. His fiction has appeared in the anthologies Latino Boom; Latino Sudden Fiction; Lengua Fresca: Latinos Writing on the Edge; Caliente: The Best Erotic Writing in Latin American Fiction; and Best of the West 2009: New Stories from the West Side of the Missouri. He co-edited The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes: The Selected Work of José Anontio Burciaga. He is also editor of Colón-ization: The Posthmous Poems of Andrés Montoya, forthcoming in 2014 from Bilingual Press and The Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame. He is also a photographer/blogger, and his work can be seen at www.soychaconblogspot.com.