2017 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up
Carolyn had forgotten her goddamn phone and was now waiting for the goddamn elevator doors to close, so she could return to her goddamn office to get said goddamn phone from her goddamn desk. She poked the goddamn “close” button a third time, and just as the goddamn doors began to shut, a goddamned briefcase shot between them.
The doors shimmied back and forth and then snapped open: it was Jerry Sobloski.
Fourteen hours earlier, Carolyn had begun her day as usual: reading the death notices over a bowl of oatmeal at her kitchen counter. She was an actuary, for chrissake, so it wasn’t that strange for someone who pored over life-expectancy tables to be interested in the back stories under their tide. There was a sureness in the rows of announcements that couldn’t be found elsewhere in the paper—lineages of beloveds and devoteds, selected revelations, personal philosophies: Percy liked canning and boating, LaVerne crocheted and played the slot machines, Frances’s nickname was Sugar, Elmer liked Pepsi, nothing was ever wasted in Josephine’s hands.
Among this morning’s notices was that of Jerry Sobloski’s daughter. Melanie Sobloski’s sweet smile took its place between the dour gaze of Erma T. Rhinehart and the blurred visage of Frantisek I. Srb. A companion piece appeared in the Metro section, describing how Melanie’s body had been found on a park bench in a picnic area next to a stream, where on sunny summer days, families unpacked sandwiches and Frisbees and stayed past dusk to catch lightning bugs. She was twenty.
The death notice had been honest—no “passed away suddenly,” “left us unexpectedly,” or “called to heaven.” Melanie had been an addict. The obituary said so: “Passed away as the result of a heroin overdose. Our hearts are broken.” It also said that Melanie was lively and adventurous and caring and loved animals and nature and Beck. She had finished a year of college and been clean for nearly one year.
Jerry Sobloski Esq., the loquacious, cigarette-smoking, tender pit bull of the Standard Building, looked hollowed out. He had come straight from the wake to his office because he needed to file a motion for an extension of time—explaining to the court that tomorrow, instead of filing his brief “in a timely manner,” he would be burying his daughter.
Jerry gave Carolyn a nod and pushed the button for 17.
The doors closed. The two of them stood side by side, watching the floor numbers light up as the elevator began to climb.
Carolyn said, “I’m sorry.”
Jerry opened his briefcase and handed her a funeral program.
“My ex did this,” he said. Carolyn wasn’t sure if that was a simple statement of fact or an accusation.
There was a perky, blond Melanie on the front, in her volleyball uniform. March 12, 1995–July 23, 2015. Angels in all four corners. Inside, it listed the order of service and ended with the last stanza of the “Desiderata,” telling mourners “to be cheerful” and to “strive to be happy.”
“They call it a disease of despair,” Jerry said.
His eyes were bloodshot, tie in revolt, shirt-front wrinkled from the press of condolences.
“I’m sorry,” Carolyn repeated.
She started to ask him what he was doing here, when the elevator shuddered and jolted to a stop. The car became still.
Carolyn pressed the call button. No one responded. She pressed it again; still no answer. Jerry sat down on the floor and put his head in his hands.
The intercom crackled, but then was silent. Carolyn pressed the call button a few more times. Still no response. “Hello,” she shouted.
Jerry stood up and began pounding on the elevator doors. First with his fists, then with his open hands until a voice came over the intercom asking:“Is somebody in there?”
Carolyn told the voice there were two of them.
“The elevator guys are on their way,” the voice said.
Jerry sat back down on the floor.
“Do you have kids?” Jerry asked.
Carolyn knew why he was asking. She wanted to tell him, that yes, she did understand. That she had placed her mouth over her brother’s pale lips and breathed and breathed and breathed until the ambulance came, and her mother rode away with him, and Carolyn stayed behind to tell her dad what had happened and watched the taillights of his car as he sped away. That in a moment, the universe had pivoted, that there was no going back—ever. She understood that.
Carolyn said, “No.”
Jerry began to pace—two steps forward, turn, two steps back, measuring time and pain with his footsteps.
“They said she didn’t love herself enough,” he said.
Two steps forward, turn, two steps back.
“My ex wants me to give the eulogy.”
Two steps forward, turn, two steps back.
“You ever give a eulogy?” he asked.
Carolyn told him she hadn’t.
Jerry came to a halt, opened his briefcase, and took out the funeral program, studying it as if it were a map of hell. He dropped to his knees and began to bellow, his wails floating to the upper levels of the firmament and west to Toledo.
Carolyn stood, hands in the pockets of her suit jacket, and looked at her shoes, looked at the floor, looked at the ceiling, looked at the walls.
Jerry was huddled in the corner, his mournful howls a beckoning siren. Carolyn got down on her knees and began to wail with him.
At first her cries were low and mechanical—like a Halloween record with the volume turned down. But as they blended with Jerry’s keening, they gained intensity and vigor. She matched his register—crescendoing when he did and hushing when he quietly sobbed. They dragged their bodies through the desert. They swam against riptides and hiked through fire. They climbed a mountain. They held on tightly to the mast of a sinking ship. They knelt at mass graves, they crawled through war zones, they sat in the dark with corpses. She kept up with him, measure by measure, their voices giving passage to sorrow.
The elevator began to move, and they became quiet. Her face was red, her blouse stained with sweat.
Jerry put the funeral program back in his briefcase and stood up. He offered Carolyn his hand, and she rose and smoothed her skirt. He got off at 17.
Carolyn unlocked the door of her office and sat in the dark. Melanie Sobloski’s ghost floated outside her window in the rain. Carolyn propped the funeral program on her desk and took off her shoes.
She thought of her beloved mother (nee Harris), RN; and her father, proud Vietnam veteran; her brother, WSH Class of ’87; her first boyfriend, after a courageous battle with cancer; her best friend, leaving behind to mourn three children. And she thought about Jerry Sobloski, five floors below.