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The Man with the Cigarette in the Elevator
I saw him. I saw the man with the cigarette in the elevator. Twice. The first time I passed just as the doors were closing and I caught a glimpse of him. Really I smelled the smoke first and my nose unconsciously crinkled in a reflex or something. The next thing I knew he threw his cigarette right at my feet. I stopped suddenly. The glowing ember grinned at me, as if I was being mocked. I caught the stench of the smoke, this time stronger, as it wafted into my nostrils. I looked up back at the elevator. Just before the doors closed with a ding, I saw his face.
The first thing I noticed was the cloud of smoke that surrounded his face. Part of it curled around his head, like a halo or crown. The rest seemed to cover his face like a veil. He was average height, about five seven. I think he was in his late fifties. He wore well-loved shoes, gray woolen socks (I could only tell because I saw his toe poking out from his left well-loved shoe), cargo pants, a brown leather belt, and a long sleeve plaid shirt. My mom always joked that any man who wore a plain shirt was a lumber jack. I didn't see an ax anywhere on this man, only his cigarette and the veil of smoke over his face.
I could faintly see his facial features behind the puffs of smoke. Gray eyes, gray hair, whiskers, crow’s feet, and a large, squash shape nose that was most overtly placed there. It should have come with a “no duh” sign. I saw the man with the cigarette in the elevator while I was walking to my car in one of those big parking lots in downtown Denver. You know, the garages. I walked past him and thought nothing of him, nothing good anyway. He was blatantly rude, throwing that cigarette in my path without so much as an “excuse me.”
I work at the Denver Museum of Natural Science. Ever see one of those groomed women behind the counter whose name is Shelly or Kelly or something like that? Yeah that’s me. I always part on the eighth level of parking, lot 8C, and in the spot that faces the “8C” poster with a mummy next to it, so I know what level I’m on. I always park there. Always. 8:30 a.m. you’ll find me climbing out of my 2003 Subaru wearing a pencil skirt, typically black or navy, and heels (not my preference by the way).
But the day after I saw the man with the cigarette in the elevator, things got a bit…strange. 8:34 a.m. I yank the car door open and climb out. I click and clack my way to the elevator. Yellow caution tape greets me with a smile. All over the front of the elevator doors. What happened? There are no signs of fire or breakage or anything. Just caution tape, sealing the doors and blocking me from my way down. Rats, I thought. I click and clack and curse and groan and stumble my way down the ramp to level seven. Hopefully it was just a door problem on level eight and level seven’s elevator still works. I’m not going to walk down to level 1 from here. No way. I’m just not going to do it. I pressed the caution –tape-free elevator button. Nope, I’m not going to walk, sorry. Not going to do it.
Ding! The doors open and who should be standing there but the man with the cigarette in the elevator.
“Oh.” I said unconsciously. He looked me up and down then shrugged. I looked at my watch. 8:52. I couldn't be late. I guess I would have to get in. I humphed my way past him and into the back left corner of the elevator. He groaned slightly, glancing over his shoulder before nervously dropping his cigarette and kicking it into the crack between the floor and the wall, thinking I wasn't looking. I rolled my eyes.
“What floor?” He then said. His voice sounded like moving gravel and at first I didn't quite comprehend his question.
“Excuse me?” I leaned toward him. I could smell the smoke. He turned to me and pointed to the buttons on the wall.
“What floor?” As he spoke he exhaled a plume of cigarette smoke that made me cough. I began fanning the air in front of me.
“Cough…ground…cough…level.” He grunted and pushed the button. The doors closed and I was left alone with him. The air was partly hazy with the smoke that had curled itself up in the elevator while the doors were opened.
“Did you really have to do that?” I asked.
“Whatever lady.” I sighed. Hopefully the trip down would be short.
Suddenly the elevator jolted to a stop. I tottered on my heels. My arms flailed about and I steadied myself against the wall. Once I regained my balance I asked:
“What was that?” The man shrugged. He didn't seem affected by what had just happened. Come to think of it, he didn't seem to be affected by anything in general. The lights in the elevator flickered and then went out. Darkness surrounded us.
“Oh great.” I groaned. I was so late for work.
“I’ll see if I can call the fire department.” The man’s voice gruffly said. I shrugged dramatically. Of course, why didn't I think of that?
Thankfully the elevator buttons lit up when you pressed them, so the man had little trouble finding the fire department button.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“We’re stuck in this elevator and the lights went out.” His voice barked.
“We’ll be there as soon as we can. Hold tight.” Then with a click the line went dead.
By that time I was frazzled. I was late for work, I had nearly been suffocated by the man’s cigarette smoke, and my feet were hurting in my heels.
“Might as well get comfy.” I sighed.
“Yeah this will take a while.” The voice added. I slid down the wall and took off my heels. Breathing a sigh of relief, I relaxed in the darkness.
“What’s your name?” The question had come from the man with the cigarettes. I was surprised. I had hoped all would be peaceful and quiet and I could pretend the man didn't exist. I could relax, maybe nap or wait in silence. I wouldn't have to get to hear anything more from the man whose voice sounded like gravel. But nope, I guess not.
“I’m Chelsea Robin.” I sighed. Maybe talking to this man would help pass the time quicker. “What’s yours?”
“Charley Kane.” The man with the cigarettes answered.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise.” I would have held out my hand, but I didn't want to hit Charley in the face.
“I’m sorry about being so rude earlier.”
“No worries.” I tapped my fingers against the wall. How many minutes had it been, five? Where was everyone? I kept myself busy by thinking of questions to ask Charley. We found conversation not too difficult. I found out that he was 62, had a PhD. in American history from Dartmouth, and was working 3 jobs as a result of debt. He was on his way to one of his jobs now, working as a ticket seller at the Denver Zoo, next to the Museum.
He asked me similar questions. I answered them all the best I could. They weren't too difficult or personal. I was 37, divorced, and was working at the museum. He asked me what caused the divorce. I looked into the darkness. Todd’s face came into my mind’s eye. What was there to tell? Who was to blame? He said he understood, but his tone made me think he didn't.
Still the fire department didn't come.
Finally I asked Charley a question I wanted to ask the moment I got into the elevator.
“Why do you smoke? I mean, you know it can kill you.” There was silence. I imagined Charley thinking, perhaps scratching his whiskers or rubbing that squash nose of his. Finally he answered:
“When my wife Melanie died, I started. I felt like I could take the pain away by blowing it out. The smoke came into my lungs, near my heart where all the pain was, and I could blow the smoke and the pain out at the same time, into the air to never be seen again.”
Now it was my turn to be silent. Poor, poor Charley. I felt guilty about what I had done. Really guilty. This guy wasn't a lumberjack, nor was he a washed up chain smoker. Charley had been hurt. Perhaps he even wanted to die. I didn't really know. But I felt bad for him. I felt sorry for saying anything mean to him.
“What was Melanie like?”
“Everything I wanted. Red head, pretty green eyes, and freckles. The real deal.”
“Really?” It wasn't really a question, more of a comment, but Charley took it as one.
“Yeah. If you ever find real love,” Charley’s whistle pierced the darkness, “you never let it go.”
“Hmmm…” I replied, thinking about Todd. I felt so right with him. I was so happy. What had gone wrong? I couldn't even remember anymore. It seemed like such a long time ago.
“Does it feel hot in here to you?” Charley asked. Now that he mentioned it, I did feel hot. Sweat was gathering under my arm pits. My butt burned but I just thought it was because I was sitting on it weirdly. I stood up. My bare foot touched what should have been cool linoleum, but instead was warm.
“Yeah, the floor’s hot.” I heard Charley moan as he stood up.
“Something’s got to be wrong.”
“Like what?” But my voice was drowned out by the fire department speaker.
“This is the fire department. Stay put, we’re coming to get you.” How could we go anywhere? We were stuck in an elevator.
Finally Charley and I saw daylight again. According to reports, a fire had been started in the elevator shaft, melting the moving mechanism, making the elevator stop. The fire then spread up the shaft. It was slow but steady. 10 more minutes and Charley and I would have been in an oven. And what started the fire? A cigarette butt that had fallen between the floor slats after someone had kicked it there.
I can no longer park in 8C. The whole garage is temporarily shut down due to renovations. I never saw Charley again. I was escorted to the hospital as soon as possible. They treated me and afterwards I called Todd up. We’re dating again. It’ll be two weeks this coming Thursday. I wish I could have said goodbye to Charley. He was so nice. I shouldn't have been so hard on him. I’m sure he’s out there somewhere, still smoking and annoying other people in elevators until they know his story. He taught me a few things during our time in limbo, things which I will never forget. I shouldn't judge people because of what they look like, if they smoke or how big their nose is. I missed seeing Charley on my way to work. Maybe one day I’ll see him again, and I can thank the man with the cigarette in the elevator for all he’s done for me.