by The Inmate
“We’ve got flower petals in number three. Get Parker down here with a vacuum cleaner–now.” The security guard spoke urgently into his black walkie-talkie as he exited the elevator past two women and two men entering it. The Juniper Center was a new building. Occupancy was low; the rents were high, the tenants fussy.
In the center of the green carpet rested three dozen white rose petals. A third of them had been crushed; their mild scent filled the car.
“At least it’s only flower petals. That’s the kind of problem I like elevators to have,” a woman in a red dress said. She had straight blond hair and leaned in a corner partly supporting herself with her hand on the mahogany railing attached to the full length mirror on the back wall. The other three occupants laughed in agreement as the gold metallic doors glided shut and the elevator ascended through the dark hollow core of the twenty-six story building to service the upper twelve floors.
A man who held a briefcase and wore a dark vested suit said, “It would have taken him about five seconds to pick them up.” He looked at the dark-haired woman across from him. Her posture presented a quiet confidence: back straight, shoulders square, head erect. When she looked at him, he smiled and said, “So, why didn’t he?”
“Why don’t we?” the other man quickly asked as the other occupants started to laugh. He stood at the other end of the railing holding a clipboard and several oversized envelopes. His shorts were gray and his shirt white, the uniform of an overnight express company. After he spoke, he glanced at each of the women, then, with a smirk, stared at the suited man.
For a moment it appeared as if everyone might pick up the the petals, as if they would do this together, amused that they had not considered it themselves, but no one moved.
The low hum of the elevator’s ventilation system was only loud enough to intensify the absence of conversation. The men eyed each other until the courier acrimoniously said, “Just a question.”
It deserved an answer, the lawyer thought, but he could not think of a quick, witty reply and a feeble defense would only humiliate him further. Why was the courier staring at him? Why did he ask that? He could have easily laughed along with the women. If he had said “you” that would have been an accusation easily replied to: “Well, why don’t you?” But it was the “we” that stumped him: the courier included himself. He knew none of them would pick the petals up; he wanted to know why.
The lawyer stared back; the courier held his gaze.
For every floor past the express zone a computerized beep sounded. After two beeps the elevator stopped on floor sixteen. The women watched the men with apprehension. When the doors opened they briskly left.
After the doors glided shut the women’s laughter drifted off below the men then ceased as the elevator rose above the man-made abyss, pulled along by several taut, one-inch steel hoist cables.
The men stood diagonally from one another. The courier, taller than the lawyer by six inches, looked at him intently.
“I don’t know,” the lawyer said.
“He was doing his job, just like the rest of us. He wouldn’t expect you to pick them up, why did you expect him to?” The courier spoke menacingly.
“You wanted an answer. I gave it to you. I can’t help it if you don’t like it.”
The courier sneered at the lawyer as the doors opened on the seventeenth floor. “It’s a weak answer from a suit.” He walked out recording the tracking number from a package with a hand-held electronic scanner. The doors closed.
The lawyer looked down at the petals. They could not have been there long, five minutes at the most. Probably others had seen them and not picked them up.
In the mirror the scene looked different: he was a participant, not an observer. He stood over the petals like a stone god accepting a peace offering. What was it the gods required? Sacrifice? Or was it something else?
“Why didn’t we?” he mused. Is it an unbearable inconvenience? A complete humiliation?
The elevator stopped smoothly on the twenty-sixth floor; the doors opened; the Munifer case papers waited on his desk in three file boxes, but he continued to gaze at the reflection. The doors shut behind him. After a moment he set his briefcase on the carpet, stooped down and began picking up the petals one by one placing them carefully in his left hand as if they were of some great importance. With a deep breath he savored their fragrance like a god receiving the collective prayers of tiny white-robed monks. He lowered himself to his knees. Some of the petals had to be peeled from the carpet. He did this meticulously like a mother pulling tiny slivers from a child’s finger. Not until the elevator started to slow down did he realize it had been moving. Quickly he brushed most of the remaining petals into a pile and stuffed them into his fist as the elevator doors opened. He looked in the mirror. It was the courier.
They scrutinized one another for nearly two seconds. The courier looked away first, then stepped to the back of the elevator–silent, staring at the green digital numbers above him.
Still on his knees, the lawyer picked up the last three petals then stood solemnly with his eyes fixed on the carpet as if he had been kneeling at a grave. The soft, moist petals felt good in his hand and he squeezed them until their fragrant moisture coated his palm.