“You must understand, it’s not very often I get company,” the old man said to me as he put down his guitar and took out a Pall Mall from his cigarette case. “So tell me, son, how did you get here?”
* * *
I can’t recall how many days it has been since my journey started, but given where I am now, I feel as though it’s not really something I should be concerned with. I only remember the setting. The very first door lay at the bottom of a back-alley stairwell, a place where I was told to go to answer to some prosperous opportunity. I never did get the name of the person who sent me.
My initial qualms subsided only when I noticed the presence of a man pacing outside the door. He looked to be in his late twenties and was dressed and kept in a similar formality as I was. His hair was short and straight, chestnut. A white collared shirt (which was coming un-tucked from his khakis) and silver-blue tie. Polished black dress shoes that emphasized his every step on the concrete walk. He kept his head low, mumbling, “What’re you doing?” or “Where are you?” to himself in repetition.
And I asked him, “Sorry, but are you waiting for someone?”
He took a quick glance at me with his hands still shoved in his pockets and said, “No.” It didn’t look as though he was in the mood to talk.
Beneath the door was a sign painted onto the concrete. It said “You’re WELCOME to take a step” in black typeface. Only after I opened it did the pacing man blurt out to me, “Do you have any idea what to expe—“, and the slam of the door ended his sentence too early.
The place I stepped into was alarmingly empty and compact, nothing but a short hallway leading to another door. The walls were the exaggerated white you would see in advertisements for dental strips, with nothing to adorn them. The floor was a matching neutral carpet. A woman’s voice, crystal and synthetic, greeted me over an unseen intercom. It said, “Welcome to the Agency. Please proceed through the door you see before you.” The message was then repeated in several other languages before the reverberated tone of a vibraphone concluded the announcement.
I remember the moment when my hand first gripped the stainless steel doorknob that shone from across the hall. It was unnaturally cold, and once my hand came to rest on it, I couldn’t think to pull away. Turning the knob slowly, I pulled the door in toward me and was bombarded by a sheer wall of noise.
Maybe that small hallway had been heavily soundproofed as a means of respite from the outside. I wouldn’t have had any idea that just beyond it lay a much larger room where an ocean of people, all in formal dress, were moving in currents, talking or shouting, discussing or arguing, moving along in a room whose bilateral dimensions knew no boundaries. The collective oneness of the voices was too much to bear on the ears; it was as if I had the power to read minds, and the thoughts of every passerby were piercing my head. Right then, I wanted to leave.
I twisted and jiggled the doorknob, but I was trapped. The door had firmly locked shut behind me. I had nowhere to go but forward.
I pushed my way into the depths of the crowd, fighting the entropic patterns that tossed and disoriented me. The cacophonic choir continued to pound against me as I made my way. There were times when I wanted to cry out, and during my unpleasant swim through these moving bodies I could have sworn I heard others shouting for help, powerless to the flow just as I was. Even if this were true, response was out of the question. There was nothing I could do, except to continue moving forward.
On the other side of the room were more doors, and my instinct was to go through the first one I could reach. To be anywhere else was better than where I was then. When the familiar chill of the doorknob reached my fingertips, I knew to make my escape.
As I came to expect, once the door was shut behind me, I was locked into the next room and there was never any means of turning back. I had absolutely no bearings about this place (to be honest, I still don’t, and I may never figure it out), but I figured the only thing to do was to keep walking straight. Still, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy about this whole ordeal. I mean, I had my own place outside of the Agency, and it didn’t seem as though I would be leaving anytime soon. A faint dread, like that of a mild nausea, began to fill the pit of my stomach.
To my relief, the second room wasn’t nearly as crowded as the first, and it was here that the true scope of each room revealed itself. Each was impossibly large, starkly white just like the entrance. The opposite wall of each was lined with innumerable possible choices of exit, and no matter how far to the left or right you looked, they seemed to stretch on forever. This did nothing to make me feel any better. I was completely at a loss of where to go next, let alone how to get out. I ended up asking as many people in the room as I could if they could help me out, with mixed results. Some said something like, “I’m pretty sure your not supposed to leave.” A large majority of others responded, “Your guess is as good as mine.”
I remember thanking them, weakly, before continuing on my way.
Each door had to be picked with care, but there was no way of knowing what awaited you on the other side. The number of people always varied, and the purpose was always different. I can’t tell you how many registration offices I’ve passed through that have rejected me and whatever skills or assistance I had on offer. I can’t tell you how many board meetings I’ve interrupted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten lost in the claustrophobic labyrinths of cubicle space. There were always papers being copied and faxed, telephone lines always ringing and being put on hold, fingers always clicking on keyboards. Door after door after door, opportunities came and went and came again, fleeting, but I had no luck latching on to them. There was only futility in this endless circuit, headaches from the noise, and dampened spirits that lingered in the grayscale confines of this place.
And yet, this place seemed to take your basic needs to heart. Whenever you passed through a door with your stomach growling, you always ended up in a cafeteria with hundreds of others, eating in silence and not talking to each other. Whenever you needed a bathroom, there it was, suited to your gender and always vacant. Whenever you needed to sleep, there would be a soft bed waiting for you, but never any means of telling how long you’ve slept. Every time I laid myself to rest, I couldn’t help but wonder who was providing all this.
In all the rooms I’ve visited, not a single one contained a window.
Inquiry, rejection, cluelessness, hunger, bowel movement, sleep; this routine continued for an unspecified amount a time. I became a slave to it, and it made me neither happy nor depressed. I floated between rooms, just as thousands of others were doing to try and find their place.
Eventually, I came to find the arboretum.
Somehow, in the middle of this complex, there lay a natural enclosure surrounded by glass walls. The carpeted floor gave way to hard earth and groomed grass, the repeating white walls to coniferous trees. Overhead, one could see the sky at the cusp of dusk, periwinkle with tinges of muted greens and yellows. The sun was only visible in the beams of light that passed through the pine needles, and the moon, half concealed in shadow, was rising into the coming night.
There were only two doors out of this room, and one of them was unlike the other. Whereas most doors in the Agency had only stainless steel doorknobs, there was a door in the arboretum that was entirely stainless steel and lacking any handle. In front of this door sat a balding man with eerily pale skin, defined by wrinkles and punctuated with liver spots. He, too, was in formal dress, not unlike anyone else I’ve come across, but his shirt wasn’t tucked in and it looked like it could use ironing. He bore his feet to the air and the ground, and had set aside his socks and dress shoes. He strummed some classical guitar piece that I couldn’t recognize, and every few seconds his performance would stop dead so he could let out a raucous cough before picking up exactly where he left off as if nothing had happened.
He turned his eyes to me as I entered.
* * *
“Son, that’s quite the story. But you shoulda told me something I don’t know!” the old man laughed before collapsing briefly into a hacking mess. “You’re here ‘cause you got lucky, nothing more to it than that. But hey, I won’t scare you off. You’re welcome to stay for a bit, if you like.”
“Thanks…” I said. “So, I’m guessing you’ve been down a similar path?”
“That ain’t anything to guess. Everybody goes down a similar path here. That’s why I’m sitting here right now! And this here is a wonderful place I’ve found, isn’t it?”
“They don’t got air in there like it is here. Take it all in.”
I took a deep breath, and my nose was met with the stench of a man who couldn’t remember his last shower. That and the breath of yellowed teeth and cigarette smoke.
“You’ve been sitting here a long time,” I said.
“That’s right,” the old man puffed as he inhaled deeply into his Pall Mall before blowing a billow of smoke into the air. “But understand, I only stay here ‘cause it’s so nice to stay here, and I ain’t got that much time left anyway. See, you’re different. You’re young, and I can see it in your eyes, you’ve got potential.”
“But what about you?”
“Eh, I’m sure there was a time that I did too, but this is where I was fortunate enough to end up, and this is where I’ll stay.” He coughed again, then he picked up his guitar and starting plucking away.
“Look, I hope I’m not intruding or anything. I can’t say I’m quite sure I know what I’m after in this place.”
“Does anyone? It don’t matter what anyone’s after, ‘cause they’re all after the same thing!” he grinned crookedly.
“Could you elaborate?”
When I asked him this, he only continued to play his piece and cough, saying nothing. His eyes stared unflinchingly forward for what felt like a few minutes, and I wasn’t sure if he had reached inner tranquility or if he had gone catatonic.
“Sorry,” he said, abruptly snapping his head toward me. “What were we talking about?”
“Never mind,” I sighed.
“Look, if I’m gonna say anything to you, it’s this: Don’t be afraid to keep moving forward, ‘cause you never know where you’ll end up.”
“So, are you stayin’ or movin’? ‘Cause it’s about time for me to be practicin’ alone, if you get me.”
“Oh! Sorry, I guess I’ll be going.”
As I collected myself to head toward the door to the next room, something I’d been keeping in the back of my head suddenly reemerged. The cold of the doorknob was numbing the palm of my hand.
“Hey,” I said. “The door you’re sitting in front of. Why does it look different?”
“It’s ‘cause it ain’t a door. It’s an elevator,” he said with a wheeze.
“An elevator? Don’t tell there are more floors to this place!”
“Nope. Just look up at the sky.”
I turned my eyes toward the falling dusk. To my astonishment, faint straight lines began to appear as the sky darkened, extending up from the elevator door and fading into a lofty height beyond.
“I see it now. Where does it go?”
“Nobody really knows, but you can bet that we’ll all find out one day. When the time is ripe, it’ll be my turn.”
I turned the doorknob and pulled the door inward to take my leave. The old man had retaken his guitar in his arms, head bowed low and leaning intently into his sound. There was a dim orange glow behind his head. The prompt for the elevator was alight, the panel on the wall displaying a uniform white arrow pointing up. I’m not sure why I hadn’t noticed it when I entered the arboretum, and I can only imagine how long that button had been lit up.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Take care, son.”
Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!
Check out Ukulele Hunt for further exploration