(A writing challenge off some how-to-write website that required writing a short story that contained a grand piano, the John Hancock Center in Chicago, and a hamburger, late 1990’s.)
She stopped for a hamburger. Outside the window the El rushed by, concealing for a moment the skyline. From a distance it was the worse, she thought. Like like some enormous thing erected for all the world to see. And they call it the city of big shoulders…. Another beer there, lady? Sure, why not.
Back on the street she hailed a cab. Where to, lady? JohnHancockCenter. You from out of town? Yes I am. Gonna go up the Tower? Y-yes. Beautiful day fer it. See like halfadozen states from up there; them and the lake—Wisconsin,Michigan,Indiana,Illinois,Chicago, Lake Michigan,Milwaukee,Gary…it’s the second biggest building in the world!
She swore that the beers had worn off already the way she was shaking. On the ride across town she looked carefully out the taxi as the shops and buildings passed by; she watched the people boiling out of subway stations and the bicycle couriers fighting the wind; the cops and the hoods and a million deep-dish pizza places…she looked at everything everywhere but up, at it.
The cabbie dropped her off right in front. Back on the sidewalk she took a deep breath—it stood before her, huge. But harmless. A mountain of concrete and steel and glass perfection. She took another deep breath and looked upward, craning her neck, craning and craning till it hurt. Somewhere up there the upper reaches of the thing disappeared out of her line of vision. She was too close. It was comforting. Relief washed over her. A splendidly attired doorman stood invitingly at the door, waving people in.
The interior was cavernous but warm and almost cozy. A lounge in a corner served cocktails. In the middle of the vast lobby stood a grand piano. A fellow in a tuxedo ran long, delicate fingers along the keyboard, eyes closed. She approached him. A candelabra threw crazy shadows across its gleaming surface. There was complimentary tea in little cups. She took hers with honey and sat down in the overstuffed lounge. The pianist finished the piece with a quiet flourish. Polite applause. Chatter. The clatter of hard shoes on a tiled floor. Lizst she said. Please play some Lizst—one of his quieter pieces.
“Liebestraum” hung in the air like a fragrance. She let herself sink into the soft cushions. “Consolations” followed, notes in quiet progression tinkling into nothingness in the base of so much concrete and steel. She looked at the walls and imagined the pressures applied to them. Wondered at the combined poundage of humanity inhabiting its cells. And yet in here deep within it was all so comfortable, so much safer than the streets, safer than anywhere. The man played like an angel.
Suddenly someone requested the “Mephisto Waltz” and chords crashed like a frantic tumble down a thousand steps*. It jarred her and she clenched a fist at the sound. The pianist pounded at the keys in cold fury. At the momentous break before that final maelstrom of chords she heard the soft bell of the elevator. The parted doors beckoned. She hurried from her seat and entered, then impulsively pressed a three digit floor. The car shot up like a rocket.
The passage took an eternity. She listened as it swooshed upward. Muzak oozed from a speaker in the ceiling; warnings screamed at her from signs on the wall. The car passed floor after floor after floor with a ding ding ding, never letting anyone on. As she reached for the emergency phone the car shuddered to a stop. She let go the receiver.
The doors slipped open quietly. Cautiously she stepped out. It was another planet up there. The city had dropped far, far away and was gone. In any direction was the infinitude of space. A brilliant blue sheathing the incomprehensible vastness. Out in the open she turned around and around, looking for a bearing in the vastness. She stepped closer to the edge of the building and the earth came into view in endless flatness. She felt Olympian. Released. As if unbound she stepped up to the building’s edge and looked over. But there it was. The concrete and asphalt and human being city. Tiny tiny cars inched along slowly. El trains slithered over streets. The infinitesimal specks on the crosswalks. She clenched her fists and closed her eyes and nearly swooned. You can do it, she told herself, you’re up here and you can do it.
The wind whistled at her ears. She steeled herself up, took a deep deep breath and leaned over and took another look. My God! Look at it! Chicago! And she could feel it deep inside, coming, coming, ready to burst forth—a shout, a song, an irresistible force….
It was then that she remembered the hamburger.
* I had actually done this in the lobby of the Sanwa bank building in the early 90’s. A cat was playing a beautiful restrained Liebestraum. A handful of people stopped to listen. When it tinkled to a finish all was still. I said “Mephisto Waltz” and it exploded from the piano. He did the intro, the startled people broke into applause, he smiled, and returned to something far more appropriate for the lobby of a big downtown building. The memory hung with me, apparently, and worked itself into this piece.