BY MATT SEMELE
Once she was old enough, she’d do it whenever she could. It wasn’t risky. It wasn’t unbecoming of a teenage girl. It simply involved ensuring the safety of herself and others while directing the potentially harmful tonnage of her mother’s car to the mall. She preferred driving alone, not with a pack of bitchy friends on board, with the power windows lowered in December to keep the smoke off them. She preferred driving alone, with the windows and the bass cranked high. She’d sing louder, and to her ear better, than anyone on the radio. She’d flash her eyes at the rearview, seduce herself, say “Check me out. Fuck yeah.” She’d tailgate cute guys. She’d blow confrontational gum bubbles in the direction of leering men in traffic, then fog up the side windows and, with the nail of an extended middle finger, draw a heart.
Sometimes there would be a passenger. If she were babysitting, it would be the neighbor’s kid, Kelsey. With Kelsey in the car, she blew I’m a princess / you’re a pervert bubbles at other drivers as much as she ever did alone, but she sang quieter, only half-heartedly trailing the boys. Alone, Maggie was a diva slut, a prowling sex-queen, but with Kelsey strapped next to her, the seventeen-year-old babysitter played the perfect teenage mom. This seemed natural, since Kelsey was the only human Maggie could think of as a daughter. She’d known about Kelsey since Kelsey was no more than a womb worm.
As Mrs. Boyd’s belly expanded, Maggie had even gained weight. It was a show of native vicariousness which, all things remaining equal, would probably evolve into the type of compassion that would dignify a career in social work, health care, or spirituality. She was helping out around the Boyd’s house by the time Kelsey’s mom looked like she’d swallowed a globe. To reward her work, the Boyd’s asked another favor. Once they’d raided their family tree and whittled hundreds of possible names down to a dozen, and then a dozen down to a handful, Mrs. Boyd asked Maggie for some more help.
“Is it a girl or boy?” Maggie asked.
“We won’t know until we have it,” Mrs. Boyd said.
“Then you should name it something that’s both.”
A few days later she was introduced to Kelsey. After a few years, once Kelsey could finally walk and Maggie could finally drive, she’d drag Kelsey around the mall, happily spending the money she earned the week before. One night, a few days before Christmas, as they rode the escalator to the second floor, Kelsey did two things with each of her hands: with one, she held her babysitter’s thumb, and with the other, she clutched a stuffed animal, a baby seal that pacified the girl. Not that Kelsey was much of a crier. Although her skull quadrupled the surface area of her feet, Kelsey, like a Weeble Wooble, had a feline grace you’d never expect. She would topple over, but when it seemed like her fall would be cushioned only by her head, she’d right herself. This was good, especially considering that Maggie was ultracautious, so vigilant-in-advance that she’d bought a baby-sized bike helmet, making Kelsey wear it wherever they went. She also made a little noose on either end of a four-foot cord, slipping one loop around Kelsey’s wrist and the other around her own. What with the crowds hustling around, she didn’t want anything to happen.
A few days before Christmas, as they rode the escalator to the second floor, about halfway up, the escalator jerked. Kelsey screamed. Maggie thought the child was scared by the noise, the sudden jolting. Maggie felt the cord between the two of them go taut. She looked down. Kelsey’s calf had ripped wide open. The escalator tore muscles out. Bone was visible. She scooped the screaming child into her arms, put pressure on the greasy wound, ran for help, yelling, “She was just standing there. It grabbed her.” She should have tied a cord connecting Kelsey’s wrist to the stuffed animal. The seal was lost. Kelsey grew up. Maggie grew up. But the two were no longer related.
Twelve years before the Kelsey incident, Maggie’s older brother told her things she didn’t entirely understand.
“Just walk ahead, dum dee dum, then stop walking.”
“Trust the metal step’s wide wale.”
“Ride the gentle diagonal.”
Maggie’s brother was a writer of poems, a player of tennis, a smoker of dope. The impulse to do the last was far stronger than the first, but they both affected his speech.
“There’s another step at the top, of course: the step off,” he explained as they held hands at the foot of the escalator, watching step after step appear and then glide toward the second level.
“If you don’t step it’s not as bad as it could be. I mean, you could get shaved through the crack where the steps disappear. You could go on a deli-thin tour of the escalator’s underworld. Gremlins underneath, that’s what I hear. Their eyes spark when they see you. They’ll say things like, finally, hee hee, a little girl didn’t step, hee hee, we got one, hee hee.”
Their parents were waiting in a superlong line to buy tickets to see E.T.
The escalator scared the shit out of Maggie. Her brother would help her overcome her fear of the mechanized staircase.
“Look up there. See how they do it. You step off. If you forget to step, I’ll be right there. And if I weren’t there, the worst that’d happen, you’d face plant.”
Hand in brother’s hand, Maggie coasted to the top, her heart beating harder than it ever had. Going up wasn’t a problem. She made the step. Her laces didn’t get caught. Someone was there. Someone who mastered the escalator. A mother, father, an older brother to lift her, at the last second, with a firm upward yank of the arm, out of danger and into something else.
This is Maggie’s first memory. It’s something that comes back to her whenever she’s halfway between something and its conclusion, when halfway is marked by a period of nothing happening at all. A halftime with no entertainment besides the players standing on the field, staring at the crowd, waiting for what happens next.
Going up was not a problem, and because it wasn’t a problem, she doesn’t remember it. She imagines it. She plays with her brother’s voice. He sounds better than he could have more than twenty years ago. She makes him sound as he would if he were still talking to her. It’s not necessary to uncover the reason he’s not talking to her. He is far away. And has been far away. Much farther than he is in her memory, standing at the top of the escalator, watching a succession of steps appear and then slide down to another disappearance. How could anyone trust metallically grooved descending steps? How could she be sure they would be there when she lifted a foot and let it fall? How do you balance as the step falls away?
Right. We know. It's easy. Do it all the time. A preparatory stutter-step at most. If that. But then, for a little girl, at the top of the escalator, fuck this, she thought. Fuck this. She’s old enough to say this and a thousand things similar. When she finally steps, there’s a yelp, a wobble, an attaining of balance, a coasting down to the lower floor, a quick stepping off. She looks back. The brother applauds and lifts her off the ground so she’s taller than those who come off the escalator taking what she just did for granted. What she did with wobbly fear. A leap of faith. A step. And then a celebration.
The fear is not wobbly, many years later, when it comes time to pilot an airplane. It’s like she's a thin layer of cracking ice. Whatever walks across it lays down, trying to disperse the weight, trying to save itself. But its warmth makes her weaker. She’s not sure what that means. But it’s what she feels. An anxious, climatized fragility, an air-conditioner cranked by forces beyond her control: it's cold, as though the cockpit is stabilizing itself, adjusting for the heat she's producing.
This airplane is an airplane like all airplanes. She does not know how to fly airplanes, other than those made of paper. There is no runway. Ahead of her plane, there is only an escalator. It is the same scene as her first memory. She says the same thing she did before. This or that, preceded by the word fuck. In this way she is able to express the simple fact that she would prefer to be doing something else. Anything else. But instead, she is piloting an empty airplane, empty except for her father in the passenger seat, down the steps of an escalator.
Her father is not helping. He’s expecting her to fly the plane. They are cleared for take off. But he’s not saying anything. He's not doing anything besides fastening his safety belt, pulling it tighter, leaning his head back as far as the seat will let him. It’s like he’s thinking that they’re going for a short trip down the coast. Maybe they’ll refuel and hop to one of the islands. He could read some magazines. She’d like that too, a vacation from everything. But neither her destination nor how she got in this plane had been revealed.
It was once impossible to be one place, and the next instant, somewhere entirely else. An instant, a flash, was required, a transition from one to the next. But now things are possible. Suddenly finds its way into sentences more often than conjunctions. And so, when it happens, you must go with what you know. All Maggie knows is that there are many planes of various sizes behind her. They are all behind her, awaiting takeoff. She’s been cleared. A voice said that it was her turn, in the parlance of aviation, to clear the runway for the next in line.
You are cleared for take off. Something like that. Planes ahead of her roared off, dropping for a second along the escalator’s descent, then pulling up, flying through the mall’s corridors of cellular service providers, sunglass huts, ficus trees. If they could do it, I could do it, she thought. Maybe there’s a special airplane-only exit over by Sears?
At the top of the escalator, with the milky aquarium skylights above and the first floor’s rotunda below, she sees mall-goers resting on benches, staring at storefronts, shopping bags at their feet. She feels the plane inching ahead. She considers the instrumentation, looking for the gauge that will indicate that this isn’t happening. Is this an eject button, which, when pressed, will send her up and then parachuting down into the wishing well, its fountain playfully soaking her toes, her ankles, the insides of her knees and thighs, all the way up, making her giggle? The plane inches forward, nothing happens when she pushes the eject button, not when she hits it with the heel of her fist. Her father is silent, so is she. Nothing happens when she leans over and presses the eject button as hard as she can with her forehead, pressing so hard she passes out, as the plane inches toward takeoff.
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