Above the Ground
There once was a boy who couldn’t sleep unless he was high above the ground. The boy’s sleeplessness began when his parents died in a car accident, a hit and run of which he was the sole survivor, and his aunt moved him out of his family’s old high-rise apartment and into hers. She didn’t think the boy should stay in the high-rise, with its booming emptiness and its family-sized mortgage, but though she knew he was too young to live by himself, she didn’t want a boy. She wanted to drink, and she wanted to do it alone.
After the funeral the boy spent several uncomfortable nights in his aunt’s musty guest bedroom, listening to her laugh and cry at the television, getting up to help her when she fell, and then found a new apartment himself. It was a small studio apartment on the ground floor of a decrepit apartment complex near his middle school, but it had a veranda surrounded by flowering shrubs clipped to resemble clouds. When he told his aunt he wanted to leave, she made a ceremonial fuss but looked relieved when he said he didn’t mind solitude. The clouds, he told her, would keep him company, and the school bus stopped right outside the building. No one would need to know. She nodded, poured another splash of white wine on the melting ice, pretending to think it over, then signed the lease and arranged for the estate to send monthly rent payments and hired a moving van.
In the studio apartment, the boy slept in his old wrought-iron bed under worn cotton sheets, his head buoyed by a soft down pillow taken from his aunt’s guest bedroom. He fell asleep easily enough, surrounded by the metal’s familiar swooping curves, but waking up three feet from the ground unnerved him. Twice a night, three times, more, he’d start awake. Each time, he’d roll over, dangle his arm from the bed’s edge and touch the cool tile floor, gooseflesh rising and little shivers racing down his back and legs. Right underneath this tile is dirt, he would think, and he’d wait, palm pressed down, to see if he could feel it move.
Dark circles fanned beneath his eyes. He began setting his alarm for a half hour before the bus came, then fifteen minutes, then five. Face unwashed and shirt on backward, he showed up to school with little white feathers salting his hair. “You’re molting!” his classmates would tease, pleased with themselves for remembering their science lesson, one boy inevitably adding, “What’d you do, fuck a bird?” as the feathers came unmoored and floated away.
The boy tried sleeping with the windows open. He bought a new pillow. He warmed milk in a saucepan as his mother had once done and sipped it with his eyes closed, focusing on the liquid’s warm path down his throat. Nothing worked. He didn’t trust the earth, and he couldn’t sleep so close to it.
The teacher grew concerned. “Who’s looking after you?” she asked the boy one day after he fell asleep at his desk. His class was teaching math to a group of younger students from another school, using counting blocks to show them how to do division. He had been counting out red one-unit blocks with his young charge when he’d grown sleepy and put his head down.
“My parents,” he lied.
The teacher frowned. She wasn’t sure if he meant this literally, but either way it was bad. Dealing with their death once had been enough for her. Her store of platitudes and polite lies was exhausted and she had a whole classroom of public-school problems to deal with, many far worse than his. Physical abuse. Molestation. Reports and more reports to complete and photocopy and file, to go home and try to forget. She opened her mouth to say, Okay, well, who are you living with then, but a kid at the back of the room got a block stuck up his nose, and, relieved, she dropped this line of inquiry. While she was occupied, the boy pocketed a fistful of the red blocks that had put him to sleep. All day he walked around fingering their smoothed edges, rattling them gently like dice.
That night, when the boy awoke, he counted out the red blocks in rows of ten until they marched across his duvet like unstrung fence posts. He soon felt sleepy again. When he slept, though, he dreamed that the blocks were morphing into rectangular purple ten-unit blocks, and then blue twenty-units, and he awoke with a start, scattering the lacquered wooden squares across the room. His mouth was filled with a loamy taste left over from his dream. At first the taste just flitted across his tongue, but then it expanded until he could feel it balling, clumping, pushing against his teeth and uvula and up into his nose, choking him no matter how deeply he breathed. He went to the kitchen and drank a glass of water and then another to chase the taste away.
He looked into the darkness beyond his window. Outside, the shrubs’ little white flowers were opening. They looked like stars that had sunk too low and gotten tangled in the leafy clouds. He had once heard someone claim that stars were actually human souls blazing out from the heavens. He thought about how awful it would be if your soul got caught on earth and couldn’t find its way up to where it belonged. The next morning he rang the super’s bell. He said that his aunt wanted an apartment higher up. One was empty on the second floor. The windows overlooked the veranda, so the boy could gaze down at the shrubs. The super left it unlocked, said to look in whenever they’d like. The boy climbed the carpeted, moldy-smelling stairs with his sleeping bag and gave sleeping a try. Still, all he could think about was the slow shifting of the tectonic plates beneath him, giants rolling over in their sleep.
The apartment building had no openings above the second floor. The boy thought about trying to sleep on the pitched tar roof, but given that he was a restless sleeper it didn’t seem like a good idea. He couldn’t afford to rent another apartment, and he was afraid to disclose his problems to his aunt, who, when she thought to bring groceries, would casually mention a place where he might be happier, a group-home situation. “I really shouldn’t leave you here alone like this,” she’d say. “And who knows? You might like it.”
After he awoke for a third time that Friday night, his head aching with exhaustion, the boy took a city bus to Macy’s and rode the escalators higher and higher, past the blue-grey of Men’s Casual Wear and the jeweled array of Lady’s Shoes, past Domestics with its glittering cookie tins and brittle crystal, all the way to the sweep and satin of Lady’s Formal Wear. When the moving stairs carried the boy up that last stretch, he laid his head on the black rubber belt and felt drowsy and not at all anxious. Stepping off the escalator, he found a circular rack of long red crepe dresses, and, when no one was looking, crawled between them. Inside the gently swaying circle of fabric, the boy slept and slept.
He woke to the rustling and chattering of the morning shoppers. Rested, he found that his head no longer ached with that hot pulse of fatigue. As the boy sat there in the warm reddish glow of florescent light filtered through crepe, he was relieved at the absence of exhaustion’s crushing weight. On his way out, he stole a dress. He just tore off the tags, draped it over his shoulder, and acted as though he owned it.
The saleswomen smiled and waved. He waved back.
The down escalator was broken, ringed with CAUTION tape, and so the boy took the elevator to the street. As he pressed the ground-level button and it lit up white, an idea came to him.
On Monday, the boy skipped school.
He spent the morning in the city’s financial district. He ordered breakfast at a restaurant where he and his father had once gone. The waiter brought a silver kettle of hot water for the boy’s tea nestled on a folded white cloth. The boy’s scrambled eggs were fluffy and his bacon thick and flavorful. He was given honey for his toast in a ceramic pot with a wooden honey twirler. No one said a word when the boy twirled a spool of honey into his mouth. Later, when he used the small pair of tongs to set a sugar cube onto his tongue and let the sweetness spread through him, less a pleasure than a question, the waiter just asked if he’d like the bill.
After breakfast, his insignificance to the adult world confirmed, he began touring office towers. He walked into one lobby, ornamented with gold and veined marble, and discarded it as too obdurate, too cold. The next, done up in brushed chrome, glittering silver panels and sleek recessed lighting, made the boy feel as though he’d landed in Antarctica. He was tired and the disorienting flatness hurt his head. He visited lobby after lobby until finally, his feet pummeled tender and his stomach rumbling, the boy found a tall building with a lobby that stirred something inside him. The floor was golden limestone, reception desk a warm cherry, the arching ferns lush green. They reminded the boy of the verdant clouds that floated around the studio apartment’s veranda. As he approached the elevators, he held his breath. The buttons said they only went as high as the tenth floor, but he was sure there were more floors above. He boarded a car, rode it to the top, and disembarked. Sure enough, a new bank of elevators stood across the way, servicing the eleventh to twentieth floors.
He looked inside the nearest. It was wood-paneled and spacious. The overhead light was soft. A handrail ringed the car. Best of all, the stop button and the alarm button were separate. His father had explained this to him once: if you were stuck, you had to press the alarm button to summon help. Otherwise, no one would come until someone noticed that the elevator was not moving.
Someone might notice if a ground-floor elevator car hovered too long between floors, the boy thought, but if a car that began its journey high above stopped for a bit during the night, who would know?
On Tuesday, he packed his backpack with his sleeping bag, a travel alarm clock, fresh clothes, the red crepe dress, and a stapler and took a bus downtown. He gave the front desk wide berth, but it didn’t matter; the uniformed desk attendant paid him no mind. When he reached the tenth floor he boarded his elevator. He waited for the doors to close behind him before balancing on the handrail to staple the red dress over the ceiling light.
The boy pushed the button for the twentieth floor. As the elevator ascended, he hit stop. The elevator was just the right size: not too small to stretch out, not big enough to feel empty. The dress glowed above him, casting down a ruddy light. He closed his eyes. The tinny sound of a violin concerto piped through the elevator’s speakers. At first, he was sure the music would keep him awake, but after a few minutes the violins stopped pushing so hard on his mind and then the strings’ ebb and flow began to rock him to sleep.
He was free of the ground’s push. His relief was vast.
During the night, the boy didn’t wake once. In his dreams, for the first time, his parents came to him. The boy looked carefully, but no dirt clung to their skin. No shrubs snagged their hair. His father smelled of his pine-scented deodorant, and he was smiling. His mother kissed him gently. She was wearing the red crepe dress. When the boy awoke to the sound of the alarm clock, he leaned over and pressed his palm to the elevator’s floor. The earth was far away. He felt light.
He packed his backpack, released the elevator, and washed up in the immense restroom on the tenth floor. He caught a city bus to school.
“You look different,” his teacher said.
“I am,” he said.
The boy slept in the elevator the next night, and the night after that, and so on for weeks and then months and then years, until finally he could work and earn enough to rent a new apartment.
He slept better in his new apartment than he had in the studio apartment, but he still preferred the elevator, which after all those nights seemed like home. Sometimes when he felt restless, the boy, now a man, would sneak back to sleep in the elevator, even if only for an hour. It was harder now, though, and while he walked quickly and carried a briefcase, the desk attendants sometimes stopped him. One day, his aunt, jaundiced and sick, called him from the hospital. Knowing she was dying, he lied when she took his hand in her own two hands, liver-spotted and shaking, and asked if he’d been happy. “Yes,” he said. “I have.” He didn’t miss her when she died. Not much, at least, and not in the way he’d thought he might. What he missed was her voice, the lilt of a childhood spent in Virginia. In that lilt he’d heard his mother, an echo of an echo slipping away.
He gave up the elevator when he married, but he refused to sleep close to the earth. He and his wife bought a fifth-floor walkup big enough for her grandmother’s piano, which was perpetually slipping out of tune, and for his parents’ furniture, waiting in storage with the patience of the dead. He hung the red crepe dress in their closet behind some old suits. His wife was a light sleeper, and no matter how long he lay awake, he forbid himself to visit the elevator for fear of disturbing her, or, worse, her waking alone to find him gone. Soon she was pregnant, and they had a child, and another, and he knew he could never leave, never. He loved her and their daughters, and mostly it seemed like a good compromise. Sometimes, though, out by himself on a late Sunday afternoon walk, the wind’s bite and the leaden sky would leak into him and he’d feel the earth’s pressure compress his heart. When that happened, he’d lean against a lamppost, let its steel hold him up. Then, he’d close his eyes and try to remember what it felt like to be held close in that tiny capsule of air, suspended so many feet above the ground.
Cara Blue Adams’s stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Sun, The Missouri Review, Epoch, The Mississippi Review, and Narrative, which named her one of their “15 Below 30.” She is the recipient of the Kenyon Review Short Fiction Prize, judged by Alice Hoffman, and the Missouri Review Peden Prize. Other awards include fellowships and scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is the former co-editor of The Southern Review. Now, she lives in Brooklyn and is an assistant professor of creative writing at Seton Hall University.