What always surprises me, even now on what will be my last time, is the quiet.
When we climb aboard and the cool brass elevator doors close on the marble atrium where we report for our next assignments, the one we hope is the One, they don’t whoosh or shoop. There’s no swell of harp strings or inspiring Muzak pumping through speakers. There are no speakers. You hear only the harmonized breaths of you and Eternity. You don’t even hear the other souls aboard.
Right there in front, next to the door, you see the spectrum of buttons under a placard that reads, “Find Happiness.” Bottom to top, they’re arrayed Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange and Red – primary color chips of a rainbow for those of us who’ve tripped on one once …or even four times.
This is my fifth trip on this four-dimensional magical mystery ride. Well, it would be a bigger mystery if I hadn’t pushed each of those buttons except yellow on my other tries here in the Happy Box. Four shots at happiness that all ended in something less.
It’s not the elevator’s fault, nor Management’s. We all make our own choices and I made four that I didn’t think came with the top prize, a Mega-Millions of Smiles or whatever is supposed to be waiting for you There. Happy-World, or whatever There is.
My first time, when I didn’t know any better, I started on the lowest floor, pushed Blue. I was let off in that youthful Eden, where I bumped up against Nature and Humanity with all the subtlety of a hopped-up, blindfolded linebacker in a flower shop.
But you never know when the call will come for a new assignment.
Red was bad, Green was moldy, Orange was hot and dry but ultimately a little too like Red. That leaves Yellow, doesn’t it? Yellow, the color of sunlight, illumination, the middle of it all, the mean and the median of Happiness. So here I am, looking around at the other souls on the elevator and see something in each their faces that I probably showed in my previous ups and downs in here.
That young guy there with a crewcut. His mug just oozes determination. I’d tag him for a Green. He’s got GI written all over him. Good luck pal. My Green phase included something to do with a little kid wearing a straw hat during my time in Vietnam. Or was that Okinawa?
“You okay, little guy? Your mama around? ”
All about was torn up and tropical. This little kid has absolutely no expression on his face, not fear, nor sadness, no tears. So odd. Gunfire, I hear gunfire over there.
“C’mon little guy, I’m taking you someplace safe.” Why do I remember those eyes turning wide and uniforms and an explosion of red and yellow flame? Hmmph, doesn’t matter now. Semper fi, buddy. Yep, he’s a Green.
That young one over here in the corner, the one dressed in the school uniform is blinking and shaking a little with fear. Might be her first trip. She’s definitely a Blue. My Blue phase… Jeanine, or Janet. Looking into those blue eyes on her back porch.
“Why don’t you stay with me tonight,” I remember her saying. I do.
“Aww.. I’ll be okay,” I said. “Just gonna meet the guys for a few more and then head back home. I’ll see you in the morning. I promise.”
Soft kiss, embrace, breath warm–a sigh?–on my face, a hand holding tightly to my belt. Temptation, testosterone, torment of indecision there in the porch light’s yellow glow.
Why am I remembering this so clearly? Or am I?
I recall a bar called Fillion’s and some other guys drinking as much as we were. One of them, pizza-faced prick with an accent straight out of Hempstead trips one of my guys and it’s ON. Real Red-line stuff.
I hear, “Get the fuck outta here. I’m calling the cops.” And it all rolls outside into the cold. Yeah, cold, dark, snowbanks, and the sidewalks are slippery. Sucker punch haymaker from pimple-puss levels me and I hit my head on the curb.
Streetlights hurting my eyes. They all climb into a Pontiac and peel off. I jump into my Dodge and take off after that piece of shit.
I see yellow lights behind the hazy red of the intersection, gliding sideways, and…
I shake my head and notice that middle aged woman to my right who ignored my nod of greeting feels familiar. I mean we’re all just shadows of shadows here, but I envision some hot piece I took up with in my Red or Orange time. Maybe in both. No, it was Red.
Italian girl? No, Russian, I think. I see me in a leather jacket and I feel something hard between my upper arm and chest. And secrets. I remember secret things and my photos in little books. Different languages and different colored books, And each one, a different name, like I have each time I press one of these damn buttons.
Wait, I recognize that squint-eyed expression of resentment. I recall meeting her in a bar in Moscow. A hooker? That damned testosterone again, but I’m looking for happiness even if my job is kind of dangerous. Yeah, hotel room. Pushed up against the door, my hand cupping her ass, her hand unbuttoning my shirt and her other hand…the red and yellow flash in my face from a pistol.
What the hell did I do to you, sladkaya. Yeah, sweetheart, you! Wait, I know Russian?
The elderly guy in the back, I’ve seen that aura before. Sorrow. Watch, he’ll push Orange. There are those eyes again. I’m lying down, looking up into those eyes. Definitely Italian, I’m sure. Been here a long time and it hasn’t been much fun. The flash of the welding torches and riveting. I hear clanging steel plates and watching the ships roll off the rails into the harbor.
Fights. Screaming matches with this woman. Married and Catholic. Maria or Teresa. Yeah. Mi cara, Yeah, as if.
What are all these wires and hoses? Beeping and disembodied voices. Weak, feeling weak.
I don’t like her. Something’s not right. Smell alcohol, disinfectant.
“You just don’t know enough to give up, do you?” she says.
I can’t answer. Something’s stuck in my throat. Those eyes, brown but burning, burning in my chest. Can’t breathe. Bells and horns all around, can’t breathe, gasping, no air, those eyes, angry but somewhat…not relieved, happy. Peaceful? The light again, that yellow light. I close my eyes.
The elevator doors shut again and I’m left here alone. Haven’t pushed a button yet.
“Ahem,” I hear behind me. I open my eyes and turn.
Female, look of been-there-done-that resignation on her, like she, too, had smushed the four other buttons before and was sure she was headed toward Happiness. We’ve let the others get off at their potential Edens, Nirvanas, Asgaards. We look at one another but it doesn’t feel like the first time.
“Where you been?” I asked.
“Everywhere but Yellow,” she said.
“Me, too,” I said.
She stared into my eyes like she was looking for something.
“I know exactly what you’re thinking,” she says. “You stood here just like I did and watched them all hop off. You’re never sure about what will make you happy until you’ve experienced it, do you? I remember how it was when I pushed There.”
She pointed and sighed a nice sigh, not sad or sorrowful, but really kind of a memorable exhalation of contentment. It sounded so familiar.
I put my arm around her shoulder, maybe even fatherly, and said, “We’ve been there before, I know. But what about…”
Warm, that shoulder, buzzy and fuzzy like a sweater under my touch. Familiar, definitely not fatherly.
She hugs me close and stares right into me again and this soft look that matched her sigh comes over her. We’re close enough that our chests move against one another in a harmony I hadn’t felt since..well, since..
I take her hand in mine and we nod to one another, sure we’ve made the right decision, no hesitance, no remembering yellow lights, yellow flames, yellow anything. Yellow has been staring at us all this time.
Together, we push Blue and, sure enough, we’re There again.
Only this time I’m not letting go.
Supposed to write a story in my favorite voice. Well, that could mean ten different tones on ten different days. Hard boiled, gritty city voice, romantic poet voice, Old West voice, warrior voice, kid’s voice…you get the picture. But, if push comes to shove, I’m told this is as “Joe’s voice” a story as you’ll read. It’s a mildly revised favorite of my old writing group, along with a handful of other tales I might share with the world someday. You know, when I push that blue button again.