ALEX WASN’T THRILLED about getting on that elevator. The Barrel Factory lofts were too upscale for his income yet full of other broke, young professionals fresh from Indiana University. Since the lazy owners were aware of their tenant’s lack of options, they’d let key air conditioning units go on the fritz. The wet heat pressed over his face as the August sun cooked the building while the building cooked them.
There was another reason he wasn’t thrilled to get on that elevator, although he couldn’t put his finger on it. It was becoming vaguely Pavlovian, almost déjà vu. The doors opened and Kevin stood alone in the center of the elevator—sweaty—in his big crimson silk shirt. Alex remembered that this happened a lot since they seemed to be on the same schedule and Kevin came up from the garage floor while he walked in the main level from the street lot.
Alex stepped inside just as the doors were beginning to close and they acknowledged each other with a nod.
Kevin’s shirt stretched across his thick build and perspiration rested on his lip. “I keep staying up later at night,” he confided abruptly, “thinking about Ashley.”
“Is your air conditioner still not working?” Alex asked.
“What?” Kevin asked. “No. It’s not working. I broke up with Ashley. She kept wearing this water bra whenever we would go out. But her boobs were already big? Can you believe that, man?”
“Can I believe what?” Alex asked.
“That’s sick, man,” Kevin said. “That’s as sick as anything. That’s as sick as having sex with a dead person.”
“I’m not sure it’s that sick,” Alex said as he fiddled with his cellphone.
“Did you start reading that novel I lent you?”
“Frankenstein? No. I’ll get to it, man.” Kevin looked away. “I made a big sale for the BP200 account—you know? that nail-gun that they use for industrial construction. I sold four hundred units. I did it because I used the perfect line with perfect timing.” He turned to smile at Alex. “I forgot I was talking to an engineer. Engineers can’t understand about having a perfect line with perfect timing.” He laughed and slapped Alex’s shoulder. “Engineer’s can’t think that way.”
The yellow light rested on the panel’s twelve. “Yes,” Alex said, talking a half step from him, keeping quiet about what he could and couldn’t do because he doubted Kevin would appreciate the discipline, patience and intricacies, the late nights with his physics books when every other sane boy was headed for the nearest bar. “It’s impossible for an engineer to be a salesman,” Alex agreed.
“Don’t worry, when we’re in our thirties, you can come work for me.”
The doors opened and they walked into the corridor. “I end up taking the BP200 home with me, sometimes. You can’t succeed without knowing your products better than the next guy.”
Kevin unlocked his door and stopped in the threshold. “Aye, you seen that incredibly hot girl that lives on our floor, yet?”
“Nope,” Alex said, digging through his pockets for his keys.
“She’s fucking hot, dude. She has her own softcore porn website. I’ve been a paying member for the past six months. Best money I ever done spent. You should check it out. Krazykatie.com with a ‘k’.”
“That’s all right,” Alex said. “I’ll take your word for it, dude.”
“Check it out. You know you’re gonna. But remember . . .” Kevin pointed at him. “She’s mine. That little bitch is all mine.”
Alex turned toward his apartment.
“Come knock on my door this Friday and we’ll drink some beers. I can’t even remember the last time we got drunk together. What was it, March?”
“I’ll stop by if I’m free,” Alex said with his back to him before walking into his apartment. He smirked at the Post-It note on the wall begging himself to purchase a fan, then stripped to his palm tree boxer shorts, hung his work clothes in the closet and tried, in futility, to get his windows open farther than the four-inch gaps which they had been stuck at for three weeks.
He turned the radio on and it played the Muse song again as the Harley motorcycles belched their accompaniment from the streets below.
The bag of lima beans from his freezer was cold to his touch. He grabbed his microcassette recorder with his other hand, rewinding to the material he’d recorded two months ago. The recorder’s tiny speaker buzzed with his voice:
Funerals depress me. Especially wakes. For my death, I’ll have something ready to ensure no one’s sad. I’ll have my wake at an amusement park with my casket displayed halfway down a waterslide. Alex’s Wacky Wake Slide. It’ll go like this, ‘Whoooa! Yes! Oh, NO! Ha-HAAA! . . . He was a good man . . . Yaaaah, whoo-hoo! All right!’
The boisterousness of his voice surprised him. He’d need to work on that bit before The Last Comic Standing tryouts in Chicago. The record button clicked as he paced and turned the bag of frozen beans over to feel the coolness of a colder spot against his forehead.
Later that night, when the heat had passed, his computer screen called to him from his bed and his legs swung to the floor as he sat up. His Internet browser didn’t recognize crazykatie with a ‘c’ but krazy with a ‘k’ worked.
He leaned forward in his chair. She had tightly curled brunette hair. Her cheeks might have been slightly fuller but her warm green eyes and smile were uniquely hers—“Karen?”
Alex looked at her face on his monitor. He had wanted to ask her out in high school but lost track of her after freshman year in college. He could swear it was her.
* * * *
The next evening, Kevin and Alex walked toward the elevators to check their mail and Kevin flipped through his letters. “Man,” Kevin said, “all credit cards. Don’t these guys know I already have at least eight of these stupid things? Hmmm,” he scratched his head, “what’s this one say?” he asked as they walked into the elevator with its doors trapping them inside. Kevin wiped his sweat and hair gel from his brow. “I’ve been working seventy hours a week, dude.” He grimaced, “Seventy hours! It sucks. All I see is work. When I go home, sometimes I feel like I’m still at work. Work. Work”—he pounded the wall—“WORK!”—and he looked down—“But it’s worth it, Alex. You know why?”
“Why?” Alex asked, flatly.
“Because money’s all that matters in America. It took me a while to realize it. Once you start bling-bling’en it, everything’s got to come your way. Even if it doesn’t want to.”
“I’m starting to realize—”
“Did you check out her website?” Kevin asked.
“What? Krazy Katie? Yah, I did, actually.”
“It’s nice, ain’t it? That girl is amazing. That website is the best part of coming home from work. She’s like a snowflake. I mean, you know, like the first snowflake you saw as a kid or something. I don’t know. I’ve tried to think of how to explain it. But you saw and you know how perfect she is. . . It’s . . . she’s perfect! She doesn’t hide things. She’s not fake about her body. I’m going to marry that little bitch.”
The doors opened. “Yah.”
In Alex’s apartment, his junk mail and stale bread fell to the floor as his chinos brushed past his kitchen trashcan and he stared at the trashcan’s over-brimming maw.
He thought about just pressing it down but decided instead to unroll a long paper towel and press it over the top. After that didn’t work, he rode the elevator to the basement garage and headed toward the dumpsters. The backs of a slender woman’s bronze legs looked firm and she wore these tight purple shorts with a garbage sack rocking near her calves.
He slowed his walk and she flung her garbage in the dumpster, turning toward him. She stared at him as she neared. His stomach felt empty, his mouth dry. Subtleties of her movements entranced him.
“Alex?” She stopped.
He flung his trash. The ring-finger of her left hand was bare.
“I’m working for a pharmaceutical company as a graphic designer!” she said. “I’ve lived here for almost two years now. How long have you been here?”
“Around seven months.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s all right. The motorcycles are kind of noisy at night.”
“I like it,” she said. “It’s good to be downtown. The bar scene bores me but they’ve got some great venues like The Patio that draw some kick-ass bands.”
They entered the elevator and she pressed the button for the main floor, turning to ask, “What floor?”
Alex glimpsed at her bare ring-finger, again. “Are you going to get your mail? I need to get mine too.” He looked at her. “You know, it’s funny, I was thinking about you yesterday.”
Karen looked at him. “What were you thinking?”
“I wondered what happened to you after college.”
“I’ve wondered about you too,” Karen said. “You feel dumb. Like once you know a person, you should always know them. But things don’t work like that.”
Alex made a convincing performance of checking his mail for the second time.
“It’s weird,” Karen said, as she entered the elevator, “We’ve been living in the same building together and this is the first time we’ve seen each other. Anyways, I saw this band, it’s called Gipple. Have you heard of it? They performed at the Patio last Friday night. Only Radiohead can match the compliment of Gipple’s mood and acoustics.”
“I think I’ve heard a Gipple song once on the radio.”
She put on a serious face. “It’s a crime to only know Gipple for their radio singles.”
“CD’s are expensive,” Alex explained. “And Best Buy is a long drive from downtown.”
“Okay, fine,” Karen said, “We’ll take care of this. Come with me to my apartment. I’ve got a burnt CD you need to borrow.”
“Okay,” Alex said and buzzed absently from her presence and thoughts of her soft, reddening lips.
The doors opened to the twelfth floor and they took a right toward an end of the corridor Alex rarely visited. This short girl with blonde hair and a plain face neared them, wearing this baggy white sweater and loose jeans that looked so uncomfortable for the un-air-conditioned hallways. She looked over Karen’s body, then Alex, then Karen again. Karen continued toward her door which was numbered 1214.
Her air conditioning wasn’t working, either, and she had an oscillating fan near her windows. Alex pointed to a canoe paddle splintered in half and nailed against her drywall.
“I hit a rock . . . It was funny. I can’t ever explain it. Trust me.”
She walked through the drywall outline of a doorframe into her bedroom as Alex entered her TV alcove and admired a picture of her on a climbing wall.
“So . . .” he touched her frame. “You do rock climbing now.”
“Yes. Love it. I’ve been doing it for three years. That picture was when I first started doing it.”
Alex met her at the doorframe of her bedroom and she held a golden CD out to him. Her right forearm ended in this cherry-red stump which seemed to sprout a thumb and two fingers, clasping the CD.
Alex’s open hand recoiled; he mumbled, “Hey—oh,” and looked away, then met her eyes, taking the CD. “Thanks.”
Karen tilted her head, looking into him. “I’m sorry. You didn’t notice when we were in the elevator?” She smiled as her small digits curled and pedaled like upside-down legs. It was a monster from some science fiction movie. How had he not noticed?
“Actually, no, I hadn’t noticed. Was there an accident?”
“Actually, yes. A motorcycle accident. It was pretty bad.” Karen neared her kitchenette counter. “I know what you’re thinking. How can I climb with this hand, right?”
“Well—” The scar where the middle and index fingers had been amputated had probably been sutured midway along the second and third metacarpus. The remaining thumb and fingers seemed to have been shortened and reattached.
“My doctor said I wouldn’t be able to get it strong enough to do real climbing. Come here.” She turned over her hand to curl her fingers upward. “Pull on them.”
Alex grasped her red fingers and felt her thick calluses as they jerked his torso forward like iron hooks. His eyes narrowed. “Wow!”
“My doctor told me not to exercise it that hard. I knew I could do it but I didn’t know it would hurt so bad.”
“Who was that blonde girl in the hallway?” Alex asked. “She looked at you like she knew you.”
“She was in an HTML class with me at IU. We studied together and the class gave me the idea for my website.”
“What kind of website?” Alex asked, watching her face.
“The kind where I take my clothes off.”
“What?” Karen wiped sweat from her brow.
Alex shrugged. “Why?”
“Medical expenses got crazy after the accident.” She glanced behind him. “I didn’t feel like declaring bankruptcy. My parents were going through a bad divorce and I didn’t feel like asking them for help. The site was fun at first but now I feel . . . I’m shutting it down after this month.”
“Does the blonde girl know about the site?”
“She’s religious. And smart and good with computers,” Karen said. “I used her advice and tips to get started. After she saw it, we started having this philosophical type of talk and it got out of hand. Next thing you know, she’s screaming because I told her I’m not sure I believe in God. She told me I had no heart and no soul.”
“People can be narrow-minded.”
Alex began walking himself out while admiring a photograph of the Rockies in her hallway. “You know,” he began, “the Museum of History is really close to here. We should go sometime.”
“Yah,” Karen said. “That would be okay, I guess. If you get the details figured out you should stop by and we could maybe go.”
Karen walked him to the edge of her front door. “Alex . . . thanks for not walking past like you didn’t know me.”
That night, Alex logged on to the Internet and typed in krazykatie.com. The entrance page was pink featuring Karen crawling over her bed in a lacy violet teddy. Her right hand was under her navy comforter.
The site offered sample pictures. She leaned over a balcony in a braless tank top with her right hand behind the banister. She arched her back over an oak folding chair with her right hand under her knee.
A crunching sound came from Kevin’s apartment, like nails driving into drywall: four or five quick cracks, then nothing, then one or two. The last two sounded almost sad.
Alex retired to his bed and a breeze came through the windows, awakening him when it had finally cooled. He shimmied with his elbows across the bed out of the sweaty spot and noticed he had pulled out his foam earplugs as he slept. The Harleys circled below, setting off car alarms and battling rival crotch rockets. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking of Karen, his Karen . . . Krazy Katie . . . with a ‘K’.
The accident and the website hadn’t changed her. That indestructible smile. She was still his in some way. Her strength and her vulnerability—he would never deserve her.
After ten minutes, he got up and paced the dark apartment, talking into his cassette recorder, imagining her watching him at The Last Comic Standing tryouts.
He recorded about an hour’s worth. Half of it seemed good—original and funny—things he cared about.
He lay down in his bed and pulled his spare pillow toward his chest, holding it. Her back would be warm—smooth. Her curly brunette hair would be everywhere—between couch cushions, under the toilet seat, splayed across his face at night.
He’d never given a girl flowers because it had seemed he could get by without the embarrassment, without the trouble.
The next day, in the elevator, Alex watched the yellow light move from one to two with Kevin craning his head forward to snoop a look at Alex’s far hand.
“What’s the flowers for?”
“Engineer’s got a date. I don’t believe it. Is she a robot?”
“Yes,” Alex lied.
“I had a dream,” Kevin said. “Dreamed I got called in to jury duty. Then, all the sudden, I’m the one who’s on trial. The jury sentences me to work twenty-four/seven for the rest of my life.” A drip of sweat traced Kevin’s pale forehead into his eye and he blotted at it with his fist. “I woke up yelling and sweating, thinking I might still be at work. I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror and I realized the jury sentenced me that way because I was born. Being born was my crime!”
“I’m not sure what you’re saying, dude.”
Kevin smirked as he stared expertly through the elevator door at something that might have been clear over in LA. “It’s two in the morning and that’s when Krazy Katie with a K really came through for me. She always does. She’s so fucking beautiful.”
“Yah, uh, Kevin? You ever noticed anything about her hands?”
“Her hands. Ever noticed any abnormalities about her hands or her fingers maybe?”
“There’s nothing wrong with her hands. I’ve seen her hands a thousand times on the screen and in the elevators and hallways. They’re perfect, just like everything else about that perfect little bitch. That little bitch is so perfect.”
Alex managed to mentally extricate himself from the elevator before the doors released him. He left his apartment door open as he hung his yellow polo in the closet and put on a dry, white T-shirt. The five daisies wrapped in green paper looked fresh enough, but were they drooping? He was no botanist, but those daisies looked thirsty. There was a green vase in a cupboard, but it was gaudy.
The thing had to be done with a vase!
He placed the flowers in the gaudy vase and poured in water, gently drying stems and petals with a paper towel. Alex set the vase on the counter, stepped back and tried taking deep breaths because he didn’t even have to do this. He examined the branching cracks in the ceiling’s white plaster before he finally walked toward the vase and out into the hallway where the blonde girl was taping something on the wall.
He looked over her shoulder. It was a flyer with what looked like a picture of Karen at a ball. Karen and her handsome date stood in front of an oak paneled wall and she rested her cherry stump and two fingers over the black lapel of her date’s tuxedo. Her date looked bored, distracted by something to the right of the camera.
The blonde looked up quickly and stepped back, turning away from him and mumbling, “Secret’s out about her hand. It’s on that Jezebel’s website, too.”
The blonde had doctored the photo with a red, MS paint ring around Karen’s hand and a leader pointing to a blowup of her small fingers pasted to the right of the picture. Alex tore down the flyer and threw it in the hallway trash. People were amazing.
He knocked on 1214 and waited and there wasn’t a soul in the hallway but someone could pass by and make a comment as he held the daisies out in front of himself like some emotional idiot. He knocked louder.
Her bare feet pressed softly against the tile behind the door. Her door opened with the adrenaline stinging his kidneys like sharp knives.
Her flushed eyes locked onto him as she held a bunt cake pan and chipped at dried cake with a frosting spreader. She looked at the daisies.
Alex held the vase out, “These are for you.”
“What?” She rubbed her eyes. “That vase?”
He wondered how long he could do this and still not look stupid.
Karen examined her crusty batter carefully. She looked to the left of Alex’s eyes, “I think you got the wrong idea.” She scratched her pan.
“Please. Take them.”
Her shining eyes turned up and darted to the left of him with an indecisive tear perched over her lower lid. “I don’t want this. I . . .” She looked at the floor. “I’m tired. I’m kind of out of it. Can you come back some other time?”
“Sure.” Alex stepped back. His heartbeats hit him. His throat dried. “Yah. Sure. That’s, ah . . . that’s no problem.”
Alex skulked back, sat down on his couch and picked up his remote to turn on his TV but he was restless so he got up again. Her rejection wasn’t fair since they were his feelings and not hers and it seemed that in order for his feelings to survive they needed to be shared—accepted—by her. His lone feeling was an illusion, but a shared feeling!—that was an allusion to something that the love police had all stored-up away from him in a magical vault to be squirreled-away only for those normal, terry-cloth-visor-wearing business majors and henna tattooed art students. His brow creased as he walked. On the entrance screen of Karen’s webpage the image the blonde had taped up in the hallway was superimposed over Karen’s crawling over the bed picture. The message ‘Nice Firewall. WHORE!’ was written over her pink background.
He stood and walked out of his bedroom with the heat throbbing through his neck and face and into his head. How did that religious zealot chick think she could let her issues get in the way of his happiness? Krazy Katie with a K, his Karen, the Karen that had been his since high school was so beautiful. He needed her softness.
He left his apartment and stormed the hallway to knock on 1214.
She opened her door, “What?”
“I’m coming in.” Their shoulders brushed as he entered.
“HEY!” she yelled.
Heat rippled off her countertops as he set the vase of flowers down in her kitchenette and the fan by the window stuck while turning, clicking like a woodpecker burrowing into the cheap plastic.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “You can’t just . . . walk in.”
He tried not to focus on the pecking sound but it pecked louder, speeding out of control. “I saw the website—”
“Everybody thinks—” she blurted.
“Listen,” he said. “I saw the website. And I’m sorry, but . . .”
“Wait,” he said. “I have to—”
“SHUT UP!” She stabbed at her door with her tiny fingers. “GET THE FUCK OUT!”
The pressing heat made Karen blurry and he squinted at the pecking fan. “Karen . . .” He walked within arm’s length. She seemed to stare at him, looking puzzled. “You’re the first girl I’ve given flowers; no one else was worth it.”
The fan hummed.
She looked at him. “What’s wrong with you?” Red blotches surfaced on her neck. She smoothed the wrinkles out of her T-shirt. Her mouth opened and froze.
He neared her and she looked down, bashfully. She stepped backward. “Wait,” she told him.
He stopped. “Sorry, I know it sounds strange. I just wanted to . . .”
“Yes. Hold you.” Alex turned and admired her broken oar. “You know, it’s a great day outside. I got the details on the Museum of History figured out.” He turned to her. “Plus, it’s good to get out of this hot building sometimes, you know?”
She appeared to daydream as the red blotches faded on her neck.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll go to the museum with you.”
Her cell phone played Stars and Stripes Forever.
“I’m gonna grab my keys and wallet,” Alex said.
Karen winced at her cell phone’s caller ID window. “Just a second.”
A voice passed through her apartment walls from the hallway.
She flipped open the phone. “Hello? What?”
A muffled voice came from the outside hallways, “Liar! YOU CUNT!” An explosion and crunching came from somewhere in the corridor.
“What? Who is this?” Karen asked.
Alex glanced back at her, walking.
Another explosion came on the heels of a crunching sound.
Karen continued, “Look . . . I don’t know what . . .”
Muffled, “I saw the website. I saw your hand. Sick!”
The door swung open, striking Alex’s forehead. He staggered and the nail gun barrel pressed against his left arm. A nail pierced the skin and muscle of the side of his arm. He groaned, swinging the door back, pulling out the bloody nail to clink on the floor tiles.
Kevin’s face was ruddy like a huge tomato and his pasty stomach hung over his white brief underwear. “Alex?” Kevin mumbled.
“Kevin? What?” Alex asked. “Kevin.”
Kevin glanced around in confusion. He looked down at his bare stomach and underwear before backing into the opposing hallway wall and dropping the nailgun. He clenched his cell phone in a tight fist. “Alex?”
“What’s wrong with you?” Alex walked into the corridor.
Karen looked over Alex’s shoulder, “What happened? Alex?”
Kevin lunged, “Her!”
Alex clenched Kevin’s shoulder, driving Kevin into the wall.
“She’s! She’s!” Kevin huffed through clenched teeth, “She’s!” He bounced off the wall and pushed Alex back, spinning around to leer, “I’m done playing our games,bitch. You move onto my floor. Make a website for my attention!”
“Alex,” Karen said, “Let’s go inside, Alex.”
Alex stooped to pick up the nail gun. He groaned.
“I won’t ask for the money back—even though that’s so stupid.” Kevin looked up at the ceiling, shaking his head, “And you’re looks in those pictures. Like you owned the world. You cripple. Pathetic you’d have to lie.”
Karen looked at Alex, “Are you hurt?”
Blood rolled over his pail fingers and soaked his white T-shirt.
She rubbed her forehead. “Jesus Christ Alex!”
“I can keep pressure—it . . .”
“Oh, like the two of you are together, like you’re a thing,” Kevin said, “And she didn’t lie to you about being so cripple.”
She pressed toward him, raising her maimed hand, “It’s here. Right here. See? For anyone interested in looking at anything other than my tits—pervert—bastard.”
Kevin lunged, drawing his clenched fist up.
“Hit me. End what you start. Do it.”
“You love it,” he jabbed his finger at her face with each word, “You, love, attention.”
“Yes,” She winced, “Love. I can’t stand how much I love it. I need it. So what? You—I couldn’t be human. I was thirteen—I had sick eyes crawling over everyplace. We’re partners. Don’t come back here, for what—for the refund?”
Kevin lowered his hand. His chest heaved. “You lie.” He turned and walked. “Every word, a lie.”
Alex propped against the wall, “I’m . . . It’s . . .”
“Let’s get inside.”
She helped him inside her apartment and they collapsed against the white door.
Alex looked in her eyes and saw that she was scared. He felt her breath on his neck as they panted.
“Alex. You’re bleeding, Alex.”
“I’m keeping pressure on it now. Nothing’s getting out.”
“I’m calling 911,” she said.
She described his injuries and gave her address with a degree of forced composure and maturity. After a few moments she got an estimated time of arrival for the police and EMTs, then she set her phone down and looked over at Alex. “I could have made you a butterfly stitch. I have the supplies but they’ll be here in fifteen minutes and they’re the professionals.”
“Yeah, that’s right: professionals. I feel kind of all right now, you know?”
“You’re not going to pass out?”
“No,” he said.
“Do you promise?” she asked.
“I promise I won’t pass out on you.”
“Alex . . .”
“Am I a bad person?”
“Karen—” He looked down at the hand she’d maimed in some speed-lust, motorcycle accident resting near his blood speckled over her floor tiles while visions of Kevin’s nailgun rampage interspersed themselves between the intimate photos of her laying on her bed, arching up her gorgeous, God-given assets for anyone in that lonely cyberscape willing to exchange credit card numerals for sensuality. “Karen, you’re trouble. But I think you’re beginning to become, my trouble.”