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Stevie Wonder in the Elevator

Humid, varsity summertime. In the Van Pelt library — chill air conditioning having tingled the skin of people coming in — an elevator full of readers were closing in behind sliding silver doors, closing in behind the petering out of hallway smalltalk, closing in on themselves and lowering their eyes. Mine may have been lowered to the t-shirt or the tan arms of a book-bearing student. Somewhere to the side of me, the eyes of another had lowered to my blouse.

“Lilac,” said a man's voice.

Startled, I suddenly knew two things. Not only had elevator etiquette just been shattered with the evocation of a pale purple blossom, but I, with my hand-me-down worn and washed, worn and washed down to a soft, smooth cotton, pale purple blouse, was implicated.

After considering a few options — a smile, a small laugh, silence — I replied,

“Or maybe lavender.”

Thus responding politely, succinctly and in the spirit of the manner in which the taboo, silence quashing conversation (as such it now was) had begun. Another purple blossom.

But then things got more serious. Deeper, in fact.

“Or violet,” said this man with the short dark beard with flecks of grey, said this man with the bright pale blue eyes. The relationship had suddenly entered a new phase and I was quickly aware not just of the many other bodies in the elevator but of what they were thinking.

“Well, hell, beyond an act of sociolinguistic swerveball, this dude is actually hitting on her, right under our noses, right in the middle of the day in the middle of the library in the middle of the freakin' elevator. Is she actually gonna fall for this weirdo?”

So what, I didn't care what they thought. I'd warmed to the theme. Swiftly I scanned my colour spectrum, my mental chromatic swatch of shades and uncommon non-primary codewords of the English language.

“Or hyacinth.”

And saying that, I knew that this unconventional game of word association was destined to be brief as there seemed to be no way either of us would mention a colour that strayed out of our stretch of the rainbow; nor would we mention the word, that clumsy old, dumb-assed college kid word, ‘purple'.

Just then, the doors edged apart and there in the open was the fourth floor where I was going to the cultural anthropology and urban education stacks. The movement of library elevator travellers stepping out of the elevator to become library aisle pacers and library chair leg scuffers took me with it. But just as I crossed the threshhold of our microcosmic metal box, the man's voice made me turn round and listen:

“What do you think Stevie Wonder would have made of that conversation?”

The doors began to close.

“I wonder,” I replied and quickly thought it all through.

I wondered about Stevie Wonder hearing pretty shades of purple behind his dark glasses, Stevie Wonder touching soft smooth cotton, Stevie Wonder breathing in the scent of pale blossoms and smelling the shoulder nudging silence of a busy elevator. I wondered about the bold, blue-eyed, bearded man in the elevator who was on his way up to the fifth floor. I wondered what books he'd be after. Was he studying? Was he teaching? What was his favourite colour? Where did he go for lunch? And I wondered whether I shouldn't have stayed on board until the next floor to find out.

And still I wonder. Every time I put on my pale purple blouse, even more washed and worn and even paler, ten and a half years on. Every time I hear the doors of a elevator slide shut and talking stops and eyes are lowered. Every time I listen to a recording of Stevie Wonder singing. I wonder about that man in the elevator, that man who said, “Lilac.” I wonder what he made of that conversation.

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