A Multigenerational Woman
By Jenny Zheng
This piece came from something in my life. I didn’t have an ending though. What I observed were random glimpses of probably normal behavior. The plot (the hardest) eventually came, inspired from the anthology title.
An elderly lady stands idle outside my apartment building. I keep a hand firm on the cast iron door, painted blue-gray, and she does come in—I am not mistaken. I flash back a kind smile, I try. Moments later we stand facing the closed doors of an elevator. I stare stiffly at the screen above, the boxy red number it displayed, her small hairy head in my peripheral vision. I hold my breath at the stench from the garbage cans lining our esteemed lobby, which isn’t usually this unbearable in the late afternoon (on the starkest day of December no less!)—mornings are when most take out the previous day’s trash on their way to work or school.
In the elevator, I press five. The old lady reaches over, presses seven. Twice; her large index finger missing on the first try. I get an adequate view of the rolls of heavily creased fat on her fingers and their thick, no-frills nails, all yellowed and the same inch-long length. This time she catches my not-so-subtle stare, and smiles back like a struggling child, lips pulled back, corners turned down. There’s a mark on her gums. The top left. It’s large and gray. Unsettling. I’m staring. I tilt up my lips at her forehead and reorient my eyeballs back to the buttons.
The elevator feels rickety. Only then am I reminded it was broken for the past three months, fixed just last week. As normal, convenient, and regal it became, the daily elevator rides when I first moved here, normal it became when the metal junk broke, the daily climbs of five flights, reassuring myself of burnt calories, but mostly resenting the too tall steps of the stairs until my backpack was off and on my bedroom couch, after which the sense of triumph arrives, only after, and within the span of an afternoon, normal was again taking the elevator home.
Days later, I’m tasked to buy family breakfast. A young lady holds the elevator for me as I scurry down the hallway to catch the ride. I guess I owe her. Her hand firmly locks back the automated metal door, which, sensing humanity in its path, jolts and lazily slinks back.
I’m squished in the corner of the elevator, a large green laundry bag pushing me further in as the lady enters.
I flash a hopefully grateful smile. She lives in apartment fourteen. I know. The one with its door always open, located next to the elevator. It has a single bedroom, if I overheard correctly. It houses large numbers despite this.
Apartment fourteen came to my attention one late night, after flossing and brushing; with anti-aging night cream thickly slapped on, I was ready to crash, only to notice a dreadful bag of trash still hooked on my bedpost. I responsibly trudge to the dumpster on the first floor, unashamed of my hospital gown pajamas and matching pink kitty slippers. In front of apartment fourteen, a lady, fragile-looking, possibly in her thirties, stood casually smoking.
It was a terrible first impression; our building’s supposedly smoke-free and I certainly didn’t appreciate the secondhand lung damage. She looked away at the ceiling, sheepish. I approached, a blank look aggressively willed onto my face. I opted for the stairs.
The woman was gone by the time I stepped out of the elevator I rode up, the door of fourteen also closed, though the smell lingered. Tobacco smells good occasionally, a thought I immediately beat up upon realization; I could grow used to anything.
That following morning I beseeched Mother to tattle on the smoking lady to our landlord, but my family likes to stay out of trouble, as we are used to, and the hazard soon slips my mind.
The young lady, quite perky I find, not at all resembles that willowy smoker I previously encountered—her roommate, I presume.
“How long have you lived here?” she asked me with a huge smile. Very teethy. I must look extremely approachable. “A while.”
“Who are you living with?”
“Are you close?”
My sister-in-law, who told me one time when she shared the elevator with this girl from fourteen, she smelled something strange from the duffel bag that they had.
“It was like, you know the thing in hospitals, they use on dead bodies.”
And she says she knows how corpse preservative smells.
The girl has a mark in her mouth. I know from my sister-in-law’s reportings. It’s ugly.
Maybe they’re a cult. Or they all have gum disease.
After the elevator lands, I recount the conversation, triple-checking that I didn’t expose my suspicions. Then I stare at the back of the young lady, who is penguin-walking down toward the blue-gray door, lugging her giant green bag behind her. I feel guilty for my discrimination. It is unlikely she was collecting information to massacre my family with.
Before she exits the building, the lady turns back, flashing a familiar awkward grin. A black mark looks back at me.
Jenny Zheng is a college freshman planning to major in creative writing. This year, she is trying to incorporate more fantastical elements into her work.