Wednesday, January 18, 2012

43. "Mortimer's theory"

by Horace P. Sternwall

edited by Dan Leo*

illustrated by rhoda penmarq

*Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient History; Assistant Volleyball Coach, Olney Community College; editor of Say Hi to All the Gang: Collected Letters of Horace P. Sternwall, Vol.4 (1946-1950); Olney Community College Press, “The Sternwall Papers”.

click here for previous episode, here to begin at the beginning

Mortimer knew that people looked down on him.

He knew people looked down on him because he was an elevator operator.

A forty-two-year-old elevator operator.

A forty-two-year-old elevator operator who lived with his mother in a third-floor walk-up apartment down at Bleecker and the Bowery.

But Mortimer didn’t care what people thought about him. He didn’t care because he loved his job and he loved his life.

What more could a guy ask for?

Who needed a wife, or a girl friend? Mortimer had his mom to do his laundry and darn his socks for him. Not that Mortimer had anything against dames, mind you. Wasn’t his own mother a dame? And Mortimer’s mother was a saint, bringing up her seven children all alone after Mortimer’s poor overworked dad dropped dead in the rendering vat at the hot dog factory.

And now after all these years Mortimer’s brothers and sisters had all moved out and finally he had the old apartment just to himself and his mom. He would come home from work, and day or night his mom would make him a cup of hot Chase & Sanborn coffee and they would sit and listen to the radio while Mortimer read the sports pages.

Mortimer had lived his entire life in this building, in this neighborhood, and when at the age of sixteen he had applied for the trainee elevator operator’s job at the Hotel St Crispian he had never ventured farther south than the Battery, nor farther north than the southern edge of the Central Park reservoir. He had never crossed either the Hudson nor the East Rivers. He had never been on the Staten Island Ferry, nor had he ever gone out to see the Statue of Liberty up close.

Now it was twenty-six years later and Mortimer was the second most senior elevator operator at the St Crispian, second only to old Julius, who had been on the job for forty-three years now, even longer than Olaf the doorman had been at his job.

Mortimer had seen the elevator operators come and he had seen them go, so many of them over the years. Some guys just weren’t cut out to be elevator operators. In fact when Julius was training him Julius had said:

“This job ain’t as easy as it looks, kid. Not everybody can handle it. You think you got the guts to handle it?”

“Sir,” Mortimer had said, “I think I got the guts. You just give me a chance.”

And Mortimer had proved himself good for his word. Seven straight days of twelve-hour shifts in the middle of a weeklong Shriners convention was nothing to Mortimer. He was always glad of some overtime, and there was always a buck to be made on the side. Maybe somebody in the hotel wanted a favor done. Maybe a conventioneer wanted a babe, or some hop, or a tip on a poker game. Maybe a drunk would fall asleep standing up with his wallet just begging to be lifted. There was always something.

They would tell him what floor they wanted and Mortimer would pull his lever that closed the door and he would take the elevator up to the floor they wanted, only occasionally taking them to the wrong floor, and later he would take them back down to the lobby again, hardly ever landing with an uncomfortable jolt.

Mortimer liked to talk to the people.

It didn’t hurt to say, “How are you, today, sir?”

It didn’t hurt to say, “That’s a very fetching hat you got on there, miss.”

And sometimes you could tell people liked this personal touch.

After a while some of them would say to him, “How are you today, Mortimer?”

And Mortimer would tell them how he was.

“I’m okay, thank you very much, except my mom’s lumbago is acting up.”

People liked that kind of stuff.

Twenty-six years on the job, and Mortimer had still never been off the island of Manhattan, still had never been north of the southern edge of the Central Park reservoir. He had no desire to leave the island. Why should he bother when the whole world came to him, to the St Crispian, to his elevator?

And, besides which, Mortimer had a theory.

It was a crazy theory maybe, but he didn’t care.

Mortimer’s theory was that the only part of the world that really existed was Manhattan from the Battery up to about the lower end of the reservoir in Central Park.

It was a crazy idea, sure, but Mortimer’s theory was that everything on the other side of the reservoir was just something painted there the way they painted the backdrops in a show.

The Brooklyn Bridge didn’t really lead to Brooklyn because there was no Brooklyn. Brooklyn was just some clever and -- he had to admit -- very realistic painted backdrops over there on the other side of the river.

Same deal with Jersey on the other side of the Hudson.


A very well-done fake, sure, but fake, nonetheless.

He wasn’t sure about the statue of Liberty, but he was pretty sure it was fake, too.

Now some skeptics might say, sure, well, Mortimer, then where do all these people come from who say they’re from Brooklyn or New Jersey, or California, or Timbuktu for Christ’s sake, and that was a good question, but Mortimer had an answer. They were all actors. They were all paid to say they were from Brooklyn, from New Jersey, from Kalamazoo for Christ’s sake. Or maybe they weren’t paid actors, maybe they were all hypnotized. Maybe they were all robots for Christ’s sake.

There were any number of possible explanations, and one evening in the elevator Mortimer had talked it over with Mr. Flynn, Fred Flynn, the science fiction author who lived up on the seventh floor, and Mr. Flynn had come up with a few plausible possibilities himself, because after all it was his job to be imaginative. Mr. Flynn had said that all these people could merely be figments of Mortimer’s imagination, or that when they said “Brooklyn” or “New Jersey” what they really meant was a black hole in the fabric of reality. Or they could really be from outer space, and they had been sent here to observe humanity, or to observe Mortimer.

“Ah, an interesting theory, Mr. Flynn, but you see, I don’t believe in the concept of outer space, neither.”

“You don’t, Mortimer?”

“No, sir. Because the sky you see is actually just a great bowl, and all the stars and the moon at night, and the blue skies and the clouds and the sun at day are actually projections like on a movie screen.”

“I see.”

“So you must agree, Mr. Flynn, your entire theory of creatures from another planet in outer space -- clever though this theory may be -- collapses because there ain’t no other planets and there ain’t no such thing as outer space.”

“All right. But what about my ‘black hole’ theory?”

“I’m afraid your black hole theory also has a very basic flaw as I see it, Mr. Flynn. Because where exactly is this ‘black hole’ of yours located if nothing else in the universe exists except this island from the Battery up to the southern end of the rezzyvoir?”

“Okay, well, how about this, Mortimer? What if there’s another dimension, and that’s where all these people come from. Another dimension from this one, in which such places as ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘New Jersey’ exist?”

“Another dimension?”

“Yes, another state of being, entirely.”

“Now you’re talking crazy talk, Mr. Flynn.”

“You think so?”

“I know so, Mr. Flynn.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right, Mortimer.”

“No, all due respect, Mr. Flynn, I think we just gotta accept it that the entire universe extends only from the Battery up to the downtown side of the rezzyvoir. And all these people comin’ and goin’ to and from Brooklyn and Jersey and Kalamazoo, we just don’t know where they come from really, or why. Figments of our imagination? Maybe so, maybe not. We just don’t know for sure. So what we gotta do is we just gotta accept it and learn to live with it."

“Yes, you’re probably right, Mortimer.”

“Now, after we croak, then who the hell knows where we go?”

“Yes, I suppose no one really knows, Mort.”

“’The undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns.’ That’s from Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.”

“Yes, I seem to remember that line.”

“Pretty good show. All about this prince by the name of Hamlet what whose old man gets bumped off by his old lady and her boy friend. I caught it at the Demotic Theatre last year with Mr. Strongbow and Miss Wilde. Miss Wilde gave me tickets and I took my mom.”

“I heard it was an excellent production.”

“Lots of sword fights in that show. By the end of the play that stage looked like the St. Valentines’ Day massacre there was so many stiffs lyin’ around.”

“Yes, um, uh --”

“Science fiction is all well and good, Mr. Flynn. You provide a valuable service to humanity by helping poor slobs forget about their sad and boring little lives if only for the time it takes to read one of your stories in one of them magazines you write for like Amazing Stories and whatnot. But this is real life, Mr. Flynn. This is all we got. This little island, but only from the Battery up to the downtown edge of the rezzyvoir up in the park up there.”

“Yes. Well, this is my floor, Mortimer.”

“Sure. Have a nice evening, Mr. Flynn.”

Fred Flynn left the elevator and walked down the hall to his room. He let himself in, took off his coat, and went over and sat down at his typewriter. He rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the machine. He lit a cigarette. He poured himself a shot of gin. He took a sip of the gin.

He began to type: “Felix had a theory. It was a crazy theory maybe, but he didn’t care…”

44. flossie vs. hyacinth

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