THE HOLDING ROOM
BY RALSTON OVERTON
The fact that you are reading this is remarkable. You are not expected to read this. That you have continued reading, now deep into the second sentence, is a minor miracle. It is equivalent to plunging from a seat atop a telephone pole and surviving unharmed, or pouring the steaming contents of a coffee mug, without spilling a drop, into a contact lens. Or something like that. Let it be known that those who continue are not expected to read for more than ninety seconds. It is a matter of fact. I have been told by he who facilitates the telling of this story that very few read for more than a minute. If you have read this far, let it also be known that I knew that the third sentence above referred to itself as the second. Perhaps this baited hook will pull you deeper into the story, a curving nail through the lip, yanking the hesitant reader from the welcoming fact above to the moralizing exit far below. For those with considerable patience, I offer this account, a retelling orginating in times and places from which I am now comfortably removed. For those with more than ninety seconds to spare, let me tell you about a collection of moments that have thankfully passed.
It is only important, or somewhat necessary, for you to know that I lived on the barest necessities. I appeared destitute. Some thought they knew what I may or may not have been up to. But I can say, with all the assurance of hindsight, that they fell for a smokescreen. In fact, I tended to spend entire days convincing myself that I was up to something. Now, thanks to the telescopic clarity of a few years gone, I admit that I knew not what I did. When asked how I occupied my time, however, I generally said “I am seeking employment.”
You may or may not know that the Prudential is Boston’s second tallest building: fifty-two stories, seven-hundred and nine feet tall. The John Hancock is a few feet taller, wider, and plated with mirrored glass reflecting the sky. The Prudential's exterior, however, I find unappealing—gray rectangles, some darker, all connected in a transistor-like grid. Seven-hundred and nine feet up, antennae’s reaching out higher, receiving and broadcasting.
I walked into the Prudential Center through a revolving door. Two steps into the lobby I lit a cigarette, inhaled, hid the cigarette in my cupped hand and took the escalator up to a long corridor of stores. A woman with a walkman in running gear ran up the stairs between the ascending and descending escalators. I exhaled into my jacket’s armpit. Benches along the indoor avenue. Stylish couples in leather with a few shopping bags, eating frozen yogurt from paper cups. Wagons parked in the middle of the corridor selling cellular phones and pagers. Foot-traffic on either side of the stands. An older man dawdling, trying to catch a full-thighed glimpse of the woman at the stand selling African hats and beads, Guatemalan sweaters, Dominican amber jewelry.
A female security guard in a blue suit with a badge stitched on the shoulder grabbed my arm.
“Excuse me, but smoking is prohibited in the Prudential Center. Please extinguish the cigarette.” She looked like someone who enjoyed everyday in the mall.
“Where would you like me to put it out then? Here?” I pointed to the marble floor in which I saw her reflection extending from her crosstrainers. She dragged me a few steps down the corridor toward the Food Court and snagged a plastic cup off a garbage bin.
“Here. Please extinguish here.” I rubbed the butt out in the rim of melted ice encircling the bottom of the cup.
“Smoking in the Prudential Center merits a one-hundred dollar fine.”
“Merits?” I asked, wishing I weren't smoking Marlboros.
“The fine is payable with a number of major credit cards. Are you in possession of any major credit cards? Or a debit card?” I was watching her eyes too intently. She was really rather beautiful in the eyes—faintly Hispanic.
“Credit cards? No. No major credit cards. Library card? No. Would you take my social security card and take it off what’s coming to me when I’m older?”
“I’m sorry, Sir. We can only take cash, or credit cards, major credit cards. Are you currently employed?”
“I’m currently seeking employment.”
She escorted me down the corridor. She was much shorter than me and no one seemed to notice as we strolled arm and arm through the crowd.
I could have broken free from her, fleeing, losing her in Saks Fifth Avenue, but I really enjoyed her firm grip on my forearm, and at the time couldn’t think of a more pleasant situation. I liked being detained by her. We took a right at the information booth, and another down a narrow escalator, then down another escalator in the opposite direction. She yanked a set of keys from her pocket, opened an unmarked door and took me down a hallway passing many more unmarked doors. The hallway consistently branched off and our direction frequently changed. Closed white doors lined a yellow hallway made nauseating by unencased florescent tubes.
We came to the end of a hallway. The door on the right was labeled Holding. She unlocked it and forced me inside as quickly as if catching a mouse in a tennis ball can. I gave a good show of resistance, played hard to get, her technique was excellent. She shut the door and I was trapped. A willing prisoner somewhat excited to find myself deep within the basement catacombs of the Prudential.
I turned and looked out a small window at eye level. I couldn’t see her, but then, she's so short, a window at my chest wouldn’t show the top of her head.
I knew nothing. I didn’t know her name or badge number. I only knew the penalty for public defilement of retail-area air, but not how I would pay the fine she immediately mentioned. If I could call someone they could find a few hidden dollars in my room and a jar of change which must amount to at least enough to release me.
I surveyed the confines. The walls were gray. The room seemed perfectly square, maybe twenty feet to each wall. The ceiling like glass covered with a sheet of ice. I thought we were beneath the Prudential Center but all the branching corridors must have led out from beneath the skyscraper. Maybe the corridors were laid out with the slightest upwards grade and so after several hundred steps we regained the elevation from which we descended on two escalators. Regardless of how I got here, I was locked in this gray room beneath a glass ceiling frozen over with ice.
In the farthest corner from the door stood a small table. On the table someone had neatly placed a bottle of wine, a small orange pistol, and a designer candle shaped like a beautiful blue-and-yellow striped fish. The three objects were placed perfectly on the table so that each object occupied what seemed the center of their third of the table—the bottle, the pistol, then the fish candle.
The bottle was open and maybe two glasses worth of its contents were missing. The cork was somewhat shredded, just balancing on the neck as if whoever opened it was drunk already and anxious to get drunker. I pulled the cork and peered in through the neck—pieces of cork floated in the slightly vinegary red wine. I recorked the bottle.
The orange pistol was a watergun missing the clear plastic sealing cap. The gun wasn’t loaded, not with a drop. The fish candle had a price tag on its base—a sticker announcing “On Sale $10.95.” That’s not a bad price for such a candle. The wick was still untouched by flame. The fish had a smile on its human lips.
I knew I had matches. I lit the cigarette a few steps into the Prudential with matches. But now I couldn’t even find my pack of cigarettes. All I wanted to do was light the fish candle with the matches. I couldn’t remember the security woman confiscating my cigarettes but she must have picked my jacket pocket. Perhaps when she applied pressure to my forearm leading me down to this holding room, she reached around with her free arm and took my smokes and fire. Maybe now she’s in another holding room taking a break, sipping wine, lighting a cigarette off the flickering of another candle, nervously fingering the water pistol. Maybe her pistol is full. With glass of wine scooped in hand, cigarette at a languid angle, perhaps she takes five paces, turns, locks the candle flame into the plastic crosshairs, and releases a continuous streaming assault on the wick.
I have no glass for the wine, no water for the pistol, no match for the candle . . . how can I seduce the security woman with neither content, container, nor flame? Why am I setting out to win her over? Because she took control? Dug her nails into my jacket almost to the skin? Because she left me in isolation with some variation on the round-peg, square-hole puzzle? When she comes back I’ll beg her for a pair of wine glasses, my matches for the candle. I’ll split my veins. Spill blood directly into the pistol and let her take aim—and there, submission, there, as the light fades through the icy glass ceiling, I’ll call her by name as she . . . with perfect vision and aim . . .
I looked to the window in the door. The eyes and crown of a man’s head were watching me. His eyes were older and fixed with alarm. The doorknob jiggled but must have been locked. I stepped to the door. His eyes widened. He disappeared. Nothing was in the hallway within my line of sight. Perhaps he stood just to the side of the window, or crouched beneath. A few minutes later, the room which was barely lit by a gray haze from above was in complete darkness. I sat on the floor near the door waiting, comfortably secluded, a drop in the security woman’s collection, a man sitting and waiting in the dark, no questions, no answers, not even knowing her name to concoct appropriate rhymes . . .
Every so often the doorknob shook. I figured the older man kept trying the door. Then he didn’t come back for awhile. Perhaps he thought I escaped or was set free. I sat to the side of the door, out of the little window’s sight even if the room were fully illuminated. This man—did he come to set me free or further back? Maybe he was sent with all my hidden dollars and jar of change by someone who saw my abduction. Maybe he has instructions from the security woman but cannot find the right key to the door on a ring with a thousand keys. Why this look of alarm? Is he in danger? Am I in danger? Maybe he always has that look? Maybe his job is to run a credit card through a carbon copy mechanism and he’s been pacing the halls not knowing what to do with someone who’s detained but cannot immediately pay his fine on credit. And on top of this dilemma he can’t even open the door to ask for my card, my signature, and so, he’s in alarm—afraid for his job, afraid of failing, perhaps no one has ever been detained before who could not pay?
If he is the collector maybe he has to make up for those detained without credit cards. Maybe he will take out his frustrations on me when he eventually gets into this room. Then again, he could just be a janitor come to clean the room, collect not a fine, but the bottle, pistol, and fish candle. Then again perhaps he’s come with glasses, water, and matches. There’s no reason to be afraid. He’s just as easily here to serve as he is to harm. Regardless he’s sent me into a fit of questions. The next jiggle of the doorknob I will stand and get a better look at this man.
No one came back for awhile. Perhaps he sat up on the otherside of the door, in the same position as myself, knees up and head between them, both of us waiting for the security woman to return and open the locked door that’s kept us from greeting each other. After all this time we’d embrace like lost brothers, or merciful father and prodigal son, our postures securing us against the impact of our meeting.
After some time with ears peeled for the slightest noise in the hallway (only hearing the running hum of the electricity in the walls and settling of ice on the glass ceiling) the doorknob jiggled. I stood, saw nothing through the window, and just as I recovered from the start of seeing no one when I expected the fine collector’s alarmed face, the door opened inward. Light from the hallway with its florescence on the brink poured into the room, back-lighting the diminutive shadow of the security woman in civilian dress. She quickly walked to the candle and lit it with a plastic lighter. Then she turned back to the door and shut it, faced me and laughed. The flame on the fish candle produced a huge shadow behind her. I remember marveling at the shadow she cast. I wanted to wrap myself in the shadow on the wall but I knew I had to deal with her first. She wore a long dress patterned with blooming red and yellow roses. Her hair spun down off her shoulders whereas before it was coiled beneath her visored cap. She drawled, “What happened to you? Seen a ghost?”
I didn’t answer. I kept one eye on her and another on her shadow and still another on the flame off the candle.
“You seen a ghost?” she repeated.
“I saw a man. But he wasn’t a ghost. He looked in the window and jiggled the knob but he wasn’t a ghost.”
“Sounds peculiar to me. There’s no man around at this hour. Everyone’s gone home to bed.”
“This was a few hours ago.”
“Who knows? Forget about him. You want some wine?”
“Do you have glasses”
“Of course I have glasses.” She produced two wine glasses and rested them on the table. “Do you now what I would like to do?”
She ran her index finger from my stomach to my chin then across my lower lip, her arm raised practically to its highest reach, “I would like to play a game with you. You’re my prisoner you know.” She laughed. “You have to play. It’s just a game of accuracy.”
The cap to the orange pistol sat like a wart on her open palm. She took the bottle and poured two glasses almost to the rim, then carefully poured a thin stream of wine into the watergun.
“You stand against this wall here, head back, arms straight out, legs shoulder-width apart. Good.”
She stood close to me as I stood there spread eagle.
“Open your mouth.”
I opened my mouth.
She turned and counted ten short paces towards the opposite wall, turned and fired a steady stream of wine out of the pistol’s nozzle straight into my mouth without staining my cheeks, chin, or neck. The wine tasted nicely. All hint of the vinegar was gone.
She held her fire. I swallowed.
“Well done!” She exclaimed. “Most turn their heads and get an earful. They lose. You, my friend, have won round one. I love a man who’ll take wine shot from ten paces. Now it’s your turn.”
She handed me the gun.
She spread her arms wide, legs angling-out beneath her dress, chin up and mouth open, “OK for the gold, come up close to me, turn ten paces, then whirl and fire, don’t aim though, you’ll stain my dress.”
The pistol was heavy with wine. I leaned my chest almost against the crown of her head. She could have pulled up my shirt and tongued out my belly-button without even the slightest stoop of her neck. But she didn’t—I turned and took five paces away, then shortened the last five realizing that another five full strides would leave me beyond the farwall. I turned and whirled as she said I should. I didn’t take aim, just fired on her, she loomed as large as she could in the candlelight, spread-eagle, standing in her dress of red and yellow roses. The stream of wine arced out of the watergun and fell puddling a good two feet in front of her. I wanted to keep firing, stepping forward until I could empty the contents into the security guard’s mouth, filling her with wine shot from point blank range, but I kept my distance. I didn’t fire again. I waited for instructions.
“Well done. You win again!”
I couldn’t help but smile. I hadn’t eaten all day and I think the wine got to me quickly.
“Now that you’ve won, we’ll celebrate with some more wine.”
She threw her arms around my hips, pressing her head deep into my stomach.
We sat on the floor, or rather, I sat with my back to the wall and she sat on my lap, with one arm around my neck, the other spinning her wine. I maintained my ease, pretending not to notice her eyes just off my flushing cheeks and her strong swaying hands on my neck.
It seems the thrill of victory is always sweeter when the parameters of competition are never set.