Pillbox

Paperhouse

I work in an old building downtown that has been slated for demolition at least once. The floors are all pitched at irregular angles, as if the place were once part of a motorized carnival ride that has now ground to a halt. I am very fond of it.

My favorite part of this building is the freight elevator. You have to pull on straps stapled into a pair of latticework gates to close the car. The gates appear to be homemade. Most people, after tiptoeing onto the worn boards, feel compelled to devise an escape plan. When the car starts, one expects to hear a dirge of rot and corrosion, a sound like the singer Tom Waits clearing his throat. That’s why it’s so disconcerting when the box begins to sink through the guts of this old building and is utterly silent.

When I was in elementary school, there was a substitute teacher who was legendary for her ability to intimidate. She never resorted to corporal punishment. She never had to. Her malice, flickering somewhere in the back of her eyes, purring beneath her level commands, was enough to terrorize any child of eight. The prospect of violence emanated from her like dog breath.

There was a week in late April when our regular teacher, a dowdy woman named Mrs. Michalow, whom I had once seen in the checkout line at Food Lion with a case of Diet Pepsi under her arm, had jury duty. She was going to be absent for a week. By Wednesday, the substitute had eroded the will of the entire class, rather like a steam shovel clawing out sections of a wall. On Tuesday, she had made an overweight child cry when she said, “some of us are ugly” and put her fingers on that child’s desk. On Monday, another child wept when the substitute took a library book from her and pretended to tear a page from it.

When we arrived in class on Friday, the substitute, whose name I have since forgotten, was not there. The rumor spread quickly, and it turned out to be true: She had died that morning.

Sound, when you break it down to its most basic parts, is a string of particles chafing. Like beads rubbing against one another in an angry woman’s necklace. There’s something beautiful and frightening in the unexpected absence of that friction.