Marta always felt gloriously pissed off after her Tuesday/Thursday morning yoga class. She knew this was not the point of yoga class. It was good to inhabit the body, and Marta was supposed to be practicing the art of attentiveness. During her final arch up from the hardwood floor, she couldn’t help but notice that her arms were certainly longer, one might even use the word lithe. She felt a lovely, tiny pond of sweat center itself in the curve of her back, rest there, cooling at the base of her spine. A woman on Marta’s right let out a deliberate sigh. She was wrapped in fabric of mustard and sage, “What is the most difficult form of yoga, do you know?” There were degrees of yoga? Marta hadn’t realized, “Not really.” “It’s just that,” the woman said, “well, this is a little low key, don’t you think?” Marta placed a small towel around her neck. The woman was asking her something. She ought to respond. “I think it’s fine,” Marta slipped on her shoes and took a long drink of water, a form of goodbye. But the woman waited for her and walked Marta out to the eighth floor landing. “I always take the stairs,” the woman said. So did Marta. Everyone did, for the cardio and their glutes. But today Marta saw an old elevator and wondered why she had never noticed it before. The gilded door seemed eager and relevant, like an artifact just now discovered. Marta pressed the word “DOWN”, turned to the woman and lied, “I must have strained something.” “Well, I won’t be here Thursday,” the woman called out. And then, “Too easy for me!” (in a stage whisper.) “Goodbye then,” Marta said as she stepped aboard, “and good luck.” Inside, Marta pushed the number “1” and leaned against the thick brass rail behind her. The woman waved, Marta waved back, the solid doors closed. The elevator car had been beautiful once. Worn scarlet brocade dressed the four walls and Marta touched one of the large covered buttons. Looking up she saw half of her face in the mirrored ceiling, spliced by the cut and design. But there she was (part of her anyway) framed by a circle of yellow lights. She didn’t look bad. The motor above the elevator car engaged. Marta was sure to have just enough time for a shower and coffee before beginning work, and this fact pleased her. She no longer found her routine confining. Regarding work, Marta had resolved that an average person should not expect pleasure or integrity in an average day.
Marta liked to remember getting high with her favorite lab partner for a few months during graduate school. They usually had sex afterward. She had loved him for a time, and he had tried his best to know her. Him: What would you do if you could do anything at all? Her: You mean, for my job? Him: That’s not what I asked, Marta, but go ahead, for your job. Her: What did you ask? Can you repeat the question? Him: It’s not an oral exam, Marta. What would you do, if you could do anything? Her: I’ve never thought about it. I don’t know. What about you? Him: I would hold my breath and excavate Atlantis. Her: Something like that? You mean imaginary things? Him: Jeez, Marta. You’re making me so sad. He had gone to Memphis to lead research at St. Jude’s in cord-blood stem cell use for the treatment of childhood leukemia. Marta had stayed in St. Paul to work as a chemist at 3M for the advancement and improvement of adhesive materials. Marta wished that she, too, possessed the fortitude for such unabashed goodness. She had tried volunteering as a Guardian Ad Litum in family court. It was her job to think of the children but she found that she could not sleep at night, thinking of them. She had to quit before she grew irrevocably ashamed of her many comforts. Sometimes it was useful to pretend that her job was only temporary. Other times it was necessary to engage the imagination. An element was nothing if not an ancient thing, hidden but permanent. Wasn’t it old Empedocles who said it? Every object (yoga mat, Scotch Tape, Marta) was made up of just four elements: earth, air, fire, water. Marta’s own work as a chemist, then, was rather like a form of elemental archeology. Most great discoveries were not made by endeavor, but by accident. Even Dr. Harry Coover had discovered “Superglue” by mistake. (It had only taken the man sixteen years to realize what he had.) A person really just had to keep on. And pay attention. This very elevator, here, was going about its work. Unchangeable physics, the principle of weight and counterweights were the only things holding her up, and the very things promising to bring Marta safely to the ground. This elevator ride might serve as an affirmation of Marta’s circumstance: her home in St. Paul, yoga on days beginning with a “t,” her work for the last fourteen years. On six the elevator stopped so that a man and woman could board. Marta chided herself for assuming that she might enjoy a solitary ride, and cursed the frequency of her self-induced disappointments. The man and woman were each dressed for their particular form of work. The woman wore a pale blue skirt and matching jacket, along with real panty hose. An administrative assistant. The man’s coveralls could make him a custodian or possibly an electrician. “Oh, hello there,” the assistant said. Marta backed-up and nodded a greeting. “Good morning,” the man said to both of them. The assistant replied by pressing the “1” button (it was already lit) with five insistent pokes. “Come on, come on,” she said to the door. “Cigarette break,” she told Marta, (as if in confidence) “only fifteen minutes.” The assistant looked the man up and down, “Dare I ask what you’re doing here?” The man smiled. Marta noticed the rectangular patch above his left shirt pocket. It read: “Plunkett’s.” She had been wrong. “Exterminator?” Marta asked. “That’s right, ladies,” the man said, “And you don’t want to know.” “Oh, but we do,” the assistant said. Marta did not want any more details, actually. She did not want to remember the multitude of brown earwigs that had shared her first basement apartment in St. Paul. But of course that wish recalled them clearly. They wore a set of pinchers where their faces ought to have been. Legend was, the earwig had earned its name by crawling into the unsuspecting ears of sleeping humans, burrowing and digging, eventually taking up residence in the brain. Over time, they drove their host mad. A myth, debunked, naturally. But unwelcome thoughts could infest the mind, so Marta chose to sleep with her earplugs in place until she moved out. “Okay then,” the man, the exterminator, said, “Just how much rain did we get this spring, do you suppose?” “Rain, rain. We know. Plenty of it,” said the assistant. Marta knew that water was certainly not the official element of spring. That was air. She had gone camping with a lover one spring, and they had encountered an unrelenting rain. When he had tried to pitch their tent, the stakes would not take hold in the earth. What do you think, Marta? (That’s what he had said.) I saw some nice little cabins up there near the front gate. Marta had liked his neck and the smell of his hair, but she did not admire him. (Now Marta wondered why she had so quickly acquiesced. Why had she slept with him that night, and stayed with him another three months?) Nothing wrong with a couple of rookies like us moving to higher ground. “This past spring,” the exterminator told them, “is one for the record books. Let’s just put it that way. Nowhere else for them to go but up, if you know what I mean.” “What?” the assistant asked, “Who?” Marta watched the numbers above the door lighting up as the car began to carry them down. Why were they all still suspended here? Marta heard a steel cable, wrapped tight around its sheave. Then a pulley began to turn. During yoga class, she was supposed to imagine her mind where it usually lived, right behind her eyes. This she could do. But the rest was difficult work. The assistant told him, “Quit stalling, and tell us what you are after here.” “Okay then, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. So, we’ve got several reports of rats coming up through the toilets. They figure the sewers must be flooding.” “You have got to be kidding,” the assistant said. “Afraid not,” he seemed to be enjoying this. “You mean to say,” said the assistant, “that I might just sit down, only to get bitten on the backside by a rat?” He laughed. “Well, well. I never thought of that! But you really shouldn’t worry. We’re pretty sure they’ve only gotten as far as the fourth floor. Although, I wouldn’t blame the little fellow, if he wanted to meet you. After seeing your backside.” He winked, and the assistant smiled. For that she gave him a playful, gentle slap on the forearm (naughty boy!) but she let her hand rest there, just for a second. Marta had never gotten very far during the last part of yoga practice, trying to move her mind down to her heart. It was hard enough, just to remain in the body. The body contained four humors: black bile, blood, yellow bile, phlegm. The humors matched the elements: earth, air, fire, water. The elements were ancient. And what was the body? What was her body, a temple, a ruin? “So, what will you do with them, once you find them?” the assistant asked. “The rats? Oh, we know how to rout them out. Listen, I don’t know how high they’ll climb, but you’re really probably fine up there near the top.” When would they finally reach the ground? She tried to imagine being a rat, traversing the brackish waterways under the city, the rising tide, finding her way in the dark to the network of pipes beneath them now. Who could have predicted such a distance? Marta could return, on her own, to that final exercise. She had to be getting close. The assistant had a soft pack of “Camel Lights” in her hand, ready to go. She asked the exterminator, “Smoke?” “No thanks, but I’d love to join you when we get outside,” he said. The next step for Marta was to close her eyes, turn her mind into an elevator car, and push it all the way to the back of her head. In the end, the body could not be avoided. (Mind. Eyes. Car. Yes.) Marta knew that much. (Elevator. Mind. Car. Yes.) Her spine. Her spine could be a functioning elevator shaft. (Spine? Spine. Shaft. Yes.) She could move her mind down, she could. (Down. Down. Down. Down.) She could move her mind down, through every element, down. (Now, move, mind, move!) And there she was. (There she was!) Closing in on her heart.
When Marta opened her eyes, she felt the elevator car set down. The doors opened, and the exterminator gestured grandly with his arm. “After you,” he said. Marta saw the assistant step across the threshold like a maiden. The exterminator reached out to her and the two of them moved forward, arm in arm, as the spring air pressed against the heat of their luminous skin.
-- Beth Mayer’s fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Sun Magazine, Midway Journal, New Writing from the Midwest (Ohio University-Swallow Press), American Fiction 13 (New Rivers Press), and elsewhere. Beth is a Loft Mentor Series Winner in Fiction for 2015-16 and received Honorable Mention distinction in 2014-15. Her short story collection was named a 2015 finalist for the Many Voices Project with New Rivers Press. Beth holds an MFA from Hamline University and coordinates the Creative Writing Certificate at Century College. She currently serves as a fiction editor with Redbird Chapbooks, and lives in Minneapolis/St. Paul.