No one can say how the party began. Who’d have the courage to speculate? An elevator creaked, the grate clanged open, and we stepped into an impromptu gathering, a familiar experience no less enigmatic for being familiar.
We believed we might learn new indiscretions and repeat them with strangers as yet unmet, but then pulleys creaked, chains rattled, and the empty lift sank below floor level. It rose again and again and again with capacity loads, discharging its passengers onto a concrete mezzanine grooved by a rusted steel floor track. The doors themselves had long ago been removed. That lapse in security disturbed some, but most of us were relieved to have arrived at all, hardly able to contain our excitement before swaggering over a strip of useless rusted track.
The top floor an abandoned factory, the loft’s bare brick walls wept with the residue of a century’s labor. We could sense it. No one needed to speculate about that; the aroma of soured sweat and aching despair are distinct and linger. We toasted our avoidance of that hard life by throwing back rye whiskey neat; we chewed pills prescribed for disorders none of us would ever suffer.
Soot formed a black patina in the arced peaks of the lead-lined windows, glass so thick and poorly formed it distorted our vision and tinted gray the labyrinthine streets below. That quiet world lay between two arms of a languid river that parted to the north and converged again to the south. A few fools insisted they heard snow hissing into the black water, but we gave more credence to our companions who claimed they heard the groans of an abandoned pier that rose and fell and rose again with any lapping swell in the river. The creaking sound was made by taut frayed ropes thick as a man’s arm wrapped and straining at long-abandoned pylons of cracked raw wood. High above the pier, diminishing in size and brilliance with distance, dandelions of sickly bluish light lined the bridge’s span, arcing like a cat’s black back, until the darkness extinguished the last dandelion in velvet obscurity. We supposed a second iron tower must have existed at the bridge’s far end, tall above the black water in the black night, but no one claimed to have ever seen it.
Vehicles dared not move. No stars shone. No birds flew. Black as the night itself, we had no hope to spy crows. A river buoy tolled. The wind blustered. It was as if we remained suspended in a child’s snow globe, but the snow was less than pure and the child had long since been put to bed.
Dancing proved impossible. We were packed too close, the elevator never failed, and though the music became frantic, no one tried to move. Equally critical was the closeness of the air. Strong men fainted, then a woman, the reverse sequence of what most of us would have predicted.
Space sufficient to fall became a commodity to be bought and sold, the market price rising every time the elevator’s door accordioned open. Some of us assured the rest that a market would manage any shortage of air and space and time, but the market’s inefficiency left us no better than when we had arrived. We lacked any scrip, but we were able to keep accounts with a pinprick, blood, and a blank wall. Fortunes were made and lost by speculators who trafficked in space sufficient for collapse. How or when anyone fell was a matter of luck. A few of us insisted a market in good fortune might be a hedge against injustice, but when that market collapsed even the most fortunate speculators fell to the floor.
We abandoned our hope for undiscovered indiscretions. The elevator delivered ever more into the loft. What had been private sins became public. Only the most naïve chose to be scandalized.
The children suffered most, their silent overheated faces lifted in expectation of relief that never came. They seldom wept. A few of us grew indignant. Why were children among us? They drew together in a dim corner where a plan to shatter a window to vent foul air met with general approval until the glass and lead panes proved intractable.
We diminished our dread by asking, What contaminants were in snow falling through the open night? and though no answer was forthcoming or expected, the party persisted.