Josh made his way on the sidewalk, side-stepping and sliding through the slow throngs of people, passing jamming buskers by. He turned left and then right, continued for two blocks, then turned right into an alleyway dotted by shop and restaurant back doors. The garbage in the containers was baking under the hot summer sun, giving the air within the alley a humid smell of decay. Josh fished out a small piece of paper from his pocket, the newspaper ad his mother had cut out for him. Her message was clear: there be a job, go get it. The directions on the ad weren’t so clear. It said to get to this alley and look for door number 23. Josh walked up and down the alley without finding the door. He started to turn back, his shirt above his nose to buffer the smell of marinating garbage, when a man called to him from door 23.
‘‘Are you the young man who called yesterday about the job?’’ The man spoke softly and did not seem bothered by the heat or the smell of the alley.
“Yeah… I mean, yes. Yes, I am, I’m Josh.” Josh felt his damp armpits getting damper as he looked at the man. The man’s short grey hair appeared dry, his suit just pressed.
‘‘Well…I didn’t expect someone so young. It’s not the most exciting job, I’m afraid.’’
“I’m… here to work, not to play, sir.”
‘‘Then you’re in the right place, Josh. I’m Paul.’’
“Pleased to meet you, si… Paul,” Josh said, offering a shaking hand.
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out.”
Josh laughed politely, nervously, in short bursts, as he weakly shook the man’s hand.
Paul turned to face and unlock door 23. The heavy metal door lumbered open to reveal a set of elevator doors behind a grille. The elevator did not budge under the weight of the two of them. The older man closed door 23, the younger heard the faint sound of a lock. The elevator door closed and a spasm passed through Josh’s shoulders when it started its descent. The younger man kept his eyes on the light bulb that lit the elevator cage; it was covered with a plastic diffuser in which a few insects had elected to die. Paul was already facing the back wall when the elevator stopped and opened to let the passengers out. He was already walking down a long corridor when Josh looked behind him and darted out of the elevator to follow.
The corridor led to an enclave where two chairs stood vigil on each side of a heavy bolted door. On one side of the room was a further door to a bathroom with a stall and a sink, on the other side was a small fridge and a coffeemaker sitting on a folding table. Next to the fridge was a bookshelf and another folding table. And nothing else. The enclave was clean concrete, grey floor and painted walls
Josh took the backpack hanging from his left shoulder off and started working the zipper. “I’ve brought my CV with me.”
‘‘Very well, but that won’t be necessary,’’ said Paul, amused. ‘‘Please, have a seat.’’
They each sat in one the chairs next to the door and Paul started talking, calmly, pleasantly. ‘‘Well, Josh, I know you must have a few questions about the job and if you’ll let me talk, I think you’ll find everything to be explained. Is that good?’’
‘‘I know the newspaper ad says something about being a clerk of sorts for a small firm, and that you don’t need experience in that field and I’d like to tell you that’s mostly true. You don’t, in fact, need any experience for this job, but the job description is a little fib. It’s not clerk work. Really, all you need to do is come here once a week and sit here.’’
“Huh? Just sit here? All day? And that’s it?”
‘‘Yes…well, there’s more to be said, but before I can say anything more to you, I need to make you sign a few documents, standard non-disclosure agreements and the like.’’
Josh stayed silent for a moment, considering Paul like a child considers the deep end of a pool.
‘‘Ah…I can see you’re apprehensive, and with good reason. I understand this is a bit overwhelming. I can’t tell you anything right now, but I want to assure you: There are absolutely no laws against this type of work. No laws.’’
Josh looked at the corridor, and then at the door, then at his hands on his laps.
‘‘You can always back out after your first day. I will personally talk to my employer and we’ll get you free of anything you’ve signed.’’
Josh remained silent, his gaze landing on everything in the room except Paul.
‘‘Josh, you haven’t left. You’re free to go, but you haven’t left. As I said, you can always leave after your first day. And that would be a twenty-five hundred dollar payday.’’
Josh’s eyes were finally on Paul.
‘‘Yes, the pay is twenty-five hundred a day with a day of work every week.’’
“Even for just my first day?”
‘‘Of course, no pressure, do you want to take a look at the contracts now?’’
Paul produced an envelope containing neatly folded documents from his inside breast pocket. The younger man unfolded them, but he didn’t read them, his mind was elsewhere…
The night before he had crossed the vestibule into the living room of his parents’ home, trying to get up the stairs. “How’d it go?” asked his mother, darting out of the kitchen before he could climb the first step.
“Yes, Josh, how’d it go? You gave all your CVs out, right?” His dad hadn’t moved his eyes from the football game on TV.
“Yeah, I did.”
“All of them?”
“See,” his mother interjected, “he’ll be getting plenty of callbacks. Just you wait.”
“I guess,” Josh climbed the first two steps and was about to put his foot on the third.
“Wait a minute, son, you guess? Did you or did you not give out all of them?”
“I did! It’s just…”
“Just what, Josh? Just what?”
“I’m not… qualified for much…”
“Come and sit down.”
“Dad, it’s been a long day…”
His father muted the television and looked at Josh, tracing a trajectory for him from the stairs to the sofa. “Look, Josh, you’re twenty-two years old and you haven’t kept a job for more than two months. There’s lots of jobs out there.”
“No, Josh, no buts. I started working–”
“At twelve years old,” Josh cut him, exasperated, “ in one of the Pierre Tisseyre book warehouses and you got paid in Doc Savage books.”
“All right, it was a different time. But now there’s a lot of much easier, less physical jobs. And you quit on them.”
“Dad, the phone survey thing, it was… day in and day out, being insulted.”
“That’s nothing, I was a bouncer. Working long hours at night and being insulted by drunk idiots, and I was also a university student then. And before that, I worked at the Molson plant cleaning boxes of empties. Real stress is working night shifts on a physical job with inbred idiots who don’t care if they throw boxes of glass bottles down at you.”
“All right, honey, we get it, you worked hard all your life, but no one wants Josh to work with glass-throwing inbreds. But your dad’s right: you need a job. Right?”
“You see, he knows, he’s trying. And we’ll help him. Look on the table, Josh, there was an ad in the newspaper. It looked like something you could do, so I cut it out for you. Now, come sit boys, supper’s ready.”
Josh signed on the line. “All right, when do I start?”
‘‘Ah, it’s always so good to see a young man who’s eager to work, reminds me of myself. If that’s no trouble, we’d like you to start tomorrow at nine. The day ends at six o’clock that evening; you’ll also get to meet Mr. Stevenson. Oh, before you go, here’s an advance of two hundred dollars. It’s both a ‘welcome aboard’ gift and, well… I hope you won’t find us too old-fashioned, but this job has a certain dress code.’’
Josh looked down at his dusty loafers, beige slacks, white polo shirt. They were his neat ensemble, his job-hunting clothes, but they felt inadequate now. They felt like sweaty miner’s rags.
‘‘Oh, I’m sorry. Your clothes are quite nice, Josh. Quite nice. They’re just a little too casual. Mr. Stevenson just insists on a more formal attire. It doesn’t have to be bespoke, of course, but do find one of quality. And, besides, a quality suit should be a part of every gentleman’s wardrobe. I’ll let you go right away before stores close and I’ll see you tomorrow.’’
“See you back here at nine o’ clock?”
“That’s right! Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.”
Josh had walked the length of the corridor and entered the elevator before he realized Paul had stayed behind. He wanted to turn and call to him, but the doors had closed behind him and the elevator cage started its ascent. Door 23 required that Josh put all his weight behind it to open. He heard the faint lock again after he closed it.
Outside, the sky above the alley was a deeper shade of blue. The smell of garbage had subsided and the air had a relaxing chill to it. Josh strode back to Saint-Catherine street. On his way, he passed by places that reminded him of the job search before. Places that sold things he didn’t have the money for. To get money, you needed a job; to get a job you needed job experience, even for first jobs. Josh had been caught in that cycle: Applying at janitorial jobs he was over qualified for and paper pushing jobs he was under qualified for, jobs you needed to belong to a union for, jobs you needed to be on call back lists that prioritized people who had been on the call back list for years, jobs where your CV would be tossed in “the pile”, jobs you had to create a password-protected profile online for, jobs that hired you and then let you go just before they had to pay insurance. Josh entered a store where the cheapest suits were one hundred dollars.
The next day, his mother made him breakfast and drove him to the metro station. Josh arrived fifteen minutes early and found door 23 with ease. He didn’t have to wait long for Paul to arrive and unlock the heavy door. Once in the enclave, the pair sat in the chairs on the side of the metal door and said nothing.
“Want some coffee?”
“No, thanks, I’m alright.”
“Mr. Stevenson provides us with great coffee.” Paul took a deep sip and sighed contentedly before returning to his seat.
A few hours passed. Josh and Paul shifted in their seat at different intervals. Josh sighed a few times, but silently, not wanting to disturb Paul who sat in his chair, not bothered by the slow passing of time, a contented expression on his face. Josh rolled his thumbs, noticed the silent humming of a ventilation system. He also noticed the color of the wall, a soft, faded sort of eggshell. The soothing color contrasted with the metal door they were guarding. The door was bolted, iron and imposing. The neon lights that lit the room occasionally gave out a harsh electric sound.
Josh went to the bathroom. He didn’t need to go, it was something to do.
When he got out, Paul was standing, rolling his shoulders and neck. ‘‘I’m sorry, Josh, I should have told you to bring something to read, or a pocket video game gizmo, even if Mr. Stevenson isn’t too fond of gadgets.’’
“It’s all right, Paul, I’m good.”
‘‘Ah, you’re just being polite. Thank your mother for raising you right, but really, I’m used to it, but this job can be…well, it can be really boring. There are books in the bookshelf, a game of chess too if you want to play.’’
“That’s all right, but I don’t know how to play chess,” Josh said as he walked to the bookshelf. There were some Russian novels in their original Russian, plays by Shakespeare and the Greeks, poetry anthologies, all of them old hardbacks.
‘‘This is Mr. Stevenson’s selection,’’ said Paul, ‘‘I’m afraid it doesn’t have any contemporary works.’’
“It’s all right. I like Shakespeare well enough.”
He took Macbeth with him and sat back in his chair. The play captured his attention until Paul got up and walked to the kitchen.
‘‘Ham or turkey?’’
Josh looked up from the book and stared at Paul. In one hand he held a small bag of ham slices, in the other a small bag of turkey slices. Neither looked appetizing, but he chose turkey and got up to make himself a sandwich. Buried under a lot of mustard, the turkey didn’t bother Josh too much. Chewing jogged his mind, and the room, the whole situation, started to feel strange to him. The enclave was buried, the iron door bolted, the pay was too good.
“So what’s inside?” Josh asked, pointing at the metal door with his thumb.
‘‘Merchandise,’’ Paul swallowed a bite of sandwich before he continued. ‘‘It’s just merchandise. It arrived after you left, and Mr. Stevenson will come at the end of the day to inspect it.’’
“Ah… All right.”
‘‘Anything else you want to know? I understand all this secrecy can be overbearing at first, so ask me anything you’d like.’’
“Okay. How long have you been working for Mr. Stevenson?”
‘‘Oh, my, that… Let me see, it must’ve been… I can’t quite remember the exact year. A long time, that’s for sure. It’s a very good job, as you’ll see, if I’m still there after all these years. It’s not a hard job, not a real physical job like there used to be. I’m certain you’ll stay at Mr. Stevenson’s employ for a long, long time. Good man, Mr. Stevenson.’’
“I guess. We’ll see. It does sound good, as a job.”
Josh didn’t see himself sitting by the door for most of his life like Paul seemed to have done. Josh looked around the room again. He couldn’t see a clock anywhere. Leaning over to Paul, he asked for the time. Paul lifted his shirt sleeve to peek at his wristwatch. This was no cheap thing; Josh looked at it, at its leather band, at its finely crafted gold shell and hands.
“One o”clock. Five hours to quittin’ time. Bored already?”
Josh returned to Macbeth, but he couldn’t get into it like he had before. The ghost, the fog, the witches, the blood; in the enclave they started to become tangible, like they might start to seep out of the darkened elevator door at the end of the corridor. The bookshelf’s offerings didn’t do anything for him and he went back to sit on his chair to wait away the hours. Paul was still sitting, not trying to start a conversation, or offering to teach him chess, so Josh sat rolling his thumb.
Hours crawled, the last cup of coffee sat cold and untouched in the pot. Josh and Paul shifted in their seat at different intervals. Josh sighed a few times, not too careful not to disturb Paul who sat in his own chair, statuesque but relaxed. Josh found nothing to occupy his hands, the humming of the ventilation system and the droning buzz of the neon lights making their way deeper and deeper into his brain. He looked at the walls, getting angry at their dullness, at the bolted door, paranoid of its constant presence behind his shoulder. The neon lights buzzed, more and more, and the ventilation system hummed and hummed, gnawing at his nerves . Josh closed his eyes, trying to screen out all that noise that had nestled inside his head. It worked. For a moment, all he heard was his breathing, steady, calm, and nothing else. Nothing else than the sound of his breathing and a muffled tapping coming out of the room behind the bolted door. Tap, tap, tap. Tap-tap-tap. Josh got to his feet, eyes darting to the bolted door. Paul looked at him puzzled and half-asleep.
Tremors shot under Josh’s skin as he took one step, and then another, towards the bolted door. He stuck his ear to the door, listening, ignoring Paul’s quizzical looks. From beyond the door: tap-bang-thumping, energetic and erratic. Josh’s knuckles rapped on the door and the response from the other side was frantic. Something was on the other side.
“Hey!” Josh called to the other side.
“Can you hear me?!”
“HEY!” Again he called to the other side and waited, his hear stuck to the cold metal of the bolted door. There was no response, just loud tapping. He turned to Paul who was now looking at him, patiently waiting for him to speak.
“What’s on the other side?!”
‘‘Now Josh, please remain calm.’’
“Calm? What the fuck you mean? There’s something on the other side! There’s… Oh shit… ARE THERE PEOPLE ON THE OTHER SIDE?”
‘‘I can assure you that you are making a mountain out of a molehill. There is nothing sinister about our work. Young man, there are no laws we are breaking, no legal framework through which this could be prosecuted. Mr. Stevenson simply has…exotic culinary tastes and, really, so what if he chooses to import his favourite food by bypassing a customs system that would not know what to make of it? All there is beyond this door is a specific breed of hog from Mongolia. Tell me, do you hear anything resembling a human voice?”
The tapping grew fainter and whatever else there was to hear stopped. “No,” Josh admitted, the syllable fighting its way out of grinding teeth and irregular, panicked breaths.
“Now, I’ll forgive your outburst just then, chalk it up to the anxiety of a first day at a new job, but you really must get a hold of yourself.’’
His heart racing still, Josh started breathing steadily again, the shaking of his hands abating ever so slightly. Light headed, he shambled to the bathroom to splash some water in his face. After a few moments, Paul knocked on the bathroom door with a paper cup in his hand.
‘‘Here, get yourself a drink of water.’’
Josh took the cup and closed the bathroom door behind him. The water from the tap had something of a light salty taste, Josh only noticed after the fifth consecutive drink. When he came back to his chair, he sipped the water slowly. The walls were not soothing anymore, they were shifting. The corridor and the elevator drew back further and further away. Every so often, Josh heard more tapping from behind the door. Paul would smile slightly at him whenever Josh would turn to look at the older man but eventually he stopped, becoming increasingly bothered by the young man’s anxious, jumpy looks. With every new look, Josh saw more and more of Paul’s age. The slight crow’s feet and lip curls, the wrinkles, the veins and bones showing through the skin of his hands, the deep grey of his hair. Eyes that first seemed full of life were now sunken deep in their sockets
Stillness permeated the following hour and Josh was roused by the sound of the elevator doors opening. Dulled by neon lighting, he saw the figure emerging from the elevator creeping through the shadows of the corridor. A slouching old man, whose head stuck out of his threadbare black overcoat like the head of a vulture sticks out of its drab plumage. That head: A skull wearing ill-fitting dangling sheets of skin without a single hair between them, a crooked nose that veered to the left, pointy and wrinkled cauliflower ears, a toothless grin outlined by chapped lips and small copper eyes nestled at the bottom of deep sockets. The man walked slowly, clutching a gnarled cane with his veiny, pale, long-fingered hands.
“Mr. Stevenson, welcome.” Paul was standing, treating the old man with poise and reverence. Josh stood as well, but it was too late, the man’s eyes were already on him. Such little eyes, and yet they looked at all of Josh with one hateful gander. Josh’s stomach churned, his heart stopped, his spine shook as if responding to a sudden chill. His limbs wanted to shake but didn’t, couldn’t, they were frozen. They felt cold.
‘‘This is Josh, Mr. Stevenson, the new hire.’’
The hatred in Mr. Stevenson’s eyes gave way to something a little more pleasant, but still cruel and sharp. He took a few small steps toward Josh and uttered something that Josh couldn’t understand. It was either in a foreign language or too mangled by Mr. Stevenson’s flapping gums.
“It’s my first day, yes, and it’s going fine, sir.”
The old man seemed pleased enough by his response. His head turned to Paul who nodded and unlocked the bolted door with a key Mr. Stevenson gave him. The key was round with many types of cuts along its length and a chip on its tip. An electronic beeping was heard along with the sound of pins being tumbled at different intervals before the trio heard the heavy bars inside the door move.
Paul needed to use both arms to make the bolted door lurch open. Josh took a step to help him, but was blocked by Mr. Stevenson’s cane. The young man saw that the other side of the door was padded with white foam cushions. All across these cushions were markings. Josh looked at the markings, trying at first to decipher their meaning, but the markings had no meaning; they were scratches. Fingernail scratches, running up and down and digging into the padded walls in groups of four. When the opening of the door was wide enough, the old man slithered inside. A whimper grew louder and shriller before the sound of wood against flesh ended them.
Josh took a step towards the door, his head peaking inside the padded room. Before Paul could grab his suit collar, the young man saw Mr. Stevenson’s black clothes grow larger and extend wider and his fingers elongate with an unearthly sound of breaking bones.
‘‘You do not want to see this, Josh, believe me. What is once seen cannot be forgotten. Please, for your sake, look away.’’
Josh jerked his shoulders, catching a final glimpse of the grotesque scene within, before Paul could turn him away to face the fridge. Josh focused on the fridge, filling his eyes on its intense whiteness, washing out any memory of a humanoid shape cowering at the old man’s approach. Trying to screen out what he was hearing: The whimpering had started again, but was snuffed by more of the unbelievable sounds of ripping, of gulping, of gorging, of laughter, of bones breaking followed by sounds of sucking, the wet sounds of something being pulled out, a savage symphony lea by a howling mad conductor. Josh stared at the fridge, trying to find the humming of the ventilation system or the buzzing of the neon lights once more. The air grew thicker with the nauseating smells and unbearable sounds. The turkey sandwich was making its way back up. Tears burned Josh’s cheeks. He closed his eyes, shutting his eyelids hard, and focused on his breathing. Breathing, breathing, sucking up all the air in the room. In his mind’s eye, the sounds coming from the padded room came into focus, animating the last glimpse he got of Mr. Stevenson: The bald old vulture with skin turning green, his clothes flowing out like dusty old wings, and with him in the room a man with a face dirty with tears and fear.
One by one the sounds coming from the padded room ceased, were ushered away by a long sigh of pleasure and fullness. Only when Josh heard the clicking of a cane against the floor did he dare open his eyes and turn his head. A stranger stood before him. Tall and slender, slicked back hair, black clothes that clung to him like firm skin, a vibrant colour under his pale cheeks, a white smile and full brown eyes. His cane hung on his arm as he walked towards Josh.
‘‘Paul’s got your money with him.’’ Mr. Stevenson’s voice was like a dagger warped in velvet . ‘‘So, what do you say, malchick? Will I see you next week?’’
Josh is doing pretty good for himself now. His father is proud of him and his mother helped him pack when he moved out. He quit university and lives comfortably, alone, in a condo in a newly-constructed tower overlooking the Lachine Canal and the poorer parts of Pointe-Saint-Charles. Every now and then, when he’s not working, or going out, wining and dining and clubbing in places reserved for those who can afford bespoke suits, he sits at his oaken desk and works on the newspaper ad he’ll need to put out when Mr. Stevenson judges him too old to guard the bolted door.
Photo Credit: Flickr