S H O R T S T O R Y
b y s o n d r a k e l l y - g r e e n ~ o c e a n s i d e, o r e g o n
IT'S NOT just an urban legend. There really was a window like that. I should know. I was a viewer.
First of all, the window wasn’t in Olympia like people keep saying. It was in this office building in Seattle, down by Pike Street Market.
It’d been installed in this funny narrow hallway people hardly ever used. I’ll bet most people didn’t even know it was there.
But anyway, the first viewer I know of was this salesman, Richard Harley. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in his company hated him. He’d lie, cheat, steal, step on anyone to get ahead, you know?
So one day about five years ago he’s late for a meeting, right? He’s hauling ass to get to the elevators but he looks down at his watch and sees his fly is open. So he slips into the hallway for a quick zip and there’s the window. Plain, industrial looking. Steel frame. Nothing special, you know?
Then things start to get weird because instead of the parking lot this Harley guy expects to see outside the window, there’s this massive oak tree. Then, when he squints and comes closer, he realizes it’s the exact same tree he played under as a kid down in Oregon. He can see the roof of his parents’ house in the background and his old dog Boz pissing on some rock in the foreground. Then he sees himself as a kid of around 12 or so—all serious-like—staring up at the branches and stepping over these huge gnarly roots so he can move from one side to the other.
Back in the hallway—back in real time, I guess—big Harley thinks he knows what’s coming and he doesn't like it. He doesn’t like it at all.
Then the window pans in for a close-up and his little brother Jordie comes into view. Jordie was a perennial pain in the ass as far as Harley was concerned. You know, following him everywhere, messing around with his bike, pawing through his room and breaking everything. Typical kid brother kind of stuff.
Really, the only time Harley paid any attention to him at all was when he needed a subject for his experiments, as he called them. And here I’ve gotta to say—this Harley kid was more than a little whacked. But Jordie was always game for these experiments, so long as he and Harley were together, right?
Anyway, by this time the old Harley has closed his eyes and he’s trying to back away from the glass, trying to make the whole scene go away. Now he’s sure of what’s coming. Part of him wants to run. But it’s like passing a bad accident on the highway. It’s impossible not to look.
He opens one eye. He sees a close-up of young Harley standing there with a rope and a crazy smile that shows his braces.
Then Harley totally loses it and starts yelling 'No!' to his younger self. He drops his briefcase and pounds on the glass and yells it even louder. But little Harley, still smiling, carefully wraps the noose around his little brother’s neck. The only sound is Jordie humming something that sounds like it’s coming from a long way away—all scratchy-record-like, you know? But the awful thing is how calmly he’s waiting for what comes next.
By now big Harley’s making ‘stop’ motions with his palms like some whacked-out traffic cop. His eyes are closed tight and he keeps them closed until he hears Jordie’s neck snap like a dead tree branch. He realizes he’s crying. He bumps into the wall and opens his eyes. But all he sees is what should have been there in the first place. A busy lunch-hour parking lot with the sun hitting his silver BMW.
I didn’t really know Harley, but they say he was never the same after that. Somebody told me that just before Christmas that year, he climbed up on the hood of his BMW and hung himself from a beam in his garage. You know, it’d be sad if it weren’t so twisted. I mean, we all do crazy stuff as kids, but he’d really crossed the line. Still, having to live with something like that all those years…
But for the next viewer it was nothing like that. She was this business woman. I can never remember her name. But anyway, she’s new to the building, right? And she thinks the hallway might be a short cut to the elevators. So she comes blasting by the window and sees a fog bank she figures must have moved in since she got to the office. But then all of a sudden she stops, because sitting on the outside window ledge is this cat and it’s a dead ringer for the one she’d had in grade school. I mean, picture this—this crazy cat’s just calmly sitting there like some Egyptian statue or something. And even though he’s eight stories up and socked in by all that fog, his radar’s honed dead-on the Market’s fishmongers.
Like Harley’s, the woman’s briefcase hits the floor once she sees the cat’s collar and tag. She whispers his name. 'Clyde…' Not so much because she doesn’t want anybody to hear, but because the whole thing is so completely out there. Plus, she’s afraid she’ll scare him off the ledge. So anyway, Clyde rubs against the glass and looks up at her and gives a meow she can see but not hear. She drops to her knees and tries to pet him through the glass. He stands up and puts both paws on the window with a kind of expectant look, you know? Then she presses her palms to the window and she can feel something like heat coming through and a vibration that might have been purring. Now she and her cat are eye to eye—right?—and she’s just completely blown away. Then she realizes the fog is gone and Clyde is standing on this pink and brown linoleum they’d had in the kitchen when she was a kid. She looks up and there’s her mother, ironing one of her school uniforms.
The window zooms in for a closer view. There’s a crease between her mother’s eyes as she concentrates on this one pleat. That’s how clearly she can see her. 'Mamma,' she says and when she does she feels the same sucker punch of grief that keeps sneaking up on her ever since her mother died. But her mother doesn’t hear her. She just turns to stir something on the stove, crosses the linoleum and moves this sheer pink curtain aside. She looks out the window. Probably, the woman thinks, still trying to stroke Clyde through the glass, she’s checking on her grade school self. She wishes she knew what day this was—what her mother’s seeing. She could be picking berries, feeding half of them to her dog Astro. Or she might be hanging by her knees on the swing set or else kneeling on the cement patio, mapping the roads of complicated cities with pastel chalk for her Matchbox cars. The woman thinks all this in one quick second because that’s how fast her mother, Clyde and the whole kitchen disappear. End of story.
Then there was this old cleaning woman who worked in the building. May Robling. As it turned out, she’s the one most viewers told their stories to. Even Harley, if you can believe that. Anyway, her viewing happened late at night. She starts to vacuum the hallway—right?—halfway realizing the parking lot isn’t lighting the carpet up like usual.
After she vacuums, she sprays the window with Windex. It’s pitch dark outside. She’s just beginning to wonder why when the dark becomes what looks like red carpeting and then the carpet forms an aisle and she can see all these people she knew once seated on both sides of it. This time it’s a bottle of Windex that hits the floor, because she realizes she’s seeing her own wedding back in 1940-something. She can’t believe it, but there she is, standing in front of the altar in her secondhand wedding dress. Her husband, who’s about to become a Pearl Harbor casualty, is facing her and stumbling over their wedding vows.
She’s young. She just can’t get over the fact she’d ever been that young. She’s got on this lacy hoop skirt and her long veil, which for some reason she grabbed from the hall closet the night her house burned down. But here it’s fresh and new and her face, as she looks up at him, is unlined and sort of glows from inside like she has a secret.
Back in the hallway the old May touches her face and runs her fingers over the wrinkles. Then she says, 'Don’t.' Her voice is all shaky like the rest of her. But she has to say it because she knows that right now, this very moment, will be the happiest they’ll ever be together. That in the short time they have before he ships out, their marriage will become its own war zone where, as she put it, the sounds of combat are replaced with silences that say a million things. Like how he’d gambled away the week’s grocery money. And how she wouldn’t experiment in bed. And how he’d started to fool around with the same women he’d had before her, not even caring enough to hide it. You get the picture.
But back at the altar, she and her new husband turn in May’s direction and head down the aisle, smiling and nodding at friends and family. She thinks how naïve they were, with so much hope behind those stupid, perfect faces. She knows how much suffering is coming and she wants to tell them, to warn them of what to do and not do. Then everything will be fine between them and her memories of them together will be good ones.
But she never gets the chance because young May and her husband are coming right down the aisle at her. She wants to hide. She shrinks back to get out of the way because young May doesn’t know she’s walking through a window and that right behind it is the lonely, bitter person she’ll become. So the glass fills with this massive bunch of lace. Nothing but lace, you know? She can hear it rustling along with their steps and their happy, clueless whispers.
'Don’t.' She says it once more. 'Don’t.' Then, suddenly, nothing.
You know, it’s kind of like Harley and his little brother. I mean, how crazy would it be to watch one of the worst mistakes of your life happen and not be able to do anything about it?
Anyway, the last viewer I know about was Sarah something. She was like eight months pregnant with her first baby when it happened. I guess the baby leans on the bladder or something, so she’s heading for the restroom for like the millionth time that day. She passes by the window and starts down the hall, but then she turns around and comes back. What’s just registered and what she sees is this massive oak tree like the one the window showed Harley. There’s this little kid playing under it, tossing acorns up in the air, trying to hit certain branches, you know, like he’s picked a few for targets. He turns away and the window zooms in. She can see his shiny blonde curls with a cowlick in back just like her husband’s. The kid starts to climb the tree but then turns, like he can hear how loud her heart’s beating. And then he’s running toward her and Sarah can see—I mean her heart knows—this is her son. She drops the purse she’s got resting on her belly and instinctively crouches down and opens her arms like she’s welcoming him to the world, you know?
May Robling, the cleaning lady, was the first one to tell me about her viewing, and the others’ too. She must have seen something in my face that told her. But thank God she did, because then I knew I wasn’t crazy. That I wasn’t the only one.
It turns out, by the way, we’d all gone back to the window like a million times, but it was just a piece of glass with nothing more to show than a parking lot.
Well, so far as viewers go I guess that leaves me. I mean there must have been others before they tore the building down. But these are the only ones I know about.
But I haven’t been holding out on you. I wanted to tell you about May and Sarah and the others first. How they saw both the past and the future so clearly. Because what I saw through the window was more like the present, I guess you’d say. So here we go…
It’s a typical Seattle Monday. Stormier though. Seagulls heading inshore, away from the storm, and wind and rain hitting our building like they want in. It’s loud. I mean it’s more like an assault than a storm, you know?
And that’s what seems so weird at first. When I walk into the hallway, it isn’t so much a feeling that something’s there but that something isn’t. Even though I’ve never been down the hall before, I can see the frame of a window I know must face the parking lot. But it’s like going underwater. There isn’t any sound. Just this funny, hollow tapping noise that couldn’t be the rain unless one raindrop keeps hitting the glass over and over at odd intervals. So as I get closer the tapping stops and I can see that outside the window there’s no rain, no parking lot, no Seattle even. Instead I see a flat green chalkboard moving slowly from side to side. I mean, it’s so close to the glass it isn’t framed by anything. But I figure that’s what it must be because I can see leftover chalk marks where things had been partially erased. But they don’t look like words exactly—more like equations. Or something in a foreign language like Chinese, where you read right to left. Or is that Japanese? I can never remember.
Anyway, I stand at the chalkboard for what seems like forever. I even reach out to touch it and my fingernail makes that scritchy noise that hits you in the spine. I’m staring at the mark I made when a woman walks by and nods to me. She looks at the chalkboard and says something about the weather. I nod back. All she sees is the parking lot through the window, which makes it even weirder.
I keep staring at this chalkboard and trying to figure out what it means. What it’s trying to tell me. It’s like between the two of us we’re having a kind of stare-down. But if we are, I lose that round because I can’t stop myself from looking down when I feel something in my hand that wasn’t there before. I didn’t realize my fists were clenched, but I open both. In my right hand there’s this chipped piece of yellow chalk about two inches long. I keep twisting and turning this thing between my fingers. It’s smooth and dry and cool and it feels like it belongs in my hand. But—and I know this sounds crazy—there’s like some sort of urgency to it. It’s hard to explain but it’s like it’s waiting for something. By the time I look back up again, the chalkboard’s gone. Instead I see the lights of Seattle all blurred by a solid sheet of rain. I hear the ferries docking out on Puget Sound and the seagulls circling and squawking. And the wind and rain start up full force like someone just turned them back on.
Anyway, that was three years ago and nothing like it’s ever happened to me before or since. Now the building’s been replaced by condos. Traffic is even crazier, what with the Market’s expansion and all. As far as the viewers go, I never did find out what happened to the woman who saw her cat Clyde and her mother. May Robling was killed in a car accident a couple years ago. I went to the funeral. Nobody else was there, really. Before that there was Harley’s suicide. And about that time, Sarah’s son was born. She had pictures of him on her desk. A cute kid with this chubby face and a cowlick that pokes up in back like it’s giving directions or something.
It’s weird, but you know, sometimes I wonder if I should’ve written something on that chalkboard. And then I wonder, if I had, would things be different now? I guess that’s something I’ll never know. But there’s one thing I do know—one thing that’s never changed.
I still have the chalk.
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