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Outage

Issue 114, Fall 2021

Girl in a Dressing Gown, 2017, by Artur Wiernicki. Courtesy the artist

A backup generator kept a single elevator functioning, but we waited twenty minutes and it only came once. And there were so many other people waiting, too—thirty-five floors worth of people. My mother had heart problems and shouldn’t have been climbing twenty-two flights of stairs, shouldn’t have been climbing any stairs at all. 

After the first two flights, she had to stop and rest. We talked to the others walking doggedly up or down, reassuring each other that it was only a power outage, which was what the hotel staff had told us. 

We kept climbing, my Converse sneakers rubbing the backs of my ankles raw. At the seventh floor, I took them off. At the tenth, we stopped and waited for the elevator. The doors opened and a group of irritated people looked at us—“Jesus H. Christ” someone muttered—and the doors closed. 

“Let’s sit for a while,” I said at the thirteenth floor. “We’re in no hurry.” We were on vacation, after all. We sat side by side, facing a room service cart and a box of Urine Off advertising itself in neon yellow. I considered checking out the leftovers, wrapping up an untouched biscuit or a neatly halved sandwich, but didn’t want to worry my mother. 

I checked my phone—it was still dead. There wasn’t any service anyway.  

We passed a bottle of water back and forth, and I tried to pour it into my mouth without touching my lips. Since my divorce, I dated the most disastrous men I could find. Jeff, my current beau, had been out of prison, where he’d spent eighteen months on a drug charge, less than a year. I wanted to know everything about prison because no matter how badly I tried to mess up my life, I would not go to prison. I wouldn’t even go to jail. He liked to tell me about his bunkmate, a murderer with whom he’d spent twenty-three hours a day, and how normal the guy was. They became fast friends—the man might have been the best friend he ever had. Did this make him a bad person? he wanted to know. Jeff didn’t visit the murderer, didn’t write him letters or send him money for commissary, and this was what made him a bad person, I thought, but didn’t say.

A couple squeezed between us, talking to each other in the low voices that people had been using for the past few hours. The man shook his head and asked if we were having fun yet. He was the second man who had asked us this. 

“A ball,” my mother said. “As soon as we get here, the lights go out.” 

“Oh, it’s your fault!” he said. “I’ve been looking for you.” He wagged his finger at us while his wife smiled politely; it was an old joke by now.

“Have y’all heard anything?” I asked. 

“The whole Northeast is out,” he said. “Parts of the Midwest and Canada, too.” 

“Canada,” my mother said. 

“It’s still up there,” the man said.

My mother wished them luck and we stood up and continued on. The higher we went, the fewer people we saw. From the eighteenth to the twenty-second floor it was just the two of us, breathing heavily and clutching the rails. 

In the room, I opened the curtains. There was still a little light out. I washed my feet in the tub where it was too dark to see the dirty water run down the drain while my mother peed. Her white t-shirt was so bright, the brightest thing in the room. She’d bought it on the street so she’d have something cooler to wear; it was thin and cheap and you could see the entire outline of her bra. Underneath it, a scar split her chest in half.

“Are you okay?” I asked. 

“I can’t believe I climbed all those floors. I never thought I’d be able to do it.”

“But you did do it. It didn’t even take us that long,” I said, though I had no idea how long it had taken us. I dried my feet on a towel and dug through my makeup bag, feeling around without any idea what I was looking for. I found a Q-tip and cleaned my ears, gathered my hair into a ponytail. 

We took our places on the double beds. Mother picked up the phone and set it back down. “There’s a dial tone,” she said. 

“So try to call somebody.”  

She leaned close and punched the numbers slowly. When she looked up at me, I asked what it was doing.  

“It doesn’t get to the ringing part. There’s just some clicking.” 

“Let me see your cell,” I said. I tried to call Aunt Suzie but it didn’t go through. Suzie had our dogs, my mother’s and mine, and I wanted an update. Suzie’s dog didn’t like my dog and sometimes my mother’s and Suzie’s ganged up on her like girls in middle school. I was also worried about my dog’s bowel movements because my aunt was lazy and didn’t walk the dogs but just let them out in her tiny backyard, which was overgrown and full of mosquitoes. 

I took off my dress and draped it over the back of a chair, stood at the floor-to-ceiling window looking down on the city in my bra and panties. I liked the little step, which made me feel important, and the idea that someone might see me. I pressed my body to the window, my forehead sticky against the glass. Other than the cars—far fewer than I’d imagined there would be—there were only a handful of dim lights here and there, other hotels that had backup generators. My brother Danny was out there somewhere. He would bring back stories and useful things. He had always been lucky, routinely finding money in the street, dating way out of his league. He’d also recently been fired from his job and spent his days smoking pot and playing video games, but my mother and I held Danny up to his former status. We needed him to be who he’d always been, even if he wasn’t that person anymore. This was just a blip, we told each other, nothing more than a transitional phase. 

“I wish he wasn’t out there all alone,” she said.

“He’s fine. He’s probably making friends. You know how he is.” 

“I know, I just feel lonely without him.” 

Since she’d been sick, she said things like this. I was the adult now: sleeping on the wipe-off hospital couch and making sure she was comfortable, slathering lotion onto her legs and back and paying her bills, or at least writing the checks. I’d never felt strong before—you needed someone weak in order to feel strong—but I did not feel strong at the moment. I didn’t know why we were here. Mother had suggested it over lasagna one night and I’d planned it at the dinner table, paying for all three tickets with my credit card. What little traveling I’d done had always felt pointless, and embarrassing in its pointlessness. People thought you should explore the world and have new experiences, but they also asked what you were doing there, why you’d come. 

There was a series of sharp raps at the door. 

“Who is it?” I asked. I looked out the peephole but couldn’t see anything, so I slipped my dress back on and opened it. There was no one there. I looked left and right and a man flashed his light in my face. 

“We’re asking everyone to leave their doors open,” he said, lowering the light to my chest. “To let the air circulate. So it doesn’t get too hot,” he explained.

“It’s already too hot,” my mother called.

“We’re not sleeping with it open,” I said. 

“No, of course not. Just until you go to sleep.” 

I wedged my brother’s suitcase into the door and asked the guy if he’d heard anything. 

“The power’s out,” he said. 

“I know, but it’s out all over—Chicago and Detroit and Canada.”

“We’re on a grid system, some archaic fucking thing, excuse my language.” He peered in at my mother. 

“Hello,” my mother said, and I looked at her in the bed, her large white stomach on display.

“So everything’s okay?” I asked, stepping into the hall. With the track lights, I could see him better: tall and light-haired, his ears slightly too large. My dress was black, my hair and eyes dark brown. I felt nearly invisible. 

“Everything’s fine.”

“Except we’re trapped here unless we want to go down twenty-two flights of stairs.”

“You could wait for the elevator.”

“We did that already,” I said. I imagined him taking my head and pressing it to his damp chest, telling me not to worry, that it wasn’t like last time.  

“What are you, a bellboy?” I asked.

“Valet.” The light hit my face and I asked if he could bring us a cot. “I don’t want to sleep with my brother if I don’t have to.” 

“Sure. I’ll have to find a key but it shouldn’t take me long.” He smiled and his teeth lit up, a straight white line. So far as I could tell he was prettier than the boys I liked, but why shouldn’t I have the pretty ones? I watched as he continued down the hall, knocking on doors without giving the people inside a chance to answer. 

“He sounded nice,” Mother said, “though I didn’t care for his language.” 

“I hope he can get us a cot. We should have called about that earlier.”

“Was he cute?” she asked.

“Big ears,” I said, and she didn’t say anything else about it. I didn’t tell my mother anything about my life because I was afraid if she knew me, she wouldn’t be able to love me anymore. And I felt bad that my brother and I were failing her at the same time—no spouses, no children, and that was the least of it. Mother had channeled her compulsions into more socially acceptable outlets: prayer and overeating, spending our father’s life insurance money on things she didn’t need. She was especially fond of statues of saints for her garden and junk jewelry that she took apart and put back together in ways that were worse than their original configurations. 

I opened my suitcase to look for a tank top and a pair of shorts. I’d had an armful of clothes ready to try on at H&M when the power went out—a number of cute tank tops included. After putting our stuff in the room, H&M was the first place we’d gone, which was another embarrassment. I decided to leave my dress on, at least until the valet guy returned. 

“Maybe he’ll bring us ice cream,” she said. 

“Who, Danny?”

“Danny or that man you were talking to.” 

“We didn’t ask for ice cream.”

“But maybe, since it’ll melt anyway, they’ll think to bring us some. I could really go for a sundae.” 

“A sundae! Like hot fudge and nuts and everything? Lady, you are pressing your luck.” She was like a child. Why had I used my vacation time to take a sick woman to New York City in August? I wished she wasn’t here and it was just Danny and me. Despite his recent status as a fuck-up, he knew how to navigate the world in a way I never had. “When will we ever see a city this dark again?” he’d asked before answering his own question, but I couldn’t have gone with him even if I hadn’t been afraid. Someone had to stay with Mother. 

I knelt at the mini-bar and called out our options: Pringles and nuts and candy bars, peanut butter crackers and cookies, Cokes and Sprites, airplane bottles of liquor. I tossed my mother a bag of Famous Amos, her favorite. 

“It’s kinda fun, huh?” she said. “Eating five-dollar cookies in a hotel room.”

I told her it was fun, but of course it wasn’t, nothing was fun. And the cookies cost seven dollars, an outrageous sum of money. Though I’d paid for the tickets, Mother was footing the hotel bill, and she could hardly afford it. My father, her husband, had not left enough money for us to enjoy much of anything in his absence. My father, her husband, had shown me where his important papers were kept, and the key to access the important papers, but they had not amounted to much in terms of actual money. 

I took a small sip of vodka and turned my head away to finish it. Then I went back to the window: the cars on the street were all taxis, spaced at intervals that reminded me of Frogger, a game I’d loved as a child. A helicopter swooped low and circled. I pressed my forehead to the glass and thought about Jeff—he still had his prison body. He and the murderer had spent hours every day working out, doing pushups and sit-ups, using cans of chili as weights. And now, even though he opened his first beer each day at 10 o’clock and didn’t go to the gym, his prison body remained intact. 

“Toss me some of those nuts,” Mother said. 

I tossed her a bag of almonds and sat in front of the mini-bar to catalogue its contents. I had a fat little light on my keychain, a Christmas present from Danny. Danny was crazy about flashlights and had about a dozen of them. He also collected binoculars and knives. Previously cumbersome, the light was now highly valuable, my most prized possession. I counted eight tiny bottles of liquor, five sodas, two small bottles of champagne, two bags of nuts, six candy bars, two short cans of Pringles, and four packages of crackers. It seemed like a lot but would be gone in a day, especially if there was nothing to do but sit around and look at each other. 

“Do you have anything in your purse?” I asked. 

“Half a muffin,” she said. “It wasn’t very fresh but I’m glad I saved it.” 

It was quiet except for the sound of her chewing and swallowing. She coughed and I went and got her a glass of water, placed it next to her on the bedside table so she wouldn’t choke. 

“I bet everyone at home knows what’s going on and we don’t even though we’re in the middle of it,” I said. “Isn’t that strange? To be in the middle of something and not know what’s happening? But I guess that’s how it always is.” 

“Hmm,” she said.

“Maybe I should go down to the lobby and see what I can find out.”

“It’s just a power outage. How many times do you have to hear it?”

“Maybe I’ll go see anyway,” I said, though I had no intention of going anywhere. I thought about the previous time I’d been in New York, the only other time. I’d been with my husband and we’d spent most of our time walking around in a daze. We drank eleven-dollar beers and ate mediocre food at communal tables. Everywhere we went, people pressed flyers into our hands. A woman crossed the street at the wrong time and a man yelled abuses at her out the window for so long that it made me cry. I imagined my maternal great-grandfather, born in the mountains of Lebanon, arriving at Ellis Island as a sixteen-year-old boy. His mother was killed on the railroad tracks soon after and he was left alone before winding up in Mississippi, where a distant cousin had offered him a job. 

My mother wanted to go to Ellis Island and find a record of her grandfather, see his name in a ledger, though it was different then. Like so many, he’d changed it to sound less foreign. 

She asked me to pray and I sat beside her. In the lobby, before the bellboys and the desk clerks told us it was only a power outage, but after a man with a hand-held radio rattled off a list of cities—Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Ontario—we’d found a spot to sit and pray. All around us, other people did the same. It was only two years after 9/11, so of course the fear was terrorism, that what had been started was now being finished. 

Mother said a few Our Fathers as I mumbled along. Then she tacked on a prayer for Danny: “Dear Lord in Heaven, please protect my son, and bring him back to us unharmed.” 

“You know what?” I asked.

“What?”

“They didn’t confiscate my lighter. I think I have a few snacks in my suitcase, too.” I dug around in the various zippered pockets, found two smashed granola bars, a bag of congealed gummy bears, and a lighter. 

I set them on the table, my contribution. 

“Give me that flashlight,” she said. I tossed it to her and she missed. I got on my hands and knees and felt around under the bed, a hairball getting stuck in my fingers. Then she went to the bathroom and I listened as she made her terrible bathroom noises. 

She returned and organized her pillows, threw the comforter off. “What time is it?” she asked. 

“I don’t know. All the phones are dead now.”

“Your father would know. He wore a watch every day of his life,” she said. “He took it off every night and put it on first thing in the morning.” Though he had been dead less than a year, she talked as if we’d already forgotten him, as if Danny and I might not recall all of the ways in which he’d made our lives miserable. I did not remember him fondly and would not be tricked into remembering him fondly because she wanted to pretend. Not long after his death, I read an essay by a poet and undertaker named Thomas Lynch, wherein he repeated the phrase “the dead don’t care.” I must have read it several times because I can quote passages from memory: “There is nothing, once you are dead, that can be done to you or for you or with you or about you that will do you any good or any harm . . .” I’d asked Mother to read it, wanted her to know that a dead man did not need our thoughts or good wishes, our kindnesses or our care any longer. 

Other than the cars—far fewer than I’d imagined there would be—there were only a handful of dim lights here and there, other hotels that had backup generators. My brother Danny was out there somewhere.

Mother slept while I counted the seconds between passing cars: seven, nine, fourteen, twelve, twenty-one, eighteen. Everything was fine, everyone tucked inside their hotel rooms and apartments and townhouses, quietly anticipating the moment when the city lit up again—how beautiful it would be, and how remarkable to have witnessed it. There were millions of us, sweating and eating junk food. 

“Hey,” the valet guy said, shining his light in the doorway. He pushed my brother’s suitcase out of the way with one foot and rolled the cot into the room. 

“Oh,” he said, “she’s asleep.” He lifted a finger to his mouth and paused. 

“It’s okay, you won’t wake her.” I directed him to put it by the window. I didn’t want to sleep so close to my brother, but I wanted to admire the darkness, wedged under a cool tight sheet.  

“Turns out they don’t have these on every floor. I had to haul it up seven flights,” he said. “My shirt’s soaked through.” 

“Oh. I’m sorry.” 

“I’m kidding. I did have to track down someone to get the key, though. That’s what took me so long.” 

I found a ten-dollar bill and put it into his hand. He was so close I could smell him, feel the heat of him. I took my hair out of its ponytail and shook my head a bit, hoping he could appreciate how long it had gotten, though of course he couldn’t appreciate such a thing, as he had no idea how short it had been. 

“They just let me off,” he said. “Would you want to come down for a drink or something? Some of my coworkers are in the bar finishing up the frozen margaritas . . . Or we could go up to the roof.”

“You know how to get on the roof?”

“Yeah, you open the door.”

“I don’t know, I probably shouldn’t leave her alone, and I need to wait for my brother. He should be back soon.”

“You’ve got to hold down the fort.”

“That’s right. I’m the holder of the fort,” I said. 

“My name’s Harrison,” he said. 

“Agatha.” 

“That name doesn’t suit you at all.”

“No?”

“You’re too pretty to be an Agatha.” 

“It means ‘good.’ I guess my mother thought it would help me in life,” I said. Then I told him that Saint Agatha was a martyr who took a vow of chastity and was tortured and killed after spurning the advances of a Roman official. I knew all about the various tortures she’d undergone, how her breasts had been cut off with pincers. As a child, I’d spent my time in mass reading about the saints, an activity that had not been discouraged. In short: virgins made pledges of chastity but men still wanted to fuck them and so they were tortured and killed and then celebrated, and this was considered fine reading for an eight-year-old. There were plenty of pictures, too. 

“I’ll come by tomorrow and check on you, see if you need anything,” he said.

“If you can find any ice cream, we’ll take it off your hands.”

His head nodded and bobbed and I wanted to touch his chest, so I did. I put my hand right on it, spreading my fingers, and leaned in close. Then I watched him put the suitcase back in the door and wave goodbye. I pulled a chair to the window to sit and think about the valet guy, but Jeff and my ex-husband got mixed in. I recalled how I’d always hated the smell of my ex’s damp towel hanging on the rack, and how careful I’d been to never let it touch mine. 

 

Mother was still asleep when Danny returned. He had his own keychain flashlight, the beam of light darting around.

“They asked us to keep the doors open until we go to sleep. To let the air circulate.”

His light went out and he knocked it against his palm. 

“What’s happening out there?” I asked. 

“Nothing, that’s what’s so weird. Times Square’s just really quiet and eerie.” 

“It’s like that here, too. Everybody whispering.”

He went to the mini-bar and flashed his light inside. “Y’all okay?” he asked. 

“I’m fine. Toss me a vodka.”

He tossed it to me and sat on the cot. “How long’s she been asleep?” 

“About an hour or so.”

“And you’ve just been sitting here thinking your deep thoughts?”

“That’s right,” I said. “All sorts of deep thoughts. And I got us a cot so we don’t have to share.”

“Good work,” he said, holding up his little bottle. 

We sat there listening to the snores of our mother, and then he told me about the bars lit up with candles and people on stoops with cases of beer, a restaurant giving away free sushi. He hadn’t said more than a few words to anyone. This disappointed me. 

“How much cash do you have on you?” he asked. “I don’t think the power’s coming back anytime soon.” 

“Why not?” 

“The whole grid’s out in the Northeast,” he said. “It’s not like there’s four houses or something. It could take days.”

“I think I have two hundred dollars,” I said. “Maybe a little more. How much do you have?”

“I’m broke.” He looked at Mother. “She make you pray a lot?”

“Just a couple of Our Fathers, nothing major.”

“I thought she only prayed to Mary. But when the shit hits the fan, you go straight to the big guy, fuck the intermediary.”

There was a soft knock and the valet guy was standing there, all of us caught in each other’s lights. 

Mother opened her eyes. “Is Danny here? Danny?”

“Yes,” I said, “he’s here.” 

“I’m back, Mom.” 

“And you’re here, too,” she said to the valet guy, as if he were a part of the family. A long-lost son being welcomed back into the fold. 

“I heard someone wanted ice cream.”

He handed the pint to Danny, who had stood and walked over to him. 

“Thanks, man,” my brother said. 

“I’m not sure what you’ll do about spoons, though. I should’ve thought of that.”

“We’ll manage,” I said, and we said thank you and goodnight and then Danny took his suitcase out of the door, closed and locked it. 

“That was nice of him. What’d you do?” 

“Nothing. He liked my name,” I said, and Mother’s face registered the alarm of someone coming out of a deep dream. 

I rifled through my suitcase again, looking for something I couldn’t name, and wondered how I would sleep in the heat, without the sound machine I used at home. I counted the long nights ahead: Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Home on Sunday in time to pick up my dog and unpack, get everything ready for the week ahead. It occurred to me that flights were being delayed or canceled, and it was possible we’d be stuck, but I didn’t let the thought linger. 

“You want some of this?” Danny asked. “It’s strawberry, your favorite.”

“No thanks,” I said, though it sounded good, so fresh and cool, and it pleased me that he knew it was my favorite.  

Danny cleaned their toothbrushes and they used the non-bristled ends, he and Mother passing the pint back and forth while I peeled the sheet off the cot and wriggled inside, kicking my feet to make room. I looked out the window at the blackness of it all. I could see some stars, but it was no starry night. There was another world out there, a world in which I wasn’t afraid, in which I left with the valet guy and went out to explore the streets of the city, or just to have a drink with his coworkers in the lobby. The two of us perched on stools or snuggled into a back booth, holding hands beneath the table. 

I thought about what it was to be a girl, and how if it went badly it would be blamed on me. I couldn’t tell the difference between pluck and foolishness and too often mixed them up, so it was safer to do nothing. 

In the story I tell of the trip, however, I do go. We don’t have sweaty, acrobatic sex; we don’t even have much fun. I wouldn’t dare make my lies too grand, to fall in love with the man or even the city, nothing so spectacular as that. I’ll tell the story many times over, just as I’ve told the other stories of my life, like the one in which I was mugged after a concert in Memphis or the time a riptide sucked me out to sea and I was nearly drowned, saved from certain death by a lifeguard who looked like a young Antonio Banderas. No matter that the guy who mugged me had the smallest knife I’d ever seen or the lifeguard who saved me was a teenager who’d had to be rescued rescuing me (which are maybe better stories?). I’ve tweaked them over the years, depending on context or crowd, until who’s to say what the truth is, until I don’t know what the truth is, but they are all just stories in the end. 





Mary Miller

Mary Miller’s most recent book, Biloxi: a Novel, was published in May. She is also the author of two collections of short stories, Big World and Always Happy Hour, as well as the novel The Last Days of California, which has been optioned for film by Amazon Studios. Her stories have appeared in the Paris Review, New Stories from the South, Norton’s Seagull Book of Stories, The Best of McSweeney’s, and American Short Fiction, among other publications.