Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Urban Planning

You may remember our writer, Steven Axelrod, from his last appearance on the blog, and I am happy to present another short story excerpt from him about another couple in need. Steven has an MFA from Vermont College and has been published on Open Salon, Numero Cinq, and has had essays appear on the main Salon website. Enjoy!

Urban Planning
By Steven Axelrod

Eleanor could see immediately that it was impossible. The box spring was not going to fit up the stairs. It was a queen size and it was just too big. She had an excellent sense of spatial relations, which generally annoyed people. She could fill grocery bags or moving vans with the same gratuitous perfection, fitting an end table or a box of pancake mix into the last little jig saw gap that no one cared about but her. It was the same with parking. She had a trivial genius for it that made David crazy. Whenever she tried to help him, he would turn icy and polite. Finally he’d say, “You do it then” and get out of the car.

“I’m sure we can do this,” he was saying now, squinting up the stairs in the dim hallway light. It was a brilliant, sparkling early November afternoon outside. But not in here. The stuffy, overheated passageway felt like midnight in August. Eleanor yawned. The two moving men shifted from foot to foot awaiting orders.

“All we have to do is get it up to that first landing. Then we can flatten it out so it goes over the banister and just swing it around. What do you say, guys?”

The moving man, who seemed to be in charge, his name was Ted, nodded.

“Worth a try,” he said.

So they tried it. Eleanor could tell the corner of the box spring was going to snag on the bottom edge of the next landing, but she said nothing. Ten minutes later she was wedged against the wall with the plastic corner guard of the box spring pushing into her solar plexus.

“Just lift your corner!” David was yelling at the other moving man. ‘It’s gotta go higher!”

“It won’t go any higher, David,” Eleanor said quietly. “It’s stuck.”

He made them try again anyway, but the cumbersome piece of furniture was simply too wide for the gap between the upper landing and the wall.

“David,” she began again.

“Fine! You win. Take it down, guys.”

They eased the box spring down the stairs and stood panting in the corridor.

“If we could just get rid of this banister,” David said. He sounded serious.

“We can’t do that, David. It’s not our house.”

“Obviously. I’m just saying -- wait a second. Okay, I’ve got it. What we have to do is -- we have to take it up vertically. What d’ya say guys? You think that would work? We just walk it straight up the stairs. It should go around that corner no problem.”

Why couldn’t he see that it was too tall? It seemed so obvious.

“Maybe we should measure first,” Eleanor suggested.

“No need to. I can tell it’s gonna work. Just look at it. We’re golden! C’mon,” he said to the moving men. “Let’s give it a shot.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Driscoll.”

So they tried it. But there wasn’t enough clearance and the bed got stuck on the lower edge of the next landing. They tilted it, but it hit the spindles of the railing and blocked the stairs diagonally. It was jammed there and it took fifteen minutes to get it back down.

Eleanor was exhausted.

“This isn’t going to work,” she said.

It was just like architecture school. She had taken two jobs so that he could give up contracting and do his graduate work. But she had never much liked the buildings he designed. So she was ‘unsupportive’ and ‘cold’. He had abruptly decided to study engineering instead but he eventually dropped out of that program. Now she was still working two jobs and he was writing a book on twentieth century urban planning. “The big picture of how a complex, heterogeneous city fits together,” was the way he’d described the project to her.

Urban planning. She had to laugh -- he couldn’t even organize a box spring on a stairway.

“What’s so funny?,” he said.

She glanced up at him, red-faced and sweaty in his Red Sox t-shirt, leaning against the jammed box spring.

“I’m going outside for a few minutes,” she told him. “I need some air.”

“Don’t take too long. We’re gonna try to bring it in through the basement and up the back stairs.”

Outside it was bright and windy and cold. She walked toward the corner enjoying the captured moment of solitude. She stuck her hands in her pockets and wished she’d grabbed her coat.

A line of cars was waiting at the red light. When she got to the corner she heard the woman and her elderly father in the first car, arguing.

“ -- I’ve made the appointment and you have to go,” the woman was saying. “You’re sick. You need medicine. You need a doctor to write the prescription. Besides, Dr. Braden’s told you, over and over –- “

“I’m seventy-two years old and he can kiss my ass.”

The old man finished his cigarette, flicked it into the street and rolled up his window. Eleanor couldn’t hear them anymore but the light had changed anyway. The car stalled and the woman couldn’t get it started again.. There was more honking now. Someone tried to cut around the line of cars and almost had a head-on collision.

The side door opened and the old man climbed out, slamming it behind him. He was heavy set in a blue suit. He stumbled at the curb and someone tried to help him. He slapped the woman away just as his daughter climbed out of the car. She was overweight also, in unflattering slacks and a gray cardigan.

“Dad -- !”

“I’m walking.”

“But you can’t -- the Doctor said -- Dad -- !”

He turned away. She shut her door, came around the front of the car to follow him. The light was still green. The blaring of horns was continuous now. The noise stopped her. She was poised for a moment between her father’s vanishing back and her empty car. She took a few more steps.

“Dad -- ?”

But he gone.

She walked back to the car. She tried both doors but she had locked herself out. She yanked on the door and screamed “Shit shit shit shit SHIT.” She started pounding on the roof of the car, and finally she just put her head in her arms across it. The light turned red.

Eleanor stared at the scene. The locked car, the traffic -- it was a perfect little metaphor. But of course she couldn’t see it. People just don’t.

Eleanor glanced at her watch. She had been gone almost ten minutes. David would assume she’d been smoking, though she hadn’t. If there was ever a perfect time for a cigarette, she thought ruefully. She considered going back, but she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, as if she’d forgotten something.

Maybe it was something trivial, like an address scribbled on an envelope; maybe it was something huge, like some basic concept of human volition, or the simple proprietorship of her own life. The breeze stiffened, blowing the hair off her face, beating her shirt like a flag.

She took a step off the curb, walked around the car, touched the woman’s shoulder as another round of honking started up.

“Ma’m? Excuse me?”

She woman twisted around, looked up at Eleanor, wild-eyed. “What?”

“Do you belong the Automobile Club? Because – I mean …I have a card. We could call them. They could get your door open.”

Eleanor called, set up the appointment and impulsively gave the woman her card, in case the AAA guy wanted to see it, along with her business card, so the woman could have the address, to send it back. It was smart nice trusting thing to do but most of all it was something David would never have done. She could just hear his comment: “Kiss that card goodbye,” something like that.

She thought about the old man, stumping away down the street, ignoring everyone. It was possible. Would it look weak? Did she really care how it looked, the little dismissive cough David’s father would make, the sigh of vindicated contempt from David’s mother? It wasn’t like she was ever going to win them over anyway. Maybe with a grandson. She shuddered at the thought: David barking instructions during the labor, maneuvering the baby down the birth canal.

She thought about his apartment – their apartment. What did she have there? Clothes, but she could come back for them, Books, but David could keep them. There was nothing else she really cared about, pots and pans, rugs and couches, nothing essential, just a lot of junk, just – accumulation.

She took out a cigarette, lit it and drew the smoke deep into her lungs. Then she turned and started walking, away from the cramped stairwell and the jammed box-spring and her waiting fiancée, into the sharp autumn morning and the bright conspiratorial streets of Boston, never once looking back.


  1. Great imagery and pacing. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Great story - painfully real. It's the little details (plastic corner guard, his Red Sox t-shirt, etc) that really got me.