49 Seconds in the Box (Third Place Marguerite McGlinn Award Winner)

Mira waits in the lobby of her building for the elevator, a canvas bag with an All Things

Considered logo over her right shoulder.   One of her neighbors, Arnie Paul, who has recently moved into the building, steps up beside her.  Also waiting is a pair of millennials who live on the third and fourth floors respectively, in condos the owners have rented out.  Both have their eyes fixed on their phones, checking messages, texting.  The elevator dings.  There is a slight pause between the signal that the car has arrived and when the door slides open.

Mira and Arnie start to enter the elevator simultaneously, playing “after you Alfonse” for a moment.  Then Mira yields and Arnie goes first.  The millennials follow her.  Arnie notices that Mira does not have her dog with her.  It is the first time Arnie has ever seen her without her Labrador snugged up against her leg.  Mira shifts the All Things Considered bag from right shoulder to left.  The bag holds the leash and collar of the missing dog, Jake.  Mira finds her spot, then stares at the floor.

Arnie pushes the button for the seventh floor, the floor on which they both live, she at 706, he at 702.  At the last minute, a man with a Roto-Rooter uniform enters.  He carries a toolbox and a drain snake.  He seems to have come from nowhere.  He chunks his toolbox onto the floor, pulls a folded up work order out of his shirt pocket, reads it, and stuffs it back in.

The door of the elevator glides shut.  There is a familiar click as the interior and exterior elevator doors disengage.  The Roto-Rooter man reaches over and pushes two.  Glancing up, Mira notices that the buttons for three, four, and seven are already pushed, but she has not seen that happen.  Arnie has pushed the seven for both of them.

As soon as the elevator starts to rise, Mira counts under her breath. She is counting backwards from forty-nine.  This is the second time she has counted down today. She is coming from the vet’s office.  The vet has cared for Jake for eleven years, ever since he was a puppy.  Dr. “Please call me Steve” Saylor, is solicitous and kind.  He sits on the linoleum floor during exams and procedures, getting down on the dog’s level, clearly a dog lover.

Mira looks at her shoes, hoping her neighbor does not talk to her.  She does not particularly like him and does not want to talk to anyone today.  Arnie has made it abundantly clear that he was not a dog lover.  Despite this, Mira feels sorry for him.  Arnie is the caretaker of his dying wife. Mira sometimes hears her moan when she passes their door on the way to her own apartment.

The five passengers ride in silence.  The whir of the motor and the winding sound of the lift cable fill the car. When Mira’s daughter comes to visit, she always complains about how long it takes for the elevator to make the climb from the ground to the top floor.  “That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back,” she says each time to her mother.  She has always been prone to exaggeration, though Mira cedes the point about the elevator’s speed.

The elevator dings as it stops at the second floor. The door opens. Mira pauses in her countdown. When Mira timed the ride years ago, she pushed start on her wristwatch timer precisely when they started to rise.  The trip clocked out at forty-nine seconds.  She checked and rechecked it a dozen times.  Since then, each time she rides she counts backwards under her breath from forty-nine, finding a kind of meditative purpose in it, her dog at heel, her hand scratching his head.  Today, waiting in the vet’s office, with Jake lying at her feet, she made a tally.  Four outings together a day, times two trips each time, one down and one up, times three hundred sixty five days a year, equals two thousand nine hundred twenty trips a year, times eleven years equals thirty two thousand, one hundred twenty trips up and down.  At forty nine seconds per trip, that’s one million five hundred seventy three thousand, eight hundred eighty seconds, divided by sixty seconds per minute equals twenty six thousand, two hundred thirty one minutes, divided by sixty is four hundred thirty seven hours, divided by twenty-four equals eighteen days.  Eighteen days of her life in forty-nine second increments.  If that isn’t proof of love, she thinks now, trying to comfort herself, but lets the thought go unfinished.

When the doors open on the second floor, the Roto-Rooter man hefts up his toolbox in a two handed, two-step move, like he is doing a clean-and-jerk, and exits.  He stands in the elevator foyer, looking down the hall.  Then the door closes.  He is gone forever, Mira thinks.  The elevator restarts. Mira resumes counting.

The elevator is a tasteful updating of the original gated freight lift that had been an advertised feature of the building when it opened as a shoe factory in 1916.  Restored during the condo conversion the year Mira bought in, it has a marble floor and a new door, but all of the sculpted brass fittings from the original have been preserved.  Having made as many trips as she has over the years, she understands her daughter’s pique; sometimes the elevator feels like it is glacially slow.  Today is such a day.  Because it was the only elevator in a building with fifty-four apartments, there are almost always other riders, and therefore multiple stops.  If it stops at every floor it can take as long as two minutes.  The car is rated for 2000 pounds, roughly the weight of six people.

Thinking of her calculations again, Mira begins to silently weep.  On her shoulder, the All

Things Considered bag is suddenly unbearably heavy.   The elevator dings as it stops at the third floor. Mira pauses in her counting. The door opens. One of the millennial kids gets off.  He never looks up from his phone, never says a word to the rest of them or acknowledges them in any way. The door closes.  The elevator starts; Mira resumes counting.

Years ago, Mira had given up engaging in the debate over whether dogs really understood language.  She knew they did.  She dismissed all the arguments against that position, from the history of the Harry the Horse case and all those false claims, to the idea that dogs only responded to tone of voice or body language and couldn’t understand words, and all of the other nonsense the unobservant or prejudicial spouted about dog understanding and response.  As far as she was concerned, anyone who claimed dogs could not understand language had never lived with one or tried to train one.

She knew her dogs understood words. Jake, the best of all of them, distinguished between them, and responded differently to different ones, no matter what tone of voice they were delivered in. Recently she had read in the Times that Finnish scientists using MRI’s on dog brains had demonstrated that trained dogs responded physiologically to words exactly the same way people did, no matter whose voice spoke them.  It pleased her to know that, under scientific scrutiny, dog brains lit up for words the same way her own brain did.  These same scientists had also demonstrated that hearing its owner’s voice made a dog’s brain light up in the same way human brains light up when they hear the voices of the ones they love.

At 71, Arnie still goes to his office for part of each day, if his wife is able to be without him. His wife, dying of breast cancer, is in home-hospice care, and cries constantly.  Now aware that Mira is silently crying, Arnie thinks ‘I am surrounded by weeping women.’  He decides not to ask Mira what’s the matter.

Arnie has been going to this same office for nearly forty-three years, a law firm that bears his name as one of the founding partners. The occasional matter he handles tends to require more hand holding of ancient clients than actual knowledge of law.  The younger partners handle the legal work now.  Though his briefcase is polished leather and looks like it contains items of importance, he is bringing it home empty except for an uneaten apple, a half full bottle of Ensure, and his keys.  These are not untypical contents.

Mira shifts the bag from her shoulder to her arms.  As she looks inside, a gasp catches audibly in her throat, causing Arnie to make momentary eye contact with her, then look away.  She could not explain why she wants to bring Jake’s gear home, or what use she could possibly have for it.

At the fourth floor, the elevator dings then stops again. Mira pauses in her counting. The door opens. The other kid gets off.  Then the elevator is empty other than Mira and Arnie.  They continue to avoid eye contact.  The door closes.  The elevator starts; Mira resumes counting.

As a child, in Reading, PA, Arnie had lived on the outskirts of town near an immense dairy farm.  The farmer had dogs, and their job was to scare off anything that came too close to the cows.  Or at least that’s how Arnie understood it.  In fact, most of the dogs on the dairy farm were herders, used to move cows from pasture to pasture when the grass in one area was eaten down to the nubs, or back to the barn for milking.  The farmers and his sons did not treat their dogs like pets, not like the people who lived in Arnie’s building now, who dressed their animals with absurd sweat shirts and elaborate collars.  Arnie had not liked the farm dogs, and had been chased and bitten as kid, but with distance and age he had come to admire them.  They were working animals, he told himself, not substitute children.  In his apartment building, even the hipsters cuddled and coddled their pooches as if they were family members, showing them deference and making excuses for them that they would not make for human children if they had any. Or maybe they would.  Even though Arnie recognized that Mira’s dog had been better behaved than most of the others in his building, he was purposeless as far as Arnie was concerned, and therefore essentially a resource waster, beneath his contempt.

Jake was the finest dog Mira had ever trained.  It was Jake for whom she had coined the term ‘Box’ as a command meaning ‘enter the elevator.’  ‘Box’ was part of the simplified, mostly monosyllabic vocabulary she spoke to direct his movement and activities.  The single word ‘Elevator,’ which Mira could have used as a command, seemed too cumbersome.  Inelegant. Inefficient.  Mira wanted to be sure that she could always control her dogs with simple verbal instructions.  Sit.  Wait.  Stay.  Okay.  Leash.  Chair.  Box.

Arnie knows that Mira has written a best-selling training guide specifically aimed at people who live in tight city apartments with large dogs.  The book brought Mira surprise fame and fortune at a time in her life when she would have least expected it.  Eleven years ago she had been 56, a refugee from the suburbs, a middle-aged widow living on the proceeds of her husband’s life insurance.

The elevator dings as it stops at the fifth floor.  The doors open, but there is no one on the elevator getting off and no one on the landing getting on.  Mira pauses in her counting, waiting for the door to cycle. It seems to take forever, but finally closes.

She could hardly have guessed when she started work on the dog book that she herself and her best boy, Jake, would become favorites on the local talk show circuit, or that her highly responsive but non- trick performing dog would become the model for the great urban house pet. The book had led to classes and workshops, the spreading of her training gospel.  But she had also heard her name raised in anger at community meetings where shop keepers and dog hating residents had accused her of “abetting” the large dog influx into center city apartments, with the attendant street-level problems of too much pee and poop.  “If Mira Hendricks hadn’t written that damned book about how easy it was to keep large dogs in apartments,” she heard one of her neighbors fume at one of those meetings, “we wouldn’t be doing the sidewalk ballet we do every morning to avoid the dog shit.” No one at that meeting seemed to know she was among them, though it was generally known that she lived in the neighborhood.  She learned to let these kinds of comments pass.  It was the humans, of course, who deserved her neighbors’ anger, for not picking up after their pets, but it was the dogs that got banned from buildings and parks as a result.

She wanted Jake to be a good citizen, to live unobtrusively among the humans with whom he shared sidewalks and lifts and hallways.  She taught him as a puppy not to jump up on people, not to respond to strangers inviting him over for pets or treats, unless she gave him permission

The command she used to allow Jake to respond to anyone’s offer to pet him was ‘Get love.’  Arnie had heard Mira say it the one time he had sought to pet Jake, the week after he moved in, a gesture of neighborliness he had no intention of repeating.  Labrador Retrievers, the breed Mira had as pets since childhood, responded best to short, clear commands they heard consistently in recognizable situations.   In this way Jake had been trained to understand the etiquette of the elevator.  At the threshold, on the single command, “sit”, he waited until the door opened.  He did not lunge when it did.  He waited until given permission to enter.  On the word “box” he entered and sat, waiting until the doors opened at the destination floor.  Once there, Mira said “okay,” meaning it was all right to exit. He never pulled her or strained on the leash.  Even Arnie noticed this.

The elevator dings as it passes the sixth floor.  The leash was never a restraint for Jake, but a signal that an out-of-apartment adventure was about to begin.  She used the word “leash” to mean ‘come and get geared up,’ to mean ‘let’s go out for our walk.’  He always came eagerly.

This morning, for the first time ever, calling him to the leash felt like a betrayal.  There would be no adventure.  There would be no return home.  It did not matter that in the last few weeks, when they walked, he would shit out a thin, bloody gruel and then lie down in the snow and close his eyes. Metastasized cancer, clearly dying, but unable to die.  It did not matter that he could not tell her in words that she had his permission, or that he signaled he was ready, that he knew his time had come. She knew what he was saying.

Arnie and Mira face in different directions as they ride to their floor.  Typically, Mira comes into the elevator with Jake at heel, turns to face forward with the dog by her side. Arnie nearly always rides with his back against the side wall, looking at the other riders in profile, if there are any.  Arnie wonders now, in the silence of their ascent, if this choice makes other passengers uncomfortable.  Making people uncomfortable is one of the many tactics he has used as an attorney to get the upper hand over his opponents. He has done it so long, and it is so deeply ingrained, that he barely notices that people stand off from him. Looking at Mira opposite him in the elevator car, he is struck by how youthful she looks.  Or perhaps it is that, in comparison to his wife, and despite her tears, Mira looks hale and hearty to him.

Nearing their floor the elevator slows.  Arnie turns toward the front. When he first moved in, Arnie thought living in a building would prove friendlier than the gated community where he and his wife had lived west of the city, before she became sick, before she could no longer manage.  At the ding on the seventh floor, the door opens.  Mira rushes out ahead of him, toward her apartment.  She does not hear any sounds coming from Arnie’s apartment as she passes, and tries not to think about what that silence might mean.

She already has the key in her hand when she reaches her door.  Arnie watches her from his door, takes a deep breath, steeling himself to go inside, then suddenly he calls out to Mira, “Are you all right?”  “No I am fucking not,” Mira wants to shout at him, “and I never will be,” but she simply cannot make the words come.

Before the vet gave Jake the injections, when they were all sitting together on the floor of the consultation room, the dog’s head in her lap, she leaned into his ear and whispered, “Get Love.”  The dog, nearly too weak to breathe, none-the-less licked her hand.  After the first shot of sedatives and the second of barbiturates, Mira counted down to Jake’s death.  She scratched his head and nuzzled his neck, an act of devotion, waiting for his heart to stop.  Forty-nine, forty-eight, forty-seven, forty-six.  She knew it was an arbitrary place to start, but it felt right to her, and she desperately wanted him to make it, one last time, to the end.  At twenty-four she knew he was gone, but she did not stop counting.  Twenty-three, twenty-two, twenty-one.  All the way down to zero. 

Larry Loebell is a Philadelphia-based playwright, fiction writer, filmmaker, and teacher. He is a four-time recipient of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship in playwriting, and was a Barrymore nominee for his play, House, Divided. He wrote and directed the film, Dostoyevsky Man, and his second feature, Portrait Master, will premier in 2016. He has recently completed a short story collection, which includes 49 Seconds in the Box . Read more at larry@loebell.com.