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“Incident on the Tenth Floor” by Jeff Brown

Published: October 3, 2017

Though largely forgotten, Jeff Brown’s 1960s fiction in the Post employs dark humor and psychology in puzzling stories of human interaction. “Incident on the Tenth Floor” is his 1966 story about a former actor facing the alienating business world amidst pressures from his wife’s wealthy parents. Jeff Brown’s short character study is representative of postmodern fiction of the ’60s in its depiction of a stark corporate atmosphere at odds with a person’s humanity. From a decade of Post stories from writers like Thomas Pynchon and Joyce Carol Oates, “Incident on the Tenth Floor” is an overlooked souvenir of an exciting time in fiction. 

The lobby ceiling was made up of tricky lighting panels — one moment blue and orange, the next gold and red — and Arthur, waiting for an elevator, said to the pretty starter, “I wish that ceiling would make up its mind.” The girl smiled. A good omen, he thought. Small, but good.

On the tenth floor, in the reception room of Hugh T. Loeffler, Inc., a hawk-faced lady with no lips said that Mr. Loeffler would be free in a moment, please come this way. She led him down a long corridor and left him in a big office with windows that looked out over Fifth Avenue.

He tried a cream-leather sofa, then moved to an armchair in front of the desk. The desk was a slab of white marble on wrought iron legs, bare except for a pipe rack, an onyx pen stand, a telephone with four buttons, and an intercom box. The walls weren’t very informative about Loeffler either — a few modern pictures, bold splashes of color on sheets of unframed glass; photo graphs of housing developments, shopping centers, and skyscrapers in various stages of completion. It was a cold room, Arthur thought, but there was no denying the sense of power and importance in the air. God’s office would be like this if He had lost interest in everything except commercial real estate.

Fifteen minutes went by, and he wished Loeffler would come and give him a job or not give him a job, just get it over with, either way. Then it struck him that he had been headed toward this interview for several years, ever since he’d met Grace Dangerfield at Ann Tenney’s cocktail party in the Village; it was silly to fret about a few more minutes now.

“Come on, help me,” Ann Tenney said. “Please! She’s not having any fun at all!” In a corner of the room, looking very out of place among the sweater-and-blue-jean types, stood a plump, well-dressed girl wearing heavy horn-rim glasses. “Grace, this is Arthur!” Ann shouted before she darted off. “He’s an actor, or at least he would be if anybody’d give him a chance. Arthur, this is Grace. I went to school with her.”

He did his best to make conversation, but the party was noisy and Grace offered only uneasy smiles and nods. He had begun to wonder if she was not quite bright, when she said suddenly, “I guess Ann didn’t tell you I was deaf. I have hearing aids, but they don’t help much in crowds. You can’t tune out what you dont want to hear, the way you can with ears.” She said it not angrily, but with resignation, as if she were used to having to explain herself; he was touched by her manner, and charmed as well. When the party broke up, they had dinner together at a little Armenian restaurant down the street.

For several months his days had been particularly long and dull — making the rounds of agents and casting offices, from midafternoon till ten at night clerking in a bookstore on Eighth Street, after that sitting sleepily in a tiny hall bedroom trying to write — and it was comforting to be with someone who seemed interested in all his grievances and hopes. For almost an hour he explained them; then, over the baklava and coffee, he made her talk about herself.

She had been hard-of-hearing from birth. There had been three operations, two in New York when she was very young, another in Switzerland four years ago; that one had helped a little, but she still needed hearing aids — miniature batteries and transistors built into her glasses; that was why they had such heavy frames. She had had one job since she finished college a year ago, doing research for a news magazine, but it had lasted only a few months; working in a room with four other girls, she had not been able to hear well enough.

They went to a movie after dinner, and halfway through it, without turning toward him, she put her hand in his. Grace lived with her family in Connecticut; he saw her off from Grand Central after the movie. At the last minute, remembering that they had not arranged to meet again, he ran along the platform shouting, “What’s your phone number?” above the clatter of the train. She could not have heard him — no one could have heard him — but through the window he saw her pantomime dialing, then the searching of a heavy book. The telephone directory, he realized, and it pleased him enormously — though he was not sure why — that she had been able to read his lips.

Two months later, after he had seen Grace a dozen times, he met her parents. They had asked about him, she said, and wanted him to come to Stamford for dinner. Arthur knew by then that her father was a corporation lawyer and the senior partner in his firm, but the reality of Mr. Dangerfield’s success did not fully dawn on him until he saw the chauffeured limousine waiting at the Stamford station and, fifteen minutes later, the handsome house and grounds of the Dangerfield estate.

Mr. Dangerfield was tall, bald, and stern. Mrs. Dangerfield was slim and chic; she spoke with a throaty drawl, her lips scarcely moving, and several times, over dinner, Grace was forced to say, “I’m sorry. What?” Whenever she did, her parents looked annoyed, and Arthur realized how very vulnerable Grace was; it was her habit to watch people’s lips, so she was bound to notice when their faces showed impatience or that they were saying things they did not mean.

Mr. Dangerfield took him into the library after dinner, lighted a cigar, and asked Arthur to talk about himself, about what he did, about his prospects. He listened quietly to an explanation of the difficulties of making a career as an actor, but when Arthur mentioned his interest in writing and his hopes for the play he had outlined in his mind and was almost ready to begin, Mr. Dangerfield said, “Interesting. Thank you. Good Lord, it’s ten o’clock! You must be anxious to get back to town.”

Grace and her mother were waiting in the living room. Grace looked as if she were about to cry, and Mrs. Dangerfield looked embarrassed, but only goodnights were spoken. The chauffeur drove Arthur back to the station.

Early the next morning Grace telephoned.

“They don’t want me to see you anymore,” she said. “I’d hate that, wouldn’t you?” He certainly would hate that, he said. Then she said, “Do you love me, Arthur? I love you very much and I want to know,” and he knew suddenly that he loved her more than he had ever loved anyone or anything in his whole life. Marveling, he said so into the telephone. “Let’s get married then,” Grace said. “Right away.”

She picked him up in her car that afternoon, and they drove to Maryland.

A big man with a tanned, healthy face strode into the office. “Hugh Loeffler. Sorry to keep you waiting, son.”

“That’s all right,” Arthur said as they shook hands. “How do you do, sir. Grace asked to be remembered to you.”

Loeffler sat down behind the white marble desk, took a pipe from the rack and began to fill it, chuckling. “I’m not likely to forget Grace. Tyler Dangerfield and I got drunk together the night she was born — did you know that?”

“I knew you were old friends,” Arthur said. “But I didn’t know that.” Loeffler wore a gray suit, a pale-blue shirt, and a maroon tie. Face, suit, shirt, tie, pipe — they all went together, he thought. People like Loeffler were probably born at Abercrombie & Fitch and went back there to die.

“Well, now,” Loeffler said. “Let’s get to know each other a little, and then I’ll try to figure out    where a fellow like you might fit into a business like mine. You’ve been an actor, Tyler tells me. How’d you get into that?”

“It was sort of a family thing,” Arthur said. “I don’t really remember my father — he died when I was five — but he was a director, in radio. And my mother was — Oh, she was an actress, I guess you’d say.”

“You guess?”

“She could do all kinds of tricks with her voice, and in radio she played kids mostly, or babies crying — things like that. In television, the only real break she had was a weekend show for children. She wore a clown outfit — you know, white makeup and all — and told stories. The Queen Koko Show. It lasted four years.”

“Never heard of it. Is she still — uh performing?”

Arthur watched a puff of pipe smoke sail across the desk and spike itself on the fountain pen. Loeffler’s tone annoyed him; so did the little smile, and he decided to wipe the smile off.

“She’s dead,” he said. “She killed herself. That’s all I can tell you about my family. I have some cousins in Ohio, but I haven’t seen them since I was a kid.”

Loeffler blinked. “I see. Well, I’m sorry to have —  Let’s fill in some other parts of the picture, shall we? When did you — ” The intercom box said, “Mr. Reeder, sir,” and he pressed a button on his telephone and picked it up.

“Dave? Those Cleveland half-wits are stalling, and Farnum’s on his way up here now! What are your latest figures?” Listening, he made notes.

Part of a picture, Arthur thought. He wondered how hard Loeffler would have blinked if that first part had really been filled in.

There had always been some drinking, but it wasn’t out of control until the last years of the Queen Koko show. Success should have steadied her, people said, not made her weak. They didn’t know, as he did, that television terrified her as radio never had, that she hated to be seen, that she was embarrassed by the ludicrous makeup, by the lisping fairy tales she told. The last year, the year he started college at Columbia, she was almost always drunk. He had done what he could — cooked their meals, cleaned the apartment, put her to bed at night, escorted her to rehearsals and shows — but there was a limit to the protection he could give. One morning, on camera, with children clustered before her little throne, Queen Koko began to snore; when a child tugged at her clown costume, she rose, swayed, and struck the child in the face.

Old friends tried to help. She was called for a few bit parts that next year, but she was rarely sober, and at last every casting office in town had scratched her name.

She stayed home then, and hung on to him. Her Arthur. Her Arthur who would go on taking care of her, wouldn’t he? Her baby who wouldn’t leave her, who’d stay with her always, wasn’t that right, honey, please? For more than a year he’d taken it, knowing that he was cutting too many classes and that the Army would get him if Columbia flunked him out, knowing too that at least the Army would be an excuse to get away. Then it happened, but even after he had been given a reporting date he did not tell her; each day, the telling was more than he could face. The night before he was to report he made no effort to keep the bottle away from her; when she passed out, he left a note under the empty bottle and went downtown to the terminal to wait for the Fort Dix bus.

Three weeks later he was summoned from an Oklahoma drill field into a chaplain’s office, and the chaplain told him what she had done. Arthur had seen it very clearly in his mind — the frowzy woman shuffling out into the little kitchen, sealing up the door and window cracks, turning on the stove; he had imagined even the faint, sickening smell of gas and the sound of weeping. The worst of it was that he pictured her dressed as Queen Koko, the chalk-white makeup and the floppy suit, and the weeping was the kind he remembered hearing when he was a kid, listening to her on the radio; he heard, not a grown woman, but a baby whimpering for someone to come.

“. . . hell with that!” Loeffler said. “Tell him to knock off five percent or we don’t go along. Let me know, Dave.”

He hung up and lighted his pipe again. “Let’s see . . . You were talking about being an actor, I think.”

“I didn’t actually decide on it until I got back to New York after my Army training,” Arthur said. “I didn’t want to go back to college; I kept wondering what it would make sense to do. Then I thought: I still have some contacts in show business. Why not have a go at that?”

“Seems like a damn careless way to choose a career,” Loeffler said.

“I don’t think most people really choose their careers,” Arthur said. “Things happen that they can’t control; they get influenced by other people without realizing it. It gets decided for them, if you know what I mean.”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” Loeffler said.

“Well, anyhow, I got a few bit parts in television and some extra work in movies that were being made in New York, but that didn’t bring in enough to live on, so I had all kinds of other jobs on the side. And in my spare time I tried to write. I’ve always…”

“What kind of writing?”

“There was a play I worked on for a long time, but I never finished it. And I wrote some poetry.”

Loeffler frowned briefly. Probably, Arthur thought, he was the type who thought only fairies wrote poetry.

“These ‘on the side’ jobs,” Loeffler said. “What were they?”

He wondered what difference it made. Night clerk at a West Side hotel for elderly Jewish couples, cashier at the Village Diner, clerking at an art supplies-and-prints shop on Lexington Avenue, all the other dreary short term occupations . . . It wasn’t the jobs themselves that mattered; it was the feel of those years — the sense of being wasted, the fear that his whole life was going to be lived in cheap rooming houses, that “tomorrow” would always be a word without hope in it. But that feeling, he thought, wasn’t something you could explain easily to Hugh T. Loeffler, Inc.

He ran down the list of jobs, simply naming them in the order they had come, and became aware that Loeffler was leaning back in his chair, studying him.

A moment passed, and he began to count all the things Loeffler did with his pipe: puffing, chewing the stem, tapping his teeth with it, rubbing the bowl with his thumb. Blow bubbles, he thought. Surprise me.

“It must be a tough way to make a living, acting,” Loeffler said. “Even with all this crazy off-Broadway stuff they go in for now. My wife dragged me downtown a few weeks ago, some place up over an Italian restaurant; you could cut the cheese smell with a knife. The show was supposed to be artistic, according to the newspapers, but it was just two old colored ladies and a white man talking about race problems, and using words I didn’t know you could say in public without getting arrested. You ever been in one of those off-Broadway things?”

“I had a small part in one, a flop, not long after Grace and I got married,” Arthur said. “It was a comedy, though. No race problems.”

“Not earning money — that must have been quite a worry after you got married?”

“Grace has a small income,” he said. “Added to whatever I bring in, it’s enough for us to squeak by. So — ”

“I know about Grace’s money,” Loeffler said.

You mean, did it bother me to have to depend on that?” Arthur made himself smile. “It’s never been a problem. Not for us. We don’t worry about what other people think.”

“I see,” Loeffler said. “So money’s not your problem.” He knocked out his pipe, took another from the rack and began to fill it. “Then what brings you here, son? What made you decide to go looking for a job in a business you don’t know anything about? Think about that for a minute.”

The marriage had begun well.

There was the sunny little apartment; there was the happiness of being with Grace; there was even, surprisingly soon, the comfort of knowing that he no longer stood between her and her parents. It seemed to dawn on the Dangerfields, after a few months, that he truly loved their daughter; a truce was arranged and they began, the four of them, to meet for dinner at least once a week. And there had been the off-Broadway play; flop or not, he had spoken lines on a New York stage. He had not been afraid, that first year, to look ahead.

It was all downhill after that. He made the rounds faithfully, but there were no parts, only a few auditions and one week as an extra in a television show. The months wore on; at last he quit making rounds and took a series of meaningless jobs again, anything to help fill the days — selling neckties at Bloomingdale’s during the Christmas season, answering telephones at a part time-maid agency, clerking again at the bookstore on Eighth Street, the one where he had been working when he first met Grace. On the days between jobs he took long walks up and down the East River Drive, watching the barges on the river, the children playing in the little concrete parks, trying not to let himself think about anything at all.

The dinners with Grace’s parents were more difficult to get through now. Mr. Dangerfield, though he meant well, would drone relentlessly on: The time had come for Arthur to be realistic, to accept responsibilities; there were people who might be helpful, and he had only to say the word… Arthur would sit with his hands clenched, wanting to throw food, knives, forks in Mr. Dangerfield’s face; later, at home with Grace, he would wait eagerly for her to say it didn’t matter, that she still had faith in him, that he need not be concerned for her.

But there were days when she would go for hours without wearing the glasses with the hearing aids, and not bothering to look at people when they spoke; it was as if she were trying to hide somehow within herself. And he knew that he too was changing, that his strength was crumbling steadily, bit by bit. One afternoon, walking by the river, he began to tremble suddenly and then to cry. Frightened, wondering what had made it happen, he stood looking out over the greasy water, averting his face from passersby until he could control himself.

It happened again a few days later, and this time he was in a restaurant with Grace, and there were people at the little tables all about them. When the trembling began he bolted for the washroom, but they had noticed; he could feel their eyes on him when he came out.

Later that night, unable to sleep, he was sitting by the bedroom window when a shapeless figure in a long overcoat went by in the silent street below. The man seemed real only as he passed through the little circles of light the street lamps made; in the darkness between the lamps he was just a blur, and when he rounded the corner it was hard to believe that he had ever been. I am not real either. There is nothing to show where I have been… From the bed, as if the thought had reached her, Grace said softly, “What can we do?” Turning, he said, “What? I thought you were asleep,” and she said again, “What can we do?” She could not hear him, he realized, not without the hearing aids, and then he knew that she did not want to hear him, that she was lying there in the darkness wanting only to tell him that she was afraid. “Please,” she said. “I don’t know what to do…”

In the morning he telephoned Mr. Dangerfield. He was through being a fool, he said; he was ready now to look for a real job and would appreciate whatever Mr. Dangerfield could do.

“You all right, son?” There was impatience in Loeffler’s voice, and the puffs of pipe smoke were coming fast. He tried to think. What brought me here? I was about to flip, frankly. Pretty soon theyd have had to take me away in a net.

“I’m here,” he said carefully, “because I’ve made a mess of my life, and I need a fresh start. I admit that.”

“Let me give you some advice,” Loeffler said. “Never crawl. Nobody likes a crawler.”

Arthur made himself look at the tip of his right shoe, and keep looking at it. “I’ll give it to you straight. When your father-in-law and I had lunch the other day, he said he wasn’t sure you’d be any use to me at all. But he asked me anyhow, as an old friend, to take you on here.”

“It was just your lucky day, I guess.” Loeffler drummed his fingers on the white-marble desk. “It might interest you to know,” he said slowly, “that when Tyler Dangerfield talked to me about you and Grace, he cried. I’ve known that man for forty years, but I’ve never seen him do that before. Does that mean anything to you? Or do you want to be funny again?”

“I’m sorry,” Arthur said. “I really am.”

“All right. Now let me give you a picture of just what this company does. The basis of our . . .”

He felt slightly numb; it seemed impossible, ludicrous, that Mr. Dangerfield should have cried. Loeffler went on talking about the real-estate business, and he realized suddenly that very possibly Loeffler was going to offer him a job. He tried to listen, but the unfamiliar phrases — site appraisal, cooperative financing, lease-backs, syndication — muddled confusingly in his mind.

The intercom said, “Mr. Farnum is here, Mr. Loeffler. In Mr. Hale’s office.”

“On my way,” Loeffler said into the box, and stood up. At the door he turned. “Back in ten minutes. If you’re sure that you really want to buckle down, we’ll find something for you to do.”

The numbness was still there, but after a moment Arthur got up and began to wander aimlessly about the room. There was a little brass model of a skyscraper on a shelf in the corner; he examined that, and then the pipe Loeffler had left on the desk. Dunhill, not Abercrombie & Fitch. He went to the window, from which he could see down Fifth Avenue all the way to Forty-second Street, and up as far as the tangle of traffic before the Plaza Hotel. Well find something for you to do. . . I could empty ashtrays, he thought, and maybe polish the little skyscraper every day. The absurdity of it made him smile. The cars darted about in front of the Plaza, and he wondered why everybody didn’t bump into everybody else. Turning from the window, he noticed a smudge on his hand and guessed that it had come from picking up Loeffier’s pipe. He wiped it away, thinking about Mr. Dangerfield and Loeffler having lunch together, arranging Grace’s life and his. It was no use talking to people like them, no use at all.

A siren wailed suddenly in the street below, and the room seemed very quiet when the wailing died.

He took all the pipes out of the rack and snapped the stems, one after another. They each broke the same way; the little shaft on the end of the stem would break off and remain stuck in the bowl part with a few jagged points protruding. When he was through, he laid the stems out on the white-marble desk, and the bowls in another row above them. Then he left the office and walked down the corridor and through the reception room to the elevators.

There were four elevators, but none stopped and the wait seemed very long. He began to feel sorry for Loeffler, who probably had wanted to help somehow, and then he felt a rush of pity for Mr. Dangerfield, weeping in a restaurant out of concern for Grace. But it was Grace, he thought suddenly, that he should be worrying about now. She would be frightened when they told her. . .

An elevator arrived. Riding down, he decided that it would be better if he told her himself about what had happened this afternoon. He would begin by putting his arms around her and saying, “I love you” and “I need you,” not sounding the words, but shaping them so that she could read them on his lips. It might not help much, but it was all he could think of now to do.

 

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