The man jabs a finger into 26, which is where the other two women are headed apparently because no one objects. A frenzy of people get on and off at each floor, compelling the original three to look at their watches with annoyance at all the stops. Finally it is down to the three of them looking up at the elevator display: 21, 22, 23, 24.
At 25, the elevator stops, though no one has pushed that button. At this unexpected stop, the businessman and the two business women shift the weight of their feet and stiffen. The door opens to a lobby. There is no one there. One of the women goes to press the close-door button when she hears: “Hold it, please.”
It is man’s voice. A loud man’s voice. A man with an Italian accent. He is strikingly handsome with dark hair and a trim beard. His clothes are close fitting, just a white shirt and tan pants, but he has style. His fingers are long and elegant. He thanks everyone for holding the door open for him. He asks them if they could hold the door open a second longer as he must bring something into the elevator. Because of the man’s obvious charms, they don’t question him and are not annoyed. They are eager. They wait for him as he steps out. They listen for clues. Finally something is coming: the man, yes, as they can hear his leather shoes on the floor of the lobby. But they hear something else: clicking sounds and then something sliding against the floor. It sounds as if he is dragging something with him.
“Must be a suitcase,” says the woman to the others. It is the first time any of them has spoken, but they have created in the space of twenty-five floors a kind of silent familiarity.
The Italian man appears, at first alone, but then they see he has a leash, and at the other end of the leash is an alligator, a full-size scaly beast. But this alligator is dressed as they are. It wears a pinstriped shirt tucked into a pair of tailored pants and a matching jacket. A leash is attached to the forearm of the alligator. It is dragging something behind it. The people wait to see what will be dragged in with the beast. It is only a briefcase.
The Italian says to them, “Don’t worry. He is friendly.”
One woman bends down to pet him as she would a dog. She trusts the Italian innately. The alligator rolls its eyes on top of its head and looks at her. The other woman bends down too. She pets it. It feels rough. The businessman is pressed against the elevator wall. He can’t bear it. He sidles his way to the buttons and presses the button for the twenty-sixth floor, but it doesn’t light up. He presses it again and again, jamming his finger. The alligator at that moment rolls his eyes toward the man. The man looks down at it, though his shoulders are up to his ears and his back is still pressed against the wall. There is nowhere else to go. The alligator swishes its tail.
“There’s only one . . . hmm . . . precaution,” says the Italian man, more to the businessman than to the women. “The animal, it’s not so good with sweat.”
The alligator’s eyes roll over to the man in the suit. It softly snorts. The women understand to stand up and give the beast some space. They watch as the animal regards the businessman’s finger on the elevator button.
It is clear the elevator is not moving upward. They are stopped somewhere between the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth floors.
The businessman loosens his tie. He is afraid to remove his jacket because it will release the smell under his arms, so he keeps it on. He can’t look down at the animal. He sets his eyes on the ceiling of the elevator instead. It is unfortunately a mirror. The man looks at his reflection and sees the alligator’s eyes looking up at him. He feels the sweat trickling down his neck. There is nothing he can do about it.
Suddenly the alligator makes a move. The people hush. Inside of a second, the alligator’s head is at the man’s ankles. Its jaw begins to open. The man sees this from the ceiling mirror. He cannot stop his body from pouring sweat, and now a bead has made its way down his back, to his buttock, to his thigh. It is crawling down the back of his knee, to his calf, and his ankle, where it is caught by his striped sock.
The Italian begins to tug on the leash. He says something rapidly to the alligator. Whatever he said, it causes the animal’s eyes to roll up to its master’s voice. They can see that the alligator has understood something.
The Italian bends down and grabs the alligator’s briefcase.
“Um . . . give me one minute.”
The women are aware that the businessman is suffering. They do not know him but they try to console him.
“It’s ok,” one woman says. “You must relax.”
The other woman offers to take his jacket. She begins to help him by pulling off a sleeve. “Here,” she says. “You’ll feel better.”
The man is watching her from the ceiling. He cannot bring himself to look down.
The Italian unlocks the briefcase. Inside is an array of miniature bottles. He runs his fingers over the tops until he finds the one he is looking for.
“Ah, yes,” he says, lifting one out.
There is a tiny cork, which he pulls out, and the room is filled with the smell of bergamot. It is the most magical smell, and for a moment the businessman is with his mother under the grapefruit tree watching her collect ripened fruit in a basket.
The Italian taps a drop of bergamot onto the alligator’s tail, which has the desired effect of turning the beast’s head toward its tail.
The woman is successfully peeling the man’s jacket off, when they all smell the man through the bergamot.
They realize what they have done.
The Italian shakes his head sadly.
The alligator turns sharply. It cocks its head to the left and opens its jaws. With one snap it has a foot in its mouth with a striped sock sticking out.
“I’m so sorry,” the Italian says. “It wasn’t supposed to happen.”
The women gasp and hold their hearts.
The man looks down at his missing foot. He sees the last bit of it being swallowed by the beast. Then he does something very odd. He hops to the elevator and presses 26.
The doors open. He hops out, with his jacket now folded over his arm carrying the briefcase. He pivots on his remaining foot and looks back at the group. He waves, then pivots again and hops off.
The Italian shrugs.
The women shrug.
They follow the man out the elevator, first the women, then the Italian, and last the alligator.
Kelly Schwartz, of Santa Monica, California, enjoys animals feathered, furred, and scaled. She’s a recreational writer and tennis player when she’s not proofreading manuscripts for the RAND Corporation.