Bill Striver glanced down at his half-empty beer glass on the polished mahogany bar. To him, the image was obvious--half empty, not half full. A mirror over the bar reflected his gaunt, expressionless face and thatch of black hair slicked back like a 30's movie heavy. He had never played baseball, but he'd just racked up strike three. It came in the form of a grim report from the receptionist at Armstrong Physical Therapy, Inc.: Striver's coverage had paid all it was going to for treatment to his damaged arm.
Strike one zapped him two months ago when a bolt of lightning struck a tree near Town Park, splitting the trunk. A large branch broke through the driver's side window and hit Striver hard on the left arm. The impact deployed the car's airbags with an explosive sound that left him temporarily deaf.
Strike two hit him a week ago. Torbet Grossinger, his boss at Furniture Mart, called him in and handed him a note. "Sorry, Striver," the note said, "but times are tough. We're sweating to keep able-bodied men on the job. You have that bum arm and bad hearing. We have to face facts. The company can't afford to carry half a worker."
Striver replied aloud, "The hearing will come back, and the physical therapy is beginning to work. I just need a little more time. You're taking therapy yourself."
Illustration Copyright © Marcia Borrell
Grossinger's face froze in icy resistance. Beads of sweat glistened on his bald head as he penciled a second note. "It's my back. It doesn't hamper my performance on the job. But I've got to get relief in time for the club tennis championship. They're counting on me."
Striver's wife glowered across the dinner table at him. "What are we going to do?" she mouthed. By now, he could make out a few phrases by reading her lips.
"Something will turn up," he mumbled without conviction, pumping his injured arm as if demonstrating a miraculous cure. It was a familiar movement. Part of his therapy had called for similar repeated forward thrusts with a five pound dumbbell, the type angled with sharp edges. He'd bought an identical dumbbell and continued to work out without supervision of a therapist.
Nothing turned up. Not the first week, not the second or the third. If there was a fourth strike in life, it was sizzling toward the plate in the form of his last unemployment insurance check.
Striver's thoughts took him back to Armstrong Physical Therapy, tucked away on the tenth floor of the Municipal Medical Building, A few more weeks, maybe a month, and he might have rebounded to working form. How was Grossinger qualifying for all this therapy anyway? Tennis!
Both of them started rehab about the same time. Once, they met by chance going up in the elevator. Grossinger had backed to the rear wall of the lift since he was getting off last at the top floor, the tenth. A natural enough strategy. Striver followed the same pattern himself, like most elevator passengers, creatures of habit.
Striver, idling away time after his layoff, studied his doleful face in the mirror over the bar and fished a free pretzel from a dish. His thoughts drifted back to the elevator and a surprising thing he'd forgotten until now. On the last day of his therapy, at the fifth floor, the back of the elevator, which was actually a door, slid open for an instant, then quickly closed. But not before revealing an empty cinderblock corridor.
Heart beating faster, Striver left the bar and made his way to the rear fire exit stairs of the Medical Building. As he expected, the stairway was empty as he climbed, puffing, to the fifth floor and found the back loading door of the elevator. The corridor itself led to a room labeled “Medical Supplies.” An up-and-down switch controlled the elevator. That day he recalled while sitting at the bar, someone must have pushed it, then changed his mind and left.
Striver now noticed how the corridor angled sharply, making it easy for anyone to hurry out of sight. A window cut in the concrete corridor overlooked the street, providing a clear view of the parking garage exit from which Grossinger must emerge. Perfect.
Striver dropped by Armstrong Therapy, informing the receptionist he forgot his jacket in the therapy room on his last day. She left her desk briefly to look for it, just long enough for Striver to flip through the appointment book, confirming the day and hour of Grossinger's next appointment.
Striver returned to the street and made a trial run of the course Grossinger would take, figuring almost to the second the time required for his former boss to leave the parking lot, enter the elevator, and start up.
Okay, he realized, wraparound sunglasses, the kind worn by cataract sufferers, and a stocking cap pulled low were corny, but they made an effective disguise. In Striver's mind, his plan was simplicity itself. He would don the disguise just before pushing the switch of the elevator's back door. Passengers would be facing forward as always. The door would slide open just for an instant, but time enough for his plan. Retribution would be swift. Then the door would close, and he would be gone, identifiable by witnesses only as a short man in wraparound shades and a stocking cap. When he ditched the disguise later, he'd be just another face in the crowd outside.
Striver was right-handed, but how fitting to clutch the five pound exercise weight in his now-strengthened left hand that Tuesday morning, the day of Grossinger's therapy appointment. He couldn't hear thunder rumbling overhead as he retraced his trail up the fire exit steps and down the fifth floor corridor toward the elevator's back door. From the small window, he watched Grossinger exit the parking garage and start toward the Medical Building.
Checking his watch, Striver started his countdown, then put on the glasses and cap. At the precisely calculated moment, he pressed the elevator stop button. The door slid open, displaying the passengers like actors with backs to the audience. Thunder boomed unheard by Striver as he brought the dumbbell down in a hatchet-like chop mimicking his rehab arm exercise on the back of Grossinger's unmistakable bald head.
Lights flickered as lightning struck somewhere, killing the building's power. The elevator doors froze open while a dozen passengers spun and stared at the crumpled, bleeding Grossinger, then at the stranger in sunglasses and a cap clasping a sharp-edged dumbbell. Two burly passengers grabbed Striver, wrestled away his weapon, and yanked him into the elevator. Another passenger cried out, "The elevator's emergency phone is working. I'll call 911."
Cowering, Bill Striver, now unmasked and imprisoned in his captors' arms, heard a Physician Assistant declare, "The victim is dead."
Far below, an emergency generator kicked in. The lights blinked on, and the elevator doors closed. A cell without bars.
Charles Schaeffer won honorable mention in FMAM’s 2002 Slesar Twist and Fire to Fly Contests. His stories have appeared in FMAM and The Storyteller. He has written for Harper's, Esquire, The Nation, The Wine Spectator, and his children’s fiction has appeared in Child Life, Jack and Jill, Shoo Fly, Peeks & Valley's "Characters," and in the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer's "Sunday Reader."