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The Glass Floor by Tag Cavello


We are all old. Every month the five of us gather in an ancient, unused foyer downtown to drink, smoke and tell stories. All of us are men—successful men. David is a retired department store owner, Mitchell a retired lawyer. Allen is also rich, though none of us can be certain as to how. He seems to think of himself as the inventor of the suspended ceiling, a most preposterous claim, for that man is already quite well known in northern Ohio. Anyway, we call ourselves the Whittlesey Academy of Arts and Science.

Benjamin is the oldest. I would put him in his late eighties, or maybe even ninety. He is bald, but for a cottony tuft of white hair over each long ear. A pair of huge glasses take up most of his face. Yet still he is possessed of a clear, dry voice, certain as an electric fan on a summer night, and when he told the story I shall relate to you here—the story of the glass floor—we all believed him.

Here is his account.

“I was once a priest,” he said, puffing moodily on an heroic cigar. “Catholic. A few of you know that already. It was a cloudy, windy day when I decided to give my heart to the church. I must have been fourteen at the time. I lived with my mother in a tiny village which lay nestled in the hills of northern Ohio. It consisted of one main road, empty and forlorn, offshot with a number of smaller lanes that lead seemingly nowhere. A boy growing up in this village typically becomes one of two things: a priest or a farmer.

“I strove for neither. Indeed, I wanted nothing more from life than to get out of that village and make a name for myself in suspended ceilings.”

All of us started in bemusement. Benjamin stared at Allen through hovering cigar smoke for what must have been a dozen seconds. Then he smiled and gave a wink.

“Actually it was baseball,” he continued. “Yes. I was young and naïve enough to think I could pitch my way out of those brooding hills. Young, naïve, and quite full of hatred for my father, who had left us a year earlier for another girl. To earn money I worked as a farm boy. Mind you it was very little money, but back then farm work was about the only kind of work I knew. Plus it did put food on the table.

“Priesthood beckoned. Every boy thinks of joining the diocese at least once. In this town it practically wept at you from the steps of its one most memorable feature: a huge church, built on top of a hill about half a mile from my mother’s house. Its black bell tower shadowed the town like a stern old man in search of excuses to crack his switch. Its long rows of marble steps led to oaken doors twenty feet high. In front was the nave, where we worshipped every Sunday, though my faith in God had flown with my father, and my ideals were cynical. Beneath the nave was a huge library, and beneath that, a crypt. I spent even less time in these two places than I did in the pews. What did I care for liches and literature, what with all the farm work that needed doing, plus chores around the house, plus baseball?”

Benjamin’s cigar had gone out. He appeared irritated for a moment. His gnarled hand reached into his jacket, came out with a box of matches. He struck a light, puffed, frowned, puffed some more. Behind him I could see a deserted stage where once, many years ago, Mark Twain had given a speech about American vandals wandering foreign lands.

“All right then,” Benjamin growled, pluming smoke. “So my mother, she was still a God-fearing woman. A God loving woman. So we went to church on Sundays, and during the week I attended Bible school. In back of the church nave was a row of classrooms, seven in all, lining an ill-lit corridor. In those days small villages like mine still used gas lighting, and that church, being so huge, was a haven for shadows. Nuns used them to scare their children into being good little boys and girls. My teacher held a particular fondness for the ruse. Her class was in room three. That room was special. To this day I have never seen another of its like. No doubt you gentlemen already know to which of its otherwise mundane features I am referring.”

“Mundane?” Allen broke in. “What does that mean? What are you going on about, Benny?”

“I am going on,” Benjamin said with proper and decent patience, “about the glass floor, which was anything but mundane. Rather, it was the most fascinating thing I had ever seen. You may imagine tiles in a regular classroom. Now imagine those tiles to be transparent, allowing one a clear view of the room below, which in this case happened to be the library. A section of the library. From room three a student could look down on a reading table, a pair of oil lamps, and a large, austere shelf of rare and out of print books. I remember an especially strange title from that shelf: Tuet Enormity Among The Stars. I flipped through it one rainy morning just before class. It contained many strange illustrations. Bestial faces of hair and teeth. Scaly green lizards with ice cold expressions, swallowing planets whole. None of the text was in English. Just the title. Latin,” he added, as I began to open my mouth. Then: “You were going to ask me what language?”

I had to admit this was so.

“Latin,” Benjamin puffed again. “Hebrew.”

My brow wrinkled. “Hebrew?”

“Coptic.”

Now I gaped in astonishment. My old friend was having me on.

“No,” said Benjamin, easily reading these thoughts. “There were other languages in the book as well. I wanted to check it out. I would have checked it out, except at that moment I happened to glance upward. The glass was there. Dark. Silent. Through it I could see room three. No one was there. Empty desks stood in rows. Cold oil lamps waited to be lit. I became uneasy. The library suddenly felt haunted. Occupied by otherworldly entities. I placed the book back on the shelf. You may remember the shadows I mentioned. Well that library had plenty, all right. And though I had hitherto never subscribed to the supernatural, my spine tingled. As I turned to go I began to think about demons. Organic atrocities. Animals with human heads. My teacher, Sister Evelyn, used to insist such things were alive in hell, and if you weren’t careful, you could accidently call upon them.

“’Demons,” she used to tell her class, “are real. Oh yes. And if you think about them they will come.’

“I was thinking about them as I walked swiftly to the other end of the library, where a small door opened onto the church tower. A flight of iron steps led to the nave. I wanted to run. Somehow I maintained just enough dignity not to do so, and by the time I reached the nave, my nerves had begun to settle. Calling myself a million different variations of the word fool, I walked home in the rain. Halfway there that rain became a storm. It soaked my clothes. Did I care? Oh no. I felt I deserved a good soaking. In the library I’d acted silly. Downright ridiculous. Demons didn’t exist. Angels neither. I was a baseball player, nothing more. Nothing else mattered.”

“Were you hoping to play for the Indians?” Allen blurted, as if this were somehow important.

Benjamin smiled. “Not in those days, old fellow. In those days there were no Indians, only Naps.”

Allen’s eyes began to flutter in what I could confidently guess was deep confusion. “You mean to say you only dreamed about baseball when you were asleep?” he asked.

All of us laughed, which made our good-natured prince of ceiling tiles look even more lost.

Benjamin was the first to stop. Patiently waiting for the rest of his friends to regain their composure, he put another match to his cigar. Smoke clouded his deeply lined face.

“Now my mother,” he said, “would have none of this atheism. She kept sending me to that church, like it were a mighty stallion whose saddle I couldn’t maintain. Most of the time I didn’t mind. It wasn’t a saddle I kept falling from anyway, but a story. A bridge I refused to buy. Who could blame me? A hundred unanswered prayers had revealed its solicitor’s chicanery.

“A week later I got to thinking about that book again. I don’t know why. It happened on a school day. Sister Evelyn was conducting class. I sat at my usual desk in the back row, thumbing a copy of Visits to the Blessed Sacrament. It’d been a stormy morning. Dark, turbulent clouds blocked the sky. I yawned, bored, and looked down through the glass floor. The shelf of books I’d visited a week ago glowed like a sleepy eye. Contemplating its many spines, I began to think about Tuet Enormity…and then about demons.”

He stopped here, allowing his eyes to roam about the room. They settled on the stage, at the back of which were deep shadows. There is a subtle art among men that involves manipulation by distraction. I could find no evidence of that being the case here. Benjamin saw something on the stage. An old memory. A whisperer of terrible truths. I realized this only later, when his story was done.

“It was contemplation only,” he said, turning his gaze back to us. “Nothing fearful or conjurative. My thoughts were utterly neutral. I sometimes thought about baseball the same way. Or farm work. Things I would be doing later in the day. Things I would be seeing. And that’s what did it. That’s what made the demon come. I was thinking of them the way any man idly thinks about the future; thus, they became the future.

“Sister Evelyn was speaking of a passage from Corinthians. Strength in weakness. It was nearing lunchtime. What, I wondered, would a demon eat for lunch?”

Benjamin’s voice had dropped considerably. We could barely hear him. I leaned forward, eager yet not eager. Even Allen seemed able to sense something terrible. Back and forth, his head shook slowly, as if in plea for the other not to speak.

“The oil lamps began to flicker,” Benjamin spoke. “I thought nothing of it at first, as the day was windy. A shriek blew past the window. Sister Evelyn’s lecture stammered. Then the room went black. One of the girls screamed. Someone else laughed. The lights—the lamps—they came back on, only not as bright as before. There was good reason for this. They weren’t the lights in our room. They were below us, in the library. I looked down to see the glass floor all aglow, shimmering like water in a midnight moon. Then…”

Our friend let his words trail off. The cigar—little more than a stub by now—hung cold in his hand. I waited, giving courtesy for the difficult terrain that doubtless made up his story’s path. The others did as well. Except for Allen.

“What happened, Ben?” he demanded to know. “Tell us please.”

Benjamin looked at him, then at all of us. “Nothing,” he said at last. “Nothing happened.” His shoulders slumped. He looked at his cigar, nodded, and pitched it into an ashtray. “That’s it,” he announced. “End of my story.”

“Now see here!” Mitchell huffed. “You can’t leave it off like that! Something happened! What was it?”

“My imagination got the better of me,” Benjamin said. “Or rather I wish as much. But everyone in that room saw it. Mitchell, if you weren’t a lawyer, I’d get up and leave right now. I regret telling this story. But you wouldn’t let it go, would you?”

“Sorry, Ben,” the other replied. “You’ve intrigued me.”

“And me as well,” I put in.

The other men grumbled and nodded. They were ready to hear the rest. So guess what happened? Benjamin told us. In a voice that sounded dead and distant as an old phonograph recording, he told us, and then…

Why, all of us went home.

Demons are interesting. They wait for the sinful in another world, eager to give pain and suffering, but speak not a word, not word, until it comes time. Also, they don’t like to be bothered. No. Until it comes time.

Benjamin bothered one that day. Through means of simple, neutral contemplation, a huge face of something dreadful appeared beneath the glass floor. It gazed with hateful yellow eyes that moved from child to child as if to ask how could you dare? Ragged brown hair like that of a dead goat’s grew in ugly patches on its sunken cheeks. A stump protruded from its forehead. Doubtless it had once been a horn.

It said nothing as everyone in the room screamed. Lips twisted, it simply looked on, the way a caged animal might do toward potential prey.

The library went black. The face disappeared. There was more screaming as Sister Evelyn raised her voice in effort to calm the room. It took five minutes. Or perhaps ten. Benjamin could not remember, nor could I blame him. But when the lights flared once more, they found a message on the chalkboard, written in large, blocky letters:

GET ME OUT OF YOUR HEAD

Now I sit in my room, placing pen to page, and I’m thinking about demons. Contemplating their existence. Do they torture, the way Dante claimed in his ancient comedy, or are they more like starving animals, desperate for a meal? Can wisdom guide us through their terrain, as Virgil did for his hero, or is all hope lost once the soles of our feet touch that black and burning soil?

Oh…

There’s been a noise downstairs. I’d better go check it. A storm blew in not long after our meeting. The skies are thunder. Leaves and twigs keep hitting my window. I live alone. It’s just safe to double-check all the locks at night, you know? And try not to think of unpleasant things. Because if you think about them they will come. Oh yes.

I am a member of the Whittlesey Academy of Arts and Science. Every month we gather in an ancient, unused foyer downtown to drink, smoke and tell stories. We are all old.

But tonight…

Tonight I feel even older.


September 11, 2018


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