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Joe was the last one on the elevator before it started up, and the only black man. The white folk didn't say anything, but they gave him room. That was because he was massive, muscular, and carried the faint smell of garbage. He was used to their reaction and mostly tuned it out.
At each stop, one or more people got off, until only Joe and a small pudgy white girl remained. She stood in the corner farthest from him, facing away as if shutting out awareness of her peril. He was used to that too.
There was a rumble, then a crash. The elevator's light went out as it jolted to a halt. The girl screamed. Joe hung on to the rail, his heart suddenly racing.
Then there was silence and stillness. Joe's breathing slowed as he realized that the scare was over. Except for the complete darkness. He did not like that at all.
There was a sound from the other side, as of someone trying to stifle nausea. "You okay, honey?" Joe asked. "I mean, not hurt?"
She didn't answer. He could guess why. "Honey, I'm scared too. I don't mean you no harm. I just want to get out of here. I get uptight in closed places. Feeling like I can't breathe. There's a word for it."
Then she spoke. "Claustrophobia."
"Yeah, that's it. I like the wide open spaces. I'll be glad when they get the power back on."
There was silence. She was still afraid of him.
He talked because he had to or go crazy. "Honey, I don't like being stuck in here any better'n you do. You don't have to be scared of me. I'm just a city dump worker on his way to get a local driver's license. 'Cause I'm from out of state, and there's only so long they'll let me drive here on my old card.I'm not a--" But that was a wrong direction, because he didn't want to even hint that he might hurt her.
"I'm not afraid of you," she said. "I'm terrified we're going to die."
"Don't say that! It's just a glitch. The power'll come back on soon and we'll be okay."
"It's a tremor. It may be bad."
"A what?" At least she was talking now.
"A tremor. Part of an earthquake. We get them here on occasion. It could be hours or days before the power returns, depending on how close we are to the epicenter."
"Hours or days!" he repeated, appalled.
There was a pause. Then he heard more stiflings. She was crying.
"Honey, don't get me wrong. I'm scared too, like I said. But if you need someone to, well, hold you--" He broke off again. This wasn't a black girl. "I'm sorry. I shouldn'ta said that. I'm just going to sit right here in my corner." He eased himself to the floor, as standing seemed pointless.
"I do need that," she said, surprisingly. "May I come to you?"
"Sure," he said, amazed.
He heard her moving toward him, guiding herself by the railing. When her foot touched his extended leg, she got down, sat beside him, and felt for his arm. He remained still, knowing that she would fear being grabbed. He smelled her faint perfume, a nice contrast to the odor that clung to him despite his best efforts.
"May I?" she asked.
"Sure." He wasn't certain what she had in mind. He just didn't want to frighten her into flight. Things were bad enough without her freaking out.
She leaned into him. "Put your arm around me, please."
He did so, slowly, carefully. In a moment she was half-lying against his chest, her hair touching his neck and chin. He was conscious of the fullness of her blouse against his side. She might be pudgy, but she had a body where it counted. He tried to stifle the ideas it gave him. She was a white girl.
Then she was quietly sobbing into his collar. He felt her shoulders shuddering, and the warmth of her tears soaking his shirt. "It's okay, honey," he said. "They'll fix it soon." He hoped.
After a time her emotion abated. "Thank you," she said, not moving. "I needed that comforting."
"Any time, honey." Actually, reassuring her helped him handle his claustrophobia.
"I'm going for my driving license, too. My first. I have to take the eye test, and the written exam. I know the material completely, and my vision is good, but I'm still nervous about failing. I get--" She shrugged against him.
"Uptight," he said. "I know how it is. You know it cold, then you go blank and fuck it up." Oops. "I mean--"
She laughed, slightly. "I know the word. My brother's in the army. He told me about SNAFU: Situation Normal, All Fucked Up."
Now, he laughed. "That's it, all right."
"Are we going to die?"
He had been trying to avoid that notion. "Naw. They'll get the power back, and we'll head up for our tests, just like nothing happened."
"Sometimes it takes weeks to find isolated people trapped in the rubble. What will we eat? How will we eliminate?"
She was getting morbid. He didn't know enough about white girls to be sure of her mood. "Piss in a corner if we have to. I'm used to the smell. I promise not to look."
She laughed more fully. "What would you see, in the darkness?"
"I just mean it's, well, black men are supposed to have a thing about white gals, so you don't want me looking, even if I can't see anything."
"Is it true?"
"Sure, my word is good. I don't got much, but I got that. I wouldn't look."
"I mean about black men liking white girls."
"You yanking my chain, girl?"
"I just want to know."
"How old are you?"
"Free, white, and eighteen. I'll be going to college soon, if I can ever decide on a major. Nothing appeals."
So he couldn't get in trouble for corrupting a minor. "Sure, I guess. It's a cultural thing. A status symbol. A white gal is the ultimate prize. Especially a blonde."
"Is it true for you specifically?"
He hesitated. "I don't want to answer that."
"We're going to die anyway. Can't there be truth between us?"