It was early autumn. The days were still reasonably warm and the sun shining into the evening. But in the house, it didn’t matter if it was winter, spring, summer, or fall. The blinds were drawn, and the temperature remained at an even 76 degrees. Amy and Alan had settled into their side-by-side armchairs hours ago. They’d made a pot of tea in their trusty forest green teapot with the chip in the spout, and this sat on the small table between them, though it was long empty. And while both of them might have liked another cup, neither had a strong enough desire to actually get up and make it.
And who would? Amy’s armchair was both lovely to look at (a rich brown and bittersweet paisley pattern) and as comfortable as the mattress the Princess in the “Princess and the Pea” sat on, pre-pea. Alan’s chair was a bit sturdier. It was a deep caramel leather wing-back, with wide arms and a generous seat. Both chairs also had matching footrests, which made the prospect of getting up for anything other than an obligatory bathroom break unimaginable.
Bathroom breaks. This was something both Amy and Alan knew quite a lot about, actually. For both worked on the janitorial staff of a large office building downtown. They spent their days pushing carts full of supplies and cleaning equipment through the corridors of Wiley Properties, a real estate agency that employed several thousand people. It wasn’t work that took creativity, unless you considered working out the best time to get in between visitors creative. But it was work that required energy. Amy would pause outside one of the 18 restrooms in her side of the building, taking a worn handkerchief from her pocket, and wiping it across her forehead. She liked to listen to podcasts of cooking shows through the tiny headphones plugged into her cell phone, which she kept tucked into the pocket of her coverall. Oh Amy didn’t cook. Heaven’s no. She was far too exhausted after a day’s work for that. But listening to cooking shows made her feel like someone who might cook, and she liked that.
Alan was different. No headphones or distractions for him. He approached each restroom as a general might approach a military invasion. First, he waited patiently to make his move. Seeing that the coast was clear, he’d plow through the door, pushing his cart heartily in front of him. Then he’d quickly grasp his spray bottle and rag and attack the counter tops. Dirty toilet bowl? No problem for Alan. With gusto he would fill the bowl with cleaner, plunge away as needed, and then wipe the whole of it clean with industrial strength cleanser. Each time he finished working in one of the 18 restrooms he felt he’d won a battle. And no rest for the weary; time to move on to the next or start over again if he’d already made his way through the lot of them.
At the end of their shift, Amy and Alan would gather up their belongings from their respective lockers, and walk the six blocks together to the subway. They were fortunate that the office they worked in was so near a subway stop. For after a day of cleaning, wiping, emptying, and repeating 18 times, they were exhausted. They didn’t talk much on the walk home. They didn’t hold hands either, for most nights, even though they wore gloves at work, their hands ached.
Once they were home, they had a routine. They would prepare a meal of heated up left-overs. This was usually something Alan had made at the weekend. Despite Amy’s love of cooking shows, and fancying herself to have a desire to cook, she truly didn’t have the energy, even on weekends. So Alan would find a simple recipe on the web, usually something that could be done in a crockpot, and make up a large batch, so that they’d have meals for the week.
After dinner they’d settle into their chairs for the evening. But tonight, tonight something was different.
As the light outside the windows faded behind the shuttered blinds, Amy and Alan felt something odd. They both felt it simultaneously. Amy exclaimed, “Oh! Oh my!” at the same time as Alan shouted “Ouch!” They looked across the teapot at each other. Their eyes locked, and then a great and terrible whooshing sound roared through the house. And like turnips being plucked from the earth, Amy and Alan were sucked down through the seats of their chairs….and…
All around them was pitch black. Amy and Alan groped in the darkness and finding each other’s hands, held on firmly. They’d both landed on something warm and reasonably soft. Alan whispered, “Are you hurt?” “No,” Amy replied, “You?” “I don’t think so.” They held hands, breathing heavily, and listening. What was this place? While what they’d landed on was soft, it didn’t feel like earth or grass. It was more like padded carpet. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they realized it wasn’t completely pitch black. They could see the outline of a hallway that curved round in front of them to the right. A weak light, possibly candlelight was coming from down that way.
Then they heard it. There was music coming from somewhere nearby. It was a piano playing a lively ragtime tune. They looked at each other, baffled. Feeling reasonably certain they were okay, Amy let go of Alan’s hand, stood up and brushed herself off. Alan did the same, stretching his arms over his head to work out the kink that was developing from sitting huddled on the floor. And just as suddenly as it started, the music stopped. They quickly clasped hands again before taking a step forward.
Alan motioned to Amy and lifted his index finger to his closed lips. She got the message and stayed quiet. Alan peered around the corner in the direction of the light and music. He couldn’t see much, as the hallway seemed to stretch ahead of him for miles. What he could see was that the hallway had no doors or windows. What it did have were several rather large photographs hanging on the walls. Alan took a tentative step up to the picture closest to him, gently tugging Amy’s hand. They stood there side by side, blinking as they starred at a photograph.
The photo was an 18 x 24 color image of a sumptuous meal laid out on a simple wooden table. Pictured was a steaming bowl of what looked like onion soup, with a generous portion of Swiss cheese laid over the top of the bowl and dripping down the sides. The steam from the soup was curling up in inviting wisps above the bowl. Next to the soup was a plate with several slices of thick brown bread and the rest of the loaf sitting next to it. There was a small crockery pot of what looked to be whipped butter with a small knife dipped in, just waiting to be slathered onto the bread.
As Amy took in the subject of the image, she recognized it. Or rather, she thought she did. But regardless, she knew she would make this meal. Though she’d rarely cooked more than a chicken stir fry with ready-chopped chicken and veggies, this image called out to her, and she could almost picture slicing the onions for the soup and kneading the dough for the crusty bread. Alan turned to look at her, and saw she was mesmerized. He gently tugged her hand. Amy turned to him and smiled, and together they moved along down the hall.
The next photograph they came to was a sepia tone print of what looked to be a civil war soldier dressed in battle gear. But on a closer look, in the background they could see a parking lot filled with Fords, Chevys, and Toyotas. Yet the soldier looked so authentic. Off to the left they could see just the edge of an army tent, and other soldiers sitting outside of it, polishing their rifles.
Amy and Alan took a step back from the wall, and looked further down the hallway. They hadn’t noticed it before, but on both sides, and as far as the eye could see, there were photos hung that were the same size as these. Some appeared to be in black and white while others were high gloss and full color. What was this place?
As they walked down the corridor looking at each of the photographs, without either being aware of it, they dropped hands. Alan might spend a little longer on one photo than Amy, recognizing something in it; connecting to something. And Amy was doing the same. There were also some photos that made both of them pause. One of these was a color photo of a park bench situated on the curved pathway of what looked to be a city park. The leaves on the trees were fiery oranges and reds. Off to one side they could see a small pond with ducks drifting lazily. And in another grassy area a family was having a picnic lunch, complete with a red and white checked blanket and a wicker basket, opened and appearing to brim with goodies. Amy turned to Alan, who looked at her and smiled. Neither said a word; they just moved on to the next photo.
About three quarters of the way down the hall, on the right side the photograph was of a small green car driving down a curving highway with trees on either side. The view was from behind and you could clearly see a couple in the car, the man at the wheel and the woman watching the scenery out the front window. The man was quite a bit taller and had light brown, almost ginger hair. The woman’s was dark, and cut in a flattering way that just swept her shoulders. While you couldn’t see their faces, Amy and Alan both imagined the couple to be smiling, listening to whatever was on the stereo. It was a happy, peaceful scene.
Before they could carry on looking at the rest of the photos, they were startled when the ragtime music began again. This time it seemed to be right around the corner from where they were standing. Since the music didn’t sound threatening in any way, they decided to move towards it and see who was playing. They turned the corner and walked through a set of swinging doors, finding themselves in a room that looked altogether different from the hallway. The hall had been painted a cheerful creamy yellow, just perfect as the backdrop for the photographs. But here, it was as though they’d walked into an old fashioned bar, deserted except for the bartender and a man seated at a piano. The room was filled with heavy wooden tables, chairs, and booths. The bar itself was one of those impossibly long ones, with glass behind, and shelves filled with bottles of every size and holding every color and shade of liquor imaginable. While the lighting was dim, they could see the place was clean and well cared for.
The bartender simply nodded to them as he continued polishing the glass in his hand with a clean white towel. Amy and Alan stopped a few feet from the piano, waiting for the song to end. And when it did, so carried away were they by the jaunty tune that they couldn’t help but applaud. The man seated on the little stool spun around to face them. Though he was seated, they could tell the man was barely five feet tall. He had a shock of white hair, which was mainly covered by a straw boater hat. And he was wearing a white suit with a candy stripped vest of green and orange stripes. It was hard to tell his age. His face was lined, but not heavily. And he appeared to be quite spry when he popped off the stool, extended his hand to Amy and said, “Evening! So glad you came. The name’s William, but most folks call me Will.”
Amy shook hands with the small, odd man and smiled. She couldn’t help herself. Something in her just responded to his jovial manner and generous smile. Will then turned to Alan, and offering his hand to him too said, “Alan is it? I’ve been waiting for you.” Now truly, this was strange. Wasn’t it? Alan thought, how does this man know my name? And then, as he began to put things in context he thought, and how did he come to be playing the piano in a bar beneath our house? Are we beneath our house? Has this always been here? Where are we exactly?
As Alan’s anxiety grew, the room appeared to grow darker and darker. His thoughts grew fuzzy. And he suddenly realized he didn’t know exactly where Amy was, and he became a bit scared. This all happened in barely a few seconds, and as he looked down he felt more than saw Will’s hand grasping his own. And just as quickly as his fears had risen, they disappeared. Alan found his voice and said, “It’s nice to meet you too.” And then he smiled a genuine smile; all the previous questions and fears draining away.
Will casually walked towards a table near the bar, and Amy and Alan were compelled to follow. Amy felt the bartender’s presence, and as she sat down, he set a margarita – her favorite! (on the rocks, with salt) in front of her. She smiled and nodded her head in gratitude, for she still hadn’t found her voice. Alan sat and saw a frosty mug of amber beer had been placed in front of him. He smiled and thanked the bartender. Will had a glass of the same beer as Alan, and raising his mug to the two of them said, “Cheers! So glad you finally made it!”
After taking a long, slow sip of the refreshing margarita, Amy found her voice. “Will,” she started, “Where exactly are we? I mean, one moment Alan and I were enjoying our evening pot of tea, and next thing we knew, here we were. Are we dead? Is this a dream? What is this place?” Alan was surprised that she so calmly and coherently put into words his own thoughts. For all along he’d feared they’d died. He just wasn’t sure if this was heaven, or well, some other place. “Well, Amy, that’s uh, not so easy to explain. Would you be willing to, what is it they say about theatre? Maybe employ a little willing suspension of disbelief? If so, you might have an easier time during your visit here. Leave it till later to sort out the details and separate truth from fiction. That okay with you?” Amy thought for a moment, glanced at Alan to see that he was smiling back at her, then replied, “Yes. Yes, we‘re willing to do that.”
For the next hour or so Will took Amy and Alan on a tour of the place. He started with the hall of photographs, asking them what they thought. For each of them, it was hard to put into words just what emotions the photos evoked. As they stood in front of the picture of the man dressed in Civil War battle gear, Alan tried to find words for what he was feeling. Turning to Will he said, “When I look at this, I see myself. But then, that’s not possible. While that man looks a bit like me, I’ve never done a Civil War enactment. I’ve thought about it. And actually, just last week I went online and researched reenactment groups in our area.” Amy turned to him, surprised. “You did? I didn’t know that. Would you like to take part in one of those? You’d be really good at it. I know you’ve read a lot of military history, and since your father was a pilot during World War II, I know this holds a special interest for you. You should do it!” “Really?” Alan replied, still looking at the photo. As he looked, the photograph appeared to grow brighter; just a bit. And he noticed details he hadn’t before. He looked at the man’s makeshift uniform, and saw his belt looked very much like one that Alan had, made of wide brown leather and a worn brass buckle. Could it be?
Amy tugged gently on Alan’s hand, leading him to the next photograph. They were once again in front of the steaming bowl of onion soup, dripping with gooey cheese. The memory of chopping the onions for the soup practically made Amy’s eyes water. Wait. Memory? She hadn’t made that before, had she? No, Amy was sure. Despite all the cooking shows she watched on TV and podcasts she listened to while scouring sinks in the high rise, her secret desire to create a wonderful meal from scratch went unfulfilled. But something about this scene was so familiar. It tugged at her like a song title on the tip of the tongue; she knew it was there, she just couldn’t access the memory.
They took their time going down the corridor past the rest of the photos. And just as before, there were some that made both Amy and Alan pause. One of these was a couple in what looked to be an airport lounge. While they didn’t recognize anything in the photo; neither the couple, their baggage, nor the airport were familiar, something, something was there.
Amy and Alan had talked about traveling someday. And though they lived modestly and saved what they could, they hadn’t managed to make the time for a trip. Something always came up, like the house needing a new hot water heater or that time Alan had a minor health scare that they weren’t sure was minor until all the tests had been performed, the stay at the hospital, and the tears of relief when it turned out to be nothing more than indigestion. They both looked with longing at the couple, and imagined it was them in that airport. Amy felt a shiver of excitement, thinking about where the plane they were about to board might take them.
The final picture at the farthest end of the hallway was different than the others. There were no people in this photo. It was of a wide white wooden porch, facing west, as you could tell from the setting sun off in the distance. There were two side-by-side rocking chairs on the porch, and Amy and Alan could practically feel the summer breeze blowing, and hear the rockers creaking. Staring at the photo, standing next to each other, they clasped hands and breathed deeply, contentedly. They didn’t know this place. It wasn’t anywhere they’d been or seen. But yet, they did know it somehow.
When they came to the end of the corridor, Will turned left and they found themselves in another room. This one was very different from the bar in which they’d met Will. This was more like a comfy coffee house or local cafe. There was a polished wooden floor, and several plush couches and chairs dotted around the room. A fire glowed in a fireplace off in a far corner. The lighting was low but not overly dim. And behind the counter was a small, pixie like young woman wearing cat eye glasses and chewing gum. She had a shock of black hair sticking up in every direction. Her black t-shirt had writing on it, but it was mostly hidden by a red apron that looked clean and neatly pressed. She leaned against the counter, arms crossed lazily in front of her, staring off into the distance. When she saw Will, she perked up, stood straighter, and grabbing a pen from behind her ear, tapped her note pad and said, “The usual Will?”
“Why yes, I believe I will, thanks Beverly.” “And your friends here? What’ll they have?”
Will turned to Amy and Alan, raised his brows in question and gestured up to the menu board behind the counter. “This one’s on me.” Will said.
As she looked at the menu, Amy saw they offered a wide variety of coffees and teas. Tea. She thought that sounds nice. And she was about to order a cup of English Breakfast tea with milk when she made a snap decision. “I’ll have a large cafe au lait, please.” She grinned a little and looked at her feet.
Alan looked at her bemusedly. He too had been scanning the menu and was about to order the tea as well (also English Breakfast, with milk). But then, “And I’d like the chai latte, please.”
“Have a seat and I’ll bring them out to you when they’re ready.” said Beverly. And then she moved off, grabbing mugs from below the counter and set to work on their order.
Will led them to an arrangement of chairs encircling a small table piled high with books. They sat down and looked around them. It was then that they noticed the floor to ceiling bookshelves that wrapped all the way round the walls of the cafe. And more books sat in stacks short and tall in various other places. It’s a wonder they hadn’t noticed them earlier. But the stacks were all relatively neat. And though they were all around, there appeared to be some semblance of order. They just couldn’t quite tell what it was.
Alan gestured towards the books on the table near them and looked at Will, who nodded his head and said, “Go on, help yourself. Take a gander at that top one there.” Alan picked up what looked like a large picture book. The cover had a glossy photo of a sunset but there was no title. He set the book on his knees and opened it. Amy moved her chair a little closer so she could see too. Every page of the book seemed to be filled with sunsets. There were some with fiery red suns still high up in the sky, with shadows of purple behind. There were some where the sun was low and lush and yellow, and seemed to be melting into the horizon like an egg yolk on toast. There were no words in the book, just page after page of stunning sunsets. Amy looked up quizzically at Will who smiled a little and said, “Ever see anything like that?” “Well,” Amy started, “I’ve certainly seen a sunset before. But I can’t say I’ve seen this many. And I’ve never seen a book without a title or without any words inside.”
Beverly came up behind them with a tray of drinks. She moved the stack of books aside on the table a bit and one by one set their drinks in front of them. The sweet pungent scent of the chai wafted through the air pleasantly. They thanked Beverly and she went back behind the counter, where she picked up a book that had been tucked on a shelf just below. She put the book on the counter and began reading, absentmindedly running her fingers through her spiky hair with one hand as she turned a page with the other.
Now that they’d looked through all the pictures in the sunset book, Will nudged another one from the stack in their direction. Before he picked it up, Alan caught a look on Will’s face that he couldn’t quite read. Picking up the book and opening it to the first page, what he saw surprised him. It was a book filled with baby pictures.
Page after page of photos of babies. Or that’s what Alan thought at first. But after quickly flipping through the pages, he realized it wasn’t a book of babies, it was a book of one baby. Or, what you might call, a baby book. Alan turned back to the first page. It held an 8×10 photo of a newborn baby swaddled in a pink striped blanket, asleep. There was no name. No birth date. Nothing to indicate the names of the baby’s parents. Alan turned the page and next he saw what he now realized was the same baby, seated on the floor wearing just a diaper, grinning a big toothless grin, drooling and clapping her pudgy baby hands together. There was a photo of the baby in a stroller, and standing behind the stroller you could just see the jean-clad legs of the parent. Or he assumed it was the parent. Next was baby standing, holding onto a table, looking hesitant, and apparently taking her first step. And as he turned the pages and the baby grew up before his eyes, he began to see the face looking back at him had Amy’s eyes and her small button nose.
When Alan paused and looked up from the book, he saw Amy looking back at him, tears in her eyes. Alan closed the book and took Amy’s hand. He knew her heart was aching. Amy had a sister, Eliza who was 10 years younger than her. Their parents had died when the girls were 15 and 25, leaving Amy feeling responsible for her sister. When Eliza became pregnant at 16, they’d had a falling out and as a consequence, the sisters hadn’t spoken in nearly 20 years. Amy had never met her niece. Early on she’d tried to mend the hurt but her sister, a new mother, so young, struggling to find her way hadn’t been able to forgive. Eventually Amy just stopped trying. But the ache never went away.
Alan set the book aside and standing, took Amy in his arms. She let him comfort her, and then she pulled back, wiping her tears on her sleeve. Still holding Alan’s hand, she turned to Will. “Enough. It’s time you told us why we’re here. What is this place?”
Will could see the hurt and confusion on Amy’s face. He knew she was right, it was time to bring the tour to a close and let these fine folks get on with it.
Taking a long slow breath, Will removed his straw boater and said, “The things you’ve seen here, the images in the photos and the books, these are a combination of things that could have been and things that could be. You’re welcome to stay down here as long as you like, looking at the images and seeing what could be. Or you can go back up there, and decide what will be.” Here Will paused to gesture towards the ceiling.
He continued. “The universe is filled with infinite possibilities. One action leads to another leads to another. But on any given day, if circumstances change slightly or in this case…if you change slightly, you may decide to do something different. And in that case, anything is possible.”
Amy turned to Alan. Her tears had dried. She was seeing clearly for the first time all evening. Perhaps for the first time ever. Alan too appeared to have recently sobered up. “So what happens next?” he asked.
“Well, as I said, that’s up to you. You can carry on wandering around down here. Take your time and page through as many of the books as you like. And there are several more hallways with photos much like the one you already passed through. See all the possibilities. Consider all the possible outcomes. Or, or you can go back and start living again.”
Amy and Alan looked at each other and nodded. They no longer needed to see what could be. They were ready to go back and move forward through life together.
Will could see they didn’t need any help making their decision. He donned his hat again, nodded his head, and gestured back out to the hallway. Amy and Alan followed, and as they did a sense of warmth and peace rose in each of them.
It only took a short while to get back to the room in which they’d first landed. Landed. Was that the right word? They looked at Will questioningly. He smiled at them and said, “This is the easy part. It’s what comes after that’s hard. Close your eyes. Keep holding hands. And think about the place you’d like most to be right now in all the world.”
Amy opened her eyes. She realized she’d nodded off. And she wasn’t the only one. As she looked across the now cold teapot, she saw Alan was snoozing in his comfy chair. She reached across and gently shook him awake. “Come on, hon. Time for bed.” They companionably cleared away the tea things, locked up and headed to bed.
The years passed and Amy and Alan still had tea in the forest green teapot and sat in their chairs many evenings. But not every evening. Sometimes they did something different. Sometimes Amy’s sister Eliza stopped by on her way home. Turns out they only lived one subway stop away from each other. They might play a game of Scrabble together. Or Alan would setup a slide show, and they’d bore Eliza with photos from their most recent vacation. And sometimes Eliza’s daughter Rachel would stop by too. She was 23 now and working as a social worker at a shelter just a few blocks from the office building where Amy and Alan worked.
About two years earlier Amy had gotten Eliza’s address through a cousin and wrote to her. It was a hard letter. She’d rewritten it many times. Finally she’d written…
We don’t get second chances in this world. Or maybe we do, if we’re looking for them and we’re open to them. I was wrong. I was young and you were younger. We both thought we knew it all. We didn’t. But I know this, I love you and I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Please let me know you again. Let me know your daughter, who I have imagined at every age and stage of her life up until now. I can almost see her taking her first step, strolling in a stroller, and so much more. Let’s start again.
With love, your sister,
As they sit in their chairs some evenings, Amy and Alan could both swear they hear the faint notes of a ragtime tune. And when they do, they look at each other and smile and they know, anything is possible.