Blessing or Burden
This was ridiculous.
A wise woman? Named Lexi?
A wise woman who counseled people from the top of a deserted 45 story high-rise, if you could believe that. He didn’t buy it. Yet, he was here.
The elevator was broken and so he followed a snaking line of people headed slowly, a step at a time, up to some, no doubt dingy, apartment with a garbage dump view. Darrin was shocked by the decrepitude of the building. The ground floor windows were boarded up and the inside stank of piss, stale body odor, and worse. He couldn’t believe the structure was still standing. Knowing his luck, it would collapse while he was here. The railing was loose on half the turns and he was pretty sure the peeling paint had lead in it. And what was that ooze coming from cracks in the wall? He wasn’t being negative, he told himself. He was merely making an observation. Just stating the facts. Well, the lead thing was a guess, but really, the paint had to be at least fifty years old. So, there.
He thought back to the stinging ‘intervention’, really a throw down, that his friends had surprised him with a week ago. They had insisted he come to this horrid place, this line of strangers in this dingy stairwell.
“You’re a drag, man. You - ,” Brett had started, only to be talked over by Mitch.
“Yeah, you’re like this wet blanket. Always!”
“Please, baby, you have to do something. You can’t continue like this. We love you,”Joesy implored. He figured that this was the prelude to her breaking up with him.
The line moved and he faltered as he stepped up. To catch himself, he leaned against the peeling, moldy paint without thinking. By the time he pulled away from the wall his new black suede jacket had yellow paint chips and goopy streaks down the right sleeve. He tried to brush the chips off. They disintegrated into a damp powder that he only managed to grind deeper into the leather pile. It was horrible. What a disastrous waste of time.
He considered turning around, and heading down the steps and out the door, but he was already on the 34th floor and had invested almost three hours in this insane exercise. And his friends would know if he backed down and just harass him till he returned to this dump. Or worse, they might give up on him.
The tiny, feeble black lady in front of him sat down on the stairs again and sighed and breathed heavily. The standing was clearly getting to her. She looked bedraggled and weary. After a few seconds of catching her breath, she rolled a cigarette between her thumb and index finger and coughed in a phlegmy, smoker’s rasp. She looked up imploringly at him. She had to be in her late seventies, but then again, smokers always seemed to look older. There had been a No Smoking sign at the base of the stairs. Weren’t all buildings nonsmoking, these days, he thought.
The woman put the cigarette between her lips, but did not light it. She just dragged on it and for a second he wondered if she would start to eat the thing. She glanced over at him and noticed him staring.
“I gotta quit these. It is so hard. I really need help. And I’m going to get it.” She blurted this with a lemming-like reverence that made Darrin want to throw up. This woman was another dedicated Lexi worshiper. What the hell did his friends get him into? He looked away, hoping the woman would take the hint that he was not interested in talking. He was soon lost in irritated thoughts over his ambushing friends and his ruined jacket.
“What you seeing Lexi for?”
It took Darren a few seconds to realize that the smoker was still talking to him. But he had no idea how to answer the question. The woman looked at him expectantly and he considered ignoring her, but everyone in line was pretty bored, what with the lack of phone reception, and now everyone in his line of sight was staring at him, waiting for their next few minutes of entertainment.
He started slowly, “Well, my friends sent me here … they think I’m not positive enough.”
“And by that you mean, they said you are way to negative.” This came from a burley guy in a faded Dave Matthews T-shirt. He was standing one step down. The guy looked like the bouncer for a dive bar in a part of town Darren wouldn’t visit even in daylight.
“I suppose. Why would you say that?”
“Because we all minimize how much we need Lexi’s help.”
Darren could no longer hold in his contempt. “What the fuck is it with this Cult of Lexi? I mean, who is this woman? I never heard of her. She doesn’t show up on the web, unless she’s one of the twelve hookers I found going by the same name.”
This last comment did not appear to sit well. He got suspicious, offended stares from all around and the guy in the concert shirt went dark and menacing.
The bruiser declaimed, “I think that was a shitty thing to say. But I’m here to work with Lexi on my anger issues, so I will stop now.” Still, the guy’s huge mitts were clenched into sledgehammer fists.
Good Lord, Darren thought, these people are nuts. He went back to staring at the peeling paint and mysterious slime. He shuddered and thought about tossing his jacket over the railing, but then figured that the leather was at the least protecting him from the toxic substances all over this place.
The line continued to move up a step every couple minutes.
A few floors later the old woman was on her third cigarette. She had been breaking them open and sniffing really hard at the tobacco, essentially snorting the filling. It was disgusting.
She declared, “There is such a fine line between a blessing and a burden.”
“Are you talking to me?” Darren really could not tell, because she spoke while looking down over the edge of the stairs at the 39 story drop. For a split second he thought the woman might jump. But he was not sure she could hoist her frail frame over the rusty, grilled railing.
“Of course she’s talking to you, numbskull. Who else?” The burley guy snapped this out like a school teacher addressing a detention student. Darren wondered if his friends had delivered him to his own beat down.
“Oh, now, now don’t be too hard on the boy. He’s a work in progress.”
Darren didn’t usually go in for such New Age, Neo-Christian blather, but when the woman said it in his defense, with that nonchalant, matter of fact way she had of making statements, it seemed, somehow, soothing.
“Any way, if you think about it, everything can be a blessing or a burden. It depends entirely on the person who is doing the looking.”
Darren wasn’t sure about this and retorted in a harsher voice than he intended, “What if my house burned down. And my whole family was killed except me?”
“Oh, dear, I am so sorry for your loss. Poor dear,” the woman looked like she was about to cry.
“No, no. I mean, what if. Of course, that didn’t happen.”
The burly fellow stepped up onto Darren’s stair with the glowering look of a man ready to inflict physical harm, “You didn’t lose your family in a fire?”
“Well, no. I was just -“
“What the hell is wrong with you? You sicko! Why would you say something like that? You get off upsetting innocent old ladies?”
Darren involuntarily tried to back up, but he had nowhere to go. “No, No, No” he said with his hands up, “I’m just offering an extreme example that can’t easily have a positive side.”
The big guy backed off a little and shook his head in disgust. “Well, of course that’s a complete tragedy and it wouldn’t be a burden. It would just be terribly sad. Really! You’re messed up. A piece of work.”
Again the old woman came to his defense, “Oh, he means no harm.” She turned to Darren and added, “Now, he is right, dear. Of course there are terrible things that happen and when they do it is crushing. The thing is, I think you and I both know that what your friends are pointing out is your tendency to interpret every little thing that doesn’t go your way as a burden. Now you could look upon all inconveniences as just that, burdens. But if you open your heart and your mind I’m sure you can see many of those difficulties as blessings in some way.”
Darren felt sheepish in the face of this onslaught and asked, “Like what, for instance?”
The old woman smiled. “Well, why don’t you tell me about a burden you had to endure this the past week.”
Darren thought for a minute and came up with one he knew had nothing positive as a result.
“Ok. I drove two hours to a meeting that was canceled right when I got to the North Bay office. It was a complete waste of time.”
“That’s a good one. Now what are your thoughts on the burden?”
“As I said, it was waste of four hours and I could have been doing a lot of other things. I had to put up with traffic on the way back. It was a terrible drive.” He found himself scanning the faces around him for sympathy. He saw none.
“OK. That’s a good start. Now, did you get paid?”
“Well of course I got paid.”
“Do you realize, dear, that you are already ahead of a lot of people? There are people who might have made that trip and not gotten paid when the job was canceled.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not the point.”
“That is the point. Why do you get paid for doing nothing but driving for a few hours?”
Darren was shocked at the whip-like snap of her voice and her indignant tone.
But she softened quickly and spoke with renewed compassion. “Now, the first thing you must learn to do is recognize when even the chance to have such ‘inconveniences’ is a blessing. And you have a car. That’s another blessing. Now what other things happened or did you do as a result of this trip?”
Darren tried to push away a thought. But he was not quick enough. The woman pounced.
“There!” She jabbed her finger at his face.
He realized she must have seen some sort of micro expression flash across his face.
“What did you just think of?” She insisted with such intensity that Darren again felt like a disobedient school child.
“Oh, fine. I had time to stop off at a nearby mall and I found this cool jacket on sale.” He looked at the sleeve in disgust. “And now it’s ruined because if these fu-, darn walls.”
The leather was surely trashed. He could feel his mood darkening again.
A short, ruddy faced lady three steps down from him caught his eye. She was dressed in an impeccable dark blue pant suit and she piped in a nearly falsetto voice, “Mr. I own a dry cleaner downtown. I am sure I can fix that stain. If you come by I will clean your jacket free of charge.”
At first Darren was in shock as he took the woman’s proffered card. “Wow! Thank you!” Then he became suspicious and asked, “Why would you do that for me?”
“Because you are just like me.”
“How is that?”
The well dressed dry cleaner hesitated and then said, “You are also trying to be your better self.”
Darren thought about this for a second and asked, “And you? How are you trying to improve?”
The lady’s face turned a brighter shade of red and she smiled shyly. “I am told that I could be more generous, that I should be quicker to help others.”
Darren felt a bony hand on his shoulder and turned to see that the old woman was smiling broadly enough to show that she was missing a few molars. She exclaimed, “You see? Two blessings came from the stain on your new jacket. You met a nice person who will do you a selfless favor and your circumstance helped them to change for the better as well. Do you see?”
“I guess so,” Darren signed, “But it will be difficult and exhausting to remember to always look for every obscure positive benefit to every crappy thing that happens to me.”
“There you go again.” The old woman reached up and held his face in her withered hands. They smelled like tobacco, but they were warm and the softness surprised him.
“My dear, dear boy, You will be happier if you make the effort to see beyond the burdens to the blessings. I know you know I’m right, and that all your friends who love you are right.”
It did make sense, but Darren was unsure he could manage it. He was about to say this when he looked up and the old woman was opening a door with a red “45” emblazoned across the yellow paint. He felt a stab of sadness that he was parting ways with this caring stranger.
For some reason she held the door open for him and so he hurriedly followed her through the doorway. She pushed the door closed before the bouncer could come in.
“Wait your turn, now,” she said to the big guy.
Darren caught the bruiser rolling his eyes as the door hissed shut.
There was no hall of doors leading to small apartments. The stairwell door opened on to an empty floor with only pillars every several yards to impede the view of the expansive and completely unadorned space. There were just the pillars, bare walls, windows, and a grey concrete floor. The old woman took Darren by the hand and led him several hundred feet to the other side of the unadorned room. She stopped in front of another door, opened it, and ushered him through.
He passed over the threshold and found himself on the landing of another set of stairs just like the ones he had come up. There were no people and for a few seconds he peered dumbly over the railing, down 45 floors of empty stairwell. He turned. The old woman stood inside the open doorway. She smiled and waved.
“Now you take care of yourself, dear, and you think on what we talked about.”
Darren felt woozy in his confusion. He still managed to sputter, “Wait a minute. When do I to talk to Lexi?”
The old woman laughed. “You silly boy. I’m Lexi. And we already talked.”
“But your smoking? You said you were having trouble quitting.”
The woman claiming to be Lexi shook her head and looked up at him with eyes filled with more compassion that Darren had ever seen.
“Oh, my dear. I’ll tell you a secret. We are all still under construction.”
With that she waved and let the door close with a click.
Darren stood on the landing of the 45th floor staring at the peeling paint.