The Ninth Floor

Tony France

Johnny Pryor followed a group of tourists into a Chinatown labyrinth of contraband. The travellers had arrived from various continents, their itineraries mysteriously converging on this dank warren where they rummaged through boxes loaded with fakes. Johnny rummaged through the tourists, bumping, lightly jostling, smiling through curt apologies. A man wearing black evening clothes and a high hat stood amidst a thousand watch faces all showing the wrong time. Johnny caught a glimpse of Roman numerals marking a different hour. He longed for a truer epoch, one he associated with catalogue illustrations of families gathered together to exchange gifts in seasonal ritual.

He regained the broad avenues where the one true thing he knew glimmered under dark clouds. Leyland’s was a jewel box of glass and mirrors, marble and polished stone, with the icons of commerce adorning almost every square foot of its eight floors. He dropped the wallets he had lifted into a mailbox, counted the bills, and wearily drifted into a moonlit park. Snuggled in his bedroll, he stared at the alternative time on the not-so-genuine timepiece predestined for him. His head rested on a Leyland’s catalogue, and he dreamt of a New York City Christmas.

Leyland’s catalogue was a thousand pages filled with hope, joy, and goodwill. The actual wares offered for sale seemed like a pretext for displaying tapestries, paintings, mosaics, frescoes, fountains, statuary rising above cobalt blue pools, hanging gardens, tropical forests, marble temples, and ancient ruins. Walking into the blue and gold aura of the Leyland’s Fifth Avenue main entrance reinforced the impression that at Leyland’s, merchandising, although necessary, served an ulterior motive.

Leyland’s rose up to a ninth floor, inaccessible to the public, where over the years Jack Leyland had received European royalty, sheikhs, presidents, three Popes, an emperor descended from the lineage of Solomon and Sheba—the illustrious and the famous. Johnny Pryor had never been invited to the ninth floor but hoped to break in and see, and hopefully steal, whatever was up there.

Johnny insinuated himself among the influx of part-time staff Leyland’s hired every autumn leading to the Christmas rush. Leyland’s was renowned for its exemplary role in encouraging student employment. Johnny could barely pass for a freshman but he had the attitude down pat, although in his case self-absorption was due to his fixation with the collection of rare jewelry up on the ninth floor.

The story of a penniless G.I. from upstate nowhere who returned from the Second World War rich enough to buy a New York City department store led to rumors Jack Leyland had swindled a sect of Scandinavian exiles living in Paraguay into buying parts of liberated France. Johnny Pryor fashioned the foundational myths of his creed on darker suspicions involving all manner of subterfuge associated with wartime exigencies, notably Leyland’s involvement in the traffic of old masters, jewelry, ancient artifacts, and gold.

One early October morning he took the elevator up to the eighth and ultimate floor accessible to the public.

“You’re from St. Dismas, Vermont.” The gentleman from the employment office squinted. “St. Dismas?”

“Yeah—you know, the good thief.” Johnny met the sidelong glance with a choirboy look, then a smirk. “The one who went to heaven.”

Johnny was given an identity card. Merely one floor from the heavenly sphere and down he went, unceremoniously thrust into the old world bazaar anarchy of the Basement Emporium. He was diligent and friendly during his time in the basement, all the while scheming to figure out how to move up. Soon he was on a first-name basis with old Pete Woytowich from “‘Zines and Pipe Dreams,” Professor Flagg, and Aeneas, the Virgil-quoting scarlet macaw from Amazonia.

“HIC TIBI NE QUA MORAE, FUERINT DISPENDIA TANTI,” screamed Aeneas when he first met Johnny.

When not deftly maneuvering stock carts through stampeding customers, Johnny studied the floor layout—the stockroom stairwells and freight elevators, the nooks and old passageways of the old edifice. He soon noticed how strangely anachronistic Leyland’s way of doing things was. Management philosophy discouraged upward or even lateral mobility. Valenti had managed first-floor Men’s Wear and its basement liquidation center for some thirty years. Sister Eunice had been in Numismatics for over forty years. Old man Hunt had held court up in Home Furnishings for longer than anyone remembered. After more than a half century, Laverna still ran the Fountain of Youth Beauty Salon. These people, all so archaically mild-mannered, polite yet authoritative, did not understand the concept of promotion or career advancement, nor, apparently, did they care. And that crazy dress code—everybody proudly donning regimental colors—what a joke! Breaking rank would be spotted immediately. Johnny took heart in noticing peevish sentinels standing guard on every floor, some even blatantly disguised as customers. This ominously hinted at uncharted areas within the edifice, a secret Limbo, perhaps a series of hidden mezzanines where Leyland’s real business got done.

“You’re an ambitious kid, aren’t you,” said Valenti in a mocking tone. “You want to get up in the world.” At first glance a melancholy silhouette known for his intolerance to the subtlest hint of real or perceived insubordination, Valenti was in fact a walking encyclopedia of humorous mischief.

“I was only inquiring about possible career paths,” said Johnny, wiping from his face the cod liver oil squirted from the trick carnation pinned on the lapel of Valenti’s departmental magenta blazer. “Leyland’s is so vast.” Johnny caught a glimpse of a secret smile.

“Bigger than you think.”

Johnny tried to arrive at work as early as possible to snoop around the backroom areas. Early one morning he snuck in with the cleaning staff. He was about to explore the stairway leading to the mysterious sub-basement in case there might have been a freight elevator—perhaps going up all the way to the top—when suddenly he was startled by Valenti limping into the stockroom. They stared at each other. Valenti’s uncommonly expressive eyebrows let him know he was on to him.

“Slipped on the wet stairs.” Valenti was constantly running up and down between the basement and first-floor Men’s Furnishings. Pain flashed across a cold, knowing gaze. “We need you up on the main floor. Re-ticket the M and J stock for the Surprise Sale.”

Misty-eyed Pete Woytowich bid him farewell. Professor Flagg, Aeneas on his shoulder, waved goodbye.

“ARMA VIRUMQUE CANO,” cried Aeneas.

Johnny had been on the main floor for a mere three days when Valenti limped towards him accompanied by a statuesque woman wearing a purple silk and taffeta dress resembling a scale model of a modernist opera house.

“He’s a good kid,” said Valenti, pointing a cane at him. “Wants to get up in the world.”

“Don’t they all?”

Valenti introduced Johnny to Mrs. Finchworth and bid him adieu. Johnny and four other boys were moved up to Ladies’ Fashions on the second floor to replace Mrs. Finchworth’s part-time student staff who had taken time off to study for midterms. Mrs. Finchworth was rumoured to be in her sixties but looked at least twenty years younger. In a constant bustle of activity, she forgot about the boys, vanished, and left them waiting in the buyers’ office.

Johnny and the boys sat there for hours, silent and intimidated by the sophisticated ladies making calls to various points on several continents. Mrs. Finchworth returned and threw citron fatigues at them. Then work really began.

The whirlwind pace of stock turnover in Women’s Fashions made second-floor duty intense. Mrs Finchworth would appear at odd times and observe them with a faint smile on her lips.

Almost immediately after he arrived, change came again.

“Anyone interested in working overtime for the Fall Splendors Sale up on the third floor?” asked Mrs. Finchworth.

Johnny was speechless. He nodded his assent, somewhat regretful that he hadn’t had time to look around the second-floor backrooms.

The elegance and refinement of the clothing displayed on Leyland’s third-floor galleries suggested to Johnny secret cities of fashion where an army of couturiers designed, cut, and stitched every piece of apparel. Haunting melodies wafted forth from the piano department (housed next to the tea room). Ascending Leyland’s department store required stamina. Every rise in level seemed to require an additional investment of work, discipline, and dedication.

The night watchman opened the door to let Johnny out late one evening after he had finished a twelve-hour shift. He walked out into the cool autumn night, tired but happy. Light blazed through the alabaster palace. Its dreamscape of glass show windows was a labyrinth of dazzling beauty where ghostly women appeared and vanished under colored lights. Each window display was an intricately designed world.

Johnny considered his situation. He had quickly made it up to the third floor, closer to his goal, but something bothered him now. He wondered how he could extricate himself from this ever-deepening dream and conjure the willpower to fulfill his personal destiny. He had been standing for a long while admiring the displays when a voice startled him.

“Glass and mirrors foster hope and good will!”

A tall man wearing possibly the most stylish trench coat Johnny had ever seen over what appeared to be fatigues tailored by an Italian couturier led a nighttime procession of craftsmen. Suddenly there thronged around Johnny a seemingly endless crowd of painters, carpenters, designers, artists toting sketchbooks, ad men, and decorators—each of them leading a squadron of apprentices.

“I want the dream light of youthful beauty and innocence—mountain lakes and streams, visions of the Empyrean, a celestial city of gold and jewels. Does Elysium ring a bell?” The tall man looked at Johnny, immediately took him to be an apprentice, and threw a sketch pad at him. He shoved him towards the Italian Palazzo scene.

“It’s transcendence versus transience. Pick a side.”

“Hi—I’m Laura,” said a young lady standing beside Johnny. “I never saw you before.”

“Just a few minutes ago I was ticketing stock up in the third-floor galleries.”

“We’ve got to get going. You heard Mr. Romanelli.”

“Get going—where?” Had he imagined a smile lurking beneath her ingénue gaze?

“Fourth floor.”

Ascent seemed inevitable, predestined. He was caught up in an inexorable rising, unable to resist.

Johnny worked until morning, eighteen consecutive hours. The labyrinth of glass and mirrors Laura was designing for the Wonderland of Bargains Sale receded into a shadowy dream.

He awoke to the sight of Mrs. Finchworth’s look of amusement, magnified by diamond-studded harlequins. She wore a gown of blue silk trimmed in gold lamé of such rigidly classical styling it might have been designed by a painter of icons.

“Get to work, young man. Laura is waiting for you.”

Johnny looked about and realized he was lying on a Persian carpet. He scrambled to his feet, rubbed his eyes, ran fingers through tousled hair, and headed to the escalators.

“No—not that way,” cried Mrs. Finchworth. “Up. She’s up on the fifth floor!”

When he reached the fifth floor he felt he had somehow crossed into another epoch—one characterized by gentleness and innocence, and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to return to his own. Automata danced with a chorus of costumed children, as marionettes formed a spectral tableau before the towers and ramparts of an ice castle. The fairest of maidens walked a rope before a prince and princess. A bustling crew of almost one hundred display personnel moved scaffolding, masonry, and statuary.

Laura disappeared for the next three days. Johnny worked long hours, raising the immense Kingdom of Toyland. He began to feel like a member of a guild, and to feel guilty about betraying the trust of colleagues by snooping around the back rooms. Still, at the first opportunity he vanished through a door in the stockroom and wandered the corridors within the edifice in search of a stairwell or elevator up to the ninth floor. Perhaps this was where the most lifelike mannequins he had ever seen came back to live the nighttime side of their mannequin lives.

A narrow passageway led to a vast mezzanine bathed in a golden light, where a multitude of young employees frantically filled out catalogue orders. A voice startled him, and Johnny found himself confronted by a huge man wearing what looked like the uniform of a Prussian general.

“Do you belong here?” The Prussian general’s gaze defied any attempt at deception.

“I’m with Laura—display staff.”

“Young man, Laura has up and gone to the sixth floor. What in heavens are you pretending to be doing here?”

Suddenly Johnny wondered why anyone would even want to possess something that wasn’t rightfully theirs. Theft was imposture, a counterfeiting of reality. It was infantile to want to force upon a recalcitrant world one’s small-minded desires. And yet there were these nine levels to climb, and that ninth precipice to look over.

He rode the ascending staircase to the sixth floor and came upon a heavenly blue light reflecting off the vast mosaic that covered the wall. Glazes of blue gave the picture an enameled brilliance. There was too much in the scene to take in all at once; indeed, the richness in the image would require days of contemplation. The whole scene was lit by that dream light to which Romanelli had referred. It seemed to be the very radiance of Eden, spilling off into the showroom, casting an aura on the vast Elysium that was the sixth floor, all the way to the south windows where it bled into the gold of natural light. Graceful youths in the full bloom of innocence and beauty were on a broad garden terrace suspended over the deep azure sea.

The lacquered wood of hand-crafted furniture, unlike any Johnny had every seen, was decorated with painted scenes of otherworldly beauty. There were armoires, tables of varnished woods set in geometric patterns, carpets of raw silk in mesmerizing mosaics. Johnny helped Laura move in the life-size, eerily life-like nutcrackers.

“Laura, have you ever been to the ninth floor?”

“That’s Mr. Leyland’s private place.”

“I noticed how people, departments and things are worlds apart—and yet display staff get around a lot, so I thought—.”

“Come on, let’s take a break.”

Johnny followed Laura to the employee lounge. Laura showed him an old magazine article that had been laminated and hung on a wall. Jack Leyland was pictured in the center of a group of delegates from the United Nations on a tour of the ninth floor, whose contents contained what the article obliquely referred to as “Leyland’s most treasured assets,” revealing “the ultimate purpose of his great work.”

After break, Laura did not go back to the sixth floor but brought Johnny up to the seventh.

“We need those layouts.”

The advertising department on the seventh floor was a vast area bathed in a golden nimbus through which angels drifted. Johnny was rendered speechless by the sight of so many gorgeous girls floating around the studios and adjoining workshops.

“What are the layouts for?” he asked Laura, sensing the inevitable reply.

“The art-deco Christmas scene. Come on, let’s go up and look for the backdrops.”

“The eighth floor—right?”

“No. The rooftop.”

They went down one floor and took the sixth-floor freight elevator. His heart skipped a beat when she pressed the button for the ninth floor. They got off onto what looked like a dark stairway on the ninth-floor landing, went through one of two doors that gave onto a vestibule, climbed a steel catwalk up a short flight of stairs, and through a trapdoor that opened up to the sky. The rooftop stretched across a skyscape of glass towers. Griffins, heralds, and maidens carved in stone towers hovered above them. To the south, gothic spires faced the river.

Adjacent to the carpenters’ workshops was the decorators’ stockroom, where the backdrops and accessories that had made a half century of Leyland’s most memorable window displays were stored: dreamscapes, clouds, and birds drifting across a deep blue river dappled with sailboats, schooners, and cargo ships. Immense wooden panels were painted with Christmas scenes—how many years ago had they been painted?—children, now grown; people, joyous in their brief passage upon the earth, now gone. He envied the craftsmen who had worked here on winter nights, under clear skies deep enough to hold billions of worlds, an infinity captured in a cold windblown scene on a Christmas night and cast in silver sparkle on bluish fields of snow and ice.

Perhaps Leyland’s carpenters hid up here and slept on the job, for the workshop spoke of dreams and sunny skies, of neverending mornings shining bright with promise, and of working overtime, as darkness fell, to get the displays ready for the festive seasons, the same light shining forth from the ever-deepening infinity of worlds deep in the sparkling night. There had been work to be done, and done well. And dreaming was part and parcel of the job. Johnny Pryor could only hope of someday bearing such a burden of work.

“I want to work here all my life,” he said. Laura looked at him as though he had merely stated the obvious.

“Johnny, I’ve got to find that one specific picture. Wait for me—I’ll be back soon. We’ve got plenty of work to do.”

“Laura—don’t go.” But she was gone, and Johnny knew that despite his best intentions, he would now retrace his steps back to the ninth-floor landing.

He stood in the back room near the freight elevator, facing the other door. He went through the second door and found himself in a corridor flooded with the golden light that spilled through the glass roof and flooded against gleaming brass and marble. He was blinded by the aura—so much so that he almost didn’t see the massive brass door at the end of the corridor. He was amazed to find the massive door offer no resistance. He pushed it open and stumbled upon a dark, cavernous, foul-smelling room. He staggered back, gasping for air, terrified by the scene gradually revealing itself to his eyes in the penumbra. Terrified by himself, by the darkness within, by the horror that was part of his being and that was rising up in revulsion at the wreck of his pretensions. His eyes were bleary, his head spinning. He wanted to run away from Mr. Leyland’s most precious assets, the prize possessions that were the ultimate purpose of his great work, but it was too late to ignore what he had once so easily avoided, thrust upon him now in a terrible humid stench.

Ragged, foul-smelling derelicts, the poor and homeless, wayward youths whose eyes revealed lifetimes of suffering, the sick and lame, those who could no longer bear the burden of their solitude, the ignored, the shunned and humiliated, huddled in the warmth of the infirmary. Food, drink, and clothing were distributed by Mrs. Finchworth’s girls. The angels from advertising hovered over the sick. The young men and women from catalogue sales distributed tea and hot chocolate, food trays, and blankets.

And there was Romanelli hovering nearby, directing traffic as though he were designing the most stupendous show window, taking Johnny for an apprentice and shoving a pile of blankets toward him to warm those newly arrived, nearly frozen, gazing at the wonder of this sanctuary in the art-deco splendour of the ninth floor. Johnny saw Laura watching him with a smile, perhaps glad that she had found the long-lost backdrop of a glorious Christmas scene from long ago.

Tony France lives in Montreal with his wife and three children. He is a graduate of Concordia University, where he majored in communication studies. His fiction has recently appeared in various Canadian literary journals and anthologies.