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THE 42ND FLOOR

I live next door to a passionate child. He is seven years old and he knows things. He knows that I should buy a leaf mulcher like his dad has. He knows where all the mice are buried. He knows what I will do next.

He knows what I will do next because he has been studying me. He watches me plant my garden, mow my lawn, rake my leaves, shovel my snow. He is desperate to know what I do inside my house, out of eyeshot. I am a mysterious woman.

Of course, the mysterious woman is inside cleaning a mysterious bathroom and washing mysterious dinner plates. Josh knows this. Truth is, he studies me because I present a challenge. I have lived in my house for a little over a year. Josh asks me many que stions: Where are you going? What is that? What did you do with your old house?

It's that last question Josh is stuck on. He greets me, when I pull into the driveway at night, Lying in wait with burning questions. Who lived with you at your old house? Do you still have a garden there? For Josh I am an unsettling harbinger of change. What he really wants to know is this: What happens to a house you no longer live in?

I was a passionate reader as a child, a faithful patron of the Children's Room in our small library. But I was marking time there, for I knew when I turned 12, I would be turned loose on the world, allowed to borrow one book at a time from the adult colle ction. When the time came, I chose a book with unerring earnestness, feeling the somber weight of my new and responsible place in the world. I chose Be My Guest by Conrad Hilton.

Not surprisingly, it was rough going. Steadfastly I trudged through the long recital of business deals and marriages, births and deaths. Like Josh, I was desperate to see inside--to see where a person lived his life, to wrap my mind around what a life is . In the end, I was rewarded with one sliver of a fact, a piece of information that I kept nestled for many years in a corner of my imagination: Conrad Hilton was once married to Elizabeth Taylor. And Elizabeth Taylor called him "Nicky."

Nicky. I had no idea who Conrad Hilton was. But Nicky, that was something else. The name reeked of a whole shimmering world, the affection a glamorous woman had for this stodgy businessman. That I could see. In the oblique passage from Conrad to Nicky--t here was a story. There was a life.

As I would learn much later, there was a story that Elizabeth Taylor might take umbrage at, married as she was to the dapper son of Conrad Hilton, whom she did indeed call Nicky, because, well, it happened to be his name.

In the end, even this small, albeit embellished, vision was not enough to keep me ensconced in this dry world of adult books. I withdrew to the dark mysteries of Nancy Drew, the merriment of Maud Lovelace's Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. I curled up with Eight Co usins and the Shirley Temple edition of The Littlest Rebel and was content with the way a good novel lets you in.

Life's mysteries--the complex patterns our lives weave around and through each other, the stories of how we will change and be changed--don't often accomodate our desire for clearcut beginnings, middles, and ends. Which is our great fortune.

The other day Josh saw me working in my garage and came over to help. He swept the floor, untangled my 50-foot outdoor extension cord, which he approved as a good length. I was making room for my car, not an easy job since my garage has been the reposito ry for odd kitchen chairs, the soundboard and key cover of an old piano (don't ask), and my great-aunt's favorite old chair that I might want to reupholster some day. When evening fell, Josh ran over to his house, returning a few minutes later.

I looked up to see something that touched me to my very soul. There were three small lights blinking in the twilight outside, on furniture I had pushed out of the way--a flashlight on the sunken seat of Aunt Ruby's chair, one flashing red bicycle reflect or on a many-times-painted dresser, and another on a half-refinished desk. Rickety and mildewed to me, to Josh these pieces were important because they were mine. And he lit them, so they would not go unseen in the impending darkness.

A few days later Josh steered his bike over, when I pulled into my driveway, to ask if I was going to fit my car in the garage. Come and look, I told him, and I opened the garage door to show off the space I had finally finished clearing.

He nodded his approval. But he was already digesting the implications of my success. "Well," he said, tilting his head to look up at me, "now how will I tell if you're home or not?"

I can't help Josh with his problem, can't help him to see inside my house, can't tell him that his life won't change.

But that's okay. Josh is a child of reflective lights. He'll grow into his own understanding. The truth is he's presented me a pretty big mystery. Who can fathom the way we choose the people who enliven our souls--the enigmas that allow our great and abi ding affection for another person, stuffy or sweet, annoying or charming? Who really knows what it is you hold out to another? I thought I held out to Josh a broom. But to him it was a deep acknowledgement. There you are, working so fiercely, getting rid of cobwebs and trying hard to manage all of the stuff you've accumulated from all of the houses you no longer live in. You look out into the darkness and see three blinking lights, and find you can let the mystery breathe.--Sally Ann Flecker


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