THE GREMLIN IN THE BALCONY
by Jonathan Baker
Today ought to be like any other Wednesday for Jackson Tolliver. He will leave his office at five-thirty on the dot and ride the train uptown to his apartment, where he will wait for Maddie to return from her appointment with her analyst. Then they will dine and retire. This is how every Wednesday has gone for years, and he expects that it will ever thus be so. But today, as it happens, is not like every other Wednesday. Today, as he’s leaving work, Jackson remembers the way his secretary looked at him this afternoon, while his father reprimanded him. In the lobby, on his way out of the midtown tower that houses the Tolliver Revolving Door Co., Jackson chooses the second revolving door from the left and goes through, but he doesn’t come out the other side. Today he goes around again. And once more.
Jackson strolls over to Lexington, toward the 6 train, just like he would any other day. But today he stops outside the subway entrance, drawn to the downtown platform, to the trains going in the opposite direction of home. The commuters are quiet as they enter the subway. He stands among them, letting them flow past like runoff around a gutter stone, listening to the hushed shuffling of their shoes and trousers.
Maddie won’t be home until seven-thirty.
He steps off the train at Astor Place and wanders north. At 12th Street, he goes into the Strand and drifts among the shelves. In the basement, in the darkened cubby that houses the religious books, he takes down a leather edition of The Imitation of Christ, no bigger than his opened hand. He recalls a deacon at the church talking about the book last week, how it changed his life. The smallness of the book, the softness of the pebbled cover. He can hear the gremlin hollering down from the balcony of his heart, telling him to take the book. One small act, to show he’s a free man. Do it, the gremlin hollers. DO IT.
Jackson flips through the pages. It’s only a book, but he can see grand consequences unfolding from this small act of thievery. A quick glance over his shoulder and a gentle motion, the feel of the book dropping into his pocket. Somewhere in the balcony, the gremlin is cheering.
Jackson is the vice president of the Tolliver Revolving Door Company. For forty years, his father’s company has supplied the elite hotels of America with revolving doors. Jackson does very little work; the business moves forward of its own inertia. Every four-star hotel between Boston and Baltimore now has a bank of “Tolliver Revolvers,” smoothly swishing doors of brass that feel feather-light when pushed. Someday he’ll take his place at the head of the business.
Here is Jackson’s life: Every day, Jackson’s father comes into his office and berates him in a voice loud enough for the executive floor to hear. Jackson has never once shirked his duties, never disobeyed his father’s orders. Yet John Tolliver insists on making a fool of his son.
Today, his father admonished him for letting typos slip into a letter Jackson emailed to a string of West Coast hotels. These errors were made by Jackson’s secretary, Janey. The girl poked her head in during his father’s tirade, and Jackson could see her itching to announce her mistake. Jackson just shook his head at her and took the blame. He was always taking the blame, it seemed.
Before his father tramped out, the old man announced that he’d seen Jackson leering at his secretary. Get your mind out of the gutter, his father said.
This is his father’s favorite expression. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Jackson has been married for so long, he can’t remember any other reality. Like a blizzard that cuts power in a small town, Jackson’s wife has the capacity to silence a roomful of Upper East Side wives with one icy look.
Maddie Todd Tolliver. She insists on putting the maiden-name Todd in there. Few in New York have the courage to challenge Maddie Todd Tolliver, including Jackson. He follows her rules, as he tries to follow his father’s.
Jackson’s father adores Maddie. The best thing that ever happened to you, he often says. Sometimes in the office, Jackson will encounter his father in the early afternoon.I’ve just lunched with Maddie, John will say. His father and Maddie have never, not once, invited Jackson to join them.
Jackson resides in the Lexington Avenue apartment where he grew up. When Jackson and Maddie were married, his parents decided they wanted more space and bought an estate in New Jersey. Jackson took over the place, and now sleeps in his childhood bedroom, in his old full-size bed. Maddie Todd Tolliver sleeps in the master bedroom, in the walnut four-poster where his parents used to sleep.
It’s been ten years since Maddie invited him into that bed. Jackson Tolliver is forty-three years old, and he jerks himself to sleep every night like a pimply adolescent.
There’s a young man who lives in a loft apartment with big open windows, across Lexington Avenue from Jackson’s bedroom. Jackson calls him “the Eagle,” because of the bird tattooed over his heart. A trust-funder, spends his afternoons painting Cubist knockoffs, his easel placed squarely on a tarp in the center of the loft. The boy seems lonely.
The Eagle’s mother, who lives downstairs from him, dislikes his paintings. She regularly enters his loft and shouts at him, gripping tightly the lapels of her three-quarter length mink, bellowing like an Alabama trial lawyer.
Jackson imagines how the artist’s life would be better if his mother would just die. Then the boy could paint in peace. He thinks the Eagle should get a place downtown, maybe, or in Brooklyn. Or, who knows, maybe he likes his mother to yell at him.
At night Jackson lies awake and watches the lights glimmer across his white ceiling, flashing reflections from passing taxis on Lexington. Inside Jackson, there is a great cathedral, vaulted and hollow. From the choir balcony, he can hear the gremlin talking. This creature, far up in the angular mezzanine of his heart, questions the veracity of Jackson’s life. The creature, in his raspy voice, wonders aloud what’s wrong with Jackson. Why can’t you stick up for yourself? Are you a scared little baby? Sometimes Jackson listens to this gremlin. Mostly he ignores him.
Jackson had been a bright boy, once. Attended Andover and Columbia, excelled at Calculus, Latin, German. At one time, he could recite Donne. He’s forgotten all that now. Jackson drew pictures as a teenager, too. Of wild places. He can’t remember why he stopped drawing.
Every week Jackson and Maddie Todd Tolliver journey downtown to Trinity Church for Sunday Eucharist. Jackson has received plaudits from the Times for funding lavish new offices for the church’s staff, in a high rise on Rector Street, behind the church. With shining revolving doors at the base, of course.
As a deacon, he’s required to sit in vestry meetings. He tracks the petty squabbles, and wonders how he ended up here, how he became this man, in this chair at this table among these knickerbockers. On Sundays, he kneels and makes his confession and struggles to think of sins to repent. He doesn’t expect God to welcome him when he passes on. It’s not that he believes God has abandoned him, nothing so dramatic as that. It’s more that he thinks God’s forgotten about him.
Still, Jackson loves Trinity Church, relishes the way people look at him with admiration in their eyes. Jackson cherishes his character, his good name. It’s all he has. His reputation is his only reward for his years of following the rules.
When he arrives home, Maddie isn’t back yet. These have been the best two hours he can remember. A rogue, loose in the city with his stolen book, living beyond the law. He sits in the den and reads the book. It is a very great thing to obey, to live under a superior and not to be one’s own master, for it is much safer to be subject than it is to command.
He hears the click of the door, and his spine stiffens.
She’s in a foul mood. He honestly doesn’t know what she pays her analyst for. He slides the book into his pocket and sits calmly through her diatribe. She’s had some run-in with the women who plan the benefit for the Central Park Conservancy. The other wives, she calls them. They refuse to recognize her authority. She blames this on the fact that Jackson’s father hasn’t handed the company over to his son.
The other wives are married to presidents, she notes. As a vice president, Jackson might as well be kitchen help.
That word, vice, echoes in his ear. He feels protected from Maddie today. By his little book, his act of theft. He is a criminal.
Maddie goes to bed early, and Jackson skips off to his room to read more of his stolen book. Through his window, he watches the Eagle slap paint across a canvas, lavender slashes and jagged red zigzags. The Eagle seems happy, for once.
That night, Jackson sleeps better than he has in years. He brings the stolen book to work and carries it around the office like a talisman. His father comes in after lunch and catches Jackson gazing out the window, thinks he’s watching a woman at the insurance office across the way. Get your mind out of the gutter, says John Tolliver.
If only he knew Jackson was thinking about St. Thomas à Kempis, how surprised he would be.
Wednesday at five-thirty, one week after his last crime, Jackson goes around in the door two extra revolutions, as he did last week. He again has two free hours in the city, before Maddie returns home at seven-thirty. He will allow himself these two hours, once a week, to step outside his life. One hour per turn of the door. That will be enough. With these two hours of exemption, he’ll be whomever he likes, do whatever he wants.
He rides the train downtown. Soon he’s back at the Strand, sliding a leather-bound copy of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul into his pocket. Outside, on 12th Street, he hocks a great wad of spit into the gutter. He’s seen men do this before and always wanted to try it. It’s liberating, though he doubts he’ll do it again.
It’s only six-fifteen. An hour and fifteen minutes is a long time.
He wanders over to a cheese-steak shop on Fourth Avenue, where students gather, and orders a sandwich and a bottle of Coke. He hasn’t had a Coke since he was twelve. Men like Jackson don’t drink Coke.
The cashier, a grease-haired man in horn-rims, says thank you.
Fuck you, Jackson says.
Hey, fuck you back, says the cashier.
Jackson smiles, and the cashier gives him a concerned look.
He walks into Union Square, leaking Cheez Wiz all over himself. The Coke bottle rests in his pocket, beside the stolen book. He sits on a bench and reads and eats, making a mess of himself. No man has ever been so pleased to ooze imitation cheese onto his trousers.
Standing on the packed northbound 6 train. Seven twenty-five, five more minutes of freedom. There’s a woman in front of him, in a tight green dress. He brushes his hand against her rear end, and she pivots and slaps him, calls him a creep, and shimmies through the crowded car to the opposite end. The other passengers glare at him. He winks and grins boldly. He doesn’t feel like a creep; he feels free.
Tonight, he watches the Eagle paint for an hour, then climbs into bed and reads his newest book. Beginners fall into many imperfections, which may be called spiritual luxury. He lies in the dark and watches the flash of the taxis against the ceiling. Soon he’s fast asleep, doesn’t wake until the morning sun breaks through the window.
When he walks into the apartment, Maddie is home already, asks where he’s been. He tells her he’s been for a walk. You’ve never gone for walks before, she says.
Walks are good for you, he replies.
Lots of things are good for you, she says.
He ponders this remark. They dine in silence, on delivered dumplings from Paprika Weiss.
The Eagle so rarely goes out. Jackson finds himself willing the young painter to put on his coat, to move toward the door, to escape into the city. But Jackson’s telepathy never works. The boy sits there, night after night, painting those cubes and triangles. He has filled his apartment with lavish canvases. Some of the paintings are quite good; Jackson thinks the young man could show them in a gallery.
Wednesday afternoons, Jackson tries jaywalking, visits a nudie bar, buys a pornographic magazine and masturbates in the bathroom of a deli. He walks down Broadway with his trousers open. Kicks a pigeon. Pees on a toilet seat. Eats a hot dog with ketchup.
In a second-hand shop, Jackson spots a silk robe, amaranthine with paisleys all over it. Vibrant. Flamboyant. Smooth. He folds it into his briefcase and walks out.
In the end, he discovers he needs nothing more from his period of exemption than to steal one book per week. The five volumes he’s stolen make a neat line at the top of a shelf in his bedroom, like proud sentinels. He purchases stone bookends depicting medieval monks and creates a shrine for his spoils. Nothing brings him more pleasure than glancing at this shelf. He’s a covert crook.
Sundays at Trinity, Jackson zealously begs forgiveness, kneeling in the apse. Rarely has a man’s prayer, he thinks, been such a powerful mixture of repentance and gratitude. Through his crimes, Jackson has gained intimate knowledge of ancient religious texts. He’s begun to associate Christianity with theft and happiness, all at once.
By choosing to sin, he has felt God’s presence. He wonders if Adam didn’t know God better after his fall from grace. If Jackson had decided to steal anything else—straight razors or coffee cups—things might be different, but with these books every act of theft is also an act of curiosity, a movement further into himself. He recalls Hebrews. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.
But, he wonders, what if we are sinning in order to learn truth?
At home, Jackson slips the amaranthine robe over his naked body and parades around his bedroom, feeling it flow behind him. He hopes someone will see him through the window and think, What an unconventional life that man must lead.
Tonight, the Eagle goes out and leaves his apartment in darkness. While he’s away, the artist’s mother enters. She has two men with her, and they remove the paintings, handling them roughly. On their way out, they take his easel and brushes. When the Eagle returns, later that night, he sits on the edge of his bed with his face in his hands.
Jackson’s begun to draw again, keeps a sketchpad in his desk and renders in pencil little scenes he witnesses from his office window. Women typing, men gazing out of windows, far-below pedestrians holding hands.
This morning, John Tolliver flings Jackson’s office door open and enters unannounced. Jackson tosses the sketchbook into his desk drawer. His father thinks he’s been looking at pornography. Get your mind out of the gutter, his father says.
The old man settles in a chair across from Jackson’s desk, crosses his legs and pulls his tie loose from his belt in that way that he does, smoothing it downward and folding his fingers in his lap. I’ve just had lunch with Maddie, he says. She tells me you’ve been acting strangely.
I have to say, John Tolliver continues, you’re behaving oddly at work, too. Last Wednesday I saw you whistling by the elevator bay. I’ve never known you to whistle, even as a child.
Is it wrong to whistle? Jackson asks.
His father chuckles, smooths his tie again. Maddie thinks you’re having an affair. I wonder if she isn’t right.
An affair? Jackson releases a laugh. And she sent you to talk to me about it?
John straightens in his chair. This isn’t a joke. If I’m to leave this operation under your care, I need to have utter confidence in your integrity.
I understand, says Jackson. When is that, anyway?
When is what?
When are you stepping down? You’re almost seventy.
I’ll retire when I’m ready. Keep to your own business. His father stares out the window into the blue sunshine. Of course, he says, we’ve all been known to have a little something on the side. But for God’s sake, no one can know about it—least of all your wife. Have some common sense. What would your fellow parishioners at Trinity think? Or the gossip pages?
Jackson snorts. I doubt the gossip pages are concerned with the personal life of the vice president of a revolving-door company.
Perhaps, says John. But president. That’s another matter.
Later, Jackson remembers the way he scoffed at his father. That snort. That wasn’t him, that was someone else. That was Exemption Jackson, snorting.
Wednesday again. Five months since he stole his first book, and today he’ll take his twenty-first. He’s filled an entire shelf with religious texts, and the monk bookends have no more room to scoot. He’s going to start on a new shelf, buy some new bookends. He already knows which book he’s going to steal today. The Way of Perfection by St. Teresa of Avila.
As he’s leaving the office to head for the bookstore, his office phone rings. Maddie’s appointment with her analyst has been canceled. She wants him home for dinner, so she can retire early.
No, he says softly.
Why not? she asks.
Important work to do, he says.
She points out that he never has important work to do, and he replies, Today I do. He tells her he’ll be home later. She curses at him, he mumbles apologies, she’s still cursing. He gently replaces the receiver on the cradle and walks out of his office.
He arrives at the bookstore shortly after five-thirty, his fingers itching to steal the St. Teresa volume. Just as he’s about to drop the book into his pocket, he hears his name spoken. His heart leaps. One of the wives from Trinity Church, a haggard creature in pearl earrings, peering around the corner. Is Maddie with you? the woman asks.
A shame, the woman says. She delivers a long commentary on the state of Trinity Church. When she realizes he’s not listening, she shuffles away.
It won’t be long now before Maddie learns he’s been at the Strand. She’ll want to know why he was there. She’ll want answers. Thank God the woman didn’t see him steal the book. Think what that would do to his reputation.
He exhales and tries again. A shop girl rounds the corner just as he’s sliding St. Teresa into his coat. He takes the volume back out, smiles weakly, replaces the book on the shelf. She returns his smile. Her front teeth are large and white, lending her a rabbitish quality.
He moves through the store, glancing occasionally over his shoulder. Each time he looks, the rabbit girl is there. He waits a solid hour before making his move. In the science section, he stuffs a random book clumsily into his pocket, then floats out onto Broadway, weaving among the evening pedestrians.
No alarms. No security guards. No protest from the rabbity shop girl. No trouble at all.
On the benches in Union Square, he takes out the book he stole, a small volume about American inventors, and begins to read. When he next checks his watch it’s late, after seven. His wife will be angry. He should leave now, if he wants to make it home before the end of his period of exemption. But he can’t bring himself to do it. He wants to stay out longer.
The pressure builds, the knowledge he’ll be late. He’s breaking his pact with himself. He tells himself he’s being silly. He created this rule for himself, he can break it if he wants.
A light snow begins to fall. His eyes land on a passage in the book about the inventor of the revolving door, Theophilus van Kannel. It’s funny, he hasn’t thought about the man in ages. His father mentioned him a few times, but Jackson was never curious enough to learn about him. In addition to inventing the revolving door, the book informs him, Van Kannel also invented a carnival ride at Coney Island called the Witching Waves. The inventor died alone, without family. Jackson’s mind recalls his lessons at Andover. Theophilus means lover of God. Kännel means gutter.
A voice interrupts him: How’s the book?
The shop girl is seated at the next bench, in a bulky black coat, reading a book of her own.
It’s a good one, he says.
What is it?
He shows her the cover, she raises her eyebrows. He asks what she’s reading, and she shows him a paperback Mickey Spillane.
Do you read a lot of detective stories? he asks.
Almost exclusively. She smiles. Do you read a lot of books about inventors?
Maybe, he says.
She nods somberly. This doesn’t make you better than me.
I would never think such a thing, he replies. She turns back to her book. A moment later, she speaks without looking up: I saw you.
I saw you take the book.
His face warms, and he tries to answer her, but he’s lost.
Don’t worry, she says. I stole this one. I steal all my books. Settling into the bench, she says, You don’t look like a thief.
I’m only a thief on Wednesdays.
Right. She grins. On Wednesdays.
It’s seven-twenty, and he’s still in his period of exemption. No one can touch him now. He asks the rabbit girl with the blocky eyeglasses if she would like to have a cup of coffee with him.
The smile slips from her face. No, she says. I’m going to sit here in the snow and read. But you’re welcome to stay and read with me.
All right, he says. I will. Would you like to share my bench?
The rabbit seems like she’ll argue, but instead she comes over to his bench and settles beside him, twitching her nose in the cold air. He turns back to his book, and they read together. Despite his rejection, he’s proud of himself for asking her to coffee. Now that he knows where he stands with her, it’s pleasant to sit and read with this girl, in the falling flakes, their breath puffing yellow beneath the sodium lights of Union Square. The gremlin crouches in the front row of his balcony, grunting happily.
Occasionally she makes a droll comment about one of the park’s visitors. When she does this, Jackson’s heart swells. He recognizes a man she comments on, one of the vestry members from Trinity Church. The man returns his gaze, taking in the image of Jackson and this girl on this park bench.
He arrives home well past ten and finds Maddie waiting in his bedroom, standing like a statue in the center of his rug, her blue eyes gleaming against the light from the window.
Margie Wainwright saw you at the Strand tonight, she says. You told me you were working.
He runs his fingers along the spines of his stolen books. Stay out of my room, he says.
Jeremy Bragg saw you, too. In Union Square, talking with some girl.
His shoulders slump. He’s conscious of his sleeves, how perhaps the tailor has cut them too short.
Whatever you’re doing, stop it now, Maddie says. Word will spread. I’ll spread it myself. Your reputation, your good name, destroyed, and for what?
In the door, she stops. I want you home at five-thirty, every day.
He listens to her retreating footsteps, places the inventor book sideways on top of the stolen religious texts.
Later, Jackson stands at his window with the silk robe hanging open around his shoulders. The Eagle hasn’t bought any more paintbrushes or canvases, though it appears he’s acquired a revolver. He sits on the edge of his bed, spinning the chambers of the pistol, lost in thought. At last the Eagle puts the gun away and crawls beneath the covers of his bed.
Jackson wakes in the night. Maddie’s shadowy outline in his open doorway, watching him. He turns over and goes back to sleep.
Jackson is home every night at five-thirty, as ordered. Sometimes at dinner with Maddie, Exemption Jackson appears for a moment, in some baudy comment or an oblique reference to The Cloud of Unknowing. At night, in the cathedral of his heart, the gremlin leans out from the choir loft, itching to leap down into the apse, to saunter among the empty pews.
Wednesday, Maddie calls, says her appointment has been canceled. She’ll be home at six and expects him to be there. He sees no reason why he must give up his Exemption Period. At five-thirty, he goes round two extra revolutions in the revolving door and feels free again. He rides the train uptown, smiling all the while.
When Maddie walks in the door at five minutes to six, she finds Jackson luxuriating on the couch in his robe, spread open to reveal his pale thighs and shriveled penis. Perched on his hairless belly, a leather-bound copy of the Revelations of Divine Love.
Jackson, she barks. For God’s sake, put something on. What’s got into you?
I have something on, he replies.
Maddie’s gaze roams the room, dancing across the walls, avoiding the sight of his nudity. You know what I mean, she says. You’re embarrassing yourself.
He lets out a small belch and says, I stole this robe from one of the finer thrift stores in the East Village.
Go to your room if you’re going to be vulgar.
What’s vulgar about the human form?
She frowns, staring at the fringe of the rug, then disappears down the hall. Twenty minutes later, she reappears. Your father’s going to hear about this.
His penis is erect now, and he’s flung his leg over the top of the sofa. He reads aloud, Then came suddenly to my mind that I should desire the second wound of our Lord’s gracious gift: that my body might be fulfilled with mind and feeling of His blessed Passion. For I would that His pains were my pains . . .
He’s still reading when he hears the front door close.
Thursday morning, Janey is standing at his desk.
Why are you . . . What are you wearing?
It’s a robe. Don’t you like it?
Yes, I suppose. It’s very nice.
Later, Janey again: There are some men here with a large crate.
He cinches the robe’s belt and walks out into the open office. He can feel the eyes of Tolliver Revolving Door on him, but he pays them no mind. Inside his cathedral, the gremlin is swinging from the rafters, chattering like a chimpanzee. He directs the men to bring the painting into his office.
Once again, Janey: Your father is here.
Send him in.
The old man stands over his desk, snorting.
I’ve just heard from Maddie. What in hell has come over you? What are you wearing? What is this painting?
Jackson scratches his bare thigh and gives his father an askance glance.
It’s an image of our savior.
He’s so . . . naked, and bloody. Have you lost your mind?
Clean up your act, Jackson, or I’ll have to let you go.
Let me go where?
Let you go . . . away.
What if I want to go away?
Then I suppose I can’t stop you.
In the divorce settlement, Jackson receives a tidy sum for the apartment. He brings nothing with him except the stolen books, which fill a large canvas backpack. Even the monk bookends stay. As he’s walking out of his bedroom for the last time, he notices that the Eagle has begun to fill his apartment with paintings again. He wishes he could tell the young man how proud he is that he never used that revolver.
Jackson now resides in a fourth-floor walkup in Alphabet City. The walls are decorated with his drawings, and his big bloody Christ, and he sleeps on a yellow sofa someone had thrown out. A perfectly good sofa. He spends his days reading, drawing, walking the city. He’s considering applying for a job at the Strand.
Some mornings he’ll smile for minutes on end, as he sits in Tompkins Square sipping coffee. He no longer goes to Trinity, though sometimes when he passes Grace Church, at the dogleg on Broadway just below the Strand, he pops in and prays.
Grace is always so empty, so silent, so full of echoes.
Inside the cathedral of Jackson’s heart, the gremlin has climbed into the lectern, where he chatters his arcane gibberish day and night.
Sometimes, on Wednesday evenings, Jackson puts on a gray suit and rides the train up to his old office tower and stands on the corner, watches the people go in and out, observing their hurried gates, their flapping ties, their frowning faces. These poor souls, so lost in the world, so unappreciative of that little triangle of freedom—that space, that belongs only to them, for that brief moment.
About the Author:
Three years ago, Jonathan Baker quit his publishing job in New York City and returned to his hometown in West Texas to write full time. He currently works as a news curator for High Plains Public Radio, and he hold a master’s degree in Humanities from the University of Chicago. His fiction recently appeared in (mac)ro(mic) and was featured on The Other Stories podcast.