On each floor, across from the elevator, is a chute where we plummet garbage down to the basement incinerator. There is no excuse for a cluttered room, messy hallway, overflowing waste can. When you open the metal door, much like an enormous mailbox, the hot breath of rotting and burning blasts in your face, so we learn to stand to the side and dump quickly. This is a novelty that doesn’t wear off. Anytime we go past, we toss small bits of trash. The chute eats everything.
On the eleventh floor is a man named Bruce. On each floor, the coveted rooms are the four corners, the only rooms with two windows. Long-standing residents and floor superintendents live in these palaces. They have one extra tile to a row, which means eight extra square feet. Bruce is in the northwest corner overlooking the quad, the Fox River, the cafeteria, the pines. We’ve heard he is situated just right that no matter where he looks, he can’t see the perimeter walls.
He also has an oriental carpet. There are varying rumors how he pulled that off, but no one seems to know. Bruce wears glasses, looks perpetually shocked and can typically be found reading or typing on a clackety-click typewriter. Pages fall to the floor, stacks of books line his walls. It is because of that frozen facial expression, one of part terror, part confusion, we call him How-Did-I-Get-Here-Bruce. We also imitate him and hold contests at the bar: who can look the most bewildered. He or she most Brucian gets three free shots — bartender’s choice — and a coconut juice chaser. No one remembers how that got started either. There is a lot of lack-of-memory-business going around with the tavern crowd.
At some point in the far past, the college had an open campus. Students could leave at will. This is hard for us to imagine, seeing our families, going to Green Bay for a game, that sort of thing. We’re here for five years to get the mandatory degree and we’ll be traveling then, or so we hope. No one ever returns from the outside, to hang out with us here at Oshkosh, so we just keep on going to classes, waste the evening at the many bars — no one seems to be able to keep track of the exact count — and trudge to the cafeteria. Over and over.
Which brings us back to Bruce. Everyone can agree on one thing: He has been here always. He’s much older than us. What we mean is: He’s a lifer somehow. Everyone else graduates, does the ceremony with hats in the air and beer pouring on heads. The metal gates open and there departs class of ’XX.
Not Bruce. He types, he reads. No one has ever seen him wipe his glasses. A small gold-plated label on his door that mystifies all: Holland Rogers.
We stumble-fall, burping, half-puking, swirling in from the bar one night. When the elevator opens, there is Bruce at the chute: one hand on what appears to be an ankle with a shoe attached, pushing. We’re so wasted; we decide we must not be seeing what indeed we’re seeing.
In the morning when comparing memories the only thing we can agree on is a single foot and Bruce. Some say a tennis shoe, others a wingtip. Did he hold that shoe, daring us to notice? Did he look shamefaced and shove? There isn’t enough evidence for anyone to make much of it and we are such poor witnesses. Unreliable narrators! This admission causes hilarity and a round of morning shots.
However, soon, an undercurrent of excitement. Someone is missing from floor ten. A superintendent, one who lived below Bruce and blasted music, only to receive a note on a string dangling outside his window with two handwritten words: quieter please.
Now, the loud guy has vanished. Many of us remember the foot, the chute, but our poor-witnessing amounts to hearsay and plus, apparently everyone on floor ten is greatly relieved by the disappearance of said superintendent as not only was he noisy, he ate kippered snacks right from the can.
All of us with Professor Strout are involved in a sensory project where we have to take turns being blind for a few days. Half the campus is sightless, covered in bandanas, ties, a few of the non-claustrophobic even have pillowcases over their heads.
During this period, two more people disappear. One from floor twelve, one from floor eleven, the room next to Bruce.
Of course by now, those of us who can see, watch him. That is, when we aren’t leading our blinded partners around campus, keeping them from tripping on the curb, escorting them through the ghastly cafeteria. Bruce is the suspect du jour.
Inevitably someone will go to the incinerator, we’re sure of this. Who and when, we don’t know, no one takes charge or expresses official concern. We go about our lives, drinking, half-assed studying, smoking pot along the river, wrestling in the slushy quad till we’re covered in mud on Saturday morning.
Still, more students are missing. Rumors about notes received: all politely requesting silence and calm.
Observers claim Bruce types faster, more furious, pages piling, books strewn more than ever.
In the middle of Strout’s Friday Exam, the tornado siren, which doubles as a campus warning system, screeches. Everyone pours from the rooms, elated to be saved mid-test, only to stop at the curb. The sight leaves us open-mouthed.
Heaved through town by two guards squirms How-Did-I-Get-Here-Bruce who shouts. Shouting! No one asked what I was writing about. No one asked to read my material! He is dragged while wearing cuffs – I was on the last page! – feet not attempting to walk, yelping about injustice and unfairness, inequities — more words than anyone has ever heard him say.
Come to think of it, had anyone ever heard him speak at all? Out the gate he goes.
Stefanie Freele was born and raised in Wisconsin and currently lives in the Northwest US. Her short story collection, Feeding Strays, was released by Lost Horse Press and was a finalist for both the Book of the Year Award and the 2010 Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award.
Surrounded by Water, Stefanie’s second collection of short stories is now available for preorder from Press 53.
Stefanie is the previous fiction editor of the Los Angeles Review. She has a MFA in fiction from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts: Whidbey Writers Workshop in Washington.
She has been published three times in Flash Fiction Online: “James Brown Is Alive And Doing Laundry In South Lake Tahoe”, “The Flood of ’09”, and “How Did I Get Here Bruce”.
You can visit her on the web at stefaniefreele.com.
Copyright 2012, Stefanie Freele
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