The Descent

A short story by Amin Matalqa from the upcoming book, Heroes & Idiots

1 — Xavier

Xavier noticed a short janitor standing in the elevator when he stepped in from the 50th floor. He had just signed a deal to star in a new sequel to his mega-hit sci-fi film franchise, The Brody Chronicles. The first Brody had grossed over $1 billion in international box office, and the sequel, Brody: The Broken Eye of Neptune, doubled the original movie’s numbers and launched the hit song from the soundtrack album, Brody Come Home, which was also sung by Xavier because, let’s be honest, starring in the movie was just not enough. The multi-talent had become the biggest sensation of his generation, which is why he dropped his last name, Schmidt, and let the world just call him Xavier (his birth name name was Jeff, Jeff Schmidt).

Ever since his big screen debut, tween girls around the globe fell in love with Xavier’s crystal blue eyes, his sexy abs, and that tender but masculine voice that dominated radio stations on every continent. Boys admired him for his charming smirk and his ability to perform his own death-defying stunts. Kids wore Xavier T-Shirts, had Xavier action figures, and collected Xavier iPhone covers (they came in seven colors).

In summary, so we don’t keep rubbing it in anyone’s face, Xavier was the biggest star on the planet, hell, in the universe as we know it for that matter. He was celebrating a glorious Saturday morning as the box office projections for his newest film, The Red Phone, surprised everyone at the studio, surpassing all expectations when this adaptation of an intimate play about an aging US president’s internal struggle with alcoholism turned into an action-packed extravaganza of eye-popping nuclear explosions, alien warships, and one handsome hunk of a 28 year-old POTUS. Xavier’s name was bigger on the poster than the film’s title, and every metropolitan city on this blue planet was graced with billboards of his presidential face accentuated by the perfect curves of his manly jaw.

So here was Xavier, in the flesh, getting into the elevator next to some janitor, who he honored with a smile when he said, “Good morning.”

But the janitor didn’t reply.

Legend had it that light wattage doubled the moment Xavier walked into a room. His charisma was so overwhelming that people touched by his stardom speculated that this is what it must feel like to be in the presence of the Dalai Lama, only more fun. The lucky ones who’d been glanced at by the pupils of his piercing blue eyes went on to brag about his gaze to friends at school and foes on social media. Xavier always took the time to appreciate the worshipping screams of his loyal fans. He was sure the janitor heard him say good morning.

There was no one else in the elevator, and the building was especially quiet on this Saturday morning. Perhaps the janitor was deaf, or maybe he was intimidated by the superstar’s elevator entrance.

Xavier noticed the janitor’s foot tapping to the rhythm of the music playing through the overhead speaker. There was no way he could be deaf. He must be intimidated, Xavier decided. How does one tame his admirer’s nervous feelings? They had a long ride down in this small space before getting to the lobby, and Xavier had to make sure the man felt comfortable in his presence. He hated when his stardom made people feel inferior.

Yet the janitor was tapping his foot without missing a beat. Wouldn’t one stop whatever they were doing when they stumbled upon the greatest movie star in the world? Especially when that star took the time and exerted the energy to wish upon his admirer a good morning?

Xavier took a breath and looked away from the little man. He couldn’t wait to see the faces of all the executives at the studio when they congratulated him. The box office success of The Red Phone would give him the producing power to convert any property he desired into an action spectacle without any objection or second thoughts from the suits. How the fuck could the janitor have not heard him say good morning?

He wondered why he even felt the compulsion to bother and say anything in the first place. He had everything he desired from the world. He didn’t have to get involved with someone else’s pathetic life. Maybe on a subconscious level he felt he could share a little bit of the joy he had in him after hearing the good news about his film’s opening numbers. He had a beautiful girlfriend living with him in his $50 million Malibu mansion and a lavender Lamborghini parked downstairs in the garage. He really didn’t need to say good morning. Why had he done it? He cleared his throat and waited in silence as the elevator descended towards the 40th floor.

Xavier glanced at the janitor without showing any movement in his neck. Was this ignorant man so out of touch with the world that he wouldn’t know who Xavier was? He looked Hispanic. Latinos loved Xavier, especially after he showed such compassion to his Mexican sidekick Jorge in the first Brody film when he held his dying body in his arms and promised to fulfill his wish to tell his children that their papa loved them once he made it back home safely. How could anyone living in Los Angeles, especially from the Latino community, be unaware of the greatest movie star of his generation? For his own good, this little man had to be educated on who he was standing next to. Especially if he wanted to continue working in this town. Didn’t he have children to go brag to about this once in a lifetime encounter?

Xavier’s face was spread across the entire 50-story building they were descending in. There was no way this janitor came to work every morning without noticing Xavier’s eyes staring at him. Perhaps the old man’s vision was weak. Xavier decided to give him another chance, an opportunity to redeem himself. So he asked about the music playing in the elevator.

“What’s the name of this song?” Xavier said as if he didn’t already know it was Here Comes The Rain by the Eurythmics. He waited for the short man to respond, but nothing came out of his mouth or throat. Not even an involuntary reaction to give away the janitor’s attempt to hide his decision to avoid communicating with Xavier.

Xavier felt the stinging slap of humiliation. Fans screamed to make mere eye contact with him while they stood in lines behind barricades protecting him from their vicious lust for his attention. Once, a woman jumped over the block, slipped past the bodyguards, and threw herself at him. He caught her in his arms as the security muscle heads lashed out to pull her back, but Xavier stopped them and said, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” then looked into her brown eyes and asked, “What’s your name?” She fainted.

He had that effect on his fans, and here he was being treated like an insignificant insect by this pathetic loser. Who was he, anyway? Xavier looked for a sign, something that could provide a clue. He studied the old janitor’s trodden leather shoes, probably the same ones he’d worn for the past ten years. They matched his wrinkled hands. He had large hands like an old fisherman. Big powerful hands disproportionate to his small body, something Michelangelo would want to sculpt if he were living today. If Xavier had one physical flaw that he was ashamed of and spent his life concealing from his admirers, it was the size of his small hands. One of the appealing things about playing legendary car-racing champion Dale Earnhardt in his loosely adapted action bio, Dale and the Wild Winds of Yesteryear, was that he could wear gloves that enhanced the size of his fingers for the majority of the film. This was also why he enjoyed living in a space suit for six months while filming the sci-fi epic, Jupiter’s Child. Oh, what he would give to have large hands like this old man. And in that moment of envy, Xavier felt overwhelmed with compassion. He decided to find the old man a part in his next film, The Ninth Sea. He could have one of his writers tailor a role for him. He could play an old fisherman refusing to leave the boat because his heart belongs to the sea. Xavier imagined what he could do for this poor little immigrant. Pull him out of poverty, end his hardship after some 70 years of struggle. Truly, America could be the land of his dreams at this late stage of his life. Xavier pulled out a blu-ray copy of Brody vs Neptune from his Louis Vuitton satchel and dropped it in front of the fisherman’s feet. They were past the 30th floor when that happened.

Is it not human instinct when one person drops an HD blu-ray package in front of another person, that that other person should feel the compulsion to reach down for it, or at least if they’re not going to trouble themselves with bending down to help, then shouldn’t they maybe provide a small reaction or acknowledgment? Xavier felt the need to push the mute and shake him up. An impatient fire burned through the network of veins spread across his perfectly sculpted body, begging him to confront the lonely peasant, or even offer him that part in his next film right there on the spot. But he couldn’t get himself to do it. Not yet. Not until he got some form of recognition. Any recognition. He didn’t even care if the man knew who he was anymore (that’s not completely true) so long as he turned and looked at him or said something in response. Anything. Even a cough would do.

Xavier kicked the special Extended Edition blu-ray box (which contained over six hours of bonus features, deleted scenes and three audio commentary tracks by Xavier) with his foot and let it bounce off the elevator door. One of the many qualities that Hollywood elites admired in our protagonist’s persona was his cool demeanor. Where had that suave Xavier gone? He was trapped in an elevator with a worthless scum who had robbed him of one of his greatest qualities without exerting the smallest effort. This was an outrage! Xavier took a deep breath as the elevator made its way past the 20th floor. It felt like an eternity, but the yoga exercises he’d practiced with his personal guru helped tame his inner demon.

By the 15th floor, he’d calmed down and bent over to pick up the blu-ray box, which had his billion dollar mug facing the floor. He glanced at the old viejo on his way back up and there it was, after all this torment, the unexpected explanation he was seeking all along. The old man was in a solemn state of contemplation. What was he thinking about? Was he a father who had lost a daughter? Of course he was. The look on his face said everything. He had lost his daughter to either a disease or a tragic car crash. What kind of car did she drive?

For the first time since his career had sky-rocketed to the stratosphere, Xavier felt a sudden awareness of himself. A sense of shame took over. How could he be so selfish? Here he was so concerned with what this simple fisherman would do upon realizing he was sharing an elevator with The Xavier, when in reality none of that mattered. Xavier couldn’t bring back this poor man’s dead daughter. He wondered what her name was. What dreams did she have? Was she pretty, and did she have big hands like her father?

No offer of a movie role could make a difference to this poor old immigrant. Xavier felt an urge to hug him and tell him that everything would be okay. But how? How could anything be okay? This man was suffering. He had lost the entire world. It would probably be easier for him to die than to lose his own daughter. Xavier wondered how old she was when the tragedy struck. But did any of this even matter? They say that time heals all wounds, but how could time heal such sorrow when time itself stops existing?

Xavier’s heart felt a stinging pain, probably nothing compared to the old fisherman’s torment, but it was real pain nonetheless because Xavier was a sensitive actor, a human being whose talent relied on his power of perception. He felt tears forming in his alluring blue eyes as his lips started to quiver. He didn’t know what to say. There was nothing he could do. The elevator door opened and the old fisherman exited carrying a mop, marching to the beat of a funeral drum. Xavier felt a deep connection to his humanity as he watched with love in his heart. The elevator door closed and he descended to the garage level where his Lamborghini was waiting. He hugged the valet and even looked him in the eye, then he thanked him, and he drove off towards the morning light.

2 — Mahmoud

As he rode down the elevator, Mahmoud, who was an English janitor of Lebanese origin, wondered if he should have a hummus and falafel sandwich for lunch or if he should count his calories again and stick with the boring salad his wife Dolly had packed. After some contemplation, he decided, Fuck it, I’ll eat what I want, and looked forward to munching down on some falafel at the deli down the street.