The History of Steel

[Listen to “The History of Steel”]

The history of steel is the story of a phantom who haunted an elevator.

She had lived in the old apartment building, moving herself in shortly after it was built. Hers was a simple life of books and wine and students and one afternoon that life was over and her family buried her in a small plot near a garden behind the building. Something about the light, and the leaves, and the way the soil crept up the red of the brick of the walls, and how those walls felt like home, and soon she was drawn back into them. She made a kind of afterlife squeezing through the stone and into the rooms, the unseen guest at other people’s parties, the unseen body snuggled on the bedsheets, the unseen watcher of family dramas at dinner. And then the building was demolished, and she slid back down the brick and into the soil and kept herself company learning the daydreams of her youth by heart.

In time brick turned to iron, and iron to steel, and a tall shine of alloy and glass rose in place of the wood flooring and thick curtains she knew, and the cool and glimmer of the steel pulled her up out of her dreams and out of the garden and she brushed the dirt from her thoughts and exhaled herself out of the metal of the walls and spent some time wandering this new space with its new people.

Among those people was a man who lived on the top floor of the tall building. Each day he rode the elevator all the way down, and all the way back up again, and there was something about him, and so she took to keeping him company during these rides, misting out of the metal to read over his shoulder as he scanned a novel, or resting her head on the slope of his back as he looked down at his phone, or blowing his hair dry with little whispers if he had just rushed from the shower. She grew to love him, in the way a ghost loves, and decided to give him a gift to say thank you for all of the gifts he had, albeit unknowingly, given to her. And so she wrapped the little elevator from the inside and returned it to him anew. She melted back into the walls and watched as one morning he stepped inside the steel box and let out a breath, and relaxed a little. He couldn’t see that she had outfitted the elevator with a tiny rolling bar cart, a little bookshelf full of good things to read, a very small but very comfortable couch, a record player, and a wine rack, all made of the same stuff that had sighed her into phantomhood and that she now breathed back out again to make a ghostly second home for him. (She had also made a doggie bed, and the other residents’ dogs inevitably tried to curl up in it while their owners tugged absently on their leashes. Sometimes she would pet them, and they always wagged their tails for her.) She began spending her days there, smiling when she saw him and pouring herself a ghostly glass of ghostly wine and inhaling it on the couch. Or mixing him a drink and blowing it into his mouth when he stretched and yawned. Or opening a book and sounding a sentence, a poem, a page into a faint cloud that followed him out into the street. Or playing a song and dancing in a way that she hoped he might like. And it went that way for a long time, until one night he came out of his apartment, drank a glass of wine, waited for the elevator doors to open, breathed the flavor back into the wineglass, placed the glass on the floor for her, walked back to his apartment, and went to sleep.

[Head back to the work of Elizabeth Rively, Historian of Burial]