Alex Greer was ready for a change. His job in Baltimore was directionless and his relationships were stale and more and more he felt himself pulled back to Providence, where everything had been fresh and everyone had been alive with passionate intention. On slow afternoons, Alex looked up maps of old streets he half remembered. He perused job listings, applied to a few. He didn’t seriously consider that he might get an offer until he got one, and then it was all scrambling and panic. He was 60 miles out from Rhode Island with a U-Haul full of furniture before he found an apartment ad that seemed all right. Nine hundred square feet on a street he thought he could remember, a nice street, with personable old buildings and a lot of brick.
The ad was completely misleading, and the building manager seemed to know it. The apartment was a studio, barely 500 square feet. “New floor,” the building manager said as they stepped inside. “New moldings.”
“This is small,” said Alex.
“Oh no,” said the building manager. “No, it’s big.”
“It’s not. Look at it.”
She looked. An apology flickered in her expression, but she didn’t say anything. She looked and looked. She was an older woman, and small, and she was wearing a huge, gauzy scarf, like something from another century. It would have taken a lot of work for Alex to be mad at her, and he was exhausted.
“I can see how it would seem small,” she said.
“But there’s more.”
The building manager walked Alex to the near corner of the east wall. She gestured, fingers together, to a gap between the east wall and the south wall that stretched from the floor to the ceiling and couldn’t have been more than six inches wide. Alex sighed. The building manager continued to gesture, stabbing toward the gap until Alex came over to look at it more closely.
The gap was, in fact, a corridor maybe 25 feet long and never wider than about 6 inches. It had no lights, and so after the first few feet it was dim, nearly dark at the halfway point. At the far end, it opened into another room, only a sliver of which was visible. Alex could see sunlight on a hardwood floor. He leaned into the corridor. His ears brushed the walls. The sharp smell of fresh paint tickled his brain. “How do I get over there?”
“However you like.”
“Is there another door, or—?”
“No. Just this hallway.”
Alex furrowed. “This isn’t a hallway. You can walk through a hallway.”
“It connects two rooms. Look at it. It looks like a hallway.”
“But how am I supposed to get through?”
“You’re not supposed to. You can do it or you can not do it. Whatever you like. Personally, I think it’s nice to have a little extra space, even if you don’t end up using it.”
Alex stepped back from the corridor. He was dizzy and tired and he wanted very badly for this transaction to somehow be acceptable so that he could unpack the van and be done moving. “Why is it this way?” he asked. “Why did they do this?”
“Before all the renovations, this used to be the middle of the building. And this,” the building manager said, reaching toward the east wall but not touching it, “used to be the elevator. Maybe you can imagine it.”
Alex could. Now that he knew to look for it, the apartment had very clearly once been the hallway near an elevator. The east wall dimpled slightly where the door had been covered over.
“That elevator was no good. Dingy. And small. The new elevators are beautiful. You saw them. They’re beautiful. You should have seen the party when we opened them. And we freed up all this space. Of course, you can’t get rid of an elevator shaft, not really.”
“But why not just extend the wall?”
The building manager shifted. “People like to hear 900 square feet. They don’t need to see it, but they like to hear it. And once you’re in here, it’s really very nice. Very cozy. And it would be a shame to lose the room at the end of the hall. It gets so much light.”
Alex sagged. The apartment was cozy. He could see exactly where his furniture would go. He didn’t mind a cozy apartment. His first apartment in Providence had been cozy, and he’d loved it.
“We’ve already rented a few of these units. The tenants are very happy.”
“You have other apartments like this?”
“Of course. All the way up the elevator.”
Alex thought about that.
“New windows,” the building manager said. “New baseboards.”
“The corridor,” Alex said, “how would I clean it?”
“We have a long mop you can borrow,” said the building manager. Alex squinted.
“It’s a very long mop,” she said. “It’s the longest mop they make.”
With the help of two maintenance guys, Alex filled his apartment in half an hour. He was surprised how quickly it went. Most of his stuff, he’d left behind in Baltimore. His exercise bike, his stained glass grinder, his pizza stone, his miniature gin still. It was a bittersweet relief to take these things he’d been guiltily neglecting and abandon them all with one bold, decisive act. He hefted his big, fake fig tree around his new apartment, trying a few different spots before setting it near the window, where it could get some sunlight.
But now that he was standing at the window, it seemed like the room wouldn’t get all that much light, at least not in the afternoon. The building was shaped like an H and Alex’s window was in an inside corner. It was three o’clock and the sun had already sunk below the neighboring apartments. The street four floors below looked just like Alex remembered, maybe, or maybe his memory was so fuzzy that this view had already replaced it. There were two Italian restaurants, a hardware store. Alex’s heart swelled. He had missed Providence terribly, and now look at those Italian restaurants, look at that hardware store, look at this apartment, this new floor, these new baseboards.
It didn’t take long for Alex to settle into his new job. He edited statistics reports for The Public Research Trust. The work was about the same as it had been in Baltimore for The Institute for Public Research. He figured it would be the same pretty much anywhere. It wasn’t a bad job. He took suspect documents and he made them reliable. The people were friendly. The building had warm lighting and a brick façade that Alex thought was pretty charming.
Five years ago, the city had been full of friends. They’d emerged from universities or moved down from hometowns out in the suburbs, throwing house parties in studio apartments and falling asleep at the feet of park statues. They were trying to build momentum, toward some specific future or toward any future. Most of them had left, which was why Alex had left. You had to be willing to leave. If you tried to stay in one place your whole life, you left a lot of money on the table, and it’s not like other people would stay there with you. Alex kept in touch with people all over the country, but he wasn’t sure he knew anyone still in Providence. Well, he could make more friends. Everybody wanted friends.
He met people at clubs and museums and newcomers’ get-togethers. He took them to restaurants he remembered and new ones that had popped up in his absence. He invited co-workers to bars and bowling alleys and his apartment. He courted friends with an eagerness that felt like dating, dated with a conviviality that felt like courting friendship. He got close to some people, sort of close. When the weather got warm, he’d go to the park.
Someone slipped a flyer under his apartment door. They’d renovated the fifth floor and now they were having a renovation party. Only the denizens of the fifth floor were invited. The flyer instructed Alex to expect noise.
The long mop had a telescoping handle. Alex checked it out of Facilities and brought it upstairs in a canvas carrying case. He worked the collapsed bundle out of the case and spent 15 minutes on his apartment floor unspooling and tightening, unspooling and tightening. The fully extended mop was so unwieldy, he had to hold it over his head like a boom mic. The mop head fit the corridor perfectly and slid across the hardwood like a curling stone over fresh ice. It was among the most satisfying sensations in Alex’s week. He checked the long mop out every Monday and made an evening of it.
The corridor had worried Alex at first. It was unusual. It made the wall seem incomplete. What if there was a draft? What if bugs got into the far room? He’d be stuck shuffleboarding roach traps into corners he couldn’t see, imagining gyres of infestation just past his line of sight.
But the far room grew on him. It had character. He liked to show it off to guests, and to explain about the elevator shaft. The guests were thrilled and enchanted. They gawped at the dimple where the elevator door had once been, how the elevator wall seemed colder than the rest of the apartment, how it echoed when they knocked on it. Alex liked to stick his head into the corridor and see how warm and sunny it looked over there in the far room. His tropical second home.
Barring one incident when his grocery bag tore and a navel orange rolled all the way to the far room, the corridor caused Alex no trouble. And once he did get his head stuck, but only for a few minutes, and only because he was wearing a beanie.
The thought kept creeping into Alex’s mind that he could probably get through the corridor if he really tried. It wasn’t all that narrow. Just under eight inches—he’d measured it. He could fit his head, and that was probably the biggest, least compressible part of his body if he shuffled sideways. He tried to imagine the posture it would take. He’d make himself as flat as possible and sort of skirt along the wall. Or maybe he could do it lying down on his side, toes pointed, wriggling forward an inch at a time. There were all kinds of videos online of people contorting themselves through clothes hangers and unstrung tennis rackets. He could make it through, and then he’d have all that space to enjoy. He was already paying for it.
One Saturday morning, he tried it. He wedged in an arm and a leg with no trouble. His shoulder was problematic. He hesitated to put too much pressure against the elevator wall, like he might break through and fall down the shaft. With a lot of thumping and scraping, he eventually found an angle that would accept his shoulder. It was clear that he wouldn’t get much further, but he kept trying. He experimented with different postures, hips way forward, shoulders way back, until he’d stuffed a good couple inches of himself into the gap. Clothes and skin and fat bunched. He shifted his weight and speculated about new angles, but the walls were a clamp.
All right, not so good. He ground his free leg into the floor and pressed his free arm into the wall and exhaled all the air from his lungs and after a few minutes, he was out.
Well, that was that. What was he going to do with the rest of his Saturday?
But maybe if he lost some weight. He wasn’t sure where that thought bubbled up from. Alex had never worried about his weight. His weight was fine. But it’s true that the corridor wasn’t that tight, really, not impossibly tight.
He stood there a while, shifting his weight and thinking it through. What, would he diet? Jog? Watch videos about how to contort? Maybe he could find some low-friction clothes. It all seemed possible. He’d never been much good at projects. He didn’t have the follow-through. But this was right in his apartment. And just imagine the sense of accomplishment. It was good to make plans. Providence had always been a good place for plans.
At the office, he told his new friends about his new project. They were astonished. They didn’t think it was possible to get through the corridor, or desirable. They weren’t sure how seriously to take Alex. They’d only known him a month or two. Everyone told him something different, but the collective message was, “Please be careful.”
On social media, he documented his new, lean meals. He took before and after pictures, transcribing his weight down to the decimal. His scattered friends filled his comments with, “Wait, what are you doing? Alex, you don’t need to lose weight.” Alex took that as a double compliment, to his figure and to his drive.
Excerpted from “The Corridor” by Ryan Eric Dull, originally published in the New England Review, Vol. 41, No. 2. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.