Eight days before the social worker’s home visit, Liv squeezed into the lobby of her apartment building to find that the elevator meeting had already started. She scanned the crowd until she located her husband, Dante, who’d apparently arrived early enough to score a seat near the front of the room now packed with residents. Liv tried to catch Dante’s eye, but he was preoccupied, his brow furrowed as the conversation thrummed toward a fever pitch.

Nishan, their neighbor from the eighth floor, wanted to know what the hell was taking so long. It was starting to get ridiculous, he said, slapping a knee for emphasis. Trudging up and down seven flights of stairs like goddamned mountain climbers. He and his neighbors on Eight—they had taken to calling themselves the Everest Society—had started a group text among themselves, a perpetual flurry of notifications about who’d be hitting the mailbox soon, who didn’t mind carrying home an extra carton of milk, and so forth, thereby sparing the, forgive his expression, older aunties of the eighth floor—Silvia and Tomasina, who huddled together and winced at this but urged him on—from having to make the trek for basic necessities.

Shannon Sanders

Shannon Sanders is an attorney and test-prep instructor, and a finalist for One Story’s 2019 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship. Her fiction appears in Electric Literature, Strange Horizons, SLICE, and elsewhere. She won a 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers for “The Good, Good Men,” which was featured in Puerto del Sol’s Black Voices Series and will be reprinted in Best Debut Short Stories 2020. She lives with her husband and son near Washington, D.C. Find her at ShannonSandersWrites.com and on Instagram (@i.exaggerate) and Twitter (@shanderswrites).

Will Allison on “The Everest Society”

If you’ve ever lived in a high-rise, you’ll appreciate the frustration Liv MacHale and her neighbors feel in “The Everest Society,” by Shannon Sanders. The elevator in their building is out of order—indefinitely—so the residents have to schlep up and down as many as seven flights of stairs every time they go out.

To make matters worse, Liv and her husband, Dante, want to adopt a child, but first they—and their apartment—have to pass muster with a social worker. Liv, in her obsessive preparation for the home visit, fears that the building’s lack of a working elevator (not to mention its dingy stairwell) will reflect poorly on them. Easygoing Dante, on the other hand, doesn’t see what the big deal is.

This is but one of the many ways in which Dante irks Liv: He says weary when he means wary. He fails to notice the hanging produce baskets she lugs home and installs in their kitchen. He gets frisky while she’s fretting over their cracked bedroom ceiling. And when Liv mentions Margaret, the social worker, Dante can’t even place the name.

If Liv and Dante’s relationship sounds prickly, it is—but only sometimes. They actually have a pretty great marriage with lots of give and take, which Sanders renders with uncommon grace, generosity, and humor. The result is one of the most charming fictional marriages I’ve encountered. It’s also one of the most convincing, with all of the messy richness that characterizes real married life. Sanders is a rising literary talent with a gift for writing big-hearted stories, and we are thrilled to present her work in the pages of One Story.

P.S. from Managing Editor Lena Valencia:
I live in a 60-unit apartment building in Brooklyn. My husband and some neighbors recently started a building-wide Facebook group in the hopes of creating a network of support for those who might be more vulnerable to COVID-19. As I was placing flyers outside doors, alerting the residents to the group’s existence, I couldn’t help but think of the way Shannon Sanders so expertly captures the nuances of apartment living in “The Everest Society,” and how—whether it’s a broken elevator or a global pandemic—neighbors come together to help each other in times of strife and upheaval. It’s a message that felt especially timely at this moment. I hope you enjoy this brilliant story as much as I did, and remember to take care of each other.

Q&A by Will Allison

WA: Where did the idea for this story come from?
SS: Last winter, when I was working full-time and teaching a night class and had a nine-month-old (which meant I was constantly carrying around a metric ton of baby gear), the elevator in my building had to be replaced. It was out of commission for two months that felt like two years. The seed of the story came to me during one of my self-pitying journeys from the underground garage to my floor—but the important details took shape when I got over myself and realized I was one of the lucky ones. Some of my neighbors had mobility issues that rendered them housebound, or lived alone and had to do all the schlepping themselves. (The nine-month-old was no help at all, but my husband was incredible—though it did test our communication skills.) That got me thinking about all the less-obvious casualties of the outage: strained relationships, indignant pets, deferred visits from social workers...
WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
SS: When I workshopped the first draft, many readers—particularly non-POC ones—did not relate to Liv’s self-consciousness and found her plainly unlikable. The words cold and mean were used. That was extremely frustrating and troubling for me, because I do relate to the story in many ways. My revision goal, then, became to sharpen Liv’s situation in a way that more readers could access.
WA: “The Everest Society” is the story of a couple awaiting a home visit from an adoption agency, but it’s also the story of a community, the neighbors who live in the apartment building. Did you set out to write about a community?
SS: That was definitely part of the plan. Apartment living means your neighbors are part of everything you do and sometimes even have veto power over your life choices! It’s easy to take that sort of community for granted or even to chafe at it. Or you can lock your door and pretend it doesn’t exist, if you want. I thought it would be fun to see what happened when a shared crisis (the elevator outage) brought all these disparate folks out of the woodwork and forced them to deal with each other.
WA: Speaking of community, “The Everest Society” includes at least twelve named characters—a lot more than most short stories—but I never had trouble keeping them straight. Was it hard to manage such a large cast?
SS: Thank you for saying so! I hope that’s the case for most readers. I think it’s a lot of fun to write about large groups, and I love reading short stories that have big “ensemble” casts. It felt easy to do here, since most of the characters were peripheral ones, but I am grateful to beta readers who helped me straighten out areas of confusion. It helps me to think of the reader as entering a crowded party, and to imagine which introductions and bits of small talk she might remember, or totally forget, as the night wears on.
WA: I love the matter-of-fact way this story deals with racism. Liv and Dante never discuss race, per se, but it’s baked into every aspect of their lives, from Liv’s boss calling her by “the other black girl’s name,” to the smaller mortgage Liv gets compared to her white coworker, to the anxiety Liv and Dante feel about having a white woman decide whether they’ll be able to adopt a child. Can you talk about race in your fiction?
SS: I intend for race to play the same role in my fiction that it does in life: always there, sometimes just as context, often as a determinative force. It can be hard to write stories that acknowledge race without being accused of writing about race, as if that were a bad thing. It can even be hard simply to decide when to “reveal” that a central character is not white (as many readers assume). I know there are some readers who roll their eyes and wonder why it even matters. I try always to make the case that it does matter. One of the scenes you mention—Liv’s being called by the wrong name—might be an unremarkable annoyance that Liv normally shrugs off, but it would weigh heavily on her mind as she prepares for judgment from yet another authority figure. It would drive her to try harder to define herself.
WA: There’s a great scene near the end of the story where Liv, the prospective mom, imagines herself as Margaret, the adoption-agency worker, arriving at the apartment building to interview Liv and Dante. How did that scene come to be?
SS: The story takes place over the span of a few tightly scheduled days, and Liv has lots to do during her work week. As I was writing the first draft and realized the in-story weekend was approaching, it seemed clear that there was no way Liv would waste all those free hours—she wouldn’t be able to resist torturing herself with a dress rehearsal. It also, conveniently, became a way to provide a more objective look at the story’s setting. And then you and Patrick had some fantastic editorial suggestions that helped the scene do even more—thank you for those.
WA: Unlike a lot of fictional characters, Liv has a commute and a job, and they feel very real, impinging on every aspect of her life. Was it a conscious decision to make Liv’s job such an integral part of the story?
SS: I never thought of doing otherwise, so I guess not! If Liv’s homeowner status and money worries belong in the story, then her job does too. Liv and Dante are a working couple; their preparations have to take place in found parcels of time, like lunch breaks. And for most people I know with desk jobs, myself included, the commute is the most strenuous part of the day; it really compounds whatever other sources of stress are on the agenda.
WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
SS: I worked through the story over four weeks of trekking up and down the stairs, and then I pounded out a first draft in a single sitting. I workshopped it twice, and the final draft was finished within about six months.
WA: What are you working on now?
SS: I’m working on a novel about Liv’s relatives, and I just finished the last story in the linked collection that includes “The Everest Society.”
WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
SS: I have two, both of which help me when I’m feeling inadequate because I can’t afford to quit my job and go get an MFA or otherwise seal myself into a sensory-deprivation chamber to focus on the craft. From my teacher, Jennifer Buxton, who’s become a good friend: “It all comes down to the writing.” What she means is that it’s no good bemoaning the credentials I don’t have, or endlessly tweaking my cover letter, or (on the flipside) fretting about what color beret I’ll wear in my author photo before I’ve even written the first paragraph. If I can write a good story, someone will enjoy reading it—that is the extent of the transaction. The rest is window dressing. And from my dad, who is not a natural fiction lover but kindly reads all my work: “Oh, you can write a story about that!” He says it whenever I’m up against a hard time at work or home, and it’s a fantastic reminder to find inspiration in all the things that intrude on my writing time. And after all, if I never had anything to do but write, well—what in the hell would I write about?