Mandolin is about five feet four inches tall. His subservient size suits him. A bellhop is, after all, a servant. It might make some guests feel uncomfortable if he was too tall. It’s fortunate for Mandolin, and noble for he is so completely obliviously himself as his entire demeanor is lacking qualities that inspire promotion. His lips are dark, and they grin up at me happily as his eyes twinkle unabashedly. His bellman’s cap, tipped to one side of a wavy middle toned head of hair is encrusted with a brass ornament (although gauging from the rest of Mandolin’s dress, a shabby, ill fitting costume that hangs clumsily off his shoulders, is too long at the waist, like the clerk’s threadbare at the floor, but the shoes are shiny and black and well kept. This was the last uniform from a cedar chest in some cobweb encrusted basement closet, a shape fit for a man a full foot and a half taller who must’ve lived and worked here some forty years ago and died with the thing on. And poor Mandolin, chirpy little creature that he is, the last to apply as his replacement…). The ornament cannot be brass, but plastic, with a fake opal dial in the middle of it. Oh well, for over all impact it sort of splashes up the crappy suit. His face. His face… It hits me! And he must understand me completely because when I gasp, his grin opens into a wide generous smile and a childish chuckle issues from his lips. He’s wearing an inch and a half of make-up, a pale plaster mask for a face that must be ten years older than it appears, with cheeks darkened with almost perfect circles. That smile… The mask cracks. Tiny bits of it jettison off his face and hang in the air like a cluster of space junk.
He holds his hand out for my key, his eyes twinkling up at me, and I give it to him.
“Four thirty one.” He says and turns with odd glee, and he skip-hops away. “So where’s your typewriter?”
“I don’t have one.”
“What do you mean? Aren’t you a writer?”
“Yes, but. I mean. I don’t have one with me.”
“Oh, I get it. What do you write?”
He is bounding up a stairway to the left of the iron elevator which descends now with three odd looking specimens, each of them looking at me through the rout-iron bars and party masks of the most peculiar variety. One appears to be an elephant head with a huge obnoxious trunk. The elevator winds silently downward and clanks gently on the floor of the lobby, and with a loud rusty crank the door opens and the trio steps out. I see the elephant man is rather large in a dark grey tuxedo jacket and slacks and sandals. How odd and inappropriate he seems. But perhaps I’ll reserve judgment until I have taken in more of the customs of this place.
“How many?” Mandolin asks.
He bounces up the stairs in front of me over plush carpet intricately woven in dark crimson and gold tones that barely show in the dim stair well – the stairs launch straight up through some darkness toward the next floor. At the landing my eyes dart upward and catch a large circular light fixture with frosted glass in the ceiling above my head. The hand railing is old mahogany with brass support brackets attached to the heavy felt wall paper. Dust bursts in raining coils as I trail my hand along the wood.
“Several.” I say.
“Don’t want to talk about it?”
“O.K.” He says, jingling the keys, “Right this way!”
A group of people are making their way past me down the stairs toward the lobby; more tuxedos, a woman in a cocktail dress, fishnets, stilettos and an outrageous hat. To my left I see Mandolin beckoning me from the open brightly lit cab of another elevator. I walk in. He pulls a lever causing the iron gate to shut, and a mahogany inner door with red velvet lined panels closes. Mandolin’s ghostly fingers punch a brass panel of buttons with numbers curiously askew and out of order. Forth floor. The elevator jerks my knees as it lurches upward with a brain piercing electric hum. Inexplicably, Mandolin starts singing the melody of some tune I’ve heard before, but can’t place.
“I’m just a poor cowboy in a one horse town,
don’t know a single soul around.
I’m just-a-sittin’ here, passin’ through,
I like it here, baby, how ‘bout you?”
His little child eyes glance over at me, and he notices the book tucked under my arm. What’s that he wants to know.
“Paradise Lost.” I reply.
“It’s a classic. Haven’t you heard of it?”
“Nnnn – nah.”
Now why I should have this book is a mystery to me. I’ve never read it before and have only just begun it. It’s a small leather bound volume with gold leaf imprinted on the cover. It has the complete text by Milton with book summaries and reproductions of Gustav Dore’s horrifically detailed etchings.
I stare at Mandolin’s back, and contemplate the meaning of Milton’s book, and envision with crystal clarity Satan’s descent from Heaven into the sulfurous canyons of hell with all of his minions in armor, once shining like the knights of Arthurian legend, now smoke blackened and creeping with thorns and turning molten with the fires of the primeval fissures opening beneath them, like a gaping womb that has just given birth and is being forced to take back its offspring. After an interminable period of this wretched musing the elevator slams to a halt and the doors reverse their grinding and rattling to reveal the fourth floor of the hotel. My knees buckle with the shock. I suddenly feel dizzy.
“Does it always do that?” I ask.
“On a dime.” He says.
This hallway is darker than the first and totally barren. Mandolin leads me left, down the gloomy passage and stops at a door marked 431. He sticks the key in the keyhole and turns the lock. The door is jammed so Mandolin grits his teeth and kicks the bottom of it with a snarl.
“Careful. You’ll scuff your shoes.”
“Oh, this happens all the time. I just wax ‘em.”
A jingle catches my ear and leads my eyes to the end of the lifeless hallway where a single sconce punches a hole in the cramped darkness. A shadow in the shape of a man looms down there, a rotund figure in what appears to be a large fur coat and top hat jangling a large key ring in search of the right key that fits his door. Curious, I wonder how I did not see him only a second before. I look and there are no other off-shoots of the hallway and no stairwells from which he could have entered. He must have gotten past us. But how? From where? Perhaps he came out of another room.
Mandolin is standing rigidly in the doorway, presenting the room which, I discover upon enterting, appears completely without charm. The curtains are heavy and drawn. A floral polyester spread covers a very un-plush king sized bed. Two Holiday Inn standard issue chairs occupy each end of a brown wood-veneer table at the far side of the room. The only object of interest sits on top of a two tier dresser near the foot of the bed, an ancient television that looks more like a radar scope than a TV.
“Does it work?”
“Of course it works. It works great. It gets everything.”
I despair of finding any peace in here. How much am I paying for this? I want another room. But Mandolin is smiling at me. This is it, his smile says. I decide to be decent about the whole thing.
“It’s a little warm.” I say, reaching into my pockets.
With a burst of pride Mandolin shows me the air conditioner which he turns on with a flip of a switch.
“That’s no problem! We’ll have you cooled down in a jiffy!”
I hold my hand over the vent. The room is redeemed. I smile approvingly. Mandolin smiles cheerily and waves.
“Well, I’ll be off then.”
I reach out to him holding a nickel and three pennies – the entire contents of my pocket.
Mandolin smiles that sheepish smile, then frowns when he sees the contents in my palm.
“Wow, get many girls with money like that, Chief? Besides, you cheap bastard, it’s against hotel policy. I’ll leave you to get cozy. You relax now and enjoy yourself. Dinner will be ready shortly. I’ll see you there!”
And with a twinkle and a chip off his pancake and a tip of his bell man’s cap he is gone, and I quietly thank god. It is then that I pull out my wallet and open it and realize that I have no money. I check. Stupid me, I have no credit cards! How am I going to pay for this?
My panic is overpowered by a sudden wave of comfort I feel coming from the AC. I pull off my jacket, kick off my shoes, and collapse onto the bed beside the night stand. Inside the drawer I find a card face down. It’s the only thing in the drawer, no Gideon’s, no phone book (Ah! There’s no phone!). The card is a crisp heavy pound stock, newly printed with the word ovle. Oh, wait, that’s not it, it’s… Love! Hmph. I take out of my breast pocket and jot that down on the card and put it in my trousers. Then I fall back with my arms folded behind my head and doze.
Through the foggy veil of sleep I hear a clickity-clacking noise tickling incessantly inside my ears. Jerking awake suddenly I feel a dense heat pressing around me. I am rude with sweat. Forget the noise! Where’s the flipping air conditioner? What time is it?
One eye turns toward the alarm clock on the night stand. A large cockroach is crawling beneath the round white clock face with hands poised neatly at the twelve o’clock position, the alarm bells shiny and brassy beneath the warm lamp.
Jesus! A tense longing winds up my lower extremities with painful labor intensity. I slowly put my legs on the ground so as not to overly stress my innards and bring myself upright and stare with a heat stroked expression, my mouth dry and my head light. Jesus Christ! I force myself to stand, and my limbs go all loose and discombobulated as the lights in my head dim and the room recedes. Quickly… I put one foot in front of the other. It seems like a mile to the bathroom as the room darkens and the doorway extends away from me down the dark tunnel of my vision. My feet are swelling inside my socks from the blistering carpet. Clickity-clack, clickity-clack… My head is taking flight on some escapade leaving me falling toward unconsciousness. Where is the bloody AC? My hand grapples the lavatory door much sooner than I expected. I reach and pull. The motion propels me through, and I instinctively close the door behind me.
Free at last! The air is cooler and I can breathe. The toilet is clean, thank God for that! It’s the only thing in the entire hotel that appears virginal and kept, a porcelain receptacle ready and waiting. In fact the whole bathroom sparkles. It’s pristine. That’s good, because sitting down on a crappy toilet is the last thing I want to do right now as I feel I am about to explode. My fingers flail frantically on the belt of my pants, and they both fall to the floor leaving me in my black socks and boxers. They drop to the floor too as my knees bend, my ass meets the rim, and at last I open up and expel putrid nitrogenous waste into the clean water. The relief is intoxicating.
Clang, clang, clang and clickity-clack… The dance of the cockroach continues unabated beneath the clock, but I’m safe from his rampage in here. Here I recover, breathing the insular space. Time and thought slip by, and nothing special appears. I get up for a drink of water from the sink. But I have a very strange feeling. Something’s not quite right, as the water drips down the stainless steel drain. The mirror over the vanity seems to have eyes, yet the only eyes in the mirror are mine so that can’t be. But there are other portals in the room, drains in the sink, toilet, and bath tub, with pipes connecting me to the bowels of this hotel. The drains run down the walls and beneath the floor and connect mysteriously and dive down into dark regions where only a crew of maintenance dwarves can fit to clang, clang, clang the pipes loose with their humongous wrenches to remove sections of pipe and clean out the occasional toxic blockages that build from the myriad hordes of people who enter these rooms and empty themselves and dump their cigarette butts and miscellaneous used personal hygiene products, adult diapers and napkins, toilet paper, used condoms, tampons, and what not. The poor dwarves must be furious whenever there’s a block. I can just imagine their panic during a spill:
“Goddammit start the vacuum, the whole compartment’s flooding!
“It’s going to burst through the walls!”
“Sorry Reg! There’s been a power failure in the main circuit, and all the other circuits are fully loaded!”
“Drake’s looking for a replacement fuse!”
“Jump circuits! Quick! I’m drrrowwgglglglglg…..”
The dwarves are watching me enviously through the mirror in their curious wonderland zone where rats gather and chew their discarded apple cores and strudel crusts and mayonnaise peanut butter sandwiches. Thank God for the dwarves, little buggers, cleaning up the mess of humanity wearing their slimy sewage spattered rubber overalls and black neoprene work gloves and gas masks, crawling around in pipes with brushes and hoses making them squeaky clean.
Somebody’s got to do it. Thank God it isn’t me. Thank god I don’t have to face that. Thank god I get a clean toilet to sit on. I get to excommunicate my waste in a civilized and dignified fashion. If I want, I don’t even have to look down. I can completely ignore it. Nope, that’s not me. No. I’ll just flush the toilet and shut the door. Let the dwarves deal with it – which is exactly what I do.
The cockroach’s clanging grows incessant and I see him crawling suddenly under the door. In the moment that I freeze, pulling paper off the roll to cover me, the roach takes flight. Its massive wings buzz hideously upward, its legs and mouth parts moving with calculated intent, and it lands on my bare knee with eyes gazing blankly into mine.
“I was wondering,” says the cockroach, “do you know of a place where I can lay my eggs?”
My mind is recoiling in horror. “No,” I stutter, “maybe, if you looked somewhere near the heating unit. They’ll be warm there.”
“Thank you,” the cockroach says forlornly, “I’m so tired from looking. And I have so much to give to the world.” Her antennas twitch and wave through gliding currents of air, as if receiving some signal. “I have a message for you.”
“For me?” I ask incredulously.
“From your wife.”
“Yes… Would you like to hear it?”
“Jonathan!” The cockroach continues speaking, but it is my wife Helen’s voice which pierces the room. “Jonathan, where are you?”
“I’m here, honey, I’m-“
“Jonathan, I’m scared… I can’t believe you’ve gone… It seems like a thousand years… Come back… Come back, please. Come back now…”
I’m frozen in a conniption over this preternatural phenomenon, this strange black creature with the vocalizing mandibles, with its six barbed legs embedded in the hairs of mine. “Jonathan, I’m afraid of losing you Jonathan. I’m afraid of what will happen. And the beer drinking vomit smelling ass holes are coming to get me.”
A corkscrew is driving itself into my brain. The pain and my panic wind into a tense ogre pounding down on my spine. With a flick of my finger, the roach smacks against the ground. It runs back up my leg and I jump up and fling it into the toilet with all the other detritus, and down it goes with a swish. I watch it twist down the swirl of polluted belching water, down into the gnarl of pipes below.
Now I open the bathroom door and bump into a wall of boiling hot air. Am I on top of some boiler unit? Is it about to blow up? I ask myself. Jeez! So I lose the tie. How could I possibly sleep in the damn thing anyway? I must have dozed off without meaning to. God it’s hot. I go to the air conditioner and place my hand over the vent. The damn thing is blowing hot air like a bloody oven. I switch it to cool. Immediate relief! I check the door to make sure it’s locked. That crooked Mandolin! I don’t get it. I offered him a tip. Oh well, what can you expect from a clown? I feel the air in the room begin to change. Suddenly it feels much better.
Nap take two: I flip the switch on the Zenith and sit at the foot of the bed massaging my feet. An old Indian test pattern appears as the tiny phosphors on the screen ignite. What’s this? Where’s the station? Now what? They probably want me to pay for this. I think about the phone to call someone, and remember there isn’t one. And just as these thoughts scorch my poor hallucinogenic brain the Indian test pattern disappears and is immediately replaced by the following scene: a dark and dingy closet sized kitchen encompassing a large cigar smoking human being with a huge hairy schnoz and a chin full of whiskers who is frying little tiny pre packaged bars of fish in a skillet, an inch deep in burnt rancid oil. The cook is mangy with long black and grey greasy hair, beady black eyes and a mouth heavily whiskered and stained by the cigar. In another shot we see his black baseball cap with a dingy oil-stained Packers logo on it, and a smudgy white apron that look like it’s been run over a few times.
An announcer begins to announce, with a voice that sounds like a bad recording from the 30’s. “Packers Fish ‘n Chips are the dandiest fish ‘n chips around.”
The cook chomps on his cigar and unwittingly sends a huge chunk of cigar ash into the fish fry. Momentary panic livens up his eyes as he wonders what to do. Is anybody looking? Lucky him, there’s not a soul in the room. Without missing a beat he stirs the ashes into the fry and laughs gutturally so that his whole distended abdomen shimmies dangerously close to the flame beneath the skillet. For one brief second it appears as though he might actually go up in flames, but alas, it is not to be.
Through the fish eye lens, a young smiling ivy-league couple appears at the doorway holding hands. The young man with jeweled blond hair knocks on the door and look down at the lovely girl on his arm with a bell shaped hair cut. She is smiling and constantly giggling.
Well the cook is expecting these two. He’s cooked up a huge vat of this fish stuff, and he dumps the whole lot, grease and all, onto a basket lined with newspapers. He meets them at the doorway. The young girl’s eyes bug wide open at the site of him. She smiles like a maniac and hugs him at the waist, and he leads them into his dark parlor, a tiny one room apartment, the kind with a table for two on one side and a toilet on the other.
The young couple sits down happily. Their neo-pubescent eyes lock onto each other and their fingers intertwine as the cook goes back into the kitchen and brings out the toxic newspapers with fish inside. He sets it down between them and the young couple gets nauseously giddy at the presentation. The Ken Doll boyfriend with the unabashedly homo-erotic gleam in his eye picks up a jar of Tabasco sauce, uncaps it and thumps the bottom of the jar with the palm of his hand like he’s spanking some hot ass, and I lay odds 10 to 1 it’s not the girl’s. The open end of the jar swells mightily and huge globs of the stuff plop out all over the fish sticks. The cook stands over them, arms akimbo, smiling paternally, waiting for what must be the inevitable demise of this holiday happy young couple as they down the cigar ash laced fish sticks bathed in thick dark syrup with Ethiopian zest. Oh how they love it, vinegar zesty chili pepper sauce and all, two, three at a time so that their cheeks balloon outward as if to contain a dynamic explosion. They hum and moan pleasurably, never chewing more than three times before swallowing. In a twinkling of an eye the debauch is over. Ken Doll boyfriend looks up at the cook hungrily, his lips still smacking and lined with greasy fish batter crumbs, Tabasco and ketchup tracing a line down his chin, and mumbles, “Can I have some more ‘Peckers,’ please?”
Well this sets the cook off. A mean glint flashes in his eye. A storm cloud mushrooms toward the stratosphere of his consciousness, and lightning descends with the weight of an anvil. A gun blast sounds. Ken Doll boyfriend lands face down in the greasy newspapers. The smoking end of a nine millimeter gun appears on screen. The girl is horrified! Suddenly all traces of her demure star struck exterior disappear. Her face turns the shade of a murderous calamity.
“You killed him!” She shouts at the cook indignantly. “He’s dead!” She leaps up from her chair, her tawny little frame infused with unrestrained animal hatred. She wallops the cook soundly with her fists and chases him into the kitchen where she smashes him in the head with the smoldering frying pan, cursing madly in Italian.
The Packers Fish Stick logo appears on screen. The announcer says, “Packers… Ask for them by any other name and you’ll be sorry!”
Wet sheets are irritating me, but sleep lies on me like a fallen tree until I get the feeling I’m being pressed by a steam iron, then I wake up. The night stand lamp light hits my eyes, and it might as well be the sun it’s so blazing hot in the room. Jesus, I just turned the AC to cold! The sheets are stained with sweat. I’m dripping in it. The room feels like a sauna! The clock says twelve o’clock. That can’t be right. The heat must’ve stopped the clock. A friend of the talking cockroach is on its back beneath the clock with all six of its barbed legs pointing upward.
I get up, go to the air conditioner. It is switched to cool, but when I touch it, it feels sizzling hot! Christ! I switch the bloody thing off. I reach through the heavy embroidered drapes and try to open a window, but the latch is jammed and I can’t get the thing to open. The little hook I stuck. I try banging, lifting, sweet talking and cussing the thing and it does no good.
“Mandolin, damn him!”
It is then I notice a red light on an intercom box on the wall. Funny, no phones so you can’t call outside, but you can talk to each other within… I try the little talk switch and hear some static.
“Hello?” I say.
“Yes?” It’s the Clerk answering with a school master’s terseness.
“Oh, uh, hello. I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m having a bit of a problem.”
“Yes, what is it?”
“Well, it’s hot up here.”
“Of course it’s hot. We turn the air off when the guests come down for dinner, for which we notice you are conspicuously absent. You should come downstairs and eat. You’ll find the temperature much more agreeable in the dining hall.”
“Well, I was trying to get some sleep. I’m rather tired.”
“I’m not hungry, thank you. Listen, my air conditioner is blowing hot air. It’s steaming hot.”
I wait a minute and wonder. Surely they don’t turn the heat on when it’s time for dinner.
“There must be a problem with my unit.” I say. “Perhaps you could get me another room while your repairman fixes it.”
“Yes, well our repair crews are busy. Listen, we’ve been over this. The hotel’s very popular.”
“I understand, but this is unbearable. I can’t even open the window. What if there was a fire?”
“We lock the windows to keep people from jumping out.”
“Yes, our insurance has skyrocketed in recent years. We keep the windows closed to keep the likes of you from jumping out.”
“But I would never – why would I-
“It’s risk management, surely you understand.”
“But I’m not suicidal.”
“Maybe not now…”
Listen, I know I should be writing this all down for my book. It’s been a year since I’ve written. My first book did reasonably well, but now I’m out of money, and my wife is about to have me out. But that doesn’t make me suicidal. If I could just recharge my batteries and stop these nightmares from coming… As long as I could sleep peacefully I’d be right as rain. But I don’t tell any of this to the clerk.
“There must be something you can do. It would only be temporary, until the unit’s fixed, just so I can get some rest. I’m really tired.”
I wait for the clerk for what seems like an eternity. My back feels like a waterfall.
“I’ll see what we can do.” Says the clerk, edge razor sharp. “I’ll send Mandolin up shortly.”
“Thank you. Thank you very…” But I see the red light has gone out. I’ve been cut off.