The elevator ride down is long and slow and arduous for my emotions. I find myself seesawing between my guilt and a sense of impending doom, and profound release. The elevator on the 7th floor wasn’t working, so I had to look around to find another unit that could take me down to the first level, below the lobby. None of the regular shafts in this crazy place go down that far. I was still stumbling drunk when I finally found a small service elevator. And I’m thinking to myself as I go, I just need to sleep this off, to clear my head and rest, then I’ll be better. I’ll talk to Helen, and we’ll clear this up. The cab I found is very small and squeaks in angry protest, rattling back and forth as it drops down the shaft. It’s the worst in the building. I think it’s about to die. And I imagine myself being trapped here for the remainder of the night, waiting for Mandolin and the workmen to rescue me, or worse, trapped forever. With all the maintenance underway in this building it’s a wonder they can keep this elevator working at all.
Trouble is, I keep thinking about the orgy. What freedom and utter abandon! Fluid bodies flash through my mind, and before I know it I’m in the grip of amazing lust. I want to go back. I want to disappear in that ecstatic oneness. What recklessness! Poor Helen… I’ve betrayed her. Come with me. Let’s escape together. She would never consent to it. But somehow I must. I feel like water flowing helplessly, irresistibly, down hill towards a great ocean. I feel afraid of the fathomless depths; the impenetrable darkness, the suffocation of atmosphere upon atmosphere. Where are my senses? I am jettisoned across the void, cast off from what I know; what is safe, what is true. I ride unseen currents taking me to a place and a future I cannot see. The Absinthe plays its rheumy trick with me – seducing me. I waver like smoke. I hope to disappear. Down, down, down I go. My heart stops. The tiny elevator light zaps and blinks out. I close my eyes and the little rickety box becomes a grinding jumble of rusty wheel pulleys, loose tracks, and fraying cables. My eyes clamp shut. My only thought is; I think I’m going to die. I’ll end up smashed on the bottom of the elevator shaft. The elevator slows. The blood rushes to my feet. My weight returns. The elevator stops. I hear the doors rumble open, and I slowly open my eyes.
Gloom spreads out before me, interrupted by loud visceral blasts. Clouds of steam rip open the dark as a series of magnificent iron boilers gurgle, belch, and fart. A radiant oppressive heat and moisture envelops me and forces me out of the elevator almost against my will. 161 the key says. I’ve somehow wound up in the boiler room. I don’t understand it. This hotel is beyond imagining, illogical and strange. Who would design such monstrosity, much less own or operate it? Whoever it is must be quite a card. It feels like Hell’s kitchen down here. I half expect Lucifer, all red, black cape and horns, to jump out of a flash of flame and greet me, “Well hello, and welcome to Hell!” He’ll say with cheesy enthusiasm. He’ll hold his firebrand of a hand out like a used car salesman. I will shake it, and look back and see my bloody ripped up carcass with eyes open, staring back at me from the splintered and bent elevator wreckage.
As these images transpire in my poor diluted brain, something moves in front of me. Through the smoke I can barely make it out. I jump. It nearly scares me to death. Leaning forward, I move my feet ever so carefully, quietly, peering through the white hot jets of steam, the gauges tipped in red. The boilers are about to explode. The tide of adrenaline surges through my aching veins. My eyes lunge feral out of my head, searching through the steam to get a better view, to help my brain paste disconnected bits of information together. Dark shape, top hat, large black fir coat, the jangling of keys – it’s the dark figure from upstairs, the one I chased down the stairwell! He is searching his massive key ring for the right key to this door. Success at last! He slips the golden key into the door handle and turns the lock. The door gives to his gentle push, and he passes the threshold, gliding like a ghost, and shuts the door.
I stand in terror and I consider the possibilities. Here he is at last! Who is he? I’ll rush the door. I’ll knock until he answers. For all I know he could be some guest who just wants to remain private. But I feel compelled to seek him out. I somehow feel a connection to him. He is an inexplicable mystery. What has he got to do with this hotel that he moves about with his own keys at will like a ghost? Who or what incorporates this featureless black form?
As soon as the door closes I rush toward the door and find that the number on the door matches the number on my key:
Heart pounding in my chest, I wait to catch my breath. Now I have him. Somehow, I expect I am about to catch a criminal, perhaps some terrorist out to destroy the hotel! I’ll be a hero!
I insert the key and everything goes silent, the belching and the farting of the pounding over-wrought machines dim. My own heart and lungs go vacuum quiet. The only sound comes from the tiny twinkling of the key metal rotating the tumblers inside the door tick – click – kitock! This throws back the bolt. The handle turns and the door releases with a quiet sucking sound from the jamb.
The door reveals the innards of a giant clock. Its massive gears are locked tight against one another. The central mechanism knocks in a vain effort to make the gears move. Through the translucent skin of the clock face I can see the numbers of the dial. The hands are stopped at twelve. I catch my breath. I haven’t checked the time since before Blix brought me to the dining hall. Amazing! Time hasn’t changed for my watch either. What can possibly be the matter? Has time stopped?
I look around me. A metal stair leads to a narrow service catwalk spanning the width of the clock. A ladder rises to another catwalk high overhead. A ledge below cuts the room and below the remainder of the clock, the 4, the 5, 6, and 7. All still, all quiet except for the banging of the central movement – as if somebody were trying to get out.
The orgy… Helen… the orgy… Helen… rhapsody… the kids… wife… family… oblivion.
Perhaps I have found the man himself – the owner of this hotel – the dark figure who entered this very room.
The floor raises a step into a dark cherry wood surface, an apartment, a bedroom overlooking the clock with the frozen gears. A large king sized bed, the most comfortable one I’ve seen covers a large portion of the floor with luxurious thick pillows and gorgeous beddings, a massive iron and wood headboard fills the wall. Next to this, a small round bedside table supports an amazing copper lamp with silk nightshade, a small diary, a money clip with no currency. An armoire looms heavily with oppulent carving and various inlaid wood finishes, brilliant hoop handles stained black dangle magnificently on the doors. A dark cherry bureau next to it has four drawers of birds eye maple veneer, on top lies a silver tray full of personal artifacts, foreign coins, a cigarette lighter, cufflinks, an ivory Buddha figurine the size of a thimble. A pure white heavy silk handkerchief lies folded on top of the bureau. The initials J.N.P. are monogrammed in gold thread. I pick this up and run my thumb over the thick embroidery. I eye the rich surroundings with a mixture of pleasure and envy.
The pleasure of escape… the pleasure of belonging… home… abandon. Knock, knock, knock, knock.
Helen, how can I make you understand? I want to show you what I have seen. I want you to feel what I feel. The power of language can only communicate what you want to hear. How can I help you experience what I have experienced? I need a direct link to your brain. I’ve wandered down a dark maze and have gotten lost. Take my hand. Let me show you the wonders… Knock, knock, knock, knock… I am alone… totally alone. Why must that be?
The handkerchief feels right in my hand. The white heavy fibers yield to my touch and rebound as if impervious to me, to the world, flexible and giving, able to stand on its own without losing its form. I am losing my form. I remember the unending hallways, the window, the ledge, the rain… my mind flitting unrestrained through the atmosphere, the immediacy of near death and the all encompassing feeling of being surrounded and lost in a writhing mass of human beings. The wild intoxication of sex courses through my veins like a drug. I close my eyes and feel it. My eyes swim backward into my head. My tongue fattens and presses against the watery elements of my mouth.
This is all in my mind. None of this is real. It is all undeniably real. Knock, knock, knock, knock…
A toilet flushes. My heart skips a beat. I open my eyes and wait, frozen for someone, the dark figure, to appear. After a moment the door next to the round bedside table opens and a man appears. He is large and old, and looks, for lack of a better expression, like a turn of the century bank executive, circa 1910. He wears a fine suit of pin stripped clothes. A dark vest covers his white neatly pressed shirt with cufflinks. He fingers a pocket watch that is chained to one of the buttons on the vest. He flips open the lid and taps it.
He unhooks the watch and sets it down. Then he looks up and sees me with a rather stunned expression. His face goes momentarily white, and he looks at me without making any outward signs. Then he turns, ignoring me, and removes his vest and hangs it on a rack.
“Hello.” He says with his back turned.
“Hello… Are you JNP?”
He is placing the vest on the hanger and putting it on a standing hat rack by the door. I wonder if he has heard me at all.
“Are you the owner?” I rephrase my question.
He looks at me finally, seemingly startled by my question, and regards me evenly as he removes his clip-on bow tie and dickey, and lays them evenly on the bed.
“What should I own?”
I don’t understand. He has the keys. He wears the top hat. He moves around like a ghost. Perhaps this isn’t the man. Perhaps the ghost is gone and this person just happens to be in his place. No, that can’t be.
“This place… the hotel. Do you own it?” I ask.
“You might as well ask, ‘does the hotel own me?’ Would you pass me that coat please? I want to hang it here.”
Here it is! The massive fur coat he wears! It must keep him oven hot. I pick up the heavy silk lined fur coat and hear the faint jingle of keys from within one of the massive pockets. I hand the coat to him. He removes the ring and hangs it next to his hat.
“Thank you.” He says kindly, hanging up the coat. He turns and sizes me up carefully. Me in my robe, evicted. “You look like you’ve been rather busy.” He says knowingly, then changes his assessment, “No – trodden upon would be more descriptive of you.”
Of course, he’s right on both counts, but “I’m just put out,” is all I tell him. He’s seen through the rest.
The old man pours himself brandy from the thickly cut leaded crystal decanter. “Oh? By whom?” He sips. “Let me guess, your wife.”
“You’re very perceptive.”
He smiles knowingly and asks, “Since we’re together, can I interest you in some brandy? The hotel has an excellent brandy.”
“Why thank you, yes. I love an excellent brandy. It was my father’s favorite, before dinner.”
“Likewise with my father. He used to say, ‘Brandy is the fuel for dreams.’” He pours a tiny amount into a glass and hands it to me. “This brandy hails from Ararat Plain… Do you know it? It is said Mt. Ararat is the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. But I have never been there. Have you?”
The rich sweetness blooms forcefully beneath my nose. “No, I’m afraid I haven’t,” I answer savoring the smell. It tastes fine going down and quickens my senses.
“Bracing, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I return, and move to sit in one of the appointed chairs, a heavily upholstered thing that accepts me wholly without complaint. I sip the brandy and size up my friend, whose fatherly gaze gives me comfort and a sense of ease. I warm up to him immediately. He has blue eyes that sparkle beneath bushy ash grey eyebrows and his thin hair combed back evenly over his spotted head. His thick jowls lift when he smiles. And his teeth thankfully are not broken or unpleasant to look at. He has a shining quality about him. His gesticulations have a vague unsettling quality. He sits in the open chair across from me. He is open and cordial.
“So tell me what brings you here.”
I laugh, somewhat embarrassed, “They gave me a key upstairs.”
“No, I mean the hotel.”
“Oh that. Well, I’ve been writing – trying – to write a book, and I’ve been very distracted. I’ve been having awful nightmares. I’m feeling a bit lost and confused.”
“Well, write anyway. You can write shit and it won’t matter. You can always throw it away. Most of the time, you can get paid for writing shit. It’s amazing how life rewards unimportant things. It decides on its own, without your permission, and often controverts your expectations. You know, I was once a writer myself.”
“Oh? What did you write?”
“I was a journalist, city newspaper. I wrote my fingers weary for a meager paycheck and a dismal apartment. I was married too.”
“Indeed… It’s upsetting isn’t it, how something so good in essence turns out horribly wrong. It’s a testimony to our nature, we get so bored and unhappy. We destroy things so we won’t be so bored.”
“It makes life hard, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, well, that’s the behavior of an unusual man. He likes hard. Soft is rather dull and uninteresting.” He sips from the glass again and looks at me.
“Communication is so difficult.”
His eyes twinkle as he mulls this for a second. “This is true. I don’t think writers are predisposed to talking anyway. We take so long to think about what we want to say. Moments slip by and people get impatient. It’s funny, you know, you can talk all day to a piece of paper. The paper never asks you to explain anything. It understands everything you say. It accepts it without question, and it gives you a printed record of every thought, every idea, every desire…” He lets this drip out sweetly with a puff of smoke that thins into a line, caressing the air, and vanishing into memory.
“But you start talking to a woman…”
“…Your wife especially… Then it’s all round-abouts and second guesses. You go at it like two swordsmen violently flaying the air. Everything comes into question. Words become motives, hidden agendas, manipulations, accusations, javelins… Blood gushes out, chaos ensues, and before you know it you have no idea what you said because it always conflicts…”
“… With her side of the conversation.”
And we smile and toast one another. We’re two silly men finding an ally in the ridiculous war of love.
“After a while you get so beat up with words you don’t feel like talking anymore… You wonder if it’s all worth it…”
“You start wondering what you missed…”
“Which is exactly why I came here.” And as soon as he says this, I know I have found a true friend. I feel I could tell him everything – my whole adventure – and he would completely understand me. So what point would there be? I ask myself. I finish my drink and savor the flavor.
“Do you like it here?” I ask finally.
“It’s wonderful. No – that’s a lie. But here I am.”
“Why lie about it if you hate it?”
“Who said I hated it? I accept it.”
“But how can you accept it? It’s so dark and messy.”
“It’s impossible to get through life without wading through one’s fair share of excrement and blood. To be pure one might as well be a cow in a slaughterhouse.”
Of course I know this. I feel pressed by the weight of it.
“You could use some shoes.” The old man says looking down at my naked feet. “It’s hard to get through life without shoes.”
He rises slowly out of his chair like a great watermelon that has suddenly acquired legs and the ability to walk, and he walks over to the lovely king sized bed and bends down. I cringe at the thought of him falling. But he reaches effortlessly under the bed and pulls out a pair of shoes. They are worn and earth colored Florsheim Wingtips, the perfect pair.
“Here, try on these.”
He brings them over and places them at my feet.
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly.”
“Oh, go ahead, try them on.”
I look down and point my toes. My feet slide comfortably into them. They feel warm and hospitable, like friends.
“They’re genuine leather,” he says, “the real McCoy!”
“They feel fantastic… These are your shoes? They fit me perfectly, like they were specially made.”
The old man looks up at me with a twinkle and says, “Then you can have them with my compliments.”
I wave a hand in protest. But he shakes his head, having none of it and waves me off.
There is a knock at the door. Oh, Christ. It must be Helen looking for me. She’ll be mad as hell.
“Well who could that be?”
The old man slowly gets up, crosses the room and opens the door.
“Oh Johnny! Johnny, come quick!” It’s Jeoff, a bubbling convulsion of electric stupidity.
“What is it?”
“You’ve got to come with me upstairs. Immediately! Quick, hurry!”
“What? What?” I ask, crossing the room.
“It’s your golden banquet opportunity!”
What the hell is he talking about? Silly man! He reaches through the door and pulls me by the hand.
“Where are we going?”
“We’ve got to hurry, Johnny! Hurry!”
“This is guaranteed!”
Jeoff hurriedly leads me out the door. The old man smiles at me as we pass. He’s a nice old man. I’d like to sit and talk with him some more. “Good luck.” He says as Jeoff pulls me through the belching clouds of steam.