I slip out a back exit from the Old Man’s apartment and jigsaw my way through the dazzling maze of hotel corridors, and pass a massive set of carved doors on my way into a brilliantly lit stain glass chapel, abandoned and ancient in years. Puddles of water coalesce on the wood floor from the rain coming in through holes in the roof. The main aisle dressed in red carpet is pitch darkened from the trampling of thousands of feet. I wonder how long ago they passed this way.
Lulled into calm, I stride boldly out of the chapel into another hallway and run immediately into my old friends. I’m spotted immediately and chased down the hall. I dodge into a stairwell, and clamor down the stairs with my newly clad feet. Barreling downward, I hear them coming after me and I put on more speed, full bore, the stairs a blur, heart pounding, until I reach bottom.
The only door out dumps me into the main kitchen. The smell of cakes and bread blooms sweetly throughout the room. I run down the row of silver prep tables and mixers, weaving in and out of a bunch of cooks all dressed in splattered whites. Like a maniac I crash into one of them, carrying a large bowl that tumbles out of his hands. A storm of egg batter lurches everywhere, making an instant slick on the floor. I slide through the thick goo and nearly crack my head on one of the counters. He shouts and curses at the top of his lungs, and all heads turn my way and they all start shouting for someone to stop the maniac.
Chef Black appears, and he is less happy to see me now than in our previous meeting. “So there you are,” he cries, glowering and nodding his red smoldering head, “you insidious ingrate!” He grabs onto my sleeve just as the goon squad tumbles through the door and shouts, “Come get him!”
Wrestling free of Chef Black, I stampede toward the kitchen doors, knocking over large trays stacked full of bread. They crash behind me. The chef and the entire staff are shouting bloody murder. But I’m too freaked to care. I just want out.
In a mad panic, I dash into the dining room, through rows, between table settings, waiters, and over place settings. I’m out the doors in a flash, and careening into the lobby.
I pass Mandolin. “Good morning, Mr. J.” He says to me. I want to head upstairs, but more goons are coming off the stairwell leading up to the second floor, scrambling to stop me. Veering through the lobby, I pass the fat man in the chair with the two boys, still wrestling.
“Yummy fouldignerin!” He chuckles, still shoving crackers down his foul mouth.
I’ve got to get out of here. I’ll have to go around and find another entrance and try to get upstairs to find Helen. But the doors are locked! I push and rattle the doors like mad, but it’s no use.
“I’m afraid the doors are locked, Mr. J.,” says the clerk, summoning himself out of the dark lobby, flanked by the goons.
“Why have you locked the doors?” I say, out of breath, flushed, and pressed beyond my limits. “I have to get out of here!”
Blix looks at me with an eagle’s calculating stare, squaring himself. “I’m afraid that’s impossible.”
The goons are edging closer.
“We haven’t received your payment.”
Helen! He means Helen. “What payment?”
“You have to solve the riddle.” He insists.
“Yum – yum – yummy fouldignerin! HA-HA-HA-HA!!!” The fat man’s laughter shocks the cramped dimness of the lobby. And I see him stuffing his face again, the cascade of cracker crumbs rolling down his shirt, piling in his lap. His face is red and gloating over the two boys still throwing each other around the floor.
As the goons spring for me, I catapult through the lobby, past the other goons coming out of the dining hall, and run up the stairs. Luckily the elevator is standing open. The doors shut just as I enter. I press for seven and the elevator slides crankily upward.
This is madness. The heinous clerk and his goons are conspiring to keep me here, no matter what. What is this puzzle he’s talking about? What riddle?
“Come on… Come on…”
The elevator dings and the doors slide open. The seventh floor is now under full renovation by the work crews who have their scaffolds set up and their ladders, and they’re going crazy with saws buzzing, chisels chiseling, paint brushes painting, and hammers thundering all the way down the hall. The path is treacherous to negotiate. An arc welder’s blinding light makes a shower of sparks on the hand rail. The banshee wail of a grinder splits my head.
But finally I reach 710 relatively unhindered, and bang on the door. I wait. I bang again.
Helen throws open the door, her face transfigured into complete frenzied hysteria. She pulls me inside and shuts the door behind us.
“Where have you been???”
I barge past her into the living room, looking for the boys.
“Get your things. We’re getting out of here.”
“What? Do you know there was an EARTHQUAKE, Jonathan? I was scared out of my mind! And where were you, eh? Where were you???” She looks at my suit and her face goes all sour. “Well aren’t you Mr. Fancy Pants?”
“Oh Helen…” I moan. My eyes search the room. But there is no sign of the children. “I’ll explain it to you later. Where are the children?”
“They’re in bed, asleep.”
“Wake ‘em up. We’ve got to get out of here.”
“They were up all night! Let them sleep.”
She reaches into her robe and pulls out a cigarette and lights it. “Listen to me,” I say, snatching the cigarette out of her hand, “You have got to do what I say. Please! We’ve got to get out of here, now.”
“Well isn’t that just peachy? ‘Do what I say!’ Since when do you start giving orders, huh? Since when do you stay out all night and come home dressed like you’ve been to some banquet, and get to tell me what to do?”
“Please, Helen. For your own good, you’ve got to listen to me.”
“Listen to you? No Jonathan! You listen to what I have to say! I’m through being treated like a second rate citizen in this marriage. I’m through floundering, John. I’m through.”
“What did you say?” Something has cued a reflex in my brain, but I can’t place it.
Helen looks at me strangely as if I’m a petulant child who will never learn his lesson. “What? Are you deaf? Hello! I said I’m through. Read my lips.”
Madness upon madness. This won’t serve us now. Those goons will be coming through the door any second now to cart me back to the big shindig. And they won’t waste time carting me up there. They’ll strap me to one of those chairs and stick a tube down my throat and haul me up like garbage. I check the bedroom off the corner of the TV room, and find the boys curled up side by side sound asleep beneath the covers. Look at them! My heart sinks and tears well up. What have I been doing? These guys are the source of my life.
Helen pulls me back from the door. “No, you will not,” she says. She pushes me away from the door, and I forcefully grab her arms and move her out of my way.
“We have to leave.” I say gravely, and my tone pierces her armor. Her eyes soften as she recognizes I’m serious.
“What happened? What did you do?”
“I’m not leaving here until you tell me you love me, until you convince me you love me, because I’m not taking it anymore, Jonathan.” She grabs me. Her lips are quivering. Her eyes are filling up.
I pull her to me, and press her bones into mine. Her hair is fine in my hands. My heart comes to life next to her. I begin a long, long search for true words.
“My dreams have not made me happy.” I tell her. “I’m restless sleeping at night, lost and wandering, and now I think I’ve gone too far.”
Helen looks at me. Her eyes are clear, but not understanding, and liquid with fear.
“Helen, I’m sorry. I love you. In my heart I love you more than life. Please listen to me. We’re in danger here. We’ve got to get out.” We hug for what seems like an eternity. I feel her anger subsiding in the touch of our embrace, like melting ice, it flows away. The sensation fills us both with its scorching severity, a blue panic that dissolves into a warm rush. I can feel the binds loosening now. Her hands press flat on my back. Her face becomes soft and yielding next to mine. Her eyes brush a tear from my cheek. I’m looking for answers in this moment of silence and peace that has finally fallen between us. Why did I come to this hotel? Did I come to get drunk and indulge in lurid fantasies? Am I that unhappy in my life? My mind skewers itself madly for a time, and I begin to think perhaps something dark and sloppy rages in all of us and yearns to crawl lizard like and brazen out of the black swamp of sleep. We are, after all, the product of boiling scum. We are all hunters and warriors. Even in glass towers under glowing tubes of heated gas, with our numbers, and our neatly pressed shirts and ties, that dark instinct threatens to show us who we really are, even as it saps our will. It is a force relegated to dreams, where in unwinding playgrounds of our deepest imaginations we find the source and the drive that makes us men – hauntingly unfamiliar as it may seem.
My mind tussles with this thick epiphany. Meanwhile the goons are coming, and if I don’t get my family out of here we are all going to become human Tupperware! I throw on the light.
“Come on, kids. We’re getting out of here.” I roust them awake. Their eyes pop open and they sit up in bed and rub their eyes and yawn.
“Daddy, where are we going?”
“Come on. We’re going home.” They crawl into my arms and hug my neck tight as I carry them out of the bedroom only to find Helen standing outside holding the brief case with a disturbed look on her face.
Jesus Christ, I completely forgot about this damn thing, and left it behind earlier! I set the kids down and reach for it.
“Do you know what’s in the case, Helen?”
She jumps at my hand and drops the case. It thuds against the floor and starts ticking. That’s odd. I kneel beside the case and spring the latches and lift the lid. Where once sat one hundred thousand dollars, now sits a ticking bomb!
“Oh my God!” Cries Helen. “Kids, kids… Come away.”
“Can I have it?”
“I saw it first!”
“GET AWAY FROM THAT!”
“I don’t understand,” I say, dumbfounded, “there was money, a whole pile of money.”
“Well you’ve sure done it now, Buster! What’d you do, go out and spend it?”
“No, Helen. Please. You gotta believe me!”
Helen is cross eyed and boiling hot. “Come on, Kids. We’re leaving.”
“I wanna play it!”
She grabs them all up and heads for the door while I stare at this thing. I hear kicking and screaming and the kids start crying.
“What is it? What is it?”
I run to the door. Helen is white knuckling the doorknob trying to get it to turn.
“What is it?”
“Move away from there, let me see that.” I try the knob. It won’t budge. “Where’s the key?”
We rush around frantically searching the apartment for the key. We look under every cushion, on every shelf, behind the TV, under the plates, in all our pockets. The bomb is ticking. Helen and I look at each other, fearing the worst. She scrambles through the contents of her purse. Her face lights. She’s found it! She rushes to the door and jams the key into the hole and breaks it.
“What did you do?”
She looks at me, white as a ghost. “I didn’t mean to!”
“Oh great.” I say.
“Now what’ll we do?”
I am not mechanical. I have never been around a bomb before, so I decide the only reasonable thing to do is to try and defuse it.
“Get me some scissors, or a knife!”
“Are you crazy?”
“That’s what you’ve been saying all night, isn’t it?”
“It could go off! We’d all be killed!”
“Well, you can stand their gawking and wait for the bomb to explode, or you can get me something sharp so I can give us a fighting chance for survival.” I glare at her, and she gets my meaning. She disappears into the kitchen. Lickety-split she’s back with a large knife to do the job, and she thrusts it into my hands.
There are three different colored wires.
“Which one do I cut?” I ask.
“I don’t know! HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW? I’M NOT A BOMB EXPERT! I DIDN’T GET US INTO THIS!!! Jesus, Jonathan!”
“Move back!” I shout.
Hzelen and the kids move into the foyer by the door. I pick the bomb up and throw it out the window. The window crashes and shatters into a million bits. The briefcase flies away. Seconds later a loud crash bombards the hotel and throws us against the far wall. The walls warp as they rumble. Dust and smoke fills the room. Darkness comes.
When I come to, Helen is on her knees beside me with the boys, her face caked with dust and ash, biting her lip and staring at me. She looks at me, smiling hopefully. The boys are safe, holding their fingers in their ears… I reach for her face. She yields to my touch. We kiss. We really kiss.
“The door’s open,” she says, tears streaming down her face, “let’s get out of here.”