The room key says 710, but the door has a faint shade where the “0” used to be. I can only guess what happened, perhaps it fell off. Maybe Mandolin took it. This wing of the hotel looks dingy and old. Cobwebs dangle from the hallway lights. The workmen haven’t gotten up this far, it seems. I’m sure Helen was not too happy when they showed her this. I can just hear Blix telling her now, “We’re short on room now, tourist season is catchy…” Tourists. Everybody here’s a resident. I don’t know what he’s talking about, tourists… Residents… banquets… private orgies… suitcases full of money… no wonder people never leave! This place goes on mysteriously and forever. People never get bored. If this place advertised there’d be a waiting list ten miles long! “Full use of the amenities,” hmph! I gotta hand it to these guys; I feel purged really, really purged. I haven’t had sex like that in…
Oh, Jesus. Helen is on the other side of this door. I tilt my head and can make out the vague murmur of a television set. This means she’s brought the kids with her. Oh my god… I’m dressed in a robe. Can she tell? Will she be able to smell the sex? She’ll sense it. What should I do? I check beneath my arm to make sure the suitcase is still there. It is, and that’s good. Everything will be fine. I have nothing to worry about.
Gathering myself and securing the robe, I manipulate the key inside the doorknob only to discover the door unlocked. It swings open naturally as if expecting me. Inside is dark. A shallow foyer opens in front of me with a table and overhung by a dim copy of Van Gough’s sunflowers. In a small living room beyond, the TV is quietly jibbering as Rex the Dancing Bedouin Camel sings a lesson on how to speak ancient Sumerian, interwoven with uncouth references to Osama Bin Laden. My twin sons, Jack and Max are sitting cross-legged, eyes irrevocably glued to the millions of glowing phosphors of Rex the Dancing Bedouin Camel dancing his little jig. Their blonde hairs gleam in the rapidly flashing cathode radiation, their eyebrows raised in bemused fashion. They have a knowing sophistication in their smiles which makes me happy that they aren’t being completely taken in by these shenanigans. But when they see me they jump up like excitedly and they scream, “Daddy!”
Now I’m not one to gloat over my kids, but in my moments alone with them I am filled with enormous satisfaction at seeing them up like this. We have such fun together horse wrestling and playing. They’re such live wires when they get going. Helen is more quiet and reserved with them than I am, but I know she feels an enormous pride like I do.
They reach up and pull and tug on the robe. I scramble to keep it closed. “We missed you, Dad.” They exclaim. “Where did you go?”
“I had to go,” I admit offhandedly with a slight tug of conscience. “But now here we are all together!” I squat and put my arms around both of them, and we hug warmly. I wonder if Helen can hear me. Considering the noise she’s making, banging dishes and cabinet doors in the kitchen, she does – and has been happier. I look in the direction of the kitchen and see her shadow milling around. The kids seem to get my drift, “Mommy’s making dinner, some kind of pie.” They tell me.
I look back at them and sense that they know things are tense between Mom and me. But I don’t dare broach the subject with them. Not now. Not when I have something that could fix it. It could all be over soon. And besides, I don’t know how to tell them what they already seem to understand. I try to reassure them with a look and a pat on their shoulders. “I think I’ll go help her.” As I get up to go, they return to Rex the Dancing Bedouin Camel now engaged in a conversation with Bart, his pet boa constrictor.
Helen is a whirling dervish in the small mid century kitchenette. Her hair in a bob, she sports a shirt-sleeve dress that billows out from her belted waste line, cut just below the knee, a powder blue mid-century Donna Reed / Mary Tyler Moore affair. In the midst of her dinner making, she smokes cigarettes and makes a mess like a woman who could disrupt laws of nature with her pent up emotions. My heart clenches in my chest as I know now, without a doubt that I’m in for it. She dances like a caricature of the perfect 50’s housewife under fluorescent lamps, but the black sound of chopping meat is all I can distinguish as she plunges her cleaver into the uncooked rump roast laid out on the gold flecked countertop. I just remember that case, the black case Jeoff gave me with the thick leather and double stitches. The handle is warm, soft, and reassuring in my hand, even though I stand here naked in a robe without excuse, with the smell of sex radiating outward like a smoking gun.
She has large sheets of dough pressed out on the counters which are dusted quite heavily with flour. Several aluminum pans litter the little space which is cramped with a mixer, a blender, and a toaster, all vintage appliances – probably the latest models this hotel has purchased. Helen moves back and forth from the sheet of dough and the pie tins, laying large cut out circles carefully over the innards so as not to fold or crease the crust or cause it to break. But she sees me. She knows I’m here. It becomes clear she is waiting for me to speak, even though she knows I am waiting for her to welcome me in. But this is hopeless I soon realize, as she trims the edges of the pie crusts with a pair of scissors with murderous zest, and afterward slams them down on the counter. The sound punctuates the gloom, cueing me to speak up or leave.
“Hello.” I say.
She doesn’t turn, but begins clearing the wrecked pieces of the dough. “I didn’t hear you come in,” she says coldly.
“I said hi to the boys. They seem to be enjoying TV.”
“That’s good.” She throws the pieces down in the sink and throws a switch. The disposal hums to life and speedily chews the fleshy remnants into mush. She holds her cigarette preciously with her index and middle finger over the floor so as not to get any ashes in the sink.
Somewhere during our greetings I decide that standing is too confrontational, and so I set the briefcase down and sit down at the round kitchen table. I’m careful to check that the case is close by my side on the floor. For a while I keep my hand on it, afraid someone will steal it while I sit, inebriated and confused, trying to explain things to my wife.
“So what are you making?”
“Beef pie. Hungry?”
I’m slushy and queasy from with Jeoff’s Absinthe. And I feel exhausted from endless fornication. “I’m famished.”
“So this is where we’re going to be staying while you finish your new book?”
The question strikes me so oddly, I have to think but have no real answer. “I haven’t thought about it, really… Do you like it here?”
She laughs ironically as she mashes her cigarette out on the ashtray sitting on the counter. “Feels like home.” She says.
“Have you seen the place?”
She lights up another cigarette immediately. I hate when she does that. I feel sick inside just watching her suck this poison. Kill yourself if you must, but don’t make me watch you. And don’t do it in front of the kids.
“No. I haven’t,” she strikes, “care to show me around? Hmm? Show me the sights?” Her words are terse staccato barbs sticking beneath my skin. She’s right. What have I done? Why are we here? It all bowls over me so heavily I start to panic. My heart goes all willy-nilly, and I start to lose focus. But she doesn’t understand. Helen doesn’t know what I’m going through. She doesn’t know that Blix is out to get me, Blix and Mandolin and the whole crew. I’m being dragged around like a sheep to slaughter. And I hate it. I hate them for doing it to me. I want to be clean and pure and safe. I don’t want this dirty horror surrounding me. I don’t want the foul putrid gulf of sin separating me from my wife. She turns to me now, her brown eyes glare down with the knowledge of a boatload of broken promises I don’t dare name. But she knows. She can read them, articulated like some morsel on the end of a fork she can see, smell, and taste. I wish I could just erase it all starting with this robe and this scent, this damning evidence. I want it to go away. I want to start over from zero. Zip. Return to nominal… Begin anew… God let me shed this hateful impurity! What have I done? I risk everything. I yield my life as fodder for a wild brush fire lurching out of darkness. Surely if I don’t put this fire out, we will all be consumed. And I will be the last, having watched everything I hold dear explode in heat and burning flame.
“Where’d you get that?” Helen asks.
“Hmm? Oh this? They gave it to me upstairs.” I’m fingering a patch of dried semen on my robe – damned guilt.
And she smiles, knowing she’s put me on the spot. “Hmph! I didn’t realize the attire was so casual. Are you feeling better?”
Feeling better? She knows. She understands. “Honestly, I’m quite drunk.”
“Let me fix you some coffee.”
Thank God she’s being merciful. Perhaps there is a way out. I think I should just come clean and we should get out of here. Yes. I have to find my courage. She’ll understand. She’s smart. She’s my wife. If I can’t trust her with my problems, who can I trust? I’ll tell her everything, the dreams, what’s happened to me here, everything. It’ll all go away, dissolved by Helen’s understanding and faith. In days it’ll be a forgotten nightmare, and we can get on with our lives. I’ll start writing again…
Helen pulls out a coffee percolator from one of the overhead cabinets and pulls out the basket. She flings the faucet open and water comes gushing out. She fills the pot, sets it down, plugs it in. In a second she reaches into the refrigerator freezer and pulls out a can of coffee, throws the lid open and pours a bunch of the dark powdery stuff into the metal basket. Then she sets the thing on the metal post in the percolator and caps it. She goes through this ritual hastily, thrashing stuff around angrily. It makes me tense to watch her. Maybe I’d like a cigarette now. Once everything is set she sighs heavily and her shoulders slump. She keeps her back to me. She’s weighing it out, puffing smoke from her cigarette like a dragon. With the last of it banished into vapor, she snips the smoldering butt out in the top of one of the pies. Her hand moves toward a kitchen knife. She swings around angrily pointing the knife at me. Her eyes are large in her head, two glaring beams to blind me.
Her lips twitch, then she blurts out: “I’m tired too, Jonathan. You think I like making Fish Stick commercials, working sixteen hours a day for a hundred twenty five dollars on a dusty soundstage under hot lights with bitchy actors? Get me this, get me that, wipe my butt, please. The UPM, asking why hasn’t the trash been taken out, and sweep the stage, and get me B.S. Shyster on the phone and tell him we’re running into meal penalty. What do you think it’s like for me coming home after that, huh? Wiping snotty noses, washing dishes, cooking, doing laundry, cleaning? Christ, Jonathan, I love the kids, you know I do. But do you really think I’m happy with my life?”
She is iron, Helen, with her steely pose, face tight, arm akimbo, knife pointed. She hits me hard with her shiny stare. I want to turn my face away. I want to see something softer, but I don’t dare look away. I have to be here. I have to bear the brunt. Her need is abundantly clear to me. “Maybe you should go have some fun.”
“WITH WHAT MONEY, JONATHAN?”
She is so loud, I feel the whole hotel come to a stop.
“WHERE DO YOU GET OFF COMING TO A PLACE LIKE THIS?”
“But you don’t understand,” I counter, “It’s okay. I just needed some down time.”
She pulls the cigarette butt out of the pie and carves into it uncooked with the knife. She picks up a piece and slams it onto a napkin, and throws it down in front of me – splat! I look up at her, helplessly, incredulously, my hopes for compassion and resolution dashed.
She hovers over me darkly, the large jointed finger of conviction pointed at me, its nail grisly long and sharp and hungry for blood.
“We’re living conservatively now, Jonathan,” she stabs. “That means we eat on napkins now, because we can’t afford to wash plates on my salary, and we won’t cook it because the heat’s too expensive!”
“Is there a fork?”
“EAT IT WITH YOUR FINGERS!”
Dare I hope anymore? My marriage lies in tatters around me, and I am alone responsible. All I see is a bleak unforgiving darkness. It can’t be this way. She just doesn’t understand. I want to hold her, to look into her eyes and reassure her I’m trying. I’m really trying, but I’m caught in a gravity well. I feel its fingers pulling me no matter how hard I pull away.
“Helen, please. I just…”
“Don’t touch me.”
She draws herself up, her arms between me and her breast.
“Come here, just let me hold you.” My arms reach out for her. I want to feel her close, to smell her scent, to heal the breach. But she resists me. She pushes me away.
“No, I don’t want to.”
“Just come here.” I grab her arm and pull her to me. But she gets angry and throws my hand away.
“I SAID I DON’T WANT YOU TO!!!” She raises the knife again and holds me back. The knife is black and sharp. Its shape matches her eyes. I feel stabbed. I stand my ground though I imagine I’m bleeding all over the floor.
“Maybe we should see somebody.”
But she just laughs incredulously at my hint we could benefit from family therapy, and throws the knife on the counter. In the same motion her hand reaches for the pack of cigarettes lying in a pile of flour dust. She draws one out, sticks it in her mouth and lights up. “Yeah,” she laughs, drawing the fire through the dead leaves, “maybe we should.”
“I love you… You know that.”
Drag, the sound of the air grates against her tar lined esophagus. “Do you? Really?” She dabs her ashes into the ashtray. “You lie beside me in bed at night, but I can’t feel you. You know, Jonathan, you spend so much time in your studio. We don’t see you. You don’t come out, we don’t talk. I feel like I’m living with a ghost. You’re not here. You’re not with us anymore, Jonathan. What are you doing in there? What are you dreaming? Are you insane?”
“BULLSHIT! Let me see one page, just one page!” She beats on my chest and falls into my arms. She listens to my thumping heart and looks at me with a flash of hope. “You can’t, can you? There’s nothing to show. It’s just air, phantoms.”
“You’re not with us anymore, Jonathan.” She says, pulling away. I feel that the world is leaving me. “I don’t know where you are. You’re lost in your head somewhere, I guess.”
She turns her back. The moon’s shadow falls across the sun. We’re both horribly alone. The kitchen feels inevitable and cold surrounding us. The kids are in the living room watching the end credits of Rex the Dancing Bedouin Camel. But there’s no reaching Helen. I haven’t got the words – no worse – I haven’t got anything inside to reach her with. I feel it’s been kicked and beaten out of me. I tried. I really did. I did the best I could do now. But it’s not enough. This isn’t getting us anywhere. I reach down into the robe and feel the extra key Jeoff fortuitously gave me. He foresaw this, Jeoff. He’s a real forward thinking kind of guy. Damn him. I should get out of here before the fire flares up again.
The last thing I see is Helen’s back in the Donna Reed dress, her head shaking with tears I can’t see. After that, I just close my eyes and don’t open them until I get out in the hall with the door closed, the key in my hand. 161 it says. I hope there’s a comfortable bed.