I throw the door to room 431 open. I’m wilting molten glass. An instant change of air with the hallway rolls around me as blast furnace heat of the room escapes from itself. I begin to get dizzy and the hallway slightly dims. My hand connects with the door jamb and takes my weight. Lightness consumes my head. All my circuits disconnect. The cool hallway is receding.
“Jesus! What happened to you?” Mandolin’s arms rush about me in time to save my face from smashing into the floor. The triple image of his face rolls toward me with concern. Damn him, feigning concern for my plight when I know very well it’s some childish prank of his. Just you wait, Mandy. It’s alright, I think to myself. Just you wait. “It feels like hell’s kitchen in there. Are you alright? Can you stand?”
I begin pulling myself back from the abyss. Mandolin comes into focus more clearly. The outline of his head with its crappy little bellman’s cap is becoming distinct from the ceiling over him. My senses return. My lips and fingers scream their tingling return from the black out.
“What happened in there?”
“I don’t know.” I whisper. “When I turned the air unit on cool, it was fine for awhile, then it started to blow hot again.
“Oh. It happens some times, faulty wiring.”
Mandolin straightens me and puts me up against the wall. My feet are starting to come back, but I still feel rocky. Mandolin checks out the room. His face recoils from the heat.
“Will you have a look at it ?” I ask him.
“Are you kidding, in that heat? No way! I’ll send a note to the service guys. They’ll have a look at it. They’re always fixing’ stuff around here.”
He looks carefully into my eyes and presses his little pasty hands against my face.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you have heat exhaustion.” He proclaims. “This is unbearable.” He shuts the door. The air begins to still. The heat disappears into the darkened hallway. The rush of coolness brings relief to my extremities. My head lolls against the wall. My scalp rumbles against the edges of cut velvet wall paper. I notice the light at the end of the hall has gone out. The area is strangely vacant and dark, a mine shaft. I have the ominous feeling I’m about to be crushed. There’s a sense of isolation between me and Mandolin, whose look of concern grows more severe. His hands cup my shoulders to keep me standing.
“I’m alright. I’m alright. I’m feeling much better.”
“You don’t look so good. You’re as white as a sheet. Can you walk?”
Catching my breath, the hyperventilation is slowing. “Yeah, I think so.” He leads me by the shoulder back down the hallway toward the elevator which is standing open and waiting for us to enter. The light hurts my eyes. Mandolin touches the knob on the wall and the little incandescent glow tubes dim to a comfortable level.
“Don’t worry.” He says as he cranks the door shut. “We’ll have you fixed in a jiffy.”
Again the awful creaking, again the haphazard jerking movement upward and all my innards sink toward the floor. Nausea swims over me. Mandolin offers me a small stainless steel and crystal flask, ornately carved with a small cap on a chain that dangles down the side over his fingers.
“Here, drink this.”
“What is it?”
“My own special refresher… been in the family for generations. I put my own little stamp on it. I’ve got a still set up on my stove downstairs.”
“One of the basements.”
This is just what I need, some alcoholic elixir home made by an androgynous bellman in the earthly bowels of some strange hotel. I can undoubtedly count on clean operating conditions with this completely transparent stuff that hits my nose with atomic force bringing a hot rush to the back of my throat. Yes, this is just what I need to cure me, a concoction that is sure to evaporate what ever water molecules are left straggling inside my oxygen depleted brain. Desperate madman that I am, I put the flask to my dried lips and drink. The lightning fluid melts through my lips and etherizes my tongue as it shoots toward my esophagus and atomizes into a warm vapor that spreads from my chest to my hands and feet and quickens me.
“There. That’s good isn’t it? Taste the ginger??? That’s my own special innovation.”
I can’t taste a thing. But I do feel better. I hand the flask back to Mandolin who pockets it some place I can’t see. The elevator jerks to a stop.
“You should get that fixed.” I say.
Mandolin opens the door and leads me out with his arm around my shoulder.
“Is this the fifth floor?”
It looks exactly like the fourth. Are we on the north side of the building, or the south? It’s fall outside. The sun is in the south. But it’s cold up here. We must be on the north side of the building. It’s so dark. I feel addled and ridiculous. There are no windows to let in any light at all.
I look to the end of the hall and, as before, I see the round man in shadow form, fur coat, top hat and all, jangling a set of keys and entering the last room down the hall. My heart stops in my chest. There’s something quiet and disturbing about this shadow. Why would he be here now? Who is he?
Mandolin is standing in the doorway to my new room.
“What’s the matter?”
“Do you see that man?”
Mandolin comes into the hall. “What man?”
The fat shadow slips through the open door at the end of the hall. The light down there dims until it appears the hallway seeps into a void.
I look up at Mandolin and smile.
“It must be nothing.” I tell him confidently. He looks at me, vaguely irritated, as I enter the room and immediately notice the art deco appointments: a bronze lamp with a fringe beaded shade characterizes a woman in half dress holding up a globe. The dresser has fan shapes going up each tier of drawers, the fans are inlaid pieces of cherry, maple, and mahogany. An ornate brass a candelabrum stands on top of the dresser upon a lace doily that is brown with cigarette residue. The room has the vague odor of disinfectant used some days ago. I look for a bed, but there isn’t one.
“Will that be all?”
I am walloped as if by a blow from the back, and gasp horrifically. Tucked in the corner, I estimate some six feet tall, stands a statue as incomprehensible to me as any circus side show freak. Rudely constructed out of tree sections, the statue takes the form of a primitive man, possibly some voodoo fetish from Haiti, through the character of this thing has a distinct Polynesian flair. The head is cone shaped and has straw for hair. Two large eyes are carved into the head and stare out into the room with a vacant expression. A pair of large red plastic lips is affixed to the face whose skin is rutted and grooved with deep indentations of the tree’s bark. The body is stocky and round. Two cone shaped arms point straight toward the ground with straw for hands. The legs exit the base of the torso to the same effect and straw for feet.
“What’s this?” I say, pointing at it.
Mandolin shrugs absently and says, “Oh him, he goes with the room.”
“Oh,” I take it gracefully in stride. “There doesn’t appear to be a bed…”
“Yeah. I’m sorry about that, but this is the only room we have available right now. All the other ones are being used.”
“This place is huge. Are you really that busy?”
“And there’s not one bed? Not even a cot on wheels?”
“How am I supposed to get any sleep?”
“Use the chair.”
Mandolin points to a large heavily upholstered comfy chair in the middle of the room. The chair is massive with heavy wooden feet. Its design is the fabric of the universe with dark space and stars all over it. It seems an agreeable solution for the present.
“Who owns this place?” I ask Mandolin.
“Hmm? Oh. We’re privately owned. Actually I’ve never met the owner. I’ve only heard about him.”
“Do you know his name?”
Mandolin crosses his arms, looking with consternation at the floor. “Mm? No. Well, let’s see. It’s, uh… It’s OB something. Ob… oboe… I’ve heard it mentioned, can’t think of it right now.”
“So what if I have any more problems?” I ask, after a cursory sweep of the room reveals another ruby red light on a wall intercom.
“Well, you can call me, I’m always here. You’re not dissatisfied are you?”
“Oh, well… Yes, I -”
Mandolin starts as if kicked, and gives me a condescending pat on the back. “Well good. I’m sorry. I wish I could be of more help to you.”
“No, no. You’re fine.” I say, my thoughts completely out of control, trying to gauge the dimensions of the room around my new other-worldly companion. “I’ll be alright here, I think.”
I try, but there is no respite from the spooky wooden man leering at me.
“Well, I hate to be a cad, but I have to go. I’ve got other guests to attend to.”
“You’re the only bellman?”
“After Rifkin, I was the only one left. It’s a tough assignment, believe me.”
“What happened to Rifkin?”
Mandolin makes a grizzly face and swipes his throat with an index finger. “He lost his head in a freak elevator accident. He was completely decapitated. The head fell down the shaft. They never found it. Oh, but it’s alright, they buried him though, out in the garden beyond the statuary. What a show that was. Then they promoted me. He-he! Well, I’ll be seein’ ya!” And Mandolin struts to the door and shuts me in.
Here I am alone with this totem. How am I supposed to get any sleep with these blank eyes staring at me with such persistence? Unavoidably it stands there, an abominable assemblage of tree parts. It unnerves me to my core just looking at it. Those eyes; cut in deep bass relief with iris and pupils formidably drawn over sagging lower eyelids peer sleeplessly out and within. And those lips! They shimmer with a light glossy finish that imparts an abominable liveliness to the whole thing. What if I should fall asleep here in this chair and the thing should come to life and attack me? Perhaps beat me or carry me off? What if the eyes should suddenly spring to life and look at me instead of through me with their impenetrable gaze, and the lips pulsate and pull back to reveal giant vein sucking teeth, just waiting to suck my away me while I’m unaware and deep under cover of some shapeless apparition? Or worse yet, what if through some magic, we were to trade places, and I were to become this thing that stands in the corner? I would be forced to wait until Mandolin brought the next unwitting victim before I could spring my freedom and make him my captive redeemer. The thought sends tingles down my spine. And I think for a brief second how awesome the challenge would be to find a suitable trade, and how guilty I would feel afterward, knowing that I had duped some poor soul, or worse, taken them by surprise and without their consent, and forced them to take my place in eternal hibernation. Hopefully Mandolin would bring me someone of malicious background, whose intentions are purely selfish and unreasoning, some criminal who was perhaps more deserving of my fate than I was.
What it must be like to stand there frozen, and to look out across the same room for endless hours, days, and years, to be like a fly on the wall and to see the myriad shapes and colors of life take form and action in this room, the newlyweds carrying each other over the threshold, the old spinster couple who do nothing but smoke cigarettes and read the news paper and never speak a word, the sales men at the trade show who bring their call girl escorts upstairs from the convention room floor for a little of this, a little of that, some Bacardi down the hatch or maybe a martini, perhaps to put on some music on the old phonograph, maybe a little Gershwin or Nat King Cole, or Ella Fitzgerald, and then sway across the room and make shadows on the walls and gaze out the window panes across the chilly moonlit garden. How boring it must get after a few years, standing alone waiting for Mandolin just to come and dust you. This idle imagining goes on for some time as I remove my socks and sink, inch by inch, into the large comfy chair with the stars embroidered on the dark universal fabric. And I drift sleepily and breeze-like across the waters of some distant lake and take flight into ethereal dreams.
Soon a heated wind sweeps past, and I arrive in a desert surrounded by mountain ranges. They appear so near, through judging from their white caps they are thousands of feet high and many miles distant. I look around me and see pale white sand stretching out in all directions leaving me alone. In a flash of panic I look for any sign of water. There’s nothing but the cold reflection of the sky shimmering on the sun beaten flat. The hubris of an ancient cliff turns pale blue far, far off. No good, considering I am standing in a black gabardine suit and tie and thick leather wingtips. The sun is already beating down, and I can feel myself beginning to stick uncomfortably to my clothes. By position of my shadow on the ground I judge it to be about noon. The heat is just kicking on. Oh, for room 431!
“Yaaahaahahaha…” The wind is laughing at me.
“You’re as good as dead.”
“See you on the river side!”
Mandolin’s ginger-laced white lightning death brew is kicking me viciously. I’m garbled and achy. The sun becomes a few kelvins brighter. I raise my hand to shield my eyes that feel as if they are about to dissolve into dust from the merciless heat. My tongue is salty and beginning to feel like a wad of cotton in my mouth. I start walking to the blue cliff, knowing full well the shimmering cobalt in the middle distance is a mirage and that I’ll die before I get there, but thinking, heck, you never know, there might be a swimming pool and a bar full of women!
“You should-a thought about this before you came!”
“It’s a long way home from here!”
I wonder about Helen. She sounded worried when the cockroach confronted me. The twins are home from school now, Jack and Max. They’re working on their homework, probably asking Helen where I am. How do I get back to her? How will I ever get back from here, this desert plain – in wingtips? It doesn’t matter anyway, I tell myself. Helen’s giving up on you. No, 86 that. You’ve given up on you. You’ll never write again. I will I promise, if I can just work out these dreams I’m having…
“Forget about it!”
“You’re gone, man! You’re all gone!”
“There’s no turning around now.”
Who is that? I turn, aware now of the voices. Are these my own thoughts transforming from electro-chemical brain noise into speech? I look west and see the entourage from the elevator; the men and women in tuxedos and party masks, and the strangely out of place elephant man with his sandals and large trunk bobbing mindlessly up and down, waving and shouting at me.
“Hey look out!”
Someone’s shooting at me! Behind me, a man is running towards me. He’s dressed like me, except he has pilot’s sunglasses, and a wire attached to an ear piece that traces toward a walkie-talkie beneath his coat. His black gun is aimed at me, and he’s running towards me with the all out intent of a charging rhinoceros.
A missile little bigger than a black dot peels near the corner of my eye. The bullet sears the tiny hairs on the back of my ear and neck. Panic lurches through my organs, and makes all my limbs numb. An odd disassociation swims over me, but I continue to run like a madman. I’m completely out of control. My feet feel like ill formed nubs at the base of my legs pounding the hard playa sending hard shocks up my spine. My arms circle around me ridiculously willy-nilly. They’re two rubber bands that try to mimic the action of wings and to my misery fail absolutely. The mountains move past in a motion resembling an elephant rampage. They seem to close in about me, and squeeze the air out of my lungs. In fact, the horizon is growing more distant. The pale cliff becomes little more than a dot. The harder I breathe, the more my knees, hips, and shoulders ache, and the darker the world becomes.
A mad whistle pierces my retreating awareness.
How do I get out of here? I ask myself. This must be a dream. I’ve fallen asleep and the voodoo man got me. Some sickly gak oozing tendril slithered out of it across the hotel room floor and dragged me by the leg through an orifice in its horrific torso, a portal into this crazy dimension. Now here I am, in another universe, with no key and no clue to a doorway, left stranded without the slightest bit of evidence of a way home. I find myself wishing to trade in these black leather wingtips for a pair of ruby slippers!
The blue sky is impenetrable, the puffy clouds silent and indifferent. The mountains press strangely against me, and from my perineum I feel an unshakable sense of claustrophobia closing round my adrenaline shocked being. Its heaviness has the quality of a warm granite blanket – a feeling I once experienced at a party with my utterly useless literary agent at The Standard on the Sunset strip after mixing ketamine with cocaine – a sensation akin to ecstasy under a lead blanket, making it impossible for me to breathe. Once again darkness folds over me.
I open my eyes. The horizon seems very low. I can only see part of the sky past an arc that must be the rim of my eye socket. The other half of the world is black and pressed against hard grit. A throbbing sensation emanates from the left side of my head. I try moving my hands, but they won’t move. My whole body feels like an anvil. It is altogether hot as hell. I wait for a moment, perhaps a minute, perhaps a quarter hour as the malevolent commingling of heat, and gabardine send rivers of sweat drooling down my backside. And after all the tingling and the numbness are past, I am left with several areas of my body where pain is immaculate. But at long last I am able to move, I rise, arms and hands lifting shoulders first out of the impact crater I have made in the playa.
I’m on my knees and everything is just coming into focus when I feel the hand on my arm pulling me up. The sun is blinding. I can’t see a thing. For a moment everything disappears. I close my eyes and shake my head, and when I look again, I see the batter.
Standing six foot two in a stripped baseball uniform emblazed with the number 71, he poses proudly with a baseball bat slung over his right shoulder. His face is grimly set, but a curious spark in his expression gives me hope.
“Hey – batter-batter-batter-batter…”
I look and see an outfielder fifty yards out.
My head whips around. The bat is coming straight for me. A loud crack sounds, and a flash of light so bright that all I can see afterwards is an overcast sky.
I’m crouching near the ground again. My head is tucked under my arms. I’m shaking, thinking this is all just a dream, and wishing someone would come for me. Helen. Her face flashes in front of me, and I feel for a second as though I might touch it and make the distance disappear. But a shadow crosses over me, obliterating everything in its wake, a hissing giant stamping the ground all around me – a giant black scorpion gleaming with impenetrable armor. Six legs clatter against the playa, the ends are spikes that drive into the ground with jack hammer ferocity. Plumes of dust jettison upward at the points of impact.
My eyes connect with the numerous eyes on its glistening head. Its consciousness is focused on me, bent with a hateful will of its venomous stinger to destroy me with lightning accuracy. My legs spread. My arms go wide, as if this motion could defend me. But I am ready at a moment’s notice from the blink of one of these eyes, at the drop of a hat or some clue. Stunned and staring, with reflexes primed to spring for my life, I am ready, hardly breathing, heart pounding, my mind a mush of catatonic panic.
The vibration and stimulation of my nerves is more than I can stand. How much stress can a person take in one day of napping? The scorpion circles around me, like a hammer searching for the right angle on a nail. And I, immovable, watch with trance-like stupidity, fooled into thinking that I have the upper hand and best means of defending my life. Oh, what fools will think when death is staring them in the face.
The earth sprays upward, and I move. The tail came down near my foot. The thing is keeping me on edge, thinking that it will wear me down with nervous exhaustion, but it won’t. I’m here! I’m in this reality, I will escape. You can’t kill me now!
I feel sharpness through my neck severing my spinal chord at the base of my skull.
“Man, you’re keepin’ me busy! You alright?”
I blink several times, unable to process what is happening. Mandolin is looking down at me, hand on my shoulder. He has an amused expression on his little boy face, but looks genuinely concerned. Right, I say to myself, wishing he would go away, thankful he’s here to rescue me. My hand goes immediately to my neck, which to my relief feels whole. No bleeding spike intrusion through the sub-dermal tissues. My vertebrae seem, for the moment, quite intact.
What I can’t figure out, is how I got on the floor.
“You’ve been screaming your head off, bloody murder. Some guests heard you, came and got me.”
“I must’ve been dreaming.”
“We’re all dreamin’, Dad.”
With a heave-ho Mandolin pulls me off the floor. I shake my head to get the blood flowing to it as much as to clear it. It’s nice to be back in reality. It’s good to be awake. Looking around the room I see the party people from the elevator and the guy in the elephant mask standing in the doorway mumbling amongst them.
“Come on,” Mandolin leads me, “We’ve got to get you out of here. These people have this room reserved.”
“But…” I notice the party-goers seem to be placing bets.
Mandolin is pulling me forcefully to the door – my sudsy head is slowly seeping down the drain of this place.
“Two-fifty says he was out in no-man’s land…” Says one of the party-goers…
“Bet he got the scorpion,” whispers another…”See the way he’s – “
“- Rubbing his neck,” croons the third…
“I’m sorry.” Mandolin explains. “It completely slipped my mind. What can I tell you? Isn’t that a comfortable floor?”