The surrounding countryside was scrubby arroyo. The highway cut through it, rendering it vast and empty and dead on one side, sparsely populated by a low skyline of dusty, lonely, intermitten buildings on the other. He found “Skyline Hotel” quite easily. The setting sun was burning up the landscape in a dry was of brilliant orange and pink and bold black shadow-fire.
He got out of the convertible. It wasn’t his. The owner was leaking what was left of her brains out of a hole in her skull, stuffed into a drainage culvert a hundred miles away. For right now, all was well.
He went inside, not liking the faux Western decor, but immensely satisfied with the faded black and whit portraits of dead gunslingers hanging, some of them crookedly, from the wall. Between those pictures was standard thrift-store fair such as clowns, ships, etc.
A fat man with curly red hair and a moustache sat behind a counter in the lobby, which smelled of mildew and unwashed laundry and bad food and stale smoke and something even more unpleasant he couldn’t quite put his finger on. The little man had a black-and-white old-fashioned tube television set in front of him, an item that looked, for all the world, more like a prop than anything. It was apparently playing old porno flicks, to judge by the sound.
“Excuse…excuse me?” he said, approaching the seated figure. Suddenly, a small jolt of recognition tickled his spine. Goose walked over his grave.
“Damn,” he said to himself, “this guy’s dead!”
He thought perhaps the man had had a heart attack while sitting there. perhaps overstimulated by his porn films. If so, he had died with a curious, wide-eyed expression on his face, a sort of Howdy Doodey grin frozen in time across his fat kisser. He put out a gloved hand, experimentally, to feel the figure.
A voice said, “Oh, he’s mine. I was just testing my replacement.”
A little man with a bald head (“A little crawfish of a man,” he would laugh to himself later) walked thoughtfully up to the counter, eyed him warily, and then went behind.
He grabbed his “replacement” by the neck, at which point the air began to hiss out of him
“Just a dummy…dummy.”
he made no reply.
He waited, said, “I need a room for the night. Maybe a couple nights.”
The little man looked down at his feet, but his lower lip (his face was splotchy, as if he had a perpetual case of bad nerves) quivered a little as he said, in an off-hand way, “Oh sure. That’ll be two hundred bucks.”
“Two hundred bucks? For a night in this dump?”
The little man looked as if he didn’t exactly know how to reply, but said anyway, “That comes with the entertainment. Take it or leave it.”
The little man shrugged his shoulders in boredom. The Road Hog took out a battered brown wallet, forked out a couple of bills, laid them on the counter.
“Where do I sign?”
A huge plastic ledger was picked up from beneath the counter.
He carefully scrawled in a fake name. If the little dope wanted some ID, he’d just leave.
“Okay. You need a wake-up call? Room service?”
The little man laughed bitterly.
“How about fuckin’ filet mignon?”
“How about a snifter of brandy and some caviar? Maybe we’ll just forget it, huh?”
The Road Hog exited stage left. Outside, burning on the hot tarmac, his car sent off waves of heat exhaust. He went around, opened the door enough to pop the trunk, and went aound to get his luggage. In a faded, tan overnight bag, he had a human head wrapped in plastic.
He went back inside, put on his best “don’t fuck with me if you want to keep your spleen” face, and looked over at the clerk or whatever. The little man said, “Here’s your room key. Two-oh-one. I’ll buzz you on in.”
He certainly did. With the sort of loud electronic buzzer that is more commonly used in fun house attractions. The Road Hog wasn’t sure, for a second, if he was in a hotel or at a rodeo, getting ready to ride a bucking bronc.
He took the door handle, walked down to the elevator, saw the “Out of oardur” sign, neatly and legibly scrawled across a cardboard boxtop affixed to the door, and then realized he would have ot take the steps.
The sound of drip-drip-dripping seemed to permeate the hollow, echoing stillness of the place. The walls were yellow, peeling, with a few scrawls of absent-minded graffiti here and there.
He made it, not even out of breath, to the second floor. It looked typical and rundown and dull as paste. It looked like roaches went there to die.
The room was sparsely furnished. The smell of the hallway (which had approximated insect spray, cigarette smoke, must and boiled cabbage) was less strong here. There was more a stagnant water smell of old pipes…the building, he realized, could probably get up and crawl away by itself.
“This bed,” he said, talking to himself, “I don’t really want to use this bed.”
He pulled the covers off. He took out some plastic garbage bags he had stuffed in his valise, spread those across the surface of the bed. Then he picked up the remote.
It was an old-fashioned tube TV mounted on the wall. All the channels were fuzzy, except for the one showing porn; probably showing it 24/7. It looked like some loop he had once paid twenty-five cents to see in some grimy little bookstore in Des Plains.
There was a brief commotion out in the hall. He went to the door, unlocked it, careful to keep the chain fastened. Outside, he could see a few guys milling, drunkenly, around a battered hotel room door. One of them seemed, unfortunately, faintly familiar. Shit. The last thing he needed was to be recognized, placed here.
One of them said, “We’re going out for more beer. Be right back. Anyone need smokes?”
Young guys. Party time. Bill and Ted. Excellent.
He shut the door again with a mui of disgust on his lips. On the television screen, a porn star calling herself “Aunt Peg” was being jack hammered at both ends. He would have turned it off, but it was all he had for company right at the moment.
He sat down on the bed, his throat so dry it seemed to be crawiing. He had given up the smoking habit years ago, but right now he wished for all the world for a butt. Something to take the edge off.
The walls felt as if they were crawling with bugs. In the light fixtures, the curling, browning little bodies fried in the sickly yellow glare of the exposed bulbs.
“They commit unintentional suicide. They can’t help it.
They’re attracted to the light, drawn to it magnetically. But then, they can’t get out of the light fixtures. Can’t climb out, even though, oddly enough, they can fly…I can’t see any logic in it. So they die, slowly, we must assume, agonizingly, transfixed next to the source of their great fascination. Dying next to the bright white flame of their light bulb god.”
He didn’t know who he was addressing, and wasn’t sure why he was speaking at all. His voice fell flat, echoless against the bare walls. Those walls looked like they might be a cheesecloth of roaches, infested down to the very rocky, fibrous surface.
He heard the buzzer downstairs.
In a few moments, she would be at the door. The whole thing choreographed down to the grim specifics. He knew. He always knew.
A few seconds later there was a knock at the door.
He opened it, keeping the chain securely fastened. A slightly puffy, bruised face peeped in at the crack. It was a woman’s face.
Mascara smeared around the eyes. Face too pale; lips thin and colorless.
She paused with pregnant . As if that had been a question, almost.
“Hey,” he returned. He wasn’t altogether sure of how to respond.
He undid the chain. She sauntered in. He saw she was wearing a cheap denim miniskirt, a pair of plastic slippers, and a bad strapless top. Yellow.
Her arms were covered in bruises and bad tattoos. She wore no hose; her legs were pale, skinny, the skin was splotchy. She kept scratching absentmindedly at bug bites.
“Yeah, so anyway, I’m Sabrina. You look like you’re new around here. I mean, I haven’t seen you before or anything. Lot of people just passing through I guess. Not so many now, though, since they changed the highway. So yeah…”
She trailed off, sat down in one of the cheap plastic chairs lining the wall.
“Hey, mind if I smoke? I know it bothers some people. Some guys really hate it, I mean, They hate of a girl smokes, smells like smoke. One guy I was with wouldn’t kiss me. said it was just like kissing an ashtray. He still elt me blow him, though.”
She finished this last with a great guffaw, as if it had been the height of hilarity. He sat down on the edge of the bed, eyed her warily.
“No,” he said, as if she had actually been asking his permission. “Go ahead and smoke if you like. It won’t change anything.”
Her eyes narrowed. She began to roll a skinny joint with shaking, dirty fingers. Her fingernails were corroded with pink polish and grime.
“Um yeah, okay. I don’t guess that it will. Anyway, I usually charge a hundred bucks for a hand job. One-fifty for a bj, and another hundred gets you the works. So–”
She toked in, held her breath for what seemed an interminable moment, and then tried to pass the reefer to him. He held up his hand, palm upward, as if to say, “no thanks,” and then smiled. A smile that was perhaps too wolfish, too predatory to make her feel comfortable.
After a moment she asked, “What’s a matter? Don’t you like to talk? Awful quiet.”
She tried to sound disarming, but he could hear the hint of suspicious unease creep into her voice. Her eyes darted to the door, and he thought, She’s judging how long it would take for her to bound over to it, undo the chain, and get out of here.
“No,” he said slowly. “I don’t guess I’m much of a talker.
People should work on being good listeners, don’t you think? It’s much more to their advantage.”
“Hey, if you want me to come back some other time, I, like, totally understand.”
He knew she was suddenly eager to be out the door, whether or not she made any money or not. He sighed, got up from the bed, went over to the window, pulled back the sash, Outside, the sun was a thin sliver of fiery peach behind a cresting hill. Miles beyond, the lights of the city gave mute testimony to the presence of a civilization they seemed perched just on the edge of. In between, concrete overpasses, railroad trestles, vacant industrial parks (opened like the cancerous maws of toothsome old crones), and miles and miles of dusty scrub alienated this desolate way station of hell from the rest of the world. Here, time froze like the semen in a dead man’s balls.
“Have you ever though about time?” he finally said, turning toward her. He interrupted himself, saying, “I’m talking now. You should be happy that I am.”
“Anyway, I’m sure you’re not going to believe what I have to say. In fact, I’m not sure, given your obviously limited capabilities, that you could even understand it. But, you see, we’ve been through this before–”
“Yeah, well, okay man. I don’t really have time for this. I mean, I’m going to go ahead and go, okay? Maybe–”
“No, really, just hear me out. No, sit down. I won’t take very much of your…valuable time. I promise. Anyway–”
She seemed curious enough to listen to him. Or, maybe she just thought that this was his come-on. Either way, she remained in her chair.
“You see, everything moves…in circles. Like in cycles. DO you follow me? You do follow me, don’t you?”
He said this last with a thin veneer of hostility. His voice had an icy, cool edge to it he knew could slip out, like a whirling blade, and slice their good feelings as easily as slicing a jugular. She fidgeted in the cheap plastic chair, leaning forward, obviously needing a fix. Her eyes were wide, puffy; bloodshot. Mascara was caked in ugly circles around her swollen lids.
“Yeah, you’ve been bruised. You’ve been battered. Desiccated and dissected again and again. Tell me: who hurt you? Who was it?”
He leaned in close, the smell of her breath making a noxious counterpoint to his rapidly rising interest.
Why do you keep hurting me? he thought she whispered.
But, with tears streaming down her face from formerly dry eyes, he realized, suddenly, that she said nothing.
It was in a bright blue hotel, a wide, spacious place the likes of which had never been built before. A flight of short stairs lead up from a lobby that was cool and carpeted and, also, surprisingly, even shockingly blue.
Blue, blue–blue everywhere. The stumbled their way inside from the street, drunk and with another couple. Up the stairs then, through the glass doors, and into the darkness beyond. The Sanctum Sanctorum.
Up the stairs again (couldn’t they have taken the elevator? But, alas, that would have been too easy.) to the darkness of the upper floor. The four of them stumbled down the hall, into the spacious suite, into the darkness.
Then, stripping off eachothers’ close. Flesh against flesh, tongues entering mouths, fingers groping and plying and pressing.
The young couple fell to the floor laughing, the woman baring her naked breast, the flap of her blouse pulled open and the buttons popped. The man she was with gyrated on top of her, trying to get his pants off, too drunk to do much of anything but stumble across the floor on his hands and knees.
But the moaning and the movement in the shadow old him that the man had found his mark. He could hear the chippy moaning and gasping.
He turned to his own date. The Starlet. The Ingenue.
“You ought ta be in pictures!” he sang softly, sweetly, mockingly.
The dame had fiery red hair. Or maybe it was just some trick of deceptive lighting (how? It was as dark as the tomb in here.) He put out his quivering fingertips, stretching toward her as she reclined her back against a fusillade of pillows. She still had her hat and boa wrapped around her.
“Did…did you ever…did you ever?” he couldn’t get the words out.
She looked at him quizzically. Suddenly, the young couple grinding away on the floor disappeared entirely, and the spotlight seemed to be on the two of them.
“Did I ever what?” she trailed off suspiciously.
He paused, laughed suddenly, said “Did you ever…fuck Clark Gable?” He couldn’t stop laughing, snickering. But she had the queerest, most serious expression come across her.
“Gable? No. ‘Fraid not. Next question.”
She dragged reflectively on her cigarette, held it away from her face at an angle, turned upward. The air in the room suddenly felt twenty degrees cooler than it had previously. All external sound sources seemed to fade being in this damnable hotel to him felt like being digested, slowly, in the belly of the beast.
Cut off from the rest of reality, they were. The world outside ceased to be. Her face was suddenly a cool, placid surface, a sort of living painted surface or waxen effigy. It seemed timeless. No wonder audiences ate up her image up there on the screen. You couldn’t stop looking at those cool, grey eyes, those high, heavy cheekbones, flaming red hair pulled into quizzical and stylish buns. Skin was milk-white porcelain, but she exuded anything but weakness.
She opened her red, red lips (they almost shined black), said, “Why do you keep hurting me?”
He retracted, physically; he felt himself pull away, losing his sensual idolatry, retreat into a cool, husky little ball. He wasn’t certain about the question, but it had the pregnant weight of prophecy connected to it. He started to blubber a lame response, felt his voice catch in his throat.
It was when he came back later he was told he had been banned from the hotel. A little woman in what looked to be a red marching band outfit but was probably some uniform for bellhops told him that his starlet had expressly forbidden anyone without proper identification (whatever that might be) from entering beyond the glass doors, into the cool, otherworldly darkness…
“She’s rented the whole hotel for the next few weeks. She can decide who comes and goes,” yadda yadda yadda.
He considered for a moment how he might slip in anyway, but then thought better of it. House detectives and hotel psychics and snoops and hidden microphones all meant he would, most likely, get caught. And a place like this would certainly press charges.
The little woman in the bellhop uniform or whatever it was shifted from one foot to another. She looked tired, and her nose fidgeted.
“Oh, by the way Mister, she DID give us something to give to you, though. A package. You see how she is? She gave our manager here a whole mess of beautiful flowers for his birthday…”
He was so fascinated by the birthday bouquet, but he said, “I’ll jut take the package and go.”
She looked as if his rudeness irritated her marginally, but reached back behind the counter (curiously, several women with hot plates seemed to be preparing room service with wads of money bulging in one fist, and spatulas in the other), and produced a cardboard box.
He placed it under one arm, went out the sliding glass doors into the busy street.
Later, in the dark of his dingy room, with stink beetles dying slow, brilliant deaths trapped int the light fixtures, he opened the small cardboard box with trembling fingers.
He thrust a hand inside. It was filled with a large passel of photographs. Shocking stuff.
Crime scene. And pornography of an indescribable filth. There were other photos, stuff made on the spot, obviously: women in lingerie, garters, bound and gagged with nylon stockings, posing lasciviously with legs spread, tied down to iron bedsteads; posed with animals, blank stares and bored, hollow cheeks and bad teeth and puffy, swollen eyes.
And then there were the dead women, posed in faux erotic semblance; arms and legs amputated, entrails wrapped around icy ankles and flesh frozen in time.
Severed heads on bedspreads…
His fingers trembled as he dragged shakily on a cigarette. That phrase came back to him again–
Why do you keep hurting me?
And, on each of these photographed faces, these erotic atrocities, he could see the image of his ingenue, his starlet, reflected, like the shattered fragments of a mirrored reflection. And he wondered about time, and the cycle of things.
He brought the heavy suitcase out to the boot of car, wheeling it on a little board mounted on roller skates. The desk clerk barely acknowledged his going, seemingly catatonic with his fuzzy, filthy head resting on his skinny, nicotine-stained fingers. he wondered if the man were dead, asleep, or if it were another of the mysterious inflatable dummies the prankster had foisted on him last night.
Outside on the walk, he stopped at a newspaper dispenser and reached inside. He didn’t bother to pay; the door was broken.
He leafed through, reading by the dim orange glow of the crime lights. He finally found an article, buried back a few pages, about the infamous interstate killer the FBI were actively searching for, the fabled murderer the press had dubbed the “Road Hog.” He smiled. That was him.
He was happy that they were taking notice of his handiwork.
But it made things that much more dangerous for him. Obviously, he couldn’t continue like this forever. But there was no turning back, turning away from what he was.
“Big deal,” he said, mimicking the words of one man. “Death always came with the territory. See you in Disneyland.”
He pulled the little rope, wheeled the heavy luggage out to the trunk of his car. The asphalt seemed hot enough to cook eggs on, he fancied he could see thermal exhaust coming from it. A few dire insects pestered him, but they were easily dispatched with a slap. The air was so close you could barely breathe.
He hefted the thing into the trunk. He was lost, momentarily, in a fantasy of what he had heard happened in such hotels as these.
A young couple checks in. Maybe they’ve just had their honeymoon. Who knows? They begin to make love, thinking they are luxuriating in the lap of it. Their sex is really hot stuff, all over the heart-shaped waterbed, sweaty sodden sheets thrust to the floor.
Moaning, groaning, screaming and crying imprecations to God–that kind of shit.
So they go away and forget about it for a few years. And then, maybe ten years goes by, and the man says “Honey, let’s relive all those old memories of our honeymoon night. Remember that old hotel we stayed at? Heart-shaped waterbed and making love all night?”
And she says “Oh, yes! That’ll be just the sort of thing to put the spark back into our flagging romance.” Okay, so maybe she didn’t put it quite like that. Whatever.
So they find that place again, and they go in. And they realize that the place has really gone downhill since last they were there–which was probably ten years.
So they go into their room,and the husband says, “Man, this place looks like it’s turned into a real fleapit since we were here last. Sorry, honey.”
And the wifey forgives him of course, as he didn’t know. And she is unpacking her curling iron or whatever, and he lays back on the bed, and says, “Hey, they have a TV. I bet we can find some dirty movies!” And he flips on the TV, with a glass of wine in his hand.
A few minutes later he drops the wine.
“Oh, me Tarzan, you Jane–aaahhaaa, aaa!”
Oh my god, he thinks, that couple on the screen, in the porno movie–that’s us on our honeymoon night!
And so they both cringe in horror, realizing they’ve been secretly films. He reminds himself that eyes are everywhere, all the time. The walls see, even if they do not speak.
Why? Why do you keep hurting me?
Had he? Did time circle back in on itself, like a great loop or wheel, instead of a flat, angular plane? “Maybe time is a goddamn Moebius strip,” he laughed bitterly. He could see her face still, clueless and terrified, I-can-do-anything-you-want-me-to face. She could be whatever he needed, her and her pockmarked, ugly little visage.
Would he stuff her body under the bed. In the box springs? There was a legend about that, too.
No. He went back inside. The eyes had walls. The walls had eyes. He went back through the automatic door, the high, torturous rude electric buzz announcing his presence to no one, to the darkness. To the flies dying in the light fixtures, to the tics and nits dying on the mildewed sheets.
“Hey, hey bro!”
A darkened voice at the end of the hall. As if in a dream, or maybe a Fellini picture, a stumbling, skinny dweeb looked over at him from the shadow by a half-open doorway. He was talking to a smaller man, holding a beer. There was faint talking from inside. Radio music.
“Hey, hey bro! Damn, imagine seeing you here! Long time no see!”
Whoever this was, Hog needed to lose him. Quick. He wanted to be out of there and down the highway. But, like a bad dream, someone from the past steps in, unexpectedly, haunting you like a walk-in in a bad foreign art film.
“Wow man,” the skinny, taller man sidled up to him in the gloom, said, “it must be like, damn. Twenty years? since high school? When we use to run around together.”
The Hog didn’t know how to respond. He stalled, said nothing, looked blankly at this guy. He knew full well, suddenly, which it was. A high school drinking buddy, a guy he use to bird dog chicks with. He had dumped such garbage long ago, had purified himself. Now, it had returned to haunt him. It and the bad odor.
“Yeah, well, I’m not really. I mean, I don’t have time right now.”
His buddy held out one skinny, twitching hand. In it was a ten dollar bill, a shot glass of what was probably hundred proof alcohol, and each finger was crowned with nails that were skinny, black with dirt.
His friend looked at him blankly. His eyes watered a little. He looked as if he were in there with his boyfriend getting high. Getting stoned. Getting wasted.
The skull beneath the skin twitched It sensed rejection, the face scruntching up until pain could be read on the outlines of the head. The sudden flash of hatred, brought about no doubt by a sense of rejection could be read in every line.
There was a long pause, but like an unstable recording device, the voice jumped forward. Warbled, said–
“Oh, hey buddy, I completely understand. Sure. Right. We’ll have to get together sometime, relive old memories.
“Sure, we’ll do that Bob. Er, I mean George.”
“Jeff, old buddy. Just plain old Jeff.”
It was a terrible name, he thought. Like Todd, or Scott. It denoted a frat guy who might wander around the dorm in his boxers, with a stogie, flunking college English, fantasizing about porn
models, and planning his future as an accountant
But not THIS Jeff, of the dirty fingers and shot glass. He had lost himself in the fabled “Roman Wilderness of Pain” that Jim Morrison had sang about. He had been steam shoveled under his own sense of defeat, his passion for being purposeless. He was a victim of himself.
“See ya,” he said, the smile stretching across Hog’s plastic, too-perfect face as he hefted the heavy luggage out in both hands.
Thorough the plexiglass door, he buzzed to get out. Out into the sleeping hallway, where time was an illusion, hiding like the arched back of a cat in the dark.
On the television an inscrutable dialog proceeding thusly:
“So we go downstairs, to the crook of the stairs.”
“The crook? You mean the first floor landing?”
“Right, right. Some sort of landing where there is a window. And she’s sitting there in a Victorian dress, drinking an iced tea, or whatever. And the guy turns to me, say, ‘We haven’t figured out yet if she’s alive or a ghost. Nobody speaks to her; she’s always there, it seems.”
“Great. I’m betting she’s a former tenant, committed suicide by eating a combination of cough syrup and ant paste. Just like Florence Lawrence.”
“Florence Lawrence? Isn’t she like a cook on TV?”
“No. First movie star. Died in 1938. Today she’d be 129. Say, you want o know how stupid I am? I forgot to water my pussy.”
“Sounds like a personal problem.”
“No, ignoramus, my cat. I didn’t leave any water out for my cat. I come home, she’s on the point of literal death. From hunger, also.”
On and on it went. What was that sitcom? At the desk, the real clerk was sitting, with his deflated alter-ego in his lap, nodding off over a crusty back issue of Hustler. He went outside, carrying his luggage in front of him, not knowing if he was leaving little droplets of red in his wake.
Outside, heat lightning flashed over the hardscrabble earth, the dusty desert landscape disappearing into darkness beyond, with naught but pinpoints of city lights and man-made fires in the distance. In the distance, and up ahead by the never ending march of the boots of TIME, was an ugly strip of bleak fast-food chains, down-at-the-heels strip malls, movie theaters, gas stations, little mini-marts staffed by Pakis named Abdullah. Was this hell? He often wondered.
He opened the trunk, placed the leather carrying case inside, slammed shut the creaking boot. The asphalt was dark and hot, bugs buzzing past his ears. They would die by the thousands in the sleek electric polish of his headlights.
Hot, it was stifling hot. He fancied he could see thermals projecting p like the hideous, shapeless forms of forgotten phantasms–despite the fact that it was still too dark.
The moon overhead, watching him. The newspaper he had nicked on the way out had had a story.
Hog Strikes Again. Nationwide Manhunt. No Suspects. No Discernible Pattern. POLICE FRUSTRATED AND BAFFLED.
He liked that last bit. A foldout in the newspaper (What? Was this their equivalent of a Hustler gate fold?) showed a petty blonde victim. Her face was ice cream cold on the newsprint, her hair fanning out about her in a moment frozen in time, some happy instance that would be imprinted on the memory of whomever she had been with–but not her. Or, maybe?
Did he believe in ghosts?
Why do you keep hurting me?
He slid behind the wheel. Ahead, darkness and the road invited the hog to move onward. To the next great adventure.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot see the falconer…
What was that?
What rough beast is this? Its hour come ’round at last.
Well, he was headed somewhere. But not there.