You had to go through a tunnel to get to our house. At the entrance of the tunnel was a blue gate made of sheet metal. Most of the time it was closed and locked. You would never know we were back there. People who had lived in town all their lives were surprised when I opened the gate with my key and brought them through the tunnel and showed them our small cottage tucked away in the middle of downtown. It was like doing a magic trick.
There was a gravel courtyard. When it wasn’t raining (usually it was) I sat out there at the plastic table and ate my breakfast near a slimy fountain that the sparrows used for a bath. Sometimes I’d toss them the crust of my toast. Then the ornery crows and jackdaws would swoop in and screw everything up. Then the magpies would arrive and cackle mercilessly, sending the other birds straight into the air.
The backs of the buildings that faced onto Holborne Street rose above me, bounding in our courtyard, making me feel cloistered in my own private domain – though with a hundred dirty windows looking down on me. With a strong dose of imagination, it was like living behind the ramparts of a weird ramshackle castle. But the castle was not impregnable: one of the buildings had a back door, and occasionally someone would come out to pester me. Of course it was the worst building on the street. Even its owner, who was also our landlord, called it the Last Gasp Hotel. The place was full of total fuck-ups who could not have fucked up any further without getting themselves tossed into prison – though in prison they would have had a square meal now and then.
Sitting at the table, maybe eating breakfast, maybe drinking a bottle of beer, that hellish red door would open and I knew I was in for it.
One of the tenants was a shovel-faced kid of about seventeen who’d been trying to sell me a phone for about a year. Every so often he’d squeeze through the door like a bug and give me his twitchy Irish wink. I wasn’t even sure if he lived in the house or if he just used that door to get to me. He always sat right down in the other chair, all buddy buddy, and launched into his spiel about the phone. It was always a different phone. I told him I had no use for phones, would never buy one, but it didn’t deter him. I was on his list or something. He never stopped trying, and I never bought a phone. Another of the tenants was a lunatic called Jimbo who hated Americans. He liked to sit with me and tell me how much he hated me. If he was hungover he’d pretend he was joking, but if he was drunk he dropped the pretense and really started to rave, foaming into his beard, scaring the shit out of me. Sometimes he’d reach into his coat pocket and pull out a ream of paper where he scrawled long anti-American poems. He’d light into me with these, denouncing and ridiculing me. It was educational. There were others, I don’t know how many. All were total fuck-ups.
One evening (or maybe it was morning, I really don’t remember, but it’s not important) I was sitting out there and the door swung open. Before I could scamper into my house a man I didn’t know poked his shining forehead out the door and smiled encouragingly. Then he stood in the doorway looking at me. Even though I was looking straight at him he put his hand to his mouth and said “pssst” to get my attention – to clue me in, I guess, that he was about to draw me into secret dealings. He beckoned from the doorway in one of the most obvious displays of beckoning from a doorway I had ever seen.
Oh, shit, I thought. Oh, God.
I didn’t know what to do. Normally when I don’t know what to do I don’t do anything. Not because I think that’s a good policy (though it probably is, in most instances) but because my mind seizes up. So I just smiled and shook my head no (to what?) and continued to sit at the table. But the crazy person did not go away. No, he redoubled his efforts, psssting and beckoning until I finally stood up and walked over there. He was smiling and obviously a bit drunk.
I’d never been inside the Last Gasp Hotel, but it was pretty much the way I’d imagined it. There were holes in the sheetrock as if someone had gone berserk with a hammer, maybe trying to kill a rat inside the wall. You could see the skeleton of the house grinning through – the weary struts and supports that had been holding the heap up all these years. Cigarette butts trailing inches of petrified ash lay everywhere on top of the wainscoting. You could tell they’d been there for years. They didn’t look any different from normal cigarette butts, but they’d been there for years. It was obvious somehow. People who were long gone had set them down to fish things out of their pockets or zip up their pants and had forgotten them.
I saw Jimbo sitting in another room, staring at a tiny black and white TV. And I mean tiny. It was the smallest machine I had ever seen, maybe three inches wide. Little insectoid voices came scratching out of it. He looked at us with eyes like the windows in a slot machine, then he looked back at the TV without changing the expression on his face. Then he shouted, “Close that fucking door!”
I closed the door. Now I was trapped inside the Last Gasp Hotel with Jimbo and the others.
“She’s upstairs,” whispered my bald chaperone.
I didn’t like this, it was a little too weird, but I didn’t have the power to turn around. Something drew me along. A dimwitted curiosity. A spell, or a scent on the air. I suppose I already knew, or suspected, what was in store for me. Somewhere in the inaccessible reaches of my brain a control panel was lighting up, buttons were flashing, bells were ringing, but my feet were nailed to the floorboards of the Last Gasp Hotel.
I had no idea who was upstairs.
But I wanted to know.
From the hallway I could see into a kitchen. The sight of that bleak room gave me pause. It looked as if no one ever went in there, at least not to cook. The place was stacked with boxes and cluttered with trash. Buckfast bottles covered the counter. The kitchen table looked more like a work bench. Hunks of strange gadgetry were spread over it as if some deranged inventor had taken apart his time machine and tried but failed to put it together again. Now he was stranded here with the rest of us. I imagined Jimbo sitting in there, going crazy over all that junk on the table.
Now my guide was standing halfway up the stairs, beckoning again as he had in the doorway. He smiled. He was very encouraging. It bothered me, though, that he kept his tracksuit zipped up to his chin. It seemed to denote a peculiar form of degeneracy. And his slick red face somehow suggested other worrying personality traits, but I didn’t have time to ponder these things, nor could I allow these matters to influence me. No, I’d come this far. So what if he was a bit cuckoo, or some sort of sicko? Who wasn’t?
I went up the stairs like someone good-naturedly submitting to an obvious practical joke. Of course it was an act. I was pretending that I was in no danger, that what I was doing was perfectly normal under the circumstances.
The runner carpet on the stairs was the color of dirt. The wood on either side was scarred with dark worm-like burns from cigarettes. The corners were clogged with tumbleweed balls of dust and hair. The ceiling above the stairway looked ready to buckle. I was afraid to rest my eyes on it.
I saw my landlord in a new light. How could you make poor, half-crazy alcoholics give you money to live in such a shithole? He was all right to me, but I paid him. Once, I’d stopped paying him for several weeks while I waited for a guy who’d robbed me to send a restitution check from jail. He became a serious nuisance, arriving at all hours of the day, opening the door with his own key and shouting up the stairway as I lay in bed with a hangover, my housemate Carl doing God knows what in the other room. He hadn’t believed I would pay him. But when the check came I paid him everything, and he apologized for hectoring me.
This place, however, was awful. The man should have been dragged before some sort of tribunal and mercilessly harangued. I could see him on his knees, his colostomy bag dangling over his leg irons.
At the top of the stairs I found my guide poised with his hand on a doorknob. He was still grinning as he opened the door and stepped into the room.
Then I heard her say, “Fuck it, I’m cold.”
“Hold your horses, missy,” he said.
“Fuck your horses, it’s cold in here.”
Gingerly I peeked my head into the room and tapped on the door. Of course there was a naked woman on the bed. She lay there with her arms raised over her head because her wrists were bound to the bedposts with her stockings, or someone’s stockings.
Right there in the doorway my dick went rigid. It happened so fast I had to reach down and shift it around a little, making room. I was surprised and embarrassed. The naked woman looked at me like I was there to deliver a telegram.
Baldy gave me a grinning wink of encouragement from the corner. Strangely – or at least it struck me as strange when I thought about it later – this didn’t bother me at all. It even seemed normal. What else was he going to do over there? This is something that people do, I told myself. People do these things all the time. I thought (again, later on) of similar scenes stretching back through the ages until the man was winking at me from the corner of a cave. It bothered me much more that the dresser on the other side of the bed was missing a drawer, the second from the top. That spoke to me of inscrutable madness.
I knew the woman, though I’d never spoken to her. It was one of those intimate anonymity things. Most of the intimacy was on my side, most of the anonymity on hers. She was one of those people you saw in the street whenever you went to the supermarket or the bank. She was always out walking around. She limped as though one leg was shorter than the other – though I saw nothing wrong with her legs as she lay there on the bed. No scars or deformities. She had a nice face, a kind face, but you couldn’t help wondering what terrible things had happened in her life. She looked haunted. Even there, naked and tied to the bed, she looked that way, but I didn’t wonder about it as I stood in the doorway adjusting the hard-on in my trousers.
“Why don’t you take your clothes off?” suggested the man in the corner. He said this as if he were saying “Why don’t you sit down and have a cup of tea?”
It was impossible to answer him. Not because I didn’t have an answer but because I could not imagine talking to him now. I could not imagine hearing my own voice in that room. Talking would have been an acknowledgement that I was there. I could only shrug.
The woman lay in the bed looking at me. She was not smiling. She was watching me like a scientist in the midst of an experiment, testing a theory, analyzing the outcome. What would I do next? She betrayed no emotion whatsoever.
“She won’t bite you,” said the man. “Well, she might!”
The woman shook her head. “I don’t bite.” These were the only words she had spoken to me.
Downstairs I heard Jimbo shout, “Get that bastard out of my face!”
That’s right, I was in The Last Gasp Hotel. I’d almost forgotten! Maybe this was how it started. Maybe this was how they trapped you here. One false move, perhaps, and I was a permanent resident.
Ten minutes earlier I’d been sitting at my table, minding my own business. Now I was here. I moved closer to the bed, close enough to touch her. There was nothing else I could do. It was as if her breasts filled the entire room. I could see nothing else. It was like somebody opening a sack of money in your face. A swift chemical reaction took place in your brain and you were hypnotized, could think of nothing else, barely remembered your own name. One breast was slightly larger, rounder than the other. They were very white, with blue veins branching out from the nipples. I moved my hand along under each one, holding each briefly, weighing it. I trailed my fingertips across her bare stomach. Smooth, fleshy, hairless. There were stretch marks over her ribs as if her body had once been much larger, or perhaps pregnant. The stretch marks were faint little wormy scars that felt like nothing.
“Kiss me,” she said.
I leaned forward to kiss her.
“Not on the mouth!”
“My body, kiss my body.”
I kissed her body. I kissed her breasts and stomach and thighs and knees. I kissed her ankles and feet and even her hands which were pinioned to the bedposts behind her head. I kissed her everywhere, in the grip of an overwhelming and genuine tenderness for her body, the body of this woman I didn’t know. I kissed her stretch marks and the ribs under the skin.
“Now touch me,” she said.
I touched her. She was warm now, though I saw the goosepimples rise on her arms. It was like watching a picture develop, the image rising out of the nothingness. Her nipples were wrinkled and dark like raisins. I ran my hand between her legs and touched there – the hair and the slick folds of skin.
I didn’t wait for more instructions. Took off my shoes and socks. Unbuttoned my pants, took them off and – I don’t know why – neatly folded them and set them beside the bed, on top of my shoes. I never did that in my own house. Then I climbed into the bed and gently slid up into her, slowly and with great care, like a man setting the fuse on a bomb. There was no resistance at all. Everything fit perfectly. Our bodies were designed for each other.
I didn’t think about the weirdo in the corner. I hadn’t forgotten he was there, but I no longer cared what he was doing. It was no business of mine.
She wrapped her legs around behind me and thrust upward with perfect finesse. Really, things were going well. Normally I was clumsy and self-conscious in bed. Shy. Sometimes too drunk. Occasionally I felt like I was involved in some sort of contest, the rules of which were unknown to me. But this was perfect. We were joined like halves of a whole. We were one animal that was allowed to exist as long as we held on to each other.
We rutted in the bed. Her bed?
It went on for a while. I nuzzled up into her, touching the end of the passage where it seemed to open up a little. There was a ridge back there, a lip of some sort that put me in mind of a scar, as if something had been removed from that place. I concentrated on rubbing the head of my penis under this ridge. And in this way we reached a point of equilibrium. It felt as if we could have stayed there forever, the two of us, a perpetual motion machine. It was dangerous. We were like labrats who had discovered that pushing a button over and over again delivered a pulse of pleasure.
When it was over, my guide was no longer in the corner. I hadn’t heard him leave. The door to the hallway was open.
She slipped her hands from their restraints with surprising ease.
“You hungry?” she said.
“Yes, a good session between the sheets does give one an appetite.”
That “one” really stirred me. I could feel my penis start to swell again and rise. Before she noticed it, I hiked up my shorts, hiding my half-erection. Then I quickly put my clothes on.
She was sitting on the edge of the bed holding a wad of toilet paper between her legs.
She caught me looking there and said, “Don’t worry, I have no ovaries.”
But I was more worried about disease. Already my mind was racing through a lurid catalog of horrors which I now had the chance of participating in firsthand. Was I crazy? This was The Last Gasp Hotel.
She stood up and set the wad of toilet paper on the nightstand. Then she pulled a blue robe around her naked body, hiding her flabby breasts and stretch marks. Standing up she had a potbelly. Her eyesockets looked loose around her eyeballs as if she hadn’t slept well – in fact, she looked like a chronic insomniac – but at the same time her face was puffy like she’d just woken up.
She led me down those awful cigarette-scarred stairs and into the kitchen. We didn’t say much. She went into the bathroom for a few minutes. I sat at the table with all the junk on it, listening to Jimbo’s tiny TV. From the gunshots and sirens and revving cars it sounded like he was watching a ’70s cop show.
When she came out of the bathroom she cooked me some scrambled eggs and toast in a little clean corner of the kitchen. She cut up some parsley with a tiny pair of scissors and put it on top of the eggs with some olive oil. Somehow it was exactly the right thing to eat just then. She smoked a cigarette while I ate the eggs. She watched me eat. Then I went out the back door.
Carl was sitting at the table, rolling a joint. He cocked an eyebrow at the sight of me, but he didn’t say anything. I had a feeling he knew everything already. That was usually the case with him.
That night as I lay in bed I thought of the wadded up tissue on her nightstand and wondered if she had thrown it away yet. Not knowing bothered me.
A few days later I was on my way to work and I saw her in the street. She was wearing a purple hat. I stopped to say hello, but she cut in front of me and passed without a word. After that I never saw her, not even once, though I thought about her whenever I ate scrambled eggs. And then I gave up eating eggs, but that was another story which had nothing to do with memories of her.
Photo by Alexandra Bolzer