Between the hours of four and five a.m., the hotel can sound like an android sleeping. Hear the simulacrum of its lungs in exhaust through fifteen countable vents in the lobby alone. Chatter from the wall-mounted flatscreen is the language of its dreaming, a Boolean babble over the empty lounge, data-rich but unparseable. See also, a lot of really baffling design choices: the wood grain tile, the inset carpet’s hibiscus print, a senseless spray of recessed lighting in amid the requisite fluorescents, and endless beige—three distinct tones of it, on the ceiling and the walls—things that must have made sense to somebody, like the brand identity of this two-star offering from the Hilton conglomerate, or the guts of any really complex machine to its maker.
There’s a ton of wishful thinking and abstraction going on here in regard to terms and intended use. The lounge, for instance, is little more than a carpeted subspace within the lobby, a couch and four chairs constellated around a pair of green pleather cubes that are not obviously either ottomans or coffee tables, instead occupying some uninvitingly nebulous space between, another subspace where placement of hot beverages seems ill-advised and one’s sneaker a kind of social aberration—because it is sneakers, always sneakers, plotting over the carpet a reasonable path to the elevator, if not the muddy boots of contracted work crews, never the fine Italian loafers or artisan sandals the space seemed to aspire to. The signage over the rack of hyper-inflated chips and snack cakes and shave kits but no tampons designates not a ‘snack bar’ nor a ‘gift shop,’ but the MARKET CENTER, as in: The FRANCHISEE can derive more REVENUE from the GUEST by maintaining a well-stocked MARKET CENTER. I haven’t seen that phrase anywhere, but I’m pretty sure it’s in the literature.
Same goes for my job title with the terms and use thing. Contrary to guests’ expectations, I am not a concierge, nor a purveyor of complementary therapy or pharmaceuticals, though the desk has some Advil I am happy to distribute. I don’t know the best way to the airport. My sense of direction, as of the local gustatorial landscape, is unkeen. I am, however, capable of ever so gently reminding the itinerant Platinum or Diamond-level Rewards Member of the veritable supercomputer they have in their pocket, of supplying the appropriate passcodes for wireless access.
Even the term ‘worker’ is a stretch, when applied to what’s going on up here. I am the night auditor. But I’m really more of a ruminator, because that’s what I’m doing, hour by billable hour, sitting and ruminating, and I’m pretty sure I could tell your average guest that with a straight face and they’d buy it as fancy word for someone who rents rooms—more jargon. Plus, Roominator sounds more like a piece of proprietary software or machinery, so entirely pulseless, and thus able to slip the ever-widening crosshairs of God-Emperor Conrad’s automation efforts a little longer. This here’s the frontline of the war. I’m in the trenches in my ergonomic chair. It’s a kind of battle meditation I’m in, as I watch my enemy complete the One-Button Audit™ without the engagement of so much as a single cooling fan; my own personal AirKing continues to oscillate—the sole movement at the desk.
The audit, in the old days, might have been at least mentally taxing, must have involved some math, but what the software does now makes a TI-83 look like an abacus. Operator Cash Outs, Transactions, Accounts Receivable are but the fluid contents of loading bars, and all Greek. Sometimes, I forget to hit the button until 6:30, when housekeeping is inbound, and it’s no problem at all.
There is a filing component, as of yet still analog. At check-in, each guest must sign and initial a rental agreement consenting to the incursion of various fees and surcharges if say a non-smoking room is smoked in, or if a towel is stolen, or if the decorative top sheet of one bed is tied elaborately to the decorative top sheet of another, and then, like a magician’s handkerchief, to all available sheet sublayers, and sent, finally, cascading over the railing of the second-floor balcony for use in evasive rappelling maneuvers against law enforcement—the term ‘incidentals’ here being really a catch-all term, a blanket term, extending down even to linens. They are invited to disclose key identifying details about their vehicles, which they never do, but I will for them. There are a lot of McLarens in the parking lot, fire-red with vanity plates—more than you’d expect. And once, when I was depressed, the same white Jetta, forty times in recursion.
All of this to say, nobody’s actually checking if this gets done. It’s rare for the sheets to even be printed. So I’m up, forging and filing to the labored hum of the LaserJet, stretching out the task with self-imposed obstructions. Sometimes I pretend I can’t read, can only make out the names of guests by general shape. I imagine what it might be like to be a dog doing this job, pawing through the filthy accordion file folder that holds the print-outs, not knowing numbers. This takes about fifteen minutes to get old.
I order the outgoing rental agreements, the ones I fabricated the night before. Though it’s never been an express ask, it’s my specialty and pleasure. And in they go into a manila envelope, dated and initialed. It’s fatter on the days after there were a bunch of people in the hotel, like a thing well-sated.
There’s another task too, which is Making Coffee. Coffee again being a charitable thing to call this stuff, which is really more like a kind of sludge or motor oil, and I’m thinking again of the android, of the guests who rise at dawn and drink the coffee as either cogs or semi-autonomous nanorobots that need a good lubing down before they’ll do anything. The coffee maker itself is pretty hi-tech, all stainless steel, glittering with several indicator lights of abstruse function. It makes sinister gurgling sounds all night, that you never know where they’re coming from at first and suspect catastrophic problems with the elevator, also, I would call it, gurgling—as if in conversation across the lobby, in a kind of machine language. But so here’s a thought, if the coffee maker makes the coffee, then what am I? If Bunn, the manufacturer of this, I’m reading and getting chills, CWTF15-APS, PF model coffee maker is very clearly the coffee maker maker—what, then, is the U.S. economy, if not a coffee maker maker maker? What then is society at large?
So but this is Making Coffee. You dump the entire batch you made the previous a.m., now blood warm, into the handy coffee station sink. You press this button, which you’ll notice is really more of a kind of switch. Now here’s the tricky part. In order to fill each of the two urns you must fill to Make Coffee, urns I’ve gathered, for reasons that will become clear, are not original to the CWTF15-APS, PF, you’ll have to fill one up two-thirds full first, then carefully dispense its contents into the second urn, at which point you press the button again, which if you’ve measured correctly will fill the urn to completion. Repeat with the second one-thirds full urn. Optimistically, you won’t have forgotten to actually put the grounds in, which I’m sometimes wont to do.
It’s in this interval, away from the computer, veiled in intermittent steam, that I’ll often consider hotels of the past, this and others, the steam here being a sort of filmic invitation to flashback, a stand-in for the fog of memory—not mine, mind you, but that of the whole human animal, of all those night auditors before me, whose former occupations of the chair are confirmed by the indentations carved therein, whose personal histories are alluded to in pen-etchings on the desk’s underside, and in its drawers, crude declarations of mere presence, like paintings on the walls of French caves: Big John was here, or Brock. I consider how much of a miracle it must have been when the electric keycard system was first implemented, the revelatory convenience of it, to the dismay of local locksmiths, of which there is now only one. I consider the sheer logistical nightmare of being tasked to keep up with that many keys, toothily glinting on a physical rack or pegboard, to say nothing of guest payment and contact details. It must have been a wilderness of bad checks and identity fraud. But there have been hotels since way back, inns before that, prominently featured in nearly every depiction of the Old West and in the Bible’s preeminent origin story, Luke 2:7 I’m able to cite, from a defaced copy retrieved from one of the rooms, complimentary Gideons. That’s why, whenever I turn someone away, which is more often than not on the nightmare shift, they’re offended in a way that cuts deep. They feel personally the grit of sand in Mary and Joseph’s sandals, cast themselves as an unborn Christ. Admittedly, I have turned a pregnant woman away before, though no word yet on a new messiah, at least in my circles.
So on this night, after Making Coffee, considering myself in flowing robes and a shepherd’s banded head-piece, I sashay through the blind spots of the security camera, humming. I’m alone, or so I think. But then, my hum has sudden accompaniment, support at lower registers. I am not alone, I realize. So I straighten, cease my sashaying, affect the all-business outward projection of a public-facing employee—because the sound it seems, this toady, warbling emanation of the throat, is coming from the BUSINESS CENTER.
It carries on when I stop, in fact sees my abruption as space for a solo, pitching up in a tuneful run. But it’s not some white collar field song coming in from the alcove that houses the bank of guest-use terminals, it’s got to be something worse. Nothing good can come from the BUSINESS CENTER, a long-standing stain on the lobby’s hibiscus print, a den of stealth masturbation and court document perusal I’ve been tasked to patrol and discourage the use of. As I retreat, back behind my marble bunker, I can’t help but think of terms and use, and of misapplication.
A man is ambulating toward me, shuffling at a death-defying forty-five degrees maintained by what has to be a cane, said cane beneath the front desk’s countertop, so not visible, at this point merely theoretical, an estimated guess, the cane, like that its handle might be jewel-encrusted, or a pewter skull, based on all available factors for judgment. His hair is colorless and brittle-looking, arranged in shingled layers, like that of a scarecrow or low-poly rendering. On approach, his face undergoes a wide range of twitching, Mansonite expressions.
“Hello, sir,” I say, and “how might I help you?”
There’s a sort of elfish glimmer in his eye when I ask him, played up by the overhead lights and reception’s ensconced LEDs. It’s like he’s been waiting a long time to hear it.
“Good evening.” His eyes flash. “Or is it now morning?”
It’s unclear if I’m to answer. He lets the question hang.
“It’s no difference to me; I’m just playing my games. They want us to stay in our rooms. They said, ‘Go to your room!’ like a mom or a dad would. They said, ‘Only come out to do your laundry!’ And I said to myself, in my head I said, ‘You’ll never know I’m out here!’”
It’s a sing-songy way that he says it, and I have now enough to deduce he’s from the fourth floor, which, for your information, I’ll tell you has been rented in toto by an out-patient mental health program with a vague-sounding acronym of a name and a shadowy personnel. Of all this I’ve gathered about as much as the cane, which is to say, it has to be there right? There must be some support.
“Ah,” I say.
“Which I guess if you’re asking answers my question. Because, when I was saying that to myself, in my head, it was night and everyone was sleeping. So I’d say that it is.”
He was looking past me or through me at something, and I felt in myself a great minimizing, a kind of flattening that occurs whenever I know I’m about to be steamrolled. I become an avatar of compliance, a nodding head, and with these folks, the ones from the fourth floor, I try to be kind.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
I tell him.
“That’s a good one,” he says. “I’m Neil.”
“Well, Neil, it’s nice to meet you.”
“No.” he says. He’s frustrated. His eyebrows go up and down. “Not Neil . . . Nil.”
It seemed he’d only shortened the sound.
He laughs. It’s a really remarkable sound.
“No, silly. N-dot-I-dot-L . . . dot?”
“I think so,” I say.
“What’s it mean, would you guess?”
This has to be his game.
“I’m not a speculator, Nil. In fact, I’m really more of a ruminator. So if you let me just sit and think about it for a while, quietly here, I’m sure I could figure it out. You’re free to use the computer though. I won’t tell you to go to your room.”
He looks at me, blinking, smiling, but then slowly, surely begins to list to one side. Just as I start to have serious doubts about the cane, its existence, he stops, again at about a 45° angle. It’s clear he isn’t looking past me or through me, but pointedly at something over my shoulder. I turn and notice a gold analog clock ticking away on the decorative credenza behind me. I’d swear it wasn’t there before.
“I’m timing you,” he says, with I’m pretty sure a voluntary wink.
I couldn’t answer the question of the clock. It seemed that both he and it were just suddenly there, and that sudden thereness was obliterative, a vacuum that hoovered up all my certainty about the space, whose every odious dimension I’d come to know and see, even in sleep, with the sun coming in through the blinds of my room, several blocks away. From that point on, it seemed, I was always looking back, enough to develop a mean kink in my neck, and every time that I did, he’d be shambling toward me again, from the BUSINESS CENTER.
“Notably Immense Lungs,” I said, after some time had passed, maybe weeks.
“Nissan Infiniti Lover.”
“I don’t drive.”
“Non-Incandescent Lighting,” I said, staring upwards, knowing that I was grasping at nothing, a ghost.
“Nice Italian Lasagna.” I said, once hungry.
“Not that one.”
“Narcolept in Lobby.”
“I know you are, but what am I?”
“Nasty Icky Louse,” I wanted to say. “Noxious Intestinal Lump.”
I would not stoop to the obvious Needlessly Irritating Limper, nor make him leave the desk. I said every permutation of nice and interesting and likable, nimble and intelligent and lucky. All this time, time not so much registered as felt ambiently around the gold clock, a persistent wind its interminable ticking, he pelted me with similar non-sequiturs, facts about himself, little observations. So when he finally let it slip, I hardly noticed.
“Next in Line,” he said.
“Next in Line. In the Navy. Also Cod.”
“Like the fish?”
“No, like Cheater of Death.”
There was a grim cast in his eyes. He’d taken to a slow and steady rocking.
“We were drydocked,” he said. “Scaffolding as far as the eye can see. No water. Scaffolding as high as the eye can see, also. It is dry.”
So far was my conception of the man from a sailor, and so misty my conception of the Navy, that I saw him instead as a kind of Popeye, or wood-carved souvenir come to life, with a flap collar and tiny cap.
“I was a shipbuilder,” he said. Swelling with pride, he straightened, resting not on the unconfirmed cane, but the countertop that obstructed it from view. “A damn fine one, I’d say, in addition.” There was a heretofore unpronounced accent. “I built ships. Big ships. Massive ships. Ships built for battle. Battleships they were called.”
I believed him.
“I with my toolbelt and protective hardhat. I with my safety gogglery and signature lip full of chaw. Two rungs at a time, the scaffolding I’d take. To spit from great heights was my sole comfort there.” It was a pirate accent he was doing, no doubt about it. I could see the Arr forming on his lips.
“You think they’d have gotten you a harness or something.”
“Arr,” he said.
He was slowly hooking his finger.
“No time.” He slashed with the hook. “We had to move fast—for there was a Desert Storm gathering in the east!”
It was not a sailor’s cap, but a tricorne, I could see, not a pipe in his teeth, but a dagger. He’d bloomed a beard in the span of his past five sentences.
“Climbing, I was, with an insect’s speed and grace.”
I saw then, not scaffolding, but a great lattice of whiskery rope. It was snapping in high wind. “Up and up, I climbed. The only direction I knew, such a fool was I.”
An errant clap of thunder sounded, or else someone somewhere slammed a door.
“I didn’t feel it when it hit, but I heard tell of the sickening smack, and of the series of several similar but smaller smacks I must have felt on the way down.” I could see him wanting to smack the countertop, but he held back with rhetorically admirable restraint.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Yeah. It wasn’t good.”
“So but why the Next in Line thing? Why C.O.D.?”
“I’m here, obviously. Present. Checked-in. But I wasn’t for a long time. I woke up in a hospital bed with no recollection of what had happened, not even a faint sketch of having been in the Navy. Just a black sheet, slightly rippling. I had to think of myself as like Popeye or one of those carved seamen you can buy at the beach, just to see it. I thought the word seamen was funny.”
I nodded, knowing that it was.
“Come to find out a few of the guys I was supposed to have been in the Navy with had been coming by to see me almost every day, and had taken to depositing little nuggets of my signature chaw in my bottom lip, as a kind of ritual offering. Come to find out they’d traced a line around where my body had been with electrical tape, and it had become customary to give it a loving little tap with the toe of your work boot, or else it might be you that’s next.”
“In line,” I said.
“That’s what they’d been calling me behind my back, come to find out. In all that time I had it turned to the world, it got shortened to N.I.L. Also C.O.D. they were calling me.”
“Come to find out.”
“Yeah. And that’s when they started putting the microchips in my brain and everyone’s faces started to get really smudgy unless I focused extremely hard on them and hum a certain tone in my head which sounds to everyone else like I’m screaming if I do it out loud.”
N.I.L. opened his mouth, wide so I could count his teeth if I wanted, but no sound came out.
“I don’t hear anything,” I said.
“Huh.” He scratched his head. “Maybe I’m getting better.”
I told him I hoped that he was, and when he went away, it was not his body that I saw but its outline, in a series of stitched-together exposures on the way to the BUSINESS CENTER, where the clatter of his keys would rejoin the lobby’s general hum, and meld with the gold clock’s ticking. Also I saw his cane, which had a rubberized handle and bored holes for easy extension and adjustment. It was gray and without ornament.
The next day, when I clocked-in and got situated, which meant getting the space heater aimed at my legs and the AirKing spinning for optimal temperature confluence, the evening clerk I was replacing hung back. “Did you hear what happened?” he asked.
“How could I possibly have done that?”
“That dude in, what is it, four-something? The crazy one with the cane. He had a fucking seizure, man. Right here in the lobby.”
“He was fuckin’ strokin’ out, dude. I had to call an ambulance.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah, he just kinda stumbled out and collapsed. The security guard was saying we ought to shove a spoon in his mouth, to get him from biting his tongue off, but all we had were those plastic ones from the Market Center. Then we were talking about using the T.V. remote, which I thought sounded like maybe a bad idea, and then the ambulance came and took him away.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“Fucked up, dude.”
“I think I’m gonna quit soon,” he told me. I told him I was too.
Later that night, I accessed the security camera’s handy playback feature and watched it happen. I watched him stagger out from the BUSINESS CENTER and brandish his cane, jaw and gesticulate an impassioned appeal to no one, but from my superior angle, it could have been made directly to me. I saw my co-worker survey his body like it was a stain or spilt coffee. I saw the EMTs check his vitals and wheel him away in comic double-time speed. Later, I saw myself, assessed my posture. It was poor, I thought, and I was looking older.
Later than that even, I pulled his reservation. Nested in another acronym, that of the out-patient program that put him up, I learned his real name, not N.I.L. or C.O.D. of course, but Scott. I said it out loud on the way to Making Coffee. While Making Coffee, I had a thought.
In the BUSINESS CENTER, the mouse at his terminal of choice was pulled straight out on its cord, the chair ominously missing. I gave it a little radial flourish. Sure enough, he was still logged in, but not to any email or social media, instead something vastly more intimate, another life. On-screen was some esoteric online role-playing game, a view, not unlike that offered by the security camera, of a wood floor hewn of rough pixels, of a player character at rest in twitching torchlight. She was swaying slightly, scantily clad in dragon body armor. A porthole on the leftern wall revealed a digital vista of slow-moving waves, palm fronds also swaying, that signaled, yes, she was at sea, a sailor. He’d had other tabs open, parallel accounts, a motley crew he was captaining, left to await his command. It seemed wrong to close them out.
But of course I had to, lest someone else find them and do damage, spend his doubloons frivolously, crash the ship. I’ll make my own memorial, when the coffee is made; I’ll cross the lobby with my handy Scotch tape dispenser. I’ll trace a line around where Scott’s body had been, and it’ll be there maybe forever, or as long as I’ll let it. Lord knows nobody’s doing the floors in here.