by Alex Wichert
I sat in my three-star hotel room and wondered about the best way to kill someone. I hadn’t planned for this—the plot, in fact, was intended as comedy—but certain symptoms of doubt had crept in with the final act. There just wasn’t any getting around it: the play lacked spunk. It lacked spice. It lacked any jolt of life or vigour. What I most feared was that point in a novel when the reader begins counting pages. I wanted to avoid that moment like I wanted to avoid baths as a kid. The difference here was that soap and water weren’t nearly enough for this level of stink. That’s why I felt the play should have—needed—a murder. The deed would slam all beats into place. Everything, the melodramatic and self-absorbed musings of an unstable man, would finally have an endgame. Let’s be clear: anything’s worthwhile when the crescendo is utter destruction. I’d even settle for a suicide.
Hand cramp. That had been happening far too often, like my body was literally gathering rust. I pushed back from the desk with strength that suggested confidence. Walls made of cream. Painting of a painting. Carpet thick and muffling steps, more like quicksand than falling snow. I started to pace.
How would it happen? A rival lover’s blade or a burning dose of arsenic? A push. A jump. A boulder rolling downhill. I pulled open the curtains and shoved my head outside. The air was still heavy with moisture, leftover impressions from last night’s great drama. Hurried beetles wheeled by on the road; I’d never had the patience for driving. Down among them, though, among the coffee stain dress shirts and children late for school, the squirrels in the park on the street’s far side, stood a hot dog vendor. He’d already opened his kiosk, shaking water off its awning. A woman guarding a yoga mat walked past without interest. Avoiding grilled dogs before their downward cousin.
The wind tasted good, a warm parfait that clogged all my pores, so I kept watch below. A car pulled up to the curb beside the kiosk. Chic edges. Silent hum. No tinfoil shine on this vehicle. Its woman matched the look and knew it. She stepped around to the sidewalk, a cyclist enamoured midstride, and stopped at the vendor. He shoved his hat in his pocket and laughed. She didn’t. He kissed her on the cheek, she bending down and him bolting up, before the woman walked back to her car. She drove.
I pulled my head back inside. People watching made me hungry; I always ordered fries at a ballgame. It was time for breakfast. I walked past the bed, two quick steps from the desk in the corner. Five more to the door. Stopped. Entered the washroom on my left. There was the cupboard under the sink and, quick, shaking, I opened it. Everything was there, so I went downstairs.
The dining hall was a narrow “L” with sharp corners. Greasy tongs. Paisley wallpaper. A nauseating whirlwind of cargo shorts and cheap jewelry. I grabbed my plate and stepped in line. Buffet talk everywhere. Oh yes, how interesting, this one placed mushrooms before the carrots. Why, I don’t know: maybe it was true their bread came from that bakery down the road. I pulsed in and out of conversations like I was swaying between frequencies. An addict for the stuff I hated most. I couldn’t feel my tongue and wondered if that were normal.
Finally. I loaded up with rejects. Two stacks of toast and an apple which, despite its unconventional shape, nearly escaped by rolling off my plate. I was right under the speaker. Piano music sprinkled down on my scalp, fresh dandruff from above. There weren’t many people here—the rats preferred room-service cheese—but there also weren’t many tables. I looked about for somewhere I wouldn’t be bothered.
There was only one option. A table at the back shielded by a bookcase of china and candles without wicks. As if dreamed up by Dante, the twist: I had no sooner committed when a young man sat down. Wrath followed by relief: it was just Ethan. Ethan I could handle. His neck twisted, taking snapshots and impressing them within memory. Then his sights fell upon me. Sorry to ruin a good roll.
“Ethan, how is hotel life treating you? Don’t you simply rejoice in not having to pick up after yourself?”
He scratched under his chin. He’d just shaved, and there were red blotches around his upper neck. Irritation. Dry skin. Acne. I took a bite of my toast.
“Um. We met last Wednesday, right?”
I was still standing. “Ah, Ethan. May I share this table? I have some pressing questions to solve, and my digestion demands comfort.”
“Okay. But I know what this is about. You’re some writer desperate for a lead.”
“What makes you think I’m desperate?” My toast was brittle. Dry.
“You were handing out business cards by the pool yesterday. You gave one to the lifeguard.”
A battalion of Hawaiian shirts absconded the next table. They were replaced by a boisterous group of jean jackets and pancakes.
“Very apt,” I took the seat. “Now. What vital enterprise brings you here, my friend? Love? Business? Do tell.”
“I’m not giving you money. And I told you Wednesday. My documentary on Hans Auerbach. He stayed here. Before he was famous, of course.”
“The philosopher. He wrote about choice and endless possibility. I have one month before next semester, and I want to finish my research.”
“Fascinating,” I said, mouth full of crust and cursing the apparent butter embargo. “That reminds me of my play. I’m writing a play. I don’t know if I told you that.”
“He was neurotic about choice. The subway system drove him nuts.”
“I’m in a dilemma of great interest, you see.”
“He’d take hours deciding on his appetizer alone.”
“And I thought I’d ask a fresh mind.”
“‘What if I order the soup but regret it? What dining path will this set me down?’”
“Ethan, fret not. There’s no soup here for breakfast.”
“Auerbach. I’m talking about Auerbach. Are you not listening?”
I picked up the apple then dropped it. I didn’t really want it, but it had been the only unpeeled fruit left. After much consideration, the man in front had swiped the last banana. “My apologies. Please continue.”
“He had this obsessive mind game about his log cabin catching fire while he slept. Would it be better to stay unconscious because of the smoke or try your luck in the flames?”
“I recall reading about that in the papers. Grisly incident, that.”
“What? It was just a thought experiment. You’re not listening.”
Scrub brush hair. Onion nose. Body too big for his linen voice.
“Apologies. I want to get the final scene of my play correct. I’m after an appropriate death for the main character.”
The table behind Ethan vacated. An aproned man wheeled over his cart. He began loading empty and non-empty plates.
Ethan broke. “Tell me about him.”
“He’s just returned from Egypt, you understand. He’s seen the Pyramids and the Nile and the Great Sphinx of Giza. That last one: youth, middle age, elderly. You’ve heard that one? There’s a riddle for you. He’s been all over, speaking to people and finding what holds them in place. He wanted to know if lives were different, if paths could reveal themselves, somewhere else.”
“He came back, didn’t he?”
The man pushed his cart past a dessert table of crusted eclairs and croissants in mourning. Ethan was silent. Talk about a one-track mind.
“A documentary,” I said.
An explosion of light, a return of fire to his eyes.
“It’s going to be great. It will cover his entire life and even a bit beyond his death for his legacy.”
“At what part are you now?”
For a moment, his face gave way to the person he would become, the man who would live to verify the truths and falsehoods he claimed now in youth. Yet it was like the squiggly matter you get in the corner of your eyes: there was a sense of it, I focused, and it was gone.
He opened a notebook. “I haven’t started. I need to get the introduction just right, or the entire piece could go wrong.”
The man with the cart walked again behind Ethan. He saw an empty glass, hesitated, absorbed it. Piles structured high, a Tower of Babel made of syrup-stained plates and forks bent by children. He placed the glass on a stack, then watched it tumble to the ground. The impact fell in upon itself, a single clatter before all was quiet. I was underwhelmed.
“Exactly,” Ethan said. “You need to crawl before you walk.” A nostril flare to denote pride. A few missed hairs on the side of his face. I stood up.
“And so goes hotel life.” Knee crack in tandem with my voice. Something in my shoe like a pebble. Ethan folded away his notebook.
“Let me tell you one thing,” I said. “As with most endeavours, art is better served by feeling rather than certainty. Maybe you can do something with that.”
I flipped my apple to him. He caught it, juggled it, handcuffed by fruit. I started back for my room. Stopped.
“How did Auerbach die?”
“He choked on a peanut.”
Hotel life. I turned the corner.
The hallways wound together, reminding me of some demented funhouse. I made a hairpin turn and passed that same dour, disconcerting painting from yesterday. A clown with a bouquet, grinning in the rain. Who would paint such a travesty? What hotel would display such a wreck?
I continued burrowing. My eyes expected stalactites but encountered dimmed chandeliers. A turn, and I passed the gym. A turn, and the pool was upon me. A turn, and the boiler room introduced itself. Danger. Electricity. Personnel only. I wondered what would happen if I tried the lock. Then I reached the stairs. No: doubled back, headed for the elevator. Give myself a treat. I’d also save a minute or two this way. Hurtling toward the sunrise. A carrot on a stick.
I waited by the elevator door and watched each floor light up. The door sliced open. A blackjack dealer from the in-house casino, penguin outfit and bowtie, waddled out. I’d tried a few games already and lost my chips to some kid with a bowl cut. Who needed that level of uncertainty?
Cables started pulling. I jumped and felt that weightless sensation before the floor met my feet. A little trick from my boyhood. Here was some public domain jazz music, like I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. Each number dinged a desperate greeting as I paced.
My floor. Two women who squeezed their way on before I had stepped off. Excuse me. I felt tempted to stay in and hit every button. Yet manners persisted. I trickled by rows of mahogany doors and red lights. What was this? My door. Green. Unlocked. Open.
I walked in to see a cleaning woman. She had just finished changing the sheets and was smoothing out my bed’s creases. She turned to me with a startled mouse noise. Her nametag said “Anna.” Coal smoke hair. Pillow soft jaw. Forehead like the spine of a well-read book.
“I’m sorry, excuse me. I was not expecting anyone. I’ll just be another moment if that is all right.” She stood and waited for my approval. The skin around her right eye had a tinge of fading darkness, like she’d been crying, but her left was clear. I took a step toward her. I stopped at a trolley of cleaning supplies between us.
“That’s fine. Have you done the washroom?”
“That’s next, if that is okay.” She thought for a moment, weighing a risk. “Is it bad?”
“No. Everything’s fine.” My voice sounded loud. Was I shouting? Could she hear me fine? “It doesn’t need any scrubbing. You’d be wasting your time.”
My desk looked closer. It was still jammed against the wall, but it looked like I could reach it if I stretched. I realized I didn’t need to stoop so low.
She wiped dust off the dresser and placed my clock back on top. It was 10:37. I walked over to the desk—four quick strides that, I could have sworn, had been seven earlier—and ruffled around the papers. I sat down; I needed to start writing.
“My son does the same thing,” Anna said. She gave me a smile like this was now a secret between us. “He knocks his papers around on his desk before he starts his homework.”
A melodic stretch of vowels. A tongue from below the Equator. She turned around to start packing her supplies. Dust busted. Old sheets sacked. Native odours colonized by an imperial spray. The pale space around her finger contrasted tanned skin.
“How old is your son?”
“That’s tough. How long has it just been you two?” I stopped.
She grabbed the trolley tight and pushed it to the door. She said she was finished. I felt the air leaving the room in a hurry, all the fragrance and polished sheen going with it. A grimy backroom once she would leave.
“My apologies. That was as thick of a thought as one could have. I was just blustering about.”
Blood returned to her knuckles.
“I write plays. You know how us writers are, always going back and rewriting and editing. You can’t do that in real life.” My peace treaty was launched, an olive branch of tactful sentiments, borne across the newly scented air.
She took a step back from the trolley. Her white uniform was covered in little dots, each identical to the ones around it. Black holes. A camera lens. The iris of a hare as it watches you close. “You write plays? What kind?”
Not very good ones.
“A number of styles,” I stood but then thought about height difference, about how an even gaze would be more affable. I sat again. “I am in the midst of killing off my hero. How do you like working here?”
Anna checked the clock. I felt self-conscious, like I’d shared something personal over the phone and just heard silence on the other end.
“Excuse me, I should not have started. We cannot really speak with the guests, if that is all right with you.”
“That’s a ludicrous rule.” I shifted position in my chair. I’d recently found lumbar support to have gone out of style. I picked at the chair’s arm, the felt chewed up and rubbed soft by many like me. “A very ridiculous rule indeed. Where has common sense, gone, Anna? I’m trying to find some saving grace for my main character. I can’t shake the thought that he’s stuck like some embittered squadron commander in a warfare trench. Chained by his choices like some Prometheus of old. You know how it is.”
Internal gears turning in translation.
“I really should not talk, if that is all right. You have enough soap?”
I stood and looked at the mirror tiles glued together. Where the squares overlapped, there were slight inconsistencies in the reflection: one shoulder was too high and one arm too wide. A cardboard puzzle left out in the rain. Anna stood behind me. There was some trick of reflection that showed her eyes meeting mine.
“But excuse me,” Anna said, looking over again at the clock, “maybe he just has bad luck. The Evil Eye, do you know? My Diego, he needs to flip a coin one hundred times and keep track for his math. So many times heads, we begin to worry.”
“If it’s just bad luck or a curse, you think my man is excusable for his actions? He’s merely a victim of circumstance, like a—” I was about to say single mother. “Like someone born into the cycle of poverty? ‘If ifs and buts,’ Anna.”
“Sorry. I mean something else. We are very religious at home. So I pray. And I wait, and I wait, and I wait. But my own man does what you see on my face. So I choose to do this.” She held up her hand with the white band. “And I change the locks.” She turned her head away, held that same hand to her face like this were an embarrassing story. “I don’t know why I am telling you this. I hope it’s all right.”
I walked over to the window. The hot dog vendor stood below. He was on the phone. He paced, just steps from the kiosk, then back the other way, and rolled his shoulders. What a body, reedy and light. What a basement complexion.
“Maybe it’s because you don’t know me. Or maybe it’s the fact I don’t have the complete picture but just the context you provide. Regardless, you’re leaving a real mark and not just an airy scent on my new pillow. That’s good.”
She looked over at the clock once more. She said she had to get back to work, excuse her, if that were all right.
As she pushed the trolley through the door, I called her name. “You stood on your own two feet, and you stood for something real, Anna. Tell Diego one hundred flips is a very small sample.”
Then she left. I turned back to the window. The hot dog vendor was crying, speaking into the phone and crying. Distance too great to see the drops but not the sleeve he brought to his face. He hung up, and I moved from the wall. I had to start writing.
Little progress. I’d managed four fragmentary sentences, two crossed lines, and one decapitated eraser. The bed was now just inches from my chair, but it still touched the far wall. I feared my elbow would hit the window with each stroke of the pencil. It had seemed higher this morning. Someone should fix these lights, I thought: they were too close, too hot, too bright in their intensity. But I didn’t have to stoop so low, did I? Sink was dripping. Sink was dripping. I reached over to turn the faucet and, surprised, could nearly reach. I was sitting.
I crashed my hand against the wall, pounding until my fist throbbed and I’d left a small dent. A red hand, a crater hole, and a blank page walk into a bar: what a dismal setup for the world’s poorest tripartite. I paused, heaving more from the action than my pride would have liked, and leaned in the chair. When would the muses speak?
They didn’t. But the wall did.
It knocked right back. I twitched, a startled pigeon distracted from my breadcrumbs. Four knocks, five, six, someone on the other side. It stopped and began again at my door.
“Yes?” On the other side a man with a face like a grapefruit. Broken red rivers across the cheeks. Ears like dumplings in my holiday soup.
“I’ve been trying to sleep in the adjacent room, sir, for almost two hours. I was just about to slide away when you started hammering on like it was Judgement Day. Man alive, have you no respect?”
I pushed the door against the far wall and leaned in the frame. I’d only seen suits like his in the movies.
“My apologies. I’m writing this play, you see, and have been wondering about a certain character’s fate.”
His face turned the shade of my hand, went even darker. He straightened his tie and cursed today’s attitude. I told him to calm down. That’s when he punched me.
It was a real pugilist’s joust. Right on the chin. Confused, I wondered why the ground was flying at my nose. Warmth on the face and everything askew. The man released a grunt.
“Let me get you a tissue.” He hobbled into the washroom.
“No,” I said, pushing onto one elbow. “I’m all out. Try yours.”
He must have been genuinely remorseful; the man missed an unopened box on his way out. He returned with a clump and a warm glass of water. I sat back, ninety-degree angle and no drill sergeant to impress, blinking against the light. I stuck the tissues in and drank. He asked how I felt.
“Fine,” I said, “but my mouth is rather dry.”
There was a bar downstairs. He said he would wait in the hall until I was ready. I splashed water on my face and turned to leave. Then I heard a noise outside. It was the hot dog vendor and the woman from this morning. He’d shot his hands in the air as if in field goal celebration. She kept her back to him. Yelps from both but pain from only one. She turned around with crossed arms. He dug through his pocket, threw right at her chest. A small box, a cube that rolled like a die and landed on the street. Something glinted in the sun.
I walked into the hall.
“Are you sure you’ll be fine?” I said. Leo hunched over his stool with both elbows on the counter. “Even using the elevator, it’s a fairly long trip to your room. I don’t mind running back to get it.”
He waved it away with faux impatience. After he’d bought me a drink, I decided Leo’s face didn’t quite resemble a grapefruit.
“Do you think I need that thing? I can stand just fine, thank you. I whupped you pretty good without it. Again, I am sorry.”
It was my turn for a good-natured rebuff.
“It’s fine. I’ve received worse from critics. Not all professionals relegate their jeers to the page.” The hotel bar was empty, surprising for an afternoon with heavy gold skies. Its wood panelling clearly aspired for a ski lodge feel but was probably just stuck to the walls. We’d scratched the calico floors with our chairs, and the bartender, an honest-to-goodness cloth slung over one shoulder, had told us it happened all the time.
“You really have a solid right hook,” I said into my glass. “Quick, too. I didn’t expect to be hit.”
What’s the game called? Two truths and a lie.
Leo folded his hands together, tarps clothed around hunks of granite.
“Boxing is a fine outlet. Relieved stress and even anger when I was in the market.”
“Of sorts. Stockbroker. I was jungle king for a time. They said I was the next Lou Big- Time Berry. You remember him?”
I thought for a moment, more out of courtesy than wonder. “When was this?”
“Oh, I’d say Big-Time was tops in ’67, ’68.”
I started to question my moisturizer. “How old exactly do you think I am?”
He kept talking. “But we all make poor investments. You know I once lived in a house with three washrooms?”
“Where are you now?”
“Out of a suitcase since March. We’re neighbours. How do you like that?”
Folds in the face like an oven-scorched crepe. Beanpole neck with chicken wire tendons. A powdered ring of snow stuck around his head. I waved at the bartender, and Leo looked at my glass. I think he’d only anticipated springing for one.
“That reminds me of my play,” I said to the counter. I hated when they dropped a lemon in the drink. Now I’d have to fish out the seeds with my fingers.
“Do I regret those investments?” Leo said. “Of course, I do. They kept me frozen for years. I felt too delicate. I would think of myself in one of those darkrooms that need the special kind of light.”
“Stay with me,” I said. “I’ve lost some nerve from this morning. I’m getting sentimental about this character.”
Leo watched the batter on TV, sighed as he struck out with the bases loaded. “Why exactly does this man need to go?”
“It has too much dialogue: too much talking on the beach and bellyaching about the mysteries of life. I want that feeling you get when a rush of cold air hits you right in the chest, the kind of gust people describe as biting.”
Dust motes, particles, floated in the light. Someone had written a rather jarring proposition on the wall beside me.
“Right now, my play has false teeth.”
“But what exactly did this fellow do? Was he bullish in a bear market?”
“No. He’s a man of ill conviction. A liar, a cheat, someone you wouldn’t grace with the shake of your fist. But what choice do you have when everything’s closing in?”
I was aware of a low buzzing in the bar, like a song that cuts out from poor connection. It faded into the walls, into the wood panelling and along the bottles in the back. I thought about earlier today; I thought about another chance.
“When I was frozen,” Leo said, “I would rewatch everything in my mind like I was at the pictures. The charts I ignored and the bluffs I made. I remember this one time, the Dow was just closing, you see.”
“Gardner—he was an odd duck, I tell you—had mentioned something about the foreign market. What was it now?”
He went quiet.
“When you choose to come back from the dead, that’s the ultimate choice, isn’t it?”
Leo sipped from his drink, and I looked over at the bar. No one spoke, and I shifted on the stool.
“How do you feel?” Leo said.
I thought about that and took a moment to think.
“Like a hot dog vendor,” I finally said.
Back in my room, I turned the lock. I didn’t have much space: the door pushed against my back, and the window pressed against my nose. I shuffled, hands outstretched like a two- dimensional figure on a sheet of torn paper. The desk. The bed. They were both now in the way. I had to step over them while ducking the ceiling. Wait—no need to stoop so low. Not even an inch of separation. I stepped into the washroom.
Sink. Crouched. Opened the cupboard. There it was. I pulled out the bag, dragged it to the door. I sat, back against the bed frame and legs by the tub. It was a worn satchel, weather-beaten but well used. Ethan, Anna, Leo, he, I. The room was quiet. I held back a sneeze. I opened the bag.
I took out the photo. There I was by a bazaar in an Egyptian district, standing before two market tents and squinting in the sun. I placed the photo on the ground. Five, four, three, two, one. Then I took out the gun.
Things were falling apart, you know? It started with Spinelli waking me up, kicking the door and telling me it bounced again. I was as surprised as he was, you know? So I finally get outside, nothing to eat except some stale buns, and someone’s lifted my bike seat. Not the whole thing, you know. The seat. Just enough to tell me this was a joke for some guy, and that’s all I’m worth, just a distraction for someone to get a few laughs.
So I get there, and I’m thinking, okay, I’m on time. I had to coast because my legs were so tired, but I’m here. But then Marla shows up and gives me this frosty look like I just crawled out the trash. She’s never seen me at work before, so I took off the hat. Like that made a difference. But why should I be ashamed, you know? It’s a business. It’s just temporary. So she leaves, and I’m feeling like something is up because she just leaves and says maybe when I ask about tonight. Then she calls me and says she wants to meet. Then she shows up and tells me what do you think, you know? Do I got to repeat it all? And I’m crying and yelling and not caring who sees it, and not a single person has come by for an hour even though I see Milo on the other side of the park with a dozen people, Ikidyounot. So I try to stay cool and hope she comes back, and I stand like that for a while, you know? But then I start wondering why I’m here, and I start going a little crazy. I don’t know. So I start to close early, really sloppy, but I don’t care, when I hear a voice.
“Excuse me,” it said.
I’m thinking, great, a customer now. Why do you pick now to rub it in, and maybe Marla sent you to take back her keys when I see he don’t look like he means that. He’s just wearing this brown sports jacket with his hand in his pocket, you know? And I feel like he don’t want anything from me. He looks kind of smug—no, not smug, but like he just figured some riddle.
“Yes,” I said, “how may I help you?”
He smiles and shakes his head, you know, and says he’s not here for a hot dog. So my heart starts pumping again, like I’m wondering if maybe he’s dragging this out because he’s here from Marla, after all.
“I know you feel claustrophobic right now with very few options,” he said. “Some choices bind but others set you free.”
He handed me a picture.
“Here, take a look at that.”
Alex Wichert is a writer from Mississauga, Ontario. “He Handed Me a Picture” is his first published work.