knock at night like a door
put your ear against it
hear hello timid
on the other side
& too near
knock at night like a door
put your ear against it
hear hello timid
on the other side
& too near
There’s a feeling a guy gets when the creases in his pants are straight, and the part in his hair is just right. His shoes are shined and his tie is knotted into a perfect Windsor. He walks down the street and everyone smiles, and when they do he knows that they’re smiling with him.
It was the autumn of 1947, and my first hit single had made it onto the radio. It was called Samantha Samantha, and it was recorded by the Atticus Chips Orchestra with vocals by Ignacio Esposito. Samantha Samantha was on every radio and in every jukebox in the free world my agent said, and was being played by every band in every club and dance hall from here to Okinawa. The royalty cheques were rolling in, and the record company and the song-pluggers were screaming for more.
So on that late September morning, I was standing on the curb looking like a guy smitten with the world. A month ago I’d decided to purchase what a guy like me needed most, a brand new 1948 Cadillac. And now I was trying to hail a cab to take me to the dealership where I would finally take delivery.
I’d chosen the Series 62 from a brochure filled with elegantly portrayed models of the car, cruising down limitless summer sunny highways with jubilant drivers and joyous passengers all headed toward some undiscovered place worthy of their wholesome American euphoria. Other brochure models were depicted sitting fat in front of luxurious sky-high burgundy draping beneath massive gold, red white and blue Cadillac crests. And still others were parked in front of rustic heirloom Connecticut churches, very old and of obvious Protestant significance with drivers and passengers standing on roads admiring their cherished vehicles with their backs turned to God in His Yankee-built Temples.
The 1948 Cadillac represented the finest lines in ultra-modern design. It possessed a luxurious interior, and was propelled by the precision-built 90º V type 8 engine. It was going to be a joy to possess for a guy who half a year earlier was eating one meal a day of dry toast, sitting at an out of tune piano in a cold water walk-up. I was ready for a little bit of joy, so I’d chosen the two door convertible in Madeira Maroon. It was sporty, and oozed swank. Just like me, my ego said, inflated and ready to pop.
Now if I could get a cab, I’d be on my way to the Bean & Flintch Cadillac Land dealership to pick up my new baby. I finally caught the attention of a Blacktop stuck at a red light, and got in.
“Howdy, partner,” the driver said. “Call me Jimmy. Where to?”
“Bean & Flintch,” I said
“That’s that Caddy joint, ain’t it?”
He engaged the metre.
“You gettin’ yourself a Lac?” he asked.
“I’m taking delivery.”
“Hey that’s swell,” Jimmy said. “You must be some kinda operator. Them cars ain’t cheap.”
I thought about that for a minute – some kinda operator – and heard in my mind the down beat and chorus of Samantha Samantha, remembering the months it took to get it right on paper and then what it took to convince my agent and the studio that it would be a hit. Then there was the executive who’d said he was unable to discern the line between melody and harmony, insisting I was too young for a hit.
“Mozart was young, too,” my agent had said, pleading almost on his knees. Then there were the bribes and payola.
“Nah,” I said to Jimmy, “I was just lucky.”
Bean & Flintch was in the heart of the city and my previous trips by cab had been quick, but the traffic was heavy that day and Jimmy seemed to be taking all the wrong turns.
“You sure this is the right way,” I said, after he turned north onto Granville Street.
“Just enjoy the ride, Mac.”
“But you’re driving like a tourist.”
“I’ll get you there for less than two bucks,” Jimmy said. “Or I’ll eat my hat.”
His hat was a faux military style officer-looking number, with a brass Blacktop shield on the front. He wore it tilted on his crewcut head, with a taxi licence badge pinned on one side.
“That hat would be a mouthful,” I said. “And hard to swallow.”
“Then take my word for it, and relax.”
We stopped in a stationary line of traffic and he turned up the a.m. radio, and after an ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Samantha Samantha came on. I sat back and listened. It wasn’t my best work, but it was going to pay the bills for a long time to come.
Almost instantly Jimmy said, “That’s a red tune.”
“Red?” I said. Samantha Samantha had been called a lot of things, but….
“Yeah sure,” he said. “It’s red—pure commie. Just listen to the lyrics.”
“I have. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s been on the radio for weeks. Just sounds like a jukebox ditty to me.”
“That’s what they want you to think,” Jimmy said. “But it’s actually mass subliminal conditioning.”
“Mass subliminal conditioning?”
There was a lot of this going round. Cheap intrigue was in the air. Screw-loose politicians, pulpy postwar science fiction, and the dawn of the A-bomb. No more Great Depression, WW2 had been over for two years and the dead had left the room. People now had time on their hands and there was a fear vacuum, rapidly filling up with manufactured panic.
I lied: “I don’t get it.”
“You heard of a guy named Joe McCarthy?” Jimmy said. “He’s the new Senator of Wisconsin.”
“I read the papers.”
“Well,” Jimmy said, “McCarthy claims that there’s Communists and Soviet sympathizers inside the US. In the government and everywhere. And I figure the worst of ‘em’s gotta be the intellectuals and show people, like the crumb who wrote this song and the homo who’s singin’ it.”
Ignacio Esposito, a homo? What would his ever-orgy-ready teen-aged bobby-soxer harem say?
“Interesting.” I hoped it would end there.
“I mean it, brother,” Jimmy carried on. “Have you ever really listened to the lyrics?”
“Well I know ‘em by heart. I made a point of learning ‘em.”
Jimmy turned down the radio.
“Listen,” he said, then he began to sing —
Share with me your selfish love
Don’t leave it on a shelf above
In a jar where it can never be seen
Don’t keep it private property
This is my manifesto
I want to be love’s virtuoso
Let’s not show caution
And share all we have in common
Jimmy said, “What do you think, huh?”
“You have a lovely voice.” Actually, he didn’t.
“You gotta agree; if that’s not some kinda commie malarkey I don’t know what is. All that sharing! — and a manifesto! — jeez!”
“And that’s just the first verse and the chorus. You wanna hear the rest?”
“No,” I said.
“Too bad, but I guess I got you convinced.”
“It’s free, by the way,” I said.
“What?” said Jimmy.
“First verse, third line is: In a jar where it can never be ‘free’. You sang it, seen.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You a Soviet sympathiser?” Jimmy looked at me in the rear view mirror, suspicion in his eyes.
“No,” I said.
“‘Cause I don’t want no Soviet sympathisers in my cab. I didn’t fight in the war to drive Soviet sympathisers around.”
“Would a Soviet sympathiser be on his way to pick up a Cadillac?” I said.
“He might.” Now he looked unsure, the suspicion momentarily gone.
“What colour is it?” he said. “Your Cadillac, I mean.”
“Madeira Maroon,” I sighed.
“Maroon? That’s like red, ain’t it?”
“As close as it gets, this model year.”
His look of suspicion returned.
“Red,” he muttered and shook his head. “Mass subliminal conditioning.”
Then he dropped the bomb. Others had before him. Now it was his turn —
“You fight in the war?” he said. “Asia or Europe? How many Japs or Nazis did you kill?”
“None. I wrote Allied propaganda in Toronto, for pamphlets, posters and movie trailers.”
“So you sat it out,” he said. “And now you’re making the big bucks.”
He was right. I did sit out the war. My talent for antipathy and jingoism had earned me a job writing debauched conflict dogma. The work was crucial, they said. So I ate in restaurants and slept in warm clean beds, often warmed by lonesome war brides, while other men did the fighting. Mine were the soft disgraceful hands of a propagandist. I’d always believed apologising for it would be insincere, but things change.
“Since the end of the war,” I said, as though it mattered. “I’ve tried to make a living as a song writer, living in slum hotels, starving, murdering cockroaches and using a communal toilet down the hall. Maybe that’s my meā culpā.”
“You don’t look like you live in a slum,” Jimmy said.
“I’m sorry. Things change”
“Say, what’s your name?”
“Wyatt Ziegler,” I said.
“So you wrote that song, then!”
“Yes I did.”
“You ain’t got no shame, fella.”
When we pulled up to the main entrance of Bean & Flintch the metre read $2.83, not two bucks.
“Are you going to eat your hat?” I said, pulling bills from my pocket.
“You’d like that wouldn’t you.”
“It’d be something to see,” I said. “Worth the extra eighty-three cents.”
“Get outta my cab,” he said. “Go get your Cadillac and run it into a wall.”
I handed him four dollars.
“You know,” I said, “maybe what I wrote for the war made a difference. Maybe I helped end it early, saved a few lives.”
“Maybe,” he said, staring at me deadpan in the rear view mirror, telling me without words to vacate.
On the lot, a man named Daryl was washing my new car. Tobias Flintch had escorted me from the office. Daryl was rinsing away the soap suds with a hose, using it to make unhurried figure eights. He was humming Samantha Samantha.
“It’s a pip,” Flintch said, grinning and holding out both hands as if to say, ta-da!
“Yes it is,” I agreed, quietly. “A real pip.” I weakly touched a whitewall with the tip of my Florsheim.
“Where are you going to drive her first, Mr Ziegler?” Flintch said. “I hear Oregon is nice in the autumn.”
He was a gaunt but dapper old man, coughing hard as he lit a cigarette. He wore a Masonic ring, and had a Rotarian pin on his lapel. But if removed from his dark suit and tie, and put blue bearded into unwashed plaid and dungarees, he’d look like any other bum I had to step over to get into my old hotel room. It was his thin cloudy smile and poorly disguised cruelty that set him apart from the rest of humanity. That, and all he’d left unsaid over the course of his sixty plus years. He didn’t give a shit where I drove my new car, now that he had my money. Tobias Flintch just wanted me to get it the hell off the lot, the same way Jimmy wanted me out of his cab.
“I don’t know where I’ll drive it,” I said. “Maybe I’ll just park it at the curb and shoot at it from my apartment window, with a .22.”
“Ah,” said Flintch. “Well, remember to bring it in for servicing.”
Flintch was now re-inhaling through his nose the thick smoke slowly issuing from his mouth, like a pimp in a tattoo parlour.
“Why don’t you take these?” he said, handing me a set of keys on a Bean & Flinch Cadillac Land key ring. His fingernails were sharp, and too long.
“This car doesn’t seem so important to me anymore,” I said.
“That’s fine,” he said. “Finish it up, Daryl. And you have a pleasant day, Mr Ziegler.”
“Yeah,” I said, watching him walk away.
Daryl waited a moment, then said, “Flintch sleeps in a coffin.”
“That seems possible,” I said.
“And never sneak up on his left.”
“And never try to hand him anything made of pure silver.”
“Is my car ready?” I said.
“You know, a guy form the eastside bought one of these a week ago,” Daryl said, changing the subject and peeling the wrapper off of a stick of Juicy Fruit. “Right off the lot. No options. No custom work. Paid cash. He said that his wife had been foolin’ around behind his back, and that she’d fit real pretty into the trunk. Then he laughed like he was gonna choke, just so the salesman knew he was jokin’. But he wasn’t jokin’.”
“What? How do you know?”
Daryl stared at me a second like I was daft, like I wasn’t keeping up. Fear vacuum, I thought. The authentically dead had left the room.
“I guess,” he said, “that a Cadillac is never the same thing from one buyer to the next. The tank’s full of Hi-test, Mr Ziegler, and I’ve checked your oil. You’re ready to roll.”
“Thanks.” I tipped him a couple of bucks.
That evening I drove up into the north shore mountains, and watched the sun fall into the Pacific. Before the daylight vanished completely, though, I checked the trunk to make sure it was empty. It was. No Tobias Flintch rising from the dead. No bodies of cheating wives. Only an upholstered crypt too huge for my meager life, where a jack and a spare were buried like artifacts. Ignacio Esposito was on the radio, singing (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.
I had this to consider as I fell: that to be pushed from the eleventh floor of a slum hotel, in the end, is no different than being pushed from the eleventh floor of the Ritz-Carlton. The outcomes will differ very little.
* * * * * *
It was 2:27 a.m. on Wednesday.
I woke the way I sometimes do, like someone just pulled my trigger. Bang! Eyes open wide in the middle of the night, remembering something I forgot to do, like set a mousetrap or put my compost into the freezer.
But this time, I had a weird feeling that someone was standing on the threshold. I sat up and looked across the room at the sliver of light that comes in under the door from the main corridor. Shadows were moving there. Feet on the other side. Big square cop shoes. Shuffling back and forth. There…
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The staircase was golden, and allowed for one way traffic only. Ascending, a sign said, and there was an arrow pointing up toward a platform bathed in light, from which the ascender would have to either jump into radiant emptiness, or stand forever. But neither Abigale nor Loomis were ascenders. Loomis turned away, holding a hand over his eyes to block the light.
“This isn’t what you said,” said Abigale, fingering two tiny, but bulging, plastic envelopes in her coat pocket, each containing the promise of an immaculate high. “You said that this was just a flophouse, that you had a room, that we could get high.”
“It wasn’t like this an hour ago,” Loomis said. “It was just bedbugs and bare lightbulbs.” He peeked through his fingers into the glare. “I’ve been flopping here for a year. This’s never happened before.”
The Hotel Copenhagen was actually more than a flophouse, but not much more. It had seen happier days in the age of zeppelins and flappers. The grand marble staircase had always been one of its best features, but now it had undergone a bizarre change and the rough couple stood in the ramshackle lobby made golden by it. Behind them were the bevelled glass doors that led out into rainy midnight.
“Well,” said Abigale, her voice rising, “it’s pissing out, and I’m starting to jones. I don’t wanna cook ‘n’ shoot this shit up in the rain, then trip all night in a back alley. You said you had a place. That’s why I came.”
“I do—I did—it’s on the third floor.”
“Then let’s take the elevator.”
“It’s busted,” said Loomis. “Has been since I moved in. We’ll have to take the stairs.”
“I ain’t going up there.”
Then they heard a ding. “What the fuck?”
Abigale grabbed Loomis by his collar and pulled him toward the sliding doors. When they slid open, the two of them saw a tall woman in a dark blue uniform with gold trim and matching pillbox hat sitting on a stool next to a panel of buttons. Her skin was white and her smartly done-up hair was black. Her lips, the colour of a bullet wound. The inside of the elevator had been transformed from its former ruined state into a plush chamber of oak and brass.
“Will that be down?” she said.
“Up,” said Abigale. She took a step forward, but Loomis held her back.
An overpowering reek was coming from the car. Loomis held his nose.
“Sorry for the Eau de Sulfur,” said the operator.
“Who are you?” Loomis said. “I’ve never seen you before and this elevator’s been busted since I arrived over a year ago.”
“Well then this is your lucky night, fella,” said the elevator operator. “Going down? The lower floors are very nice.”
“Up,” Abigale said again.
“There is no up.”
“Then the elevator’s still out of service,” Loomis said.
“Nope,” said the operator. “It’s working just fine.” She smiled like a reptile.
“We want the third floor,” Abigale said.
“Then take the stairs, if you like.”
“But the stairs lead up into some kind of blinding nothingness.” Loomis couldn’t believe what he’d just said.
“You’ll have to make up your minds,” said the operator. “Up or down, up or down.” She pulled a cigarette from her pocket, and lit it with the tip of her tongue.
“Maybe we should just go back out onto the sidewalk,” Abigale said. “We can wait for a few minutes, give this all a chance to reboot, and then come back in.”
“Won’t make a bit of difference.” The operator blew smoke out of her nostrils, dragonishly. “I’ll still be here when you come back.”
“And the staircase, too?” said Loomis.
“What’s this all about?”
“It’s about the smack, baby,” said the operator. “Round here, it’s always about the smack. Or in your case, the China-girl.”
Abigale felt a surge of panic. She rummaged in her coat pocket for the little envelopes that were so full moments ago, but found them empty and balled up. She took them out of her pocket, and stared at them in her fingers.
“Where is it?” She gasped.
“Gone,” the elevator operator said. “It’s so so gone and so are you. But I don’t blame you for being a little confused. Fentanyl’s some lethal shit.”
“I….” Loomis looked lost.
The operator said, “You don’t get it, right?”
Abigale stiffened suddenly. In an inner room somewhere in her head the movie of her life began threading through a projector, and onto a screen. Child abuse, the pain of blows. Penniless Christmases. The desert of her empty belly, a razor blade pain, the pale watercolour hurt of hunger. An abandoned little girl shivering in the cold and gloom of an empty house. Rape, dark doorways, alleys and empty eyes. Debauched street preachers. Hateful parents. Alienation. Running until there was nowhere else to go. Men with fists. Tweekers and boozers and cops with sticks. The roomless huddled against storefronts, injecting on the street. A show for all of the good people of the city to see. The rain that wouldn’t stop, the anguish and the filth. Finally, her gaunt colourless face in a mirror.
She’d bought the powder from a plump little fucker named Brian, who’d driven in from out of the neighbourhood, trying to look bad with his clean shaven dealer face, wearing his new jeans and high-tops. Then she’d tracked down Loomis, ready to exchange some of the shit for a room to get high in, out of the rain.
But some part of her plan had failed. She frantically pulled layers of sleeves away, up to her elbow. There was a spent syringe there. She watched it drop out of her vein onto the floor. Blood ran down her inner forearm, past the wrist like a river seen from space. Loomis looked at his arm and saw the same thing; he swatted it away like a fly.
“When?” she said. “I don’t remember….”
“When no longer applies. You were too impatient,” the operator said. “And you shot poison into your vein. A lot of that going round. Don’t worry, Brian and I will be meeting soon enough.”
Abigale let her arm fall at her side. A lone and final drop of blood dripped from a fingertip.
“So it’s you or the mysterious staircase,” she said. “I guess I know where your elevator goes.”
The operator smoked, and tapped a finger impatiently on her knee.
“Choice is a wicked thing,” Loomis said. “Not that I’ve had much experience with it. I never knew it could get so weird.”
“Okay all right, look,” said the elevator operator. She snuffed her cigarette out under a black suede pump. “Just take the damn stairs. The boss ain’t gonna like me telling you that, but you two chumps are depressing the hell outta me, so to speak. I hear it’s all sunshine and lollipops up there, if that helps—yada yada—no more wet clothes, no more burden of self, all of that kind of shit. I’ve seen some real pricks take those stairs, so why not you?”
“What if it’s a trick?” Loomis said.
“It can’t be worse than this lobby,” Abigale said, kicking her syringe into a corner. She saw the torrential rain through the glass doors. “Or out there.”
For the first time, Loomis saw graffiti etched into the plate over the elevator call button: No one here gets out alive. He took Abigale’s hand.
“Let’s go,” he said, and she went along.
The elevator operator shrugged, and watched them go.
They ascended the staircase and vanished into the light.
“Can’t win ’em all,” she said. Then she adjusted herself on the stool, produced a sandwich and an Elle Magazine out of nowhere, and took her lunch break.
it is the small insanities
that are unforgivable
the ones without glamour
in the mirror above the sink
where your handsome hand
three fingers on your cheek
all is karma but nothing is
and yet another week
I know from the lines round my eyes
that all of those departed winters ago
when every fallen leaf was a sawbuck
and cigarettes and pretzels were free
any old key would open any old door
on any cold December night
and the pride of shelter would be
any old man’s to have
in the hospice
from further down the hall
past a woman crying
with a child past
where a corpse lay disguised alive
and further even past
the nurse and nun smoking
cigarettes next to one small window
allowing in the only light she heard
the voice of a man
singing a fragment of a song of
small bones and she
walked the hall so long to find him
it must have taken hours
before she saw the pale old man
in a room of rust and
shotgun pellet holes—tiny stars round