“Young, dumb, spiritually numb,” the sallow man laughed. “That’s me. That’s you, too.”
“No,” I said, turning away. His eyes were black pits. If I looked at them too long, I knew I’d fall in. Don’t ask me how I knew, because I can’t tell you.
“You’ll see,” he said, and laughed. His laugh turned into a hacking cough. I examined the ice at the bottom of my drink. God, I thought, if only there was some way out of here. Of course there wasn’t, not really.
We were sitting at the bar on the ninth floor. No alcohol served after dark––and it was always after dark. I watched two men stumble across the dance floor, arms entwined, faces slack with boredom. The pianist plowed through a joylessly jaunty tune, the musical equivalent of a man dancing at gunpoint. My drinking companion grinned.
“Want to hear a joke?” he said. I didn’t, but oh well.
“What’s eternity minus ten minutes?…Eternity. What’s eternity minus ten days?…Eternity. What’s eternity minus ten years?…Give up?”
“That’s not funny.”
“It will be.”
I got up, leaving my drink at the bar. That was the one good thing about this place: you could come and go as you liked. I didn’t look at the man with black pits for eyes.
“Where you going?” he said. “Off on urgent business?”
“Something like that.”
The doorman handed me a coat, not mine, and disappeared. It was too big, ripped to bits at the back. At least it wasn’t a woman’s coat.
The muggy air in the hallway sucked up every thought in my head. I stood at the threshold, jaunty music tinkling away behind me. The wallpaper was always flaking off up here, but someone had ripped a great big piece off the wall, revealing yet another garish pattern underneath.
“Looking for your room?” a woman said, and laughed, as she passed by. She wore a faded ballgown, probably not hers either. I smiled, not really meaning it.
There’s a window by the elevator on this floor. I don’t look out. I used to, but there’s literally nothing to see. The hotel is surrounded by a void, the void, and you can go out its front door and get swallowed up, forever, no appointment necessary. Only no one does.
Why not? I don’t know. Maybe they do, and the void spits them out again. Maybe no one notices when they disappear. I wouldn’t.
The elevator clanged open. The attendant snarled at me, like a gangster in an old movie.
“Lobby,” he said as I got on. I didn’t argue.
Twenty people boarded at the sixth floor. One man glared at me as he squeezed in. Fiftyish, in a faded old suit, hair slick against his skull. Two boys laughed as the doors closed.
“This holiday will end,” another man, fat, said to the girl under his arm. “And when it does, they’ll see what a good girl you’ve been.”
“I haven’t been good,” she said, to titters from the crowd. The fat man pulled her close.
“No?” he said. The boys elbowed each other, eyeing the girl.
“I don’t care if this holiday never ends,” she said, looking vaguely into the middle distance.
“No?” said the fat man, a bit more uncertainly.
“No,” she said. “I just want to find my room.” Murmured laughter filled the air.
The doors opened on the lobby: a crush of bodies by the bar, dirty, dizzy-making carpet, bells ringing and voices shouting without end. More music. The smell of smoke.
In the restaurant, men with cigars coughed over empty plates. Girls sat with them, scanning the crowd or studying their nail beds. People wandered through the restaurant, peeking into the empty kitchen, leaning on tables or hiding in one of the corner booths. Near me, two men leaned close together, trying to talk. The knot of young people shrieking by the pool door made that impossible.
“He’s in there, he’s in there!” several hoarse voices cried out, serving as counterpoint to insane laughter. Hands banged on the pool door. No one was in there; the pool was closed, due to reopen in a morning that would never come. The door never gave, not even an inch.
I got up and left the restaurant. The two men followed me out.
“…lines of communication are open,” the older man was saying.
“Of course,” said the younger. “You’d be a fool not to demand verification. I — ”
“ — They can see us, of course,” the older man blurted. “That’s why there are those holes in the walls — so they can look inside— ”
“––Quite,” the young man said, with a glance to the side. “If you’ll excuse me.” With a short bow, he walked away and melted into the crowd.
“I bet there’s nobody up there,” a woman said behind us. The older man, who was still standing where the younger one had left him, looked at me. He’d heard her, too.
“It’s just the hotel, and that’s it,” she said. Boredom was written into every line on her face.
“No,” the man said. “Everyone knows that — ”
“ — Everyone’s wrong,” the woman insisted. “This is all there is.”
The man’s face fell. I looked to the woman, expecting to see a triumphant smirk. If anything, she looked more bored than ever.
The three of us walked together, not talking. The crowd thinned out around the entrance; it always did. I stopped to look. The revolving doorway turned slowly, lazily, although there was no one and nothing to turn it. Beyond the doorway, utter and complete darkness. Not even a curb or a walkway.
“You ever seen anyone go out there?” the woman asked. The old man didn’t answer.
I didn’t realize I was walking until my shoe scuffed the linoleum. If I reached out, I could now touch the door as it passed. Behind me, someone gasped.
A hush had fallen over the lobby. I turned back; an endless, silent sea of faces stared back at me. The woman and the older man drew back, eyes wide.
Someone in the crowd laughed. It was my old drinking companion, his black-pit eyes dancing with mirth.
“Bet you won’t!” he called out.
I turned back to the door. I was inside the arc of its revolution now; it was coming closer, slowly. I could see the crowd’s reflection in its glass, faces like little pale stones.
“Bet you won’t!” the black-eyed man called out . The glass door came closer and closer. Maybe I was backing away from it, maybe I wasn’t. You learned not to trust anything down here, least of all your own body.
“Bet you won’t!” the black-eyed man shouted, his voice breaking. Well, what if I did? Either I’d end up back here, or I’d dissolve into nothing, or––joke of jokes––wind up at an even worse hotel, one with no bars, no doors and no windows. Maybe I’d even wake up in my own room. Who knows?
The door came closer and closer. I couldn’t hear anything now, even the hush of the lobby. I wanted to find out what came next. I had to.
I closed my eyes.