Ocean into Cotton Candy
By Anthony ILacqua
The fan buzzed at a slightly irregular interval. The tightly wrapped coils were perhaps worn on one side. Their tug of the irregularities caused a buzz that, despite the distance and activity, was noticeable to Wilhelm. It was all a matter of understanding, the spatial kind.
He had walked into the hotel's lobby. He took note of the haggard old woman, a Brit it turned out, sitting at the concierge desk. She spoke softly on the phone and the plaster and tile of the lobby made an amplification he hadn't heard in some time. He took note of her desk, the surroundings there. The pigeon-hole mailboxes that collected only dust now. He heard someone in the hallway behind her clear his voice. There were a few renegade clanks from the kitchen. He looked at the fan as he stepped into the lobby. He saw that it was moving and tilting from side to side and the ball chain hung and bounced in the same rhythm.
He saw the bar, and this perhaps in the entire scene, was the sight to see. The four seats there were a scientific matter. He would not choose the ones on either end. There would be no need for an easy out. The stools on the outsides were reserved for the shy ones, the nervous ones. No, Wilhelm would choose one of the two in the center.
It was part of his ongoing social experiment. It was part of his theory of human paradox. He believed that all people have this need for others, the herd mentality. However as with all absolutes there were the exceptions. The men's room was the same way. Wilhelm, if alone in the men's room always chose the middle urinal. If a man came in after, he would almost always choose a stall. There was a certain level of power in the investigation. If Wilhelm wandered into a men's room and there was already someone at one of the urinals there, he would choose the one next to him, and chances were that the stream next to him would stop only to resume once Wilhelm began to wash his hands. There were probably psychological reasons for this, but to Wilhelm, it was just a funny thing. Likewise, four seats at the bar, if he chose one in the center, it would have the same affect. To his left were the two seats and to the right, only one. Should a second person wander in, like he had, and wanted to sit at the bar, he would more than likely sit at the outside stool leaving one stool between them. If there were two people, well, the story might be a little different. Someone was bound to sit on that same outside stool, and their mate was bound to stand on the outside of them.
Wilhelm had seen it all before.
He sat at the bar. He smiled as he looked up, chipped teeth, yellowed teeth. “Gin please,” he said.
The bartender looked cross for a moment. “Gin? How do ya want it? Tonic?” she asked.
“Neat,” Wilhelm repeated. He stared her down. It was evident to him that she found it unsavory. She was not a gin fan. Most kids her age, Wilhelm noticed, were not fans of gin, rather, if they drank the hard stuff at all they opted for the flavored liquor: rum or vodka.
She put the bottle in front of him on the bar. The glass clanked against the marble there and in a defining way, it clanked there as the Brit hung up the phone, and all the activity in the kitchen calmed. He looked through his brows up to her. She inhaled, a rasp sort of inhale reserved for old soldiers or smokers. The fan hummed over the worn wires. “It's pretty warm,” she said. The activity resumed in the still lobby. The old Brit at the concierge desk shifted some papers. Another patron, or possibly a hotel resident opened an ancient glass door, and the dry hinges complained. “Let me chill it for you,” she said.
Wilhelm nodded. He leaned closer into the bar as she walked away. He looked down the length of her body. He guessed she was younger than she looked. For her age, she looked tired. As he leaned back, he put his palms on the bar top. It was hot for what he thought it should be. There were the recollections: the morgue, the dissection tables, they too were made of marble. That marble was cold and rightly so. This bar top marble was warm. It was warmer than his body temperature, and probably near to the temperature of the air outside.
“Nice place, here,” he said.
She put a white napkin down between his palms. She put the drink on it. “Yeah,” she said with displeasure.
Wilhelm took the drink. It was considerably colder than the rest of the scene. He tilted his head back and took the mass of the liquid with a shudder. He regretted the act as he put the glass back down. He looked at the bartender there. She looked horrified as she stared back at him. “You're not very good at cards, are you?” he asked.
“What?” she asked.
“Cards, I bet you're awful at them, you know, like poker.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Why would you ask?” He pushed the empty glass on its napkin skid back to her. “Do you want another?”
“No,” Wilhelm said. “I'm going to let that one do its work.”
“Staying in the hotel?” she asked. She took the glass, stuck it down below her on a sink or something there. She put the napkin back on the stack.
“Why do you ask?” Wilhelm said.
“You don't live here.”
“No,” he said. “I'm visiting.”
“I know everyone in town.”
“Gin please,” Wilhelm said.
Her face dropped. Her words fell from her mouth to her feet. She nodded. She moved with a heavy hand from her hip to the shelf where the bottles stood against the glass wall. She went through the same procedure. She took the same white napkin and delicately placed it in the same place where it had been in front of him. “Okay,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said. “When does it get hopping around here?”
“Thanksgiving,” she said.
“So, not tonight?” Wilhelm asked.
“No,” she said. “There's no one here, it's too hot.”
“Yeah, it's too hot,” he agreed.
“Why are you here? No one visits in the summer.”
Wilhelm swallowed the second gin in the same way as the first. Again, he regretted it. But the gin had a strange cooling affect which gave him the goose pimples, despite the tremendous heat. “It wasn't my accord. But I'm making the best of it.”
“Yeah, right,” she said as she took the empty glass. “Listen, wait until it gets dark before you drink too much.”
“The voice of experience?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“I've got a long day,” Wilhelm said. “I'll take one more please.”
“And see what happens?” she said.
He excused himself as she poured the third. He walked by the concierge desk, and stared at the mess there. Down the hallway he pushed the door to the men's room. Like all doors in the hotel he'd met so far, this one had complaining hinges too.
There was only one urinal there. He was alone in the men's room and apparently alone in the entire hotel, perhaps the entire town.
The four stools were vacant still. The only evidence of any occupancy was the stool he'd been in. The glass of clear liquid was set there.
He wandered the few steps over the dark tiles with the caution of a cat. The fan hummed. Dishes clanked. No change. The old Brit was still in her spot. The girl bartender stood at the far end of the bar.
Wilhelm took one quick step, the heel of his boot tapping on the floor. The second made him flinch. He took the next step with more softness. Took it on the balls of his feet without the heels at all. The gin had hit him. The gin had already worked its way through, and there was more of it to come. He felt the sloppiness come, and it was only going to get worse. And there was a third one waiting for him.
He slowly pulled the seat back, lifting it off the floor. The bartender looked over her shoulder and once the recognition took place, she easily turned her attention away from him.
She finished her task which proved to be the rolling of a cigarette. The thin white thing was uneven in her hands.
She scooped the errant tobacco off the end of the bar and into the bag there. She folded everything up, and put it all away.
Wilhelm sat quietly contemplating the third gin. He kept his head down, held it still, but watched the bartender as she walked around to his side of the bar. Once she moved out of his sight, he lifted his lungs in a huge inhale and faced her.
She pulled the single chair on that side of him away from the bar in a heavy movement. She sat down every bit as heavy. She was young, Wilhelm realized it. She must have grown up in a house with a mother who was not so sensitive to heavy feet. She must have grown up in a house that didn't have a record player playing all the time. Her presence alone, never mind the heavy foot falls, or the jumps into the chair would skip grooves, or several grooves of the old LPs. He doubted the girl had ever seen a record.
She scraped the seat forward. Wilhelm caught a faint whiff of her soap or her perfume. There was something youthful in it. “You smoke?” she asked. She pulled a glass ashtray away from the distance and dragged it toward her.
“No,” Wilhelm said. “Not anymore.”
“You look like someone who smokes,” she said. She took out the box of matches and shook them.
“Well, I don't smoke anymore.”
She struck the match, ignited the ugly cigarette and shook the match head and extinguished it. “You're a heavy man, what's your name?”
“Stephen,” Wilhelm said.
“You look more like a Steve or a Stevie, where are you from Stephen?”
“Everyone's from the north,” she said. “Anyone from the south is Mexican. You don't look much like a spic.”
“No,” Wilhelm said. He picked up the third gin. The place had another lull in activity. The concierge desk went quiet, no dishes clanked, nothing. Nothing, just the fan at its odd interval and the sound of burning tobacco. “No,” he said again. “I'm—I'm white.”
“So, Stephen, why are you here? You in trouble or something?”
Wilhelm's fingers were wrapped around the glass. The glass had grown greasy from his hands. The quick grip there caused the blood to leach out of his fingers. His body tensed. The words were still seeping there from her lips to the atmosphere and then getting absorbed into him. “No trouble, not here,” he said. His grip relaxed a little. He fell into a safety of the gin.
“That's too bad,” she said.
“It'd just be more interesting, that's all. You know John Dillinger and his gang stayed here.”
“I didn't know,” Wilhelm said.
“Who's your favorite bank robber?” she asked.
“I—I don't know,” Wilhelm said. He felt a little more relaxed, if not almost stilled.
“D.V. Cooper, I guess.”
“D.V. Cooper was a hijacker,” she said. She took the third or fourth puff from the cigarette and quickly dumped it in the ashtray. She tamped it once and let it smolder. She stood quickly, and moved back toward her place behind the bar. “Mine is Pretty Boy Floyd,” she said.
“Yeah, why?” he asked. He took the third gin in the same goose pimpled sort of way he had taken the rest.
“Because he hated that name. I wouldn't have called him anything,” she said. She took his empty glass. She took the napkin.
Ever aware of the fan, Wilhelm stared up to it. His eyes felt glassy, he hadn't eaten in some time. The resolve to drink had vanished. It was a feeling of uneasiness and the security that had fallen apart. The gin had worked quickly, much quicker than he had anticipated.
“I envy you, I do,” she said.
Wilhelm looked straight at her, his eyes wandered over her face racing in a glossy run. “What?” he said.
“I mean, sitting here in the middle of the day drinking. I can tell it's not what you do.”
“Yes, it is,” he said.
“No,” she said. “You haven't had enough to shift around like that. I've seen some shit.”
“Yes,” he said. He touched the bar top again. Again, he worried about it, it was hot. “How hot is it here?” he asked.
She smiled. “It's not even the hottest time of day yet. It'll be hottest by four, maybe. You not used to the desert?”
“No,” he said quickly. He shook his head from side to side rapidly. His eyes felt heavy in his head and tight in their sockets.
“Why are you here?” she asked. She lifted a glass of ice water up and set it on the bar top without the protection of a napkin first.
“Funeral,” he said. He took the water in one large gulp, the ice burned up his mouth. His breath, through the nose and into the glass brushed over the ice and made vapor there. Instant condensation of breath and it made him close his eyes as he saw it.
“A funeral?” she asked. He put the glass of water down. She kept her eyes on his despite his being closed. “Who died?”
“Family member,” he said. “We weren't exceptionally close.”
“Wow, Stephen, I'm sorry.”
“No. No, it's okay,” he said.
“Well, can I buy you a drink? Another gin?”
“No,” he said. “I haven't had much to eat today. I haven't slept much.”
“Well, at least let me buy you one then, one you already had.”
“O—okay,” he said. He dug in his jeans' pocket, it was difficult sitting as he was.
He put a twenty dollar bill on the bar and with a shaky hand put a second twenty on the first. “I have to leave,” he said.
“I thought you were staying here, in the hotel.
“Yes,” he said. He stood. He walked back toward the restrooms.
The men's room door was opposite a kitchen door. He had only assumed it was the kitchen because of the sounds there.
In the men's room, he slowly washed his hands. He looked at the reflection there. On his black t-shirt, in the reflection, close to his shoulder was a sticky remnant of cotton candy. It was as he touched it that he wanted the softest of feelings, but rather it was a feeling of a sticky luggie. He'd been carrying the small piece of sugar there for an entire day. He pinched the piece of colored sugar in the grip between his forefinger and thumb. He lifted it, smelled it. As he pulled it away he looked at the imprints of his fingerprints there.
He washed his hands again. The last inspection of the reflection was more detailed. There were dark spots on his t-shirt. The black of the cotton jersey there was somewhat faded, but not as uniformed as he would have preferred. After three walloping glasses of gin; however, it didn't much matter if the dark spots were from water or cooking oil or blood.
He left the men's room quietly holding the door as he shut it. He leaned across the hall and saw the door, double hinged, that held the kitchen behind.
Pushing the door open enough to see inside it was the kitchen indeed. The sounds of work were there, mostly the fans above the ovens and grill hoods, and the sounds of dishwashers.
He pushed the door open more. Across the wet floor the reflection of the fluorescent lights above, he saw the back door.
Pushing through the door, Wilhelm stood in the kitchen. There were a few cooks there, prep cooks, Mexicans, they all had to be Mexicans in this part of the country. No one took notice of him, a fact that was more alarming than not. He noted the speed racks, the roller racks, the hanging pans, the stacks of things. He noticed the rows of cutting boards there, anything he might have to use should the time or the occasion arise. As he walked, the sight of all the kitchen's details were lost on him. He looked slyly both ways, a twist and turn of the head, to the right, to the left, and the motion was a bit like crossing a street. A few of the workers saw Wilhelm, but none cared one way or another. Their glances lasted only long enough to see him at the door.
He pushed the handle, opened the door and got instantly assaulted by the heat when he stepped out. He took one step to the side and let the door close quietly behind him.
There was a hot breeze, like a hair dryer stirring the leaves of a Mesquite tree on the sidewalk.
He moved slowly toward the back side of the building; the Hotel Congress, the place where Dillinger stayed. He walked to the next street, feeling like the end would happen, the gin had sealed his fate. He meant it only to settle his nerves, calm him. Out in the heat of the day however, the gin had done the opposite. Wilhelm moved away from the building, walked into the sun and the heat of it on his head made him feel sick. He moved toward the street and stood under a Mesquite tree. In the shade there he watched the pigeons with the same level of anxiety they had while watching the sun. They crowded the outside line of the tree's shade. They remained in the shade. They were only slightly more afraid of the sun than they were of him.
The hesitation there was only momentarily. He moved out. Along the sidewalk he walked looking back over his shoulder to the building there.
Wilhelm crossed the street. On that side there were the train tracks, the ones to go the whole length of the country from San Diego to Jacksonville. He noticed the rails glowing, shinning in the sun.
There were no trains moving now. No people. As he exhaled, he felt the air escape his nostrils like cooler air than the ambient temperature.
He walked along the road to his van. There had been some numbers there, some letters. It was used, the van. It had belonged to a plumber.
Wilhelm had driven it from Minnesota to Arizona. The next logical place was west.
He struggled with the lock. The handle was nearly too hot to touch.
The smell inside was more exaggerated, more heated, old upholstery, old cigarettes, death, old copper. He rolled the windows down before he closed the door. He put the keys in the ignition. “Well mom,” Wilhelm said. He looked in the rear view mirror. In the depths of the van, stillness. “If we didn't have somewhere to be, I'd stay here.”
Wilhelm paused, stared into the mirror.
His head dropped forward.
He climbed out of the driver’s seat with the violent gestures made clumsy with gin. He kicked the steering wheel as he went. His hands grabbed at things, trash mostly, refuse—he pulled as he went like a swimmer.
His face and neck showed red with veins that carried gin into his head.
He tore at a pile of out of date carpet samples and old beach towels. The convection these discarded textiles made created the full profile of an oven's heat. “Do you hear me?” he shouted. “Mother! Do you hear me?”
There was no response.
“I met a girl, mom,” he said in a tone to suddenly lose all anger. “I met a girl.”
About Anthony ILacqua