Parade of the Nonagenarian

Simon awoke with a start, sweating. The dream wasn’t good. He replayed it in his mind. Something about a scorpion in a boot. It was someone else’s boot and he had been trying to put it on even though he knew it wasn’t his. Was it stolen? The feeling of the dream said no. No laws broken here, just a boot that wouldn’t fit. Whether the boot was too small or too big, the mechanics of the dream didn’t say. He’d been sitting on a church pew which was somehow also on a train, pulling an old brown boot — cracked leather, red shoelaces — over his socked foot. Suddenly he felt an alarming pain, a hard pinch. He immediately withdrew his foot and to his horror found a white scorpion dangling from the sock. The scorpion was shining as though wet, translucent, clinging to the sock with both of its pincers, audibly hissing. Simon, terrified, paralyzed, watched the angry creature swing the barb of its tail into his foot a second time, puncturing the soft meat of his big toe through the sock. The pain was nuclear. Simon screamed, jerked around wildly looking for help, the grey sky and passing brown countryside smearing in the window of the train like paint. Other passengers were there, in the church pews, in the train car, but Simon could only see backs of their heads and he knew they couldn’t help him because he was American and they were Dutch.

Now, staring up at the ceiling, a sweatdamp sheet laying heavily over him, Simon tried to remember where he was. Always a bad feeling, not to know. He lay still. A fan hummed noisily to his left, its volume exaggerated by the night quiet. That would be the bathroom fan, Simon remembered. He was in a hotel room. He was in London. It was the last day of his tour. In a few hours he would be boarding a plane for the United States, for Seattle. Simon wondered what time it was. He rolled onto an elbow, fumbled for the cord of the phone charger somewhere in the darkness beside the bed and, finding it, followed the cord with his hands until he had reached the phone. He tapped the screen with his hand. Nothing. He did it again. Still nothing. Simon realized he was tapping the wrong side. He flipped it over and tapped once more. 1:06 AM.

Simon shoved the phone under his pillow. He lay on his back once more, filled with dread. The damp sheet was colder now. He slid sideways under the covers to new, dry territory. He lay there a moment, feeling it out, decided it was a good choice, then grabbed the pillows he had left behind. The top pillow was remarkably wet. Simon flipped it over and pulled it under his head, now fully awake.

It’s telling, in moments of night-borne idleness, to notice which thoughts surface first. In the middle of the night, one does not choose what to think. In the middle of the night all thoughts are equally useless, universally diverting. The mind will harbor anything but a void, so in they come.

Those chocolate things they have here…what are those? Loackers.

Yeah those are good. I guess I like wafers.

Can’t believe they don’t have a work out room at this hotel. The way that hotel lady looked at me when I asked. Like I was a showoff or something.

This is a nation of treats. Treat eaters. Pleasure chasing non-exercisers.

You chase pleasure too. Don’t be so quick to judge.

You judge everyone. Why people don’t like you.

Sikhs aren’t allowed to drink. But there is a Sikh drinking problem in the UK. That’s what the TV said.

Do I know an alcoholic? I’m probably an alcoholic kind of. Borderline.

Or maybe I’m just suspicious of anything I enjoy. Stupid.

That thing I said to her parents in Mexico. Ashamed of myself.

I wonder who is wearing those glasses now?

Sikhs are also called Punjabis. Most Americans don’t know that.

Shia Islam is Iran. Sunni Islam is Saudi Arabia. They hate each other.

You haven’t run in more than a week.

You could die from a heart attack at any moment. You’re in your 40s now. Death is possible at any time.

That thing in my back is no different. Worse maybe.

Did I hurt like this last summer? I can’t remember.

I’ve been sick three times this year and its only April. That’s a clue.

I wonder if dad’s eye is better.

Will I be like dad when I’m old?

That text he sent me. He is proud of me.

I should feel happy about it but I don’t, is another thing that’s wrong with me.

What am I gonna write a book about?

Maybe snake handlers.

Something sympathetic to faith-minded people, but also bizarre. And skeptical..

Kind of a coming-of-age type thing. Except with snakes.

It’s a worthy idea.

Murakami has the soul of a child. Or at least, a happy person.

He is happy.

You are not happy.

Who’s happy?

The TV show though. You gotta see that through.

Everyone thinks you’re a poser.

Who makes a TV show about themselves? What’s wrong with you?

It’s going to be awesome.

I’m so tired.

You’ve got to write a song. You don’t know who you are any more.

I wish the hotel room had a bathtub.

This treat-eating nation has no tubs, is one thing.

Maybe there’s a vending machine downstairs. Is it really called a Loacker?

That doesn’t seem right.

Simon sat up abruptly. I am so uncomfortable with myself I am trying to crawl out of my own skin. The room was less dark now that his pupils were dilated. He realized he was wearing clothes. A tshirt, still a little damp, and sweatpants, dry. He remembered where the light switch was and felt for it. Click. A small yellow light went through the room. Nice, he thought. Tasteful. He climbed out of bed and bent over his open suitcase, rummaging around until he found socks and the running shoes. He sat on the bed and put them on. He found the key card, his wallet. He checked the time. 1:45. His plane wasn’t leaving for seven hours. Suddenly Simon felt like climbing back into bed. He looked at the window, actively streaking with rain. He looked down at the unmade bed. A bolt of loneliness. He sat down and removed his shoes. Then he stood up, pulled open the hotel room door and walked into the hallway.

Simon made his way along the carpet, running two fingers along the wall as he walked. He thought he would walk to the end, see if anything was there in the way of automated candy.

Nothing. He turned and walked toward the other end. It was a long hallway and it took awhile. Simon already felt a little better. Nothing quiets the mind like having a purpose. He was thinking about that part in War and Peace where the main character Pierre is walking around the battlefield outside of Moscow and there’s smoke and explosions and dying men and severed limbs and then Pierre sees, among the tumult and confusion, a trio of soldiers, lost in concentration, completely focused on their job, which was to load, fire and reload the cannon at which they were posted. Over and over they fired the cannon, moving seemlessly as a unit, almost like a ballet. Pierre marveled at their concentration, and then realized that, from loading cannons on a battlefield to eating a fine meal to cutting an especially thick toenail, the purpose of any activity — the hope at least — is that the action will so occupy our minds as to divert us from our impending doom.

“I play music because it keeps my mind off dying,” Simon chuckled.

He reached the other end of the hallway. Nothing again but a square plastic red bucket and a dry mop.

Do they have even vending machines in England? Simon wondered.

Wide awake and with nothing else to do, he decided to keep looking. He found the elevator and pushed the down button. He waited, the doors opened. He entered.

“Going down,” said a tinny voice in the elevator door, female.

“Going down,” Simon repeated, imitating the accent.

The elevator jerked into motion. In less than a minute, it stopped.

“Ground floor” said the voice.

“Ground floor,” said Simon.

The doors opened into the hotel room lobby, deserted. It was low-ceilinged but spacious. Ranch-style, Simon would have described it. Dining area, bar, several large potted ferns. Large colorful circles — red, green, purple — decorated the polished cement floor. Suggesting what? Fun, Simon guessed.

A Duran Duran song was falling out of a speaker in the ceiling just outside the elevator. I won’t cry for yesterday, there’s an ordinary world somehow I have to find.

At the far end of the room he saw a young woman in bright red polo shirt staring down at something on the desk, pale blue light reflecting in her face. Simon stared at her from inside the elevator. It was the same young woman who had looked at him strangely when he asked about the exercise room.

“Doors closing.” Simon suddenly realized he hadn’t stepped out of the elevator. He had plenty of time to do it now, but he hesitated, and the doors closed as promised.

A strange silence filled the elevator. No Duran Duran song. No any song. Just a buzzing sound, at once faint and loud, coming from somewhere above him. In the elevator shaft maybe? Simon looked up. Behind a shroud of frosted plastic, a bank of fluorescent lights dispassionately illuminated the moveable room. Long fingers of dead black insect husks gathered in the creases of the space between.

Suddenly Simon didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t go back to his room. But he wasn’t sure he had it in him to ask the hotel lady about a vending machine. Pathetic but there it was. Simon took a deep breath and tried to think carefully. He had to make a decision. He felt very tired.

He leaned against the wall panel and rested his right butt cheek on the rail and stared across the elevator car at a photograph of a young Indian woman happily inserting a chunk of blood pudding into her mouth with a fork. He read the words beneath the picture. Be sure to try our Classic Full Breakfast! Starting at £11! A handsome middle-aged out-of-focus man with a salt-and-pepper mustache hovered in the background, beaming.

Simon didn’t want any a Loacker anymore. And he didn’t want to go back to his damp unmade bed. And he didn’t want to think about War and Peace or Murakami or whether he would write a song ever again or anything else. He just wanted to sleep for eight hours in a row without waking up to worry about next week or next month or what he said at the last show that was stupid or who he thought disliked him or how much money he had lost on this tour. He wanted to belong somewhere. He wanted to go home. Not his house in East Nashville, or his parents’ house in Washington. He wanted to go home. To a place where he belonged, where he was known.

“Going Up,” said the still small voice.

A long moment passed before Simon realized what was happening. Someone had called the elevator. Panic. Simon stood straight up. He looked dumbly at the control panel. The numbers. Where was he? G? No. One? He suddenly, very, very badly wanted to get off the elevator. To avoid whatever inevitable exchange was about to happen. He couldn’t do it. His heart was racing like a caught animal. He thought about whomever had just rang the elevator. They were probably on a higher floor, right? The hotel had four. He could just get off now.

“First floor.”

But he hadn’t pressed anything! Oh shit, that meant it was here, this floor. Someone was here. There. On the other side of the door. Nothing he could do. He would have to talk. Or not talk. Either way, there would be some kind of interaction. Simon felt a bead of sweat drop out of his armpit and roll down along his ribs. The elevator abruptly stopped, the floor shifting slightly from side to side like an echo. Simon shot to the back wall, farthest from the door. He didn’t know what to do so he struck a pose, leaning against the rail, grasping it loosely in one hand, looking down. He smoothed his hair for some reason. He wished he had his phone. He glanced up at the black vein of dead bugs crisping in the lights. The woman with the fork in her mouth smiled. Simon took a deep breath. The door opened.

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