And so Gunderson tendered his resignation from the government agency where he worked—a subterranean department, the name he only knew in acronym—and he packed up his apartment and moved his life, all fourteen boxes of it, into long-term residency at the Chapin Hotel. He had originally considered the Fargo, a once-haughty mélange of art deco angles and sepia tints that had suffered the same casual erosions as every other golden relic from its era. But Gunderson opted instead for the smaller hotel across the road. A bland, bureaucratic structure. Blank walls. Polite pastels. The Chapin was somehow ageless, sanded of texture and distinction, and thus better suited to the halfhearted campaign Gunderson was waging across a century that seemed both dizzyingly infinite and already concluded.
Gunderson sold his vehicle. He took a sabbatical from the daily rituals of nutrition, masturbation, self-grooming. He approached the clerk at the front desk with a whole prepared speech. The clerk nodded before hearing a single word, provided Gunderson a room key and a stack of origami-folded towels, and then vanished behind a curtain of crumpled velvet, the hotel’s only affectation. Gunderson waited for the bellhop or some young acne-ravaged attendant, but none appeared. He picked up his boxes, all fourteen of them, shoeboxes really, some so small they didn’t seem capable of containing anything at all, and he continued forth, sort of half-juggling into the elevator.
The woman came from another hall. Barefoot and in bikini, her hair ponytailed so tightly it blanched her scalp, she wandered the carpeted corridors with her sunglasses on her forehead and a beach blanket skirting her waist.
“No,” he told her. “I didn’t hear anything about a pool.”
“What am I going to do with all this goddamn guano?”
She threatened him with her suntan lotion, shaking the bottle maraca-style at his head. Something splurped onto the lapel of Gunderson’s bathrobe. A white splotch, vaguely Michigan-shaped. Both of them stared at the stain a long, embarrassed minute.
“That didn’t need to happen,” she said.
Gunderson agreed but said nothing, did nothing, just slumped back to his box-cluttered room, which after two days had already begun to smell of human molder, mildewed fabrics, and the universal malaise.
Sometimes he tried to watch TV.
But the constant roar of air conditioning, day and night, light or dark, urged him away from these comforts and into the farthest recesses of hotel life. Gunderson looked for the desk clerks, the linen folders, the soda machine stockers, the gardening brigade and their handsome beige uniforms, doormen in their neat pleats and epaulets, but only found the woman in her swimwear, plus the man who spent entire evenings on a stool muttering at the muted TV and nodding off in his whiskey sours. Even in the downstairs lounge, Gunderson could hear the roar of air conditioning in his room, the monstrous suck and heave of it.
“There is a control panel on the wall, Alfredo,” the woman said.
“That would make me complicit, a participant,” Gunderson explained. “I’d become the guy that lives in that room.”
“You are that guy.”
“Alfredo,” he said. “Alfredo is that guy. Myself? I’m just some random animal kept alive by soft drink and machinery.”
“I think I have a line on a Jacuzzi,” she whispered. “The top floor suites. The elevator doesn’t reach up there. There’s a special guest list, a secret cabal, a hidden hatch. An El Dorado in our own backyard.”
“My name’s not really Alfredo,” he said, knocking back the last few drips of his daiquiri, glancing over his shoulder at the mutterer, facedown, in the corner booth.
“I wonder how the whiskey sours are here,” Gunderson said.
When Gunderson took the long view of his life, he saw a succession of houses and apartments and parts of apartments, a kind of residential winnowing that forced him to shed the barnacles of prosaic duty, domestic residues, all these clinging layers, as he reduced himself to smaller and smaller rooms. There was efficiency in these movements, if not wisdom. He enjoyed the hollow fits, his life in boxes, and intuited an existential rigor in seeing all the important shit he used to nuzzle and cherish now banked high on the curb. But three weeks into his new hotel life, he no longer felt that rigor. Only slow- honed tedium and the sense that he had spent too many minutes of his day loafing in bare feet.
“My ideal day?” Gunderson said. “I wake up. I stretch. I stalk. Attempt a few paltry calisthenics in the stairwell, where nobody is watching. The better part of the afternoon, I spend loitering around the lobby, trying to vacuum the sunlight off the floor.”
The old mumbler cocked his head at the TV, his darkly socketed eyes, a week’s worth of chin stubble, mouth crooked, not much in accord. Gunderson slapped him on the shoulder and said, “Let me get you another whiskey sour. It’s whiskey sours, right?”
He moseyed up to the bar, where the woman in the bikini was playing bartender, tending mostly to her fingernail rind.
“Told you,” she said.
“I think he’s warming up to me.”
“He’s warming up to your bar tab.”
“My bar tab is a part of me.”
“No,” he said. “I’ll have something else.”
“And what would that poison be, Pedro?”
“I don’t know,” Gunderson said, staring out the empty bar, into the empty lobby. “Something else.” ***88
The woman was bound so tight in her shiny spandex, she looked like a shrink-wrapped skeleton sawing away at her brunch. Gunderson had given her the better view: conference room panorama, wall skinned in orange, exit sign, and hall. Gunderson, on his side of the booth, kept matching the angle of his head to hers, blocking from sight the overlarge mirror and the reflection of his own dark sockets, mild and gone.
“I’m not bothered by the noise,” she said. “The roar, it comforts me. I like to think it drowns out the constant roar in my head. I don’t even like swimming for god’s sake.”
She assaulted the container of cream cheese with such vigor her plastic knife curved under the tension. Around them, a lunar landscape of chunked bagel, fruit cup, massacred waffle, continental spread.
“Are they not feeding you enough?” she said. “You’re just skin and bones and belt.”
“I don’t feel any skinnier.”
“Your hair, it’s thinning. Your breath stinks. If your skin gets any paler you’ll be whiter than my brother, and that dude is albino.”
“I’ve lost a little color, okay.”
“Somebody needs to cut that bathrobe off you and burn it in a field.”
“I send my clothes down the laundry chute. Nothing comes back up.”
“Those are garbage chutes, Gunderson.”
“Oh,” he said.
“There’s no one here. The whole hotel. But that’s not the thing that spooks me. What spooks me is this woman I keep seeing. She always has this severe expression shellacked to her face. I think she’s some kind of suburban black widow. Mary Kay reaper. PTA rogue.”
She made a stabbing gesture with the knife at the mirror behind her head and said, “There’s the wily bitch now. Also, I don’t really have a brother.”
Gunderson nodded at this, slow to understand, sniffing the glaze of whiskey in the dirty glass, his own dirty breath. The TV mumbler and bartender and room service staff hadn’t been seen in a few days, but somebody was still changing Gunderson’s sheets. Gunderson kept leaving them little love notes. He reached forward and relieved the woman of her plastic knife.
“Am I really going bald?” he asked.
But still he wouldn’t set foot in the parking lot. That dark expanse of glass chips, junky needles, the sun-glinted tinfoil of used condom wrappers. So much endless asphalt. It had started to rain hard these last weeks, a steady artillery pelting every window and inch of roof. Gunderson loitered in the lobby between happy hours, that odd stretch of the early evening when his room lifted up on one leg, the rug rolled, the corridors began to tilt. He clung his bathrobe tighter around his too-skinny frame and imagined standing on the sidewalk outside, staring up through the deluge, and seeing himself in one of the hotel’s sixtysome windows. Witness that strange invasive species of man, framed by burgundy curtain, slurred with rainfall, or maybe a simple mirage, maybe not so simple. Fog, heat, lint, darkness, light. It all blurred into a kind of life.
He returned to his bed feeling somewhat routed, surrounded by stacked glasses and piles of once-clean linens that were no longer arriving freshly laundered each day. Nobody had come to spritz the shaving-cream smears off the mirror and sink, but Gunderson didn’t mind. Why was he still shaving? Why didn’t all his sabbaticals stick? He still had the knickknacks of his former life stashed in the closet, his shoeboxes reduced from fourteen to nine after he taught himself a few simple tricks of compression.
I’m working on my internal streams and cements, he thought. I’m building a building, a landmark, and its name is Gunderson All In One Place.
They practiced the inevitable. He in his pajamas, she in a hastily scrolled halter-top.
“The thing is,” he said.
“It’s only natural.”
“Coward,” she said. “Liar.”
“That look on your face. It never goes anywhere. You make me want to rip up my organ donor card and subsist on a disappointing diet of nuts and grains. Shave my head. Learn to play the piano. All of it badly. Just like that albino brother of yours.”
“Forget the pool, the hot tub, the large bodies of water. What we need here is a lifeguard.”
“Wait, was the albino brother yours or mine?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Somewhere elsewhere. With a whistle on a string, a tall chair. The freaky white nose.”
“Someone has walked off with my sandals. Someone is bogarting all the good oxygen.”
“Do you need a chair? A very tall chair?”
“You really do sicken me.”
“Okay, that’s it. I’m taking my towels and toothbrush and tiny, single-serving portions of soap and shampoo and conditioner back to my room.”
“That’s kind of sad,” she said.
“It is,” Gunderson replied. “That’s exactly what it is.” Roving his head around, looking for reinforcements. “Maybe next time we can use a few props?”
The woman could have disappeared into any number of rooms. Maybe she moved around nightly, shimmied into new spots, found the Secret City of Lost Jacuzzis, or never left the lounge. Gunderson remained in his room, transfixed by the TV’s insistent static, the noise of linked technologies that could not stay aligned. He only wanted the one true alignment. He wanted to feel the time not passing, the slow moments, the sloughed hours. These are the materials that install credence in the life that I am now, Gunderson told himself, the things that bring us shaking and shivering out of the primordial slush. He had reduced that slush to six cardboard boxes and a calfskin shaving kit he hadn’t touched in weeks. He was feeling better about his materials, so he threw away the last few unclaimed love notes and started to tidy up the immediate area. He draped the towels over the shower rod until they dried into hard, frozen sheets, and he scrunched the drapes into slender bundles to let in some natural sun. He found the dial on the air-conditioning unit. He brought the dull roar down to a civilized blitz.
He circled the room, surveyed the room, sat down in the room.
It was a new vantage that Gunderson undertook in utmost seriousness, no matter how many residents were, or were not, hibernating somewhere inside the hotel. He stood behind the bar polishing a pint glass with a semi-clean hankie, rubbing rubbing rubbing, awaiting a happy-hour rush that never came. Which Gunderson was probably okay with. The gestures and rote minutiae ratified his station regardless, socketed him into procedure, gave shape to his shape. And he had gotten good at this whole loitering business. After the happy hours passed, he moved to the front desk, where he sat with pen and notepad and a professional posture, all stiffness and arch, while against his shoulders he could sense the faint tickle of the crumpled velvet curtain. He resisted the urge to abandon his post and run some quick reconnaissance, stalk the hallway or crawlspace or rummage the boxes and bureaus, whatever was back there, at least not until his shift ended. When the time came, though, he simply stood and fussed with his outfit and retired upstairs, his rubber shower moccasins making squeaky cadences on the stairwell’s rubber steps.
He was winnowed to a trio of shoeboxes. His knickknacks and keepsakes and legal documents and bank statements: all of it ash. There was only the bathrobe cloaking his dwindling musculature and the pair of rubber shower moccasins, a vacant box for each item. Gunderson no longer felt the dumb urge to articulate some rootless whiskey philosophy to strangers, offer casual slanders, late night monologue, solitary laments. The room was quiet. The air-conditioning had finally conked off. He picked up the boxes and in fast succession punted all three of them down the garbage chute, which he had propped open with a shampoo bottle that he also unwedged and tossed down the chute in conclusion.
“Never say die,” Gunderson shrugged.
Later that night, or another night, or maybe it wasn’t night at all, he heard the knock. Gunderson trailed a long snarl of bed sheets to the door, yawning like a wild rhino plunked in the neck with a tranquilizer dart.
“You’re back,” he said.
The whiskey mumbler swayed in the doorway, nodding and pushing a hand through his hair, which was rain-slicked and frizzled outward like a tray of smashed wheat.
“I went to a place,” said the man. “I came back from that place. Can’t say I feel any different.”
“I stayed here.”
“You’re the mayor of this palace.”
“I guess so.”
“Think I got some kind of rash along the way.”
The man was wearing Gunderson’s bathrobe and Gunderson’s rubber shower moccasins. They fit him perfect. He uncinched the robe and exposed to Gunderson the hairy terrain of his chest.
“I don’t see any rash,” Gunderson said.
“Mottles, swirlings, an ambient ache. These are my motifs. These are the things I feel.”
“You really should’ve learned your lesson, Gunderson. Everyone else did.”
“I guess I’m sorry for that too.”
“It’s okay,” said the man. “I like your getup. I was wondering where that curtain went.”
The man stumbled forward and began stroking the sheet of crushed velvet slung around Gunderson’s lean torso like a toga.
“Oh,” Gunderson said. “I didn’t even notice.”
Gunderson unspooled himself from the velvet wrap, revealing his lower half squeezed into a pair of women’s bikini bottoms. Eggplant purple against his fishbelly-white thighs. A bit baggy, even for him.
“She’s gone, you know,” the man said.
“I know,” Gunderson replied. “These were just laying around. I guess I have lost a little weight.”
“The thing is,” the man said, “who’d have ever thought the two places could be so similar? The same rashes? Doesn’t make any damn sense.”
Gunderson corked his lips together, tried to match his sway to the mumbler’s, tried to unmatch it. The man steadied himself and casually cupped a hand on Gunderson’s crotch.
“Sorry,” Gunderson said and stepped back. “My penis just doesn’t wag that way.”
“It worked for the Greeks,” the man shrugged.12
“I want to see the pool.”
“There is no pool.”
“Show me,” Gunderson said.
“You’re the mayor,” the mumbler mumbled.
The second floor ballroom was designated with a miniature steel plaque over the doorway, an officious aura, no windows. It was barely the size of a racquetball court. Gunderson thought he could see the black scuffmarks on its pale walls. The floor was scratchy with sand, actual sand. A single inflatable palm tree sagged under its own weight in the corner. In the middle of the room sat a portable swimming pool, the backyard variety intended for children, no higher than a hip. It was brackish with green water and a smattering of dead leaves.
“The goddamn Rotarians,” said the man. “They wanted some sort of Spring Break gala before they left. Just look at all this shit.”
Gunderson examined the desert scene, the claustrophobic ballroom, the soused mumbler wearing Gunderson’s ragged leisurewear, and Gunderson in a lady’s swim trunks, and then arrived the sensation that there wasn’t just one divine alignment in the universe, one infinite symmetry, a steady roar, but many. Perhaps too many.
“Give me a hand,” Gunderson said.
The men walked down the hall to the soda-and-snack concourse, and together they wheeled the smallest of three ice machines into the ballroom. There, positioned under the hot lights, Gunderson regarded his addition. Mashed within that aluminum box, he could hear its abrasive hydraulics, noise of the interior, repetition and cycle, and he leaned forward until his temple touched cold metal. He imagined the daily glaciers inside the machine cracking apart, the chunks and ledges loosened and knocked sideways and dragged slowly by various gravities across the geological murk of Gunderson’s own chest.
When he opened his eyes, the mumbler was gone.
Gunderson wasted no more time. He unplugged the ice machine, swept the sand into a modest dune, and with both hands and an hour of clumsy labor he hauled the sloshing children’s pool through the doorway, down the hall, around several corners and up three flights of stairs to the hotel top.
The roof was tar-scarred, a flat area, several rigs of abandoned machinery in strategic arrangement like chess figures, or maybe just creatively mislaid. The rain had softened, but the clouds still hung low, massive, black-seamed. The sky was a spectacle all its own. Gunderson dragged the pool to the edge of the roof, stretched a skinny leg into its lukewarm waters, stirred about, and waded in the rest of the way. He imagined how his favorite bathrobe would have mushroomed outward like a swollen jellyfish in the unclean waters, had he still been wearing it. But instead it was just his skimpy bikini briefs getting skimpier and skimpier with every absorption. He hooked his elbows over the pool’s plastic rim and let his legs rise, his belly hair unkink. He thought he could see fissures in the overhead cloud system, wrinklings of meaning, the same way that, as a young boy, he was able to read microscopic filigree in the heads of his broccoli sticks and celery and veiny lettuce, all the cleft veggies. Back in that distant, faded epoch, when his diet wasn’t limited to whatever trash came slaloming out the vending machine slot.
Gunderson abandoned the sky vantage and gazed at the middle distance between his floating feet. The pool’s inner wall, curved and turquoise-painted, was a mural of spike-spined fish decals and radio station bumper stickers. All of it tinted a seasick green. Gunderson was waiting for something. A single something. He experimented with various positions and postures. Elbows on the ledge, one arm then the other, neck and head, and then only head. He went lengthwise, hugged wall, touched bottom, untouched it. Then, mildly flustered, Gunderson shoved off the pool’s rim and drifted among the stagnant waters, the long currents, the secret suctions, the foliage dead but picturesque, the tide low and high.
David Nutt is the author of The Great American Suction (Tyrant Books, 2019). He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and dog and two cats.