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 it 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 the 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 finger. 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.

“Going Down,” said the voice.

Nothing happened. In his need to not seem weird, Simon had willed his attention away from the opening doors and was instead looking down at his feet. This position, he felt, would arouse the least suspicion. It would say, “I am not curious about you so please don’t be curious about me.” But now nothing was happening. Simon was curious. He looked up. 

Oh. Someone was there after all. A man.

An old man, leaning heavily on an aluminum walker, stood motionless in the hallway like a wax statue. Not old, Simon thought, elderly. He wore faded red sweatpants and a mustard yellow sweater that hung loosely over his bony shoulders like a shawl. He made no sound. Or motion. The elderly man was just standing there. 

Very likely the man was once tall, but now the top half of his body bent far over the frame of the walker, the forward two legs of which ended in green hollowed-out tennis balls. Simon could not see the man’s face, only the top of a bald head splattered with sunspots. 

Just when Simon decided the man must be somehow asleep, he moved. The green tennis balls slid forward a few inches. The body followed.

“Going Down,” the voice repeated. 

The door’s effort to slide closed was foiled by the man’s walker. It opened apologetically.

There was nothing for Simon to do but wait, watch the tennis balls slide soundlessly over the threshold a few inches at a time, and take in a few details. For one, the man wasn’t entirely bald. A few long strands of white, babyfine hair were still fastened to his head like spiderwebs. Also his hands, similarly spotted, were enormous. The knuckles of each finger were swollen at the joint, giving them the appearance of knotted twigs. He wore no rings.

The effort of forward motion seemed to completely occupy the man’s attention. Even still, his progress was testudinal, glacial, slothy. He moved with all the balance of a tall stack of dishes. Twice more the door tried to close on him. Each time, the gentle contact caused the man to lose his balance momentarily. He would stop, as though bracing himself for impact, and then, receiving the blow (more like a tap), the large hands would tighten around walker, then relax, and then the tennis balls slid forward a few more inches.

Simon did not know how to behave in most social situations, and this one was no different. He felt like he should do something to help, but what? Pull the walker across the threshold? That didn’t sound right. Hold the door open? That might startle him. Should he at least announce his presence? He should have done that right when the doors opened. Said something jovial and disarming right at the get-go. But the time was past for that. Now if he spoke, the man would think Well why the hell did he wait this long? 

Simon was often speculating what was inside other people’s heads. He knew it was a mostly pointless and sometimes dangerous pastime but he had been doing it since early childhood and was unlikely to quit now. He decided not to risk a false move. He felt the best thing to do was, nothing. Instead he pretended he was inside a movie, something he did all the time.

What was the movie called? Simon asked himself. He mused over a few possible titles.

Parade of the Nonagenarian. Elevating with Henry. Midnight Walker.

At last the old man’s transition into the elevator car was complete. The strange sour smell of old people filled the room.

Fully inside, the old man had nonetheless not turned himself around to face the door like people usually do and was instead facing Simon, not two feet away. The elevator door slid closed. The old man spoke.

“Good evening,” he said gravely. “I see your feet there. Pray, would you mind pressing the button that will take us to the Ground Floor. I could do it but it would take me a long time. Longer than I imagine you’d prefer to wait.”

Like all Americans, Simon marveled at the sound of an English accent in full bloom. It made every interaction seem like an elegant dinner. 

“Of course,” said Simon, “Sir.”

Simon moved to the panel and pressed a button that read G. 

“Going down.”

Simon edged around walker and man and returned to his place at the rear wall. 

The elevator began moving down once more, to the floor from whence Simon had just come. 

The two men rode in silence for a long moment. Then the old man said:

“I dated her once.”

Simon thought he had misheard, “I’m sorry?”

“The woman whose voice that is.”

There was a pause.

The old man spoke again: “Foolish joke, I’m afraid. Didn’t really make sense did it? I waited too long.”

The large hands tensed, relaxed.

“In comedy as in love, timing is everything,” he instructed. “You have to admit, she does sound lovely.” Still bent over his walker, looking at the floor.

“She does,” Simon agreed.

Suddenly the woman spoke up again.

“First floor.”

“Bollocks, I forgot to turn myself around! What am I going to do, back out of here like an artic?”

Simon didn’t know what an artic was. The old man began to rock from side to side, rotating himself and the walker in a slow arc back toward the door.

Simon thought: What the hell is this guy doing? One. What is he doing at this hotel? He should be in a nursing home. Two. Where is he going right now? Wherever it is, it’s going to be morning when he gets there.

“Sir,” Simon heard himself say, “I don’t mean to intrude, but can I ask what you need? Maybe I could get it for you, you know, save you the trouble.”

“Very Christian of you,” said the old man, chuckling at what was maybe a joke. “I suppose I might like that.” He stopped trying to turn around.

A long pause. The elevator door closed again. 

Simon said, “If you tell me what you need, I will get it for you.”

“Oh! I forgot you didn’t know! For some reason I thought you were my son. But he’s asleep upstairs. Of course you’re not my son. When you get this old everything is always blurring together. It’s bad business. Yes. Anyway. Well you see, my lips are very dry, and I was going to go down to the front desk and get something for them. Lip balm.”

Guy gets up in the middle of the night, inchworms his way through a hotel because his lips are dry? 

“Happy to grab it for you,” said Simon. “Just a second.”

He edged around the old man once more and pressed a button. The door slid open. Simon walked into the lobby.

“Oh!” he heard over his shoulder.

Simon turned. The man and his curvy seahorse back were still facing the other direction. 

“My name is Roger,” came the voice. “Since you’re doing me a favor.”

“Simon.”

“Pleasure to meet you.”

Simon walked to the front desk, glad to be on assignment. Don’t we all just want to be helpful?

The blue faced girl look looked up from her screen.

“Do you have any chapstick?”

The girl pointed. “We’ve a small pantry of conveniences, there. I think you’ll find what you’re looking for.” She smiled.

Pantry of conveniences. How nice.

Simon grabbed the chapstick, and then, a Loacker bar. Might as well.

He paid for them with coins, walked back across the lobby, around a potted fern, over a purple circle, then a red one. He was thinking about the last time he saw his grandfather. He and his mom had stopped by the nursing home. They found his grandfather lying alone in his little room, asleep with his mouth wide open. It was a few weeks after his birthday. He looked so old. Simon’s mom found the walkman headphones in a drawer and she put them over Grandpa’s ears. A plastic microphone was somehow involved. Simon had brought his baritone ukulele with him from the car. While he took it out of its case and tuned it, his mother busied herself with a sponge, wetting it at the sink and rubbing it over Grandpa’s dry lips. Then Simon sang some songs Grandpa knew. Hymns. He sang The Old Rugged Cross and he sang Victory in Jesus and How Great Thou Art and his mom held the plastic microphone and sang harmony. He only knew the first verses, but childhood is long and he knew a lot of hymns so he sang all the ones he knew, one right after another, getting the chords wrong plenty but not the melodies. The melodies he knew cold. Simon finished singing when couldn’t think of any more songs and then his mom placed her hand on grandpa’s forehead and said a prayer for him, thanking God for his good life. She kissed his forehead and said I love you Dad and then there was nothing else to do. His mom returned the headphones to the drawer and they walked in silence back to the car. 

Simon pressed the button on the elevator. To his surprise, it didn’t immediately open. He heard the car coming down the shaft. When the doors finally parted, no one was inside.

“Going up.”

Simon felt his forehead wrinkle. He stepped in the car. No sour smell. He pressed a button. The elevator rose, stopped.

“First floor.”

“First floor,” Simon said absentmindedly.  

He leaned out, looked either direction, down the hallway. No one.

“Roger?” he called out. He listened.

Retreating back inside the car, he pressed another button.

“Second floor.”

Same effort, same result.

Simon felt the chapstick in his pocket. He pressed buttons, rode up to the last two floors, looked up and down hallways. He did not see the old man.

At length he returned to his room. He had a very unsatisfied feeling inside him. Also though, a little shiver of mystery, which made him feel alive. He knew he hadn’t imagined it, the old man, Roger. Because the smell. You can’t imagine smells, he told himself.

Simon sat on the edge of the bed and ate the Loacker bar and watched a program about the most expensive racehorses in the world. One of them sold for sixty four million dollars, a brown horse called something Pegasus. 

When the program was over he opened the package of chapstick and applied it carefully to his mouth. He looked in the mirror at his moist lips. Nothing makes sense. Simon lay down on the bed and waited for the day to start.