The Only One in the Room
By Nick Manzolillo
The bodies sway gently in the breeze, with one hanging from every other lamppost along the Main Street. Robert wonders how they all got up there, he doesn’t see any ladders. He takes one final pull from his cigarette and then tosses it against the asphalt. There’s a brilliant flash of sparks before the stub’s sole ember is left struggling to remain alive before it eventually suffocates. Other corpses rock to and fro from the tree branches, but they are shrouded in the late evening darkness. Go figure, the next bus isn’t coming ‘til the morning, but this was always meant to be the boring part of the trip.
Robert wonders if there’s a good place to get a drink around here. Town’s small but, it’s a seaside kind of place, which means there’s a hunger for tourists when the nice weather comes back around and that means they’ve got the usual Massachusetts trappings for the out of town folk. Spring is so comfortably close that the corpses overhead won’t stink for a long while yet. Robert decides to keep on with the plan and to try and enjoy himself.
Adding to the tune of the crickets and the sound of crashing waves just two blocks over, Robert begins whistling. He only really knows the Cracker Jack song, which does something to ease his mind, as it reminds him of here, of New England and Red Sox games. And cracker jacks. Robert passes a young couple, sitting on a bench, holding hands and leaning on each other’s shoulders in front of an old-timey barbershop. The spillage from their slit wrists oozes onto the sidewalk, forcing Robert to walk around the mess and take to the empty street.
A lot of places have their lights on and luckily the Hotel Sea Palace is one of them. Robert passes by quaint little homes, notes the motionless human forms in the windows, sometimes hanging out of the windows, and he’s disturbed by the strangeness of a number of front doors being left wide open. There’s something unsettling about a front door being open, in this modern age at least. Somewhere in the crime-dry era of the fifties, it was probably normal and Robert finds this realization to be sad. Once he stops whistling because his lips have run dry, he hears the sound of running motors behind closed garage doors, as family’s sit, silent and still, in invisible bubbles of carbon monoxide. Robert sneezes, and heads into the hotel to see what his accommodations are like.
The front desk clerk has jabbed a rather shiny, decorative pen into his eye before sprawling back and slumping halfway down his office chair. Roberts a bit disgusted when he reaches over the man and picks the first set of keys from a hook that reads 11. The dead clerk soiled himself.
The room is a little cramped but the blanket cover is one of the especially soft kinds that the maids actually wash. There are nearly full sized bottles of shampoo in the bathroom, too. Robert will have to smuggle one off with him, it’s a long road he travels, heading north. He’ll encounter living people along the way, surely.
With a thirst that has robbed him of his ability to whistle, Robert sets down his briefcase, makes sure he has his wallet, and his ID, and then he strolls out into the fresh ocean breeze once more. Jack’s is the first place he comes across and while he would prefer an ocean theme, there is a generous and everlasting happy hour special emblazoned on a chalkboard right by the front door. It’s been a long day, a drink or two before bed and nothing more. Robert notices a white Egyptian Ankh hanging independently in the black, second-floor window of the little house across the street from the bar. He salutes it, before heading inside.
The bartender is hanging from a fan that is still gently spinning. Robert finds a cluster of switches along a wall and plays with them until the dead man comes to a stop. That would get annoying after a while. He wonders if the hanging man with a face that’s turned darker than an eggplant is called Jack. As Robert walks around behind the bar and pours himself a thick glass of Narragansett off the tap, he decides to call the bartender Jack until he learns otherwise.
He’s nursing the second beer when there’s a knock on the front door. Though curious, Robert sips his beer. The knocker pauses, resumes a flurry of pounding briefly, and then appears to give up as Robert drains his glass empty. He smiles, and then turns to Jack.
“I’m on my way home, you know.” Robert leans back on his barstool, taking in the typical décor of flashing neon beer signs. This place has no personality, unlike all the other bars Robert’s been in, especially in the U.S., from Texas to New England. “It’s all the way up top, in the North. I was visiting relatives, at the bottom, but, I wouldn’t say that was the point of my trip. Not at all. The traveling was the point and I know, many people love the idea of traveling, but my family, my people up north and at the bottom, they believe differently. About experiences, I mean. Excuse me.” Robert whisks himself back behind the bar and refills his glass, which he holds up to Jack to cheers him.
“I’ve been told; you go to too many places, and home changes. I don’t want my home to change. I remember those that live there. I want them to remember me the same way but I had to do it, this journey. I had to see it all, all of your emotions, the living and the dead. The wildlife! There’s nothing up North, not really; besides flightless birds and certain pale fish and the occasional bear. It’s bland like… well, like you people say porridge tastes, but I found it to be much better than anything north. See? Home will be different. I think I can accept that.” Robert takes a long sip, and as he hears a single, crackling gunshot from outside, he tilts the beer mug to the ceiling and turns that sip into a gulp. He then sighs, and peels off his face.
Taking a long, groaning intake of breath through his snout, Robert’s sigh becomes one of relief. “I’ve been wearing this skin for so long… I feel as though I’m cheating, airing myself out so close to home but as you know Jack, this place is special. This is a special night, I know, it’s a sign you see, a message from the elder forces beyond it all, beyond what any of you can see and just at the edge of what even my people are aware of. It’s crazy, huh? The fact that, instead of returning home… I could just go horizontal, in circles. I could spin the globe and grow and grow…” Robert pinches his knuckles, and peels back his pale flesh so that he can wiggle his real fingers. “I wouldn’t have to ever be far from the sea breeze…”
“I have one relative who sailed…the whole way… from up top, to the bottom. She sailed alone, for months, but she was the same when she got back. She went from the top, to the bottom, and she was the same. Robert slides his face back on, and then snaps his glove in place.
“I wonder if you ever left town, Jack, like really left it. Small place like this, I bet you grew up here.” Robert’s spinning, sitting on his barstool backward. That’s the thing about corpses; they make you do all the talking. “I bet all of you grew up here the same way.” Robert snorts and then drains the last of his beer. “Well, wherever I’m heading, I don’t think I’ll stop. Maybe the answer is to go around this world the long way, north to south, pole to pole. Maybe it’s good to be reminded of where you’ve been, so you don’t become formless.” Robert finishes his beer, washes his mug in the spotless sink behind the bar, and then places his glass on the shelf where he found it. Before leaving, he decides to offer one last bit of advice. “If you ever go anywhere, make sure you go the long way. That’s where the best stuff is. Goodnight.” Robert switches off the light switch and heads off to bed. Jack rocks for a little while longer, before going still.