Getting Ready to Go
In the late afternoon, we stopped at the old hotel perched near the road that ran through a desert of pink dunes. The hotel leaned at an odd angle, a whimsical collection of turrets, bay windows, verandahs and ramshackle additions. We approached the heavy wooden counter of the reception desk and rang the bell. Behind it, in the shadows, stood rows of empty mailboxes. A numbered brass skeleton key dangled from a hook beneath each. The place looked completely deserted. I rang the bell a couple of times but nobody came. I hooked my hand inside my husband's arm and suggested we explore. I felt lighthearted and free on this adventure trip that we were finally taking together from our usually hectic and separate lives. What with our careers, we'd spent very little time with each other these last years.
Narrow corridors carpeted with old, faded material turned left and right in a maze from the entrance. We wandered the hallways of several floors and intermediate levels, passing door after door, interspersed with small formal sitting rooms along the corridors. The sitting areas contained old furniture.
Behind their doors, the rooms offered only slight variations on a single theme. When you opened the door you had the impression that its contents resided behind glass in vacuum. When you closed the door you had the impression that what you'd just seen no longer existed—and actually couldn't exist until you looked in again. My husband felt the strangeness, too. He remarked with his particular oblique wit that the place gave off a feeling of "odd, faded terror."
Inside any room each item—wooden lamp, stuffed chair, straight chair, floral carpet, flowered quilt, lace doily, porcelain knick-knacks—seemed glazed with a shabby infinity. My husband stopped in one of these rooms and began to inspect some of the objects more closely. I forged on down the hall on my own.
The hallway where my husband still lingered branched off into others. As I followed the branches, making random choices, I began to notice that, whether in the corridors, bedrooms or small sitting rooms, the planks on walls and doors showed gaps from shrinking in the dry desert air. Shriveled window glazing clung to the mullions. The thin windows rattled in the wind. The house seemed to be shriveling and pulling apart.
Along one hall in an upper floor the doors were locked with the exception of a door that stood open a crack. I pushed it back.
Inside, on the opposite wall, a small, four-paned window showed the hard blue desert sky. I was on the third or fourth floor. I could feel the heat outside the glass though the room felt cool. The air was so dry it seemed as if all the life itself had been evacuated from it. It smelled of thick dust. A surprisingly weak late afternoon light entered the gloomy space, glowing on the shrunken floorboards and catching in the strands of a large web spread throughout the room. Its filaments formed three-dimensional hexagons. It called to mind the skeleton of a hive of primordially huge and extinct bees. I worried over the thought I might have damaged some of the hexagons when I opened the door.
As I wondered what could possibly have created such a web and how long it had been there, I gradually adjusted enough to the hollow afternoon light to make out that there was someone else in the room. To the right of the window an old woman sat in a wooden rocking chair in the very the center orb of the web. Filaments radiated out from her arms, legs, chest, the top of her head. Some of these were also attached to objects that lay on the floor beside the rails of the old woman's rocker: a hair dryer, a child's plastic vanity case, a flashlight, a hair brush, and a hand mirror.
When I saw her I expelled air in surprise.
The old woman seemed to be staring at the edge of the now opened door. After an interminable moment she said with a clipped finality, "This is my reality. This has nothing to do with you. It isn't for you to be here."
The old woman's hands were folded in her lap. She wore a light blue plastic raincoat. Against the wall sat a large pink suitcase from 50 years ago. It was dinged and scuffed. I somehow grasped that for decades the old woman had been in the process of leaving. In the same instant, I realized that the room she sat in was empty of time. Empty of everything. It contained only the web and her waiting.
I felt concern again about the web—I now saw it as her web—and whether I had damaged it. I considered calling my husband, but decided against it.
Backing out of the room and closing the door, I heard my husband lumbering along in his usual way down one of the corridors below. I ran into him on the stairs.
"What's the matter, honey?" He seemed concerned by the expression he saw on my face. "Nothing. I'm just feeling tired." For some reason, it occurred to me that after a quarter of a century living with him, his mind remained a mystery to me, but that always, just as at this very moment, I was grateful for his existence.
JP Briggs is the author of Trickster Tales (Fine Tooth Press) and author and co-author of several nonfiction books on aesthetics and physics, including Fractals, the Patterns of Chaos (Simon & Schuster); Fire in the Crucible (St. Martin's Press); Seven Life Lessons of Chaos (HarperCollins), and Turbulent Mirror (HarperCollins), as well as Metaphor, the Logic of Poetry (Pace University Press). He is editor of a 2012 collection of essays, Creativity & Compassion, How They Come Together (Karuna Press). Briggs is a former senior editor of Connecticut Review and managing editor of New York Quarterly. He is a retired Distinguished CSU Professor at Western Connecticut State University and a fellow of The Black Earth Institute. He is editor of the spring 2015 issue of the BEI's journal About Place on the subject of "The Primal Paradox." His "Four Stories" appeared in Issue #49 of The Cafe Irreal.